How my mother’s journey is helping me find strength and perspective
Some moments are easier than others. Those are the moments when I’m on top of everything. A loving daughter, a compassionate family member, the most responsible human being on earth. A superhero with organizational prowess and limitless patience.
The other moments, the hard ones, pull me down like a two-ton anchor. I fall into a tailspin of inadequacy, and I am exhausted. Paying the bills, picking up the prescriptions, cleaning the litterbox of her two aging kitties, scheduling the doctor’s appointments, helping her cull the faded family photos we’ve looked at a dozen times before. There are multiple black-and-white images of Dad and her in the early days of their courtship. Snapshots of my older brother as an infant. A picture of me in a stroller on the street where my parents rented part of a two-flat before getting their house. My younger sister’s first recital.
These images both pause and speed up time. For a gentle, fleeting moment, I can recall when my siblings and I were young, and Mom and Dad, the vital, strong adults in our lives. We were loved, and we felt safe. Now when I glance over at my mother, seated next to me on the couch that’s been with her for two decades, I note the stark contrast between who she is in the photos and who she has become.
After my father died, the woman I knew disappeared for a while. And then she slowly reemerged, but as a subdued, less confident version of herself. At times she seemed utterly unmoored. My own marriage having lasted just five years, I didn’t know how to relate to a widow aching from the death of her partner of half a century. In her grief she seemed unrecognizable.
I missed the stern matriarch with whom I used to do battle. The killjoy who nagged me to clean my room, turn off the TV, and practice the piano. Showdowns over music lessons and church had been much easier to navigate than conversations with a woman whose happiness seemed to have died with her husband. In some of my more desperate moments, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and remind her that not all of us are lucky enough to find a soulmate with whom we can share our lives. Of course I restrained myself.
My mother was drowning and I could barely swim, so I went in search of a life raft that could bring us both to a calmer shore.
I remember a car ride one night about a year after Dad’s death. I was driving, and Mom was in the passenger seat. I was reminiscing about one of his many quirky habits, my eyes welling up with tears. Without missing a beat, she posed a question that almost caused me to miss our turn: “If I had died first, would you have missed me as much?”I was mortified, and reluctant even to ponder an answer.
Dad and I had shared a passion for words, bad puns, poetry, and stories about travel. As a young child, I was also close to Mom. But once I started school, I pulled away. I felt conflicted about my biracial identity, and I blamed her. Distancing myself from the parent who had sat vigil by my bed throughout my serious childhood illnesses would become one of the deepest regrets in my life.
It has been six years since I sold my parents’ home and helped Mom downsize. Today, she lives in an apartment just five minutes from my house. The hands that once sewed many of my grade-school clothes now grasp the handles of a fancy maroon walker and the silver safety bars in the bathroom.
One recent evening after dinner, Mom and I leaned back on the old couch trying to decide what to watch on TV. Self-conscious about her thinning hair, she suddenly exclaimed, “I hope I die before I go bald.” She was more than half-serious. I looked at her in disbelief. “Can you imagine if men thought that way? Then women really would rule the world.” We broke into fits of laughter.
A few months ago I hired a personal care aide to help me with the caregiving and light housekeeping. D visits my mom twice a week, and they adore each other. I am grateful for this life raft, one of many I’ve found in the past several years. And still I hold my breath, wondering what part of the journey may be next.
Fifty may be the new 30, but 90 is still just that — especially in a culture that avoids uncomfortable subjects like loneliness, thinning hair, age spots, infections, incontinence, and DNR orders.
Today I am no longer just my mother’s daughter. I am Power of Attorney, Rep Payee, Health Care Proxy. And after years of fighting and pulling away, I am also, finally, her friend.
My love and determination are unshakable, but the stress of knowing how to care for Mom is real; the burden and privilege are bound together. Helping the woman who fed me during the first hours of my life navigate the bittersweet homestretch of hers — it’s the most complex path I’ve ever known.
In the 1970s, family outings often meant going to the local discount department store. Mom and Dad headed for the clearance racks in the clothing and shoe sections. My brother went in search of a new model airplane kit. My sister and I gawked at the Mattel toys we were adding to our Christmas wish list.
And then one day, we all discovered the unique wonders of that 20th-century mecca of American consumerism: the indoor shopping mall.
On a Saturday morning, usually once a month, we piled into the car and headed to the Eastern Hills Mall, located in a nearby suburb about twenty minutes away. We entered through Woolworth’s and proceeded to the main concourse. After walking around together for about ten minutes, we split up. Dad slipped away to Waldenbooks, where he could browse for hours. Mom preferred department stores like J.C. Penney’s. My brother usually wandered off on his own in search of a hobby store, while my sister and I took turns hanging with Mom or Dad. By dinnertime, we all reunited outside Harvest House Cafeteria, a buffet-style restaurant that was part of a chain owned by Woolworth’s.
The buffet line in Harvest House was nothing like the cafeteria line at school. There were no middle-aged ladies in hairnets pushing a plate of wax beans toward me. In fact, I was oblivious to any adults who might be working behind the line. I fixated instead on the fancy glass dishes of red Jello and chocolate pudding, each topped off with glorious ribbons of whipped cream. I was bedazzled by the large metal pans of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and thick brown gravy. The buffet line was also my introduction to what felt like a very adult vegetable dish: salad made with iceberg lettuce, orange tomato wedges, thin round slices of purple onions, and crunchy croutons, all drizzled in Italian dressing.
I inevitably piled too much food onto too many plates. It then took a bit of strength and a lot of concentration to bring the tray over to the table without spilling anything. Setting the tray down and then sliding over the smooth expanse of the fire-engine-red banquette resulted in fart sounds, sending my siblings and me into fits of laughter. Dad greeted me with a bemused smile, leaned over, and whispered reassuringly: “Whatever you can’t eat, I’ll take care of it.” True to his word, he gobbled up the leftovers on my tray after I’d reached my limit. Mom just sighed, though I was never quite sure if it was because my eyes were once again bigger than my stomach, or Dad was putting on a few too many pounds.
Over the next few years, the mall experience changed. Instead of the whole family going together, we might venture out in pairs. I remember helping my brother search for a gift one Christmas Eve, the two of us navigating our way through the crowds of fellow last-minute shoppers. Later, in my mid-twenties, whether it was a consequence of getting older or becoming a bit of a big-city snob after living in Chicago for a few years, I saw my childhood consumer paradise as impersonal and tacky. If hell indeed existed, it must be a gigantic indoor mall with no exits.
In 1956, the first indoor shopping mall, Southdale Center, opened just southwest of Minneapolis in Edina, Minnesota. Designed by Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen, Southdale was a two-level, climate-controlled structure with a covered, skylit courtyard surrounded by stores. The new shopping center garnered rave reviews and attracted eager consumers. Yet the execution of Gruen’s vision was incomplete.
Distressed by the phenomenon of suburban sprawl in his adopted country, he had conceived of a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community reminiscent of his native Europe. In addition to the shopping center, he envisioned apartments, schools, daycare facilities, medical centers, and parks. He wanted spaces that would combat the isolation he associated with American suburbs. Instead, Southdale’s success paved the way for more shopping malls to be built throughout the United States.
Interestingly, the mall of my youth, Eastern Hills, which first opened in 1971, is undergoing a renovation. The current owners plan to transform the 100-acre property into Western New York’s first “town center.” I wonder what Victor Gruen would say.
I recently returned from a family reunion on my late father’s side in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. My 87-year-old mother and I stayed at a charming two-story hotel called the Flagship Inn off Route 27. One of the highlights was the complimentary breakfast, served in a small building on the other side of the parking lot with a sign that read Restaurant over the two front doors. It was the ideal place to reminisce over a cup of coffee.
On the last morning my mom and I got there early, so we sat down at one of the long tables to save seats for cousins Cherie, Bob, Ruth, and Al. Within a few minutes an older gentleman in his 70s and a woman (his wife, I’m assuming) sat down across from us.
When the woman got up to go through the buffet line and my mom went to the restroom, I decided to make conversation with the man, who was giving me a bit of a quizzical look. I explained how my parents had met in Japan and how Maine was where my grandparents had retired. I quickly realized he wasn’t really listening to me. Instead, he was staring at my face. I paused, and then he looked at me and said, “One of my sons married a Filipino woman. Their children have half-slanted eyes, too.”
My father was stationed in the Army during the end of the Korean War when he met my mother in the summer of 1955. They had a whirlwind romance, got married that December, and lived in Yokohama, Japan, for three years before moving to the United States. That gave my grandfather, who had served as a chaplain in Europe during World War Two, enough time to get used to the idea of his American son marrying a native from a country that had been on the wrong side of a world war.
A flurry of letters back and forth helped pave the way for an emotional first meeting, and by the time Mom and Dad arrived in the US in 1958, my grandparents couldn’t wait to hug their new daughter-in-law. In preparation, Grams had read several books on Japan and developed a talk for her ladies’ groups called “I Enter a New World.” At the first big family gathering that my mom attended, the only gaffe was when some well-meaning uncle called her Topeka before being corrected.
After Grams and Gramps retired in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad brought my siblings and me to their cottage in Maine every summer. I realize only now how much I took those glorious three-month vacations for granted. They were a staple of my childhood. I was keenly aware that everyone around me was white, unlike back home in Western New York, where I interacted with friends and classmates of different ethnicities and races. Yet the racial homogeneity of Ocean Park, a small town just south of Portland, never bothered me. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.
Ocean Park was home, thanks in no small part to the enthusiastic embrace of my grandparents, and all the doting aunts, uncles, and cousins. I still have vivid memories of building sandcastles at the beach, splashing around in the ice-cold water, whether at high tide or low, stuffing myself with blueberry muffins from Jordan Marsh, and simply hanging out with people who loved me.
I remember cousin Patsy giving me a piggyback ride as a bunch of us walked back to the cottage one evening. I remember Aunt Shirley, Uncle Bob, Uncle Ed, and Gramps — all diehard Red Sox fans — huddled around the big television set during a baseball game. From the way the armchair coaches were hollering, I assumed Carl Yastrzemski was the worst player in the world. I remember playing board games with cousin DeDe, my sister Elaine, and Grams whenever it was too cold or rainy to venture down to the beach. So many more memories float to the surface when I realize the joy that was — and still is — Maine.
When summer ended and it was time for all of us to pile into the car and head back to Buffalo, the goodbyes weighed heavily, especially on Gramps. Usually loud and jovial, he would have watery eyes and be clutching his hanky. It was a little jarring, to see him so subdued. I dreaded the sloppy wet kisses and bearhugs that were inevitable, once Dad finished loading up the car.
I can still picture Gramps, with his deep summer tan and blue Hawaiian shirt, standing on the patch of blacktop driveway in front of the cottage and waving as we drove away. “Until next summer…”
My grandmother’s memorial service in 2000 was the only time I saw my father cry. By the time she died at age 93, my grandfather had been gone for more than 20 years. Days before her service, Dad labored over the tribute he would read. When it was time for him to speak, he stood and looked out at the familiar faces of friends and family members. His 6-foot-2 frame towering over the small podium, he took out his handwritten notes and began reading in his emphatic professor’s voice. There was an uncomfortable pause and soon, he could barely open his mouth without sighing, sniffling, and sobbing. He told the story of how a young American soldier, away from home for the first time in his life, traveled halfway around the world with the army and fell in love with a Japanese woman. He spoke of his parents’ warm welcome when the two of them returned to the US to make a home.
As he stood there, grief-stricken and exposed, Dad confessed that he couldn’t imagine how life would have been, had his parents not welcomed Mom into the family.
I’m thinking of that elderly man I met in the dining area of the Flagship Inn. Our exchange lasted for just a few minutes, so I really can’t say if he meant me ill or if he was just being obtuse. But for a few excruciating moments, I slipped back in time and remembered what it felt like to be an insecure little girl who sometimes questioned her worth but whose confidence soared under the loving gaze of her American Grammie and Gramps. While it’s tempting to blame the man’s lack of grace on age or to label him a bigot and move on, I can’t help thinking about his own grandchildren.
I believe that the opposite of love is fear. And to conquer that fear, we must search our own hearts. What prejudices do we each harbor because of, or despite, our life experiences?
“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” ~ William Sloane Coffin
As a child, what I lacked in peer social skills I more than made up for with my ability to entertain the adults around me. Who needs whiffle ball or hopscotch when you can try out your latest celebrity impersonation in front of your parents’ doting dinner guests? My subjects included Cher, Lucille Ball, and Arte Johnson from “Laugh-In.” By the time I was ten, I was mimicking the idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns of Richard Milhous Nixon.
at such a tender age, was I somewhat obsessed with the 37th president
of the United States? Blame the two strong-willed patriarchs in my family: my
paternal grandfather, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and his son, a liberal
Gramps had served in Europe as a chaplain during World War II. He became a faithful US News & World Report subscriber, voted for Goldwater in ‘64, and worshipped Nixon. The consummate extrovert, he loved big, loud Fourth of July parades and always had an American flag on full display. My father, an only son, took his parents’ dreams for him to become a doctor as far as he could—halfway around the world to Korea, where he served as part of a MASH unit during the Korean War. After being transferred to Tokyo, he met and fell in love with my mother and her country. It was there he also uncovered a passion for history. After my parents moved to the US in 1958, Dad went on to become a professor of history. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he often turned his college lectures into thinly veiled rants against our involvement in the Vietnam War.
gatherings could be intense, especially when Gramps and Dad locked horns over
politics and patriotism—which happened a lot. My grandfather’s way was to
respect authority; my father’s was to question it. You could say they were my
family’s versions of Archie Bunker and the Meathead.
In 1974, a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, I spent the summer with my mother’s sister and her husband in Long Beach, California. It was my first solo airplane trip and my first summer away from my parents and siblings. Once the novelty of palm trees and stucco houses wore off, I became homesick for the East Coast. To pass the time and to entertain my aunt and her neighbors, I did my Nixon impersonation. I raised my arms to flash a defiant victory sign and made the most of every slurred syllable. My fellow Americans, let me make one thing perfectly clear … I am not a crook!
early evening in August, I was sitting on the hassock in the living room,
getting ready to watch another “Bonanza” rerun. Aunt Kiyoko was in the kitchen making
dinner, and Uncle Dave was out in the garage tinkering with his car. I was
sitting too close to the TV as usual, and just as my show was about to come on,
the station cut to a special news bulletin. There on the screen was President
Nixon. With his piercing dark-brown eyes and droopy jowls, he was announcing
his decision to resign. I knew this was a serious, shocking event, and from
that moment on, I had no desire to impersonate him.
been 45 years since that historic broadcast. Now when I remember the disgraced
president, I think of my dad, whose disdain for “Tricky Dick” taught me about
adult rage and cheerless sanctimony. I also think of my grandfather, whose dogged
support for his political idol made him both honorable and pathetic in my young
eyes. I still remember Gramps describing to my brother and me the heartfelt letter
he had written during the Watergate hearings. He then proudly showed us the
printed thank-you note from the White House.
Nixon, HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and my favorite white-haired celebrity at
the time—Senator Sam Ervin—have long been gone from the political stage. Gramps
died in 1977 and we lost Dad in 2007. Neither is around to witness today’s presidential
drama and political chaos, and for that I’m grateful. Still, I can’t help but
wonder: If father and son were alive right now, what would they make of it all?
I’d like to think that at long last, they’d be fighting on the same side.
The title is a reference to Nixon’s concession speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election. The speech was given at what was supposed to be his last press conference.
I wrote this nearly four years ago, a few weeks before driving my daughter to college. Today she’s no longer a child or even a teen, but a 21-year-old about to enter the real world of adult dreams and responsibilities. I suspect I’ll have some new thoughts to write down as graduation day gets nearer. But for now, here’s a flashback to my final lay sermon, which I delivered in August of 2013.
To borrow a song lyric from Jerry Garcia, “Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” By “trip,” I’m talking about the odyssey I’ve been on for the past 17 years and eight months –- one that’s about to change its course quite dramatically.
As many of you know, I’m the mother of a high-school graduate who, in just a matter of days, will embark on her own adult journey as a college freshman. She’s not here this morning; I suspect she knew that our current transition would be the jumping-off point for my message to you now. I can just imagine the eye-roll and hear her soft moan. “Oh, Mom…”
Letting my child go off on her own, truly, for the first time, is a huge step for both of us. It’s one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to do. Nonetheless, it’s in the job description of Parent. For the past four months or so, I’ve made a concerted effort to ease us both into the climactic moment when, having moved her safely into the dorms, I will hug her tight, give her a peck on the cheek (or more, if she’ll let me), and drive away, leaving her to her own devices on a 125-year-old college campus in North Carolina.
About midway through this past year, I stopped giving Hanna a weekend curfew. Instead of a strict deadline for her arrival home after an evening out with friends, I gave her a strongly recommended time, then a suggested time, then a range, and finally, the freedom and responsibility to use her best judgment about when to come home. Eventually, I got to a point where I could fall asleep without having to hear her key unlock the front door. You see, at some point — maybe it was in March — I’d had an epiphany. In less than a year, she’d be away on a campus far from home, with no more rules or requests from Mom to constrain or to protect her. Why not let her practice this burgeoning autonomy close to home, by cutting her some slack and in some instances, giving her just enough rope with which to hang herself? I assure you I did not completely unplug — that’s why I love our family cell-phone plan — nor have I ever really stopped worrying. Even when I’m able to sleep soundly through the night, the first thing I look for when I wake up is her set of keys dangling from the hook by the front door — or a text message letting me know she’d decided to stay at a friend’s house.
Standing here before you this morning, I can tell you that this “long, strange trip” has given birth to a kaleidoscope of emotions: joy, sadness, pride, nostalgia, denial, grief, hope, faith. And gratitude.
Like the African proverb says, it does take a village. And as members of this congregation -– this church family — you have been part of the village that raised my daughter. I am grateful.
From the time Hanna was very little and attending Sunday School taught by so many terrific adults, I liked to remind her that there was a love even greater and stronger than my own maternal love for her — God’s love. That the phrase “child of God” is not simply a figure of speech. “See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called the children of God — and we are.”
Even without the prospect of a family member leaving home, the final weeks of summer have always made me wistful. By mid-August, the days have grown a little shorter, the air has become a little cooler, and the pace has quickened, just a bit, in anticipation of the new year. I work at a school, so September, not January, marks the start of a new year.
Every August I’m also reminded of the summers of my own youth, spent on the coast of Maine in a close-knit community called Ocean Park.The family ritual went like this: In June, just after school let out, my dad would drive my mom, siblings and me to his parents’ cottage. Within a few days, Dad would head back to Buffalo to teach summer courses at Niagara University. The rest of us spent a long and leisurely vacation. I can vividly recall playing in the cold Atlantic with my mom, collecting seashells with my brother, biking to Camp Ellis with my sister, reading the Anne of Green Gables books with my grandmother, and eating the juicy, well-done hamburgers my grandfather would cook for us on the outdoor grill.
Dad would rejoin us in late August, and spend a few days in Ocean Park before we all headed home to Buffalo just before Labor Day. Unlike our morning treks to the beach with Gramps, my father’s pilgrimages to the ocean occurred in the late afternoon or even at dusk. One reason for this was very practical — he had inherited his mother’s fair skin and easily burned under the hot sun. But I also think the dreamer (and the world-weary cynic) in him preferred the sunset over the midday sun. Dad favored a rather secluded part of the beach that had many sandbars and very few tourists, which he nicknamed, appropriately enough, The Quiet Waters. I suspect it was one of his favorite places to reflect and to feel a deep connection with the Almighty at a time when he was growing in his adult faith.
Today’s reading, often attributed to Solomon, was written by a teacher living in Jerusalem several hundred years before Christ’s birth. It’s one of my favorite passages from the Old Testament because it deals quite pointedly, and poignantly, with the human condition – expressing the gamut of raw and conflicting emotions tucked deeply and neatly inside calming, rhythmic verse.
For everything there is a season…
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the author’s “description of the human situation is truer than any poetry glorifying man and his destiny. His honesty opens our eyes…”
Indeed, many folks might be put off by Ecclesiastes’ fatalistic outlook. Some may rightfully question its usefulness within the larger context of choosing hope over despair.
Is it possible to have an appreciation for the nihilism of Ecclesiastes, while still believing in a higher purpose and meaning, as demanded by a Christian life?
I say yes.
For me, the poem from Ecclesiastes reaffirms the mystery of God amid the beautiful, banal, tragic, harsh, and sometimes baffling realities of our daily existence. To me, it’s not bleak. It’s life-affirming. The candid affirmations of random circumstance and human limitation create a space in my head and more importantly, my heart, for a deeper, more powerful message: one that speaks of grace and salvation.
Here’s Tillich again: “Only if we accept an honest view of the human situation, of man’s old reality, can we understand the message that in Christ a new reality has appeared.”
Ecclesiastes inspired folksinger Pete Seeger to write a song in the late 1950s, which became a hit for the pop-rock group, the Byrds, in 1965, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Have I got the tune stuck in your head yet? The mid-sixties was a time when, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, so much was changing in our society. As laws supporting racism were being challenged here at home, our involvement in a war on the other side of the world was escalating.
“A time to love, and a time to hate. A time for war, and a time for peace. I swear it’s not too late.” Seeger’s song was popular in the last century, but the words remain relevant. Like the original verses, they are timeless. Think about the political tensions throughout our country, and the continuing bloodshed in Egypt.
For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of helping Mark Aquino and Debbie Katz with Westminster’s confirmation class. We lead the kids in two culminating exercises a few weeks before they are to be confirmed during worship. Each confirmand is asked to produce an individual faith statement. The entire class, working with the three of us, also creates a corporate faith statement. Depending on the individuals, not to mention group dynamics, one exercise can be harder than the other.
For their individual faith statement, most of the confirmands follow a familiar approach: they write a couple of sentences or a few paragraphs, and they often write several drafts. I remember the experience of three students from my very first year as a co-teacher.
The first one, a boy, didn’t want to write his faith statement. Instead, he chose to create a PowerPoint filled with photos of a camping trip with his dad. The slideshow he put together using his own images of the sky, the mountains, the trees, the water, and rocks became a visual prayer of praise to God the Creator. Another confirmand wasn’t so sure she could commit anything to paper. She needed some answers before she could begin to write. So we sat together one afternoon, poring over the passage from Acts about the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost. This girl, both blessed and burdened by her keen intellect, wanted definitions and concrete examples, not a description of the supernatural. Her faith statement ended up acknowledging the role of healthy doubt as part of an evolving, authentic faith. The third student was a girl whose mother had died of cancer just a few months before confirmation. The eighth grader was heartbroken — and furious with God. Several passionate questions were scattered throughout the final version of her faith statement.
Even though it’s usually offered as comfort, I don’t subscribe to the blithely dismissive saying that “everything happens for a reason.” Everything? As a child, I spent too much time in the hospital surrounded by vivid examples of the pervasive unfairness of life. I don’t believe in a cynical or sadistic God that metes out suffering to keep us in line or teach us a lesson. I also don’t believe in a Santa Claus God or a genie God that will grant us our every wish.
We can’t control events or predict the future, despite our most fervent prayers. But that we pray, how we speak to God and what we do still matter. Our motives and actions in accordance with God’s purpose for our lives together still matter.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.”
If I passed out some paper and pens right now, what would your faith statement be? How has it changed since you were confirmed? How will it change as you keep on living?
For me, at this moment in time — as a mother who is both excited and anxious to send her child out into a human world that doesn’t always make sense — I can share this: God is Love, the teachings of Jesus the Christ affirm this Love, and I believe in Love. In joy and in sorrow and even in death, Love endures. By the grace of God.
Staring at the piles of garden tools, old paint cans, and dust-covered appliances that haven’t been used in decades, my mother and I are a bit daunted. The basement, the realtor tells us, is a good place to begin. But how do you begin to sort through forty-five years of living in a house that was the home for three children and became the emotional center of a marriage that endured for more than half a century?
Two winters ago, my mom ventured outside to retrieve a bag of rock salt from her car. She slipped on the icy sidewalk and hit the back of her head. Having managed to lift herself up, she walked gingerly back inside and called me at work. I rushed to her house, where I found her in the kitchen, nursing a huge lump with a hastily made ice pack. We couldn’t detect any blood, but we knew a trip to the ER was a sensible idea. Mom ended up having to spend the night in the hospital; they administered a CT scan to confirm the absence of internal bleeding and hooked her up to some sort of monitor. Throughout all of this, my thoughts intermittently shifted to another day from seven years earlier. It was in April of 2007 when my father, then 75, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. From the minute he was found lying on the floor at home to the moment Mom, my siblings, and I gathered around his bed in the ICU to say goodbye, I felt the inexorable pull of life’s harsh transitions.
The aftermath of Dad’s death left us all a little numb, and more than a bit disjointed and lost. We each were adrift on the sea of grief in our own private vessel; the pain might have been broadly shared, but the process of experiencing it was different for each of us. I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of sorrow Mom endured those first few years. I only wish I could have been better equipped to help her through them.
I think back to the happiest days of my youth—and even the saddest—and realize how fortunate I was to be grounded in the love of family. We weren’t wealthy compared to other families in our neighborhood, but I never wanted for anything. And although it’s hard to confront the mortality of those we love, I realize now that the inevitability of aging and dying is exactly what makes loving and living so real—and eternal. Even if we become parents ourselves, I don’t think we fully grow up until we witness the frailty, or experience the loss, of our own parents.
This April will mark nine years since Dad died. A lot has changed—once-tiny grandchildren are now in high school or college—and more changes are afoot. The details of the next chapter in Mom’s life may still be unknown, but the urgency with which we prepare for it is real.
And so back to the cellar and all those piles of memories we go—it’s the only way to work up to the main floors and the even dustier attic, where more surprises await. Although the task is monumental and the sorting through of things bittersweet, I quietly embrace this gift. Spending time with a woman who, at 84, is still remarkably spirited, becomes a chance to get to know my mother even better. To hear more family stories—ones I hadn’t heard before—and to create new memories.
I believe it was psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck who wrote that those who obsess about the past fear the future, and those who fixate on the future have unresolved issues with their past. The key is to find the balance and truly live in, and for, the moment. I think love is a powerful force with which to meet the present, indulge in memories that can transport us, albeit fleetingly, back to the past, and most importantly, stay hopeful and focused for the future.
Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Forever Young magazine.
I can recall the long-ago image of a leftover casserole
meticulously wrapped and stashed in the fridge
only to be ravaged during some nocturnal scavenger hunt.
Our family kitchen became a place to linger,
in the present moment, all hours of the day.
Now when I open the refrigerator door
the light from inside illuminates my memory:
wooden chairs pushed close together
stitched oval placemats and soft tablecloths
the clanging of glasses and silverware
the bountiful dishes passed around
the medley of tastes and temperaments
as we squabble and laugh
and then, hours later, the plates are piled high
Sometimes the hum of a big city can quiet a restless soul.
And so my teenage daughter and I decided to pack up the car and head north for Thanksgiving. To Toronto, a city my family and I had visited dozens of times when I was a child. When we went, it was usually for the day. We’d leave as early as possible, and reach the city in time for an early lunch and some window-shopping at the Eaton Centre.
The first time my daughter and I made the pilgrimage together, she was eight years old. We treated ourselves to a stay at the Delta Chelsea on East Gerrard off Yonge Street. Our room, number 654, was in the old part of the hotel. It was spacious and endearing, despite the faded curtains and walls that needed a paint job. We visited several more times – in fact, we got in the habit of coming at least once a year. Each time, I asked for room 654.
Quite out of the blue – and after staying away for at least four years – she and I decided to go back to Toronto, and our beloved Delta Chelsea. This time our room was located in the renovated section of the hotel and on the 14th floor. (No, I didn’t ask about room 654.)
I had barely taken the keycard out of the door when my daughter made it clear she wanted us to go our separate ways for a few hours. So off she went to explore the shops on Yonge. I, meanwhile, savored the chance to travel according to my own impulses, taking more than 100 pictures along the way. (It’s only been within the past few years that I’ve come to appreciate the power of a good camera.) Even as I fixated on the details of a building or the bright colors of a billboard, I recalled my many walking adventures in other foreign cities, including Paris, Tokyo, Rome and Hong Kong. I thought about how much I want my daughter to keep herself open to new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and serendipitous moments that can only occur when you allow yourself to leave home – both physically and mentally.
My hope is that as she makes her way out in the world, she’ll carry with her the inspiration of Toronto, a beautiful, bustling cosmopolitan hub. And the place that became our home away from home whenever we ventured out together.
“Look around you,” he said, pointing to all the books on the shelves. “This will be my legacy when I’m gone, because I sure won’t be able to leave you kids a lot of money.”
Growing up, I most often saw my father doing one of two things: grading papers or reading a book. He loved books. He stockpiled them. He could never leave a bookstore without five or six new purchases under his arm or in a bag. Before Barnes & Noble and Borders achieved their heyday, my father had already become a regular. Even when money was tight, the catalogs from various publishers kept rolling in. (He preferred buying to borrowing because he liked to make his own notes right on the page.)
At one point my parents ran out of shelf space in their big old, three-story house, thanks to his ever-expanding collection. His solution was to sneak a bookshelf, or two, onto the landing of each staircase. My mom once got so ticked off, she demanded that he move some of the excess to his office at the university. So the next day, the whole Time Life series on the Vietnam War, along with several other volumes about China and Japan, got transported to his workspace. They found a new home next to the textbooks and novels he used for his college history courses.
I should point out that my mom also grew up appreciating books, especially novels from and about faraway lands. Long before she met her future American husband, she had read Japanese translations of several dozen Western classics. The Three Musketeers was a favorite.
My earliest memory of being read to is when my father introduced me to the world of Maurice Sendak through In the Night Kitchen. He read the story to me over and over, and Mickey became one of our most beloved fictional characters. The boy with the milk was eventually replaced by Charlotte and Wilbur.
Now you’d think that because of the perpetual presence of books in my life, I too became a voracious reader early on. In fact, I often had trouble sitting still to read. Given the choice, I preferred watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island.
But I did read. When the activity was most enjoyable, it was usually because I – not my father and not a teacher – had made the selection. I went through a biography phase that started around middle school and extended into high school. I read about old movie stars and later, young rock stars. I loved books that allowed me to skip back and forth, jump ahead, gawk at photos. I loved words, even poorly chosen ones, which gave a glimpse into the life of a famous person. A hard-cover biography on Judy Garland mesmerized me during one vacation.
During this period, I got excited about the latest issue of People Magazine, not the next novel for English class. I’d walk to the nearest drugstore just to stand at the magazine rack and thumb through the pages, filled with delicious photos of flashy celebrities.
The summer after I saw the groundbreaking miniseries on TV, I bought a copy of Roots by Alex Haley. I couldn’t bear to put it down and would read late into the night.
Summer reading lists for high school could be torture. One hot August evening, just before my freshman year, I flung a paperback copy of Vanity Fair, the required text for Mr. Foster’s English class, clear across my bedroom. The thought of tackling a 700-page novel in time for the new school year put me over the edge. I was just happy my dad never heard the sound of the book as it hit the wall. (I’m also happy to say that, once I settled down, not only did the book survive my initial wrath, it also enchanted me from beginning to end.)
Perhaps it’s my brain’s refusal to be completely taken over by the staccato nature of most online communication these days. Or I’m just getting older, and suddenly feel an urgency to enrich my imagination and inspire my spirit through something I can look at, touch and hold. Whatever the reason, I’ve decided that one of my goals is to make up for time lost to jobs, housework and other responsibilities over the years, and read more books. (I don’t see myself getting an e-reader anytime soon, though. It just wouldn’t feel the same.)
I couldn’t always appreciate the books from my dad when he was still alive. His exuberance could be overwhelming at times. Five years after his death, the absence of his intense example as a reader remains a deeply felt loss, but also something of a relief. I inherited quite a few items from his personal library, and many more are gifts from long ago, but the hand-me-down shelves are increasingly lined with titles I’ve discovered on my own.
A few years ago a friend remarked how impressed he was by all the books on feminism he spied on the shelves in my living room. I pointed out that most were from my old man. The same man who, the summer after my freshman year in college, gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. It was his way of trying to make me feel less anxious about the “freshman fifteen” I had gained at college.
A few weeks ago, after news of Nora Ephron’s death, I searched for her book, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, which I’d read for a high-school elective. I ended up finding two copies: the one I’d kept from Ms. Kloepfer’s class, and another paperback version, which had totally slipped from memory.
I opened the second one, a 2000 edition with a brighter cover, only to find an inscription on the inside.