Today is my birthday. I’ve had a blessed life, rich with experience and wonderful people.
One of my blessings is a treasure trove of family history I have just inherited. My Dad died recently, and my Aunt-Mom gave me his computer to copy his pictures. Dad was a great family historian, and took loads of photos. The picture archive includes old ones from my childhood that Dad scanned, and I found some from my 6th birthday party. What a gift; too cool not to share with you to celebrate my birthday.
We played Blind Man’s Buff at that little party; that’s Mom below helping us to get started and get that blindfold on tight. I’m the short little girl in the plaid dress with the bow.
I remember my Dad building the patio cover and the little brick barbecue in our back yard. We lived in Burleson, Texas, and he was an account executive for Exxon. Mom was a registered nurse (RN) but was just about to quit working to be with us kids full-time. They were proud of that little backyard and really enjoyed giving parties like this one.
We also played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, another game that requires a blindfold. Hmmmm….
Mom was so beautiful; look at that smile.
The thing I remember most about that 6th birthday party is Mom helping me get dressed. She said that the puffy sleeves on the little plaid dress (see below) were called “pork chop sleeves”. I thought that was really funny and decided to call them “steak sleeves” instead. My 6-year old wisecrack cracked her up. I’ve never since heard of pork chop sleeves (did she make it up?), but to me, they’d still be called steak sleeves. Fashionistas – are pork chop sleeves a thing?
I have lived a full life to this point and am so grateful for all of the people in it; those who are still with me and those who have gone over the rainbow but left their permanent imprint. Happy birthday to me.
Labor Day weekend of 2000 was the last time I saw my Mom, so many years ago now.
She died just two weeks later, peacefully, in her sleep. She had been ill for so very long. She was only 60.
My family and my brother’s family joined Mom and Dad at their beach home in Gilchrist, Texas that last Labor Day weekend. With three small children between us, we balanced our time between going to the beach and hanging out in the sunroom with Mom and Dad, she in her wheelchair and unable to speak beyond a whisper because of “frozen” vocal cords, and he so grateful for the company. They both reveled in the noisy, joyful chaos of children. Dad grilled several different meats and served cocktails that weekend; Mom sat, surrounded by all of us, with a quiet and wistful smile.
Like always when our family we got together, the background music was the soundtrack from our childhood, an eclectic mix that included The Kingston Trio, Simon and Garfunkel, the soundtrack from Guys and Dolls, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Smothers Brothers and Manhattan Transfer.
It was a great time: comfort food, comfort music, comfort people. All these years later, I have two really strong memories from that Labor Day Weekend, that final time my family of origin was all together: recollections of cherries and empathy.
We brought fresh cherries to share, a late-summer harvest probably shipped from somewhere in the Northwest to our local grocer. Mom hadn’t had cherries in years; the grocery stores on the Bolivar Peninsula stocked the basics but didn’t have fancy mustards, gourmet cheeses or produce from out of state. She loved those cherries. She ate them with joy, the dark red juice staining her lips and her thin, worn fingers.
Mom was so happy in those moments, maybe reliving a memory of her own, another special time studded with fresh cherries and loved ones. We put on the Smothers Brothers record (yes, an actual record!) to hear their song “Apples, Peaches and Cherries” – take a listen below; it is a really sweet tune. We might have sung along; I can’t remember now. But I will never, ever forget Mom’s face as she reveled in those cherries. It was an awesome feeling to bring her that simple pleasure.
Getting ready for our final trek to swim and make sandcastles on Labor Day, we were four 30-something adults herding two toddlers and a 6-year old, making a lot of mess and noise. Mom and Dad didn’t mind at all. We collected sunscreen and beach towels and water shoes and sippy cups (and probably beer) and set out to walk the 200 yards to the sandy beach.
Something made me turn back, telling the others I’d catch up. I ran up the stairs to give Mom a hug. She was in her wheelchair, in the sunroom, with an open book in her lap, but not reading. She was just staring out the window at our ragtag little group headed toward the beach, every child hand-in-hand with a parent.
Was she remembering the days when she was the parent holding the hands of unruly, eager children anxious to make sandcastles and dive headfirst into the waves? Or maybe just sad that she couldn’t go with us to body-surf and look for starfish and sand dollars? Mom loved the beach so much, and before becoming an invalid the last few years of her life, took a walk there almost every day.
I bent down to hug her, saying:
I know you still want to run and jump and play, Mom, and I’m so sorry you can’t.”
She gave a little sob, and squeezed my hand hard, her fingers still cherry-stained. She was so stoic through all of her illnesses, never indulging in self-pity, never complaining, never allowing anyone to feel sorry for her. If she could still talk, she would’ve shrugged and said, “I’m fine.” I only saw her cry once in the 38 years we had together. But on that last Labor Day, when I offered my clumsy empathy, she accepted it and allowed me to share her pain, just for a few beautiful moments, squeezing my hand while we both cried just a little. And then she motioned for me to go join the others, and I did, not looking back.
I knew she would watch me all the way to the water’s edge.
My “run and jump and play” comments weren’t quite the last words I said to Mom, but they are the ones I remember. I’m so grateful for those few moments on our last day together, when she trusted me enough to let herself be vulnerable, and gave me a glimpse of the ache in her heart about the brokenness of her body.
Labor Day is About…
To me, Labor Day is about appreciating the meaningful and challenging work I have always been blessed with, and of course, barbecue. But since since 2000, it will always remind me of cherries and empathy, too.
There’s my brother and me on my first day of school in 1969 in the photo below. Don’t I look ecstatic? I was so jazzed about getting all dressed up to join other kids and learn stuff all day. I had those stylish white go-go boots, a polka-dot jacket and a fancy lunch box, and I was feelin’ it! (You know, that “look out world, here I come!” vibe.)
Story #2: Let’s Bring Brufer!
Steve had a less joyful start to his school career a few years later. He did not want to give up the one-on-one time with Mom he’d been enjoying since I started school, and despaired at the thought having to go to kindergarten – it must be some kind of punishment! I can’t find any pictures of his first day (second child always gets ripped off in the photos dept!), but the images scream out so clearly in my head that I could almost project them on a screen.
Did I say SCREAM? On his first day of school, Steve screamed and screamed and wouldn’t even get into the car. You have no idea how strong and wiry a determined 5-year old can be when he violently objects to something.
My brother and I were very close, and I was, of course, the older, wiser, more experienced one who was used to taking care of him and translating his wants and needs. So I had the brilliant idea to bring along his favorite stuffed animal, a giant St. Bernard named “Brufer”.
Older, yes. Wiser, not so much. And actually, dead wrong. My “Let’s bring Brufer, Mom!” idea was brilliant only until we got to school, when Steve realized he’d been duped: Brufer was just the bait to lure him into the car and couldn’t go into the classroom.
There was more screaming.
There might have been a scuffle.
Other parents might have stared, and judged.
I really do have empathy for my Mom when I look back on this story.
All’s well that ends well, as they say. Steve made an immediate impression on his teacher that day (!) and ended up being a favorite. He was so cute!
Steve went over the rainbow in late 2013 and can’t challenge the accuracy of this story, but if anything, I’ve understated it. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) If Steve was still with us, I’d placate him with a gently used Brufer like the one pictured above from eBay, and give him guest-blogger status with an invitation to tell one of his favorite stories about me. I wonder what that story would be? I’ll have to wait for heaven to find out.
In the photo below, I’m sure I was just about to stop him from toppling headfirst over the railing. Or was I?
Happy First Day of School to children and parents everywhere. And, if you want my advice, don’t take Brufer.
Copyright 2017, Glover Gardens Cookbook
NOTE: this post was created ahead of time and scheduled to go live on Monday, August 28, 2017, the intended first day of school for many districts in our area of Southeast Texas. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which we are still experiencing (click here), has delayed the first day of school for several hundred thousand children as the water continues to rise in Houston and the surrounding areas. Here is a list of the over 70 Houston-area schools that will be closed on Monday, August 28 and beyond; some of them aren’t even predicting when they’ll be open again, just saying “closed until further notice”. Texas school closings extend far beyond Houston all up and down the Gulf Coast. Your thoughts and prayers for Texas families are appreciated.
Family gathers ’round when a loved one dies, sharing memories and telling stories, all a reminder both of the value of the life of the lost one and the interconnectedness of those who remain. We experienced this at Glover Gardens recently when my Dad died, rejoicing in the togetherness of family and friends even while we mourned together. In addition to their continual prayers and love, my cousin’s wife brought a gift to our informal celebration of Dad’s life, a live and blooming hibiscus, with a heartfelt haiku.
your much-beloved dad
like this hibiscus flower
blossomed love and life
I’ve posted before about how we lovelove loveboth hibiscus and haiku here at Glover Gardens; this gift was as appropriate and welcome as a hug to smooth a hardship – and so life-affirming! A quick little poem, at the second grade level (I couldn’t resist):
I have a wonderful cousin who has a wonderful wife. She wrote a hibiscus haiku to celebrate Dad’s life.
My uncle Nathan, my mother’s brother, would have been 70 this month. He was only 40 when he died in 1988. Sad and shocked, I wrote this poem for my Mom at the time and it was part of his memorial service. Just today, I found it while browsing through old files from my Dad’s computer; it is sweet that he kept the poem all these years.
For You, Mom, On Your Brother’s Death
Love, the wind, God, memories: all intangible, all to be touched with thoughts and feelings, not with fingers.
All so precious: lives, souls, people. Does one quit existing when the breath is gone or simply become an intangible, touchable with thoughts, with feelings, like the wind?
Can we not summon Nathan by thinking of him? Is he not crystallized into being in those vignettes of him that we remember?
Isn’t he still the same young man who made risqué remarks about the pantaloons on my doll Elizabeth, because I remember him that way?
Won’t I make a present of a never-known great-uncle Nathan to my children by conjuring his image, remembering him that way?
With the wisdom of hindsight, I wish I had spent more time talking with my Mom while she was still alive about how she dealt with her brother’s death. I didn’t know then that I would also lose a younger brother while in my 40s.
Reading this (clumsy) early poem of mine again in the wake of my Dad’s death just six weeks ago, I still feel the same way about touching the intangibles, conjuring the images of the loved ones through stories and memories. My Dad is sitting on my shoulder right now, next to my Mom.
i’m a bee right now, landing on memory-flowers
maybe i can make them into honey
maybe that’s a way to share you
with those to come those you never knew those like me who want more
an endless jar of memory-honey
sitting on the pantry shelf of my heart
halcyon father-daughter days golden and sweet transformed into words
you were the essence of goodness and light
that’s why I want to share you
with those to come those you never knew those like me who want more
~ i’ll be making memory-honey for the rest of my days
This is just another little poem from a grieving and grateful daughter – I’m sure there will be more as I process this new life in the world without him. Thank you for reading it and allowing me to share my remarkable Dad. For more about him and the amazing childhood he and my mom made possible: