The following is an excerpt from a short piece I wrote about my mother not quite a year before she died, and I reproduce it here by way of introduction to the kind of person she was…
“…My mother is a pioneer and a survivor—she did, after all, make it through the 60’s. She’s been on the cutting edge of social change most of her life, and been places and done things that women today can, thanks to her bra-burning generation, pretty much take for granted. And she hasn’t slowed down at all, either. These days, though she’s the archetypal sweet little old lady—at least to look at her—she actively advocates for gay rights, animal rights, human rights in general, the environment, she volunteers at the local library, and still finds time to walk out into her garden to appreciate the periwinkles, which she advocates as just as serious a part of life as anything else. She’s read and commented on every bit of literature there is to read and comment on, including Hesse, Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Nietzsche (a bit of a trial, to be sure), Marx, Freud, Jung, Tolkien, Adams (as in Doug), Camus, Dostoyevsky, and all the rest from classical to modern times, as well as a truly staggering number of mystery authors. She’s an amateur expert on regional Native American culture, a well-rounded appreciator of art from all walks, as well as a rather gifted artist in her own right, and she has traveled all over the world. She speaks Italian fluently, having lived in Italy as a girl, and is something of an expert on the behavior and size of cockroaches in the tropics as the result of an incident involving an egg salad sandwich when she was living in the Philippines in the 50’s. She can even play the accordion! She has adopted or dispensed with social convention on her own advice as a matter of general practice for decades. She is a Master of The Discerning Observation, and can speak with authority on just about any social topic on the board today.
Nonetheless, it is still possible to catch her by surprise.
For example, she went to the “hair benders” the other day for a haircut. Bear in mind that as I said, my mother is the archetypal sweet little old lady—white hair, apple cheeks, twinkle in her eyes and goodies in the cupboard for the kids and grandkids—the whole nine yards. There she is, sitting in a room full of women of various ages who are seriously engaged in attending to the full feminine arsenal of attraction. The woman cutting her hair managed to talk my mother into having her eyebrows waxed. It was kind of fun and nice at first, having her face tinkered with and the warm wax and all. And then:
My mother howled. She said she thought she was going to die. And she was faced with having to have the other eyebrow treated the same way or be lopsided. The other women in the room, having taken my mother’s outward appearance at face value, snickered.
That is until my mother, in stentorian outrage that could have come straight from Mount Olympus, gave voice to the perennial unspoken question:
“PEOPLE DO THIS TO THEIR TWATS!!??”…”
You know, I think my mother was the love of my life.
Seems odd to say, doesn’t it? And in a way, a little sad, because traditionally you’re supposed to go find someone who fits that role, and spend your life with them, not just half your life and the other half you have to live without them.
But I never did. Find someone else, I mean. Not so far, anyway. On the other hand, the cool thing is that I started out my life with my soul mate right there from the very first moment.
Wasn’t all peas and carrots, of course. When I was little, Mom and I fought like cats and dogs. She was young, in an awkward marriage, struggling with parents who were more concerned with social niceties than they were with actual human beings, and she already had my older brother as well, a year and a half older than me.
I remember one time when I was about four years old, I was screaming at her “I hate you!” which is the best I could do to express my likely momentary frustration, being so little. Mom reached out instantly and slapped my face so hard my head spun around, and just as fast clapped her hands to her mouth in horror. I howled, of course. I don’t remember that it hurt, but I knew when your Mom slapped you, you were supposed to cry, so I did, and I put some honest effort into it. Then Mom swooped down on me and just enfolded me with her arms. I could feel her shaking.
She told me later that it was at that moment she realized she had to be the one to control the situation. “I just decided to stop screaming at you. You were so little, and you weren’t gonna figure it all out if I was acting like a kid, too.”
I dunno if folks can wrap their brains around how amazing that was. My Mom had spent her entire life isolated from the love of people you’d normally expect to get it from, and her marriage to my father was with a man who couldn’t keep his promises—or break them—with any honesty. The only thing she had to go by, really, was that when she was a child, her parents had servants—Mom lived in Italy starting just after WWII, in the 1950’s, and while my grandparents were busy with their adult lives, the servants took my Mom in and coddled her the way a child should be coddled. That only lasted about 5 years, though, since my grandparents subsequently moved to the Philippines because of my grandfather’s work.
Little enough to be getting on with, eh? But my mother was smart, very stubborn, and built for love. She had no small amount of courage, either. One thing she learned, from being on the receiving end of an unlove that saw all of who she was as just some sort of required adjunct to her parents’ prim and proper lives, was that there isn’t anything more important than being good to people, than appreciating them as is, without trying to step on them or mold them into something they’re not naturally inclined to be.
I benefited tremendously from that. Also, Mom always had lots of weird friends. Lol! I do, too, of course, but these days it’s not as big a deal—Mom was a pioneer, in a number of ways. Not only do I owe her a lot, but we all do. Because of her, and people like her, there are things we can take for granted in life that she had to fight for tooth and nail.
She helped to create me not least of all. I am not given much credit for who I actually am, not even by me, because most people (including me) find it a little strange and scary, but I’ve become better and better at slipping love in between the cracks for folks, and I have my mother to thank in large part for that.
My mother listened to me. She engaged with me. She included me in her esteem for life in general, and she viewed me as an equal in terms of my validity as a human being, and considered me a competent participant in her life and in my own, even when I was still a child. It never crossed her mind to think that my inclination to find exaltation in the ordinary bits and pieces of other people’s lives and being was in any way aberrant, and although she often did call me a romantic, never ONCE did she couple it with the word “hopeless.” That I am still able to find the precious art that exists in each of my friends and loved ones, in each of my acquaintances, in every human endeavor that travels across my awareness—despite living in a world in which such perspicacity is discouraged and even punished—is due to my mother’s wisdom, courage, chutzpah and defiance of a standard that wishes to disqualify love. That I am still able to submit to the exaltation this art inspires in me, and to reach out with it, to try to inspire it in others, is also due to the unstinting love my mother wrapped around me nearly every day of my life.
I wasn’t just lucky to have her. We all were. She taught me to reach out even when it is more than likely I’ll be rebuffed, and touch people whenever I can. She made the absurd possible, such that I am able to conceive of traveling beyond the traditional borders that separate people, when those borders become too much of a separation, shifting to become a cage or a prison.
The reason I can count my successes in this area on the fingers of one hand with fingers left over is because we are rarely given to know the toll of the living. But I have faith that there are more than this, because I’ve seen the end result of others’ endeavors, not the least of which is my mother’s in me.
When my mother died, there was an eternal instant when the whole world simply ceased to make sense. Everything just stopped, and the silence in my mind was like this great white nothing that appeared out of nowhere and wiped everything out without transition. My brother had called me with the news. I was in the hospital having contracted meningitis, it was 6:00 am and I was alone in a sterile room made of sharpened angles of stainless steel and relentless fluorescent light, and that silence might have gone on forever if my brother, infamous for making jokes like mini-horror movies, hadn’t spoken again about 30 seconds later… “Thea, I wouldn’t make a joke about something like this.”
For some reason, that made it possible for me to move in my mind again. Humor, as ever, came to my rescue, and I told my brother that this time I wished he was joking, ‘cause I’d much rather be kicking his f*ckin’ ass right now.
There isn’t any way for the human mind to entirely encompass being so profoundly bereft.
At least, not mine anyway. Not all at once. But I was. Profoundly bereft. I still am. Just it has come to me on little cat feet, by season, by scent, by memory, taste, sounds—anything in which, before, I could take my mother’s presence for granted—serving me with a small piece of her death, one mercifully delicate but implacable bite at a time.
Nonetheless, the wind died down, and I came down to earth. And here I am still, today, flightless. I’m having to learn to how to walk all over again. Whether or not I’ll do well enough to take flight once more remains to be seen, but in the meantime, as a good friend has been known to put it, I keep breathing, and I keep trying.
One thing I have figured out. This morass of loss, combined with the rich landscape of active memory of the time previous to it, contains a tremendous amount of energy, dynamic and always moving with the faltering dance of my soul. Once in a while, and more and more, I find I’m able to tap into that, and use it to accomplish things I might otherwise fear to attempt. It’s as if the energy that sustained my mother’s love for me still exists despite her absence, only it is becoming reformulated and then manifested anew via the love I bear for others.
It’s not the same. But it IS sufficient, and beautiful in and of itself—and I again find, or maybe simply recall what I knew before, only refreshed somehow: the absurd is still possible, and faith isn’t something you have to chase after, because as soon as you start to, it will turn to face you and endeavor to meet you halfway.
I can live with that.