My mother took her first breath in a small, white houseboat floating in the cool waters of Potato Slough on the California River Delta on December 4, 1924. She took her last roughly 200 miles northeast in the big, brown home we shared in the dry desert of Northern Nevada on December 9, 2013.
Nothing of global importance happened on either of those days. No wars were declared or peace treaties signed. No major scientific discoveries were announced or natural disasters reported. There wasn’t even a full moon. Yet, those two days are of supreme importance to me. They marked the beginning and the end of a life that affected me more than any other has or will.
Between those two Decembers, Mom lived 89 years. But, in her mind, she was ageless. She used to tell the grandchildren that she was in Ford Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and, while they were young and impressionable, they believed her. She used to lament to me that she was nothing more than an 18-year-old trapped in an aging body and, the older I got, the more I understood how she felt. She professed to everyone that she was going to live forever, and we all wished it could be so.
When I began writing this column last August, the primary purpose was to share the words of wisdom Mom left behind for me in a priceless series of cards and notes she entrusted with family members to deliver posthumously. Week after week, I’ve taken the quotes and catch phrases she preserved for posterity and turned them into stories about her, about caring for her, and about losing her. I would like to believe that, in some small way, these columns have served to support her wistful dream of everlasting life. As my gifted British friend, Chris Bannister, wrote in his lovely song Everybody Knows, what we leave behind is our best hope for immortality.
Everybody knows that nothing lasts for long except the sky. We can’t live forever but we try … by leaving something beautiful behind.
The something beautiful in those lyrics need not be a classic novel, a life-saving vaccine or a celebrated work of art. Exceptional experiences like those happen to so few. What every one of us is able to leave behind, though, is the unique way in which we’ve touched others. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that the ripples of our lives circle out farther, ever farther, and gently collide with other lives. The impact may be no more than a tap, but it can alter a course, transform a life or simply create a precious memory that makes us smile or provides comfort in times of sorrow.
For me, the ultimate example of this phenomenon was embodied in a condolence letter that arrived about a month and a half after Mom died. It was from her old friend “Little Mary” who took the opportunity to share a story that brought my mother’s vibrant youth to life. I paraphrased the tale when I wrote about Mom’s free-spirited nature last fall in the column This Hunt Is Dedicated. While driving a carload of friends from San Pedro to the opera in nearby Los Angeles, the rather unreliable coupe broke down and blocked the Red Car trolley. Mom hopped out in the rain, Little Mary wrote. “She lifted the hood and with her comb she tapped something, got back in the car and we drove off. The passengers in the Red Car applauded wildly. I’ve never heard the name Joyce that that video didn’t play in my head!”
The tap that started the car on that otherwise forgotten day stayed with Little Mary for more than 60 years. Her condolence letter was the ripple that brought the story full circle. When it showed up in my mailbox, the colorful anecdote tapped me with a lovely reminder that the sum of my mother’s life was not wrapped up in her last years of ill health and dependence. It was as though Little Mary was the unsuspecting guardian of a secret that was long ago destined to comfort me in the wake of my mother’s passing.
In 89 years, Mom touched countless people as she drifted from the harbors and valleys of California, to the mountains and beaches of Oregon, and finally to the high desert of Northern Nevada. Some folks she knew well; others she did not. Either way, it was her Joie de Vivre that most of them remember. As I’ve said previously in this column, she was a fan of the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful. She loved to explore, wonder, dream and hope. Most of all, she loved to laugh. So much so that, in an unattributed poem she left with her Last Will and Testament, she told us to “remember me with smiles and laughter” or not at all. We honored that by using the poem in her memorial brochure along with a photo of her smiling gaily.
Sometime in her last year, when it was clear that time was growing short, I asked her what she remembered about helping her older sisters take care of their 90-year-old mother in her final days. I wasn’t making casual conversation; I was fishing for advice. She thought about it for a minute and said rather sheepishly that her most vivid memory wasn’t of bathing her mother or changing her soiled sheets or engaging in meaningful conversation. Instead, she clearly remembered sitting in the living room of her mother’s home laughing hysterically at a skit on Saturday Night Live. What made her and our equally unconventional relative, Birdie, giggle uncontrollably, she couldn’t say. Based on the month and year, though, I have a pretty fair guess. I can imagine both of them cracking up over the 1978 Christmas message that Gilda Radner’s recurring character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, shared with viewers as part of her trademark rant on the Weekend Update.
Life is just like a fruitcake. When you look at it, it’s rich and sweet with honey and sugar and spice, tastes delicious, makes your mouth water and everything. But if you look at it real close, there’s these weird little green things in it and all that and you don’t know what it is!
I’ve probably never heard a more perfect … and perfectly hilarious … analogy. Life is, indeed, like a fruitcake. But I would venture to say that the weird little green things in it are not necessarily all distasteful. An unexpected turn of events – for instance, living with and taking care of your mother for the last 12 years of her life – could prove to be just as rich and sweet as the honey, sugar and spice.
Today’s column heading is the last line from Mom’s posthumous notes that I have to share with you all. While that puts a punctuation mark on the foundation for these essays, it doesn’t end them. Mom left so many more “notes” for us to explore through things she often said but did not write down, through tape recordings she made more than 20 years before she passed away, and through scrapbooks filled with intriguing memories. My intent is to carry on for as long as the stories find their way from my immortal maternal muse to the keyboard of the computer she and I shared.
Here are your accolades, Mom.
Here they are – bringing a smile, a tear, a laugh or an insight to every reader who scrolls through these columns. As of this morning, your stories have been viewed 2,162 times by readers in 34 countries. Your body may have returned to ashes, but your spirit is alive and well. Your playful inspiration is the something beautiful you left behind. That and your Joie de Vivre are rippling around the world at this very moment. Someone, somewhere just felt your gentle, joyful tap.
(Desiring to give credit where it’s due, I want to note that the poem “Remember Me” may have been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or by Michael Landon when he wrote the script for a Little House on the Prairie television episode called “Remember Me.” Mom probably heard it on the television show since I know she didn’t read the books. )