I couldn’t help think about my dead mother, as I spent too much time in the dentist’s chair today. She died ten years ago this month, unexpectedly. And while I didn’t expect this flashback during my semi-annual bloodletting, I thought about her because of her jaw. Her full-blooded German gene pool had yielded a full, wide face, large jaw, and room to spare, like an empty nester. Unfortunately, I had inherited the Austin Powers gene from my father’s side of the family — a small jaw, crowded teeth, and chronic tartar with a side of plaque — a gene pool that will eventually cover a dentist’s boat payments.
So, today, I’m a little pissed off at my mom for not making sure I got at the front of the dental gene line, and also a little bit for dying.
She was a stunning woman. She fell in love with a high-spirited man who looked like the country singer, Jerry Reed. Sadly, however, the love of her life was killed in the war. She transferred a few of her affections to the real Jerry Reed from then-on, although she had no fondness for country music. Jerry Reed just had a vibrance about him that took her back. But quickly, she’d turn her head away and move on, relentlessly stoic and terminally terrified, in her real life with my father.
The Greatest Generation was great, but it didn’t include either of my parents. I guess the generation couldn’t all be great, any more than we can all be famous royalty in our past lives. She had the makings of greatness, though, with looks and brains, and even a college education, which few women had in the 1940s. But no chance for greatness because of who she married, in spite of her own father’s wishes and those of all of her friends.
Simply put: She signed up.
She had one claim to fame: Man, could she cook. She didn’t seem interested in teaching me to cook, but when I came upon that interest on my own, as a teen watching The Galloping Gourmet after school, we shared it together. As the years went by and I struggled to develop my own cooking abilities, she was always on the edge of my life, to share an interesting recipe from the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine or to answer my questions about how she made her pie crust. Her only power as a person could be found in the kitchen. But that power also imprisoned her, since her life revolved around mandatory meal preparation for my father, whom I never saw cook or wash a dish. Old school, at its worst.
She was an introvert married to an introverted dictator. All friendships eventually dissolved, buoyed early on by her gracious manner and good cooking, but eventually destroyed by my father’s sarcasm and endless critique. Life grew lonelier, as it does when you are a spectator instead of a participant in life. The structure of a day, based on meal prep, the news, getting the mail, and going to the library, replaced enthusiasm, adventure, travel, and the unknown.
Oh, sure, they loved each other. Are you familiar with the Stockholm Syndrome?
Both of my parents were only children and then they just had me. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but my mother had “issues” that were never discussed (along with most other subjects like money, life, sex, relationships, career, you name it). When she lost a baby boy a few years after me, in childbirth, it was her dog, Misty, who saved her sanity, not my father.
I never understood my friends who adored their mothers above all others, and would go on about their virtues at camp when they were homesick. I had a perfectly nice mother, but she was not the kind of woman who inspired that level of adoration. Instead, my mother quietly taught by example, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Or so I thought.
She never told me that I could be anything I wanted to be…had that proven to be true for her? She didn’t hound me about the importance of having my own children…had that proven to be easy for her? She didn’t show me how to stand up to people by standing up to my father…had she ever done it? No on all counts.
When I was 38 years old, my parents came to house-sit for us while we lived out of the country for a year. Days before leaving the country, my mom and I went for a walk on their 45th wedding anniversary. And out of nowhere, like a flash flood, she proceeded to say the most honest thing I ever heard her say:
“You know, if I had killed him, I’d be getting out of jail about now.”
I was stunned. But I completely understood what she was saying. And I bet she had spent twenty years putting that sentence together just right. I’m now at the age she was when she said that.
My mom was an introspective woman, interested in self-improvement before the term ever existed. Often in the early mornings, before the predictable demands of her daily life set in, she stole time to read non-fiction, ponder, and dream. And while these moments helped her get by, she was still stuck in her own sad egg, unable to muster the courage to break through life’s shell. Even I can’t believe I just came up with that analogy, but it’s true.
When she died at 82 of a hospital-caused infection, there was no funeral. No eulogy. No nothing. My father never put up a picture of her or wanted her ashes. But he was utterly lost from that moment on, like Timmy in the bottom of the deepest well. And clinging to me, his only child, forcing me silently to make peace and do the right thing by him. This is when I hope there is something to karma.
This quiet, subservient, intelligent, ridiculously patient woman had left the planet before him. Oh, I bet that pissed him off big-time. She was finally free and I would wish her nothing less. Free of him; his is a eulogy for me to write another day, when I’m feeling far more generous and probably at least a little tipsy. Don’t hold your breath.
For years, she had filled spiral notebooks with “morning pages.” My father decided to start reading them after her death, in the same way that I hung her colorful bathrobe for a few years in my closet. I told him that reading the pages was a bad idea. He didn’t understand the purpose of morning pages and since he never allowed her to speak her mind when she was alive, why should he care about them now? He soon tossed the notebooks in the dumpster, along with the leftover pie he was too depressed to eat.
So, needless to say, I didn’t learn that I could be anything I wanted to be. I get a little cranky every time someone posts a list on Facebook of the 33 things you’re supposed to say to your children; I believe I only ever heard one of them. But she did teach me to love food and dogs, which have brought me lifelong joy.
In spite of how I was raised, I had somehow managed to break their mold and marry someone completely different: Someone extroverted, enthusiastic, and kind, with two young boys. Whether or not I wanted children was a fairly brief discussion after I met them. I just couldn’t picture having children that could top the two who would become my stepsons.
I learned how to cook, on my own, eventually. I too am known for getting up early in the morning, to feed my introverted side with occasional bouts of self-evaluation, like looking for clarity in a funhouse mirror. I got a good education and have had several careers. I know how to make money and buy a house. I can exist alone and be okay, if I have to.
And I gave her bathrobe away, eventually. It had somehow given me comfort, but eventually it just made me sad, the way that photos of Pompeii do. But I kept her large diamond ring, which had been her mother’s wedding ring. It was the one piece of jewelry she would never sell when money got tight, as it often did. I refuse to sell it too.
I rarely find myself saying things like “My mom always said…” or “My mom loved to…” But I find myself smiling when I see her handwritten recipe cards in her tin box of recipes which, no doubt, is older than I am. Instead, I find myself saying, “My mom would have loved this house…or this dog…or this meal.”
Even though she was not a role model, it turns out she taught me a lot. She showed me that giving yourself over to the wrong person can be soul-crushing. That depression can be a long-term condition. That being a spectator of life is a sad way to live. That a life can be mostly wasted, if you’re afraid to use your own compass. She taught me, mostly, how not to be.
Someone once told me that when you die, you die twice: Once, when your body dies, and a second time when no one ever thinks or speaks of you again, which seems much, much sadder.
So, my mother may have died, but she is not truly dead yet. She continues to be a spectator in my life from my bookcase of cookbooks and from the “inspiration corner” of my kitchen soffit, where her measuring cups and rolling pin eternally reside. As a woman of few words, I don’t hear her voice often. But when I do, I perk up and take notice, as if she’s telling me not to cross the street because there are cars coming.
A few months back, I had the opportunity to sign up for a culinary trip to Spain. I thought both Gary and I were going, but it didn’t turn out that way. I was torn. Should I do it or not? I’m not used to spending a big chunk of change on myself, for such an extravagance.
As I sat, late at night, sipping a wee dram of good single-malt scotch and trying to decide, my mother crossed my mind, suddenly. This woman of excessive moderation, long dead now, was paying me a visit.
I listened. She whispered in my ear, “Do it.”
A few minutes later, I signed up. Like she did, for my dad, but I signed up for life.
With another wee dram of Springbank by my side, after ten years, I finally have written her eulogy. I think she would have liked it.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.