One day, somewhere around the tender age of 11, I came sobbing to my mother. I was broken. I couldn’t take what was being done to me anymore. I needed someone to fix the mess I was in. Through heaves and wails I explained to my mother that my sister was blackmailing me because she caught me looking at an issue of Playgirl hidden in our other sister’s bedroom. I went on to explain that I could no longer take her demands for round the clock cereal delivery or her forcing me out of the “good” recliner every time she entered the living room.
“Don’t worry. Don’t say a word to her and absolutely don’t do another thing she asks of you.”
It wasn’t fifteen minutes later when my sister entered the room and barked, “Get me a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, slave.”
To this day, no other no has ever been so satisfying.
Immediately, she turned to my mother and said, “Christine looked at a Playgirl!”
And that was that. Weeks of torment over with the utterance of two one syllable words, but the only one syllable word that mattered was mom’s.
It is hard to believe as I sit here, at the age of 43, that I have lived far longer without my mother than with her. Breast cancer took her from me when I was 16. I can still close my eyes and see her shrunken, yellowed body curled up in the fetal position and barely clinging to life in the ICU. My sister, the same sister that blackmailed me a few years earlier, and I were at her bedside. She was receiving Last Rites from a priest whose words were so thickly accented they were unintelligible. My sister and I kept catching each other’s gaze desperate to know if the other understood what he was saying. That was neither the first nor the last time laughter and tears commingled in tough spots in my life.
Mom was born in a certain era where ladies stayed home and cared for their families, always putting themselves last and never daring to complain about it. It was something she excelled at, to her own detriment. Mom never knew what an amazing woman she really was.
Having been well educated in her younger years, mom spoke fluent French and had a college degree back when women didn’t do that sort of thing. Mom was astoundingly well read and had young me convinced that she could make us millionaires if only she would try out to be a contestant on Jeopardy!. She insisted she was too shy and would never be able to come up with the questions if she wasn’t in the comfort of her own living room.
With 6 rowdy children and a curmudgeon for a husband, I was always amazed at the meals she could prepare with no budget or comments from the peanut gallery. We were fed such treats as boeuf bourguignon and paella, but there were always fish sticks on Lenten Fridays, all of which have remained my favorites. I could kick myself for never getting her recipe for that curried rice dish I loved so much, but that’s the thing about moms, we never imagine that one day we’ll be without them.
Her Catholic faith was solemn, never showy. I can still see her now, kneeling in a pew after Mass, silently praying to a god that I didn’t understand, but that seemed to give her so much comfort. I wonder what she prayed for, about. Those are things she never would have shared. Mom never preached, that would only have sullied her sacred and private relationship with God.
When I was going through years of treatment for my desmoid tumor I would look in the mirror and see my mother’s face looking back at me. I would simultaneously feel the need for her to nurture me and be proud of my strength, especially when I felt very weak. I would remember her stoicism during her years with cancer and try not to whine so much. She complained less with cancer in her bones than I have in days of perfect health.
My children will never know my mother, they will only see her through me. I look like her, and my newfound love of button up oxfords and comfortable pants suggests that eventually I will dress like her. Sadly, I’m monolingual, but I am an avid reader and, hot damn, can I cook! I have stayed home with my children since their birth, but that was due to my choice and not societal expectation. I still wonder if that would be something she would be proud of. I suspect she’d proverbially kick me in the ass for not getting out there and earning my own wage, but in the end respect and appreciate that at least I had been born in a time when I was afforded the choice.
Mom would have been eighty-seven today. I wonder what she’d be like. Would her hair be salt and pepper as I remember or would it be entirely snowy gray? Would she have relatively good health? Would her memory be intact? Would she still be able to come up with all the questions to all the answers on Jeopardy!? Those are things I do not know, but I do know she’d still be strong and witty and smart. Those were the trademarks of her soul. I see them in myself and my children at some point in every day that passes.
And, when I look in the mirror every night before I get into bed, I see her eyes looking back at me.
Hello, mom. Oh, how I’ve missed you.