Tag Archives: death of a parent

What My Mother Left Me When She Died

flowers in a vase

flowers in a vaseI lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid19, thank goodness. But it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year. Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.

What I Notice

When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl. My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.

Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The bottle was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone. I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian Style sardines.

Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.

Rituals and Values

Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother. These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull…doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children…and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.

That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf. A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.

I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone. That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80’s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.

I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.

The Gift of Writing

The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death. When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.

When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog. It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing…and life.

I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Image: Dahlias in a vase via Pxfuel

This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

 

Five Ways To Stay Positive While You Move

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

We’re moving in exactly one week. And so I’m pretty single-minded right now. When I’m not actually doing something connected to the move, I’m thinking about the move.

I’ve fessed up before to just how very much I hate moving. (Some would say irrationally so. I name no names.) But I’m also trying to take my own advice from last week’s volcanic ash crisis and remind myself that “Ce n’est pas gràve.”

And it really isn’t all that “gràve.” In fact, there are a lot of positives that emerge when you move house and they aren’t just the simple pleasures of decluttering.

In that spirit, here are five ways to stay upbeat during a move:

1. Reconnect with your kids’ childhood. One of Gretchen Rubin’s four splendid truths is that “The days are long but the years are short.” She employs this principle to capture what it’s like to be a parent:  how those long, seemingly endless days of reading Good Night, Moon and potty-training dissolve – overnight – into adolescence. Her point is that you really need to savor your kids’ childhood while it lasts because while it may feel long in the day to day, it’s actually fleeting. (I had this same realization last year while re-reading Peter Pan with my daughter.)

Moving helps you to savor their childhood. Because of the many things you unearth as you re-open those frightening storage containers that you hid in the depths of your closet when you first moved in are the myriad art projects, report cards, essays and birthday cards that your kids have done over the years. My own favorite was a picture that my son drew when his (quite progressive) nursery school did a unit on Martin Luther King. I’d forgotten all about this picture, which used to hang above the desk in my old office. It depicts a sort of Monsters, Inc.-style version of MLK addressing an audience with a disproportionately large microphone while saying “I hope that one day Black people and White people can be friends.” Priceless.

2. Reconnect with your own past. You may not have any kids. But you’ll still be forced to take a trip down memory lane as you yank stuff out  of those dusty old cupboards. I found a pair of my father’s orthopedic shoes. He left them here on his last visit to London in October of 2008. We saved them so that we could give them back to him on his next visit. But he never came back. He died, suddenly, of a heart attack in March, 2009. Back when he was alive, I hated those shoes. They were large and clunky and a visible reminder that the body of a man who used to take jump shots in our driveway well into his 50s was slowly giving out on him. (It ended up giving out on him much more quickly than we expected.) But seeing those shoes again actually made me happy. They were a tangible reminder of his presence in our lives. And I needed that.

3. Allow yourself to let go of the *shoulds*. I’ve written before about how many of us go through life tethered to an endless list of things that we feel we ought to be doing, yet never quite manage to accomplish: making photo albums, reading the Bible, joining a gym. During the course of going through my files the other day, I came across some notes from a Hebrew class that I took while pregnant with my son and which I’ve schlepped around with me for (gulp) ten years. The thought was that some day I’d get my act together and really learn Hebrew. Well folks, I still haven’t let go of the goal of figuring out my relationship to Judaism. But I think that I’ve finally acknowledged to myself that despite my best intentions, that process will not entail learning Hebrew (a least for the foreseeable future.) Toss. Ditto my hopes of ever actually using that over-sized fish poacher that we got for our wedding. After twelve years doing noble service as a de facto spice rack, I think it’s finally time for me to dispatch that particular item from our lives. Phew.

4. Imagine new vistas literally and figuratively. One of the most exciting things about moving is that it offers the prospect of a whole new neighborhood to discover. There will be new cafés, new book stores, new dry cleaners – not to mention new neighbors!  I love change so imagining these things is always a way to motivate myself when I just don’t feel like calling the Gas company to request new service or whatever arduous task lies at hand. It’s a bit like singing My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music, if you’ll forgive the cheesy Musical analogy. And change in one’s physical scenery can also furnish a new take on life psychologically. Out with the old and in with the new, and all that good stuff. I really believe that.

5. Trust that things will be better once you make it to the other side. Like childbirth, if you really remembered all the gory details, you’d never move more than once in your life. And yet, most of us do it several times. So, yes, moving is painful but it also does come to an end. And when the clouds part, there’s a whole new world to explore.

*****

For those of you who’d like to hear my latest thoughts on this unbelievably exciting British election, please head on over to PoliticsDaily.com.


Image: Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King by zug55 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Deadness: Talking to Your Kids About Death

I posted awhile back – on the occasion of my late father’s birthday – about how nothing drives home the fact of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

But I think second in line is talking to your kids about death.

I was delighted to do a guest post on this topic for the Times On Line’s Alpha Mummy blog today. Alpha Mummy is the self-described blog  for “mums and dads who work, used to work, or want to go back to work one day.” I’m a regular there, and hope you will be too.

Enjoy!

Image: Nathan Snodgrass Grave Stone – HDR image by Jason Mean via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Coping with the Death of a Parent: A Poem

Nothing drives home the fact of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

My own father passed away not very long ago. Today would have been his 77th birthday.

Shortly after he died, a friend sent me the following poem to comfort me during this loss.

Today, in his honor, I share that poem with you:

In Blackwater Woods

–          Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blur shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what it its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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