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

Experience

Consume

Surrender

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.

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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.

 

 

Wherever you are…

I was just going to write a post that started out: “I am at the library.”

The post would have gone on to tell you all about how much you can learn about a person by

Modern Mary wants to go to there. Always.

finding out where their favorite places are. The library has always been a refuge of mine. Not necessarily this library, although it’s history in my life is rich, but any library, anywhere. And every library at every university I attended and every city I have lived in. The library to me is nearly church.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking out of the library with Prima, I told her, “Prima, no matter what you are going through in your life, no matter what you need, you can always go to the library.” I squeezed her hand extra tight when I said it, hoping to create a physical reminder of this gospel. I hope she holds that idea somewhere inside her heart forever.

But back to my post.

The post would have told you about my childhood, when my three brothers and I spent the early summers after we moved to Bedford Falls and did not know many people, driving in our powder blue Pontiac station wagon to wherever the public library’s Bookmobile was

“Get your books and get in the car! We going to the Bookmobile,” Modern Mary’s mom used to say.

stopping that day. Many lived miles from the main branch of the library at that point, so our growing city had settled on the Bookmobile as a suitable replacement to the brick and mortar.

I have vague images of the heat, our four little bodies sticking to the blue leather seats, windows down, wearing our mid-80s short running shorts, with the white stripes down the side, and our Snoopy T-shirts.

We would arrive at the Bookmobile, books clutched in dirty paws, and rush over. The big step up into the Bookmobile required a double-handed grab on the silver handles and a hoist from behind, willingly delivered with extra viciousness by one of my brothers.

And there was Dorcus. She was the Bookmobile lady and probably one of the first friends my Mom made in our new city. My mom made friends with everyone. That was just who

Dorcus was not this old. But in our childhood minds she was about 500.

she was. Of course she was on a first-name basis with Dorcus, and reprimanded us when we giggled at her name, sharing some sobering detail about her life, like how much Dorcus loved her grandchildren or that, did we realize, Dorcus’ husband had just had surgery.

The four of us would scatter around the Bookmobile, pulling out new books, returning old ones, leafing through illustrations to select more. My mom would talk to Dorcus, and get recommendations for the next book or 12 that deserved to land on her nightstand. I remember being amazed my mother could read those thick-as-Bibles books in just a week or two and then return them to Dorcus for a full discussion and request for another recommendation. To me it was a sign of ultimate grown-up lady-ness.

The Bookmobile was a refuge from the hot summer days, a way to unwind our constantly kid-wound minds, an old friend, and always a place that had the magical effect of bringing peace to our mother, who found herself in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by four young children only 6 years apart in age and a husband who constantly traveled.

They eventually did build a library branch closer to us and so the Bookmobile went away, as did Dorcus. (I know my mother kept in touch with her for awhile, once she moved to a proper librarian position. I remember my mom walking right up to the main desk and asking if Dorcus was there, which as a teenager was so supremely embarrassing.) Sometimes after school if my mom was delayed, she would call Mrs. Phoenix the chain-smoking, rod-thin and mean secretary and have her relay the message that the four of us should walk over to the library, and she would pick us up there. Mom knew we would be safe there, find distraction and comfort. We would play and get shushed, get lost in the stacks, panic and find each other in relief, and read stuff we knew we shouldn’t. It was all so thrilling.

My mother is gone now, but the library is still here. This place, above many others, seems to calm my spirit as it captures her essence in its cool quiet and the reassurance of all of those books, all knowledge and insight, and fun and adventure at my fingertips, an orderly anchor for my chaotic Modern Mary life. It feels like my mother’s embrace. It reads like her forgiving, commonsense caring approach to navigating life and relationships. It’s less heartbreaking and more heartwarming.

I was thinking all of this as I walked through those sliding glass doors from the warm day and was enveloped by the cool, bookish library smell. I was missing my mom so much the hole in my chest was gaping open a bit.

As I walked by the charity shop the library volunteers run, where they sell retired books, the first volume my eyes laid themselves on called out to me its title, “Wherever you are, my love will find you.”

So then, I decided to write about that.

Up, up, up goes Baby

This year Prima’s classroom teacher invited parents in once every week to be a guest reader in their classroom, reading favorite books that tied into that week’s lesson.

Prima was pumped at the prospect of her mother as the guest reader. (Mr. Bailey had earlier in the year brought down the house with his reading of Shel Silverstein’s A Giraffe and a Half.) Luckily for me, the writer, and sometime poet, I was slated to drop in during the classes’ poetry unit.

The night before, Prima and I leafed through books of our favorite poets and poetry. We marked our selections with bright orange scraps of paper. A bit nervous, I wanted to make sure what I was reading was on the level of my third-grade audience. My worst fear was my reading would be dull, babyish or boring.

Being rather protective parents, Mr. Bailey and I disavow kids programs on channels other than PBS, Justin Beiber fever, and subtly sexualized, childhood-infringing crazes being pitched to girls not even near the tween years. So when it comes to being babyish or mature we’d always prefer to err on the young side. The world will infringe on our little bubble soon enough, I always say. Except in front of my Prima’s third grade class, where babyish could certainly be warped to embarrassing or be used as a tool to tease Prima for her intense fondness for Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman instead of The Hunger Games.

That morning, I was dressed and ready on Prima’s early bird schedule. I hung out in the classroom during announcements and morning work and then found myself getting a touch nervous. When it was my turn, I headed to the front of the classroom, books in tow.

My nervousness melted away, poem by poem. Jeff Foxworthy’s Dirt on My Shirt book of silly poems went over well. Shel Silverstein killed and a couple of longer pieces from a poetry text pleased. I was wrapping it up when Prima, usually rather demure, shouted out.

“Mom! Read that one!” she said eagerly pointing to the textbook.

I thought I knew which one she meant – a silly poem about a baby going up, up, up in the air (presumably in a parent’s arms) and then coming down. It was in the first chapter, which was titled, “Here Comes Baby.”

“Huh?” I demurred, playing dumb.

“Mom, that one,” she insisted, coming of her desk, and finding the marked page, jabbing a chubby finger at it and nodding, her big brown eyes aglow.

“Really?” I said, back against whiteboard, my nervousness returning, my palms sweat intensely. I looked around at the 8 and 9-year-olds in the classroom.

“Yes, MOM!” she said, exasperated and returned to her seat.

Come on, Mrs. Bailey! Spit it out!

Twenty-five pairs of eyes bored into me.

“OK!” I said, probably a little too loud. “By request of Prima.”

“Look at Baby, Up, up up goes Baby,” I read, my animated voice scrolling through every tone, intonation and emphasis combination my brain could conjure in an attempt to somehow make the poem appropriately ironic or meta.

“Going up so high, Look, look, look at Baby,” I continued, “See my baby fly” Giggles. A few laughs.

Crap, I thought. I was right, they are laughing at my precious Prima! But one look at my audience showed good humored interest.

What? I clear my throat.

“Turn, turn, turn goes Baby. Spin my baby round.” More laughs.

“Down, down, down, goes Baby – right down to the ground.” Full-throated chortles of third-grade laughter greeted me. I looked up amazed, at Prima, who was sitting back in her chair, basking in the glow of the response she had knowingly created.

“That was funny!” someone said.

“Good one, Prima,” another child shouted out.

I was laughing, too, in relief, and in spite of all of my anxiety.

“Well, Prima,” I said, “You really know your audience.”

The teacher thanked me and even asked to borrow the poetry textbook.

As I left the class to its next subject, I felt elated, if not a bit stymied by this totally unanticipated turn of events.

The magic of parenting is about all of the things you can’t anticipate; mostly because you are so busy anticipating something else tragic or detrimental or silly. Its paybacks reside within that ephemeral place where you are protecting your child, best interests at heart, and they are simultaneously feeling confident and in control of their world and completely themselves. And, somehow, like a big gust of wind, all of that is all unfolding despite you.

But instead of stripping you of power, somehow it’s elating.

Those little slices of balanced bliss provide bewildering and glorious parenting highs. For me, the highs provide a sense that for all of my worry, my hours of preparation for the birthday party, or agonizing over the field trip or fretting through the play date, there is something bigger, grander in control, unfolding with ease. That Mr. Bailey and I, we might be on the right track, but that the track is just a track, grounded, human, and prone to error. But that what’s flying above us is what is making the magic happen.

Up, up, up…