Living

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

I have not blogged for a while. It’s the biggest lapse since I started blogging, actually. Things have been… you know how things have been. I’ve been torn between trying to stay positive and feeling anxious and being grateful that my parents don’t have to deal with a quarantine.

Which leads me to the mom blog.

Mom was a little girl in World War II. She had very few memories, really. Dad was older; he was old enough to remember, but not old enough to understand. He had stories about collecting fighter plane cards and feeling lucky that Grandpa scored a giant barrel of eggs preserved in water glass. His memories felt sheltered to me—innocent.

Mom, who didn’t remember the war, but remembered growing up poor after it, was undeniably shaped by it. She was frugal—clipped her coupons, made her own clothes, and crocheted toys for us. She lived as if she didn’t have much, even when she was comfortably middle class. Some of that rubbed off on me.

But along with being cautious with her funds, she also appreciated what she did have, perhaps because she remembered very clearly not having much at all. No store-bought toys. One chicken for nine people. The stories she told involved people, not things.

So when I think of her living through a quarantine in a pandemic, and I try to imagine what she would have done, I don’t have to look too far. As I walk the dogs around our neighborhood and chat with neighbors, I am following my genetic directive. When I text and zoom and email friends to stay in touch, I’m reminded of how Dad set up a special chair for her to talk on the phone. I send out greeting cards to friends in far-flung places, and I remember the drawer she had full of cards for all occasions and the long list of holiday card recipients.

And I think despite having more in common with my dad, mom left her mark on me in many ways. She would have hunkered down during a quarantine and done whatever it took to keep her family safe. She would have kept people distracted with stories and games. She would have been delighted but flummoxed by video chat. And there’s no way in hell she’d have run out of toilet paper.

Stay safe out there, my friends.

Living · Reading

We Read to Remember

I said this on a podcast (in a podcast? This is a very new world for me) recently, and when I said it, it rang with more truth than I could articulate at the time. I hope to parse it out more productively here.
Reading has always served a cultural purpose, preserving our past and providing a way for us not to repeat mistakes. We read to remember how wars began, in hopes that we can avoid more. We read to remember our cultural history when we read fairy tales or myths, but also biography and history. Biography tells us one woman’s story; folklore tells us Everyman’s.
When I teach literature and folklore, students are delighted (or aghast) to find themselves in these stories. I taught the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied a few years ago, and we talked not only about the obvious influences on works like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but also the repetition of political dramas relevant to the upheaval in the Ukraine at the time (2014). We read to feel connected and understood when the world seems chaotic beyond measure. Because more than likely, we’ve been here before.
Those are big, sweeping reasons to read to remember. There are more personal ones, of course. We read to remember people we knew and loved. There are lots of books that remind me of my parents—mom loved biographies and romances; dad loved historical fiction, especially set in World War II, and he idolized Frank Lloyd Wright. Every time I pick up a biography I think of my mom because I argued with her for years about their usefulness. I loved to read stories, but true lives held no interest. The older I get, the more interesting people are to me, though, and I know she’d be tickled by that. I still don’t find myself tripping through World War II novels, but every time I read about some new building or, let’s face it—any time there’s any significant structure in a book I’m reading, I read it like an architect’s daughter, and I remember his lessons and esthetics.
That seems pretty personal, but I think the most important reason we read to remember is even more intimate. We read to remember who we were. When we read a book we’ve read before, part of our experience is remembering what we thought the first time—where we were; if someone had made us read it and whether that colored our encounter; and we even find parts of our identity that may have changed radically since then—nearly forgotten past selves—until we dig them up like archaeologists of the soul.
This happens to everyone every time we read books that take us back. But since I had fifteen years of reading to my kids, and since I sometimes teach Children’s Literature, it means the most to me when I reread a children’s book I’ve loved. It’s one thing to read 100 Years of Solitude at 20 and then 30, but it’s quite a different experience to read “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” and be able to pinpoint the moment it first occurred to you that women could be something other than mothers. I was little. That was huge. Reading it to my Children’s Lit class was both a return to my youth and a call to arms for the next generation. Reading it to my daughter was a homecoming. I watched her face. I looked for sparks. And I rolled around in the images and ideas, bouncing back and forth between child-me and mommy-me, feeling all the goodness and love important ideas and charming stories fill us with.
Because that’s what it’s about. Feelings. We read to feel, so we can read to remember how we felt. This could be a book that reminds us of a particular person or a time in our lives, or it could be the book just makes us feel great, and we read to capture that feeling again and again.
We read to remember how we feel, how we felt, where we came from, whom we love, who we were. We read to become ourselves.
(The podcast I refer to was a conversation with the brilliant and gracious Steve Zelt, and can be found, if you’re a listening type of person, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQmIDJH2E54)
Living

What I learned from my mother

I’m still processing my mom’s death, but since it followed a ten year decline in to paranoid schizophrenia, part of me feels like I should be farther along.  In some ways, after all, I’ve been mourning her loss for years. I mourned the absence of a grandmother in my children’s lives, the fact that she was “here” but couldn’t hear our triumphs and setbacks like she used to, the fact that every visit took her farther away from me, but not so far I could find any closure. 
 
Once she was medicated out of the terror-inducing delusions, she was still left with delusions. I had a mom, but not my mom, or at least it didn’t feel that way.  Her passing is allowing me to close some doors and open some that were too painful to deal with. It was too hard to think about the happy memories when I was faced with her suffering at every visit. But now that has passed, I can redirect my thoughts of her to the good ones–and there are many–and give myself permission to roll around in them. 
Upon some reflection, I feel like I’ve had something of an epiphany. I think I got my mind from my dad—my curiosity, my sense of wonder, my joy in learning.  But I know I got my heart from my mom. 
 
The middle child of seven, she grew up around kids and couldn’t wait to start her own family.  When she miscarried twins at 22, the doctors declared her broken and unable to have her own children. That broke her heart, but when it healed, or when the desire to raise a family overcame the failure of Plan A, my parents adopted two children.They told themselves it was better, even, because they could choose how to plan their family—a son first, then a daughter. So they made it happen. And she loved those babies like crazy.
 
Then she had me at 35. She didn’t believe it at first, the “broken” comments about her body still as fresh and wounding as they had been years before. She asked the doctor if one could be “a little bit pregnant.” But there I was.  And she loved me like crazy, too.
She loved lots of people and lots of things–painting and music and reading and traveling–and she was a model for me for how to have a heart open to the world.  Mostly, though, above all else, she loved her family:  her parents and siblings, and then her husband and children, her heart growing with each marriage and birth.
 
I found an anniversary poem she wrote for my dad on their 38th anniversary, where she described their family like a complete set—first came a blond boy, then a red-haired girl, then a little dark-haired baby. Genetically, of course, we’re all different, but she described us so sweetly, like a lucky kid getting all three colors out of the gumball machine. This was all framed in an ode to her husband—the best prize she’d ever won. She loved us, and she made it her life’s goal to make a loving home for us.
 

And she did. Warm, supportive, comforting, cozy, cinnamon-scented, celebratory home-life, I learned from her. And I am ever grateful.