The first thing I would tell you about my mother is that she was strong. She was handed difficult things from an early age, but she endured everything with such grace and optimism. I’ve never felt afraid of bad things in life because I’ve always felt so protected by her ability to understand and explain things. She believed in God and in prayer in a simple, unquestioning way.
She was not naive — quite the opposite. When she was just thirteen, she found her father not breathing in the snow, days before Christmas. She was diagnosed with type one diabetes as a teenager. She was told by doctors she could never have children — and that if she did try, she would die, or the babies would die and/or be severely disabled. I’ve asked her why she went ahead and did it anyway. She just shrugged and said she wanted kids. She didn’t think anything bad would happen. She was right. I was born on her birthday. My sister was born a few days before Mother’s Day.
Later my mother got through a divorce with an infant and a toddler, while we lived in a two bedroom apartment with cockroaches. She made smashing those cockroaches a hilarious game. My earliest memory is two-year-old me finding a cockroach crawling up the bathroom wall. Game time. I’d scream for Mom and she’d come racing in, comically, with an old, ugly shoe. You never use your nice shoes to kill bugs. First life lesson from Mom.
I watched her deal with the aging, dementia, and death of her mother. I’ve watched her brave through several health scares and foot surgeries in the last few years from diabetic complications. And of course, my sister and I were always good for some typical stresses and scares that comes with raising kids into functional adults. I know I was. She never complained. She never got down about anything.
Everyone was drawn in by her inherent kindness and optimism. She was the happiest, most joyful person, all of the time. She was not a person to be bothered with many hobbies, material things, or obsessions — she just enjoyed living and being and perhaps a little trash TV and shopping spree at Kohls. She used to tease me that I was switched at birth, given my baseline moroseness and cynicism. She celebrated the small things in life — and so do I — but I have to work at it. To her, it just came naturally.
She never skimped on anything. Christmas was an obscene affair. Me and my sister were still getting about 25 gifts a piece well into adulthood. She was still signing a few from Santa. And I believed in Santa until I was like 12. I’m not even ashamed by that. First, there was no Internet I could go look it up on, but second, my mother went to extremes with elaborate notes, reindeer tracks, chewed cookies, and so on. I was a junior scientist about it. The corroborating evidence was all there. When asked directly, she’d say, “some things in life are just magic. You have to believe in that.”
My mom gave gifts for everything—and not just the standard birthdays and Christmases. I’m nearly 33. I’d still get Valentine’s Day cards with a twenty slipped in. She’d still be finding a way to put money under my pillow if I was still losing teeth. When me and the wife’s 2nd anniversary happened this year, my mother was beyond mortified that she nearly missed it. She called every local gift/florist thing to find someone who would do a same day delivery — and then she called me about four times that day to find out if they’d come yet with the chocolate-covered strawberries and balloons. Even when my stupid blog that had like 15 readers turned a year old, she sent me an elaborate gift basket filled with cookies.
She loved going out to dinner, even if it was just to McDonald’s. Back in the day, she fully supported my attempts to collect all of the Happy Meal Toys. My Mom even loved the pizza at Chuck-E-Cheese. I remember once, after a particularly failed beef stew crockpot recipe, she placed her spoon back on the kitchen table, looked at me and my sister, and asked if we wanted Taco Bell.
She treated going out like an extra special occasion. The first time my parents, my wife’s parents, and us kids went out to dinner, my mother ordered like six appetizers in pure celebration. The wife’s parents were taken aback by the onslaught of food, but the wife explained, “it’s like Thanksgiving with them, just go with the flow.”
She was a picture-taker. Oh god. She tore up some cameras. I’m pretty sure she got a new one every year, the previous one always beaten and abused. Once digital cameras came around, she could never keep a charge on the battery. She would pose us in multiple ways, over and over, until we begged for mercy, our corneas blinded and burned from the flashing. As we’ve been going through the approximately 399539593593053535352 photos she took, I haven’t found a single one yet where she isn’t smiling. The pictures of the rest of us — well, they tell a story. There’s the good-natured ones where we humored her through the first twenty poses. And then there’s the tell-tale “NO MORE PICTURES MOM” scowl. And you’d think that she’d have discarded or deleted the scowl shots, but I think she secretly enjoyed those even more.
Mom was an artist of giving compliments. She was like heat-seeking missile of looking for something nice to say. She loved your hair, your glasses, your shoes, your shirt, your house, your utensils, your drywall patching. I think one of the last things she said to my wife was “I love those shoelaces,” after admiring her regular old Nikes with pink laces. And me, I wear the same thing every day — jeans and a black t-shirt — and she always complimented my shirts. The thing is, she wasn’t being insincere at all. She REALLY LOVED these things. It was almost like her way of collecting things, like a mental Pinterest board.
Mom was an animal lover. Upon saying goodbye, we tried to list all the animals she had to greet in heaven for us — but I think we stalled out somewhere around the parakeet. We rocked some pets growing up, including dogs, a cat, mice, guinea pigs, a bird, fish, a turtle, a ferret, a second generation of mice, and maybe a third. Don’t let your kids get pet mice. It never ends well.
Dogs were her first love, and she related to them so inherently, as she shared their natural predispositions of joy and loyalty. She made friends with every dog she met, and yes, took pictures of them. We have pictures of random dogs that we will never know the story behind.
We had a mean, nasty cat named Cuddles. Of course, Mom just thought Cuddles was the sweetest thing, even when she swiped at you claws out and made you bleed. Mom just laughed it off, toweling off the blood. When Cuddles was dying, my mother bought her this elaborate cat hammock to rest on. The cat never used any of the beds or toys Mom ever gave her, but Mom never stopped trying to make that cat happy. Incidentally, the cat did use the hammock in the final hours. Mom called me up excitedly to tell me — and yes, took photographic evidence.
She loved to sing and dance. She told us she gave up her singing career to have kids. We still have not found evidence of her allegedly released record. I’ve heard some tales of epic disco karaoke back in the day. She wasn’t the kind of person to buy albums and listen to them, but somehow she always knew the words to any song that came on the radio. Once I was driving her around and showing her the XM radio. She asked me how I could manage to drive without singing. Indeed, she sang along quietly with every song, the entire drive.
As kind and open as my mother was, she wasn’t a saint. She and I shared a dark sense of humor. I could get her to talk trash about anyone. She’d deny this, and I can hear her telling me not even to tell you guys this. But she could be dry and cynical just like me, and I think this is what I will miss more than anything. I miss just talking to her. I wanted her so badly to wake up so I could just go over this last two weeks with her. So we could make fun of each other and the nurses and all of the stupid sobbing in our secret gallows humor.
I have so many other thoughts, and I’ll continue them further in later posts. But I’ll end this particular post with just how beautiful my mother was. And the thing is, I never noticed it until now. She was just Mom to me. She was so constant and so deeply embedded in me that she was like that song on the radio you never really hear until you actually hear it. And now that I have heard it, I will be quietly singing along.