3 Lessons From My Mom On Her 68th Birthday

Happy birthday to Modern Mary's mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

Happy birthday to Modern Mary’s mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

July 15, 1948 was the day my life became a possibility. It was a full 29 years before I was born.

It was in Youngstown, Ohio. It was the day my mother, Judith Elaine, was born.

I’m sad I don’t know much more about that day than the date. But I know enough about what came after.

I know that was the day the beautiful, creative, kind, intelligent and profoundly generous spirit who became a daughter, sister, wife, mother, cousin, friend, teacher, editor and volunteer was born.

Each year since her death, I do my best to honor her birthday. It’s a challenge because it’s a day mixed with joy and pain.

I bounce between internal reflections of her personal influence on me and external sharing about the values her life embodied and the lessons she taught us with her fully manifested Judy-ness.

My mom treasured three things above all others in her life (besides her family, which was at the top of her list). Embedded in her passion for these three things are many lessons for each of us.

They were:

  • Travel
  • Literature
  • Art

Travel was a full-body and soul experience for my mom. It gave my mother the chance to step outside her life, to traipse beyond the rigors of raising four children, working and keeping pace with her frenetic routine. It gave her the chance to breathe in the ambiance, the art and the literature of the places she roamed. It opened her mind, her soul and her heart to new possibilities. It gave her reprieve from her constant giving and allowed her to receive, to fill back up.

She was no tourist. She experienced the places she visited: rambling through shops for hours on end, purchasing huge, heavy objects de arte my Dad deemed impossible to get home, sat at cafes, read books by local authors, talked to servers and docents and desk clerks. More than that, she applied her imagination to the place. She mused over if she could live there, what her life would look like if she did, where she would shop, what the local flora was like and how the morning air felt on her skin.

In her 62 years, she did not have the travel footprint she wanted. There were so many places yet for her to experience.

Literature consumed my mom, it was a daily indulgence for her. She ate it up, and it fed her in a most glorious way. One of my most powerful images is of her sitting up in bed at night in her pajamas, with her glasses on, knees up, reading, a hot cup of Earl Grey tea gently steaming on the antique dresser that served as her bedside table. Most likely a tea cookie or two, which she stashed stealthily in cabinets we kids couldn’t get to, would be waiting next to her tea. This was her sacred space. This was the most zen Mom.

Words, books, were an escape, a constant revealer and a companion. She read everything, and was a lover of the word. She took large canvas totes of books to the beach with her every summer. She had a stack of at least 50 books on her bedside, next to her bedside, in her car, and under her bed. Selecting books to take on a trip was a challenge and required a trip to the library for just the right read. My mom knew how to release into a time and place invented or real, and she had an uncanny talent for finding just the right book at just the right time.

Her writing reflected this consumption. Although a great loss in her life was that she never viewed herself as a writer the way she rightfully should have. She wrote legendary letters and cards, brief but meaningful notes for her sleeping children in the summers before she left for her part-time job as an editor. She was a master linguist who also had the ability to infuse heartfelt directness in her written words.

Art was a place of surrender for my mom. Each city she visited included a surrender to the power of the local art museum. In her mid-life, even with four small children in school, and very little free time, she spent precious hours and days training to become a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum. All too soon, she had to resign for lack of time.

I will never forget our post-high school graduation trip to France, and the long, meandering daily trips to the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, the Georges Pompidou. We’d learn all we could about the artwork, the artists, the times in which they lived, and swap stories, wide-eyed in front of the masterpieces. We let our eyes and hearts be overcome by Gauguin’s lounging women and Monet’s Giverny bridges. We would dive in and ponder Dali’s off-kilter conglomerations of ideas and Picasso’s disjointed madonnas. Memories of those precious days feed me on days like today, as do the way my mom flung herself, headlong into the appreciation of the art.

She commissioned art from her friends who were artists. She bought sculpture or paintings or handcrafted items that spoke to her, regardless of where she was, how she would get them home, if my Dad liked them or not, and where they would go in their home. She explored her personality in art and let it be a reflection of her: quirky and joyful, dark and abstract, bright and bold.

She would have never admitted she was an artist, but she was. She took photographs, made elaborate cards, drew on hand-crafted wrapping paper, did amazingly intricate needlepoint, sewed clothing, and took drawing classes, calligraphy courses. She applied her artistic style to her amazing cooking talents as well – and once launched and ran a highly successful catering company for several years before resigning for lack of time.

Once a profoundly influential person you love leaves you, there’s abundant time for reflection upon their lives. I think about my mom and her life, every day. Each day, I’m extracting new lessons. I cast what I remember of the 34 years I spent with her in a variety of differing lights. I consider the angles that light casts, the shadows, the highlights, the mid-tones, and the dear, dear candlelight person she was to me.

Among many other sunbeams she cast, my mom’s life was a glowing illumination of full-fledged experience of travel, consumption of literature, the surrender to art. It is a recommendation to me (and each person she touched) to not just to go places or read things or look at art, but to




your passions. And do it now.

You will have disappointments, be short-changed and confront regret. But by in large, if you push yourself into your loves, the example you set by living your passions will create a legacy of living your loved ones simply will never forget.

I know I won’t.

Happy Birthday, my dearest Mom. I love you.


Two Novels, A Message + A Cardinal

I choose to believe nearly five years after her death, that my mother sends me gifts.IMG_2346

I have recovered from the soul-jarring break of her death. But my grief will never be over.

Like the general joy and contentment I face most days with, I also carry the grief of the loss of beautiful her with me in every breath, touch and big and little moment. I accept the joy so I must also accept and make friends with my grief. And I have.

Recently, my mom sent me two books.

They showed up suddenly near my front door, inside of my house.

I ignored them for a couple of days thinking someone – a friend or child or relative – would claim them soon enough. But no one did.

As the organizer and item resettler-in-chief, I eventually began asking about the books. “Whose are these? Where did they come from?” No one knew. Answers evaded. Finally, after several days, my dad stopped by.

“Did you bring me these books?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They must be yours.”

He said the second thing so definitively I stopped my already formulated protests.

“OK,” I relented.

I resettled the two seemingly frivolous novels to the top of a bookcase where they were mostly out of sight. There they stayed for a rest, as I silently wondered over the mystery of their appearance and took a decidedly dismissive stance.

“I was not,” I thought to myself in my most haughty internal tone, “reading frivolous chick lit fiction as of late. I was reading philosophy, business strategy, meaty non-fiction and neurological research. These two novels – apparently a series,” I’d have liked to spit out that word “– were not for me.”

Eventually, I begrudgingly moved the novels to my bedroom. Then to my bedside table stacks, which are considerable, where they were lost in the towers of titles.

Finally, one night when Mr. Bailey was away, bored and tired of the narcissism of nonfiction, I lie in bed and found myself staring directly at the binding of the first. I picked it up.

The first few chapters were entertaining, mildly engaging. But I read on.

It wasn’t until I sat on a long plane flight to a favorite destination that the heart of the story, which was really many stories knitted delicately together, unfolded something inside of me that made me realize the books were from my mom.

It was more than one story, more than one chapter, more than one character.

It was – above all else – the tone of the fiction, the spirit of the writing, the lilt of the prose. It was the delicate description of grinding grief, the honest portrayal of marriage, of love lost and wrenched away and found and chosen. It was the ache of trying to move on, to move out and to make magic. And, it was the stirred senses evoked in all of these things.

It was the sort of book my mother would have read and passed on to me. It was the sort of fiction she’d read in a night or two and then tucked into my purse as I bundled babies into car seats after we’d stopped by for dinner.

It was like one of the hundreds of books we read together in our short life-overlap and shared our thoughts about.

All of these precious pieces (the book, the memories of our life together, the fact that I had recently been traveling more, which was draining, thrilling and wearing) were a reminder to me from my mom – to suck the marrow out of life, to stop and see life’s bold and precise beauty, to bathe in it, to be sure to own and stir my own spirit, so my soul would be satiated, stilled and soothed. It was, I knew, my mom’s advice coming to me in her most treasured venue – a well-crafted book.

I wept, in my window seat, high above this earth. As I flew I felt the always and elusive near-far presence of my mother, in each damp-eyed blink.

When I arrived, I rushed to my accommodations, booked last minute and in haste, the novel’s scenes resting in the curve of my mind between my reading cove and my memory cubby. As I read the directions from my phone and opened the gate of my rented cottage, making my way through a wild, lush spring garden, a red cardinal perched on a branch ahead of me.

It hopped branch to branch and stayed, as I stared — a ruby reminder of my mother, and of her mother, and another precious gift to me.



Reviled or reveled? My mom’s mushroom barley soup

My mother ate like a bird.

Her favorite lunch was cottage cheese and red pepper, with a side of Ryvita crackers.soup+pot

Her aviary-like diet was the subject of much gentle teasing by those who loved her.

While she had the ability to cook a five-course gourmet meal or an Italian feast for 20, when we were growing up, she would often opt for a huge vat of homemade soup or chili.

One of her favorite soups was mushroom barley.

Mushroom barley soup was a lightning rod in our house. Some of us hated it, some of us loved it, and some of us thought it didn’t much qualify as a meal. But my mother loved it.

Usually focused on pleasing the masses, when it came to this broth-based delicacy, she refused to eliminate it from her repertoire.

Despite the variant complaints and rabid discussions about what constituted a filling four squares (“Not mushroom barley soup!” my little brother roared) she routinely boiled and brewed up the hearty concoction.

I remember her vivaciously answering, her hazel green eyes glowing, “Mushroom barley soup!” when asked what was for dinner.

She reveled in eating it – and could stretch it out into several lunches and mid-afternoon snacks.

While I liked MBS at first, it lost some of its luster for me as her fervor for making it grew.

I was ambivalent about it at best, when its popularity finally began to plummet.


Always a family with a culture focused around food (blame our Italian-American roots), when my mom stopped cooking due to her illness, an intangible significant something was lost. Some part of our family fiber was broken. After she died, I was nearly inconsolable until I had her recipe books in my possession.

Oddly, the recipe for mushroom barley soup was missing. She must have committed it cleanly to memory.

Like so many, my mother’s cooking holds a powerful place in my heart-mind-belly. I miss it like the salty broth of chicken noodle soup after your fever breaks and you think, “I may recover after all” and you’re finally, blessedly, ravenously hungry again.

But she sends little reminders my way.

Recently, during a day jam-packed with meetings and measurements, calls and conferences, I fled for food.

It wasn’t too cool out yet, and my throat was fine, but I longed for soup. And for a respite from the break-neck pace of the stop-start-stop pace of my life, which had lately been presenting me with tough choices, hard conversations and a requirement for a conscious commitment to optimism.

After making two phone calls on the way, and feeling my frazzled nerves buzz between the vertebrae of my back, I found my way into a local café that usually proffered a few different varieties of soup.

Hoping for a hearty vegetarian option, I looked at the menu board to behold, “Mushroom barley soup.”

Thanks, Mom.

The Battle of the Tween

Once I locked my chocolate eyes on the dark round version of my Prima’s, I became filled with certainty of the connection we shared. I cannot forget the long first days, weeks and sleepless nights we shared trying to figure one another out.

She was wild and sweet, with a million distinct and curling dark brown eyelashes I knew by heart by day two.eyelash closeup

She knew me immediately and wanted me, and wanted me to know she was brave and centered and tuned into everything I felt. I knew because I felt everything she did, too.

There was never any emotional pretense between us.

Recently, Prima did something I had been expecting – she grew into a young lady. Or a grown girl. Not sure which, yet, but somewhere in between.

It happened gradually at first and Mr. Bailey and I expressed our nervousness with gentle teasing, whispered conversations and calm anticipation.

Then one morning our baby girl woke up and she was no longer little. At all. She became a pre-teen over night.

I was prepared.

Turns out, my mental preparation was crap. The pre-teen years are an emotional ambush. Mentally prepare all you want – it’s not really going to help you. Once you’ve been summoned to the battlefield you better be wearing emotional body armor and have a damn good backup plan. Or three.

In the wake of one moonrise and set, Prima was completely embarrassed by me, wanted me to disappear, needed my total attention and sage advice and seethed loathing at me.

And that was only the first morning.

Hurtled into the fighting, I felt woefully inadequate. It all seemed familiar and yet so foreign. It all made sense (I had been a pre-teen girl once, too) and it made absolutely no sense at all.

I screwed up my courage and got through the first few skirmishes with only a few minor injuries, with Mr. Bailey running the occasional air cover sortie.

'It's a twelve year old whiskey.' (I want more pocket moneyI'm boredI hate you.)

‘It’s a twelve year old whiskey.’ (I want more pocket moneyI’m boredI hate you.)

Once things seemed to stabilize for Prima, I retreated to my foxhole and completely lost my shit. How was I ever going to get through this? Just what were the rules of engagement? How was I supposed to be equal parts confidante, enemy, friend, mom, sex ed advisor, and understanding listener while avoiding any major, life-changing screw ups? Far from ever considering myself a perfect mom, I sensed the real risk of truly messing up like a looming offensive ground maneuver.

It reminded me of overcoming some of those early parenthood stages – night feedings and toilet training – only to find yourself smack in the middle of more – the biting stage and night terrors!

Parenting Prima hadn’t felt like that in quite awhile. Third, fourth and fifth grades had been pretty happy and smooth. She was confident, independent and fun to be around. And she liked us. She liked me a lot. She even told me once her friends thought I was cool!

But that time was gone.

Feeling the absence of my mom, I reached out to a friend for advice. Sobbing my woes to her over the phone in crackling voice, she heard me out. “What if I don’t get this right?!” I gulped.

“But you will,” she said.

“How? Why?”

“Two things: because your heart is in the right place, and you’re trying to do the right thing and you truly love her. And because you are Judy’s daughter and you learned from the best. You didn’t always think your mom was perfect or that she did right by you, but she set a wonderful example for you, and that’s what you’re doing for Prima. Let all that love guide you.”

Oh. So. That was pretty good advice.

A couple days later, Prima started liking me again – at least in the privacy of our home.

I soaked it in, knowing what a cunning opponent she could be – and snuck into her room that night to count her eyelashes.

Pretty, Peas: 3 Kid Summer Survival Strategies

Our version of Bedford Falls enjoys beautiful, long and mild springs. Here spring fever is an alluring bedfellow and we bask in it.

But then our spring tires of us, becomes crabby and transforms into a vengeful summer.

Summer here is h-o-t.

For our grown up residents who tend to be tucked into climate controlled offices, our main coping strategy is complaining about said heat. This works pretty well, as our preheating oven is always a reliable topic of discussion and allows for a mutually agreed upon and non-threatening airing of collective grievances.

But my children have different strategies for summer survival. These techniques may be bewildering, but they are also endearing and so delightfully creative they are very worth sharing.Summer time brings out the creativity in kids.

Strategy 1: Denial (aka ‘Heat, what heat?’)

From an early age, Prima and Secondo were masters of denial, particularly when it came to things they simply did not care to do. Think: helping to clean up the Legos strewn all over the playroom floor, brush their teeth, do their math homework and comb their knotty bird’s nest hair. This strategy is mainly manifested in temporary and selective hearing impairment.

However, when it comes to sweat season, they employ it in a new way: “Mom, it’s not too hot, let’s go swimming!” “Mom, it’s not too hot, let’s pile in the car and drive across town to the mall!”

Modern Mary typically believes it is, actually, too hot, as walking into the mall my Havianas melt sickly onto the asphalt. Furthermore, I have somewhat limited interest in sitting in triple-digit heat while they cavort for hours in double-digit warm pool water.

Modern Mary in all her summer glory. Not.

Modern Mary in all her summer glory. Not.

And yet. This is a effective strategy as it plays on that sweet spot for all kids — mother’s guilt — to help them achieve just what it is they want.

Strategy 2: The Freezer (aka ‘My personal air conditioner’)

If you are a parent with a freezer you have walked into your kitchen during warm weather only to find your child either: wedged halfway in and halfway out of the freezer, curled up next to the door or: standing with the door swung wide enough to welcome a herd of elephants, their face jammed between frozen corn and fish sticks, breathing in the cool.

I certainly have.

When loudly and resoundingly scolded, both my little darlings have turned to look at me with looks of complete bewilderment. Then their rosebud lips form the words, “But, I’m hot” in such a duh-implied-matter-of-fact tone it makes me dizzy.

But being as good at consistent scolding as Mr. Bailey and I are, Secondo has come up with a more agreeable approach to freezer (aka personal AC unit) management.

She recently walked into the kitchen with the tired, pale pink and slowly disintegrating blanket she’s had since she was a baby (its name, in case you were wondering is “Pretty”) and proceeded to shove it into the freezer, slam the door shut and walk out.

Sitting at the counter during this display, I turned to Mr. Bailey and inquired.

“Oh,” he said, without lifting his eyes from his phone, “she puts her Pretty in the freezer now. Then she takes it out and cuddles with it. She says it helps cool her down. It’s kind of brilliant, actually.”

I had to smile, impressed. And award big points for creativity.

It surely saves energy.

Freezers before electricity. This would not compute for Prima + Secondo, babes of the 21st century.

Plus, it never fails to bust my guts when I open the freezer to defrost a salmon filet and find a lonely baby blanket shoved between the Popsicles and chicken breasts.

Strategy 3: Can we freeze it?

In addition to the Pretty (which doesn’t actually freeze), Prima and Secondo spend the summer months conducting any number of experiments loosely titled, “Can we freeze it?”

Half eaten sundaes, oranges, mangos, melon, chocolate milk, strawberries crushed in milk, melted ice cream, and nearly finished smoothies are the usual suspects. But they’ve also been known to freeze glasses of water, trays of water, cookie sheets of water, spoons of water, soda pop, water bottles, tea pots of water, orange juice, lemonade, iced tea, snow from last winter once half defrosted, and mysterious liquid concoctions of their own devising.

I discover most of these experiments as murky puddles slowly but stubbornly sinking into the wood of our butcher block island.

But it makes a hot July day cooped up in the house go by, so there’s that upside.

(By the way, their fave frozen item is and will always be frozen green grapes. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.)

Whatever their strategy, their adaptable and creative minds inspire me to endure the last month of summer with hopeful aplomb.

And reach past the Pretty for the peas.





Family Dance Party in a Hopeless Place (Love)

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Three years ago my entire family gathered in the wake of my mother’s death for a full family reunion.

That equates to my father, our beloved patriarch, four couples, and eight children, most under the age of 13. It’s a lot of people.

We stayed just two hours from home and rented hotel rooms in the mountain town my family spends a lot of time in.

There was wiffle ball and swimming and meeting up at the hot tub in the evenings. There were hikes and flower collecting and late night movie watching and a couple of very nice meals out.

There was a bit of friction, as there is likely to be when you gather that many related people in one place for several days.

But by far, the highlight of the trip for me was the night we held a talent show.

The talent show was the idea of my then 13-year-old niece, the eldest of the brood. When she first suggested it, I groaned inwardly. In the wake of my mother’s death, just getting everyone together seemed challenging enough. Planning something relatively organized that required all parties (my niece and my ever-eager daughters insisted all must participate) to do perform honestly seemed at worst impossible and at best sickly unpalatable.

And yet.

How do you deny a 13-year-old with an idea to bring her family together? Answer: you don’t.

Hand-drawn fliers were created immediately and distributed by doe-eyed girls eager for a smile and unbridled enthusiasm in return. Prima and my niece amazingly uncovered a clipboard and went around signing people up for the talent show. Like their overachieving parents before them, they were focused on 100% participation.

Soon, instead of reticent retreats, there began to be a bit of a buzz about what everyone was going to do – would my super athlete sis-in-law run a mini boot camp? My youngest nephew had an Adele song prepared. What would I do?

Mid-week, the evening of the talent show arrived and we gathered in the family room of our mountain house to take in the festivities.

Stories were told, songs were song, back-breaking exercises were attempted, and poems recited. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a thing of relieved, pure beauty. After a year under the afghan of grief, it seemed as if we were all, collectively, able to have fun again.

And then, the best thing happened.joyous dancing on beach

Someone had an iPhone, and someone put on music and a dance party began.

The next thing I know, our broken and rebuilding, hurt and hopeful, soulful and silly herd of a recovering family was dancing like maniacs to the persistent syncopation and perfection of that year’s biggest song.

As Rihanna crooned, “I found love in a hopeless place,” I jumped along with the herd, as high as I could, as long as I could and with as much gusto as I could. I screamed the lyric. My legs burned and my lungs ached. And my soul caught fire. And I sobbed.

For despite the despair of loss, in spite of what our mother’s death had broken in each of us and for all of us, we managed, in all of our neediness and selfishness and willfulness, to find love – and joy, and hope (that bastard) — and we managed to dance.


The spirit of the traveling gypsy

Mr. Bailey and I recently took Prima and Secondo on a summer vacation.mom on vacation

We like to call these trips “adventures,” and we describe them that way to the girls.

The two rules we repeat on these adventures with our young brood: “Be flexible” and “Don’t tease.”

(These twin gems of gentle admonishments were given to my family by a dear friend decades ago when he, his wife and his two high-spirited and very bright sons were visiting our family over Thanksgiving. They became family mantras that day and have served us well each trip since.)

Prima and Secondo are good travelers. At the tender age of 11, Prima has traveled to three foreign countries and Secondo to two. (We took Prima overseas before she turned 1, a fact which irritates the slightly competitive Secondo to no end.) They’ve endured delayed flights, mad dashes through the terminal to catch flights, in-flight medical emergencies, unexpected snowstorms, emergency landings and surprise overnights in hotels – all with little drama. Through travel, Secondo has tackled her fear of escalators (mostly) and Prima her fear of the unknown. They both relish the rental car pick-up and return and are only slightly phased when I squawk irritatingly at Mr. Bailey for ignoring my directions. (In Mr. Bailey’s defense, taking detours and turning blindly down interesting roads is what he enjoys most about traveling. I enjoy getting there.)

This last trip involved several days with my youngest brother and his family. Each of my brothers reside in fantastic cities to visit; we are spoiled our regular destinations read like a where’s where of places to drop anchor.

My late mother, a gypsy soul with an endless desire to roam and uncover, to dine and discover (local bistros and needlepoint shops and art galleries and quaint and charming sights) loved that about her progeny. She groomed us for it, in fact. She repeatedly told us growing up she expected us to live in four interesting cities so she and my father could spend three months in each locale in their retirement years, rotating through.

She began enacting this routine years before she hit retirement age – that prescient nymph. She would swing around the globe, sometimes with my father in tow, sometimes without – stopping in on each child and city, and exploring, then sprinkling her love for each place like she watered each of us as we grew.

Since she died three years ago, in each town I’ve visited since, my brothers or sisters-in-law always point out her favorite spots.

“Oh, your mom loved this little shop,” my sister-in-law told me on my most recent visit. “I’m not exactly sure why, it’s a bit odd. But see all those handmade cards? She used to love to go look at them and talk to the guy who owned the store.”

On visits to other towns, my sisters-in-law or brothers would say, “This was the needlepoint store mom always came to.”

Or, “Mom would walk down here every morning for a coffee and to read and then she’d walk home.”

For them, each memory shared elicits on a faraway look that’s part homage, part devastation, part longing and part joy.

For me, as each memory is shared I see my mother’s familiar gait, bounding down a narrow street or busy village path. I watch her walk into the sweet shop with her slouchy shoulder bag or her bulky red wallet and a book tucked under her arm, wearing her thick woven ivory sweater and jeans. (She was always cold.)

My chest fills with a sense of the sublime pleasure she experienced as she found and revisited all the special nooks of the places the four pieces of her heart called home.

The memory breaks me and sustains me all at once. I feel like I have become the channel of her spirit as I step through those shop or café doors.

I am infused with joy to be her channel. Then as naturally and quickly as that sentiment rises, I am suddenly and miserably struck with a renewed sense of loss, and I’m missing her so much my chest is a knot of pain.

I live in the town where we were raised, so I don’t have the same memories each of my brothers and sisters have of my mom, in her most joyful rendition, traveling, exploring.

I can’t go into her hometown needlepoint shop, which has since closed – perhaps for lack of her patronage. It still hurts to visit her favorite lunch spot. I would not dare set foot into either of the two tea shops I hosted her biggest – and last – birthday parties in.

But when I travel to new places, I always bring her along. If I have an hour or so to myself, she and I walk the beach or the boardwalk or I find an independent bookstore and buy something only she would encourage me to purchase (a book of poems or yet another journal). I place her memory in the city I visit, in the lake house we stay in, and let her roam around a bit.

And when we head home, I leave a piece of her where we’ve been – to make up for me staying close to home and to keep her beautiful gypsy spirit alive.