For the past 13, nearly 14 years I have had this nagging need to get some closure. Because my mother passed away so very quickly and unexpectedly and because the world was in turmoil that fateful day in New York City, Washington DC and Shanksville, Pennsylvania – and because my mother was the one who held everything together when everyone else was falling apart, I did not deliver a proper eulogy.
We had a few lovely services for my mom, during which I was asked if I wanted to say something. The truth is I was a weeping, blubbering, crumpled mess and couldn’t pull myself together enough to utter more than a few words without breaking down. My mother and I had an extraordinary relationship and losing her was overwhelming. Now add to this enormous loss the fact that I was pregnant, and you can imagine how my emotions were running rampant. Now add in the crippling feeling that the world was spinning out of control on 9/11/01 and everything was upside down.
I never got to talk about how amazing my mom was. But as I begin to think of all the wonderful things my mother was, I have come to realize that perhaps she didn’t need a eulogy. The people gathered at the services were her closest friends and family. My closest friends. My two brothers’ closest friends. My dad’s closest friends. Mom’s numerous “adopted” children. Mom’s grandchildren. These people all had the honor of knowing my mom.
Some of them knew her as the kind woman who was generous to a fault. Some of them knew her as the woman who warmly embraced everyone who walked through her door. Some of them knew Mom as the woman who invited everyone to Sunday dinner. Some of them knew her as the woman who rolled up her sleeves and pitched in any time, anywhere. Some of them knew her as the lady who loved holidays and spent days decorating and cooking in preparation for every holiday, even St. Patrick’s Day – and we are neither Irish, nor Catholic. Some of them knew her as the impeccably dressed intelligent banker and business woman. Some of them knew her as a spitfire kind of gal who liked her scotch and cigarettes and was fond of a dirty joke, which was quite funny coming from a woman whose outward appearance was so prim and proper. Lots of people called her “Mom” and genuinely loved her. So, I realize that as we all came together to remember her, a eulogy may not have been necessary. Everyone loved her and remembered her in their own special way.
But no one knew her like I knew her. Few people got to see the fragile side of Mom. Few truly knew the young mother who was married to a military man who spent months at sea, leaving her to care for two young children on her own. A very select circle of friends knew the woman who cried alone behind closed doors because it was hard to make ends meet and even more difficult to hold it together in front of the rest of the world. Few got to see sadness in her eyes when she spoke of losing her beloved dad at the age of 13, when she needed him most.
Even fewer got to see the pain in her heart when she shared the story of taking her ailing mother on her crappy 2-day honeymoon to look at some stupid steam engines in Pennsylvania – boy you sure did know how to romance Mom, didn’t you Dad?
Hardly anyone knew her as the woman who found out at the age of 25 that her entire life had been a lie. She was not the person she believed herself to be. Mom had discovered she had been adopted. She dealt with an identity crisis while nursing her sick mother through her final days, all while she was pregnant and basically on her own. But, as I said, few people saw this side of Mom. I was one of the select few who truly knew the depths of her pain and appreciated the spark of life that extinguished that pain time and time again.
Most people knew Mom as the formidable woman who never let fear hold her back. She was an intrepid traveler who loved to make plans at the last minute and just go. Together with her best friend Patty, she ventured out with no money and two young children in search of simple fun. And, she delivered. I never realized when I was young that we “went without” because we never seemed to be in need of anything. Our bellies were always full. Our beds were always warm. And, Mom was always smiling, telling us everything was going to be alright. Mom was not a woman who would let a beautiful sunny day go by without getting outside to enjoy it. She fully embraced the idea of stopping to smell the roses. She understood that life is indeed much too short.
Mom was famous for her picnic lunches. I remember sitting in the picnic area of many different parks and family attractions chowing down on fried chicken and home made potato salad, savoring every delectable morsel. It never occurred to me that I may be missing out on something scrumptious from the concession stands at these places. I was always content to have Mom’s home cooking. I now realize that Mom’s culinary adventures were her attempt at bringing the carnival fun home and keeping within a budget. I wonder if she knew the life lessons and valuable education she was giving us while trying to create some fun at home.
She tried her hand at everything and let us help. We made funnel cakes, doughnut holes, and churros just like the ones at the traveling carnival. We scarfed down chili dogs like the ones at the beach hut concession stand. We enjoyed sausage and peppers just like they served at the Italian feast. She was the queen of Belgian waffle ice cream sandwiches. She could whip up a shake better than any soda jerk at the local Friendly’s restaurant.
Mom’s house was the epicenter of fun in our neighborhood. We rode our bikes over the lawn, wearing down a path around the swing set and jumping over plywood ramps. We camped out in the tent on warm summer nights – okay, so the girls NEVER made it past midnight before we creeped each other out talking about bugs and wondering what all the scary noises might be, but Mom was waiting when we came inside with all the makings of S’mores which we cooked over the flame of our wood burning stove, even in the heat of the summer.
Sure, she complained about the ruined lawn or muddy feet, but she forgave us eventually. She used to warm scarves and mittens in the clothes dryer while we played outside in the snow, so when we came in for hot cocoa, she would swap the wet ones for toasty dry ones and then she would venture out with us, digging deep tunnels in the snow for us after shoveling the driveway by herself. We pitched in, but in all seriousness we all know how well a 5-year-old shovels snow, right? She would roll giant snowballs and stack them three high for us and give us a carrot stick and odd buttons to make a face for our “Frosty.” She was the quintessential suburban mom.
But, she was also a neat freak and a bit, shall we say, anal retentive? Somehow, she balanced her obsessive need for cleanliness with the ability to have fun. She helped us build countless blanket forts in the dining room and living room. She let us make pinatas in the kitchen. Play-doh was always allowed. When we were old enough we had chores and we couldn’t have “fun” until the chores were complete.
Saturday morning was dusting and vacuuming time and the whole house was cleaned from top to bottom, with Mom finishing up on her hands and knees, scrubbing the “no wax” floor. Then lunch. Then our Saturday adventure. She’d pile us into the old station wagon and her best friend Patty would ride shotgun and we’d go someplace perfectly ordinary, but Mom and Aunt Pat would make it fun. We would go on scavenger hunts through department stores. We’d be sent on “secret missions” in a craft supply store. We’d pick through the piles of “irregular” socks at a flea market or search for cans without dents at a salvage store. No matter where we ended up, it was usually a lot of fun. Then home to a warm and hearty meal.
Every once in a while we’d have enough money to actually go “somewhere” and do “something” like the Bronx Zoo or an aquarium. And, if our planned outing happened to be a washout, we’d put on our dime store ponchos and weather the storm. I soon discovered this was a great way to see lots of local attractions. The rain kept everyone else away and we’d have the whole place to ourselves.
When we got a bit older and Mom went back to work full time, we still had our Saturdays. Mom would be at the bank on Saturday morning, leaving us to complete the chores alone. She’d be home for lunch and then off on an adventure.
These days, I think about Mom a lot. Her smile. He intrepid nature. I am trying to be like Mom or at least live a life that would make her proud. I am not as organized as I’d like to be, but in all honesty, I think I’m doing pretty well. I try to be adventurous and I would love to have the hustle and bustle that Mom had when we were kids. I don’t know if I have it in me to be the perfect hostess. Okay, so Mom wasn’t a perfect hostess and that’s what made her entertaining so easy. She just cooked from her heart and everyone just showed up.
This may just be the year that I finally get my shit together and jopen up my heart and my home without caring that things are not perfect. Now that I am learning to leave the past behind, I can start to imagine the future. I wish Mom was here to share it, but at least I know she’d be proud.