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HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, MOM AND DAD!

I intended this to be a Father’s Day tribute to my Dad. But my youngest brother, Anton, just reminded me it’s a double celebration. It’s William and Esther Armstrong’s 73rd wedding anniversary!

Dad has been gone twelve years, Mom seven. But I’ll bet the house they are celebrating right now.

We were never big on talking about our feelings. Maybe it’s a family thing, maybe it’s generational. Whatever, my two brothers and I never doubted our parents love. We tested their patience many times and were duly rewarded.

Dad was from the John Wayne school of conversation. Brief chats and meaningful looks to make his words (or silence) crystal clear. He was handy; I wasn’t. Remember what I said about patience?

One of our most emotional moments came after I enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was one of the rare times I saw Dad cry.

75-edited-GarryMomDad-WW2-300

Mom, Dad and baby me

My Father was a World War II veteran and like most vets, he didn’t talk much about his combat experiences. He kept it to himself for decades. Near the end of his life, Dad talked a little about some truly horrific war experiences. After he died, we found medals amongst his stowed away possessions.

Mom was always the voice of the family. She was the classic strong woman, but it came at a price. It was our last lucid conversation before dementia began to take its ugly toll. Mom, who always seemed estranged from Marilyn, asked how things were going. Before I could finish, she interrupted and quietly but firmly told me I should show Marilyn my love, to make her feel wanted and appreciated. Mom had a funny look on her face.

I just listened. Mom talked about the courtship years with Dad. It was fascinating. I never could picture Mom and Dad as young adults with all the ups and downs of dating. Those were the days when you wrote letters to your loved one.

It wasn’t easy for them. But, finally, loved conquered all.

75-edited-wedding-2

Perfect wedding

Their wedding in 1941 was something out of Hollywood. Bigger than big. Lovely women, handsome men.  Mom and Dad never looked happier.

My parents never talked about their dreams. I think they were put on hold — permanently — after I made my début the following year. Dad was off to war. Mom was beginning six plus decades of molding our family. I guess their dreams wound up in the lives of my two brothers and me.

I still see Mom and Dad in my dreams. Dad in his uniform, Mom looking like a cover girl. I’m the kid from central casting.

Here’s looking at you, Mommy and Daddy!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

Today is Flag Day for those of a certain age. But in my family, it’s Esther Armstrong’s birthday. Mom has been gone seven years now. Gone but not forgotten.

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Esther Letticia Armstrong was a special woman. Wife of William Benfield Armstrong. Mother of Garry, Bill, and Anton Armstrong. I get top billing because I’m the oldest. Mom and Dad were married 61 years until Dad left us in 2002. They were a handsome couple!

I called my parents Mommy and Daddy for most of my life and it always seemed natural. Even when I was a veteran TV news reporter with decades of experience it seemed natural.

One evening I was preparing to do a live news report in the TV studio. It was the lead story. A big deal. Breaking news! My thoughts were interrupted by a colleague who said I had a phone call. No way. Put it on hold. Garry, it’s your MOTHER!  The newsroom grew silent.

I took the call. The story waited.

My Mom was a force of nature. I had no sisters, so I learned to do household chores early in life. Whenever I objected, Mom stopped me dead in my tracks with a strong, clear voice. Baseball and other critical things were secondary no matter how strongly I felt about my manhood.

My Mother was always supportive of learning and creativity. We always had books and records. Lots of them. I read books that I wouldn’t fully understand for years. But somehow I felt comfortable with Eric Sevareid’s So Well Remembered.

Decades later, Mr. Sevareid was impressed by my adolescent tackling of his book. The books and music fired my imagination. Mom would smile when I played big band music or vocals by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes she would sway in time with the music as if remembering a time when she was dancing.

I was Mom’s favorite movie date. Dad was usually tired. He often worked two jobs and just wanted to rest. So Mom and I went to the movies. Often three times a week. Yes, that’s how my love affair with movies was born and nurtured.

Mom seemed like a different person during our movie dates. She smiled and laughed. Those were the days of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly and other legends who were still in their prime on the big screen. I remember Mom giggling when we scored big on dish and glass night events at our local movie theater.

I know we tend to look back on our youth with rose-colored glasses. It’s normal. But there were lots of good times.

So, today as I remember Esther Armstrong’s birthday, I wish I could crank up my hearing aids and hear it again …

Garry, your Mother is calling you!

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED MARIJUANA?

“Have you considered marijuana?”

My head spun. Twilight zone? No, just my doctor suggesting pot as the right drug for me. It would deal with a variety of issues. He wasn’t even suggesting “medical marijuana” because though theoretically we have it, actually we don’t. Yet.

marijuana in my dreams

“Uh, yes,” I said. “The downside, other than the price tag, is coughing. Right now, coughing is a bit rough.”

“Take in more air when you inhale,” he said. “You’ll cough less.”

Right.

I grew up in a world where getting busted for having a couple of joints in your pocket could land you in jail for a very long time. A world in which marijuana was the gateway drug to a life of dissipation and degradation. Which would end with you face down in a gutter in some part of town where even the cops won’t go.

Now I live in a world where one’s doctors recommend smoking pot.

My mother was born in 1910 and passed in 1982. Growing up, horse-drawn carts were far more common than automobiles. She was a child during World War I, a married woman and a mother in World War II. She survived — somehow — the Great Depression and marched with friends and family in a spontaneous parade of celebration when the New Deal passed. Even though the Depression didn’t really end until the war came and brought employment to everyone who wasn’t fighting.

antique car

By the time she passed, there was cable television and home computers, two cars (at least) in every driveway. One day (I was a kid) I shouted “Oh look, a horse and cart!”

She looked bemused. “When I was your age,” she said, “We used to shout “Look, a motor car!”

And today, my doctor suggested I smoke pot. What a world, eh?

ALTERNATIVE MOTHERING

My mother hated housework. She did it only under compulsion and had a terrible attitude. She was also a dreadful cook and hostile. The kind of cook who tosses food on the table, glares at you, daring you to say anything other than “Thank you Mom” while choking on overcooked veggies and overdone meat.

I’m pretty sure she wasn’t entirely sold on the motherhood thing either. But having birthed three of us, she did the best she could. Nurturing didn’t come naturally to her, though she made an effort. Her mother hadn’t been much of a nurturer either. It was an apology in the form of a story. I understood.

On the up side, she was a fantastic mentor. She loved books, she loved learning. She an infinite curiosity about how things worked, history and art. She loved movies, laughter and trips to Manhattan, which we called The City. It was just a subway ride away.

As soon as I was old enough to have a conversation, we talked. Not like a little kid and a mom, but like friends. She told me stories. About growing up on the Lower East Side when horses and carts were common and cars were rare. How, when she was little, she lived at the library. If she stayed after dark, she’d run all the way home because she thought the moon was chasing her.

Mom grew up doing pretty much as she pleased. In turn, she let me do pretty much as I pleased. Freedom and a passion for knowledge were her gifts to me. Wonderful gifts that have lasted a lifetime.

Portrait of Annabelle

Portrait of Annabelle

Some of my happiest memories were the two of us walking through Manhattan arm-in-arm. Like pals. Buying roasted chestnuts from the vendor in front of the library. Sitting on the steps in the shadow of the lions, peeling chestnuts and talking. Going to the ballet, which was Balanchine’s company. That was one of the great things about growing up in New York — how accessible the arts were.

Our local ballet company was Balanchine. Our local opera was the Met. If we wanted to see a show, we went to Broadway. We had the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim. And back then, museums were free and the rest was easily affordable, even for a kid on a tiny allowance.

I admit I skipped school, but I spent my stolen time at the New York Public Library, deep in the stacks looking for interesting stuff about Louis XIV (I had a thing about Louis). Or I stole away to spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Cloisters. I never had to worry about getting nicked for playing hooky. Cops didn’t look for kids at libraries or museums.

I didn’t get a lot of hugs, but I got Annabelle for my fifth birthday, tons of books and a Steinway grand piano for my 14th birthday.

Mothering comes in many shapes and sizes. Because of her, I am me. Thanks Mom.

YeahRight! Link

CLOSE TO THE TREE

Mom-May1944It occurred to me one day I needed to see my spine specialist. When you deal with chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up addicted to pain killers, it’s the only option. It’s not bravery. It’s a practical decision. Do I want to keep participating in life? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes.

Long time ago, I was doing my mother’s hair. I liked fixing her hair. It was easy to style, thick, silver and just a bit wavy. I asked her to turn her head to the right, and she did. When I asked her to turn the other way, she said “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because my head won’t turn that way.”

That seemed a curious answer. “What do you mean by that?”

“My neck is stiff.”

“Um, mom? How long has it been like this?”

She thought for a while. “Fifteen years? Something like that.”

That stopped me. Fifteen years? “Have you seen anyone about it?”

“No,” she said. “I figured I was just getting old.”

At the time, I thought her statement was bizarre. It turned out she had treatable but advanced tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors.

Time marched on. I’m older than my mother was then. I totally relate to her response. When I called the doctor for an appointment, I discovered the last time I saw him was more than six years ago. To be fair, I’ve had a few medical crises since then and I got distracted. Besides, I know what’s wrong with my back. It isn’t going to kill me. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and do my best to ignore it.

Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and down stairs is especially difficult. It crossed my mind there might be something he could do — some medical magic — to improve me without major surgery. I already know surgery isn’t an option.

My doctor is wonderful. The best. The only doctor who can look at my spine, not gasp with horror and immediately decide I need to be rebuilt with screws, pins, and bolts. He’s a minimalist, medically speaking. I like that.

I made an appointment and got lucky because there was a cancellation. It usually takes five or six months to get to see him, but I only had to wait a few weeks. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the country. I would have willingly waited six months if I had to. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment, I had to make another appointment because I need new films of my spine. I also haven’t had a CT scan or MRI in six years and he isn’t going to be able to do much without new films.

I wondered how come I hadn’t processed the fact I can’t walk normally? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. I was busy ignoring pain.

I was being my mother. She taught me to be a soldier. She didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why. She said “Pain is good for your character.”

Tree Silhouette in B & W

She meant it. I grew up believing giving in to pain was a weakness. To a degree it serves me well, but sometimes it’s dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff, it can kill you. One needs to find balance, but it isn’t so easy.

Watching a documentary on Ethel Kennedy reminded me of my mother, minus all the money. Mom was an athlete. I’m sure she wondered how she wound up with such a klutzy daughter. She had been a good tennis player. She rode horses, she played ice hockey. She went bob sledding. She painted, sculpted, designed and made her own clothing. She also never got past seventh grade, so she made up for it by reading everything. She had a truly voracious appetite for life and knowledge.

After a radical mastectomy, she couldn’t play tennis anymore, so she played a ferocious game of ping-pong. She played savagely. She served so hard it was more like a bullet than a ping-pong ball. As a family, we vacationed in dinky little resorts in the Catskills where there was no entertainment. The one thing they always had was a ping-pong table. So I played against my mother.

I'm in the middle, Mom and my sister Ann are on the right. Code Red.

I’m in the middle, Mom and my sister Ann are on the right. Code Red.

She didn’t believe in any of that “let the kid win” stuff. She was a competitor. You won or lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me. As I got older, I played better but she always beat me. She told me she was giving me an advantage by playing with her left hand. I knew she wrote with her right hand, so I assumed she was a rightie. Until the day my aunt told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.

I never beat her, but I beat everyone else.

She passed me her determination to never give up, to do everything I could as well as I could. Later in life, I realized I didn’t always have to be the best. Playing a game for fun is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit late.

The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.

So I went to my doctor and he told me there was nothing he could do except reduce the pain. Temporarily. No fix. No drug. It is what it is. Progressive. Irreversible. I sighed and accepted it. I had hoped there was something he could do. Not to be.

We all miss stuff. Some of it intentionally, more accidentally. Sometimes, I miss important something because I’m busy ignoring something else.

I am an apple. Mom was my tree. I fell, but not far.

Weekly Writing Challenge: DNA Analysis – Mirrored Images

DNA is a funny thing. It doesn’t kick in all at the same time. That’s why, as a toddler you may be the spitting image of your dad, but by the time you’re 30, you look like a clone of your maternal grandmother. And when you are old, you look in the mirror and you say … “Mom??” Because she died years ago, yet there she is. Alive. In you.

Me and the kid

Me and the kid

We carry the physical imprint of our ancestors. It’s obvious. Less evident are the emotional footprints left in our psyches. Positive and negative, our parents and many others change us, leave bits of themselves behind for us to absorb. Good and ill. Relationships and marriages we should have skipped. Friends who were there for us in our darkest hours and those who weren’t. The doctor who took our case when we had no money or insurance. The one who botched the surgery and left us hanging out to die. It’s all there, imprinted in the way we see the world and react to it.

We are such untidy packages, made up of bits and pieces. Funny and sad, honest and untruthful. Self-pitying and brave. Lazy, yet determined. No one is of a single piece. No one is all good, all bad, all anything except all human.

Me? Today’s me is much changed from the young, idealist who planned to fix the world. Now I know I’m not going to fix it. I make a few little tweaks here and there, but the big bad world will have to look to younger souls to get the job done. Assuming the job can be done and assuming anyone will have the power and will to give it a go.

I sound shockingly like my mother. My opinions, my way of expressing them. I thought she was so cynical, so lacking in faith. She made me crazy and I loved her anyway … and now, I am her. The plain-spoken way she had of saying what she meant without bothering to pretty it up or disguise it with polite protestations. And the tenacity. Like a dog with a bone, she never let go and neither do I. Whatever it is, I worry it to death. It gets me into trouble. With everyone. Yet I wouldn’t change it. It is my most useful and least pleasant character trait — abrasive and annoying — yet it’s the thing I appreciate most in me and which has best served me professionally (less so personally) through the years.

SeidenFamily 1963

The whole famdamily. I’m the one with rolled up jeans.

My fuse is too short (dad), but usually under control (mom), except when it isn’t (dad). My humor rarely fails me (mom) and being able to see the funny side of disaster is a saving grace in a life fraught with crises. Arthritis makes it hard for me to do much (I think I have an entire family tree to thank for that piece of DNA). The cancer is plain scary (mom, grandma, grandpa) and the heart disease (dad, you just never stop giving do you?) is an unpleasant surprise. I didn’t get a really healthy package to work with. I can’t seem to fix things as fast as they break down.

Intellectual curiosity? Definitely mom. Passion for books? Mom again. Ability to tell a funny story? Okay dad, you get a point on that one. All those jokes you told over the years … gads, I’m still telling some of them. They were hoary 50 years ago, no less now. And dad, thanks for this great line. I still use it:

“It isn’t what you don’t know that’ll get you. It’s what you do know that’s wrong.” — Albert Friedman, terrible father, great salesman.

For everyone who gave me a piece of themselves to carry along this strange path called life, I give a hearty “Thanks. I think.”

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Weekly Writing Challenge: I Remember Before Words

I was in my crib. We must have still been living in Freeport because I was not speaking yet, probably less than a year old.

I was looking around at the light, of which there wasn’t much since the sun was not up yet. I don’t recall any sounds, just the room which was mostly empty except for me and my crib. The crib was made of wood and painted white.

MarilynApr1948

I stood there. Waiting. I don’t remember thinking anything. Just being. Too young to think.

After a few minutes standing, holding onto the crib’s railing, I started to cry. I remember crying, but I don’t remember any reason why. Maybe it was all I knew how to do before speech, before words.

My mother came, turned the light on in the room, then lifted me from the crib. She said something to me, but the words were nothing but comforting noise with no special meaning. What mattered was she was there.

I stopped crying then. I had gotten what I wanted. Mommy was there.

And there, the memory ends.

(6 Minutes, including finding the picture and a quick spell check.)

Everything’s Fine Right Now …

Music triggers memory for me as nothing else can, transporting me backward like a time traveler to a world and a “me” I sometimes forget existed. I love this song. I like the words and melody, but mostly, I love it because it’s the song I sang to my son in the wee hours while I nursed him. Night and day lost any real meaning; sleep was catch-as-catch-can. My baby was tiny, hungry and needed feeding every couple of hours. Sleep could wait, my baby couldn’t.

96-BabyOandMe-HP

For the first few months, I almost never went to bed. My son lived on my hip, in my lap, next to me on the sofa … wedged just slightly between the cushions so he wouldn’t fall if I drifted off watching old movies, but ready to wake when he next needed feeding.

Mothering was less structured in 1969. I didn’t know there were rules I should follow, so I made it up as I went along. I was only 22, not much more than a child myself. Being a young mother was natural and unlike other things in my life, I didn’t over-think it. I was playful, young enough to enjoy playing patty cake with a giggling infant.

This was a good lullaby in 1969. It’s still a good lullaby, performed by John Kirkpatrick.

Everything’s Fine Right Now

- – -

Who’s that knocking on my door?

Can’t see no-one right now.

Got my baby here by me,

can’t stop, no, no, not now.

- – -

Oh, come a little closer to my breast,

I’ll tell you that you’re the one I really love the best,

and you don’t have to worry about any of the rest,

’cause everything’s fine right now.

- – -

And you don’t have to talk and you don’t have to sing,

You don’t have to do nothing at all;

Just lie around and do as you please,

you don’t have far to fall.

- – -

Oh, come a little closer to my breast,

I’ll tell you that you’re the one I really love the best,

and you don’t have to worry about any of the rest,

’cause everything’s fine right now.

- – -

Oh, my, my, it looks kind of dark.

Looks like the night’s rolled on.

Best thing you do is just lie here by me,

of course only just until the dawn.

- – -

Oh, come a little closer to my breast,

I’ll tell you that you’re the one I really love the best,

and you don’t have to worry about any of the rest,

’cause everything’s fine right now.

- – -

 

I’m an apple, Mom was my tree.

It occurred to me one day I really needed to see the spine doctor. When you have chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up a pill addict, it’s the only option. It’s not being brave. It’s an entirely practical decision. Do I want to keep living? Walking? Participating? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes. Oh well.

Sometime, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was doing my mother’s hair. I liked fixing her hair. It was easy to style, thick, silver and just a bit wavy. I asked her to turn her head to the right, and she did. When I asked her to turn the other way, she said “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because my head won’t turn that way.”

That seemed a curious answer. “What do you  mean by that?”

“My neck is stiff.”

“Um, mom? How long has it been like this?”

She thought for a while. “Fifteen years? Something like that.”

That stopped me. Fifteen years? “Have you seen anyone about it?”

“No,” she said. “I figured I was just getting old.”

At the time, I thought this was totally bizarre. It turned out, she had entirely treatable (but advanced) tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors.

96-Mom-May1944

Time has marched on and I’m older than my mother was then. I totally relate to her response. When I called the doctor for an appointment, I discovered the last time I saw him was six years ago. To be fair, I’ve had a few medical crises since then and I got distracted. Besides, I know what’s wrong with my back. It isn’t going to get better or go away. It isn’t going to kill me either. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and generally ignore it. Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and down stairs is hard. My legs don’t seem to want to support me. It crossed my mind that there might be something that could be done to improve it without major reconstruction.

My doctor is wonderful. The best. The only doctor who can look at my spine, not gasp with horror and immediately decide I need to be rebuilt with screws, pins, and bolts. He’s a minimalist, medically speaking and I like that.

So I made an appointment and I got lucky, because there was a cancellation in December. It usually takes five or six months to get in to see him. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the entire country. I would have willingly waited the six months if I had to. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment, I had to make another appointment because I need new films of my spine. I also haven’t had a CT scan or MRI in six years and he isn’t going to be able to do much without new films.

I wondered how come I hadn’t processed the fact I can’t walk properly? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. Too busy ignoring the pain. I don’t always know I’m doing it, but I was being my mother.

She taught me to be stalwart, a Spartan. She told me she didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why not and she said “Pain is good for your character.” She meant it. I grew up believing showing pain or giving in to it was a sign of weakness. To a degree it serves me well, but sometimes it’s dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff,  they can kill you. One needs a sense of balance, but it isn’t so easy to find.

Watching the documentary on Ethel Kennedy last night reminded me of my mother. Mom was an athlete and I’m sure she always wondered how she have wound up with such a klutzy daughter. She had been a good tennis player. She rode horses, she played ice hockey. She went bob sledding. She painted, sculpted, designed and made her own clothing. She also never got past seventh grade, so she made up for it by reading everything. She had a truly voracious appetite for life and knowledge.

Mom1973Paint

After a radical mastectomy, she couldn’t play tennis anymore, so she played a ferocious game of ping-pong.

She played savagely. She served so hard it was more like a bullet than a ping-pong ball. As a family, we vacationed in dinky little resorts in the Catskills where there was no entertainment. The one thing they always had was a ping-pong table. So I played against my mother.

She didn’t believe in any of that “let the kid win” stuff. She was a competitor. You won or you lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me. As I got older, I played better and but she always beat me. She told me she was giving me an advantage by playing with her left hand. I knew she wrote with her right hand, so I assumed that she was a rightie. Until the  day my father told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.

I still never beat her, but I beat everyone else.

From her, I got a gritty determination to never give up, to do everything as well as it could be done, or at least as well as I could do it. It turns out winning isn’t everything, but I didn’t learn that until I’d already missed a lot. Late in life, I realized I don’t have to be the best. Playing the game because you enjoy it is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit too late.

The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.

We all miss so many things. Some intentionally, others accidentally. Sometimes, I miss things accidentally because I’m avoiding other things intentionally. One thing leads to the other.

I wonder what else I’m missing? I know, on this Mother’s day, that I’m definitely missing Mom. I have so much to tell her.

Prompts for the Promptless – Ep. 10 – Saudade: Remembering Mom

Saudade is a Portuguese word that describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone who one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.

My friends, who came as I did to live in Israel, shared the fear of receiving “the phone call” telling us a parent had passed away across an ocean and perhaps half a world.

We were haunted children. Each Passover we gathered. Elijah’s cup stood on the table. It was my mother’s cup and though she lived, she was also a ghost because she was so far away. I looked at my son. When I am old, I wondered, will he go far away to live in a different country?

I was 31 when left the U.S. and moved to Israel. I left in a ferocious need to be. Nothing would have stopped me. My mother never tried to stop me. She told me she admired me – admired me – for having the courage to leave.

I lay in bed the morning my mother died. Images tumbled through my head. In my mind’s eye, I saw the funeral I could not attend, my brother, older, sadder. And my sister. My mother was her protector. What would Ann do now? Two birds twitter as they build a nest on my Jerusalem window ledge…

I lived most of my adult life within half an hour’s drive from my mother and never gave it a second thought. We talked by phone, saw each other now and then for a bit of shopping and a chat. Such was life in suburban New York.

Living in Israel – being so far away – taught me about family We saw each other through a time-lapse sequence. Each visit, she was visibly older, changed. A call – “Your mother is in the hospital” – brought panic. Nothing could reassure me.

Another visit to Israel. It is the year after my mother’s surgery and she looks so tired. I can see the weariness, yes, but she is still Mother. I saw her as I had always seen her: strong, an elemental force in my world. A friend commented: “What a fragile little woman your mother is!” That stopped me short. I had never seen my mother as fragile. Or little. She was as she had always been … but maybe my eyes were faulty.

My mother was with me, then had to leave and another year passed.

Mom-May1944

It was 1983. She had come for Passover.  I was overjoyed to have my family together. We would have three uninterrupted weeks. My mother looked wonderful. Her color was back. Just before the Seder, she tells me that she is dying.

“Dying?” I was inane in my shock. “But you look so well.”

She was not well. She had cancer. It had spread to her lungs and stomach. She said she could feel herself sliding away. “I don’t want to lose you,” I cried. If I cry, Mother will fix it, it will be okay.

“I don’t want to lose me either,” she said, and laughed.

“How can you laugh?” I said.

“What else is there to do?” she replied.

Fears and prayers and hopes. Relentlessly, she told me what I need to know about the will,my brother and sister. I am the first to be told.

We took a two-day trip to the Galilee. The wildflowers were blooming. They were scarlet and blue, white and pink, yellow and purple. The Galil was ablaze and we saw it together. I remember. The Hermon, still crowned with snow. The Kinneret, mist-covered.

My mother always talked to me. I was little, very little. I sat next to her while she ironed and she talked about life, her thoughts, her dreams. Was she lonely? Did she miss her own mother who had passed away?

The final summer of her life, I went to the United States to be with her. She still looked well. How could she be so ill? Yet the signs were there. Her will sustained her. She wanted me to remember the Mother I knew, and not as she would be in weeks to follow.

Mom1973-3

She let me take care of her, and that spoke volumes. We talked, talked, talked. I tried to tell her all the things I’d never gotten around to saying, never found the right words.

I just let the words fall out. I wanted her to know that all the little hurts … they were nothing. Forgive me Mother … I forgive you, too.

I am my mother. I am the cycle, the pattern. I sit by a pool and watch my granddaughter play in the water, and I am my mother, and I am in the pool. I am the one, mother who is and will be.

My mother gave me a diamond that was her mother’s and perhaps, though no one can remember so far back, her grandmother’s. It was the one thing that had been passed down the generations. All else was lost, long ago, left behind in another old … older … country.

I have become the woman my mother raised me to be. As she molded me, I am – for good and ill. I am my mother’s daughter.

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Life 101

Someone asked me what lessons I learned in life. It seemed like there would be a lot of answers to that question but actually, after I really thought about it, I realized there’s only one lesson. It comes in many forms and wears a variety of disguises and costumes. It seems, on first glance, a simple lesson yet it is the hardest to accept probably because it is a lesson we don’t want to learn. We resist it, fight it, wrestle until we are bloody, beaten and crushed. It’s not what we were promised. It is entirely contrary to what mom and dad told us when they said we could do or be anything if we tried hard enough.

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It turns out that we aren’t the drivers of the bus that is our lives. We are passengers and whether we get a window seat or find ourselves scrunched up at the back with lots of other riders, we are far from the driver’s seat. We have not been advised of the itinerary or destination nor do we know the schedule or even if there are stops along the way.

We are free to ask the driver to take us where we want to go. If the driver complies, we assume this shows we are in control. If the driver goes somewhere completely different, we blame ourselves, the world, our parents, fate, whatever. After all, when things go wrong, it has to be someone’s fault, right?

But no one is at fault. Life happens. If life treats us gently, we are happy to take credit for our great planning and skill in life management. If things go poorly, we look around to see who we can blame.

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Control is our fondest, most beloved illusion. As thinking beings, we are irrevocably committed to making a good faith best effort to accomplish whatever we set out to do. If our goals align with what life intends for us, we get to accomplish some of what we planned. Regardless, sooner or later, we learn – easy or hard – we are not in control, never were, nor ever will be. Life is not a course we plot on a map. It’s not a route laid out with appropriate stopovers along the path.

Life simply is.

That’s the lesson. Where life takes us, that’s where we should be and where we need to apply our efforts. Our greatest success won’t be the result of how successfully we manage our lives but how well we take advantage of the opportunities and challenges life throws at us.

Free will is a limited franchise. Our life takes place in a designated space within which we have some options: we can sit in this chair or on that sofa. We can look out the window or chat with whoever is sharing our space. But we are not moving to another room. That’s the essence of Karma.

Your real task is to find satisfaction with what life gives you. Otherwise, you will waste your days pining for what will never be, angry because it isn’t what you want, and depressed because you feel cheated. There is always some good stuff going on, no matter how difficult it may be to find. This is not the answer anyone wants to hear. It seems so unfair.

Fair or not, this is the answer and the lesson. You are not obligated to like it. You are required to deal with it.

-

 

Living Mom’s Life

The other night, I was poking around the music section of Amazon. Since getting my cute little Kindle Fire HD, I have started to listen to music again. It’s been a while and I wasn’t aware how much I missed it, especially classical music. I often hear the melodies in my head, distant echoes of my younger self. I played the piano for a long time and was a music major in college, completing all the requirements except for 1 credit of chorus, at which point I changed majors. I didn’t want to graduate with a degree in music, already knowing it wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go professionally. I loved music and I was a pretty good pianist, but that’s not a career. It’s a hobby.

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I was particularly good at Bach. The music fit my hands, something which could not be said of  my hands in context of Chopin, Grieg, or Beethoven. My hands are tiny. Child-sized hands on a full-grown body. It’s especially odd because I’m not petite. Short, yes, but not petite. I have big feet, broad shoulders. Solid peasant stock. So what’s with the tiny hands? Don’t say anything. It’s all been said before.

Anyone who tells you the size of hands doesn’t matter to a musician doesn’t play piano. Once you get past kiddy music, you need hands that can span at least a 10th, more if possible. You need full-size grown up hands and a good deal of physical strength. To put it simply, the piano was the wrong instrument for me. I needed an instrument for which the size of my hands would be irrelevant.

I wanted to play the drums.

“Girls don’t play drums,” my mother said.

“Why the hell not?”

“Watch your language.”

“Who says girls don’t play drums? Is there a rule written somewhere?”

I dragged in my high school band teacher into the argument. Still no go. GIRLS, said my mother, don’t play drums. There was nothing for it. I was a girl so no drums. It was a bit strange because my mother usually was a pretty strong feminist and frequently reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need to be a nurse: I could be a doctor — except I wanted to be a nurse. Had Life not crashed into me when I had just started my MS in Nursing, I would have been, though I wonder if I would have wound up writing anyhow. I wanted to run public health clinics. It was my reformer persona taking charge. Life had other ideas.

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Meanwhile, on the music front, I suggested voice lessons. I had a decent enough voice and I was pretty sure girls were allowed to sing, but Mom always wanted to play the piano. It was too late for her, but her daughter was going to be a pianist. I was living my mom’s dream. It’s a pity her dreams and my hands were so incompatible. I had some talent, but I was studying the wrong instrument. After a great deal of effort, I achieved a high level of mediocrity as a pianist. If I’d been more dedicated, I could have achieved “almost good enough for concert work,” a special Hell exclusively for aspiring but unsuccessful classical musicians.

Getting stuck in your parents’ dreams happens in all kinds of families. It is not exclusive to any ethnic group, class, color, religion or even nationality. Wealthy parents want their kids to do what they weren’t able to do as much as poor parents. We all try to give our kids what we wanted, even when it’s not what they want. It’s almost a reflex.

I needed freedom as a child; even more as a teenager. I was self-disciplined. I merely wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do without being watched all the time. Since that was not going to happen, I became highly successful at sneaking around. I went where I wanted to go, with or without permission and I just didn’t tell my mother. It was one of the important lessons I learned about parenting: You can’t stop a determined kid, so you might as well help him or her do what they want to do safely.

I was never interested in hanging out at the mall or a movie. I snuck off to museums and libraries. My nerdy idea of adventure was a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a world-class museum and if you are ever in New York, it’s worth a day of your time. It isn’t just one museum, either. My favorite part of it is the medieval section, The Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

“Too dangerous,” said Mom. When I pointed out that she was going on ski trips to Bear Mountain when she was 14, she said she had been more mature than I was. I believe I chipped my first tooth during that conversation. I got to say classic lines like “How will you know I’m responsible until you let me have some responsibility?” and she got to give me the “As long as you live under my roof … ” line. Stalemate. I was going to live my mother’s dreams and be beholden to my mother’s fears.

If I were easily bullied, I’d have done the rest of my mother’s life for her and become a teacher. I have nothing against teaching as a career and believe it’s as important a job as you can do in this world. I simply didn’t want to be one.

My Geekscape

Despite sporadic side trips, deep down I knew I was going to be a writer. I toyed with other things: nursing, music, photography. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being an author, seeing my name on book jackets, the smell of printer’s ink and the soft crack of the spine when you open a new book. A writer I became and remain, but my mother was always sure I would never be able to earn a living as a writer. I did well, but she never believed it was a “real” career. It was not substantial, like teaching.

It is hard to resist giving in to the pressure and doing what mom or dad always wanted to do because it makes them happy. Pressure to do their thing rather than your own can be very intense yet subtle. In the end, it doesn’t work, unless your dream happens to be the same as theirs. Everyone needs to do what he or she was born to do.

As a parent, it can be tricky to teaze apart the strands of what you want from what your kids want. It can be painful watching them fail and failure is always possible. You have to let them sink or swim on their own. It’s not a choice. Kids grow up to be who they need to be. The best we can offer is support, to help them find and follow their own paths.

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Neighborhoods, Part 2

Continued from Neighborhoods

Other girls lived nearby but were not eligible to join our group. Tribal affiliation was accounted block by block. You belonged to the group of kids whose block you shared. Woe to he or she who lived on a block without other children of the same age and sex. The isolation would have been fearsome.

I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house but my own. I imagined that the lights were bright and cheerful in the other houses and there were no dark shadows, nor was there any sadness or pain anywhere but in my scary world.

In my world, the scream of a child in pain was an everyday background noise. It was the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Alf, please, the neighbors will hear!” as if the issue was really whether or not people knew what was going on. Did my mother believe if the neighbors didn’t hear the pandemonium, it didn’t count? Or if other people didn’t hear it, nothing had happened? Perhaps it was that she knew nothing else to say that might quiet my father, stop his rampage.

Meanwhile, across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a coma every night and the only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Down the street, in the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, an endless battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was slowly but surely crumbling around them. The house belonged to Liz’s grandmother who lived with them. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. No Nana, no house. In her lucid moments, she never failed to remind Liz’s dad that the entire family lived there on sufferance. Her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

What a lovely neighborhood I grew up in. There we were, living in our fine old homes shaded by the giant white oaks, our green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where it was safe to play stick ball or tag any time of day or night. Few cars came through our little enclave, so far off the beaten track were we. I’m sure that the very few travelers that happened through, probably lost and looking for some other neighborhood much better traveled, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses and huge properties. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s in black and white and a bit faded now. It shows the three of us … Karen, Liz, and me … sitting in Liz’s back yard. Liz looks very pretty and somehow very grown-up. Karen looks like the kid from the Campbell’s soup commercial, all dimples and freckles, carefree and happy. There I am. I’m the tiny one. I was always the smallest, a pipsqueak, looking just a little sad, not quite smiling. My mother had wrangled my hair into two pony tails that day to keep it out of my eyes and tied a ribbon on each clump of hair.

We envied one another and thought the other much better off. It would be many years before we discovered one another’s secrets and by then, we would be adults and it would be too late to give each other the comfort we had all needed as we grew up, sad and alone in our houses, so many years ago.

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

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