A decade later, memories of Mum hold fast
The evening before my mother died, I sat on a hard-backed chair next to her bed in a darkened room, holding her hand and watching her breathe. Soft light fell on her face, on the features that were so familiar.
A few hours earlier, as sick as she was from the ravages of diabetes and a raging infection in her foot and leg, she motioned for me to situate her upright and tried, valiantly, to say “Up.”
She had lost so much weight I could easily lift her by putting one arm around her shoulders.
“What is it, Mum?” I asked.
Her eyes widened and she smiled faintly. It was a smile of surprise as she focused on an empty chair just inside the door of her room at the rehabilitation center.
“Is it Daddy? Is Daddy here to meet you? It’s OK, Mum. You can go with him,” I told her, managing, somehow, not to let her see my tears fall and my voice break.
My mother died 10 years ago, around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2009, at the age of 85. It was 16 months to the day after my dad took his last breath. When I had told her he was gone, she inhaled quickly, almost gasped, and said, “Oh, dear Lord.”
From that moment, she said, repeatedly, “I just want to be with your father.”
After 62 years of marriage, life without him was unbearable. He was the center of her world. He kept us all laughing, made the most impossible situations seem like a breeze with his adorable half-smile, penned touching cards and letters to his wife and two daughters, and insisted on kissing my mother goodbye even if he was just running out to get milk and bread.
Losing them both broke my heart. Those closest to me know I haven’t been the same since. There’s an uncertainty deep within, a loss of confidence, a kind of shakiness, without them here.
Psychologists say the mother-daughter relationship is volatile. Sometimes it is, leading to arguments and bruised feelings. Certainly my mother and I disagreed, but we had golden moments, treasured nuggets of discussions about favorite authors and politics, time in the kitchen cooking together, shopping excursions bright with laughter from the moment we backed out of the driveway, pistachio ice cream, eggplant sandwiches on hard rolls, french fries splashed with vinegar, a little gossip.
At my high-school commencement, she gave me a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s classic book “The Prophet,” writing inside, “On your graduation. Love from Mother and Daddy.”
It quickly became one of my most treasured volumes. I have returned to it repeatedly over the years, going back for wisdom and deep explanations at life’s most difficult times.
My mother was the most intelligent woman I ever met. Always, she had a newspaper in her hand or on the coffee table nearby. On Sunday afternoons, she would urge my dad to take me and my best friends bowling so she could sit in the living room and read the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Press and the Youngstown Vindicator, all neatly piled beside her favorite chair. It was her greatest pleasure.
Pure of heart, she answered the door at home one afternoon when I was 3 or 4, and greeted a sad-looking, raggedly dressed man who was standing on our porch. I remember stretching to see, on my toes, looking out through the screen. He asked if we needed any odd jobs done. She told him we didn’t, and he turned and walked down the steps.
My mother started to cry, rushed to her purse and took out a few bills, then called to him, went out and tucked them into his hand.
“That poor man is hungry. Not everybody is as fortunate as we are, honey,” she told me.
She cried the day President Kennedy was assassinated, too. I was 6 years old, startled that she was in tears and not yet old enough to understand that afternoon would rob a generation of its innocence.
Faced with challenges, my mother relied on unwavering faith, and advised me, in unsteady moments, to trust God. She fretted. Like me, she could worry until she became sick, but she persevered. She always found a way.
Everything she touched bore her mark of perfection. Dust didn’t dare land on her furniture, and if it did, there wasn’t a fighting chance. Her checkbook always balanced. My sister and I joked she could stretch a penny to Chicago. When she wrapped a gift, the bow could have been from Macy’s. Her packages were too pretty to open.
A bookkeeper all her life, she handled finances for the family fruit-and-vegetable business. She knew shorthand and astounded me when she had the answer to a rather complicated math problem before I could find a tablet to write the numbers.
At home, the aroma of her bread stuffing filled the house with the homey scents of celery, onions and sage as it was baking, and put a glaze on Thanksgiving Day.
Desserts were fabulous — layers of pound cake spread with warm cream she made from scratch, then sprinkled with Maraschino cherry juice and cinnamon and topped with shaved chocolate. Lemon Jell-O with crushed pineapple and whipped cream beaten until light and frothy. Magic bars, spice cake, Italian cookies bulging with raisins.
There’s an old black-and-white picture of my mother and me that I cherish. She’s on the beach in Ocean City, sitting on a blanket under an umbrella, holding me, a 1-month-old tiny bundle with light fuzz for hair. There’s a look of such love on her face. Her brown eyes had a way of twinkling, as they are in that photo, and she’s smiling in a gently satisfied way, as though her dreams had been fulfilled. She used to tell me I was the most beautiful baby ever born. I’d shake my head and say I doubted it, but somehow, she was convinced.
In her last months, our roles switched. I doted on her, served her favorite soft-boiled eggs, came running when she lost her balance, called 911 when she fell and had to be hospitalized, gave her two insulin shots every day, soothed her with the words she used so many times when I was growing up, “Everything will be all right. I’m right here.”
“Think good thoughts, honey,” she used to say when I went to bed at night.
I’m trying, Mum. But I miss you so much.
By Susan Canfora