Sunday, May 12, 2013

Before There Was Google, There Was Mom

On Mother's Day I'm ever thinking of my own mom and wishing she was near to me.

I can remember countless times that I would call on her for all manner of wisdom. In the way that people now Google for their answer I would turn and ask my mom (who always seemed to be right there):
  • Where is Antarctica?
  • How many cups are in a gallon?
  • How long will it take us to drive to St. Louis?
And with precise search engine optimization she would answer me correctly. When I left home the process changed ,but only slightly. I would dial up the phone number I'd memorized when I was in Kindergarten---seven digits with so many sevens all together. Nearly every time my mom would share that number with someone they would say: "That would be a great hand in poker." As a child, I had no idea what that meant but I liked knowing that the number was special. I already knew that since it was my pathway home. To that voice on the other end of the line who would say every single time she'd hear my voice, "Hi baby." For I was, and still am, the baby in the family of three kids. Soon thereafter I'd hear the answers to so many of my questions:
  • How do I you cook a roast?
  • Can I use a glass dish instead of a bundt pan for this cake?
  • How much milk do I put in to scramble eggs?
She'd answer me readily and encourage me that I couldn't go too wrong. To just give it a try and tell her how it worked out. I would do both. Give it a try and later tell her how it worked. Our relationship wasn't perfect as I'm reasonably sure none involving two humans ever is - but it was ours. It was close and comfortable, tried and true. She was proud of me. Liked who I'd become. Wanted to be near to me and was crazy about my kids.

Sometimes I'd call not to ask a question at all. I'd call and tell her that Emie had just learned to sit up and laughed heartily at the spinning hippo on her exersaucer. That her first word was baby -- baby! She wanted to hear it all. Every detail of the life of the child we'd all prayed years to meet. She couldn't have been more in love with her. More eager to know of what her days comprised. I loved knowing that there was someone besides Dirk who was as excited as I was about her little milestones. Someone else who truly went over the moon just to see the little pookie in her bumblebee-footed jammies. There's just no one like your own mother to adore your child.

I remember once when she was visiting us in Minnesota and Emie was just brand new. I was trying to get her on a schedule of sorts and Emie was altogether uninterested in this plan. Exhausted from weeks of interrupted sleep I asked my mom how I could do it. How I could forge a routine that would be both good for Emie and for us - one that would work. I'll never forget her answer, "You just do the best you can." It was the perfect answer. The answer that I needed as a new mom: imperfect is the new perfect. Do the best you can with what you know. And I would add to that the words of the great prophet Oprah, "When we know better, we do better." Every day we learn something from our mothering. We learn things that work that we want to keep doing and we learn things that don't that we want to leave behind us for good. And the next day comes with a chance to do better. I carry that nugget of wisdom from her to this day. Mostly I loved that I could dial her up to vent a bit about what challenged me or thrilled me and what I was hoping for on any given day.

But today if I dial up that winning poker hand combination number, I won't find her on the other end of the line. She isn't sitting there with her feet up on the hassock (as she always called the ottoman) reading Ladies Home Journal anymore. She isn't "Just about to run out to the hair dresser. Thank the Lord," on Saturday mornings. She is gone. Not gone-gone but gone all the same. She is across town from my childhood home in a neighboring city living in a cottage. It sounds lovely and indeed the furnishings inside don't vary from this moniker. Her room is filled with pretty decor. The dresser holds pictures of me and my siblings and all of their kids. Pictures of her and my dad who spent 50 years living under the same roof where the phone rang a lot from one of us three. The cottage is what they lovingly refer to as a Memory Care Facility. It sounds charming enough --a place where they care for your memories. And truly it is beautifully done with wonderful provisions and careful attention to details that make a place feel homey. But it is not home and they can't care for her memory any better than the man on the moon. They didn't live those memories. They know nothing about them. It is up to us who knew her then to care for them. It's up to us to treasure them and keep them safe and close and retell them to her as if they are new again.

I've been blessed with a very keen memory. I, of course, have nothing to do with it. It was a gift from my dad. He's always had the ability to tell a story from years past with razor sharp precision. At 75 today he can tell you the date that every significant event in our lives happened, what the weather was like, and who was there. I can do the same after a good night's sleep. Admittedly my recall isn't what it used to be and I'm not gonna lie, that does scare me more than a little. But for the most part I hold memories in great detail without much effort at all. I never knew before what a gift this was -- to be able to care for someone's memories because mine is well intact.

I can still reach out to my mom through my dad's cell phone but talking with her isn't the same anymore. It's not that it's a little different or a touch off. It bears no reflection to our conversations of days gone by. Her mind has gnarled and twisted into pathways no longer open to easy journey. She's plagued with disorientation and so often seems to forget that the phone is up to her ear at all. After a long silence, I'll ask, "Mom, are you still there?" when I already know the answer. And though the mother who raised me isn't there in the way I knew before she is still there on the phone as a shadow of herself. And I'll take it. I'll lean in and listen for something. For anything that sounds a little bit like her old self - even her old voice. Her once bold voice is now akin to a whisper making both the delivery and the content of our conversation as unfamiliar as talking to a stranger. But I won't stop leaning in to listen more closely. Pressing the phone closer to my ear. Recently when my dad handed her the phone she said, "Hi baby," with all of the strength and volume I've heard the whole of my life. And I could feel hope creeping up from my toes and starting to take flight. Was she in there? I reached out as if to capture it and asked how she was only to realize from her mismatched response that I had reached into a cloud, a vapor.

Her memory needs care as does mine. I want to remember. I want to recall not the times that we misunderstood one another but the times we loved one another so well. The times she laughed so hard that tears streamed down her face. I want to remember how she loved to entertain. The times that she threw amazing parties (some with more than 100 guests) and reveled in serving incredible fare all night long. How she used to love to choose innumerable treasures for our Easter baskets, filling them to overflowing each and every spring. How she cared about fashion and shoes and would let us choose cute outfits for school dances and first days of school without complaint. How she made each holiday a big celebration...even the minor ones like St. Patrick's Day. She'd make corned beef and cabbage and decorate the dining room green. We'd get to drink kiddie Grasshopper cocktails and stay up late. She loved loving us. Wow, what a gift. What a memory.

And so I am honored to hold my new position as keeper of her memories. I'm ever grateful that I'm not the only one with this job. There are many others who carefully keep them as well. Not the least of whom is my dad. Who'd have known those fifty odd years ago that one of his greatest strengths and gifts (his memory) would prove a treasury to her at this stage of life. How his ability to put the needs of others before his own and pour out again and again and again would fill her cup to overflowing. Bless her in ways she never could have imagined as a young spry girl in love all those years ago.

And so today I honor her for all that she was and all that she is. As dissimilar as our lives seem to be, we're no different actually. Both of our lives are but a vapor, a mist.

Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. - James 4:13-14

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