–For Debby, my Favorite Seester, who said, “Why don’t you write something funny?”
Our mothers…the very mention of the word can bring a chill of dread to our hearts, yet there is probably no one else we have ever loved more passionately, even though our mothers all possess the supernatural power of being able to effortlessly find and push every single button of irritation in our repertory.
My mother Helen died back in 2004 at the age of 72 from a medical accident that left her mostly paralyzed for the remaining 2 ½ months of her life. She was one of the most stubbornly unique and unconditionally loving women I have ever known. And I know some world-class women. God, I miss her.
Last night, my sister Debby was laughing at my description of the nearly three weeks of relentless unseasonable rain we’ve been having in CA and suggested that I write a humorous blog about it. In a tone of high umbrage, I superciliously informed her that I only wanted to write blogs that had meaning for others and “helped to alleviate some of the suffering in this world.” Oh, brother! (Cringe, cringe) Then I found a reason to end the conversation.
But today I found myself remembering how often our mother made us laugh.
For example, when I was living in Manhattan, my mom used to come and visit me every couple of years. Because she was an amateur artist I would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Brooklyn Museum. (We always tried to look at the Rodin sculptures. But it was always raining, our shoes were filled with water, and the Rodin gallery was always closed for repairs.)
One day we were meandering about Soho, walking in and out of the art galleries there. We walked into a place where, leaning against the walls in the front room, we saw large, dirty white and grey, outstandingly hideous fabric sculptures that looked like old cement blocks left over from an earthquake in Bangladesh. Every time we went into a new gallery, I would detach myself from my mother and slink off embarrassed into another room because, of course, I was a sophisticated New Yorker and she was from a small town and, therefore, didn’t know shit from shinola.
When I came back into the front room of the gallery fifteen minutes later, my mother had befriended the museum curator and they were rhapsodizing about Sven’s sculptures. Yes, that really was his name and he really was from Sweden. My mother clutched my arm and said in a voice of high tragedy, “I can’t believe it. We just missed Sven.” She and the curator, who were now friends for life, went on talking about the beauty of his art and bemoaning Sven’s absence. And I began to get an inkling that perhaps my mother had a few chromosomes floating around in her DNA that caused her to see the world just a little bit differently than I did.
A few months later when I was visiting Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, she confirmed this for me. We were driving along the highway and I was looking out the window at the damp, bare, really ugly trees along the road, wishing I’d come to visit in October instead when the foliage was in full display. My mother said, “Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than the colors of those tree trunks? The shades of brown are too many to name.” I thought, “Look harder, Joy. Look harder.”
In some ways there was no filter between my mother’s mind and the things she experienced, and certainly no censorship between the way she perceived things and the way she described them. My sister and I would laugh until we choked when our mom described dramatic human bodily functions such as, well, throwing up. “First it came out this weird shade of green, and then it became this kind of slimy yellow-brown stuff that hung from my lips in strings. There were these maroon things floating in the toilet that looked like the ham sandwich I’d had for dinner two days ago. There were also these long skinny pink things. I don’t know what they were. I just hope they weren’t tape worms.” Talk about learning more than you really wanted to know about a subject. My sister and I still try to top each other in describing disgusting bodily functions or road kill. It makes me heave with giggles just to think about it.
But the point is, that woman could see in a way that few people can, a way that I try to emulate any time I think of our mother while I’m walking along the ocean or find myself in nature. It makes me feel closer to her, now that she’s gone. In the months following her death, I used to look at the sunsets above the ocean and see the most unrealistically shaped and stunning cloud patterns. I’d expected beautifully colored sunsets, since my mother always claimed that her artist father “painted the sunsets” for weeks after he died. And I can still remember that heart-wrenching pallet of glory, even though I was only eight years old at the time.
However, as I walked along the beach that spring, it was as if I could hear her voice saying to me, “Anyone can appreciate a sunset. It takes a real eye to appreciate the clouds.” Clouds have become my study now too.
I won’t go into the phone conversations we had where we pretended to report the daily conversations we overheard our cats having with one another. “How’s your furh? Did you lick your furh today?” “How’s your furh.” “I licked my furh. I’m going to lick it again.” Obviously, cats don’t have much on their minds. They’re not like Gary Larson’s cows who stand up on their hind legs in the barn, smoking cigars and drinking brandy out of snifters, talking about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity until the cow on watch yells, “Farmer coming!” At which point they get back down on all fours and say, “Mooooo, moooo.”
My mother liked to read supernatural horror novels. She was always telling me the plots and trying to lend them to me. Again, I recoiled in supercilious horror at the thought of allowing my mind to be soiled by a book with a title like Menopausal Demon Vampires at the Hellmouth of Poughkeepsie. But she also read books like Angela’s Ashes, Cold Mountain, and Snow Falling On Cedars. Now I like to touch the pages where her hands have been.
No human being in the history of our lives will ever be the grab bag of humor, silliness, extreme irritation (like the time my mother told me to “Say thank you to Mrs. O’Donnell” when I was 35 years old), and indescribable love that our mothers are.
My mom was on dialysis the last couple of years of her life and had very high blood pressure. She wasn’t supposed to eat anything salty, but she would often sneak a ham sandwich from the local sandwich shop, the one that secretly delivered them to her door after my sister had left for the night. My sister and I would have a fit each time we found out about this—and she almost always left the evidence sitting in a plastic container in the refrigerator.
However, as my mom lay frightened in the hospital, a couple of days away from her death, I held her hand, telling her every day, “Don’t worry, Mom. When you get to Heaven, St. Peter will be there waiting for you at the Pearly Gates. And the first thing he’ll do after he says, “Welcome Home, Sweet Helen” will be to hand you a salty ham sandwich.”
I’m sure she enjoyed it.