After her death, my father divulged that he almost broke his engagement to my mother because she rebuffed his request to drive with both feet on the floor board. Sounds about right. She preferred to sit propped up with one leg folded underneath her.
Defensively, I thought maybe she entertained thoughts of looking taller from outside the car, an added affect to the rolled down window used to cast ashes from a cigarette, but just the same, the nonchalant movie star pose was paramount. It worked to her advantage most of the time as people were drawn to her aloofness. That was the way she liked to roll.
Her basic nature was a reserved one. I became the receptacle for a thought shift in the opposite direction, like the stunt double who performs scary tasks for a more memorable outcome. Her insight was the result of a traumatic move from a community where she was well known to a place reverberating in unknowns. Let’s just say that after the move, she saw the benefits of an outgoing personality even if it was an acquired taste.
Often her indifference extended to me, her firstborn. What did I know? She was a towering five foot four statue of detachment with brown curly hair, unless she had recently applied her favorite lip shade of Cherries in the Snow which made her appear happier and more willing to talk. To be fair, talking wasn’t her preference.
My father fortified sympathies in her direction by saying that her mother was in the habit of speaking harshly to my mother until he intervened after they were married. She never suffered that way again. As a consequence of his reprimand, the tender grandmother that I came to know was born.
Possibly as a result of hidden hurts, my mother was an elegant and committed listener. What better virtue could a mother possess? Her quiet daily habit of tuning into my babble became the lifeblood of my confidence.
Weekend and summer morning routines invoked a chatty child and a stilled matriarch performing essential 1960 household errands: grocery, dry cleaners and library. At home for lunch, she assumed her perch with folded leg. Coke, ham sandwich, potato sticks and arm extension for flipping pages of Good Housekeeping were tools of her leisured class.
After a certain age, she pushed me to fend for my own lunch. I would root around the pantry for start ups, selecting from my stockpiled-favorites: canned hot tamales or Campbell’s Bean and Bacon Soup. It’s clear to me now that my kitchen creativity could only go up from the birth of convenience food and her dismissal.
Her standoffishness ushered in my drive for independence. I was urged to cook as long as she wasn’t in the kitchen, encouraged to iron, clean the bathtub, read books and opinion pieces, rearrange my bedroom furniture, sew hems and resew buttons, wrap gifts, knit, tie dye, collage collected images and plant seeds. Note: good grades were not among the coveted.
Her c’est la vie approach is something I call up when I’m feeling inclined to throw my weight around. Live and let live, just don’t tell me the details pervaded her outlook. Her expectations for me were traditional; I surmise fear kept her imagination active, limiting visions for my futuristic travails.
Even so, graduate school was her suggestion. The way to make a living would eventually become a priority, and since I was not up for the challenge of how to strike out on my own, a recommended suggestion of library work would do with one caveat: an airplane-flight away was unthinkable. While packing my car for adventures in apartment living, she handed me a can of mace and walked away with an over-the-shoulder: keep that in your purse.
Recently a friend of long time acquaintance asked me if my mother and I were close. I was stunned into wordless mystery. In lieu of my reply, the attending group burst into chatter. They knew my quandary. Many showed up at the funeral for comfort and tapped me on the shoulder as I stared at her coffin from a pew.
The transition of life without her was brutal: one minute we were sharing French fries, and the next day she had flown away. She was fifty-six and I was thirty-five. Comfort came with a recognition that my friends envied a mother such as she. Hip and young at heart, still not too young, she held the line – “I am NOT your friend.” She embraced the unselfish and rooted care of her children.
Whether she knew it or not, she worked at filling my developmental holes. Best example was our partnered pursuit of all things fashion. As it turned out, this was not a shallow undertaking. Never one to overindulge, she was my guide to panache. We followed leads that took us to fabric houses, discount shoe emporiums, lessons in jewelry making, tutors in speech prep etc.
Her style of parenting never utilized words of love or compliments or even hugs, but within our mutual sport, I felt appreciated and reassured that I was up to any task. At the least, I learned how to show up with confidence into unknown territory.
Giving attention to personal business has a strange way of putting such things in proper perspective. Children need mentors to learn the mechanics of arming themselves for the day. Albeit an illusion, she lent the footing which is the part of her that still travels with me.
Likely stemming from the examples of professed Christians, she was not religiously bent and by virtue, she went for something more universal. As a family, we attended church, but she would close her eyes and wait it out. To be sure, she got it. In conversation, she would turn to empathy whether it dealt with race, background, education or, in particular, depression of which I know she was haunted.
Convivial admonitions to my brother and me were part of her schtick. The regular warning: “when your number is up, it is up,” became an excellent way to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Conversely her eye for beauty was a two sided sword, a catch for me and my father. She was slightly dissatisfied with all matter of things. We often found ourselves off kilter waiting for her approval.
At the eleventh hour, she softened in her willingness to expose her feelings. Perhaps an intuitive opening led to new ideas about love, loss and misunderstanding. Perhaps those unveilings lead to questioning. She was curious about my launch. Do you ever get jealous of so-in-so who is married, and you are not? What do you do about a best friend who cuts you out? What do you think you’ll do when your children are grown?
What would she say about the world today? She missed a full blown internet, and the home computer wasn’t yet fully at play. She was more practical than our current world, and by means of her generation subscribed to most rules that were in place and never challenged.
I lament her lack of self confidence which was reinforced by roped-off containers of culture, religion, lifestyle, and education. What might she see if she could apply her tube of Cherries in the Snow and dance to the transitional mix of today’s possibilities?
I think she’d love it. Considering her past, she’d take the plunge with panache. Still, in her stead, an all out love of life is present with the hallelujah chorus sung by her granddaughters.
I dreamed only once of her since her departure 32 years ago. She was wearing a flowing red dress and seated at the top of local stadium seats. Spying her there from the playing field, I began to run to where she was. “Why did you leave?” I said, dazed by the color she wore and avoided in life.
She smiled. And with a toss of her hand she said, “It’s O.K!”
An orange and yellow sky held as she melted away, and as if on cue, “Songbird” by Kenny G began to unfurl, the last tune playing on the cassette that I retrieved from her Chrysler Le Baron.