I’ve been specifically avoiding talking about how much I miss my mom today, because that should be fairly obvious. Any day that was either special to her, or that specifically draws attention to the deep scar that I carry on my heart from missing her so much, is just one of those things you learn to deal with over time. No, instead today I’ve actually been thinking a whole lot about happy memories of my mom that no one else has. Those memories are real treasures. When I see something in my own life echoing those moments, I’m reminded that even though it’s tragic my family lost the ability to see her every day, we carry her with us in a way that no one else will ever be able to claim.
See, my mother was an unequivocal cheerleader when it came to her children. Though it’s a terrible modifier for a mom in general, the only way to communicate it is to say she loved us ferociously. I know that every mother loves her kids a whole lot, but my mom really had something ridiculously special in her. There was positively no limit to what she would do for her sons; that’s easy to say metaphorically, but my mother literally would move heaven and earth if that’s what was required to make something happen if it was for her family.
Now let me be clear about something. I was not the best son in the world. I was difficult, stubborn and argumentative (was?). I didn’t treat my mom as well as she deserved, nor as gently. In fact, I was emotionally very tough on her sometimes just because I felt like being nasty and she would take it. I lied to her all the time about smoking, drinking, girlfriends, and a raft of other sins that she helped me keep quiet because my father may have killed me if he knew. And I never failed to let her down when she needed help. This is just honesty. I wish I had more time with her just to make up for that and to show her that eventually I did learn some lessons and made some tough choices for my own family that I think she’d be proud of. But I know that she’s seen them and I hope that when I do meet her again she is proud of what I’ve done.
She used to write me letters for my birthday once I was in my 20s. I have each one of them still, naturally, and hesitate to share them with others. What she wrote was embarrassing in its honesty. She freely admitted faults that may have tripped us up in our relationship along the way, but was always sure to relate from where those mistakes came. I’d like to say that it’s in large part from this that I understand her, and it’s something that I’ve already picked up with Roo Bear at her tender age of three – if I disbelieve something she said and I find out I’m wrong, I admit it and tell her I’m sorry. As a result, we’ve got what I think is the most honest three year old in history.
My mother always wanted me to be a priest. She said that she saw in me the makings of a great priest, someone who could connect with others and share God’s wisdom with everyone. I won’t lie — that left a deep mark on me. There was more than one time that I considered it. I’m not sure that I’ve admitted that before. There are times when I think I really would have made a great priest, but I prefer to be called “Daddy”.
Christmas was the greatest time of year in our house, too, because my mom lived to make that holiday special for us. She got a little brighter and then worked three times as hard to make sure we got something that was a lot of fun, like some money to go to the movies. And sweaters of a similar type but different color.
And watch out if you got clothes she thought were nice, because invariably they accidentally shrank when they went through the wash. Strange enough, she was always willing to take them off your hands and wear the new sweater herself. That used to tick me off like no one’s business, and if I recall correctly my father kept a separate hamper and wouldn’t let anyone else touch his clothes. Smart man.
Perhaps the deepest impression my mom left was her utter openness about expressing her love. There was never anything held back on that front. She didn’t even bother looking for excuses to give you hugs, she just gave them. She loved to snuggle up next to people, too, or just have you in the room with her. I’m smiling right now, because I remember how many nights I spent laying on the floor, her in her clog-like house shoes (let’s face it, they weren’t slippers) while we watched something on her television. Anything. You just liked hanging out with Mom and watching some television. Even though you had to get pestered half to death every single time to give her a foot rub. I’m pretty convinced that the only reason my dad wanted kids was so he could hand off that chore (no pun intended).
She extended that love to anyone who showed love to her sons, conditionally. Friends were treated really well, and she always loved my friends Mike and Joey and extolled their virtues. I’m friends with those guys to this day and I love them like brothers. But if someone struck a false chord with her she would sound a warning. She was always right. It got frustrating with girlfriends because after one meeting my mother could figure out precisely why I would break up with her and how long it would take. It wasn’t a question of whether she approved, she just knew me well enough to know what would make a relationship end. As a result, I learned just to keep girlfriends away from the house.
Of course, there are variants on all these wonderful memories that carry a few heavy tears with them. When she was sick, really sick, on what turned out to be her last Christmas and we still didn’t know what was wrong, she came into my room (I was back to living at home at the time, late bloomer that I was) and just snuggled up next to me while I watched TV. I sensed even then that something different was happening and it was scary.
My favorite memories of her will always be Christmastimes, though. You see, we had a very special tradition between us at that time of year. More than the cessation of hostilities between us (we were referred to as “oil and water” for my tendency to argue over the stupidest things) I would accompany her to the late Mass at St. Camillus, the “first church” for our family (though we had stopped going to that parish long before I had formative memories).
Part of this tradition was a bit of a superstition my mother had. She believed that if she took some of the real hay from the creche in which they laid the figure of the baby Jesus, then our family was going to be all right in terms of finances. It was a strange custom and one I’ve never encountered since.
So we got to that late Mass and it was during that service that she said to me what her plan was. The dawning horror for me was that on some level my mother was telling me that I had to desecrate a beautiful little church display so she could get her hay. We ran into people we knew as Mass was letting out (and someday I’ll tell how that ties in with Maddy’s birth). Mom chatted pleasantly. The whole time, I’m thinking, “Holy [….], I’ve got to what?” I tried refusing. But my mother had this weird mental power. I know all moms do. But my mom’s powers bordered on the supernatural. Your brain would start to cook if you refused her the occasional request. It wasn’t guilt, it was mind control.
So after everyone cleared out I had to walk up to the little fence, which was there to keep people out of the display, reach in and grab hay for her. Then grab more to get the amount she wanted. And the whole time I’m just praying a bolt of lightning doesn’t hit me because after all, didn’t Jesus even obey his mother? (And was that line ever used on us!)
So the next year we go and the Mass has converted to a Spanish-only service. They closed the Mass with Feliz Navidad and my mom sang and danced while I look over at the display and realize, “Oh Lord, they’ve moved the infant Jesus farther away from the fence.” This realization is coupled with the fact that this will in no way dissuade my mother from asking me now not to reach past the fence and grab hay, but rather step over and into the display like some berserk Godzilla who hates Christmas.
It kept escalating every year like that. I’m pretty sure in retrospect that someone was seeing me do this every year and their Christmas tradition was watching me lumber through this sacred scene to get magic hay. I hope they found it as funny as I didn’t.
Then there was that last Christmas. I was deeply involved with my girlfriend at the time, Erin, and made clear to my mother that no I wouldn’t go to the Mass with her because Erin wanted me to spend time with her and her family – Erin and I had argued about the point and I felt obliged to show my love or something stupid like that. My mother was clearly upset but took it in visible stride and went off to carry on her part of the tradition. I called Erin and either I found out that things got rearranged.
I raced out to my car and broke every speed law I could to get to Mass. I rushed into the church and my mom looked over to the door from over a sea of heads, to see her son barge into the place. I walked hurriedly over to her pew and when I sat down next to her she was crying. I suppose I’ll never be able to convey that terrible feeling to anyone properly, because my mother was such a strong person that for her to truly cry in public like that took something.
For once at least, I hadn’t let her down. I miss you mom, I look forward to being with you again and thank you for everything you planted in me that finally, after too long a time, took root and grew strong.