Life lesson: When coming across memories, focus on the good

Have you ever had a memory sneak up on you and take you by surprise? Did you notice if it’s a sad or bad memory that you tend to soak in it?

But when a good memory catches you off guard, do you roll around in it as well? Do you revel in it, throw your head back and laugh, and recall how truly marvelous that moment was?

I was watching football with my dad the other day and when the defense ran off the field, the coach began that completely nonsensical ritual (to me, anyway) of patting each grown man on the butt as he went by.

As I wondered, probably for at least the 100th time why they do that, a memory dropped right into my mind, clear and bright and full of life, and I howled with laughter.

My dad looked at me like I was crazy. He didn’t see anything on the field that would warrant that response.

That was when I shared this memory with him, and before you knew it, we were telling other stories about my mom and we laughed so hard that tears were streaming down our faces.

When I was younger and I returned home from the Army, and patched up an old argument with my mom, we returned to our prior relationship but elevated it to another level, full of love and great times spent together. We became more like best friends or sisters, and we acted more like that than mothers and daughters typically behave together.

We held hands often when we went places. We hugged and kissed each other, and we gave each other great sometimes outrageous compliments. We got into our fair share of trouble, even getting thrown out of a few stores and other businesses for laughing too loudly or being a little rowdy while having extreme fun.

Well, we grew so close that when I decided to go to college and talked to her about it, I found out she had been thinking about going back to get that degree that she was working on but never finished when I was a teenager.

At that time, not as many people as now went to college “later” in life. It was a kind of daunting proposition, especially for her. But we decided we would go together and joked about how we would “graduate or die trying.”

We both made many friends and had a wonderful time at school. We were a little more studious and serious because we were both paying our own way and that seemed to make the classes and the time more valuable.

I had a beautiful male friend at school who would occasionally sneak up on me in a hallway and pinch me on the butt. He loved to see my shocked face when I first turned to see who it was and then we would just dissolve into laughter when I realized it was him. (Remember when you were young and carefree and did silly things like that?)

Well, one day my mom and I were walking down a hallway in the student union when I saw him standing in a line up ahead. She had never understood his pinching me, but her eyes lit up when I pointed him out and mischievously said, “Watch this.”

I walked right up behind him, grabbed one of his cheeks in my hand and gave it a good squeeze as payback for all those pinches. I don’t know if you can imagine how mortified I was when he turned around in shock and I saw something that shocked me even more: It wasn’t him!

I could hear my mom’s laughter echoing in that hallway as I stammered out some excuse and backed away, more embarrassed than I ever remembered being. I ran down the hallway with her at my heels and when we got a respectable distance from that young man, we laughed ourselves sick. I mean we were bent over, sobbing and squealing and having the best laugh ever.

This memory was what came to me in my dad’s living room during that typical Sunday football game. And the minute I got to the grabbing part in the retelling of it, my father just burst into laughter and heavy tears. We carried on about it for probably a half-hour and those two now-intertwined memories are now making me smile widely.

Today is my mom’s birthday, and although she is no longer with me (I have been a Motherless Daughter for nearly four years), I am remembering her fondly. I am choosing to go forward and focus on remembering more good times.

When you lose someone really close to you, especially where the love was deep and wide and profound, you tend at first to reflect on the bad things – things you wish you had or hadn’t said, or did, things that went wrong. But as time goes by, those things fade and what comes to you is much sweeter.

I encourage you to reach out for the good and revel in it.

Get to know your parents now, while there’s still time

I bet if you asked 10 people, most of them would say they know their parents. But knowing them when you’re a child and when you’re an adult are radically different things.

I feel lucky to have learned this lesson, mostly before it was too late.

A few years before my mom died unexpectedly, I was watching a movie about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and it occurred to me that she was a young woman during that time. So, during our weekly phone call, I asked her if she remembered it. She did and she had an amazing story to tell.

The next day, during my weekly phone call to my dad, I asked him the same question. He and my mom were not yet married at that time, and he also had a cool story to tell me.

All during the workweek, I kept thinking of something else I could ask each of them, and that started a weekly Q and A with my parents that lasted until my mom’s unexpected death three years ago. What I learned about them was awesome, and still is in the case of my dad, who I now live near and talk with almost every day.

Here are some of the questions I asked them, or things I suggested they tell me about, to give you an idea of how to get a conversation started:

  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What were your best and worst days ever? (Interestingly, while my mom clearly remembered a beloved best day immediately, my father said he hoped it hadn’t yet happened to him.)
  • Where were you when John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, and what do you remember about those times? What about when we landed on the moon? Where were you on 9/11? Do you remember the Challenger disaster?
  • Do you remember the first time you saw a movie and what was it?
  • Tell me about the first time you fell in love.
  • Tell me about when you met my mom/my dad.
  • Tell me about you when you were a child and teenager.
  • Do you remember your first favorite pair of shoes, and what were they?
  • Tell me about your first pet.
  • What was your first car?
  • Do you remember your first job? And what was your favorite job?

(Just for fun, after writing this column, I Googled “get to know your parents” and there were 19,100,000 results! Try that if you need more questions.)

Sometimes, stories can just pop up if you ask a question about a comment one of your parents makes. Yesterday, my dad said something was “rough as a cob.” Knowing he had grown up on a farm where they had an outhouse when he was a child, I asked him if he really had ever used a cob. The ensuing story was hilarious and we both laughed until we had tears in our eyes. I will never forget that story as long as I live.

(And so you know, yes, they did use cobs because they couldn’t afford store-bought toilet paper. But they used gloves to rub down the cobs first, so they were actually fairly smooth on the surface. “Hell, it was better than a page from the Sears & Roebuck catalog!” he said. “That slick paper wouldn’t do you much good.”)

The conversations I had with my mom before she died, and the ones I continue to have with my dad, have enriched my life and made me look at my parents in a whole new way. I have come to appreciate things that were hard for them, and to really enjoy some of the things they have loved.

Knowing them as they were throughout their lives, instead of who I thought they were based on the memories of a child, has been a huge blessing.

Memories are all we really have, when you think about it. There is nothing else that you can take with you. So, adults, why not pass on some of your memories to your children today? And to those of you who still have one or both of your parents, why not ask a few questions now to gather some of those memories? One of these days, it will be too late.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, wherever you may be

mother

Do you ever wish a holiday would just drop off the map?

I do, because it’s that time of year again when I’m getting emails in my inbox reminding me to buy flowers or candy or some other type of present for my mom for Mother’s Day.

Is it just me or is Mother’s Day on steroids this year? It’s everywhere I turn – in the stores, in the newspaper, on the radio, on the Internet. Maybe it’s that way every year. Maybe it just seems so in my face because I miss her so much.

I recently moved near where my dad lives, and my mom didn’t live too far from him. For many years, when I came “home” to visit, I spent time with each of them. And now, she should be here. But she isn’t.

People ask other people, and people have asked me, “What are you doing for Mother’s Day?” Well, my mom died two and a half years ago. What are you supposed to do with Mother’s Day when you’re not a mother and your mother is no more? What do you do when you’re one of the Motherless Daughters?

Unbelievably, a distant family member swooped in and stole my mother’s ashes from the place that handled her arrangements after she “graduated” from medical school. (I had to fight distant family members to even make sure her body was donated to a medical school like she wanted, but that’s another story.) I still remember my shock when the guy said, “I’m sorry, we sent her to so and so.” Of course, they never contacted me to see if that was what I wanted, but instead just assumed that person was telling the truth when he requested it behind my back.

I felt horrible about that for about a week, until a good friend came to my house for a visit. When I tearfully told him what happened, he said one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to me: “Well, think about it this way. You got all of those years with her, and all of her love and all of those memories, and all he got was a box of ash.”

An overwhelming feeling of peace immediately came over me and I haven’t been upset about the theft since, because he was right: I got all the best of my mom during all of the years we had together. He also pointed out something else to me: She isn’t gone from me.

Throughout the week after that conversation, I really thought about what he said about her not being gone and then I realized he was right. She is with me every day.

I can hear her in my voice when I get excited or silly, or when I talk to my animals. I do the same higher pitch then.

I can see her in my hand whenever I sign my name. I worked hard when I was a teen to mimic her elegant cursive, and if you looked at our signatures, you would immediately see the resemblance.

I can feel her in my smile whenever I pose for a “good” photo. (My mom was a teenage beauty queen who taught me how to smile for “good” photos.)

I can hear her in the advice I give to friends – be kind, to yourself and others; do the right thing; love everyone, always.

I guess for Mother’s Day, I will remember my mom and wish she was still here. I’ll ache about feeling like an orphan. And I’ll hug my dad a little tighter, because he’s the only parent I have left.

Do you still have your mom? If not, what do you do for Mother’s Day? If this post spoke to you, please share it.