Mother, May I? A Wish List on the Occasion of the 98th Birthday

Mom's 93rd
My mother turns 93, flanked by her favorite things: fresh flowers, a glass of Chard, a granddaughter, and, of course, her purse.

She was born on the first day of Spring … or was she? My mother’s birth certificate lists her date of birth as March 21st. In her philosophy, this is to say she launched the season that caused her eyes to run and her sinuses to swell. A veritable Primavera she was, to hear it from Mom, until one March 20th when I dragged home from school to report that Spring had already sprung. Teacher said so. “Tomorrow …” my mother said with a toss of her silver hair. “Is the first day of spring.” Loyal (and an eensie bit the know-it-all), I would have many a spat with my pals in the years to come while defending this claim.

Now that there’s a web to surf, I see that Mom was right, sort of. The vernal equinox is a shifty little cosmic phenomenon. It’s usually on March 20th, though the 19th is not unheard of. Only once in my lifetime, when I was not yet three, has it come to pass on March 21st … And yet! In the year 1919, at 11:19 a.m., Apollo hurtled his chariot across the celestial equator on the 21st of March and hallelujah, astronomical spring began (meteorological spring not so much, but let’s not split hairs). That very day, my grandmother reclined on her feather bed in her humid Florida home, sucked in a cleansing breath, gave a push, and voila! (were it so easy) her first born burst Persephone-like into the world of mortals. By way of celebration, the goddess Demeter commanded tulip and dogwood and timothy grass alike to bloom and blow pollen.

Joe Sews
My mother as seamstress. Here she adjusts the dress I wore in my brother’s wedding when I was ten.
She knew what she knew, Mom did, and backing down easy wasn’t in her personality tool box. Her doggedness was a trait that caused us, her children, much gnashing of teeth in her waning years (Don’t you dare touch a thing in that attic; and we-l-l-ll, I’ll visit that doctor next month; and for THE last time, I would not be better off in a retirement community. Who wants to live around all those old people?). Still, Mom’s stubbornne … um, determination was a source of strength and esprit, something that helped this 105-pound Southern Belle of a woman dig in and thrive for nearly a century.

I could do worse than follow Mom’s lead in this. I could do worse than follow her lead in a lot of ways. My mother didn’t juggle career and family. She didn’t chair committees or pen an oeuvre (though that, she would have liked to do). It never occurred to me as a child that her way of being was anything but fulfilling. Yet late in her life Mom expressed regret over what she saw as her humble accomplishments. This broke my heart. Had she, like so many housewives of her generation, yearned in silence for more? To soothe her, I praised the magnitude of what she’d done–nurturing a family of eight (with limited dysfunction); marking her children with empathy and intellectual curiosity–but only since her death have I begun to truly understand my mother’s legacy.

Which brings me to a wish list. In honor of Mom’s 98th, I humbly ask … Mother, May I?

… Resist the urge to toss what might prove meaningful to my family (though honestly, Christmas gift tags and boarding passes from 1975, ’76 and every year hence? Recycled!).

… Never leave the house without lipstick. (Or not.)

… Always thank my children with a note or a call (text: last resort) after they take me to lunch or a museum when our fortunes are reversed and they are in charge (Get that guys? You’ll take me along, right?).

… Read. Always read. May I read as you did, indiscriminately. Read everything from the The Wall Street Journal to Vogue, from Virginia Woolf to John Le Carré to American Heritage. Then re-read and highlight and read some more.

… Laugh from the depths of my belly, the way you and my aunt and uncle used to do on warm Florida evenings on my grandmother’s porch swing .

… Have a ticker as steady and tenacious as yours.

Joe and Pop on beach



… Have legs like these through the golden years.
… Learn from your fearfulness and fierce dependence on routine as you aged to be brave and adaptable when I do same.

… Go to Broadway! And to local theatre and the ballet. Oh, and the symphony, even if I sleep through it like my father did.

… Listen.

… Go to my grandchildren’s performances and Grandparents’ Days and graduations, even if I have to show up in a wheelchair (which you, my lovely, refused to do). Cheer at their baseball games and gymnastics meets, though unlike you, I will actually understand what’s going on and want to win at all costs.

… Keep climbing stairs into my tenth decade.

… Travel the world, learn how others live, talk to the lonely traveller beside me (I avoid this. You never hesitated).

… Never hold a grudge.

… Dance. Dance at parties and weddings. Dance in the kitchen and the back yard.

… Refuse to go gentle into that good night.

… Smile. Smile on Saturday mornings over the pancake griddle. Smile in the evenings during wine hour. Smile when loved ones are low and at dinner parties with friends and with the priest after Mass and for perfect strangers on the street. Smile with eyes rolled in irony and broadly in joy and compassionately in sorrow. Some say a smile can be an act of charity. I grew up with this one, which seems proof enough.

photo 3-4

4 thoughts on “Mother, May I? A Wish List on the Occasion of the 98th Birthday

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