I celebrated another birthday recently. And every year on that date, I have a special reason to remember my mother, Lily, who passed away from cancer when I was a very young wife and mother. It’s a special day for me because I was born on her birthday. And this year is especially poignant because I will be the same age that she was the year she passed away.
I can’t really relate to the stories I hear about the friction between some daughters and their mothers. The slamming of doors, the rolling of eyes and the outbursts are all so foreign to me. There were only two times in my life that I felt even the least bit of resistance toward my mother, and even those trivial challenges would become lessons that I learned and appreciated as I grew older.
Once, she practically had to tie me to a chair to teach me how to balance a checkbook. I grumbled. I groaned. “I hate math,” I groused. The second time was when I had come in from playing and showed her a seam that had ripped in my summery floral shirt that occurred during a scuffle I had with a neighborhood boy. (Hey, but at least I won). Seeking compassion, I whined to her, “Look what he did to my shirt!” She marched me toward a sewing machine, shoved me into a chair (again!) and said, “No, look what YOU did to your shirt. Now fix it.” Suprisingly, I ended up loving to sew after that incident. Both would be lessons in self-responsibility for which I’m thankful today.
But the laughter will always be my favorite memory. As a conservative Irish/Scottish Catholic woman, she was humble, strong in her faith, and exuded a meekness in her ladylike demeanor. But inside that tall, lanky redhead was a comedic streak that would burst forth when her devilish sidekick would appear. She was my Lucille Ball.
As a young girl barely able to see over the kitchen sink, I was always glued to her leg in the kitchen. I once stood on a kitchen chair watching her bake her infamous sourdough French bread. She aggressively punched the ball of dough on the flour-dusted counter while smirking and saying, “Here. Imagine this is your little brother’s head!” I screamed and giggled with delight. Sorry, bro.
When I got older, she and I would often sit in front of the television laughing uproariously as we poked fun of Julia Child’s breathless commentary and sledge-hammer attack of a raw chicken. Later, in the kitchen, my mother would impersonate Julia – not missing one intonation in her Queen Elizabeth-like accent. And once again, she and I would end up in one of those tear-producing laughing convulsions.
I once gasped with shock after asking my mother about a new woman who had moved in next door to us. My mother, rolling her eyes, quipped, “Oh, her? She thinks her own [bleep] doesn’t stink.” I would reply, “Mothhherr!” with my fake, stern admonishment as I tried to keep a straight face. My mother would purse her lips and cover them with her fingers as if to say, “My bad,” but the twinkle in her blue eyes spoke otherwise. I’m sure she said the rosary ten times that night in an attempt to save her soul.
It was those unanticipated, jaw-dropping moments that have stayed with me all of these years – moments that I resurrect when I’m in the worst of moods (something I rarely witnessed from her). But I am always aware of her presence when I feel a wisp of air tickle my neck as I’m cooking or putzing around the house.
And I try to live by her very practical, unspoken rules of life:
Never hold a grudge.
Don’t take life too seriously.
You don’t have a monopoly on problems. Do it, fix it, or shut it – and get over it.
Always try anything (well, food, at least) once. Then if you don’t like it, fine.
Be careful what you wish for.
And I will always remember a note she scribbled on a birthday card to me after suffering a stroke during her bout with cancer. In one of her therapy sessions to regain her writing ability, she grasped her pen, steadied her hand and scribbled, “You were always my favorite birthday gift.”
Back atcha, Lil.