When my mother died earlier this summer, my siblings and I decided to postpone her memorial service. At the time, the maximum amount of people allowed at an outdoor funeral in New Jersey, where she lived, was 30 (due to Covid). Just our family alone – with all of my nieces and nephews – would nearly hit that target, without even beginning to move into other family and friends. And once we factored in that her four closest surviving friends are all in their 80’s, and thus at high risk, we decided to wait.
I’m not sure that was the right decision. I’ve watched at least three other friends bury their parents this summer, and all of them opted for the small – but immediate – funeral. I have this gnawing fear that by the time a vaccine is developed and travel is safe again, it will be too late. We will have forgotten her.
That is, of course, an irrational fear. I was blessed with two parents with very strong personalities. It is literally impossible to forget them. I’ve also realized that without even intending to, I am now actively engaging with my mother on a daily basis in ways that bring her strongly to mind.
I’ve mentioned before that my mother was an avid reader. That’s putting it mildly. One of the last things I did before vacating her apartment was to carefully parse out her books amongst my siblings. I chose non-fiction for my oldest brother, fiction for my sister and a blend of fiction and poetry for my own family.
All summer, I’ve been reading those books. I started with a John Le Carre thriller, Our Kind of Traitor. It isn’t even one of his most celebrated spy novels, but I enjoyed it thoroughly nonetheless. Then I moved on to a beautiful novel about music by Vikram Seth (of A Suitable Boy fame), called An Unequal Music. Right now, I’m reading a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.
As I make my way through these books – but particularly the Alice Munro, because she was one of my mother’s favorite authors – I feel very connected to my mom. I imagine what she might think about the characters, or how a particular reference to the Great Depression or World War II might resonate for her. I have this odd sensation that I am actually reading the book with her. And that is a beautiful thing.
A second way I am connecting to my mother is through her jewelry – (which, in his inimitable Jersey accent, my dad pronounced as “JEW-luh-ree.”) Because I gave all of my mother’s paintings to my siblings, I took her jewelry, which felt like a fair trade.
The funny thing about my mother’s jewelry is how out of keeping it was with the rest of her look. My mother’s style was exceedingly down-to-earth. She didn’t spend a lot of money on clothing and almost never wore make-up, save the odd dot of eye shadow or lipstick.
How odd, then, that her jewelry collection would be so eclectic and playful. She wore large, ceramic bangles…long, colorful beads…and silly, irreverent pins that poked out from her shirts. Underneath the practical, organized self she presented to the world, my mother’s inner actress beamed through in her accessories.
I wear that jewelry every day now. Some of it suits me and some of it doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter. It makes me feel close to her.
The final way I invoke my mother on a daily basis is through her speech. Like many of us, my mother evolved an odd collection of sayings over the years, some of which she surely inherited from her own mother and some of which she invented.
She liked to describe rainy days as “soggy,” as in “It’s soggy out today.” She loved the Yiddish word “farmisht” (also pronounced “fermished”). This word literally means “crazy or messed up,” but my mother extended it to mean “broken” or “not working,” as in “These batteries are fermished.” She also dutifully “wogged” her back every morning – her term for exercising and stretching. (At least two of my friends have written to me since her death telling me that they have appropriated this term from her. Love.)
If you lost something, and it was visible to the naked eye, she’d say “If it were a snake, it would bite you!” But if you looked for the item, and no one could find it, she’d joke: “I saw seven guys running down Heights Road with it!” (Heights Road was the street I grew up on).
I find myself using these expressions regularly now. Each time I do so, my face brightens with her memory.
If you’ve lost someone close to you, how do you invoke their presence in your daily life? Please share in the comments section.