This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014. My mother is 80 years old today. Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life. They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.
1) “TrustGod, but do your homework.” This quote she always attributed to her own mother. I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation. In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility. We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some. When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.
2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest. This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year. I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life. She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything. Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now. Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them. Recycle generously!
3) Gather experiences, not things. I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy. She wanted something to live, not something to dust. I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time.
photo by Josh
4) “Look wider still.” This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.” My mother loves this slogan. It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning. It’s a big world. Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.
5) “Only connect.” This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008. It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom. I just learned these references from Google. From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion. That I learned years ago.
6) Don’t disown your own. “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us. Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing. Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn. “We inter-are,” he says. The cosmos is held together in inter-being. Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe. Peace is understanding there is no duality.
photo by Josh
7) Let go; let God. My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety. She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death. So do I. Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture. Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”. That doesn’t mean she was good at it. It means she practiced. That’s inspiring.
8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously. Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison. Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example. Own your anger; it is about you. Talk about your anger to someone else. Then you are re-connected and at peace. It’s not magic; it’s useful.
9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence. The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive. They were secure and safe. If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place. I belong here. Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong.
10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing; God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things. Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting. Alone God sufficeth. ” Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow. Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door. It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something. All things are passing. This fear, this problem, this moment. Patience. Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well. I really believe that and strive to remember it. I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.
All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically. We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it! I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me. I look forward to more!
photo by Josh
May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!
For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher. Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me. Here’s a list of 10:
1) How to make a friend. My first friend was the boy who lived next door. He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd. I was only 4 when we moved. Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children. I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway. I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard. She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name. He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin. She asked him to repeat it, slower. With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I. I had my new friend!
2) How to take a break. My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation. I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii. My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced. We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps. By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken. I have been an avid napper ever since.
3) How to join a community. My mom was my first Girl Scout leader. She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way. I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence. It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us.
4) How to make a pie. This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions. Pie crust is tricky. It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to. You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively. At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”. That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan. She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it. Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process. Making a pie involves a lot of decisions. Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more. What and when do you delegate? When do you give up control? It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking.
5) How to iron…or not iron. My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life. He did not use Kleenex. They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them. He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing. We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control. I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school. When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform. My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now. Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it.
6) How to study. My mother and I have similar learning styles. We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song. The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device. This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music. Write it down; make it up. Works for us!
7) How to interview for a job. The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place. I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way. I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume. My mother lit a fire under me. We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director. The rest is history. I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding. It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind. I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it.
8) How to be appreciative. One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation. It’s a win-win activity. It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something. It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate. The trick is not to be shy. Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific. When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin. I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite. “Oh! It’s like Anadama bread!” She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon. She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now.
9) How to be tolerant and open. It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche. My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly. It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval. I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless. My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her. She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out. I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.
10) How to keep learning. Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic. I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day. I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies. She relates bits of fascination every time we talk. She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together. I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!
My mother’s birthday is but 2 days away now. I’ve told you a bit about her specific talents in music, cooking and parenting, but she also possesses a general talent for being organized and efficient. She is a Domestic Engineer, by her own reckoning. She comes by it honestly, for her much-admired father was a professional electrical engineer. Her administrative skills are well-developed and have been applied to a multitude of volunteer positions, from Girl Scout leader to chamber concert coordinator to clerk of the Vestry to museum archivist. She has raised money, written newsletters, cataloged artifacts, designed living and office space, kept detailed financial records, chronicled events, communicated, consulted, collaborated, and carried on for so many organizations that I could never recall them all. To my knowledge, she has not received any remuneration since graduating from college. Nevertheless, she is highly professional and knows how to get a job done. Because of her, my awareness of basic functional habits goes back to my early childhood. Here are 10 of her specific instructions.
1) Write it down. Whatever it is, a shopping list or a line of poetry, if you want to remember and refer to it, write it down. My mother’s tiny notes could be found in any number of spiral bound flip pads in our house. She’s not so untidy as to leave them on single Post-Its or envelopes. I now carry Moleskine pads in my hiking backpack because even on the trail, my thoughts are harmonized with the echo of my mother’s admonition: write it down.
2) Use double-entry bookkeeping for your finances. With numbers, it’s better to write it down twice. (Sorry, Mom. I stopped doing this a long time ago, and I also don’t balance my checkbook anymore. Online debit records are all I’ve got now. Don’t worry; it’ll do.)
3) Label it. Remember those label-making guns that punched letters one by one onto a plastic strip? That was a bit much for Mom, but her laundry marking pen, white cotton bias tape and adhesive tape were always on hand. With four girls in the house and summer camp every year, you can bet she was keen to keep everything straight. Even our dolls were marked at the nape of the neck with our initials. Why else would my doll be called ‘P Baby’?
4) Never go upstairs empty-handed. (You’d laugh, Mom, at how many times I have said this to Steve as he’s moving books up and down from the attic.) I went so far as to purchase stair baskets when I had 4 kids and a big house. Making every effort efficient was my mother’s goal, within the house and in the broad world. So…
5) Plan your errands well in advance. For most of their marriage, my parents shared one car. On the one or two days in the week when she had a vehicle, her route was specifically engineered to save time and gas. There was no “running out to pick up something” at odd times of the day. Everything — bank, library, dry-cleaners, grocery store, filling station, school, church office — was expertly orchestrated in one trip. I have internalized this mode. I do not “shop” or browse or dilly-dally when going to procure something. Even a Christmas tree. (ask Susan) This trait drives Steve nuts sometimes. It’s not spontaneous; it’s not in the moment; it’s not an interesting way to travel. I have to turn off the “get the job done” mentality deliberately when our purpose is experience.
6) Clip coupons and keep them organized. This is part of planning your errands and shopping trips. Mom’s library scissors were always in the center drawer of her desk. When Dad was done with reading the paper, she’d get to work. It’s a habit that can get out of hand, though. I always kept a card file box full of coupons, most of which had expired long ago, in my kitchen. Finally, when I moved, I pitched it, but not without hesitation. I now keep just a handful under a magnet on my fridge.
7) Waste not. This is deep in Mom’s blood and deep in mine, Scottish heritage and all. Keep those bones for soup stock. Keep that packing material for your next mailing. Keep those worn jeans for shorts and patches. And you can bet that with 4 girls, the youngest (me) was always in hand-me-downs! I think most Americans have lost this value long ago, much to the disadvantage of the planet.
8) Recycle. Mom was doing this before it was convenient. There was no curb-side recycling in the 60s, but along with her other errands, she’d visit the recycling center with paper sacks of old newspapers, boxes of aluminum cans, and glass bottles separated by color. There was no plastic recycling then.
9) Load your appliances correctly. Dishwashers and washing machines and dryers take lots of energy…your own as well as the power company’s. Learn to pack them well. My mother was always able to get more into the dishwasher after I’d loaded it. I’ve gone back to washing dishes by hand, but I’m always trying to figure out how to use less water and fit more on the drying rack. It’s a good practice.
10) Put the kitchen to bed before you retire. A clean kitchen in the morning is a lot nicer to wake up to. A clean house is nicer to come home to after a vacation. I think of the ending scenes in PBS programs like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and The Boston Pops concerts: the char woman cleaning up before the lights go out, and the stage is ready for the next installment. It gives me a very settled feeling to follow this example. Of course, tidy endings aren’t always attainable. That’s life. I do my best.
The birthday project continues. Yesterday’s was a rather heavy topic. I had to take a nap after writing it! So today, I’m offering Silly Sayings to lighten things up a bit. My mom was an English major in college and has always exhibited a droll, rather British wit. She loves word play and puns and arcane literary allusions. So here’s a list of some of her rather unique utterances. We’ll start with terminology and end up with occasional quips.
1) Zans. This is a kitchen gadget commonly known as a bottle opener, but thanks to Dr. Seuss, my mother refers to it as a Zans. “Have you a Zans for cans? You should!” (from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, of course)
2) Doo-hickey. This is a twist-tie for closing a plastic bag. She saves them in a little dish on top of the oven to re-use.
3) Cupeliar. It’s like peculiar, only more so.
4) Slip-go-down. This is any food that you can eat without making an effort to swallow it. It’s served when you are sick with a very sore throat. An alternative for brand-name gelatin, if you will.
5) Posbiculate. Otherwise known as brain-storming, logistic cogitating, or ‘work-shopping’, if you speak Biznish (that one’s mine; I came up with it when my IT husband would start using computer terms at home). How it’s used: my brother is now engaged, but there is no wedding date set yet. We’re still posbiculating.
From this sampling of terms, we now move into occasions.
6) The one great hour of swearing. This is when my mother feels an urgency to clean house. She swoops down on us in a flurry of instructions, frustrations, and activity making everyone uncomfortable…but only for a short time, because it’s all accomplished quickly and efficiently. Then she can say…
7) “It’s all a merciful blur.” I get this response a lot when I ask her to recall the details of how she managed something painfully emotional and/or difficult. She prefers to remain positive.
8) “I haven’t had this much fun since we nailed the baby to the floor!” Now, calm down. Mom’s not got a sadistic bone in her body. Picture this instead: a baby dressed like Swee’ Pea in a Popeye cartoon with a trailing nightie. Nail the nightie to the floor, and the baby will crawl forever and not get into any mischief. So, now you can!
9) “Enuff zis luff-makink. Let’s eat!” This is how Mom moves a gathering of chit-chatting guests into the dining room to actually sit down and begin the meal before it gets cold. I kid you not, she said this as we were standing around in the courtyard of the columbarium at my father’s memorial service, too. Dutifully, we all burst out laughing and headed in to the Parish Hall to start the reception.
10) “Here’s champagne for our real friends, and real pain for our sham friends!” This toast comes out periodically. She said it over the phone to me on Christmas just a few days ago. Now you’ve heard it just in time for New Year’s Eve, her birthday. I leave it up to you to quote…or not.
If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
Mom (photo credit: DKK)
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
Today is Day 3 of my mother’s Birthday Project. (Happy St. Stephen’s Day as well. “Come on over; we’ll celebrate getting stoned”…one of my mother’s quips.) On the docket are 10 musical memories. My mother began her formal music training at the age of 5 when she started piano lessons. To this day, she plays and sings for the residents of her senior community quite regularly.
Her musicianship far exceeds mine, even though I have a B.A. in Music/Voice Performance. She has an M.A. in Church Music. She can improvise at the piano in various keys as well as play the organ: pedal keyboard and two manuals at once. I am “keyboard proficient” and can play the pump organ at the museum…meaning, essentially, I can read piano music and ride a bicycle at the same time. NOT the same skill set. My favorite arrangement is her at the piano bench and me singing alongside.
photo credit DKK
So here are 10 more musical snapshots of my mother:
1) She is a young girl, her mother calls out proudly, “Anne Louise, play Clair de lune.” She rolls her eyes. Not again! Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her play it.
2) I am a young girl, a wee little kindergartener. Mom tucks me into the bottom bunk bed at night and sings, “Now the day is over/ night is drawing nigh/ shadows of the evening/ steal across the sky. Jesus gives the weary/calm and sweet repose/ with his tend’rest blessings/ may thine eyelids close.” She kisses my forehead. “Ni’ – night, d’good girl!” All is well. I hear her voice complete in my memory. Every note.
3) Mom is studying at Concordia Teacher’s College. She needs to do some organ practice, and I’m not in school. Perhaps I’m sick? So she takes me with her. The organ is enormous. The room is large and institutional. I sit beside her and watch. I am fascinated by the pedal keyboard. Mom lets me crawl around on it, picking out tunes. I play “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys, like I do on the piano. It booms out all over the room. This is great!!
4) I am about seven years old. I am the youngest member of our church choir which consists of my parents, my 3 older sisters, and a few others. I sit in the front row of the loft with the sopranos, leaning out to see the candles in the Christmas Eve procession. I am singing Midnight Mass with the adult choir, and I am going to stay awake through the whole service! How exciting to be allowed to sing out like an angel from up here instead of being stuck in the basement in the church nursery! Anthem’s over. That sure was fun! There’s a pile of coats in the corner of the pew….my, I’m feeling sleepy. I’ll just rest a bit before the next hymn…oh! What? We’re going home now? Did I miss the recessional? Drat!
5) I am about eleven years old. I’ve been taking piano lessons for 3 years. I practice before school every morning, while Mom washes the breakfast dishes in the kitchen. I am out in the living room, struggling away with a new piece. I hear Mom calling out from behind the swinging kitchen door, “It’s F-sharp, Priscilla! Look at your key signature.” I look. She’s right. How did she know that from the other room?! I am trying to play a piano reduction of Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli. I can’t get the stresses right to make the piece dance. It comes out stiff. I’m playing what’s written on the page, aren’t I? Mom comes in, “Think of it this way…try singing in your head… cot-tage cheee-eese, cot-tage cheee-eese…” Suddenly, it clicks! Oh, this is that piece from Fantasia with the hippos in tutus!! I’ve got it now! But cottage cheese? What made her think of that?!
6) My mother and my piano teacher, Mrs. Lerner from around the corner, are in a community choir called The Village Accents. They are giving a little concert at the Women’s Club in that Frank Lloyd Wright building in River Forest. The family must be in attendance. There they are, this bevvy of ladies in skirts made of green and blue polka dots on white fabric. Their shirts, and the piano, are chartreuse. Oh, Lord. This is embarrassing! (Can you guess I’m in Junior High? And it’s 1975?)
7) I am in High School. I am dating a guy whose mother was a concert pianist. He sings in the community college choir and has a great voice. My mother highly approves. She invites him over for dinner. Afterwards, she sits at the piano and pulls out some sheet music: Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are”. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great fit – the style, the sentiment, the voice. I am in romantic heaven. Months later, he invites me to one of his Jazz Choir concerts. “I have a surprise for you,” he says and puts a piece of paper in my hands. On the program, I see he has a solo. Yes, you can guess the song. He tells me he’s dedicating it to me. Yes, that was Jim, my husband for 24 years, until his death.
8) So I go off to college to study, um, music. I’m 400 miles away from home. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my mother and Jim have been singing in church together and have formed, along with some other church music colleagues, a group called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense). I’ve done an entire blog post on this memory in the past, titled “Christmas 1982” and you can read it here.
9) Finally, I am a junior in college. I have just been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. My grandmother purchased the gold PhiBet key as a gift to me, and I went to the awards banquet, alone. I’m told a bit later that I should come to the annual Senior Awards Ceremony in May, even though I’m not really a senior. Well, maybe I am. I have enough credits to be. I figure it’s related to the Phi Beta Kappa thing and tell my mother about it over the phone. “Just a bit of news, Mom. I know you have a 9-year-old at home to take care of, but there’s going to be this other ceremony…” That sunny morning in Southern California, I am seated in Balch Hall with the choir and all the senior women of Scripps, glowing with promise. It’s a beautifully festive day. I scan the crowd…and there’s my mother! What?! She came all the way down here for this little ceremony? The awards are given out. The next one sounds interesting: The Gladys Pattison Music award, given to “the most deserving student in the field of music for the purpose of enriching her music library”. Drum roll, please….yes! It’s me! I am surprised; I beam. Afterwards, I find my mother. She hands me a little gift. It’s a music box, wrapped in keyboard paper. I turn the handle and hear the opening notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Professor Lamkin, the choir master, joins us and suggests that we all go out to lunch…off campus. What a treat! I stare in amazement at Mom, who is not the spontaneous type. “How did you just up and take off to be here?” I ask. “Oh, honey. I’ve been planning this for weeks.” Oh. Well, that explains it.
10) And in closing, every medley eventually ends up with “My Buddy”. This is mom’s signature when she’s been at the piano a while. No matter what key she’s in, no matter where she’s been dabbling, she always figures out how to incorporate this theme. “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand, just long to know that you understand, my Buddy….my Buddy, your Buddy misses you.” I miss you, Mom. Thanks for all the music! I look forward to much more in the New Year!
How did people in the northern land of Wisconsin stay warm through those hard winters in the 19th century, without electric blankets, natural gas furnaces or radiators? Wood fires, wool, fur and the sauna…naturally.
10 Family Foods. 10 Fabulously Festive Family Foods! (Ah, ah, ah…*thunder and lightening*)
Is this a Muppet Count-down? No, not really. This is Day #2 of my mother’s birthday present. Yesterday’s post introduced the project and 10 Background Bits of my mother’s life. Today being Christmas Day, I want to tell you about my mother’s culinary talents. This is a day that we would spend feasting and in high spirits. Christmas Eve Mass having been accomplished and Mom’s choir commitment completed, she’d turn her attention to Christmas dinner. There’s so much I could write about, but I’ll keep it down to 10 things, and I’ll limit them to things that I have actually made myself. Except for this first item…
1) Fruitcake — You may shudder, but wait! My mother’s fruitcake is a triumph of dark, rum-and-brandy-soaked cake popping with candied fruits and savory nuts. The recipe is from Julia Child herself. Mom used to make it weeks ahead of Christmas in a huge, plastic tub (which later served as an infant bathtub for my baby brother), wrap it in cheesecloth, douse it with brandy and let it age. A dozen foil-wrapped parcels went out to the most appreciative friends and neighbors. Now my sister Sarah makes it, and if I’ve been good, I may get one in the mail this year, too. I have NEVER attempted this on my own. I doubt I could live up to the legacy.
2) Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook — Fannie and I have become good friends, and though my original copy is pretty trashed, I am partner to a bookseller and have a few new editions at my fingertips. Yes, I can make this…and have!
photo by Steve
3) Cran-orange relish — The recipe is on a postcard my mother sent to me when I moved back to the Midwest from California. It simply says, “1 bag cranberries, 2 navel oranges, 1 cup sugar. Grind and enjoy!” I should mention that I’m still using Grandma Marion’s food grinder from the 1940s. I’ll probably keep using it until that worn out cord and plug start a fire.
4) Pecan pie (and mince pie) — Again, from Fannie Farmer.
5) Lobster — When we lived in Massachusetts where I was born, Mom learned how to cook a live lobster. I didn’t end up cooking the first one on my own until we were living in California, and I was in college. My fiance Jim drove home from the fish market with the live lobster on his shoulder just to freak out passing motorists. I showed him how to hypnotize the lobster by holding it head down and stroking its tail. When it was limp, dropping it into the pot of boiling water (don’t forget a bit of Vermouth!) was a cinch.
6) Roast leg of lamb — Make slits in the outside and insert slivers of garlic cloves before putting it in the oven. I like rosemary and gravy more than mint sauce with it. I have a picture of myself one Christmas with a Lambchop puppet on my arm; we’re both looking aghast at the serving platter.
We can’t feast like Christmas all year long, so here are some samples of every day fare.
7) Soup — My mother kept a stock pot in her ‘fridge all week. On Wednesdays, when she’d be going out to choir practice, she’d make a batch of soup from leftovers and stock that we could eat ‘whenever’ and clean up without her supervision. To this day, she makes soup every week for the Food Pantry. Steve and I have dubbed her “Our Lady Of Perpetual Soup”.
8) Chili — The family recipe is pretty mild. Steve adds Tabasco and cheese and oyster crackers, and if I let him really indulge his Milwaukee roots, I’ll serve it on spaghetti noodles. Texas folk, please avert your eyes!
9) Chicken and rice — Basic dinner memories: the smell of onions and mushrooms sauteing in butter as the sun goes down. Add the chicken, rice and liquid to the same pot. Season with your favorite flavor combinations.
10) Brownies — Not from a box! Made by melting Baker’s chocolate and butter on a double boiler and adding it to the creamed butter and sugar. Then add the eggs and the flour and dry ingredients. Memorable mishaps: pouring hot, melted butter and chocolate into the creamed butter and sugar AFTER having added the eggs and watching bits of cooked scrambled eggs emerge. And my sister putting in half a cup of baking SODA instead of half a TEASPOON of baking POWDER. The brown, bubbly stuff spilling out of the pan and all over the oven resembled lava! Cool!
Tomorrow, for St. Stephen’s Day, 10 Musical Memories…
“My sainted mother” (as Gene Kelly used to say of his) is turning 80 on New Year’s Eve. She is a couple of thousand miles away in California; I am living in Milwaukee missing the sunshine of her warm personality. How shall I celebrate her life from this distance? I came upon an idea: post a blog entry every day from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve containing 10 things I appreciate about her. By her birthday, she will have read 80 reasons that I am so grateful for her long life.
I have decided to start out with “10 Background Bits”, pieces of factual information to set the stage for her “close up”. First, there is a family history for this kind of project. When my father turned 60, I presented him with a little typed booklet entitled “60 Memories of My Father”. The cover was made out of construction paper. It looked a bit like a school assignment for a 3rd grader, I admit. But it was made with love. My father ended up writing his own memoirs 8 years later in response to interview questions I sent him. 2 years after that, he began his mysterious journey into dementia and Alzheimer’s. For my mother’s 70th birthday, I wrote “!70 Foods 70!”, an anthology of food memories with pictures. (She is a fabulous gourmet cook.) My mother keeps that in a binder, each page engulfed in a separate plastic sheath. It looks a lot more professional than my first attempt. (She is also a museum archivist.) So this birthday project is one of a much-beloved series that has enriched me in the recollection and writing of it and, hopefully, enriched my parents in the receiving.
2) Time: Anne Louise was born December 31, 1934 – a blessed little tax deduction for her folks that year and their first child. My kids now know her as “Granne Louise”.
3) Place: Fair Lawn, New Jersey.
4) Mother: Marion Keeffe McFarland. A tiny spitfire of a personality, ambitious and shrewd, a capable survivor with a twinkle in her step. My mother and I both wore her long bridal veil when we were married. The secret she carried to her grave: she never got beyond the 8th grade in school.
5) Father: David Elmer McFarland, Jr. He was an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey. His stateside responsibilities kept him home during WWII, keeping the power running, managing 5 Victory Gardens, and being husband and father. My mother adored her father: he was the calming antidote to her mother’s small furies and mini dramas, a grounding presence with a refreshing sense of humor. I think I heard once that he played the piano at a nickelodeon… I believe it, anyway.
6) Her younger sister, Sandy. Actually, her name is Marion like her mother, but her nickname distinguishes her. Her blonde hair, petite frame and bubbly personality came back to my mother’s mind often when I was in her view, since I was the only blonde and the youngest of her 4 daughters. Sandy was much like her mother: tiny and very social. My mother was more like her father: lanky and cerebral.
7) My mother’s natural strengths: precocious and enduring intelligence, musical talent, organization.
8) Her natural weakness: her eyes. She was finally diagnosed with myopia and ambliopia at age 5, and wore an eye patch and glasses. Her walleye makes for poor depth perception, but it gives her the peripheral vision that kept me from sneaking anything past her…ever.
9) Growing up: my mother’s stories of growing up sound to me like echoes from an early TV sitcom — pin-setting at the bowling alley for a penny a pin to earn spending money, which was then spent at the movies, often for a double feature; learning to drive on a dirt road around the town’s water tower with her boyfriend, Duff; keeping statistics for the school baseball team and flirting with the players; trips to New York City every year, where her Aunt would buy her a new coat. Happy days, it would seem.
10) Becoming an adult: because she skipped a year of school and her birthday’s so late in the year, my mother headed off to college at the tender age of 16. And not just any college — Radcliffe College. Her mother had two goals for her: either meet a rich man and marry, or get a first rate education so that you can support yourself. My mother got both the man and the education. She graduated in May of 1955, earning a B. A. in English with her thesis on Jane Austen. She married George William Heigho (Harvard ’55) in September that same year.
For a writing class 3 years ago, I was prompted to write my parents’ wedding announcement. Mom, always a sharp editor, made sure I got it right:
Anne Louise McFarland and George William Heigho II were married September 3, 1955 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, New Jersey. The bride is a graduate of Radcliffe College, and the groom is a Harvard graduate. The couple met at the Canterbury Club on campus during their sophomore year. Mrs. Heigho is the daughter of Marion Keeffe and David Elmer McFarland, Jr. of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Her father is an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey. The groom is the son of Dorothy Lauver and William Stephens Heigho of Detroit, Michigan. His grandfather, George William Heigho I, was the president and CEO of Calvert Lithographing company. The couple will be sailing to England on the Nieuw Amsterdam for their honeymoon, returning in a month to their new home in Boston. Mr. Heigho will then begin work with IBM.”
This portion of the birthday project also serves as a traditional Christmas Eve ghost story. The spirits of my Grandpa, Grandma, and father are affectionately internalized in my mother now. I’m sure she holds many more as well – notably (to me) my sister and my husband. The lives of friends, family, entertainers, neighbors, writers, thinkers and even fictional characters seem to animate her with exuberant ideas of connection. Conversation with her is peppered with the anecdotes of a host of souls.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and that chapter of 80 Years in 8 Days is dedicated to “10 Family Foods”. My mother’s table is the holiday feast I dream of every year. While visions of it dance in my head, I wish you, Mom, and dear readers, a Good Night.