Our friends’ mother passed away on Thursday. She was 97 and we had never met. The family described her as someone, who only a few months previously, had flown by herself from New York to Arizona to watch her great granddaughter’s dance recital. She was a frequent flyer across the country. She lived by herself in the family home, had numerous younger friends and was a knitting guru: totally competent, agile and present. But of course, she was our friend’s mom, and no matter the age, she is deeply mourned. Yet, our friend wrote what he misses most are the nightly one hour conversations initiated and maintained by his mother: no doubt, he listened and endured, maybe working on a crossword puzzle or probing how he would communicate a lesson to his students, his attention tuned to the sound of her voice, still strong but truly he was not listening to her words. Maybe like me, he rolled his eyes occasionally, eager to get off the phone and on to his own nightly pursuits.
His reflection made me recall how I resented the Saturday lunches at TimHortons with my own mother, the pattern unchanging over the years and even the BLT and coffee de rigeur. AS I dashed from exercise or work to pick her up, I was not generous in my thoughts, rather grumbling to myself that over an hour or two were shot when I might be out lunching with friends, shopping, sleeping. Truly, she never demanded much but did expect those small outings weekly.
Yet like my friend, once my mother had passed, there felt a hole in my life and I could easily recount among those visits, her support, her sympathy, her listening and being present to my ramblings. Strangely, as we think on our stories, the yin and the yang, the push and pull, the contradictions in life, even in minor events, who would have guessed the moments we begrudged our parents would rise up to haunt us sweetly in their loss.
Our friend’s wife recounted on the day her mother-in-law passed, our friend was mainly silent but baked a perfect apple pie, no doubt providing tribute to the cooking tutelage of his mother, his mentor, his first teacher, for apparently this was the first lesson she had bestowed.
And again it triggered a memory for me, not of an event , but of how my mother approached life, and how I had modelled my behaviour after hers. Two weeks ago as I made a pit stop before hurrying to an appointment , I thanked a bathroom attendant in the public restroom for her service because yes, that would be something my mother would do, taking time at a checkout counter, enquiring politely about the day, the health of an attendant, a shopkeeper, etc. My sister told me, she does likewise, thanking her office cleaners at the end of her work day too. And each time we perform these small acts, it’s as in” It’s a Wonderful Life,” because we, like Jimmy Stewart announce, “ Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” ,and we think of our mother’s kindness, restoring her image, maybe even her face to our thoughts. And a light shines or a symbolic bell like ” namaste” at the end of a meditation provides a moment of calm.
Funny how and what we remember and perhaps why.My father was austere, solid, rarely smiling ( except at my mother, and often my sister), wearing only grey, day after day. Unlike my sister whose relationship was close to him, he seemed endlessly annoyed that I could not comprehend physics or chemistry and his attempts to help me with my homework in high school always ended in my tears. Yet years later when I called him because my car would not start or the oven would not perform and I tried to express my regret and embarrassment in having him rescue me, he looked askance and eyes straight forward, honestly replied, “ That’s what parents do”, amazed I would have any hesitation in dragging him out. And remember, he came on crutches, navigating stairs and curbs to his own peril.
We are all someone’s children, bringing with us misunderstandings, apprehensions, fears and small accomplishments as we grow by fits and starts into adults, overshadowed by the practices of our parents’ child rearing. Changes in conceptions about children have impacted the psychology of responding to tiny tots. From Spock to today’s experts, we have been shaped, most parents trying to morph their own upbringings, comprehending new trends and suggestions, fitting old ways, banishing others to more contemporary and promised – improved insights.
Still the nature vs.nurture debate endures and we cannot know whether the future has been divined or personality driven . We may notice a particular behaviour accorded to great uncle Cyrus, a stutter, the wide mouthed smile, the hobble and skip,, the way a child holds his fingers, etc. Or in contrast, we may wonder at how the impact of technology will strain juvenile eyes, necks and trigger concepts of aloneness with rising notions of rage, anger and depression.
For the bookish of us who learned many of our life lessons from books, Thoreau shrieks as he wanders among the trees, shaking his head. Jo March stamps her feet angrily, and Jay Gatsby gets into his car and drives away. Maybe the kids of today will pick up their kindles and follow these stories from their dens that will shield them from deep freeze and searing heat , blaming past generations, the politicians but also their parents for not protecting them properly. Or perhaps their tutelage will be derived from their IPads, rendering parents obsolete completely, growing up and old without the soft memories my friend and myself now relive : such as endless phone calls, boring lunches- wherein the core and puzzle of the relationship are only later decanted and comprehended.
Life is full with mysteries, the unknown , but in the end, it is the caring, the relationships that will fill my head as I fall asleep. And the number of angels who get their wings.