Memories of My Mom

As we celebrate Mom’s life this week I have asked my siblings and children and Mom’s grandchildren to contribute memories of her as part of her history. So I’m trying to lead by example here and it was a pleasure, of course, to do this. There is so much more that I could have said. I encourage others to please contact me to share your memories of Mom and help us build the record we’re keeping here. — jsw

135I have never figured out just how my Mom got her Mom-training. She was an only child, she didn’t have a lot of extended family around her and she married and had children so very young. She did not have a lot of role models. And it is not like there was a “How to Be a Mom” handbook out there either.

She just knew what to do.

My Mom had her own style, her own command of “mom-ness”. She was not keeping up with anyone, she had no peers and there were no fads she followed. It was all blazing trails for Mom.
Being a middle child I suppose I could just conclude that Mom had everything figured out before I came along. But that not only would be wrong it would do an injustice to Mom’s creativity and passion for being Mom.

And that’s the thing: she loved being a Mom. It was – and we were, as her kids – her life.

Mother’s natural abilities were frequently pressed into service. She was an artist. I can remember being very small and crawling up into her lap and asking her to draw me something – Mickey Mouse, or something similar – and she could do it brilliantly, without thought and in a second.

I remember one time being at a friend’s house and hearing about a school project an older sibling of my friend was working on. Their mother was trying to supply a hand drawing of Donald Duck. The finished project looked something like what a five year old would do. I asked when the “mom drawing” was going to be added and they told me that WAS the drawing their Mom did for them. I was stunned. I just thought all moms were great artists by nature. Mine was.

Halloween at our house around 1966 or so. Mom-style.
Halloween at our house around 1966 or so. Mom-style.
Her creativity took her in all kinds of directions. Halloween was a favorite time of year because Mom stopped at nothing with our costumes. Using everything from sheets to paper mache there were no store bought costumes for us. I was never Spiderman – I was always a creation of my ideas coupled with Mom’s creative impulses. We got wows when we trick or treated.

Summer vacation was also a time when Mom’s handiwork was on display. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and seat belts in cars then were not part of the equation. The only one stationary in the car was the driver, who was usually Dad. The rest of us roamed all over the back of the station wagon, especially on long trips. It wasn’t a car, it was a playroom. And Mom made it up. We had curtains on the windows that she made, complete with brass curtain rods. There was a massive foam mattress in the back, covered, of course, in a polka dot slip cover that Mom made. There were matching pillows. Mom put us in shorts, gave us sun glasses and we were styling down the road.

Mother was never a Cub Scout. But I was and we won awards. When it came time for the cake contest for the Blue and Gold dinner? Yeah, we won. Mom baked three flavors of cake, cut it into shapes and covered it with seven colors of frosting to make a Cub Scout cake. It was a work of art.

And the Pinewood derby? Yes, Mom was all over it. Dad engineered the basic construction and got the wheels running. But Mom was the body shop and while I never won a race I had the best looking car on the track.

The station wagon with the curtains in the back.
The station wagon with the curtains in the back.
Mother’s passion for creating things was not limited to art projects and holidays. She did not shy away from foods and food storage. Not everything worked out, of course. I can recall hot summer days when she would line up baskets of berries and peaches and apricots and we would can jams. What a treat that always was. But when she experimented with dry frozen foods or long-shelf life stuff things got a little weird. I remember Mom adding food coloring to pickles and getting these odd fluorescent pickles that no one would eat. They tasted fine but none of us could get over the idea of maybe eating something that looked radioactive.

One of the most famous incidents involving food came from something called TVP – “texturized vegetable protein” – and it was supposed to make things like meat healthier. The results for us were hamburgers so hard you could break teeth. It was hard to tell if Mom was making dinner with the stuff or building grenades to be lobbed. It was anything but edible.

Healthy foods were generally a failure in our house. Not that Mom didn’t try. Brussel sprouts were a horror that just kept coming back at the dinner table. I could not stand the sight of them. It took to putting them in house plants or stuffing them in pockets. Of course, Mom always discovered that when she did the laundry and I had to learn to line my pockets with sandwich baggies when such offending foods were served.

That worked pretty well for Brussel sprouts but broccoli with cheese was a bit trickier.

Mom was always on to us. It was like she had eyes in the back of her head. But she was out-numbered and while she could always suspect what we were up to she sometimes failed to understand our motivations.

Case in point: Mom always wore a wig. Always, ever since I was little. She made the Marge Simpson hairdo in the 1960s popular. And this was forever a tempting target for me and my brothers. We would sneak things into her hair at church. She could come home and pull a feather or a small paper airplane out of her wig and say “How did that get in there?” Mom could entertain us by just sitting there.

My Dad for his work would order duplicate slides by the thousands for training programs he put together and they came in small potato sized boxes that were perfect for throwing. On cold winter days my brother and I would occupy ourselves in the garage by building forts on the opposite ends of the garage and playing war by launching these hard, sharp-cornered boxes at each other. We had epic battles.

Unfortunately Mom would sometimes have to come out to do the laundry, passing through No Man’s Land with every load. She always felt she was a target and she would lecture us that chucking boxed towards her was no way for a boy to treat his mother. But we were not bombing her. We were trying to knock her wig off. We never once succeeded, though we tried every strategy. I’m sure she got hit a couple of times in our efforts to down the wig but she never complained.

She just got even.

Mom’s punishments were legendary. You just didn’t want to cross her. When one of us had a problem completing the chore of getting dirty clothes to the laundry you just ran out of clothes and had to walk around the house wrapped in a sheet.

Mom could sometimes throw food. It was usually because someone had a smart mouth but sometimes it was because Mom’s arms were short and throwing was easier than trying to give us a well-deserved smack. My brother once got a hot chicken pot pie to the face.

I'm not sure what is going on in this picture...maybe Christmas morning? But Mom's hair here is just epic.
I’m not sure what is going on in this picture…maybe Christmas morning? But Mom’s hair here is just epic.
Mom did other Mom things that used to horrify us. I have stubborn cowlicks in my hair and Mom fought them with a vengeance. Any time we would take pictures – and my Dad was a photo geek and we took pictures a lot – my hair could get unique treatments of hair spray and goop to fight the tendency it had to stick up in odd places. Mom sometimes had nothing to work with and sometimes she’d just lick her fingers and wet the hair down. I would always complain and she would always have to tell me to “be quiet and stop embarrassing her”.

If Mom took unorthodox methods to her raising of little boys she continued it into our teenage years. This was when I really remember my mother’s tender side.

Teen years are hard and I was no exception. I was always a little big, frightfully shy, a bit uncertain and never quite possessed of the confidence of my brother. He was a genius. He skated his way through school, while I struggled. He could play any sports where I was always the last guy picked for dodge ball. And Mom was always watching me, always cheering me on, always aware of my unspoken yet tender feelings and sometimes broken heart. Mom championed me in everything.

Even girls.

I can recall being about 15 years old and there was a girl I liked. I didn’t tell a soul about it but Mom had eyes. I can remember her once sitting me down and telling me how to wear my clothes, how to smile and how to compliment a girl. What other Mom does that with a teenage boy? Mom was sensitive to me and she knew my struggles.

I grew up, got older and moved away. It happens. We all go through stages, even Moms. But Mother has been a steady part of my life. I learned early on that home meant Mom – not the house where we lived. She set the tone, she controlled the smells, she made the warmth that was home.

She was always fun and sometimes surprising. Summer vacations meant a lot of travel and sightseeing. And sometimes some fishing. It was something we all did together – even Mom. And she loved it. Dad’s learned method for trout was to troll at a low speed over Fish Lake and we would hit that magic hour late in the evening just before sunset with lines cast out all over the boat.

Everyone wanted to fish but my big brother – the first teen driver in the family – was more interested in driving the boat. But controlling the course of the little boat with six lines out was something beyond his abilities. And that frustrated Mom who had a knack for reeling them in. Inevitably the lines would get crossed and Mom would begin to curse like a sailor. Oh, it was legendary. Mom wasn’t shy about the use of occasional language but nothing caused her to erupt like fishing interrupted. She took it to a level we never heard at home – only in a boat.

When it came to things like anger and frustration Mom actually rolled with things pretty well. She had a “don’t complain” approach to most things. We were all mostly close in age and she had to get production from us on everything. She didn’t put up with a lot of guff and she certainly didn’t like hearing us moan about anything. I think this came from her own growing up years as an only child. She had to do everything.

But occasionally a “damn” or a “hell” came out. And it never failed to crack us up. I can remember once being at church, of all places. And my little sister, who was NOT sick, turned an innocent burp into an accidental vomit projectile. She was watching her big brothers have a burping contest and it looked like fun to her. But she had to work at it, really reaching down deep to get that authentic belch to bellow, just like the big boys. We worked with her on her technique and she was doing pretty well until she tried a little too hard and we ended up with a mess. That earned a “oh hell”, right there in church.

Speaking of “Oh Hell”, we sometimes played a card game by that name on holiday breaks. I learned in later years it was more of a game of chance than a game of skill. It was supposed to be fun. But I can recall seeing a side to both of my parents playing that game that I never otherwise saw. I can recall my Dad slamming his cards down on the table in frustration or my Mom letting loose with a few choice words at the cards she would draw. Once she got so mad at a smirk on my father’s face that she dumped her cards in his lap before the game was over and walked away from the table.

Fall and Christmas were my Mother’s time of the year. She just relished the seasons and squeezed the life out of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our Christmas tree hunts were epic and the arguments over the right shape of the tree were legendary. I never, ever, ever agreed with Mom’s choice for the tree. She got it wrong every time. But by the time the day was done and the tree went from being in the ground in the morning to being up in our house later that night it was always a thing of splendor. Mom had the eye.

Losing Mom this past week has caused us to naturally consider all the many stages of her life. There is so much more to her than what I am recounting here because the stage I’m really talking about are the years of my childhood.

But I don’t want these years forgotten because Mother was really an attentive, creative, and engaged Mom. She was the center of my world as a kid and that is really how it is supposed to be. She anchored everything and everything was right with the world with Mom there. And she was always there.

I never wanted to disappoint her. Never. And that was the thing about Mom. Even when I did disappoint her she was gentle with me and would never, ever let me hear that she was disappointed in me. No, she loved me. No matter what.

Fish Lake -- where Mom was the fish whisperer.
Fish Lake — where Mom was the fish whisperer.
I had a magical childhood not because Mom was a teller of fairytales or an inventor of imaginary worlds. She used her own creativity in trusting the development of our own imaginations. I recall being about six and playing with my cars, which I had by the dozens. We had a brick fireplace, the lines of the grout serving in my mind as perfect lines for parking my cars and I covered the entire fireplace with my fleet.

I remember my Mom watching me in silence. I was, for some reason, a little embarrassed and quickly took my arm and swept everything off the fireplace at once. “Why did you do that?” Mom asked me. I confessed that I was embarrassed at her watching me. “But why?” Mom said, “I was learning how to do that and you took it away from me. Show me again! I want to know how to do it.”

That was Mom’s gift – she could see things within us we could not see and she taught lessons in less than obvious ways.

She always gets a lot of laughs as my siblings remember the chicken pot pies or incidents where she had one of us arrested for stealing a candy bar. Mom could be out there for sure.

But I remember her more for her subtleties. She could teach us when we didn’t know we were being taught.

I loved my mother’s handwriting. I struggled with handwriting early on because I was naturally left handed but made in school to use my right hand. Mom was always so fluid in her handwriting and I admired it. I wanted to write like that. And Mom knew that. She would encourage me and sit me down to show me how to maybe shape things a little different in very small ways. I remember learning cursive and her telling me to make my capital letter “J” like the head of a bird. She knew and I knew I would never be the artist she was. But she knew I wanted nice handwriting, just like my mom. We never talked about it. But she helped me over and over again because, being Mom, she knew what was important to me.

Knowing my heart is what I always loved about my Mom. Being a boy meant being brave and not always displaying hurt feelings or tears. Mom was aware of that. But she was also so aware of my sensibilities and she viewed them as strengths – something to be cultivated and encouraged.

I cannot go back to those days. And now I can’t have my Mom back either. Sad as that is I also know that Mom, where she is, still knows my heart. And she speaks to me that way. I know when she is happy and I know when she isn’t. That was always our connection and always will be.

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