I look through my CD’s for any “oldies” to bring to my mom’s room. Anything that would soothe her or at least fill the silence when no one is here with her. Today I play Cole Porter. Night and day, you are the one. Only you beneath the moon and under the sun. Whether near to me or far . .. I think of you night and day.
I consider what music my son might bring for me as I’m dying. If he chose music the same way I did today—whatever was popular in the era Mom came of age—I’ll be listening to 1980’s hair bands. For the record: Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, yes; Ratt and Cinderella, no. A person can never go wrong with timeless Bob Dylan.
Perhaps it’s human nature, as my mother dies, to wonder what my child will remember of me. That I always let him crack eggs into a bowl when I baked. That I was inept at making anything out of Legos, so when we played together I was merely his “Lego hander” (I need a rectangle that’s 4 long, he’d tell me). That when he was in high school he used to pick me up around the waist and carry me from kitchen to living room to show how strong he was. That when he went to Basic Training I wrote to him every other day for nearly four months and told him stories I’d never say in person. More likely he will recall something so mundane that neither of us would guess today.
My son said to me a few years ago, “I can’t remember what Grandma used to be like.” My mom has been sick since he was twelve years old. As a small child he spent a lot of time with her and my dad, but I can understand how the last decade would blur his memories of the Grandma Virg of his younger years.
These last few days, my mind has been flooded with memories of my mom. What she used to say to me as a teenager or young adult: “I don’t want to read about you in the newspaper” (translate: don’t do anything illegal and embarrass me) or “Is that what you learned in Catholic school?” (translate: why are you talking /thinking / doing that?)
I remember how she stirred cake batter at the kitchen counter: her whole body moved as she stirred and her butt shook. I remember all the camping and fishing trips with her and my dad. When I was a little kid, too young to stay back in the camper alone, we’d go fishing out in the boat for hours at a time. I hated it. I’d be cranky about being in the boat so long and then she’d hand me a treat. She always waited till at least two hours had gone by, and she’d pull out the candy bars she’d hidden in her life vest, and each time it was like a rabbit out of a hat for me.
Mom was a smoker and sometimes she’d burn through her fishing line while she was sitting with her pole in her hands. Dad and I would laugh as her hook, line, and sinker and live bait floated away. We’d watch her wayward bobber, and sometimes she’d get a fish on her loose line and she’d yell “Son of a buck”—the closest she ever came to swearing.
She loved to make popcorn over an open campfire, and she could stand the heat and smoke longer than anyone I ever knew. She’d get right on top of the fire with her old scorched kettle and shake and shake till the popcorn flowed over the sides. She never burnt it.
When I was still in grade school, and walked to and from school everyday, Mom often baked in the afternoons so steaming hot buns or warm cookies would be ready when I got home. She did this for all of her kids. “Did you smell my banana bread when you walked down the alley?” she’d ask me.
“Yes,” I said. I lied each time, the way kids know what parents need. Did she imagine her baking smells drew me in like a Walt Disney cartoon? You know the one, where Mickey Mouse follows his nose a country mile to Minnie’s hot apple pie cooling on the window sill. I could never smell anything till I got into our backyard and just a few steps from the open screen door. Mom must have known that she didn’t need her baked goods to lead any of us home.
When I got old enough to stay alone for days at a time—14 or 15 years old—my parents often went on trips to Las Vegas or even to casinos a few hours away from home. They were tied down with so many kids for the first thirty years of their marriage, and when it was just me left they finally had the opportunity to travel with friends. Each time, Mom came home with a story, usually about what she ate or what she saw. On one trip with Kenny and Bernice, they drove and drove until they finally found a country bar. Turns out it was such a “rustic” place that the bartender had to walk next door to find a few ice cubes for Dad’s brandy-7 and Mom’s diet pop. I remember asking Mom if she was afraid. “Why?” she said.
No matter how sketchy the bar may have been, I’m sure my parents talked to most of the roughneck patrons. I reminded her that they were in the middle of nowhere. “You know Bernice,” Mom said, “give her a beer, and she thinks it’s an adventure.” I didn’t point out that even without a beer, my mom saw every trip as an adventure.