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.
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.”
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.