The Dying of the Light

For two months I watched the light die. Increasing confusion and memory loss became the shutters slowly closing over the remarkable woman that was my mother.

We did not have the traditional mother-daughter intimacy that seems to be the referent for many woman. We are both complicated, perhaps more so as time has gone on.

As a child I wrote her, mostly from camp or from a summer stay in Florida with my grandmother, innocent lovey letters. Sometimes funny, sometimes angry but almost always lovey. Remarkably she saved them all.

As a young adult I wrote her long newsy and personal letters about my life at the time, husbands, school, work, money. Later in life I stopped writing at all for a time, holding my personal life close as she wanted to know and use any bit of information she could come by. I was astonished to learn of her correspondences with past husbands, boyfriends and their relations long after those relationships had ended. She never let anyone go willingly until she decided it was time.

During this last phase of our relationship I mostly emailed as she could not hear on the phone unless she really wanted to. And there was very little intimate shared as she chose to hear everything as she wished it or thought it to be. And she had no boundaries about sharing what she was told with anyone and everyone.

But remarkably, during her last protracted illness, I spent weeks with her. The longest alone time we had ever spent together in my adult life, and unusually, there were very few arguments. Perhaps she knew this was our last and most precious time together, maybe I have grown up enough to let her confabulations pass. How she remembered something, or told it – it no longer mattered if it was true.

During this time we just lived, in mostly a single room, in companionable silence. Sometimes working on some project she had in mind, other times just watching the news or having a meal. She always had a project in mind, something to do next even as she knew her time was drawing to a close.

Letting go of my mother involves letting go of this also extraordinary place where she lived for over fifty years. This house, and her presence in it, became the touchstone, the lodestar, the place to return to. It is a beautiful place and a strange house full of art and books and weird found objects.

My mother found beauty in rescued birds nests, found bleached animal bones, robins eggs and a million other things. Her artist’s eye was unique. Her flower gardens, blooming from season to season were a labor of decades of love, now starting to overgrow with weeds. She never used pesticides or poisons, she shared her blueberries with the bears and her apples with the deer and raccoons, the peaches with some creature or other. My mother, never really at peace, lived in complete harmony with the natural world around her.

As we begin to remove things from the space where she and I spent her last days it feels like erasure. And then I start on the photographs and she is brilliantly brought into focus as are the stages of the building of the house.

We were not close in any traditional way but I miss my mom and I will miss this place. We had our time, hers is done, my road goes forward.

Tupac and the Foo Fighters

As I go about my daily tasks, or turn on the television, I often wonder at the extent to which the music of my youth, my life, has become the soundtrack of commercials and elevators. I think I have written about this before but currently there is a whole crop of commercials that is using music that informed my younger days.

Of course every generation has a catalogue of music that is defining for them. Now we, the baby boomers, are the target audience for so many things because the world of big business assumes that we are the ones with the money. So it makes sense to use the music that speaks to us but it is still weird to hear it bastardized and monetized in a these ways.

I went to see the movie All Eyez on Me several years back; a biopic about Tupac Shakur. I went alone, as I often do. I found it interesting as a musician as I did not know all that much about the history of rap and the east-west competition with Big. I did not know that Tupac was an extraordinary musical engineer, doing his own mixes and orchestrating all of his stuff himself. That is big talent in my book.

Most startling about this experience was how many people were astounded that I went to see the movie at all. I am a sixty something white woman and apparently I didn’t fit the stereotype of who should go see, let alone enjoy, this movie. While the movie may not have been the best or most accurate, it was an interesting window into a subculture and a form of music that I was not all that familiar with.

My best friend is a lover of punky stuff. And while we feel the same way about music, and find some intersections, generally we do not listen to the same kind of music. She was talking music with her granddaughter who was amazed that my friend wanted to see the Foo Fighters in person. What? Grandma wants to see the Foo Fighters?

Her grandma is definitely not my grandma. Old is not as old as it used to be. But my grandma taught me the single most important of my life – never judge a book (person) by its cover. This is what she lived by, and how we all should live; rappers, punkers, folkies, classical audiophiles and jazz lovers all walking hand in hand. Sam Cooke got it right: what a wonderful world that would be.

Never Date a Tow Truck Driver

So when you are done laughing, here it is. I was in a zoom call with a group of women that I love and trust. And after we got done talking about the important and serious stuff, we got talking about this and that.

It is always a surprise to me what women end up talking about when we are just talking. I love that our conversations are unpredictable in their course. And the best is that it is not about gossip but about the random vagaries of life in the world.

In this particular group of women there is great diversity of age, ethnicity, stage of life, parenthood, etc. What we have in common is that we are all women growing in ourselves and in the world. We are all becoming, all the time.

One memorable such conversation was one that during an outdoor socially distanced lunch centered on toilet paper. Not on the current difficulty of acquisition, but on our individual tastes. How on earth do you end up in this conversation when the world is such a confusing mess? Maybe it felt safer. In this more current discussion we ranged from the appearance of grey pubic hair to the futility of dating later in life to wanting to beat children to death (mostly figuratively) to dog surgery and needy cats.

They say that every minute laughing adds a year to your life, or something like that – I forget the formula. If so, I just added a decade to mine. The best and most hilarious dating advice I have ever gotten (and it was today) was this: “never date a tow truck driver.” I can promise you that this was not an attribute I would have been seeking in a partner but I will take the advice to heart!

Cookies Like Memory

He cut the grass, and then it rained. And then the sun came out and the blazing heat resumed. It smelled just like my grandmother’s house during our vacations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My grandmother lived in Miami Beach.  I have lived in Florida for almost 15 years, but it has never smelled like Florida to me until that very moment.

Every summer we would go to sleep-away summer camp in Vermont, as the children of a working divorced mom. After that we always went to our Grandma Jennie’s house in Miami Beach for a week or two.

My grandmother made these amazing cookies, crunchy and not too sweet, that she kept in a hall pantry closet and doled out two at a time to my brother and me. For special occasions she made what our family calls the “cherry cookies”, very labor intensive and very yummy. I make both sometimes, generally as a gift for someone in the family as much as a gift for myself. She always made them in the shape of our initials, T for me and P for my brother. I continue that tradition, it makes them taste more like memory. I have never quite duplicated how they tasted when she made them. Like New York bagels, I think it is the water. Maybe just the taste of her fingers on the dough.

On those gloriously free summer days in the Florida heat we would go out in the afternoon sun showers and dance on the lawn in our white cotton 1950’s underwear. We would walk every day and in the little neighborhood park we would stand at the flagpole where she taught us to pledge allegiance with our grubby  hands over our hearts. We would stop at the crest of a walking bridge over a canal and look for dolphins and rainbows. We would go down to the sea and she would hold us on her lap in the ocean, bouncing with the waves, and she would sing to us “By the Sea”. That melody still comes to me occasionally unbidden.

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She lived to be over 100 years old, retaining her faculties and her home well into her nineties. When her neighborhood became predominantly Cuban, she went to the local senior center and learned Spanish so she could talk to them. When she did not feel safe to drive, she walked about four miles to groceries and back. She was extraordinarily self-sufficient, her husband having died one summer in his sleep when we were little and we were there. I went to Miami Beach once in my free wheeling hippie days with a ridiculously tall boyfriend with ridiculously long hair. It was Christmas time, although I don’t recall that she celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas, and we just turned up at her door. We were welcome, of course, because with Jennie you never ever judged a book by it’s cover.

I have long though of her as the single most influential woman that has been in my life. Not to negate my mother’s influence, of course. And I deeply regret that in my unconscious twenties and thirties and my insanely busy forties I did not find the time or energy to be more in touch with her. Life lessons, learned too late and generally unheeded by the young coming behind me.

It is useless to regret but some regrets are unavoidable, they teach us not to make the same mistakes again. But the lessons, they are to be cherished and taken to heart. This amazing woman had standards of behavior that were clear and important, but she also accepted everyone for exactly who they were regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, appearance or anything else that might make them different.

In that moment when my lawn smelled like Florida at my Grandma’s house so long ago, I hoped that I had become half the woman she was. It is good that the bar is set high.

Remember When

Pandemic singing

Remember when you were a pre-teen, or a teenager, and conversations revolved around just a very few things. How much you disliked (not really) your parents, or at least their rules. How you looked; hair, clothes, makeup, etc. Music, for me it was the time of the Beatles and all the other bands that came along as all the musical rules were broken. And it was about boys, at least for some of us, not so much for me.

I was not a popular girl, I didn’t have a clique, I was not thin or pretty. I was chubby and wore braces. At most schools – I changed schools a lot – I had one friend. Nobody thought I was funny or particularly smart and I didn’t work hard enough to prove them wrong. I started smoking young to try to be cool. It was the sixties after all, everybody smoked. It was cigarettes that gave me a blues voice, very different now.

I skipped a couple of grades and had a late in the year birthday so from junior high school on I was always much younger than those I went to class with. I don’t really remember ever dating in the traditional sense. I remember my first “boyfriend”, a bass player from Queens, when I was in tenth grade – I was 14-15. This only meant that we played music, hung out and smoked pot, there was no real dating involved. It did start a long line of crushes on musicians though, not sure I have outgrown that yet.

From that time on it was always in a pack. It was hippies, free love, the grateful dead, playing music and a tribe. And I never really gave any thought to what I might want in a partner, even though the subject comes up periodically amongst women and girls. I have been married three times and still, until recently, never actively or consciously thought about what I might want in a partner. I note here that I am partnerless and generally think I will remain that way. But it is interesting to think about the what ifs in life every now and again.

At this advanced time of life here is what I would wish for in my imaginary prince charming: someone who notices that I am wearing two different earrings, someone who notices when I get a haircut, someone who doesn’t mind if I sing all the time (preferably someone who can play music with me), someone who will travel the world with me and hold my hand all the time, someone who reads, someone who can fix things, someone who will cook for me every now and then, someone who will hold my feet on his lap along with the cat. Most important, someone who sees me and doesn’t mind me being who I am. Too much to ask I think, that’s why it is imaginary.