On Losing My Mother (part 3): Reading, Writing, and “Fanny Fatigue”
All my life, my mother was enthusiastic about education, and one of my favorite first memories is learning to read pre-kindergarten in our front yard. It was just my mother and me sitting under the big elm tree on a sunny, weekday afternoon. My mom got me these awesome picture cards, and as it happened, we were looking at the figure of an elm leaf, learning to read the word, “elm.” This stands out as one of the first and most profound poetic memories of my life. After all, poetry can be seen as a series of embedded connections, and though these were quite literal, it all felt rather metaphoric to me in the moment (even though I hadn’t a clue at the time what a metaphor was).
My mother was so good at understanding the mind of a child. She always encouraged us to think and to wonder, to have awe and to be inspired by what we saw. And she always encouraged us to get involved, and to jump right in to enjoy new experiences. Another favorite memory that followed many years later is when we first started e-mailing each other in the early 1990s. Nothing could have felt more appropriate than that first e-mail I ever received from my mother, which naturally contained a recipe. I immediately envisioned the two of us together in another time and culture. I could see us sending smoke signals with lists of ingredients. Anything to get those recipes shared.
Still later, after I sent several e-mails filling in Mom on the quotidian of my and my kids’ days, my mother replied, “I could read your letters all day long. You write so beautifully.” Not given to flattery, my mother never complimented me much, and that these were just letters dashed off during the frenzy of my days made her words ever more memorable. Certainly she was no critic and her words were no true measure of a daughter’s talent, but just having unexpectedly pleased her with something such as writing (that was actually so meaningful to me)–and hearing her say something she’d never before said to me–seemed vital and valuable.
My mother had an interesting ease about her, and her affable nature made her seem genuine and approachable to just about everyone. People liked her so much that they rarely forgot her. In fact, when people recognized me at my high school reunions, they often exclaimed things such as: “Debbie Valentino! HOW is YOUR MOTHER?”
It was the same way with all of my father’s friends and with my brothers’ friends. If you knew any of us, you knew my mom…and even if you didn’t especially like one of us, you liked my mom. She was always making something—from slippers to spaghetti, from curtains to Kleenex boxes, her hands were constantly knitting, crocheting, sewing, counting, cooking, crafting. Even when she sat, she was working on something.
My mother was a complete extrovert who loved staying busy and loved people almost to a fault, and she would annoy me by doing things like knitting booties for all my friends and even some of their mothers and brothers. She didn’t require a lot of attention or praise, she just did what moved her spirit.
One time I wrote a poem about her feeding my ex-husband. “MOM! HE’S NOT your son-in-law anymore!”
You could not get her out of the kitchen ever.
“Mom! STOP COOKING!”
“I’m not cooking! I’m just baking a cake!”
It is because of these experiences, no doubt, that writing has become so much a part of my life…that I feel at all compelled to write this blog. Critics didn’t stop my mom. Neither did perfectionism. She just did whatever she enjoyed, and that made her happy. She would find my blogging a perfectly natural thing to do. In fact, I can hear her squeals of delight, “You should see Debbie’s blog!” She was always everyone’s best cheerleader. Not just her own children’s and grandchildren’s, but everyone’s. She was high-spirited, and she delighted in the joys and successes of others.
My mother was not a writer, but she was a maker and a doer. A woman who invented out of bangles and beads things that would last and hold meaning (if they weren’t falling apart, that is). My mom was a maverick in so many simple and yet remarkable ways, but it can’t be re-iterated enough that what she was certainly most accomplished at was providing warm and delicious meals, nearly every single day of our entire childhood and into our adulthood. Even when I was in third grade and she finally “went back to work,” she would stand in her high heels and nylon stockings, working at the stove without a break from the day. We spent hours as a family together at the table enjoying her lavish meals, leading many a friend who joined us to proclaim, “I sure wish I was Italian!”
My mother was also a woman of enormous faith and strength, and she had been tested in ways that would undo almost anyone. Though a physically tiny woman, cross-eyed and legally blind in one eye from birth, she was incredibly resilient, having overcome a lifetime of hardships and illnesses, including surviving three caesarean births when surgery procedures were nearly barbaric—as well as a complete hysterectomy just days after I was born, a thyroidectomy, and tens and tens of other operations (including the partial left lung lobectomy) that left incision scars all over her body. Resulting from the thyroidectomy, she had a raspy, sort of piercing voice with yet another scar that stretched across the entire length of the bottom front of her neck, and somewhat coarse features that made her not at all masculine, but certainly not the beauty of her family…perhaps, to put it biblically, the younger sister Leah to the older sister Rachel. Yet, she would literally say in her indelible spirit and good sense, “I think I’m beautiful.”
She was not vain, and in this way was an incredible role model both to myself and especially to all the female grandchildren. “I’m me, and this is the way God made me. I like myself. If others don’t, that’s their problem. I feel sorry for them.” And I believe she meant it. In this way she was ahead of and yet right in step with Dove’s new selfie campaign.
I won’t say these medical challenges didn’t make my mother sometimes do odd things. She named me after the doctor’s wife, because he saved her life in childbirth; I think possibly for the second or third time. That’s right, his wife. I was an Italian-American baby with a Jewish name (spelled “D-e-b-r-a”) that I never grew to like or appreciate (at least until after her passing), much less the legacy of being named after a veritable stranger.
That was my mom. She had her own unique logic, and as we were fond of saying, “was a little bit goofy sometimes,” but that was also part of her charm and what made her endearing (if not challenging). She was so spontaneous that she didn’t always consider the ramifications of what felt right to her in the moment, but she never met a stranger and she didn’t suffer any fools, and certainly suffered no regrets, which she made clear to us many times in the months before her passing. “I’ve lived a good life. I accomplished a lot. I want to be remembered for having lived for my children.”
That was just the Caroline we all knew. (Named after her favorite grandmother.)
At least she didn’t name me Ira.
If there is anything left to say, it has to be said that my mother loved to laugh. The woman who made everyone laugh and sometimes laughed just to laugh, then laughed at others laughing at her laugh could have had as her anthem that Mary Poppins hit song, “I Love to Laugh.” The woman who told endless stories about remote acquaintances, and always asked in restaurants for extra lemons and lots of whipped cream, was also the woman who on her deathbed wrote in her still strong hand that she had “Fanny Fatigue.” She was ready to go when she went, but we weren’t ready to let her go, because we knew that to large measure she was the party no one ever wanted to miss.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.