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My Mother’s Party

22 Apr

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I was born in the middle of a winter storm.

I look at pictures of my mother, pregnant with me, holding me, standing with me then, now, throughout the years, and always she smiles. Most times, when you take a picture of someone, you tell them to smile. You say “cheese.” You pose. You capture a tiny choreographed moment in a lifetime that is hopefully a good memory.

I look at these pictures of my mother. Someone may have told her to pose. Someone may have said smile. Someone might have said “say cheese.”

My mother did not need any of this sort of prompting. These pictures of my mother are real.

I look at my mother from the point of view of a child, a teenager, an adult, as a mother of children myself, then, now, throughout the years. And always, she smiles. Her moments are not choreographed. She is a person who sees and does and is the best. And she smiles. Always.

I know very well what it is like to be a mother. I know what it is to lose your patience and your temper and at times, your heart. I do not know this from watching my own mother. She never displayed it though it is hard to imagine my brother and I did not, at times, compel her to feel it. I also know what it is to fiercely love your children, to know a boundless, intense adoration. This, I learned from my mother.

You may all know what it is like to have my mother as a friend, an aunt, a cousin. Can you just imagine what it is like to be her daughter. It is a gift beyond measure.

In the middle of that storm I was born in, I imagine my mother smiled. I imagine she still saw the sun beyond the snowy sky, just waiting to shine. I imagine she took it all with the same grain of sand she manages to take all the storms she has weathered in her life.

She tells me how it was a cold winter and she used to swaddle me in so many layers she could not see my face, just so she could take me for a walk outside. This is the perfect analogy for how my mother lives her life. She layers herself and those she loves with enough protection and she goes outside for a walk. She does not let a little cold or a snowstorm stop her. She goes outside.

Almost 15 years ago I gave birth to my beautiful son, Charlie. I think it was the happiest day of my mother’s life. And, only one year later, she retired from her full time teaching position to be a full time grandma, a role she has taken on with joy and dedication. My mother traveled into the city every Wednesday night, at a minimum, to see her beloved Charlie, who was just a baby. But he knew. He knew her. He knew her presence. And he loved her.

And three years later, she completed her grandson trifecta with my boys, Ben and Eli. I don’t know if my sons realize how good they have it. How fortunate they are to not only live around the corner from my mother but also to live inside her heart.

She turns every day, every moment spent with them, into an adventure. She does not ever babysit. She babyacts. She finds books, movies, travels, parks, attractions, shows, and events which will spark the varying interests of each different boy and she gleefully spends her retirement money and time on making their very dreams come true. She is incredible.

My mother is a living, beating heart, that pumps love and life through all of us. She is the sunshine that warms us. She is the clear sky we all look to. She is love.

I am so very happy to see my mother to 70. I am so blessed and lucky to see her age, to have her here, to see her with my children, to spend time with me. Each line in her face was earned by years of these smiles, these natural postures, these moments of genuine love and bliss.

Mom, It is, by all accounts, a joy and an honor to be your daughter, to receive your love day in and day out, to be by your side.

Happy birthday, Mom.

I love you then, now, throughout the years, always.

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The Soundtrack of My Life

30 Jan

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My father is singing Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow to me. I am 3 or 4 or 5 years old. I wonder about the limbless body singing until all the parts of him are gone and he is seemingly nonchalant, perhaps even grateful to be without eyes and a tongue. My father continues to sing the same song to me like a lullaby.

I am in a full body cast in a hospital. I am 6 years old. My mother is sitting, surrounded by sick children, with her ukelele, playing and singing Puff the Magic Dragon. I am proud and yet jealous. I do not want to share her with the rest of these patients. I want her to sing and wrap her oversized heart around only me.

I am in my Mustang convertible while Carole King’s Tapestry cassette plays on a loop. I am 17 years old. I am weeping. My boyfriend is going to college and every single song was written for me. I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, Home Again, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Where You Lead, Beautiful. My boyfriend makes several stops to say goodbye to friends while I wait for him in the passenger seat, disconsolate. He gets back in the car and gives me an inscribed locket I will wear until the picture inside is all rubbed out and he breaks my heart years later.

I am lost. I am 18 years old and without a sense of direction. I am listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance album. I am driving my car from Connecticut to New York and it is midnight. I finally find a commercial area where it feels safe enough to get out of the car and make a phone call. I call my father from a  pay phone. I beg him to rescue me. He tells me to find my way home and that it will be good for me. I get back in my car and blast “Caravan.” I circle who knows how much of the tri-state area before I pull into my parents’ driveway sometime after 2 am. I have found my way home.

I am standing amongst piles of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn waiting for movers. I am 23 years old. The only thing not yet packed is my stereo. I am listening to Nanci Griffith CDs for hours as the movers have forgotten me. By the time they pick me up, I am distraught, fearing NYC condo regulations will forbid me from the late move and I will be temporarily homeless. Two men load up the packaged belongings comprising my life and offer me a ride uptown. I sit in the front seat of the movers’ truck as we drive up the FDR to my new home on East 81st. I lean my head against the window, listening to Nanci Griffith on my walkman, equally terrified and excited about this move. I dislike change even though this is a good one. My parents are waiting for me and it is all ok.

I am getting married. I am dancing with my husband to Ben Taylor’s version of The Beatles’ I Will. We are alone on the dance floor, moving in choreographed rhythm thanks to Ernesto of Arthur Murray’s East 86th Street studio. I can see him counting beats in his head as he leads me. We later break loose to The Emotions’ Best of My Love. We don’t yet know that both songs will feature prominently at the bar mitzvah of our first son.

I am in my apartment on East 75th Street. I am nearing the end of my 20s. I am pregnant with my first child. I am working from home for the day, listening to Counting Crows’ This Desert Life. My belly tightens and my son kicks and flutters every time this album plays. He has good taste. I know I will love him.

I am rocking in a glider in the bedroom of my baby boy. He is sleeping on my chest and I think I might never move. I sing him every song I know and love. It goes like this every night. Sweet Baby James, The Way You Look Tonight, Annie’s Song, An American Tune. I sing him Moonshadow and deposit him back into his crib. He tucks his legs beneath him, looks briefly at me, and goes back to sleep.

I am at the obstetrician’s office. I am alone. I am 7 weeks pregnant. My husband is traveling for business. For days I have had a premonition that my doctor will tell me he cannot find a heartbeat. The doctor squeezes jelly over my belly and after several minutes of searching, says “Lisa, I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” I am even sorrier. Sorry to be right. Sorry to lose a baby I already loved. Sorry. I listen to Eva Cassidy’s cover of Fields of Gold over and over, weeping until I tell myself I have punished myself enough and I turn it off.

I am again rocking in a glider but I am in a new room in a new house beside two new babies to love. I sing them the same songs I sang to my first baby. I sing them Moonshadow. I put them into the same crib so they know each other’s presence.

It is my son’s 10th birthday. I am listening to the Circle Game. I cannot believe I am at the second verse. I do not know where the time has gone. I know I will be at the third verse in six short years. I am dragging my feet to slow the circles down, Joni Mitchell.

It is my birthday. 10,000 Maniacs’ These are the Days is playing on my desktop. We have just returned from dinner with my family and I am making my husband and sons dance with me in the kitchen. I will do this every year as long as they will. I turn up the music as high as it will go and watch my family in the reflection of the windows in my kitchen. They indulge me because it’s my birthday but I hope there is enough time in the song for them to feel how much music can lift you, how it can intoxicate you, how its joy is utterly contagious, how necessary it is to be in love with music: to let it infuse your heart, your mind, your soul. To let it literally play the soundtrack to your life.

The Greatest Show on Earth

20 Jan

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I never liked the circus.

Even as a child, the format of three rings with three simultaneous acts made no sense to me. What was I supposed to be focusing on and regardless, all three acts were not entertaining. At all. I didn’t buy into the costumes, the acrobatics, the parades. I finally just started to beg my parents not to bring me anymore.

When I got around to having my own kids, I felt obliged to take them to the circus as a rite of passage. It was as awful as I remembered and my kids were not sold on it either. Thank goodness for good taste.

Last weekend I walked my own tightrope as my oldest son was in an emergency room in Massachusetts and my mother was in an emergency room in New York. I have been in this position so many times yet each time it happens it is a shock and I yearn for the luxury of a monotonous existence.

When my oldest son was a baby, he let us know he was ready for a bed by launching himself out of his crib. The next morning he was seemingly fine with the exception of a slight alteration to his usual routine: he danced to The Wiggles but he used only one arm. I could not fathom that he might have seriously injured himself. He was such a champ that we did not even know he had fractured his clavicle until a follow-up x-ray revealed a healing bone. On Sunday, this same son broke his clavicle in two.

Inhale.

When my oldest son was 4 years old, I went to Mexico with my family and my parents. While walking back to the room with my mom to call my aunt, my mother began to have a heart attack. We did not know what it was at the time, and it did not unfold in the typical way in which it is often depicted: a man with left arm pain grabbing at his chest and directing someone to call 911. Rather, it was as if she had a sudden and severe reaction to something she ate, vomiting until it was over. And then she was fine. Until we learned she wasn’t. On Sunday, my mom called me in the morning to tell me she did not know what came over her but she couldn’t stop vomiting. But once you have a history of something kind of terrible, you cannot just crawl back into bed and assume that you have a virus. Thankfully, after an EKG and blood work, she learned she had a virus.

Exhale.

On Sunday, as if not to be left out of the disastrous emerging trend, another son of mine injured his hand and wrist simply while walking in the hall of our home. Nuts. But no broken bones; just a sprain. You try leaving an orthopedist’s office with two wounded boys and not being  looked at suspiciously. I joked with the woman at the front desk, asking if she was going to contact CPS. She just eyed me and went back to questioning my children.

Repeat.

When I was pregnant with my twins, the sonogram technician advised that I was going to be having two more sons. Broken bones was in my future; it was a given. Although you never expect it when you get that call, when you see that dangling arm, when you hear that primal scream that alerts you that something is very wrong, you always know that these things are possible, that they happen all the time and you are not going to be excluded from this club. After all, if I got through this life with 3 sons and no broken bones, I would worry that I was somehow failing my boys.

Aren’t we all performing some kind of high wire act? Teetering between news–both dreadful and wonderful, striking the great balance of life and making careful–extra careful–to keep our balance and not succumb to a mere slip of the foot.  The more we love our people, the more we’re going to be walking that tightrope. Because we care. Because we are lucky.

Maybe the circus is our introduction to life. Maybe by throwing so many things at us at one time, we are learning how to focus, how to zero in on what makes us the happiest, and to filter out all those tricks we see right through. Life is both the Worst Show on Earth and the Greatest Show on Earth and I wouldn’t want to live it any other way.

 

My Mother, The Bell Ringer in Pink

3 Oct

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She said she would be there with bells on and she was.

When I was a high school senior, my beloved mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were unfortunately familiar with this because my mother’s mother and my mother’s mother’s sisters all had it too. A genuine hit in the gene lottery. I don’t recall my mother talking to me about this before she entered the hospital for her first mastectomy. All I remember is that for several weeks before I knew anything, I knew something was very wrong. She denied it, but I knew.

My mother checked herself out of the hospital, against her doctors’ advice, a day or two early so that she could see me off to the prom. This woman, with drains still attached, in serious pain, yet with a smile on her face, threw me and my friends and their families a small party. This is what keeps her going. This woman loves her family.

And we love her back.

That summer before college she lost all her hair. She lost her eyelashes, eyebrows and even arm hair. She lost her dignity. She sat with me in either a turban or a terrible wig and we played board games with my friend, Andrew. This was in between aggressive chemotherapy treatments where she would lay in bed and close the door to her room for several days until she felt well enough to emerge. We did not even cook dinners those days because the smell of the food would seep under her door and make its way to her nose and nauseate her. Every night when I thought my family was asleep, I would sneak outside and sit on my front step and cry.

At the end of August, my parents took me to Ann Arbor and helped me move into the dorm. I wanted to let everyone know that my mother was wearing a wig. That that horrible hair did not belong to her. That she had the most gorgeous hair I had ever seen, hopefully underneath her scalp, just waiting to grow back and make her whole again.

The second time she was diagnosed I was a newly married, young lawyer. It was exactly 9 years and 10 months after her first mastectomy. My mother was frightened and devastated and, again, a warrior. She had a second mastectomy and thankfully, due to a very early diagnosis, no treatment.

The third time was in 2007 and that was a horror show because she had no breasts left to remove. It was a mere six months after her beautiful sister, my incredible aunt, died. I think my mother’s heart literally broke from the loss because that was the neighborhood in which her cancer returned. My mother underwent major surgery and a severely complicated post-operative extended recovery period, and never once looked back. In the recovery room, she was awoken and told of the lengths they had to take in the operating room. Sedated, she responded, “I don’t care what I look like. I just want to live.”

And she did and she does.

We often “forget” that my mother had breast cancer because she has never dwelt on it. She never let it define her or become her life. It only became part of our conversations when she was living it or, more typically, when she was celebrating her survival.

And that she does as well. And often.

Early this week, my mother was contacted by a producer from The Today Show, inviting her to attend their kick off of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She asked her friend, Lydia, another survivor, and some other friends and family to join her. She made signs. She brought 6 pink sweaters for me to choose from because we had to dress in pink. My mother does everything big. And thank G-d, because she does life big too.

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At 6 am we were funneled into a VIP line full of survivors and their families. Many of the women were bald. All of them were smiling. My mother, with her beautiful, long, blonde hair, gratefully accepted a “GOD IS BIG ENOUGH” pink bracelet from the hairless woman in front of her. I started to feel badly about my mom’s hair, which she has grown out so she can donate it to Locks of Love, and how it might make these women feel. Then I thought, not only has she earned it, but she is an inspiration to these women who are currently fighting so hard for their lives. My pretty mama and her Rapunzel-like hair were a gift to these women who must see her and hope that they could one day be just like her: a mother; a sister; a daughter; a friend; a grandmother; an aunt; a survivor.

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My mother told the producer that she would attend this event “with bells on” and she literally did. She bought breast cancer awareness ribbons and bells and made all of us necklaces to wear.

She rang the loudest.

And she always does.

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Happy Birthday, Mom!

11 Apr

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Happy birthday to the woman whose laughter sends me.

Happy birthday to the woman who leaves me voicemails telling me she loves me; voicemails I save so I can hear her voice whenever I want.

Happy birthday to the woman who brought her ukelele to the hospital when I broke my femur at 5 years old, and who played “Puff the Magic Dragon” for the entire children’s floor. And happy birthday to the woman that slept beside me the whole time I was there.

Happy birthday to the woman who made me believe in myself.

Happy birthday to the woman bold enough to sit in the passenger seat when I learned to drive. And happy birthday to the woman bold enough to sit in the passenger seat decades later, knowing how I drive.

Happy birthday to the woman who has made every holiday special every year of my life, and who continues to do the same for my sons.

Happy birthday to the woman who, after major surgery, discharged herself from the hospital early so she could see me off to the prom.

Happy birthday to the woman whose glass is always half full, no matter how many circumstances may have threatened to empty it.

Happy birthday to the woman who never told me that my grandma was dying because she knew it would crush me, but instead took me to Florida once a month to visit her.

Happy birthday to the woman that puts up with me.

Happy birthday to the woman who raced behind me as I drove my son to the emergency room on a horrible day in January. And happy birthday to the woman who sat and held my hand as I wept.

Happy birthday to the woman who only wants the people she loves to be happy.

Happy birthday to the woman who recorded a video of my grandma begging Oprah Winfrey to set me up with a Jewish doctor. And happy birthday to the woman that sent it in and told all her friends when it aired.

Happy birthday to the woman that’s been diagnosed with so many things so many times it is impossible to keep track. And happy birthday to the woman who smiled up at me from every hospital bed she’s ever been in, only wanting to make sure that I was ok.

Happy birthday to the woman who found me a kitten when I was lonely, and who snuck it into my NYC apartment with a bed, kitty litter, and food, while I was at work.

Happy birthday to the woman that has always been kind to everyone.

Happy birthday to the woman who was there to witness my first love and happy birthday to the woman who was there to nurse my first broken heart.

Happy birthday to the woman who rescued my 3 year old son after he intentionally locked the babysitter in the basement, and then fled the house.

Happy birthday to the woman who cut my hair off when I was 5 because she heard it would grow back thick. And happy birthday to the woman who let me wear a hooded raincoat in the sunshine because that haircut was the worst.

Happy birthday to my first friend, my best friend, my most incredible friend.

Happy birthday to my role model, my good luck charm, my superhero.

Happy birthday to the most beautiful woman I have ever seen or known.

Thank you for all this and more. Thank you for every day you are around the corner and in my heart. Thank you.

Happy birthday, Mom!

I love you.

Separation Anxiety

6 Apr

I hate the thought of my parents getting older. I am very fortunate for the Everybody Loves Raymond situation we have. They are around the corner. My brother is also not far away. My kids are the greatest beneficiaries, having an extended family in their backyard, which is a gift I didn’t grow up with.

Both sets of grandparents moved to Florida when I was young enough to not remember them living anywhere but Florida. My mother’s parents at one time had an apartment in my hometown but I don’t recall anything about it except for the moment they packed it up. I was 8 years old and doing an excellent job of crying myself to sleep. My mother must have heard me because she opened the door, turned on the light, and said “get out of bed. Let’s go see your grandparents.”

This was a big deal. It was after my bedtime. Nothing ever happened after my bedtime. She took me in my nightgown to their apartment which was filled with boxes containing their life. I sat in a chair, weeping, inconsolable. My grandma, in an effort to stop the tears, handed me a royal blue glass soap dish. I can’t imagine an 8 year old appreciating a soap dish, or maybe even soap, but to me, it was beautiful. And for some reason, it meant everything.

The other day, my mom casually dropped a bomb on me. She mentioned tax implications. She mentioned inheritance money. She mentioned financial loss. She mentioned that she would be MOVING TO FLORIDA. This was in between where would we eat dinner that night and something similarly insignificant.

I probably stopped the car. I probably would have liked to have told her to get out of it too. Instead, I used my words:

“What?! What do you mean you’re moving to Florida? What are you talking about?”

“There’s money you and your brother would have to pay in taxes if we don’t.”

I don’t know how much money that amounts to. I don’t care either. There is no price you can put on having the best people in the world–the people that gave you life, loved you, raised you, held your hand, laughed with you, cried with you, kissed your tears away, told you you were right, told you you were wrong, listened — truly listened, and then cycle back and do it all over again for your children–just a short bike ride away. No price.

“Mom, I would pay all that money just to have you near me. Just to have you and Dad in my life. Just to have you here with me.”

“Ok, it’s settled. I’m not moving to Florida. Where are we going for dinner?”

Anywhere you want mom, as long as it’s with you.