I Remember Mama

I Remember Mama

I Remember Mama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Item 1:  Whether or not you’re a mom, no doubt, you’re somebody’s child, which is why I’m hoping you’ll check out a post I submitted this week to the Huffington Post. I call it,

The Best Mom, Probably

Why? Because my son, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t want to go out on a limb and call me the best mom in a text he sent me to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. No doubt, he was afraid I might get an inflated ego over it.

Of course, little did he know, telling me I was “probably” the best mom was enough to drive me crazy and I set out to discover what exactly he meant. I first wrote the post when I started blogging, but it’s perfect for Mother’s Day, so, please read it–and comment!

My son, during a trip to Venezuela, with Tia Olga, who passed away earlier this year.

Item 2:  This time of year, it’s easy for me to get all teary-eyed and start waxing poetic. This is because I lost my mother 18 years ago this month. Plus, I’m a romantic at heart and, as such, I’m prone to getting sentimental at the drop of a hat.

For years, my mother and I had a Mother’s Day tradition of watching I Remember Mama, one of our favorite films. (FYI: Turner Classic Movies usually carries it around this time.) It’s sappy as all heck but don’t you dare make fun of it because to me, it’s such a tear jerker. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s got everything–pathos, humor, suffering, a cat that dies then comes back to life, a crazy uncle who yells a lot, and a mysterious boarder who’s into reading. Add to that, a hard-working, ready-to-sacrifice-all-for-her-family kind of mother. It’s classic!

I Remember Mama, made in 1948, stars Irene Dunne as the matriarch of a Norwegian family, living in San Francisco, circa 1910. It is narrated by Katrin, the eldest daughter and an aspiring writer (Trivia: She’s played by Barbara Bel Geddes–Miss Ellie from the original Dallas series!). Here’s how Katrin introduces her mother–and the reason I start blubbering as soon as I see the opening credits:

“For as long as I could remember, the small cottage on Castro Street had been home. The familiar background was there; Mama, Papa, my only brother, Nels. There was my sister Christine, closest to me in age, yet ever secret and withdrawn — and the littlest sister, Dagmar.

“There, too came the Aunts, Mama’s four sisters. Aunt Jenny, who was the oldest and the bossiest; Aunt Sigrid; Aunt Marta; and our maiden Aunt, Trina. The Aunts’ old bachelor uncle, my Great-uncle Chris — the ‘black Norwegian’ — came with his great impatience, his shouting and stamping. And brought mystery and excitement to our humdrum days.

“But most of all, I remember Mama.”

Item 3: My mother had five sisters and one brother. Now, only one sister, Tia Livia, remains. Tia Olga, the second to youngest, died earlier this year. She was kind and gentle and deeply spiritual. She was the only one who never married nor had children. In her final years, living in Venezuela with no income of her own, it was the nieces and nephews who took care of her, making sure she had all she needed. I sent her what I could, including chocolates from the states and the latest issues of Reader’s Digest, one of her favorite magazines that she enjoyed reading in English. I loved her so much and miss her dearly.

Item 4: One of my favorite bloggers is Deborah Batterman. She writes honestly and with humor, and has a knack for making me laugh. In a recent post on her blog, The Things She Things About, Deborah wrote about her mother and how she once phoned Deborah, when Deborah was living in New York City, from their home in New Jersey, and left the following message on the answering machine:

“Close your window, there’s something coming from Jersey.”

Reading that made me fall over in a heap of giggles. What was coming from Jersey? Sounded dangerous and wicked! Well, you’ll have to read Deborah’s blog to find out more.

Deborah has also written a collection of essays titled, Because My Name is Mother.  Laced with humor, tenderness, and a bit of nostalgia, you’ll find these stories quite enjoyable, and, best of all, they’re now available for Kindle for only $0.99! A bargain, if you ask me, and makes for a great Mother’s Day gift for just about anyone!

Back to Item 1: It’s the not knowing why my son said I was “probably” the best mom that gets me and, frankly, I can’t stop thinking about it. In any case, though I might “probably” be the best mom, one thing’s certain: I know I’m the luckiest mom, for I have two great kids.  Kids that I never took to the tanning salon, nor left naked in the car while I ran errands. So, Josh and Sarah, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome. I didn’t torture you and that, if you ask me, ought to deserve more than a “probably.”

But, Readers, I’ll let you decide. Read my story in the Huffington Post, and then be sure to let me know what you think!

So, Happy Mother’s Day!

Now, how about you? What do your kids do to show you their love?

In Good Company

My mother’s in good company, and by this I mean, she died in good company.  This month marks the anniversary of her passing, as well as  the passing of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Phil Hartman, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name but a few.  And, of these, Jackie O passed away the same year as my mother, but a couple of weeks earlier. Jackie’s life was celebrated with scores of magazine special editions that came out in the days following her death, and I went out and purchased a few.  I grieved for Caroline Kennedy who, like me, was still in her thirties, as I felt a connection with her that dated back to our childhood years, when she was in the White House and I was playing hopscotch in Queens.

JFK & Jackie, circa 1960. Photographed by Frank Fallaci.

But no sooner did I learn of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ passing, that my own mother had a seizure and fell, hitting her head hard on the bathroom floor.  Brain dead, was the verdict upon arriving at the hospital in the early hours of Memorial Day. I was awoken by a call from my sister telling me the news.  Not sure what to do, my sister’s words sprung me into action:  “Come. You need to get on a plane and come.”

I flew out the next day and on the way there, I wrote a poem for my mother, not realizing that this poem would end up becoming the eulogy and that I would be the one to read it.  The words poured out of me, along with my tears and pain, and when it was finished, five pages later, I was devoid of any feeling except one:  The moment in my life that I had dreaded most had arrived—I had lost my mother.

Unlike for Jackie, there was no televised funeral, no dignitaries in attendance.  But there were a lot of friends and family, and even come cousins and one of her sisters, who flew in from Caracas for the occasion.  Together, we shared our sorrow, love and relief.  Relief that the Alzheimer’s could get to her no more, and could not frazzle her brain any further.

The week is mostly a blur now, but I have fleeting memories. Of seeing folks I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in Queens. Of posing for pictures with my siblings and playing in the front yard with my nieces. Of collapsing twice, under the weight of my grief—once upon saying goodbye to my brain dead mother in her hospital room, and once while on a walk with friends.

I remember sitting in the office of the funeral director, going through the motions of choosing everything from the casket to the service, and how, at the last minute, one of my brothers insisted on buying a wooden cross to put in the casket, tucked into her folded hands. I remember the funeral procession and how the police escorts were able to control the traffic lights so that they stayed green for us all the way to the church. I recall, too, not being able to console my father, and arguing with my sister over what flavor ice cream to buy for the wake. Finally, I remember placing a copy of the poem I’d written into my mother’s casket, and wondering whether Caroline Kennedy was faring any better.

Since then, I brace myself at the start of May.  For me, it is a month of reflection, starting with the feelings elicited by Mother’s Day. During the month, I quietly remember Jackie, Frank Sinatra, and Phil Hartman (who was tragically murdered by his wife), who each contributed greatly to this world and were favorites of ours.  And when Memorial Day weekend rolls around once again, my brain compels me to relive that  time, 17 years ago. Which is when it hits me:  May must be a hard month for Caroline, too.

So I leave you today with an excerpt from the poem I wrote for my mother.

There is so much more I want to say:

I want to thank her for showing me the moon, the stars,

For making a romantic out of me,

A Dreamer.

For taking me into her garden of creativity,

Filled with roses, tulips, pussy willows,

Lush with life and grace,

For taking me to story hour at the library,

Encouraging me to read, to discover,

To Feel

The Wonders of my youth…the unexpected possibilities,

Amazing me time and again,

Over and over,

With her passionate love and devotion,

Strength and resilience.

For forgiving me my rebellion, my trespasses—

Sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening—

For allowing me to pursue my own life on my own terms.

For loving me–Right or Wrong.

Before the Alzheimer’s began to take her from us,

Mercilessly, relentlessly.

Before she lost her memory, her identity,

I can remember her.

My Mother.

My Selfless, Fearless, Loving Mother

I want to thank her now but I know,

I can never thank her enough,

Yet I want to thank her,

For to me she is still the most beautiful mother in the world.

Mother’s Day, A Double-Edged Sword

For me, Mother’s Day is a double-edged sword, as the joy of celebrating mothers is a bit lost on me.   I see others making plans with their moms, writing, Skyping or ringing them up the old-fashioned way–by phone. I see them taking their mothers out for brunch or dinner, and allowing them the much-needed time to put up their feet for a day and relax.  Ahh! Even my own, grown-up kids have sent me flowers and told me how much I mean to them.  My son, Josh, has finally proclaimed in a card that I am “The best mom around!”  Exclamation point and all. Which means, I am no longer just probably the best. Good news, indeed!

But here’s where the double-edged sword comes in: None of these things can I do for my own mother. I cannot make plans with her nor can I pick up the phone and call her. Not since she passed away 17 years ago.

For Mother's Day, my son has been honoring his abuela's memory by giving me a bouquet of tulips. Which means, he knows the way to his mother's heart.

And yet, I can think of tulips. For when I think of my mother, Mary, I think of tulips. These were her favorites, and every year she’d make me plant them with her in our garden. Using a trowel to carve out holes in the soil, I’d push the tulip bulbs deep into the earth. And all the time I’d be sneezing and wheezing, not realizing that the pollen and grass were giving me massive allergy attacks, and that the garden was no place for someone as allergic as I am to the outdoors. But I did it for my mother, who loved to see the flowers in full bloom.

Giving her joy was something I lived for.  One of my favorite things to do was to wait until she’d gone to bed, then sneak downstairs, into the kitchen and give it a good scrubbing. I’d mop the floor and wipe the counters. I’d organize the papers, mail, and magazines that she and the rest of us had accrued throughout the day, and had left scattered on counters, the kitchen table, you name it.  I’d stay awake until two in the morning to make sure the kitchen was perfectly gleaming for when she shuffled in early in the morning to prepare my father’s coffee.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. For Mother’s Day, I’d save my babysitting money to buy her cologne from Kresge’s, a blouse from Gertz Department Store, or a ceramic butter dish from Fortunoff’s, with a cow smiling from atop the lid. I’d bake Spritz cookies, the only cookies that I learned to bake in Home Economics class, and sprinkle them with sugar. Yes, I’d do anything for one of my mother’s smiles.

She was always so busy throughout the day, taking care of the needs of four kids and our father.  She wouldn’t sit down, except to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on weeknights and Saturday Night Live on the weekends. Johnny Carson and Gilda Radner made her laugh. My memory of my mother is of her watching these shows with a large stack of newspapers at her side, the only time she got to read.  She’d look for stories of possible interest to her children, and she’d clip and mail them to us. During one year in college, I accumulated well over 100 clippings and I read each one. Human interest stories, articles about current events, celebrities, and hometown news. Long before the Internet, my mother’s clippings were my lifeline to the world beyond my university campus.

On vacation with my mother in Atlantic City, circa 1962.

I would do anything for my mother and yet I feel as though I took her for granted.  I assumed that she’d always be there for me when I needed her—to talk, to offer advice, to share her family stories on summer vacations, and to cook our favorite Venezuelan dishes.  But she’s gone now and I can never get back our time together. Gone with the wind, in a fleeting, blink of an eye.

Some of you will understand how I feel on this particular day. For everyone else, I hope you will take a moment, and please hug your mothers. Tell them how much you love them, not just today, but everyday.  You should know, you should really know,  just how lucky you are!

So, Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!  As for me, today I’m celebrating with my family, including my dear cousin, Roxanna, who has also lost her mother.

The Recurring Dream

This is a dream that I periodically revisit. Ever have one of those? It would be nice to have one that has a happy ending of sorts.  Mine is never like that. The scenario may change, but the outcome is always the same: The realization that my parents are dead and our relationship is over.

Variation #1: This is how it goes. I am trying to calm my mother. She is lying in a coffin, weeping.  My father sits on a couch nearby. My mother is wearing the cherry red dress we buried her in. Peter Pan collar, white cuffs and gold buttons. I had chosen it myself when sorting out her closet.  All her clothes had been in complete disarray—on wire hangers, draped over the hanging rods, and tossed in a heap on the closet floor.  It was as if her closet was smack in the middle of a wind tunnel. Chaos reigned supreme.  Or maybe it was the madness in her brain, a brain that had succumbed to Alzheimer’s, that caused it.

So I found the red dress, its tag still attached: $29.95, from J.C. Penney’s. When had she made the purchase?  Before she lost her mind to Alzheimer’s? Perhaps, and, just like that, she never got a chance to wear it. Except to her grave.

In my dream, I give my mother bread and water.

In my dream, I don’t know why my mother is crying. I assume she’s hungry so I give her some bread and hope that it’s one with raisins, her favorite kind. Eagerly, she devours it. Ironically, in life, she ate so little. “Como un pájaro,” my father says. Like a bird. Then, as if reviewing a scene of a crime, and suddenly realizing the identity of the murderer, he proclaims,

“It’s the cholesterol that gave her the Alzheimer’s! To control it, she stopped eating and it ate away at her brain, instead!”  That’s his theory and he is sticking to it, no matter what.

My mother then sits up in her coffin. The bread has made her thirsty. “Tengo sed,” she says.

I leave the room to get a glass of water. When I return, I find she has stepped out of the coffin. She is walking toward me, her thin, frail arms outstretched, as phantoms often do in scary movies when floating ethereally through graveyards.

“Tengo sed,” she repeats and I hand her the water.

At which time, a crowd gathers, shouting at me not to give her the drink. Too late. As she gulps it down, the water pours out of her body, seeping through ghostly skin and on to the floor. Which is when I remember. Oh yeah, that’s right. My mother is dead.

Then I wake up.

Variation #2:  Sometimes, my brother and I are in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window on to the street, waiting for our parents to return from running errands. Waiting. When finally their car pulls up, our hearts beat fast with anticipation. Yet no one comes out of the car. My brother and I look quizzically at each other and then it hits me. They’re not coming out of the car. They’re dead.

I've never gone bowling with my mother except in my dreams.

Variation #3: We’re in a bowling alley, which is odd because I never went bowling with my mother. She’s putting on her bowling shoes, and her back is to me. I cannot see her face. But I talk to her, and keep talking. She says nothing but keeps adjusting her shoes. Finally, I say, “Mama, Mama” No response. I wake up, remembering that she’s gone.

Creepy dreams, yes. Strange, even. Yet, I look forward to them because, crazy as they are, for a brief moment my parents are with me all over again–if only in my dreams.


My Night as a College Student

I figured out the key to survival as a college student: you have to be a vampire. Or, at least, be ready to live like one.

Here’s why I know this to be true.  Recently, I got to spend one wintry night in my daughter’s dorm room. That’s when I discovered that college students can stay awake until daybreak, the hour vampires fear most. During the night these young folk eat, drink and mindlessly chatter as if it’s the middle of the day. They do not know the meaning of a good night’s sleep and thanks to them, neither do I.

Roughing it with Sarah in her dorm room.

This all started the night before my trip to Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday.  My daughter, Sarah, asked me if I would sleep in her dorm room on my first night in that toddlin’ town.

Excuse me? Is that the sound of crazy talk I hear?

In other words, instead of going to my brother and his wife’s comfortable home with a comfortable queen-size guest bed, I was to go directly to jail (I mean, the dorm), do not pass Go, and absolutely do not pine for the luxury of uninterrupted, blissful sleep.

Wait. Does she know how old I am? I mean, is that even allowed? For a woman of my age to spend the night among a bevy of college students—in a coed dorm? Aren’t there rules about this? These are the things that went through my head. But here’s what I said to Sarah:

“What a great idea! I’d love to stay with you!”

I said this because I consider myself to be a good mother and good mothers realize that such invitations from their grown children come once in a blue moon. So if one of my kids wants me to stay with them—whether in a dorm room or a truck stop—I’m all in. Consequences, be damned!

Though I had to wonder, wouldn’t Sarah be embarrassed to have her mom stay with her, hanging around like some fish out of water or, worse, a damsel in distress?  (Which I would definitely be if I had to wait in line just to use the bathroom because there were eight kids ahead of me.) I knew I’d be embarrassed. In fact, it never occurred to me to ask my mother to stay in the dorm with me when I was going to college. Might as well have asked her if she wanted to get high.

But Sarah isn’t me and for that I’m grateful. She is a thoughtful, level-headed young woman. Although, if you ask me, she does happen to have my knack for laying on the guilt. All she had to do was pointedly remind me that I hadn’t yet seen her dorm room, on account that I didn’t help her move in this year, like I did the year before. True, I had sheepishly decided not to fly out with her for move-in day. So now, being her mother’s daughter, she was throwing it in my face. Touché!

And here I was. Me, who’s accustomed to the finer things, like the Hilton or the Hyatt, reduced to staying in a dorm room on the third floor of a building with no working elevators and the smell of sweat clinging to the hallway walls. Perhaps I could look at it as an adventure. I was slumming it. I was now one of the few, the proud, the parents who dare stay over in their kid’s dorm. Word on the street was that last fall, a dad had spent a night in his son’s room but had never been seen coming out. Alive. Sheesh. The sacrifices a parent makes for their children—don’t get me started!

Luckily, Sarah did her best to accommodate me, letting me use her bed while she slept on the hard, cold floor, in a sleeping bag borrowed from a friend. The sounds of mayhem, deafening chatter and earsplitting music  kept me awake until sunrise and provided me plenty of time to reflect on the peccadilloes of my own college days.

Meanwhile, Sarah slept soundly, completely oblivious to the cacophony of sounds.  She was unaware, too, that her mom was wondering if daylight would ever break. Thankfully, it did. At which time, said mom finally fell into peaceful slumber—for a full two hours. Having pulled an all-nighter, there were no sugarplums dancing in this head. Instead, there was the reoccurring nightmare of taking an Economics 101 final exam—without ever having attended the class. Darn. Nothing like reliving the old days.