There are lots of benefits to being the youngest in a family of five children. Aside from claiming the Favorite Child title, I reaped the benefits of being much younger than my siblings so that when they were all leaving home, I was also beginning my “new life as an only child”. Mom and Dad were all mine.
As we gathered during the final week of Mom’s life and started to reflect on her journey and our part in it, we pulled out the photo albums and noticeably absent were my photos. Mom was pretty meticulous about chronicling her children’s moments but like Dad told me this week when we looked at the photos, each time she added a child, she did less and less with her hair. And so it was with these photo books. By the time I came along, she was up to her elbows in diapers, baseball games, Boy Scouts, teenage drama and more. Who had the time to paste photos in a book? It doesn’t upset me NOW that I am not in the albums although I remember when I was younger being a little disappointed for not being well represented. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t well documented in photos or that I didn’t get to experience things like my siblings. My brother asked me if I had felt neglected or that I had missed out on stuff. No, I don’t feel that way. My experiences were just different. I missed out on NOTHING.
One of the advantages to being an “only child” is that it was much easier to bring me along on their adventures. If you can call photographing the outside of a Longs Drug Store an adventure – Mom & Dad may argue that it was just a job but for this kid, it WAS an adventure. I was always in the car going someplace with them. In hindsight I think I must have studied Dad when he photographed these stores because he was always looking for the best angle. Let’s be honest Longs stores pretty much all looked the same and to get them to stand out he tried to photograph them at the right time of day, or at the right angle so the background would compliment the photograph. Mom was always at his elbow lending her advice about the photos as she lined up the Polaroid test shots across her lap and dashboard of the car.
These Longs photography road trips were pretty frequent and many times very early in the morning before the store was officially open. Dad needed “customers” to fill the shots and that was up to Mom and I. We’d grab a cart and we’d walk in and out of the store over and over again while he clicked away. So we’d talk, usually about mundane things and I can’t really recall any subject in particular but it sticks in my mind because this was something I was doing with her – just me. And I we did it A LOT. I didn’t think it at the time but you know what? It was fun. Mom was fun.
I could go on and on about the different trips that I got to take with Mom & Dad. Because there were so many from road trips to Arizona, to hanging out in Hawaii to flying to New York to attend a trade show to driving around New England to hit every single covered bridge in Vermont and filling up trunks with shoes they had purchased at every single outlet center they could find. We were traveling beasts. It was pretty cool. With some of the trips, I’d miss school. In order to miss school and still get decent grades, Mom would negotiate with the teachers by promising that I would write a report about the things I saw and experienced. I wasn’t too excited about the report writing but then there we were on a redeye flight back home – all three of us assembling the reports with photos and captions.
If I could describe Mom it would be as “my champion”… she would back me up in almost anything. When I thought I wouldn’t get to go to the Senior Ball, and then at the very last minute was invited to go, Mom took me out of school and we spent the day in San Francisco hunting down a prom dress.
When I met a guy in an online chat room she warned me about how he could be a hatchet murderer and when I told her his last name was Fluck, she didn’t miss a beat and declared, “Ah, crap! You’re probably going to end up marrying him.” Well, she was half right. I did marry him and thankfully for the rest of us, he was not a hatchet murderer.
When I planned my wedding, not only did Mom design all of the flower arrangements but with a picture of a wedding dress I had seen in a magazine in hand, she and Dad hunted down the only shop in California that carried it and drove hours to get there, see it in person and then call me in Tennessee to let me know they loved it and were buying it. I am pretty sure that is NOT how you buy a wedding dress – sight unseen, not tried on, etc. – but I had faith in my parents that they knew what they were saying. And they were right. The dress was perfect.
Mom may have been super supportive at most times but she wasn’t shy about giving her opinion. She was very vocal about the dangers of how I met Mike. And even after the wedding and we had moved into our first home, she and I had words about him. Mom came to visit us in Tennessee and I honestly can’t remember what her beef was but I do remember standing up to her. I remember telling her that I was not only an adult and capable of making my own decisions but that I had chosen Mike and it wasn’t up to her anymore. It was probably the most heated argument we had ever had…seriously…it was a “we’re driving in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, stop the car, I am getting out and walking” kind of fight. She knew I was serious. And she never again said another word. But I kept that experience tucked in the back of my mind for future use if necessary. I never had to bring it up again.
When Mike died, Mom grieved almost as much as I did. We would talk about him and she would say to me, “Mike was my friend. He listened to me.” That touched me because it not only spoke of the man Mike was but it also meant Mom never stopped learning. Mike knew that he had his work cut out for him to win Mom’s approval and in his “Mike Way” he did that by fostering a friendship with my mother. Mom learned that people are not always as they seem and when given the opportunity they would rise above any expectations and surprise you. Mom loved Mike very much and she would provide me perspective about who he was, what he felt and why he did the things he did. Her words of wisdom in regards to her son-in-law would temper my anger and frustration. I will miss that the most because I am not done dealing with my feelings in regards to how Mike died. I still need her wisdom.
I could probably write a book about my memories of Mom.
In the mid-1980s, Mom LOVED going to boutiques. These were basically home-grown flea markets that people would set up in their garages or living rooms to sell their crafts on the weekend. We went to these boutiques nearly every weekend during the fall months. Eventually mom would get involved in her own boutiques so she could peddle her homemade afghans and padded photo albums. She would partner with some other ladies she knew from church. I would sit there all day as they would chit chat in someone’s living room. Mom would always put a pot of apple cider on the stove, throw in some cinnamon sticks and let the aroma fill the house. It was a marketing technique that worked. To this day whenever I smell that smell it reminds me of sitting there drawing pictures to pass the time while Mom tried to sell her wares.
If there was something iconic about Mom, it was her hair. Dad would tell me stories about how long, thick and dark Mom’s hair was when he met her in high school. I remember thinking “how could that be?” For as long as I have been around Mom has sported a wig and she has pretty much looked the same for ALL OF MY LIFE. The story goes that sometime way back when, someone got the idea that maybe Mom could do more with her hair if there wasn’t so much of it and so her mother – my Nana – one day did something to thin out my Mom’s luxurious mane of hair. My guess is that the plan backfired and whatever Mom was left with wasn’t what she wanted the rest of the world to see so she hid it beneath a wig. Mom was meticulously private when it came to her wigs and we not only didn’t speak of the wigs but not a single one of us was allowed in the room when she groomed her hair.
I can admit now – probably because she is gone and I won’t get a chickpot pie in the face in retaliation – I did sneak a peek a few times when I was a kid. Sorry, Mom.
When Mom had her stroke in 2010 and things got more difficult for her to do, I became Mom’s hairdresser. I know it was very difficult for her to allow me to see her this way. And I must have looked like Luke Skywalker when he took off Darth Vader’s mask the first time I removed her wig. This single daily act of service that I provided Mom is my favorite memory. Mom trusted me to brush what was left of her hair – and it really wasn’t that bad. But I get why she hid it. What was left was a mere reminder of what once was – she still had, even into her 70s dark strands peppered with gray. It was long and thinner but it provided me a glimpse of the girl she that she still was – spunky and fiercely opinionated.
Styling Mom’s wig was a challenge. I could never quite get it how she could get it and I am amazed at how she was able to turn what showed up in a box on our doorstep into what eventually lay on her head. I would style it very much how one would mold clay. And towards the end, I think she cared less and less with how it looked. She just enjoyed the looks of frustration on my face and my reactions when I would come home from a trip and see the state her hair was in. I would ask in horror, “WHAT did you do to your hair?” She would just laugh. And I think that is the best way to deal with what you can’t control – find the humor in it and laugh.
When I think about all these things and other memories that have come flooding back, I can say with certainty that Mom AWESOMED THE CRAP out of me. She is my role model in every way. If my own daughter can look back on my life one day with the same reflection that I look at my mother’s life, then I know I did ok. And I will have Mom to thank for that.