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.

 

 

Setting the vacation record straight, kid-style

This summer Mr. Bailey and I upped our travel quotient by triple from last summer, when our big trip was a long weekend camping excursion in the high country. As a family, we were focused on making fresh, fun memories to blow the stink out of the sadness-soaked highlights of the last two years.

Mr. Bailey and the children

Introducing Prima + Secondo to one of the greatest cities in the world. Little did we know they'd have a slightly different take... Photo by Mrs. Bailey

Our first trip took us to the Bay Area, always a go-to place for The Baileys pre-kid days. Now that Prima and Secondo are 8 and 4, we figured it was the first trip they had a chance at remembering. We budgeted to stay in the city, strategized about visiting some touristy San Fran spots, and planned to stroll, eat great meals, and createGolden Gatememories for our family.

About halfway through, as we rendezvoused with my brother who lives in the Bay, we were treated to a rapid-fire re-accounting of all the glorious highlights of our vacation so far – kid style.

“So, Uncle Benny, first, my Mom left her Nook on the airplane,” Prima began in her know-it-all-voice.

I groaned. No, no, no, these weren’t the memories I expected!

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Uncle Beeny, and we were on the train and she said, ‘Oh no, I forgot my Nook!’ And she started to cry,” Secondo chimes in, her voice going up an octave in excited urgency.

Oh, shoot, I thought, my forgetfulness is now the highlight of the trip.

“And then, Uncle Benny, we were walking along and we saw the Sparkle Guy!” Prima shouted, cutting off her sister. The Sparkle Guy is aSan Franciscoperformance artist/walking tourist trap who hangs out on the Pier clad in silver glitter from head to toe.

The Sparkle Guy in his getup. But some lucky little travelers got to see him between acts...

“But, but, but, then Uncle Beeny, later we saw him and we were walking to our hotel, and it was later, and, and – ” Secondo’s words couldn’t come fast enough.

“And he wasn’t wearing his mask and he was just riding his bike home on the side of the street!” Prima finished triumphantly, Secondo giggling hysterically. “And when we were on the bus to the hotel these guys started yelling at each other!”

“Prima,” I moaned, having forgotten that part of the trip entirely.

“And then, Uncle Beeny,” Secondo jumped in again, frenzy now in full swing, “we saw this old lady wearing these little shorts and walking and eating this HUGE peach, like chomp, chomp chomp!”

Sure that was funny at the time, but really? I thought.

“Then!” Prima battled back, “We were at the Pier and this girl made this old guy take her picture and he took off his gloves really slowly and took the picture and gave back the camera and then she looked at the picture and said, ‘Can you take it again? My hair was in my face!’” both girls laughed wildly.

OK, that was hilarious, I allowed.

Their uncle told them how impressed he was with their stories. It was silent for a moment or two as I recalibrated my expectations of what this trip would bring into their sweet little minds. But I couldn’t give up without a fight.

“We rode the cable cars,” I offered, “And ate in Chinatown and went to Ghirardelli and saw all the big ships, right?”

“Yeah,” said Prima, bored, “we did all that, too.”

Photo by Mrs. Bailey

Mr. Bailey, my brother and I burst out laughing.

Despite the months of planning, the savings account expense, the sacrifice on the part of my brother and his family to host us, and our focus on seeing the sights and making halcyon memories, the kid-version highlights boiled it all down to a mish-mash of discarded, humbling moments. At first it was discouraging. But then, it was delightful.

The kid-version, I realized, made hay out of chance encounters, stressful moments, mishaps and entertaining misfits. It cast bit players in starring roles and illustrated the humbling humanity in the parents they probably too often see as perfect.

Once I re-jiggered my thoughts, I was elated by the kid-version highlights, and asked the girls to recount them again and again. I laughed at their tales, rich with a child’s perspective, free of any pretense and goofily making dramas out of silly moments the four of us had shared.