She loves to tell the story of meeting my father. It was a Thursday night. They were introduced at a reception at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C. He invited her to have a drink after the reception. She says she went home that night and announced to someone or maybe nobody that she had just met the man she was going to marry. They had another date over the weekend. And on the following Monday he invited her to lunch at a French restaurant and asked her to marry him. Three dates in four days. They discussed a ring. They discussed the fact that her mother was not going to receive the news well. She didn’t. My grandmother chose to ignore the situation. They decided with my grandfather’s blessing to marry quietly. And then, just a few weeks before that was to happen, my grandmother sat down for breakfast one morning and asked my mother what sort of wedding she wanted. With just a few weeks to plan, options were limited. My mother wore an elegant knee length dress. They had a reception at home. In the end, my grandmother loved my father fiercely. It’s a good story.
She is from a tough as nails mother
And a father who adored her
From rations and black out curtains and long summers spent away from the city for fear of Polio
She’s from waste not want not
And clear your plate
And shake hands and look me in the eye
From you can do better more than you are a superstar
She’s from a brother on either side who each loved her fiercely in their own way
She is from sun worship not sunscreen
And dinners at the dining room table, though sometimes still in your bathing suit if it’s at the beach cottage and the inside temperature is too oppressive for anything else
She’s from birthdays with angel food cake and chocolate icecream
and day after birthday breakfasts with leftover cake
She is from fierce and independent and elegant and irreverent
She is from genes that I do not share, but she is mine.
From the moment I could understand words, maybe even before, she told me the story of my becoming. She told me that on a Thursday, several years into the journey of trying to start a family, she got a call. “You can pick up your baby girl on Tuesday,” she was told. On Friday her doctor told her she was expecting a baby. On Saturday my father returned from out of town business. She told him he was going to be a father. Twice. She told me he sat down in disbelief. She told me they’d dreamed for so long of having a family. That suddenly they might actually become a family of four. Or a childless couple. She told me they held their breath and prayed like hell. She told me all about that Tuesday. That the nuns placed four week old me in her arms and told my parents they had named me Mary Ellen. That I had round cheeks and soft curls of hair. That she and my father had no idea what to do with a baby. They’d had no time to prepare. That they stopped at the grocery store on the way home for provisions and that she waited in the car with me while my father went inside, hopelessly confused until a neighbor spotted him and helped him gather what he needed. That when they arrived home she called her mother, with whom her relationship was strained, to share the news, and her mother who had not been speaking to her declared, “Your father and I will be right over.” She told me my grandmother marched into the house, took me from her arms and told my mother she wasn’t holding me properly. She told me that from that day on, her mother was again speaking to her. She told me what she knew of my biological parents, which wasn’t much. She told me that she and my father chose Lisa for my first name and Siobhan to honor my Irish Catholic heritage. She told me I could ask questions though she might not have answers. She told me, over and over, how much she loved me from the moment she saw me. She tells me that still.
My goal this March has been to write as much as I could about one subject- trying different craft moves and structures while staying on the same topic. My subject has been my mom. Today I‘m returning to the familiar “Since last March,” structure.
She’d insist otherwise, but she’s a bit shorter now. Her shoulders, no longer strong and broad, take a little less space in the decades old sweater.
Since last March, her days are slower and more quiet, now without the Sunday concert series, seasonal lectures, occasional gatherings with friends, and monthly garden club meetings.
The old dog who is her constant companion is slower too since last March, and grayer, and more diminished. Their daily walks are short and she has to talk him into it. Sometimes I think she talks herself into it too.
She hasn’t seen her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews, her friends, or her hairdresser since last March.
She and I canceled a trip to New York, gave up tickets to Hamilton for one of the last shows before the city shut down, stayed in different houses when I went to visit her last summer, spent a quiet, careful Thanksgiving together, and both got our vaccines since last March.
Her home is filled with everything from the one before. And what she’s kept from my grandmother’s. Memories and stories in every room and all directions. The smaller-than-a-loveseat sofa where I curled up and slept on weekend afternoons while my dad, in a nearby chair watched football or golf on the small television. The refilled and recovered down comforter that still adds a layer of warmth to my bed each night when she turns the thermostat down. The Steinway whose Ivory keys are worn and slightly concave, where I spent thirty minutes a day practicing without enthusiasm until the instructor kindly informed my mother there was no hope. My parents’ wedding china, the cobalt faded, on which we still eat each night. The pink towels that used to seem large and be plush and hung in the bathroom my sister and I shared when we were small. A large, formal portrait of my grandmother. My father’s books. My great grandmother’s etched crystal glasses. The rug that was my grandmother’s, then my sister’s, that now covers part of the floor in the room where my mother spends most of her time. Throw pillows with intricate needlework made by my uncle’s mother-in-law. Drawers full of black-and-white phots of three generations back and files of newspaper clippings and letters written long ago. Stories and memories all around.
Each time I leave gets a little harder.
Each time I leave I wonder what might change before I see her again.
Each time I leave I wish I’d done more. Run one more errand, completed one more household chore, cooked one more meal for her to eat another day.
Each time I leave she tells me she is going to miss me and I scroll the calendar in my head to calculate how long it will be until I’m back.
Each time I leave she thanks me for coming, for helping, for keeping her company.
Each time I leave she stands in the door, usually still in her bathrobe, looking small, and a little sad.
Each time I leave a few tears roll down my cheeks as I pull out of her driveway, waving and hoping all she sees is my smile.
Over lamb chops, we talk about her obituary. Is there a better time? I’m not sure. We’d each had a glass of wine. It helped. I think. She’s very clear on a few things. The verb died. She forbids me from writing a post-mortem that includes the word “passed.” I’m in agreement. “Say I died,” she insists. “I will, of course, ” I respond. “It’s your obituary, so you get to choose,” I offer, and we both giggle. Sort of.
“No photo,”she declares, while buttering her bread.
“Ok, yes,” I say. There is no room for disagreement. And also I agree- those forty year old photos can be so jarring.
She raises her hand into the air and extends her thumb and pointer finger as if to measure something. “This,” she declares, “this is how much space in the newspaper you can have for my obituary.”
I try to concentrate on her fingers while fighting the tears that begin to pool at the corner of my eyes. I don’t want to miss the measurement and try quickly to make a mental estimate of the number of words and lines we might have to work with.
These are our conversations. Good. Hard. Real. Necessary. Onward.
If you’ve been reading my slices this March, you know I’m writing about my mom. So- this March I’m writing 31 things about her.
- Having outlived her siblings and my father and his sister, she is the matriarch of our family- on both her side and my father’s. She’s been one the next generation of our family calls not just to check in and see how she is, but for counsel too.
- She is not a morning person. And now that she’s 85, she isn’t a night owl either.
- Some months after my father died (almost 25 years ago) she sold his car and hers, bought a new Volvo wagon and declared that was the last car she would ever buy. She is still driving it.
- She still gardens a bit, but once upon a time she spent hours every day in the dirt. She grew beautiful roses, interesting perennials, and tended to her boxwoods diligently.
- She doesn’t eat lunch and rarely eats anything sweet.
- She loved to travel and showed my sister and me the world. We traveled with friends in a VW bus and stayed in cheap hotels and saw nearly all of France that way when I was 12.
- She has a rebellious, rule-breaking streak, even at 85. When I was 8 and our family was moving back to the U.S. from Cyprus, just 8 months after moving there, she decided to take my sister and me out of school and on a detour, for a month. That is when I learned to ski in Switzerland with a German instructor who spoke no English. I spoke no German.
- She failed out of college, intentionally. She graduated from a school she preferred.
- She puts lots of butter on her bread.
- Red is one of her favorite colors.
- She insisted I wear dresses or skirts to school until I was in 5th grade. I still remember the first time she let me wear pants and look like everyone else.
- She sits at her kitchen table every night for dinner.
- She was an accomplished sailor and owned a beautiful (small) sailboat until she was almost 80.
- She saves everything. I recently convinced her to throw out the stack of articles about our last president that she saved all during the longest four years ever. I’m still not sure why she was saving them- she was not a fan.
- She still owns a turntable listens to records- opera- full volume.
- When I was little it was Petula Clark, the Beatles, Bob Seger, and others. Also full volume.
- She wears my father’s sweaters. Still.
- She doesn’t and never did wear makeup except when she was going out in the evening.
- She loves almost anything that includes pistachios.
- She was never a baker, but once a year, at Christmas, she made cheesecakes for extended family.
- She was a good athlete and always beat me on the tennis court.
- She loves working crossword puzzles.
- She’s a good dancer.
- She reads the local newspaper every morning while she has two small cups of coffee. No sugar or cream.
- She wanted to go to law school and become an attorney but her father said no.
- She has to be convinced to drink water.
- She gives her beloved dog a spoonful of ice cream every evening.
- She writes letters to her Senator and members of Congress when she has things to say about local and state matters.
- She watches the news every evening but believes the tv should not be on during the day unless something of national consequence is happening.
- She’s never been a fan of sunscreen. Or modern day Hollywood stars. Or chewing gum.
- She believes in good manners and is not a fan of hugging people she hardly knows.
She mentioned to me this morning that she was nearly finished with the first dose of what her doctor prescribed. Since it included three refills, I suggested we drop it off while we went to do her errands and then pick it up on the way back home. “Okay,” she agreed.
The pharmacy was our first stop. Assuming this would be a simple transaction, I suggested she wait in the car while I speak to the pharmacist.
“That prescription can’t be refilled for 10 days. It’s only been two.” the man in the white coat informed me.
“Hm,” I said. “I’ll call her doctor and see what can be done because she is going to need more by tomorrow.”
I walked back to the car, told her there had been a little wrinkle- but it would be easy to figure out- and phoned her doctor immediately.
“We’ll send a new prescription over to the pharmacy,” the nurse told me when she returned to the call after I’d been on hold for five minutes while she investigated the matter.
During those five minutes my mom asked me several times what was going on and why was there a problem. And she suggested she could make do with what she had.
“Nope,” I said, “we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Once the nurse confirmed that things were in motion, my mom and I headed on to the grocery store, the hardware store, and her favorite readymade takeout meal spot a few towns over. Filling her freezer was on my to-do list today.
Two hours later, back at the pharmacy, I suggested again that she wait in the car, while I fetch her medicine. Two minutes after that I returned, empty handed, dialing the doctor’s number again.
“We can just go home and deal with this tomorrow,” she suggested as we neared ten minutes, sitting in the car in the parking lot, on hold this time while the receptionist and nurse engaged in another call with the pharmacy to figure out how to provide my mother with more medicine. I assumed insurance was snarling things up, but didn’t ask.
“Nope,” I said again. “Just take a few more minutes. I can come back tomorrow to pick it up but I want to be sure I don’t have to walk back in there to speak to the pharmacist directly.
“It’s very complicated. I’m sorry.” she murmered.
“Nope,” I replied. “We’ve nearly got it figured out.”
And we did. Together. And I wondered how this would have unfolded for her alone. Today I was here. Most days I’m not.
She sat down in the chair, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. That would have been okay if it was 4 pm, but it wasn’t. It was 11 in the morning.
“How are you feeling today?” I asked her.
“Well, not so great,” she admitted.
I asked her a few more questions and then suggested we call her doctor.
“Not today,” she replied.
I let her decision rest and quietly continued my work.
“Do you think I should see my doctor?” It sounded like a question that might be a statement.
“I do,” I said. “Why don’t I give the office a call, and see if he can see you this afternoon?”
“Okay, thank you,” she answered.
I picked up her landline phone while Googling the doctor’s office number on my cell and tried to swallow the lump in my throat and not think too much about how this moment might have unfolded if I hadn’t been here visiting her.