My Sweet Mama

photo-39As I type this, my parents are driving from Kansas to Los Angeles to see me. My Mom won’t see this for a few days, perhaps not until after she gets home to Kansas in a couple of weeks. I love the fact that my Mom reads my blog, it keeps me from writing about things I probably shouldn’t write about.

A few days ago, I was swimming my laps and there was a woman, probably in her 30’s, who was attempting to swim in the lane next to me. She’d splash, flap her arms against the water, kick mightily. She had no sense that the water was there to buoy her, propel her even. She’d never had swim lessons, clearly. And I give her credit for being out there, with goggles and swim cap, no less, trying to figure it out. She made me think of my mother, who also never learned to swim. I think the reason I became a swimmer was because she wanted me to take swimming lessons every summer, she wanted me to have something she longed for as a child.

When you find out the story of people’s childhoods, sometimes you wonder how they ever made it to adulthood. If they’ve grown into a person who thrives, it’s even more of a miracle.

My Mother is the fourth of five children. Her Father died when she was two and she was raised by her Mother and three older brothers, Sam, Rocco and Mike. There was never very much money. Sometimes I lie awake at night worrying about money and (as far as I know) I don’t have 5 children to feed. I marvel that my Grandma, singlehandedly, could have raised 5 children to be 5 big-hearted, funny, smart, loyal adults, but she did.

There are things that my Mom missed out on by not growing up with a Father. Swimming lessons was the least of it. There were no Father-Daughter banquets, no one to make a Father’s Day card for, her brothers were the ones who taught her to drive.

And because my Grandmother worked so much and because she was one of 5, I think my Mother was always hungry for her love. At my Grandmother’s funeral, my Mother was so bereft she tried to crawl into her Mother’s casket as the family was saying their final goodbyes. Her brothers had to pull her away. I remember standing there, wondering if I should go to her or hang back. I was 20 at the time, not the best years in our particular Mother-Son relationship. I was a little embarrassed, but also I wondered if I might one day do the same thing with her one day. (My Mom and I have both probably seen the end of Imitation of Life one too many times, to be honest.)

I’m still haunted by the matriarchal character Violet Weston from August: Osage County, played onscreen by Meryl Streep. Her adulthood is so embittered because her childhood was so difficult and cruel. It made me think of my Mother, whose hardscrabble youth must have been similar, and yet she grew into my Mother, a woman who is loved by all who cross her path. A woman who always makes my favorite pork and potato burritos when I come home, a woman who is deeply sentimental about Lifetime Christmas movies, a woman who bakes butter pecan cookies for Eric every Christmas, a woman whose first words after her son came out to her were, “Nothing will change my love for you.”

My Mom’s favorite song is The Rose. Whenever it comes on the radio, she reminds me that this is the song she wants sung at her funeral. I won’t forget. I love the song almost as much as she does and though I’ve never told her, it always makes me think of her, too. If I had a dollar for every tear I’ve shed while listening to this song, I could buy my Mama a solid gold casket.

So, this song is for my Sweet Mama, I love her so.

Lineage

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I’ve been swimming at the same pool for about 4 years now.  You get to know the regulars over time and there is a Russian woman who reminds me of my grandmother.  She has one lane that she likes best so if I’m swimming in her lane, I usually offer to switch lanes with her.  She always thanks me profusely and tells me that I am a good boy, or something along those lines.  Once when I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, she thanked me and told me I had good parents.  Today, after we switched lanes, she said, “You are good person.  You are your parents.  You are your grandparents.”  I think that what she was saying is that the people we are is greatly influenced by our lineage.  She proceeded to tell me that when she visits her kids who all live in different countries, they go to the market together and she’ll say to them, “Why are you buying this?  This is the same thing your grandmother always bought.  You are your grandmother.”  And then she told me again that I was my grandparents.

What struck me about the conversation was that my grandmother had been on my mind all morning.  Just last night, I was called on stage to share an impromptu story and I talked about my Grandma Sue, who played Scrabble with me and knitted clothes for my favorite stuffed animal Chim-Chim and was sometimes known to tie a scarf around her head, hold out her hand and mourn, “Alms for the poor?”.  In general, I was not one of those cute kids that adults took a shine to, but my Grandma always treated me like I was funny and interesting and smart, even though I was probably none of those things.  I talked about how I was 19 when she passed away and I wished that I’d had the opportunity to spend more time with her.  A few years ago, one of my cousins told me a story about a time when she and Grandma worked breakfast and lunch together at another cousin’s cafe.  After their shifts were over, they’d go across the street to the dive bar and drink tomato juice and beer cocktails for the rest of the afternoon.  When Vicki told me this, I realized what I feel like I missed by her dying when she did: we didn’t get to become friends, drinking buddies.  My Grandma loved happy hour as much I love happy hour, apparently.

So this loss was on my mind this morning, when my swim buddy told me that I WAS the person she reminds me of, the person who’d been in my thoughts for those 72 laps.  There are ways that I am like my Grandma Sue. When I go to Claro’s Italian market, I know I buy the same pepperoni and olives and provolone that she used to buy, the same items my parents buy.  Food and family were always at the center of her life and I feel that I am the same way.  My meatballs are a variation of my mother’s meatballs which are a variation of her mother’s meatballs that I can only assume goes back much further.  It is a lineage.  

So this morning, I felt like I received a gift. Not only the reminder that my Grandma Sue is still with me, but also, in a funny way, I am her.