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Between the Lines

14 Oct

I am so happy to be back to blogging. It’s not that I didn’t think about my mom in the last 2 months- my constant connection to her is certainly intact.

While on hiatus and while catching up on some reading, I was inspired and couldn’t wait to write this post. I’m sure we all notice that mothers are often a focal point of books and articles. But, what struck me, is a deep and thoughtful commentary on a mother’s influence and relationships in Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard of this Pulitzer Prize finalist and neither had I. I did not choose this to read this book on my own– a colleague suggested it for our high school’s first Student/Staff Book Club. I felt lucky to be engaged with the protagonist, soon-to-be motherless daughter, Ava. I was surprised and affected by the mother/daughter thread throughout the novel. While each book club member found parts of the novel engaging, no one expressed the connection that I found. Each time I picked up the book I looked forward to Ava’s reminiscence and her ongoing relationship with her deceased mother.

As soon as her mother, Hilola is diagnosed with cancer, it is apparent that her demise will have a huge impact on the family and their alligator theme park business. While the business does crumble after her death, Ava remains strong, partially powered by her mother’s strength and presence. Often as I read, I wanted to reach out and hug Ava for verbalizing my feelings, exactly.

Her view of dealing with her mom’s death should be highlighted in a self-help book for mourners. Why do we sometimes avoid talking about our loved one’s death? When Ava needed to “explain to him about mom’s death which was always hard to do. It felt like killing her again.” Exactly. Talking about the details brings back the harsh reality that no one should have to endure once, let alone again and again.

When I started writing this blog, it was because I felt, like Ava, that my mom “was everywhere and nowhere.” She continues to influence me.

When Ava’s brother, Kiwi, hears tourists remember his mom’s acts, “he wanted to passionately kiss them.” I know that feeling. I LOVE talking with anyone who remembers my mom. We don’t have to talk about her, just the fact that this person knew her enough to say her name.  Attending events like my neighborhood swim club’s reunion party and my own high school reunion, for me, is partially fueled by knowing I will mingle with people who knew my parents. During these gatherings, they probably have no idea how meaningful it is for them to acknowledge my mom or dad. Sometimes, I tell them. Like Kiwi, I feel like “her name in a stranger’s mouth was a resurrection.” Well, I don’t have the experience with strangers, but the feeling is the same.

Ava remembers her mom as “stern and all-seeing” as moms should be. She recalls that her mom “would do this great favor of pretending to be credulous when we faked sick. Mom cooed sincerely over our theatrical moanings and coughs.” My mom didn’t coo, but she did sometimes fall for the “I’m too sick to go to school” drill. Ava reinforces the notion that my mom, like hers, was usually aware of my actual condition.

Ava often hears her mother’s voice in her head. I hear my mom’s too and, like Ava, I’m grateful I do. But, for Ava it was even more than a voice. Ava is struggling and almost drowning in the ocean when “I met my mother there, in the final moment. Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her…. Her courage. I believe that she was the pulse and bloom that forced me toward the surface. She was the water that eased the clothes from my fingers. She was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs.”

How beautiful.

Finally, at the end of the story, when the family is reunited and is headed towards healing, Ava feels relieved that “all of us, the four of us—the five of us if you counted Mom inside us- we were home.” And, that’s just the point. My mom is still here, inside of me, each and every moment. I am fortunate, like Ava, to have had a mom who mattered.

 

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I Wish I Could Hear Her Voice

13 Nov

Although I recall things my mom said to me and conversations we had, I miss her voice. I had not put much thought into hearing her voice until recently. During a visit with my (very wonderful) cousin, he mentioned watching his wedding video so we could hear my mom talk (and relive that most precious day). We did not get around to watching the video, yet his thoughtful and thought-provoking comment resonated with me.

I’ve heard stories about terminally ill people who make videos and tape recordings to leave for family and friends. Perhaps because I’ve always thought the idea is sweet, but eery or because I was too caught up in the tragedy surrounding us, I did not even think about recording my mom’s voice when we knew her situation was terminal. Yet, now that I am thinking so much about my mom’s voice, I realize how clever it is. I could choose to listen to my mom and she would speak directly to me. It would never replace our daily phone call, but would certainly fill part of the void. Just as important, my children would hear her.

While my mom’s mother, Grandma Ray, was alive, we made a point of asking her to tell her history. She lived into her 90s and certainly had substantial stories of life in Poland, her pious father, emigration to the US via Cuba, raising a family in Harlem, The Bronx, etc. It made sense to record her –her stories could add important personal reflection to a course in world history! I fondly recall my Grandma’s wise sayings, many taken from reading the Bible and Torah: “Who is rich? A person satisfied with what he has.” In Yiddish, “Besser be gornit (better than nothing).” I now think about the impact any saying or story would have if heard in her voice. Although my mom’s history couldn’t  measure up to her mom’s (thankfully), she certainly had plenty to say!

I am going to satisfy this newly discovered desire to hear my mom’s voice by watching and listening to my own wedding video. But, as I think about this, I must stand on the clichéd soapbox to encourage you, if it’s not too late, to record your mom’s (or dad’s or any significant older/ ill friend or relative) voice. Keep filming events and saving the film. Use your phone or computer to record a conversation. Tell your mom (or other person). I am not sure how my mom would have reacted, but I think she might have appreciated the idea of being heard eternally.