Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Mother's Day

My mother told me once about the first dress she ever bought for herself.

"I was only in high school," she laughed with glee, "but I looked good in that dress, and I knew it."

It was a beautiful April afternoon, she recalled, and the moment she stepped out of the shop in her stunning new dress, she felt intoxicated by her own youthful good looks and the promise of spring.

"I sashayed down that street," she remembered dreamily, her brown eyes glowing, "and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was pretty."

So did everybody else.  One young man, a high school classmate, drove down the street staring so hard at Mom, he careened up the curb and smashed into a light pole.

If anything, Mom grew more beautiful with each passing year.  I yearned to be like her.  But where as she was tall and slender, I was too long and skinny with my father's broad shoulders and hawk-like nose.

"Be proud of your height!" my mother constantly nagged me.  "Walk like a queen!"

I was lucky to be born first.  Mom was there to guide me through those tempestuous adolescent years when junior high dances could shatter my fragile confidence with a single blow.  I wish my younger brothers and sisters could have known the comfort of our mother during their own painful times growing up.

As well, they aren't able to share all the memories that Joe, Mick, Rick and I have of Mom as the sometimes very human and lovely flawed person she was.  In the eyes of my younger siblings, Mom was a saint.  To be sure, she was sweet and funny and loving.

But Patti Brown was no saint.

For one thing, she was a  smoker.  The more we tried to pry her cigarettes away from her when we were kids, the more determined she was to hold onto them, until one day she at last relented.

"You're absolutely right," she admitted to all of us.  "It's not good for me.  Your dad quit, and I can, too."

And so she did.  One week turned into two, and before the month was over, Mom had kicked the habit.  I was never so proud of her and the ease with which she gave up cigarettes once and for all.

Then one windy day as we romped wildly outdoors, Mick alerted us to an open basement window on the south side of our house.  Peering in, we couldn't believe our eyes.  There was our beautiful mother perched with her legs crossed on an old suitcase in the storage room puffing away on a cigarette.

Outraged, we marched into the house to confront her, but she caught us at the window and dashed madly up the stairs.  When we burst into the kitchen, there she was casually drying the dishes.

Incredulously, we stared at her. 

"Oh, all right!" she snapped, flinging away the tee towel.  "I'm smoking.  And you know why?" she glared at us.  "Because I've got ten kids who never leave me alone, that's why!"

Poor Mom.  She never did quit smoking.  And I understand all too well .  I think of her stolen smoke in the storage room every time I give up on my diet to devour an entire can of Pringles or order the purse I can't afford from the Home Shopping Network.

Because it just feels good, dammit.

Life was a succession of days filled with endless laundry and meals for Mom.  For someone with her intelligence and creativity and humor, she must have felt smothered by it all sometimes.  That's when she'd sneak away to her piano and ignore all of us for a little while, even if chaos reigned around her.  Lost in the soothing magic of her piano, she was the calm eye in the middle of the storm.

But that she adored us, we had no doubt.

Terri remembers having a terrible struggle with her times tables in grade school.  Dad would chastize her and demand that she try harder.  But Mom understood.

"Don't worry," she consoled Terri.  "I'll help you."

Mom drilled Terri every night until she knew her times tables frontwards and backwards and better than any other kid in her fourth grade class.

Tom always remembered looking for Mom after kindergarten was over at noon.  He'd walk the four blocks down Capital Avenue until he spied Mom leaning against the mailbox by the street waving her arms at him.  Every day, his heart would lift at the sight of Mom so patiently waiting for him all those blocks away. 

"Shall we race to the house?" Mom would grin when he finally reached her.  "I think I can win this time."

Mysteriously, Tom always managed to edge her out just as they lunged for the door.

When it came to cuddling, encouraging and making us believe all things were possible, nobody did it better than Mom.

I remember coming home from my first eighth grade dance.  That was the year I grew five inches, and my arms and legs had sprung independent lives of their own.  The dance was a disaster, and I rushed up the stairs to fling myself on my bed and sob in adolescent angst.  A minute later, I was aware of the bed sinking beside me and the comforting feel of my mother's fingers stroking my hair.

By the time my sobs had subsided to an occasional hiccup, Mom pulled me over to cradle my head in her lap.  I wished so much I could have crawled into her lap the way I did when I was little, but I was nearly six feet tall even then with legs like a newborn colt.

She rocked my head and stroked my hair, and I sank into the safety of her.  Down the hall, I could hear my brothers wrestling on their beds.  Somebody was running water in the tub in the bathroom, and the radiator in my room hissed in the darkness.  The comforting sounds of home.

"This was just one awful night," my mother crooned softly to me.  "But you won't always be 13 years old, you know."

She was so good at helping me to feel that life was filled with possibilities and that one day I would grow comfortable in my own skin and "walk like a queen."

We're missing Mom this Mother's Day, just like we've missed her for the last 32 Mother's Days of our lives.  Terri feels especially close to Mom this year.  She, of all of us, was diagnosed with full blown breast cancer and is connected to Mom in a way that none of the rest of us can be.  Many times in the last ten months, Terri has traveled back 32 years in time to suffer and die with our mother.

But Mom would be so proud of Terri.  She would want her to be happy.  She wants all of us to be happy.

Although she couldn't be with us very long, her influence and the lessons she taught us will last forever. She taught Terri to encourage her children, Tom to laugh with his, and all of us to forgive ourselves once in a while.  And she taught her oldest daughter to walk like a queen.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  We miss  you.