In Living Memory – How those we lost, sometimes live on in surprising ways.
I love grocery shopping! It's true. I love going through the aisles, finding the items I need and filling the cart, section by section. I love that feeling of leaning on the handle, lifting my feet a few inches off the ground, gliding, temporarily transforming a shopping cart into a go-cart. The aisle suddenly turns into a driving lane, the displays into obstacles, even if just for a few seconds at a time, before it all returns to a grocery store again. Perhaps my favourite part of the experience though, is finding a deal. Bulking up on something on sale is intoxicating, even when I don’t need the item. I take great pleasure in calculating the savings. It’s not because I am cheap, I wish. In reality, I spend too much and don’t pay enough attention to my spending. But I love finding that deal in the grocery store.
I love old crooners. I can listen to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas one hundred times and not tire of it. I love all the old Christmas movies or old Elvis films where people break into song for no reason. All of those musical movies from the 50s and 60s feel like a warm cozy blanket of goodness on a cold rainy day.
I buy lottery tickets but never check them. I slow down at every garage sale I see but never get out of the car. I don’t open up umbrellas or whistle indoors but I am not superstitious. I love seeing old women in excessively ornate clothing (bedazzled) and I smile, dopily, when a heavier set woman in polyester pants drives by me on a scooter. I feel like a kid who just saw Santa Claus. There is a feeling of such warmth and peace in my heart. They are all just so cute to me.
These things, these uncharacteristic and seemingly unrelated things, they ground me. They slow the world down just enough for me to get a handle on it. They connect one moment to the next. They are a constant, in a world of constant change.
When I lost my mother, I thought I had lost the ground from beneath my feet. I can close my eyes and transport myself right back to that moment in the hospital…when “the words” were spoken. I can relive that pocket of time as if I was there now. And sometimes, I do. There is really no way to describe it if you haven’t lived it. It’s like as if all the laws of physics were somehow broken. All truths you were certain of were lies. Like you are afraid to put your foot down to take a step because you are no longer sure there is anything solid beneath you and if you move at all, you might fall. Sounds bleak I know. But it does get better.
"I said the prayers and dedicated time each day to think of her in a very mindful way."
In the year that followed my mother’s passing I went to synagogue. I am not a religious Jew. In fact, I don’t observe at all outside of getting together with family on holidays. But I went to synagogue. First for Shloshim, a thirty-day period where they say the dead can still benefit from mitzvot (good acts or deeds), and in observance of Shloshim that meant saying a mourner’s prayer and learning about the Torah. I followed that with Shneim asa chodesh, 11 more months of going and saying the mourner’s prayer. The extra 11 months is something a child who loses a parent is supposed to do. Again, I am not religious and I can’t say I learned a lot about the Torah but I said the prayers and dedicated time each day to think of her in a very mindful way. Through this experience, this routine commitment to my mother’s spirit, I seem to have kept her with me in both a tactile and visceral way.
It also allayed much guilt. For all the ways in which I made my mother’s life more difficult, here was something, a sort of sacrifice (nothing compared to those she made) that I could do for her.
"This was when polyester simply meant cheap. I remember feeling embarrassed by it."
When I was 11, I remember my mother’s brown polyester pants. She had about 2-3 pair of these inexpensive polyester pants and as I think about it, many of her shirts were also polyester. This was before they could do magical things with polyester (I am not entirely sure what magical things they can do with it now, but I am told, on good authority, that they can). This was when polyester simply meant cheap. I remember feeling embarrassed by it. Little did I know that she only wore those pants because raising 3 kids on welfare meant that she wouldn’t be able to spend any money on herself. That the depression she would sink into would compound her life long battle with weight and that those ugly polyester flexible pants killed two birds with one stone. They cost so little and could stand some fluctuations in her weight without having to buy more. But at the time, as a kid who didn’t know any better, it was just embarrassing.
I remember how grocery shopping was something we all were involved with. I hated it at first (I can hear my own kids voices complaining about it now). But my mother, she made a game of it. Starting with reviewing the weekly flyers, we would work like Sherlock Holmes to find all the coupons and specials with the biggest discounts. Then, with the theme song from Mission Impossible in my head, we would divide into formation at the store and hunt down each item.
My particular specialty was being able to magically determine what was in a can with no labels. They would be reduced to clear and I mastered the art of shaking them and using the sound to determine their mysterious contents. Would we hit the jackpot with a Campbell Chunky Soup? Or would we get whammied with disgusting creamed corn? Ensuring we got the goods, was my job. And if there were limits on a particular special? No problem. My mother would give us each money and we would each take the limit to different cashiers. To think mere “per customer” limits could stop us from saving money!
I always felt like my mother’s favourite as once a week she would send me with the lottery papers, all her usual numbers filled in with a pencil, to go the store and buy the weekly tickets. They say lottery is a tax on the poor and I definitely get the reference but the occasional small wins (free tickets, 20 dollars, once I think we even one a few hundred), coupled with the chance of a big win, can really make you feel like there are better days ahead. Sometimes that’s all the difference.
I can’t really imagine what my mother must have gone through in her mind. I can be sure she never thought she would be alone in her 40s raising three kids on welfare in a city with hardly any family or friends. I often imagine that’s why she loved watching and re-watching all of those old movie musicals. Sure, we watched current shows and movies too, but my mother could never resist watching when any of these movie musicals were on TV. I think they reminded her of a better time when her whole life was a head of her and her dreams were still a possibility.
"Sitting in her chair, smiling, tapping her toes or hands to the music, singing each word..."
So we watched them all and many became annual traditions. Some of my best memories are lying on the living room floor on my stomach, elbows on the ground bent at 90 degrees, chin perched in the palms of my hands, knees also bent at 90 degrees with my feet in the air. Maybe my sister was beside me or my brother. But behind me, undoubtedly, was my mother. Sitting in her chair, smiling, tapping her toes or hands to the music, singing each word and often closing her eyes, as if to transport herself back to the first time she watched it. Those times were magic. That music is magic.
I could regale you with stories about my mother’s superstitions or how we stopped at every garage sale (I had the best board game collection of any kid I knew…at ten cents a piece) or how she would bedazzle and bejewel her clothes, picture frames, her phone case, her scooter and really anything she could (she bejeweled the TV remote), but I think you get the point.
In the next few years, after my 12 months of prayer, I would find myself driving home from work and wanting to call her, something I used to do often on the way home. Particularly when I had some good news to share. There was nothing in life quite like the feeling of her pride, which she showered on her children (and grandchildren) unreservedly. I would find myself missing her smile, her hugs, her smell and even those brown polyester pants.
I always thought I knew what my mother’s big influence on me was. She taught me love, compassion, kindness and giving. These are her legacy, no doubt, and will be passed on to my kids and theirs for generations to come. They are symbols of how she lives on. But right now, today and everyday in my life, she is very much alive in much more tangible way. In the last few years, I have come to realize that these strange, disconnected, uncharacteristic things that once puzzled or embarrassed me are more than quirky behaviors of mine. Each of them is a living memory of my mother. Each one keeps her alive. Each one keeps her with me.
So to all of you who are embarrassed by your parents or frustrated with the odd habits you seem to have inherited from them, don’t be upset with them. One day, those habits will be treasures you will cherish as much or more as the life lessons they taught you. They will keep your parents alive. Embrace them all.