April 14, 2013

Remembering Mom

For most people April 14th is primarily about finishing the taxes they spent all of Spring trying to avoid.  For me, however, April 14th is slightly more significant than just attempting to fly under Uncle Sam's radar. That's because my mother passed away one year ago today.  Her death was not completely unexpected; she'd had Parkinson's with dementia for several years, the onset of which began with Alzheimer-like symptoms shortly before my father died.  Still, it's not every day one has to say that final goodbye to a parent.

Mom's high school graduation photo (Class of 1950).

To be honest, the week after Mom died was a bit of a blur involving three trips to the Indianapolis airport in 2 days and a 16-hour road trip through four states on a different day.  I flew up the day before the funeral then had to go back to the airport the next day both to pick up my daughter as well as to return her to school later that same day once the services concluded so she could finish completing assignments due before the end of the semester.  The day after the service I drove to Tennessee with my brother and niece for my mom's interment.  The hubs met me there.  Afterwards, I threw my stuff from my brother's vehicle into our van and we drove off in opposite directions.  All told, I think I personally drove around 10 hours or more that day.

What I remember most about the funeral is not that it was very small because Mom's few remaining relatives were on the West Coast, or that her mouth/face somehow didn't look quite right (in spite of how many people tried to tell me she "looks really good" in a misguided attempt to comfort me), or even how exhausted I was afterwards.  What I remember most is the flowers.  And the Statler Brothers.

Nasal is as nasal does.
When we were growing up, my mother loved to listen to the Statler Brothers.  Personally I found them far too nasal and "country" for my taste, but then I wasn't in control of the record player.  So we heard the Statler Brothers.  A lot.  I'd mostly forgotten about it till my brother mentioned that he wanted to play a couple of their songs during the service (one of which was the "Captain Kangaroo" song), the titles of which he did not remember.   We ended up pillaging Google in an effort to locate the relevant songs and then drove to Lafayette to search several stores for one of the two CDs in the Statler Brother canon on which were recorded both songs.  We were so proud of ourselves for successfully completing this quest that we failed to listen very carefully to the lyrics of said songs beyond identifying them as the correct selections.  While everyone was settling in and quieting down before the service, a loudspeaker came on and "Flowers on the Wall" began to play.  The tune was quiet and mellow included lyrics like "smoking cigarettes (well, she did) and watching Captain Kangaroo."  Next some last-minute substitute minister came up to do the "service," which consisted mostly of his speaking in religious generalities and reading my mother's obituary because of course he'd never met her and so had no clue who she was.  As a result, the service was short and largely impersonal.  Afterwards, while everyone was still sniffling, the loudspeaker started playing the second selection:  "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott."  Everyone sat there quietly grieving until a random Statler brother, who had been singing about movie ratings up to that point, suddenly blurted out that "the screen is filled with SEX."  Didn't see that coming.  It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.  Immediately I was reminded of the Mary Tyler Moore show and the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, during which Mary was trying desperately (and largely unsuccessfully) not to laugh.  On the one hand, my mother likely would have been annoyed by not receiving what she might consider a sufficient degree of gravitas and despondency on our parts; on the other hand, she told me many times that I should wear bright colors to her funeral instead of black and should be happy because she was in Heaven.  I suppose stifling snorts of wildly inappropriate laughter counts as a form of "happiness."   Meanwhile, a friend from high school who I'd not seen in 20+ years came to the funeral and sat right behind me; she was giggling gleefully because the unexpected musical selections sounded like something her own family would do at a funeral.

Chuckles is a NAME, not a COMMAND.  Sheesh.

I also remember the flowers, or at least the significance of the flowers.  My mother was obsessed with flowers her entire life.  She absolutely loved them.  There were always potted plants in our house and she was especially proud of the giant, 6 ft tall lilac bushes that lined one side of our front yard when I was a kid.  Naturally, we had flowers on Mom's casket, and a few people (mostly people my brother knew) sent arrangements.  I only took one arrangement home afterwards since it had to survive the trip from Indy back to Georgia.  I still have it (and it's even still alive, though it could stand repotting).  When we got to the cemetery, there was a funeral spray by the graveside.  My brother thought this was overkill since Mom had already had flowers at the service and couldn't understand why I would have bothered.  But flowers were her thing.  They just were.  When Mom moved to Tennessee one of the first things I bought her was a book about the local flowers and trees and bushes.  As far as I was concerned, she wouldn't be happy unless she were surrounded by flowers at all times.  Besides, it seemed so sad and lonely not to have something at the graveside other than the wilting casket flowers that had come down with Mom in the hearse.   Before we left TN after the interment I pulled a few flowers out of the spray and put them in the little brass vase by Mom's and Dad's headstone, after which I put the rest of the spray in the van to take home.  Once there I salvaged what I could, putting them in a container of my own.  For the next week whenever I went into the kitchen the entire room would smell of flowers...of Mom.  In the mail on the day we got back was a flyer from Teleflora to remind me to order Mother's Day flowers.  What Teleflora didn't realize is that I had already gotten some Mother's day flowers.  They were just a little early.

Because you can never have too many flowers.  Yes, even then.

My mother was, in many ways, a contradiction in terms.   She would boil canned vegetables until they were so limp and lifeless that Viagra couldn't have helped them.   She frequently murdered broccoli and cauliflower and eggplant, the pungent smell of which would hover throughout the house for hours at a time like a gaseous cloud of acid rain.  It has taken me years to learn to appreciate (or even eat) most vegetables and the smell of a couple varieties being cooked will still make me gag.  Our meat was often dry or overcooked and I have lost count of the number of meals she served which consisted only of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and hotdogs.  A chef Mom was not.  Yet every week without fail she would make 4 loaves of the most delicious homemade bread you ever tasted.  I would regularly beg her to make one of those loaves into cinnamon bread, which she occasionally did and which would have me dancing in anticipation.  When I was little she'd let me help knead the dough and would give me a small handful of my own to work, which I would then get to put into a little pot pie tin and bake.  I always loved having my own little loaf of bread!  I couldn't wait to slather it in butter when it was still too hot to eat and would scarf it down anyway, oblivious to the melting butter dripping down my chin or to the burned spots on my tongue.  Rarely a week went by without some form of pie or cake or cookie sitting on the table.   I even got my recipe for snickerdoodles from my mother.  True, I've tweaked the recipe a little over the years, but she is the person who first introduced me to the joy of cookie goodness that is the 'dood.

Mmmmmm...snickerdoodles...

Mom was not an educated woman; in fact, she frequently told me how much she sucked at schoolwork.  This is not really an exaggeration; I've seen the report cards.  She grew up on a farm in Montana and went to a tiny school in the area. Sometimes Mom seemed to move slower (she once got fired from a job for being too slow) or to be just a little slower on the uptake than others.  I've sometimes wondered if maybe this was partly the result of having been born with her umbilical cord around her neck; I'm told that if her grandmother had not been there at the birth, she likely would have died of asphyxiation.  And yet, my mother is the one who instilled my love of reading.  She read countless books to me when I was little and used to argue about my bedtime, always capitulating to allow me an extra half hour to read in bed.   Mom never went anywhere without a book by her side.  True, many of them were Harlequin Romances (about which I ragged her endlessly), but she loved learning the history and geography that was peripherally present in them and dreamed of being a world traveler one day (she longed to visit Australia), never mind dreaming of getting lots of good sex, apparently.  I can remember watching my mother sit reading for hours at a time with a cup of coffee at one hand and a glass of ice cubes (which she chewed) at the other.  She would come back from every trip to the library with a new stack of books to read.  She may not have always been the brightest crayon in the box but she had a passion for at least trying to learn new things (any time she read something she didn't understand she'd run to look it up in the dictionary or would look up unfamiliar places in the atlas) and she always supported my academic pursuits, even though she rarely understood them.

True story.

My mother could also be very passive-aggressive.  She was very shy growing up and never handled conflicts well even as an adult.  So she tended to make her feelings known through sneaky, passive-aggressive ways.  When I was in high school I did a lot of theater and Mom absolutely despised driving.  Picking me up every afternoon from rehearsal when the buses were no longer running used to piss her off because it cramped her reading and soap opera time.  Often when I'd call her to pick me up (back in the days of the pay phone, long before anyone had ever heard the words "cellular phone"), she'd answer "Well, what if I don't want to??" and only halfway (or less) be kidding.  So I'd usually call her bluff by answering that I'd just walk home instead, which would invariably flip her out because she was forever convinced that someone was going to jump out of the cornfield and molest me.  She was incredibly paranoid that one or both of us would be raped at any given moment.  She even dreamed about it sometimes (she had very vivid dreams her entire life).  Years later, before she moved back to Indy, I used to take her out to lunch every week and to do her grocery shopping or run errands.  One day I told her that I was going to have to stop doing the weekly lunch and maybe do monthly instead because neither my health nor my wallet could afford it any longer.  I thought she had taken the news well till we got back in the car, at which point she informed me that she'd "noticed I was getting fat but had decided not to say anything because she 'knew' I'd figure it out eventually."  This was Mom-Code for "I'm pissed that you've decided to stop spoiling me and treating me like the princess I want to be," something she'd never dare say to my face (or anyone else's).


While Mom could be a major pain in the ass sometimes, she was also very loving in her own way.  Mom and Dad felt bad that they couldn't afford to help me pay for college so when Mom used to write to me every week she'd often stash a $5 or $10 bill in each envelope.  Sometimes those few dollars were the difference between whether I ate that day or not, though I doubt she knew that.  Mom also made sure that both my brother and I knew we were adopted even before we were old enough to know what "adoption" really meant.  I grew up knowing that I was chosen.  True, I also knew that it was largely because I had red hair (she was obsessed with redheads too) and "had a cold" so she "felt sorry for me."  Still, I never doubted that she picked me because she wanted me nor that she always loved me.  Every year on our birthdays she would make us whatever we wanted for dinner and the cake of our choice.  Because I am me, my cake was often something non-traditional like a pie or strawberry shortcake.  In fact, even after I left home she always had some strawberries put up in the freezer just for me which she'd defrost whenever I came home.  She tried hard to make us feel special, particularly since there was rarely any extra money floating around.  She also liked to torture us with our presents.  Since she didn't have much to give, she tried to make it last by wrapping something like a cheap little necklace in 15 different boxes, individually wrapped one inside the other so that you had to dig through them like Matryoshka dolls to find the prize.  Or she'd fill a box with tissue paper and you'd search the whole thing only to discover she'd taped the necklace to the side of the box or wrapped a $10 bill in one of the sheets of tissue paper you'd just tried to throw away.  One year for Christmas she bought me a pack of socks (which I doubtless needed, not that anyone wants socks for Christmas).  So to make it more interesting, she wrapped each sock individually.  I can remember going into the living room Christmas morning and thinking Santa had left the mother lode, only to discover that 10 of my gifts consisted of a single sock.  You can imagine my disappointment over "Santa's" sadism.  Mom also frequently put gag gifts in our stockings, so I suppose that at least some of my quirky humor comes from her (which is also presumably why I used to tell her that her name--Lorraine LaRue--sounded like a stripper name).


I'd like to say that my mother was a perfect mom, but she wasn't.  Who is, really?  (Other than me, of course.)  But Mom did a lot more right than she did wrong (which is more than I can say for a lot of people) and she was brave enough to give someone else's child a home and all the love she had to offer.  For good or for ill, much of who I am today is because of her...and I am grateful.

I miss you, Mom.

5 comments:

  1. This made me laugh and cry all at the same time. Some of the things you describe about your mom sound so much like my dad that it is scary. My dad loved the Statler brothers as well and he could be passive-aggressive sometimes. I know I have told you this before, but your mom was probably my favorite of my dad's sisters. She was such a cutup and just loved to egg my dad on about things. Lots of love to you today cousin!! From one of your west coast cousins--Janet

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    1. Somehow, I'm not surprised at the similarities between them. Your dad was my favorite uncle too and I'm pretty sure that they were likely favorites of each other, especially being so much younger than many of the other siblings. I've no doubt they were frequently partners in crime! I'm so very glad that they got to see each other one last time not long before they both passed; I know it meant a lot to them both. Thanks very much for the kind words, Cuz'!

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  2. What a fabulous post for a wonderful mom. Truly, nobody is perfect, but it is a special woman who does her best and makes a home for children. I smiled reading this as my uncle loved "Flowers on the Wall" and it always reminds me of him coming over as he suffered a lot in the war and would sit with me watching that show and would smoke his cigs. I am a big country fan and miss the old music now it is pop. I am in NYC so it is all from sitting with my mom listening to it. I hope the day continues to be filled with special memories for you!

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    1. Thank you so much! Sounds like you have some pretty amazing memories of your own. :)

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  3. Beautiful memories of your mother, thank you for sharing. And I hope your mom was laughing right there with you when you were trying not to laugh during the ceremony.

    My grandmother just passed on Saturday, after years of Alzheimer's she didn't even know she had children so we more or less had already been mourning her loss.

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