November 21, 2012

Gifts from My Mother

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It’s been a dispiriting November, but the sun managed to bogart the sky for a few days last week.  Long enough for me to remember another November, five years ago, when the sun shone in a cloudless sky for the entire month.  I remember it because I spent much of that month driving the I-5 corridor from Seattle to Olympia where my mother was in hospice.  Except for the brief dip into the Nisqually Valley, the stretch of road is like a long day after a sleepless night; but that November all my trips were enlivened by warm sun and the voice of Jane Monheit.

My mother died the day before Thanksgiving five years ago.  I’ve written at length about her craziness and its effect on me in 99 Girdles on the Wall ( which was published a year ago this month.  When I was in the process of editing the book, I visited my mother’s grave.  I had picked out roses for her head stone, by-passing the crosses and praying hands that she would surely have preferred.  She was Bulgarian, Bulgaria is famous for its attar of roses, and she left the choice of headstone up to me.

“I’ve written a tell-all about growing up with you,” I said to the grave.

Her voice floated into me, “You aren’t saying anything about menstruation, are you?”

By now my mother feels like one of those vacations that at the time was horrible but as the years go by, one starts remembering the beauty and the fun.  It’s safe to have the good memories now.

She was a remarkably talented woman.  Though she disparaged each ability as it came along, I know she found her accomplishments satisfying.  She had been an occupational therapist during World War II.  In those days OTs knew how to do things like ceramics, leather work, and weaving.  For the first eight years of my life, a bedroom in our house was set aside for my mother’s full size loom.  She once showed me how to put eyelets in leather and when I cleaned out the basement of her house I found stacks of ceramic molds.

On the domestic front she was a good cook, a gardener, a seamstress and needle worker.  She did it all: knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, crewel, quilting, dress-making.  If it could be bought, my mother tried to make it more economically: candles, Halloween costumes, underwear, greeting cards, ice cream.  Near the end of her life, she learned to paint in watercolors, showed some talent for it, and then decided she had more important things to do.  I think she enjoyed it too much.

Women in my mother’s generation tended to pursue domestic arts with the same determination they pursued dirt in their wall to wall carpeting. It was what you did if you were to be a respected middle class wife and mother.  The child of immigrants, my mother felt she had to work twice as hard to stay ahead of what she perceived as her own deficit.  So she did everything.

I shook off my own sense of inferiority at around my 18th year in therapy.  These days I thoroughly enjoy my particular cache of interests and I sometimes feel myself infused with the best of my mother’s energy.  It’s this legacy I am most grateful for.

My mother had moments that made me proud of her.  She was feisty and had a kind of instinctual common sense.  Always battling a sense of social inferiority, she once took on the Music Specialist in the Olympia school district.  My mother’s first grade class was learning a song that was clearly too high for them and the M.A. in Music wanted to ditch the piece altogether because transposing it down a few steps was too much trouble.   She tried to explain in pitying tones how complicated a process transposition was.

“But don’t you just move everything down the same degree for each note?”  My mother didn’t know much about music but she had, as I said, a stubborn sort of common sense.

“Well, Mary,” Mrs. Agnew looked down from her height of two music degrees and three instruments.  “It’s more complicated than that.”

“I don’t see why.” My mother said.

She asked me later, “Is it more complicated than that?”

“Not really,” I smiled. “You got it right.”

My mother did the transposition herself.  It was a Christmas song called “Gifts for the Child,” and I found a few copies of it in one of her piles of Billy Graham magazines and 8 x 10 glossies of the Nixon family.  It’s become part of my holiday ritual to sing it to myself, and to my mother, wherever she is.


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