Mother of the long-distance bride-to-be

My daughter sends me a text along with a photo, shoes she is trying on. Jimmy Choo mules on sale. They’re comfortable, she texts. We wear the same size.

They’re gorgeous. One of us should have them, I text back. I’m thinking of her wedding, an outdoor, grassy affair. Special days require special accessories, not to mention lots of special attention.

She may be hesitant but I don’t miss a beat. In a flash, I’m online ordering the shoes, which will end up being for me, and which will not end up being quite right for the dress I end up buying.  Not that I’ll have any problem finding something else to where them with.

Another day, another text: Did I get the right dress?  So many choices, more than one exquisite, how can she help but second-guess?  That’s what mothers are for, to reassure. Absolutely.  That she remains unconvinced is beside the point. I cannot change her mind.  I can do little to ease her disappointments about friends who can’t come to the wedding or anxieties as the day draws nearer and nearer.

Did we invite too many people? 

Did we block enough rooms?

Should I go blonder for the wedding?  

My daughter is getting married.

She lives 3,000 miles away.  In the grand scheme of mother-daughter moments, something feels a tad wrong with this picture.

Not only does she live 3,000 miles away but the wedding will also take place 3,000 miles away.  My husband and I live in New York, she and her fiancé have made a life out in California, which makes it all the more fitting as a place to celebrate a life event. And maybe ‘wrong’ isn’t quite the right word to capture the sense of something missing from traditional rituals in times so often defined by nontraditional ways of living.  A parent really can’t ‘give away’ a bride who’s been living with her fiancé. Brides more often than not wear white for reasons that have little or nothing to do with purity/virginity.  Yet weddings, like other rituals that bind families, still have their hold on us—and largely for the right reasons.

Sentimentally speaking, a wedding is an affirmation of love (putting aside cultures in which arranged marriages are the norm).  It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love. In a world that seems dark these days, there’s every reason to celebrate the hope infused in two individuals choosing to make a life together.  From a standpoint of tradition, a mother of a bride who lives far away is caught between unmitigated joy that her daughter has found someone she wants to share her life with and a gnawing ache about moments missed when all the showering of attention that is part and parcel of pre-wedding commiseration has to be done long-distance.

Every wedding has echoes of weddings past, calling up remnants of our tribal roots, with traditions handed down from generation to generation. It all seemed easier when family dispersal was more the exception than the norm it’s becoming. Holy or not, two individuals joined in wedlock become links in a family chain. Broken or not, families are extended through this new link in the chain of lineage.  Jewish tradition brings a ketubah into the picture, a contract signed by witnesses just prior to the ceremony attesting to the obligations a bride and groom agree to. Today’s ketubot are works of art, something even those of the non-Jewish persuasion are drawn to. Then comes the ceremony, after which we eat, we dance, we tell stories to mark the day—stories that will be handed down, stories recalled through pictures.

We cry, too.Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do. That this is the wedding of my own daughter, all grown up now, moving on, only ups the emotional ante.

If I feel deprived of something, it’s the intimacy that would seem to be part of wedding planning. All those details—venue, food, flowers, music, rabbi—negotiated over the terrain of distance have me feeing one step removed.  All the texts and phone calls from my daughter have me thinking how different it was with my own mother when I planned my own wedding.

My mother, long gone, will not be at the wedding. My husband’s mother will, and that’s a blessing all its own. That it’s taking place on Mother’s Day Weekend brings an added joy. My idea of a good Mother’s Day was always simple: let me linger in the morning over coffee and whatever I feel like reading; let me not think about what we’re doing for lunch or dinner. My daughter’s first year in college brought her back for Mother’s Day, a surprise orchestrated with her father. Boston is not far from New York. California is. It’s the way we live now.

To be the mother of a bride on Mother’s Day weekend is a gift that can’t be quantified.  To be the mother of a soon-to-be-bride who lives far away requires an extra measure of attention to what is and what is not within my control. There is no planning a wedding without stresses. On the surface it’s about logistics and details, which largely fall on my daughter as the point person and which I can do little or nothing to relieve her of.  The best I can do is remind her, in conversations and texts, of what is and what is not within her control. That good friend who can’t fly because she’s seven months pregnant will indeed be missed. And maybe the wedding will be a larger affair than she wanted because so many people have such good feelings about the happy couple.

I remind her, too, to look at the big picture and the deeper significance of getting married. With any luck, it will be a picture-perfect day, with a bride exuding the kind of joy that transcends any worries about the perfect dress. Or shoes.

 

Mother Nature

SomethingSara copyAs I sit in my currently 90 degree apartment, unable to control the temperature even with a wall A/C unit that apparently stops functioning properly when the weather outside goes above 80 degrees, I think about how little control we have as humans. Just watch any documentary about global warming and all the disaster that weather will wreak on Earth if we don’t act soon enough . . . it kind of seems like those images are coming to life on the news right now. Wildfires scorching San Diego, snow in Colorado in May, “worst ever” floods in Bosnia and Serbia—is this the beginning of the end?wildfire

Weather is SO much bigger than us. We try to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our lives, our buildings, our property from it and it just ain’t a force to be reckoned with.   I value every drop of water I drink or that cleanses my body in this Dust Bowl-like, multiyear drought. I recycle everything that I can, I buy sustainable vegetables and meat, and it all just doesn’t feel like enough.

Living in California is so rad because there are so many different climates to experience. I chose one extreme for a road trip to Death Valley with my mom on Mother’s Day weekend. Not having cell phone service for almost 24 hours really puts things in perspective. Driving through arid and windy terrain makes you realize that no matter what we do, or what we try to control, the Earth is still going to go on with or without us. Unless an asteroid hits us (but even still, that only stopped the dinosaurs!). Seriously, stopping global warming isn’t just for the Earth, it’s about our survival as a species.

The basin of Death Valley has the look and feel of a dried-out sea. But despite “drying out” it’s still there, salt flats and all, a reminder that the earth is ever-changing and ever-evolving. Death Valley 2 Not being able to control Mother Nature doesn’t stop me from wanting to experience it.   There’s just something about seeing natural wonders (driving by them or climbing through them) that really humbles you—from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls. You get to see first-hand how these places have evolved and adapted and will continue to do so. I’m currently reading a book about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, which would scare a lot of people and is quite scary, but I have to do it; even if it means I might get trampled to death by elephants, that’s got to be at least a fast way to die, right?

Speaking of being scared, try driving through a sandstorm, which is exactly what happened on our way back to L.A. from Death Valley. Sand and dirt and wind do very nasty things to a car. It hurts even more when it’s a brand-new one. The lesson? Something goes wrong in our day to ruin it and we’re not happy anymore (like having to replace your windshield due to said sandstorm). Something goes wrong with Mother Earth and she humbles us with her resilience. She also reminds us, again and again, of how little is really in our control. Death Valley 1

Happiness is . . .

Take a minute, say the phrase, ask yourself what comes to mind.

A warm blanket? A warm puppy?

A warm gun.

That first hint of springtime green which really is gold.

A deep ruby Grenache that catches the light and warms the spirit.

A walk around the lake, alone, or through a museum, with a friend.

A very dry martini, straight up, with a twist.

A new dishwasher with a half-load cycle (let’s hear it for energy-efficiency!)

dolphins national aquariumWatching dolphins blowing bubble rings underwater in a PBS/Nova series, Inside Animal Minds.  Evolution takes on a new light when you see the real connection between socialization and survival of a species.  Communication runs deeper than thought.

Dancing with abandon.

Plunging into a book that begins with these words, “It was the happiest moment of my life,” and ends with these: “’Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.’” Between those bookend phrases are 530 pages riddled with irony, and sadness, obsessive love and the longing it gives rise to.

Is happiness contingent on love?

Try to find someone
Keep on walking strong
With your heart open wide
You’ll be satisfied . . .
  —The Subdudes

Is a simpler life really the answer?

Down in the jungle living in a tent
You don’t use money you don’t pay rent
You don’t even know the time but you don’t mind . .
             —Paul McCartney

In the spectrum of things that embody happiness, music is as close to the top of the list as it gets.  It’s a body thing, out of thought. Even sad music, for the pure pleasure of listening and every nuanced emotion it encompasses, hails with happiness.

I’m only home away from home
I’m only all there when I’m gone
I only miss you when I’m with you
I’m only happy when I’m singing a sad sad song
                   —Rhett Miller

Making playlists is an unabashed joy. There’s an art to the segue, song to song. When I’m at the gym, on the Elliptical machine, a playlist that includes Johnny Ray Allen (You’ll Be) Satisfied and Paul McCartney, Mrs. Vandebilt,  Craig Finn, Honolulu Blues and Rhett Miller, Out of Love, is very very good for the heart.  Picturing David Bowie and Mick Jagger in their classic Dancing in the Street video is good for the soul.  Not that the Laura Nyro/LaBelle cover, or the original Martha Reeves and the Vandellas doesn’t have pride of place in my ‘Dance’ playlist, along with Lady Gaga (duh) and the Scissor Sisters. And Billy Idol. I’m big on dancing with myself.

Satisfaction? I can’t say I don’t get no. Depends on the day.  One good paragraph, a line that sings, caveat (‘Kill your darlings’) aside.

A row of turtles resting on a log in the lake always stops me.

Looking up at cumulus clouds floating against a backdrop of at least five shades of blue.

The eerie trill of toads, a mating call as intoxicating as it gets.

A blue jay’s whistle.

A reflexology foot massage.

I could go on and on, and we all have lists of our own making. . . but isn’t there something a little less tangible at the heart of true happiness?  Isn’t looking from the outside/in worlds apart from going from the inside/out? Pema Chodron says we’ll never find happiness as long as we keep looking for it all the wrong places, a habit that’s hard to break.  Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the happiest man on earth (a label he disclaims),  makes a distinction between things that give us pleasure and an inner sense of flourishing, fulfillment.

In the truest of all possible worlds, happiness is that thing that knows we’re part of a greater whole, interconnected. It comes from a place deep inside, where mind stops chattering, serenity takes hold, compassion is a given.  In the day-to-day world as we (mostly) live it, it’s something outside of us—riddled with longing, hope, waiting for something that might make us feel better. Today.

Tomorrow I fly to California, a long way to go for a mini-roadtrip with my daughter in her spiffy new car. It will be the first time in a few years that we’ll be spending Mother’s Day together. On the grand scale of things that make me happy, doesn’t get much better than that.

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A Green Wallet and a Poem . . . and a Mother’s Day Surprise

wallets
Nestled among small purses lined up on a shelf in my closet is a green wallet I use from time to time, my mother’s, one of the things I kept after she died.  A pattern of tiny diamonds gives texture to the leather, a cross between emerald and evergreen.  Tiered slots for credit cards and a zipper compartment for dollar bills make for a slim, elegant clutch.  It was a present from me, one of her birthdays. Except for the tiniest hint of wear along the edge, it looks almost new. More than once over the years I teased her about the wallets multiplying in a drawer of her bedroom dresser, some gifts, some purchases of her own, none of them ever what they seemed at first. Call it a variant of the Goldilocks syndrome; Change purses with snap clasps that get stuck. Billfold wallets looking bloated by the time they start bending to your will. This one, made in Italy, was designed to last.

Whatever slips of paper there were in the wallet – sales receipts, a lottery ticket or two – I let stay, along with an AARP card that would outlive my mother. To my thinking they were part of the package, pieces of a puzzle that would continue to contain her presence. If memory serves me well, there may have been a few dollars in it, now gone.  A wallet, in its intimacy, is nothing if not a repository for what we hold valuable at its most basic, day in/day out, as personal as it gets. There were no photos in the wallet; she had a separate compact holder for snapshots. Treasured moments at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. Wallet-size portraits of smiling grandchildren neatly groomed, that classic blue background, picture day at school.

Like stories at their most multi-layered, when I open this wallet, another one, stolen years earlier, always comes to mind.  Of all the things taken from my mother – the credit cards and the cash – it was the loss of something far less quantifiable that troubled her most. My very first published poem, ‘The Raindrop” or “Raindrop” or “Raindrops” – who can remember and does it really matter? – cut out from a mimeographed elementary school newsletter. This much I do remember clearly: the paper on which that newsletter, with its inimitable typewriter font celebrating the purest of all creative minds, young boys and girls, was green. Until the poem was lost, I can’t even say I knew she carried it with her.  It’s a funny thing, the color that pride can take on, and how, in the hands and heart (and wallet) of a mother, the object of that pride is rendered a secret treasure.

* * *

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning.  I head out for a walk, my husband gets ready for a day of golf.   No special plans for me, which is just fine. A little reading, a little cleaning up, a nice dinner at home later,  leftover grilled chicken and steak to be tossed into a salad, a glass or two of wine.  Mother’s Day just the way I like it. My daughter has already decided to pamper me, a gift certificate to a local spa.

All the more reason to be surprised when I return from my walk to see a a Dooney & Bourke gift bag on my desk, a card from my ‘#1 and #1A Admirers’ tucked inside.  The irony of receiving a beautiful new wallet within days of drafting a reflection on a memory-laced one is hardly lost on me. Some gifts really are priceless.Without wasting a moment, giddy and smiling, I start to fill my wallet – credit cards and museum cards, my driver’s license. Dollar bills and  loose change. A favorite old snapshot (or two or three) of my daughter.

 

The Motherless Child

In the early months following the attacks on The Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa, Salman Rushdie finds himself questioning the very thing that had been one of his greatest joys, namely, being a writer.  As he tells it in his chronicle of that extraordinary time, Joseph Anton, “If one spent five years of one’s life struggling with a large and complex project . .  . and if, when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it.”  It’s his son, Zafar, who brings him back to himself, with a reminder of a promise: “Dad, what about my book?”

The book, culled from bath-time stories he had told Zafar, “dropped into his head like a gift.” And, yet, he admits, there would be many false starts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, until he gets the right first sentence and, in doing so, recalls Joseph Heller once telling him about the way in which a single sentence can give rise to a book. “There were sentences that one knew, when one wrote them, contained or made possible dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other sentences.”

I couldn’t say it better myself.

The last time I saw my mother I was propped on a phone book in a red leather chair at Jeanie’s Hair Salon.

It’s a good guess I was sitting in a hair salon when the line popped into my head. It’s an equally good guess there was no young girl sitting in a hairdresser’s chair. Whatever it was that brought that line and image into the deeper recesses of my brain had me curious enough to take it further. It’s the reason I write.

Turns out this would become a story about a young girl abandoned by her mother and raised by Jeanie, the hairdresser.  In its more symbolic component, “Hair” is very much about identity.

Is it odd, or not so odd, that, with Mother’s Day approaching I should happen to read two books, back-to-back, 13540215connected by the thread of the motherless child?  William Talmadge, the title character of The Orchardist,  Amanda Coplin’s dazzling first novel, is twelve when his mother dies and he’s left with his younger sister to care for two ailing Gravenstein apple trees that would, indeed, yield fruit, ‘starter’ trees, in a way, for an orchard that would expand to many acres. In the novel’s poetic, sometimes harsh depiction of late nineteenth/early twentieth century life in the Pacific Northwest, there’s no dwelling on the mother whose death, like any mother’s, leaves a hole. If anything, it’s his sister’s mysterious disappearance when she’s sixteen that has a deeper impact: “He did not articulate it as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. . . . He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. “

All of which becomes a backstory to the day two teenage sisters, both pregnant, runaways from abuse, show up in Talmadge’s orchard. Their story becomes his. One will die, leaving behind an infant. The other, Della, will give birth to a stillborn, and the surrogacy of her sister’s child that falls to her will turn out to be as confusing as it is unsatisfying.  Once Della’s preoccupation with horses takes hold, there’s no holding her back, and Talmadge is left to raise Angelene, the girl without a mother or even an aunt who might claim her. In chapters that alternate between Della’s life away from the orchard and the life Talmadge has made for himself and Angelene, a very compelling story in which the landscape itself becomes a metaphor for loneliness and nurturing takes shape.
imposterUSpicThe absence of a mothering presence, and its impact, may be subtle in The Orchardist but it’s there, a backdrop to the emotional wounds and rugged survival of the main characters. In Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, a richly hued novel worlds apart from Amanda Coplin’s in terms of mood, setting, and style, the child left motherless takes center stage. What starts out as a story about a Jewish woman just arrived in Montreal in the wake of WWII (expecting to marry one man, only to end up marrying his brother) becomes as much, if not more, the story of the daughter she would abandon.  In alternating chapters, the narrative shifts from a third-person perspective revealing more and more about Lily Azerov Kramer, the bride who mysteriously disappears two months after her daughter is born, and the first-person voice of Ruth, the daughter trying to make sense of the mother who walked away from her family.  Why she left, who she really is, the uncut diamond in her possession that raises suspicion in a jeweler/friend, the packages she sends (beautiful rocks from places she’s been) as birthday presents to Ruth become pieces of a puzzle to fit together.

Early on in his memoir, Salman Rushdie reflects on the nature of being a migrant (i.e., a “Bombay boy” living in London) and how it got him rethinking the novel that would become Midnight’s Children. It boiled down to grappling with authenticity, the need “to make an act of reclamation of the Indian identity he had lost, or felt he was in danger of losing.” Is there some irony, bittersweet as it is, in that the first story I would publish, “Shoes,” was one that could not be written until after my mother died?

My mother, in her wisdom, would say it simply: timing is everything.

All of which makes it all the more odd that, as I put the finishing touches on this piece singing the praises of two wonderful new books and what I believe they have in common, I turn on the radio to hear Richie Havens singing at Woodstock, the line from his song, “Freedom” (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”), ringing truer and louder than ever.

‘Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey’

Years ago, as a single woman living in New York, I came home one night to a message on my answering machine, no mistaking my mother’s voice: “Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey.” Apparently some sulfurous vapor had been released into the atmosphere from, yes, New Jersey, and was headed straight to NYC. Humor aside, what may have been lost on me as the daughter testing her independence (if only a stone’s throw from the fold) was made ever so manifest the minute I found myself on the flip side of the mother-daughter coin. I may not leave LOL voicemails, but e-mails and text messages underscored by :-)-worthy typos are part and parcel of the daily repartee with my daughter.  Each year out on her own brings a new mix of freedom and frustrations; I get to observe both from afar, give only as much advice as I’m asked to give, breathe a little lighter as  anxieties give way to healthy coping strategies; the more she takes care of herself, the better off we both are. And if I can’t protect her (forever), I can still remind her of my favorite line from The Runaway Bunny:  “‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’”

Some things take a little getting used to.  On the first Mother’s Day I would spend without my own mother (she had died a month earlier), there was no chance to mourn. My daughter, six years old at the time, wanted to test her mettle on a two-wheeler.  We were on a cul-de-sac next to my in-laws’  house, Grandma all smiles as I kept her pride and joy as steady as I could, until it was time to release my grip, the gift for me truly in the giving. On the first Mother’s Day I expected to spend without my daughter (her freshman year at college), the blues went out the door the minute she walked in – surprise!  The best things come in no packages at all.

A recent rereading of the Demeter-Persephone myth has me thinking about Mother as archetype and the ways in which we celebrate motherhood.  In Charlene Spretnak’s  concise and eye-opening Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, she reminds us of how patriarchy’s ‘managing of information’ over the centuries has colored the classical myths handed down to us. The pre-Hellenic Persephone is a young woman whose entry into the underworld is a willful, compassionate calling, not an abduction; her return is in the form of spring crocuses.  Likewise for Demeter, who renders the earth barren not as an act of anger or vengeance but out of sorrow and despair.  And the myth surrounding the birth of Zeus, even in its Hellenic form, is nothing if not a reminder that hell hath no fury like a mother’s need to protect her child. As Robert Graves tells it, Rhea is enraged at her husband, Cronus, who, as a hedge against the prophesy that a son would dethrone him, swallows each of the children she bears.  When it comes time to give birth to Zeus, she does it in secret and hides the infant. Of course, the megalomaniac husband gets wind of it but she’s one step ahead. She wraps a stone in swaddling clothes, a ruse that Cronus apparently has no problem swallowing.

Mother worship may well be traced to ancient times, but the credit for Mother’s Day as we know it goes to a woman named Anna Jarvis. In 1907, two years after her mother died, Jarvis started aggressively campaigning for a national day commemorating mothers. By 1909 a day of observance would be set aside in forty-five states,  red and white carnations (a favorite of the elder Jarvis) worn in tribute  to mothers.  Seven years later, the second Sunday in May would be declared a national holiday.   As a poignant afterthought, Anna Jarvis, so distressed by the commercialization of the holiday, would spend much of her resources and the rest of her life in outright opposition to the holiday she had created.

Who can blame her for feeling the way she did? The truth be known, Mother’s Day is my least favorite day of the year to go out to a restaurant (but don’t ask me to cook, either).  Just let me sit quietly with the Sunday Times, a cup of coffee and a fresh scone.  Flowers are always welcome. Most important of all, a phone call from my daughter.