I’ve been very quiet online for months. As most of you know, my mom passed away several weeks ago, and I just haven’t had it in me to be funny, or witty, or poignant. So I’ve kept quiet.
For the last three years the outlines of life have been shaped largely by my mother’s illness. The days have been colored by it, made darker. That’s how it goes when something painful is happening to those you love most in this world.
But the pain of these last few years isn’t what defined my mom. It isn’t what defines me, or my sister, or my dad either.
The pain of loss shapes all of us, of course. The pain is something we feel, but it is not who we are. We’re more than that, and always have been.
The sum of my mother’s life was so much more than the hand that cancer dealt her in her last difficult years. The sum of all of us extends beyond the hard edges of our tragedies.
This past week I started to feel a little bit of my old self returning. To be honest, I haven’t felt like this person – me – for a few years. It’s just been too hard. Most of you probably won’t quite believe that, because this blog has been, for the most part, on the light side, with only intermittent serious posts. By nature I’m silly, and the blog has reflected that much of the time. But that’s not to say that I’ve been feeling ok or like myself, because neither of those things would be true. Losing your mom slowly will do that to you.
Before I move forward with the blog, and before I move forward in general – I wanted to share with you a tribute to my mom, adapted from her eulogy. I hadn’t planned on sharing this, but my sister-in-law encouraged me. She said she’s been thinking about it a lot, and that it inspired her as a mother herself. I couldn’t think of anything my mom would be more pleased with than knowing that her path as a mother may help shape someone else’s.
So, here we go…
It’s hard to write a eulogy for your mom. How do you do justice to the person who brought you into the world and then held your hand as you walked through it?
It seems impossible.
You try to come up with the big memories – the ones that sum up a lifetime of devotion to you and your sister and your dad. The ones that capture all that your mother was to the countless friends and family who benefited from knowing her.
And you fall short.
Our mom would understand this. Back in 2008, at my Uncle Eddie’s Christmas gift swap, the theme was “favorite holiday memories” – written out by family members to go along with a small gift (the theme is usually something like “junk nobody wants” so this was a rare sentimental year). What mom wrote sums up what we’ve been feeling in trying to honor her:
When the idea of Christmas memories came up for our swap theme, my mind starting reaching back to think of some particularly earth shattering moment. I was getting frustrated with myself because I couldn’t come up with a defining moment or a most sentimental memory. At that point I realized that just the little things you do every day have more meaning than you give them credit for at the time they are happening.
This is one of those things: Years ago when Liz and Catherine were about 5 and 3 respectively, we drove around and looked at the Christmas lights in Boston. We decided to park the car and walk around the cold to see what “special” decorations we could find. We ended up at Boston Common and saw the lit trees. Not that special….but pretty enough.
Liz and Catherine could not get over the glorious sight of seeing each tree lit with hundreds of lights….that not being enough they were ecstatic seeing that the trees were each lit in different colors. I can still see them screaming in delight as they went from tree to tree – “Look, a blue one!” “Come quick, I found a red one!” “Hurry, over here is a green one!”
This went on endlessly and if we had let them they would have stayed all night. That night we couldn’t have given them a better gift. And they could not have given us a better one. To this day when I see trees on the Common I still see my girls laughing and running happily because Santa came and decorated the trees just for us.
Aside from the fact that Catherine and I sound kind of like simpletons here, I think you see where we’re going – it’s not the big things that stand out after all – it’s the everyday ones.
I think the best thing about our mom was that she welcomed EVERYONE into our home. For awhile she may have actually been running a youth drop-in center out of our basement, but I can’t confirm that.
She was that person who always had enough food ready for last minute additions to the dinner table. She was the person who our friends went to for advice when they didn’t feel like they could talk to their own parents. Which would make you think mom didn’t offer up strong feedback. False! Our mom had opinions. But for some reason people still felt the urge to tell her their secrets.
Mom was forever carting our friends to soccer practices, volunteering on our field trips, hosting sleepovers, and taking our friends with us on college tours like they were part of the family. She made people feel like part of our family, and because of her, they were. Mom referred to many of you here today as “my kids” and she would be so touched to see how many people loved her.
Another thing that stood out about mom was her total commitment to any stupid idea we came up with. When we were in high school we decided that we were going to have a mock prom at our house. Our mom didn’t just go along with this idea in a casual way. No, if we were going to do this thing we were going to DO THIS THING. Mom decided we needed a balloon backdrop for photos. OF COURSE WE NEEDED THAT. What was this, amateur hour? She agreed that we needed food and drinks and music and mood lighting. And if it took her 3 hours and 7 stops in the rain to find the perfect candles to set the scene, so be it! Mom loved a good treasure hunt.
We once held a pasta eating contest for about 30 kids in our basement. Our mom had no qualms about cooking 20 pounds of pasta and sitting back while our friends vomited in her bathroom because as it turns out it’s VERY HARD TO EAT A POUND OF PASTA IN 7 MINUTES.
That’s how mom was though. No matter how ridiculous our ideas were mom acted like they were totally normal and that, if anything, we should step it up.
This right here is the secret to creating an amazing childhood for your kids.
Over the past week we’ve been receiving letters from childhood friends, some of whom we haven’t seen in years, remembering our mom:
You do not necessarily think of these things at the time, but as I have become a mother myself I have often thought about your mom and how I want to be that kind mom to my kids- one who is always up for an adventure and really loves being with them. Your mom always seemed to enjoy us as much as we enjoyed the fun things she did with us! I haven’t seen her in so many years, but still think of her.
And here’s another:
From my experience…your family and especially your mom saved me. The pressure that I was under as a kid was unbearable. Being at your house with your family was pretty much the only childhood I had. I can’t really thank you or your mom enough for that. She was so giving and loving and non-judgmental. There are not many people like that in the world. She was special and I truly believe she changed my life.
That’s the kind of impression our mom made.
Mom’s hosting was legendary, and she was famous for her Thursday Must See TV Nights. Every week for years on end (and this was well into our adulthoods) my mom would host a pack of our friends for dinner and TV watching. We could call last minute and be like, hey mom, we’re having 15 extra people over in an hour for dinner. You can handle that, right? (In retrospect this sounds totally unreasonable). But our mom would inevitably be like “Yes! I already made enchiladas for 20 people and I can throw together side dishes. Come on over!”
Mom maintained her abilities as a hostess right up to the end. She continued welcoming people even when she was very sick – for Easter, for birthday parties, for dinners. She never stopped making our home feel like a place where people belonged.
For all the distress mom must have been in these last few years, you never heard her complain about what she was going through.
Nurses would come in and say “Linda, how are you?”
And clearly the answer should have been “Terrible.”
But our mom would always say she was “pretty good” and proceed to totally underreport everything that she was going through. We started calling her the “Armenian Hammer”. She may have been little, but she was tough. I can’t imagine many people being as composed and uncomplaining as she was in a situation like hers.
Our mom maintained the core of who she was right up to the end. Partially that meant watching Law and Order while others may have been spending that time reflecting on life, but also it meant keeping a sense of composure, and the order that she has always been so good at maintaining.
Our mom needed to have her checkbook balanced. She couldn’t stand if it was even a penny off, and she couldn’t understand how Catherine and I could so casually rely on the ATM to tell us how much money we had.
A few months ago I came home to find my mom sitting on the couch, working on her checkbook. She was intent on it, and she was so happy when she realized that she had things perfectly balanced. Not a penny off.
And as I was working on her eulogy I was thinking about what that meant – to be able to leave this life with a balanced checkbook.
Our mom lived well, in an understated way. She left with good relationships with everyone. She left with kids and a husband who love her dearly, and with countless people who have expressed to us how our mom touched or helped them in some way, often many years ago. She left with best friends that she’s kept close with for decades. With former students who have written to say that she was instrumental in shaping who they became. She left with a grandson who, while he won’t remember specifics, will have internalized the love that he felt in his early years from her.
From her childhood right up until a few weeks ago, our mom had dreams about flying upside down and backwards. She loved these dreams. As she was passing, at that very minute, these lyrics to a John Denver song were playing in the background: “I’m flying again.”
And that’s what I like to think. That mom is off flying again, content in knowing that at the end of the day, her life was a balanced checkbook.
In loving memory of my mother, Linda June Curtis
June 1, 1947 – April 27, 2016