I’ve been writing this year. Well, to be honest, I was writing until, somewhere in July, I kind of stopped.
It’s my first attempt at something significant in awhile – a blog series on people who’ve inspired me. After a good start, I missed some weeks, then more. I realized getting stuck seemed to happen most when I tried to pick people who had done great things, as opposed to ones who touched something in me.
No one touches me, even all these years later, more than you. It’s crazy to think that this month, you will have been gone for 35 years. I only had you in my life for 14. And while your absence doesn’t cause the same deep pain it once did, I think about you all the time – who you were, what you’d think of the world, and how things might be different if you’d been here longer.
What choices might I have made if I hadn’t spent a third of my childhood with someone battling alcoholism and depression? If you’d been able to work on your dreams, would I have been able to create bigger ones for myself? Though I can’t know if I’d have had more confidence, felt less fear, I believe that having your guiding hand on my shoulder could have helped me be a bit braver, more excited about the opportunities that lay ahead.
Instead, a mix of grief and natural reticence led to a lot of “comfort” decisions. I eschewed taking chances for safety, and while there are things and people I can’t imagine my life without, I still wonder about what might have been had I pushed myself, found more courage when confronting challenges.
This blog… as I mentioned, it’s about Inspirers – people who, through word or action, make me think about doing more, being more. I’ve had Dad, and Nana & Granddaddy, along with some famous people as subjects. And now, it’s time for you, the woman who, despite her short presence in my life, has probably influenced me more than any other person.
It sounds weird, but I don’t have any concrete memories of you. I can’t hear your voice, and am not really able to picture you, even as I do other people from those early years. Perhaps it’s trauma; someday, perhaps I’ll be able to pull the images out. But here’s the thing, and what led me to choose you as my Inspirer this week. As far from 1982 as we are, there are a lot of people who do remember you. And many are still in my life.
When I posted your picture on Facebook to commemorate your birthday, the response was fast and remarkable. Person after person commented – and whether it was as a Girl Scout leader or a neighborhood mom, the consensus was pretty clear.
You made people feel special. They recalled how our house was always open to all the kids and how there was always a friendly face to welcome them. Girls remembered the crafts you taught, guys remember you and Dad serving as chaperones on great weekend outings.
I believe that the remembrances are a tribute to you, to the values you instilled and the way you lived and loved. Because you did it so clearly and openly, there are many here to attest to your wonderful legacy.
You were sweet, they say. Kind and warm. I remember someone once remarking that you had a soft spot for kids and animals and that nothing angered you more than their mistreatment. Those who needed your caring, and perhaps a smidge of protection, were extra special to you.
Your welcoming nature, though, was even more important in ways I’ve only recently learned. I was so happy when kids my age moved onto our block. Now I know that some in the neighborhood weren’t thrilled with a black family moving in. It warmed my heart to hear how you made sure they knew they were welcomed by our family.
So many people have told me that they loved our annual New Year’s Day open house – another example of your hospitality – that featured your reubens and onion sandwiches. They’re still being made by many. I had lunch with one of your best friends awhile ago. She gave me one of your recipe index cards – that bubbly handwriting is one thing I do remember well, I treasure it.
Though there were things that took over your life – things I likely will never fully understand – I take pride in your acts of bravery. Marrying a “foreigner,” being the first in your family to move away from your childhood home to what must have seemed so far away. And then, after starting your family in New York City, relocating to Teaneck, a town that was making a name for itself – it may not have been perfect but it was mighty special, and something I’ve only begun to appreciate.
Genes are an odd thing. Though we spent a short time together, I believe that I am very like you. I know we have the same look – people commented on how much this picture I used of you looks like me.
But I got more than your eyes and premature gray. I inherited a sensitivity (sometimes it feels like fragility) that means I get frustrated easily, especially when things seem unfair or it seems people are being mistreated. I cry pretty quickly – over tv shows, diary entries, and pictures of you as a young woman. I take great offense if I feel I’ve been wronged and wonder if you did. I’ve gotten better at forgiveness, though can still be very stubborn. Does that sound familiar?
Your family has grown, Mom, in ways that might have been hard to imagine 35 years ago. Your descendants include a stunning mix of the most beautiful people, every one of whom you would adore. I wonder if you could have imagined our diversity when you set down roots… I have no doubt you’d be proud.
When I turned 45, I visited your grave. Outliving your lifespan felt odd. I thought it might bring closure, but it was tough – there was no path to follow anymore. It made me realize just how young you were. There was so much left to do.
It was actually easier in the old days, when I could hold on to anger at you for abandoning me when I needed you most. But though I still don’t fully understand what happened and why, I do get feeling so badly that it just doesn’t seem worth the fight. It can be exhausting. I wish we could have helped you more back then, told you how much we needed you to keep fighting.
The thing that keeps me going – and I haven’t shared this much – is this feeling that, somehow, I’m doing this for both of us. Trying to conquer our shared challenges, trying to find fulfillment that I’m not sure you ever did. Your oldest kids took care of the children thing, to wonderful effect. My job, it feels like, is to reach into the heart that I think I share with you, to take our vulnerabilities and turn them into strengths, then find the resiliency that will help me achieve my goals.
So even as I continue to mourn – and I expect I will until my own last day – I also give thanks for a mother who left me and many others inspired by her kindness, ability to comfort, and commitment to those in need. These are lessons that flowed from you and I will do my best to keep them going.
We are all better off for having you in our family tree, our neighborhood, our lives. They are thriving thanks to the love your spirit continues to nourish.
Until we meet again,