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In Memoriam: Stories My Mother Told Me

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”
― Antonio Porchia

The photo above is one of my Mother that I love at least in part because of the story she told me about it. She was 8 or 9 years old and her mother had her wearing “sausage” curls, meaning her hair must have been very long but it was curled into long “tube” like curls. I have seen pictures of her hair like that but I couldn’t find now any in the photos I have. Anyway, her mother sent her alone to the hairdresser to then go on alone to the photographer on her bike (??!!!). She told me that she hated those long curls and she told the hairdresser when she got there that her mother wanted her hair to be cut short. Then she went on to the photographer with her new hairdo. I love that mischievous look on her face. Apparently, my grandmother was not pleased and there was some heavy punishment for her fun but that picture tells a great story.

My mother went to college to be a pharmacist in the big city and went back home after only one semester. She got a “D” in a class, I think it was Chemistry but she told me that she was mostly lonely and used her grades as an excuse. I have an absolute picture in my mind of her telling me this story – me standing in the doorway to her room and her sitting on her bed with her head hanging down. She did finish a degree later when we were still small. I remember the summer we had an au pair – even though we didn’t call her that at the time – while my mother finished her degree and became a teacher.

I don’t think she ever told me how she met my Dad. He was four years older so it probably wasn’t at school. She did tell me about the night they got engaged. They were going to the winter dance and went out to dinner together first where he popped the question and then went back to tell her parents who were going to be chaperones at the dance. Her parents pitched a fit. My grandmother went upstairs to her room. Her parents ended up not going to the dance. My father was apparently not at the social level her parents thought she should marry into. That never changed. A month after my Dad died – my parents had been married for something like 33 years, my mother’s mother told her daughter that “now she can marry someone of her own social standing”. Funny enough, my grandmother always insisted that my Dad had liked her. He was a quiet man. He didn’t talk much but I don’t believe her ever really liked her.

This picture I found really hits me. My Mother is the dark-haired “girl” with the white headband. She looks so young, so pretty. Who was she? What were her dreams? My impression of her is wrapped up in our fights and my prejudices about how she “was”. Probably none of it is true. I will always remember the smell of cookies baking. The trouble she went to make currant jelly that none of us could stand to eat. The efforts she made to cook nice meals (never much of a success in my opinion but what do I know). The image of her stitching in a corner of the sofa watching TV with one leg tucked up under and her whisky-voice laugh. She died six years ago and sometimes it feels like yesterday. I miss you Mom.

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My mother and I backstage at Carnegie Hall,

On the Tightrope

But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die, you feel like instead of going in to every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.
―Mitch Albom, For One More Day

On June 5, 2016, it will have been five years since my mother died. Somehow I feel like I never really grew up until she was gone. I feel now like I am walking a highwire without the net that I had always sensed beneath me, always took for granted without really noticing it was there. My father died when I was in my twenties and that was hard enough but my mother was there. Always. We fought, we bitched and sometimes I felt like she was the biggest pain – but she was always there.

I have to admit, I didn’t appreciate all she did for me when she was alive. I was too wrapped up in my own drama and my own story about what she “didn’t do” or “hadn’t done”. Now that she is gone, I think of so many things and I realize every day what my responsibility was in our relationship. I would so like to apologize for what I did, what I said, to tell her I am sorry I was such an ingrate, so unfeeling sometimes to the point where she said once that she was afraid of me. But I have only realized those things now because that net is gone and that feeling of vertigo is what makes me look in the first place.

My neighbor above me where I teach has a little boy, just under two years old. My neighbor is beautiful, intelligent and strong willed. She is over 30 and a therapist. She has always seemed to me to have everything going for her.-But I watch her struggle every day not to give in to her feelings of frustration, confusion and anger when her son doesn’t want to do what she would like him to do. He is a little ray of sunshine most of the time but she told me that last week he threw himself down in the middle of street screaming and beating his hands on the pavement. She wasn’t even sure why he did it. She had a look on her face I will never forget.

And I think of my mother, beautiful, intelligent and strong-willed and the mother of three children before she was 25 in an era where women were supposed to function regardless of what they were going through or how overwhelmed they felt. When I was five, my mother pushed my father to support her to finish her degree so that she could teach school. It was unusual at the time and I really see myself in that bull-headedness. I know that she “felt” better after she started teaching, more herself, more in control. And the money she made was used for us. It helped pay for all of our schooling and got everyone of us out of a financial disaster or two. Funny enough, I never saw that as an expression of her love. Not until she was gone. I never understood what money might mean to a depression baby, who had lived on the road during World War II because her father was a colonel in the army and they moved a lot. Now I know and it is too late to tell her.

I think of her every day. I miss her every day. For some things, there a no second chances. Take every chance you get to say I love you. Don’t wait.

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Old GiftsChristmas gift that my mother knit for her cousin

Old Gifts

A trusted friend is the best relative. – Buddha

My cousin was just here with a friend of hers and I showed her around Germany. Actually, she was my mother’s cousin but we always called her cousin. She was an only child and her mother and father died pretty early so she was always included in the family holidays, especially at my uncle’s, my mother’s brother, because they were nearer the same age. At any rate, she was always part of “the family” for us.
During the course of her visit, she gave me a “gift”, she called it. It turned out to be a hat, mittens and scarf set that my mother had knit for her and given her for Christmas. It must have been ages ago. It was still in the box my mother wrapped it in and the store the box was from hasn’t existed in years. And it all smells of mold and moth balls. It is clear to me that she never opened the box again after unwrapping it that Christmas. She just put it away in the attic or the basement or wherever.

I know she meant to do something nice for me but this has all made me very sad. My mother really liked her cousin and I believe she felt a close connection with her. But from the conversations that we had on the trip and from this “gift”, it is clear to me that the feelings weren’t reciprocated. It comes up for me now that my mother’s cousin actually didn’t “like” my mother, which actually explains a few things. When my mother got interested in cruises and travelling, she asked her cousin many times to join her on a trip and was refused or just kind of ignored (it is a family trait). And when my mother died, there wasn’t much sympathy that came from that direction. At the time I hardly noticed because of my own grief. It comes up for me now that it was so.

The thing is, my mother was choleric, she was erratic, she could be vicious and mean. She learned all those things at her mother’s knee (who was also all those things) and I certainly learned them from her. But she was also fun, loved to have a good time and laughed with a deep belly laugh that made everyone laugh with her. And she didn’t spend her time making knitting projects for just anyone. My mother was a really fine knitter but she never made me hat, gloves and scarf. She was reaching out in the only way she knew how. And it fell on deaf ears.

I don’t mean to make my cousin wrong for not liking my mother, her cousin. You can’t choose your relatives like you can your friends. But I feel a communion with my mother that I have never felt before. I know so well the biting sorrow of loving someone who doesn’t love back. Of trying to “court” someone to like you even if it is hopeless. I so wish my mother were alive right now, so I could share that with her. Another way we are/were so alike.

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The Counted Crossstitch my mother made the year my Dad died.

Stitching with Mom

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.”
― 14th Dalai Lama

My mother was a very creative person. When she was younger she would paint decorative designs on cupboards and trunks with designs and she did a lot of handwork. When she died, there were several boxes of fabric and several unfinished needlework projects left over, some of which I am planning to finish for her.

When I was young, she tried to teach me everything she knew but I wasn’t an especially good student. I still remember the first sewing “lesson”. We bought a beautiful glazed cotton and cut out the dress together. Being the impatient person I was and still am, it was all going way too slow for me and so I tried to finish it on my own, ending up sewing together pieces that weren’t intended to be together and generally making a mess of it. My mother lost patience with me at that point and sent me to my fraternal grandmother – who worked as a seamstress out of her home – to help me repair the damage and get the thing done. She complained bitterly that I was frantically trying to finish the outfit I planned to wear for my wedding just the day before. Definitely not her style of doing things.

My mother was a master at embroidery and would always sigh very loudly over my French Knots (still can’t do them and so I avoid them altogether). For knitting, we started a sweater together when I was 13 or 14 but again it all went way too slow for me and I gave up somewhere in the middle of the front piece. There were still the arms to go. I don’t know whatever happened to that yarn or the pieces. I did finally get the hang of knitting when a co-worker in New York who used to hide behind her cubicle wall knitting with needles about the size of pins explained to me that knitting is something you do with your hands to pass the time and at some point you end up with a garment. That seemed to make sense and I have happily knit quite a few things since then.

Needlepoint and crochet I learned from friends. My mother knew how to do those things too but maybe she was just too frustrated to try and teach my after the other experiences. But when I was older and was doing my own handwork, she loved showing me her newest projects and the kits she was thinking about buying from the stacks of catalogues that she received. These are memories I cherish. The needlepoint pillow I made for her a few years ago with her colors of moss green and rust and covered myself with cotton velvet came back with me to Germany when we emptied her house.

Back when I was young, doing handwork was still something to be proud of, at least I never thought of it any other way. I’m not so sure that anyone really appreciates it anymore. At least that is how it seems to me. But maybe that is just the crabby old lady talking.

Ann Johannsen died on June 5, 2011. Love you Mom.

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Christmas Elf

Christmas rituals

A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.
– Joseph Campbell

Christmas has always been an important holiday in my family. My mother loved Christmas, loved the decorating, loved the cookie baking (although generally she didn’t like cooking) loved the Tom & Gerry parties (we were not an eggnog family), going to church on Christmas Eve. I still remember going to church on the Christmas Eve after my dad died. Perfect Minnesota weather – snow storm and 95 degrees below with the wind chill. Matched our feelings that night.
When we were kids, the Christmas tree was a big pine with long needles that stood near the front picture window. Some of the decorations my dad brought from Germany when he was stationed there, some were new. Every year something was added. After my dad died, my mother decided she didn’t want the trouble of a live tree and bought a fake one but it was still large with all of the trimmings. But as she got older, the fake trees got smaller and smaller till in the end the tree was small enough to sit on the ledge of the window.
My mother was always doing some kind of handwork, knitting, cross stitch, sewing, and Christmas was a great inspiration for her. When we kids were young, she made her own ornaments for the tree, for the walls and to set around the room. The stuffed elves with bells in their hats sat on a lamp table. There was still one left over in the cedar chest when we emptied her house and he is now sitting in my living room. The huge three part Santa Claus counted cross stitch that she made and was so proud of that she framed it went to my older brother. When we emptied her house, there were 6 giant boxes of Christmas decorations. Each one of us got something of her wonderful work to remember her by.
My mother’s Christmas cookies were really something special. She made super thin rolled sugar cookies, covered completely in powdered sugar frosting and candied sugar. They were so thin they seemed to melt in your mouth. There were always Santa Clauses with red sprinkles and Christmas trees with colored candy balls and green sprinkles. Even though they were both mostly all sugar, somehow the Santa Clauses tasted better. She also made fancy cookies shaped like acorns with caramel and crushed pecans on top. And the orange cookies with thick orange flavored powdered sugar frosting. She made Rosettes and her friends made Krumkake and they split them up. There was also a Party Mix, a peanut brittle and almond bark that were standards. She usually started baking before Thanksgiving and stored the cookies in the freezer. I used to snitch cookies out of the freezer and sneak them into my room. That is so much a part of my memory of how they taste, I freeze the Christmas cookies I bake now, too. They somehow don’t taste right otherwise.
In our house, we have developed our own Christmas. In Germany, the tradition is to bring the tree in the house on Christmas Eve and decorate it with real candles. They usually prefer fir trees with short needles and lots of space between the branches so that the candles have a lot of room. Those trees look funny to me, I am so used to the thick trees of my youth. We don’t actually get a tree any more. Like my mother, as I have gotten older I don’t feel like dealing with the mess and honestly I don’t see the sense in cutting down a tree so that I can have it in my living room. We tried a tree in a bucket but they never survived the winter or the replanting. Now I have a small one made of metal. Still makes me happy to see the decorations I have accumulated over the years hanging on it.
My husband is in charge of putting up the lights outside and putting together the swag that always goes on the door. It always looks beautiful how he does it. Usually I bake my mother’s cookies and we pig for weeks on them. This year somehow I don’t have the energy and we could both stand to lose a few pounds. Maybe I’ll make a few batches on the weekend just for old time sake.
On Christmas Eve we usually watch movies and I drink Tom & Jerrys – my husband has never gotten used to the super sweet taste so he stays with beer and whisky. The German tradition on Christmas Eve is to eat wieners and potato salad. Go figure. Our tradition is to have baked breaded camembert and Pillsbury rolls. Very low cal. Germans celebrate Christmas over two days so we divide them up and each of us is responsible for the cooking for the entire day. We each try to do something special and exotic. Haven’t decided on the menus for this year yet but I am sure they will be delicious. We are both looking forward to the down time, making a special Christmas time and bringing the year to a close.

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