Remembering my glamorous Mom on Mother’s Day

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom. Even in a kiddie pool, she was glamourous.

In response to Maria Shriver’s question, “What gift did your mom give you?” I must answer, INTUITION and EMPATHY.

I lost my mom six years ago, but since I’ve been working on my memoir over the last four years, we’ve had daily conversations with her (no, I’m not crazy. I talk with the mom who lives in my head, along with all my other characters, real or imagined).

In my everyday life, I find myself saying words in ways she had said them, her voice coming from my lips.  She’s an integral part of my life, existing in my head and my heart, as well as in all the things around me that once belonged to her. I especially feel her radiance when I do things that would have made her proud, like becoming a writer in order to share my family’s adventures.

In addition to empathy, she taught me grace under fire and a confidence to respond to change and tragedy.  We had plenty of both, first with moving, (20 times that I remember by the time I graduated from high school) and then when we lost both my brothers (at ages 49 and 56).  Mom was the last to leave this world, lingering for years after a massive bleeding brain hemorrhage.  Even in her disabled state, with difficulty walking and talking, she made sure the kitchen was clean and the laundry was done.  She was a perfectionist when it came to having a beautiful home and stayed in her home until her last breath.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18.  This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18. This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.


My mom exuded beauty. She was often asked to walk the runway for charity fashion events.  Heads would turn in any room she entered, not only from her looks, but from her zest for life, an enthusiasm that she radiated.

Mom loved people. She loved to hear their stories.  Strangers would reveal their deepest secrets and be healed by her empathy and compassion.  She never judged nor said an ill word about anyone in all of her days.

Mom knew how to laugh and when she laughed, we all laughed with her.  She’d be goofy, not worrying about how she appeared as long as it made people happy.  I learned late in life that she was smarter than she let on. She once explained that it helped the men in her life feel important. She never needed to compete, always turning any spotlight on her toward their talents and ideas.

“I don’t have to express my opinion,” she would say. “I know what I believe and that’s all I need.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  They can have their opinion and I have mine.”

Scan 12

Mom didn’t age. She just grew more vibrant. We were mistaken for sisters even after she turned fifty.

Her courage surprised me. Mom was in her late fifties when she managed a large apartment complex in LA. At the request of  the police, she helped capture drug dealers, nonchalantly handing over packages that had arrived in the mail and landed on her desk with detectives waiting in the next room to make the arrest. Mom was thrilled to help put away anyone who might involve her college-student residents in their illicit drug business.  She was telling me the story of her latest caper while the two of us were having dinner out one night. Afterward, she and I were walking from my car toward the elevator in the secure garage under her apartment building when she saw a shadow of a man lurking in the back.  Without a thought for her own safety, she pushed me behind her and charged forward, yelling, “You’d better get out of here before I call the police.  This is MY PLACE and I won’t let you harm anyone.” My mouth dropped open as I saw the figure disappear out a back exit. I’d never seen my mother so fierce.  She became a mother bear protecting her cub.

She was the ultimate mother, willing to help any needy person she came across. But she always put her children first, especially her only daughter–me.  I was her pride and joy, she would say. I was glad she was able to attend both my college graduations, first in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I received my BA when I was thirty-seven, then again at UCLA for my MFA three years later.  A college education was something she was never given the opportunity to earn, working from the day she graduated high school.

She’d wanted to be an actress, but having children kept her from having the chance to appear on Broadway.  She did garnish a leading role in several amateur productions, but for me, Mom was aways playing the role of a lifetime. Life was her stage, and she was always at her best, dressed to the nines, perfect hair and makeup, full of humor and wisdom.

I feel her with me everyday, especially when I toss back my head in laughter, like she used to do. When I’m unsure of where life might be leading me, I trust in myself and in all the wisdom she bestowed on me, confident that everything will work out somehow, just like she always said it would.

 

MOM AND ME

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom has been on my mind a lot lately.  I lost her in 2007 from a stroke.  She worked most of her life, and loved working despite the struggle of raising three kids at the same time. She kept house and cooked after coming home from work, often finishing the dishes after all of us had gone to bed.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t help her very much.  I gave up offering because she said it was easier for her to do it herself.  I think, now, as I reflect back, that she was trying to make my life easier than she had growing up.

In my memoir, DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS, I tell about when Mom reveals to me that she learned to drive when she was pregnant with me.  She managed with my two brothers, then four and five, without a car. Back in those days, she often rode the bus like in the picture above.  She was eighteen and on her way to her first job in downtown Detroit to sell ladies shoes in a department store, a job she was proud to have because of the independence it gave her.  I learned another secret about my birth that day, but I’ll let you read that in the book when it’s released. (No date yet.)

There is still much I  don’t know about my mom. She was good at keeping secrets.  I plan on pumping every last memory from my Aunt Dee as soon as we can get together.  I do know that Mom was a strong woman, from a line of strong women, and that I continue in the spirit of that lineage.  At the same time, she was fragile–a fact she worked hard to disguise.

Perhaps Mom was vulnerable to any criticism because she never knew her biological father. She was born from love, but out of wedlock in the Milwaukee Home for Unwed Mothers, a place that I think was connected to the Salvation Army.  I didn’t learn that piece of family history until I was twenty-four when a drunk driver hit the car Mom was driving head-on, hospitalizing her and killing her mother. Even after I learned the truth, she wouldn’t talk about her her origins unless I greased the wheels of her memory with a few glasses of wine.

In addition to her unresolved youth, Mom married two complex men–first my father for twenty-four years and then another brilliant but troubled German for thirty-seven years. Both men drank what they called socially, but was much more than would now be acceptable.  Despite the difficulties it brought her, she resigned herself to her life because she felt it was something over which she had no control.

She was a beautiful, red-haired woman who worked hard every day of her life and was at her best in her role as caretaker, balancing everyone’s needs. She sometimes struggled with too many balls in the air in her attempt to please everyone, but she managed to charm and smile her way through the troubled times.  When asked how she coped, she would say, “It doesn’t help anyone if I just mope around.  So I make lemonade out of lemons. That’s just life.”

In her later years, she could say almost anything and make me laugh.  Always kind and compassionate, she took the time to listen to any troubled soul that passed through her life, lending encouragement and words of wisdom. I still hear her voice whispered out of the ether, guiding me everyday, about all things big and small. I honor all the gifts she gave me, but mostly the way she raised me to be fiercely independent.

Many times, we’d be visiting my grandparents for a holiday or summer visit and I would hear Grandma question Mom’s leniency with me.  Mom would say, “I’m giving her her head,” as if I was a horse that was allowed to run free. As a latchkey kid, I did roam free, often coming home at night only to eat and sleep, preparing to take off for a new adventure the following day.  No wonder I’ve loved being with horses all my life.  Their spirit matches my own.

When Mom was busy working or entertaining with Dad, I spent my time with my imaginary horses. They kept me company, running with me in open fields and along edges of Michigan lakes or in the Arizona desert.

My horses are not imaginary any more.  Although I’ve lost all of my family, I have my three four-legged beauties that live in the field just beyond my front porch.  Just looking out at them brings me joy like my mother did when she smiled and laughed.  It is the small things in life that make it truly rich.

What brings you joy on an ordinary day?

Do you have a love of horses? Or a childhood memory triggered by a picture?

Please leave a comment and I will answer.  I love a good conversation. I learned that from my mother, too.

 

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.

Women in the Second Half of Life

Girls Running With Horses: a watercolor from my Ft. Wayne, Indiana art school days.

Today, I’m finally taking a break from my writing, poking my head above ground to see what’s been happening while I’ve been hiding on the farm working.  I’ve missed bopping into town to visit my friends (which I will do tonight at the Spring Artscene in Rockford Illinois to see the opening of Roni Golan at the gallery at Emmanuel), surfing Facebook, the Twitter-sphere, and of course my favorite blogs.  This morning, Lynne Spreen at her Any Shiny Thing blog triggered a slew of conflicting thoughts. It was about women in the second half of life, staying on the hamster track (turning wheel) or taking it easy.

Am I retired? I guess you could say that, although I don’t think of myself that way. Yes, I’m collecting Social Security, to help pay the bills until I can sell my first book.  Travel, yes. Putz in my garden, yes. Read for days on end, yes. Kick up my feet in a silent house and just muse about anything and everything, yes.  But retired? Never.  At 63, I’m just getting started.

Maybe, you’ll say, I’m a late bloomer.  Actually, I do most things backward.  The only kids I raised were two twelve-year-olds starting about ten years after I went through menopause.  I didn’t settle down until I was 45.  Not by choice, but by circumstance.  I moved 50 times before that, but not since.  I still hope I never have to move again.

I am a proud, card-carrying feminist.  I believe in girl power–have since I was ten when I protected all the other girls on the playground from the taunts and harassments of the boys by kicking the offenders in the ankle with my pointy flats.  I was the tallest in the class and they were terrified of me.  I still sometimes terrify some men–thank god not my husband–but those who fear powerful women.

Now, a bit about women and power.  Yes it’s nice to have corporate power, though I never had that.  I ran a not-for-profit and several of my own one-person-dog-and-pony-show businesses.  But I was never in charge of a lot of people. Well, except when I just took charge, which I have a tendency to do, because I’m a visionary and an organizer and well, I guess I just think I know what to do when everyone else seems to be hesitating.

I’m not usually quite this upfront with my pushiness, but hey, I’m leaning in.  Anyway, at 63, I guess I care less about how many people like me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still care.  I just care a bit less.

Financial power is the piece I’m still hoping to achieve.  The power to do what I want, when I want, help who I want, travel where I want.  That sort of thing.  That’s the power I can get down with.  Freedom from at least that worry–for at least a while.  I’ve learned nothing lasts forever, and sometimes not for very long.  So I enjoy it while I can.

About other women and retirement, I have two things to say.  First, do what feels right for you.  Everyone is different.  Sure we have commonalities.  And it’s fun to discuss all the pros and cons.  But in the end, its our decision, our choice.  Follow your gut and don’t be so damn hard on yourself! (I’m talking to me as much as anyone else.  That inner critic is the toughest voice to silence.) Secondly, if you only help one person with what you’re doing in the second half of life, you’ve made a difference, and probably in a way that no one else on earth could have done.  So Ladies, do what feels good.  Rest, play, work.  If it’s the right kind of work, if feels like play anyway.  Just be sure to get eight hours sleep every night (or at least most nights) and eat an apple a day.  That way you’ll have lots of years to change your mind and continue the debate and squeeze it all in.

And thanks, Lynn for giving me the idea to vent on one of my favorite topics–women.

If you have a different viewpoint, or just more of the same, I’d love to hear it.  Leave a comment and I’ll respond as quick as I can.  I still have a few pages to finish on my YA.