Two friends and I have just started a writer’s group. We kicked it off this morning at Patricia’s house. Karla brought bagels, goat cheese, hard boiled eggs, avocado and fresh peaches. I brought a Tazo tea bag and a notebook. We’re reading Natalie Goldberg’s new book on memoir, Old Friends from Far Away, and Christina Baldwin’s Storycatcher. The group was Patricia’s idea. She came with a writing exercise.
Write 13 things about your mother. Go for 15 minutes.
1. My mother was born on Christmas Eve. Her 3-year-old brother died less than 24 hours later, on Christmas Day, 1928. Hello and goodbye. In a flash.
2. My mother was the daughter of a tall, lean, good-looking dairy farmer of German descent and a college-educated pianist born on the 4th of July, 1900. When my grandmother was born, her parents were concerned about offending the relatives so they gave their daughter 7 names, one for every aunt. “Tell me grandma’s names again,” I would beg my mom as a child. Today I can only remember four. Eva Marie Louise Lorraine… My mother’s middle name was Lorraine. I got Louise.
3. My mother was 5 ft 11 inches tall when she stood up straight and wore size 11.5 shoes, with a AAAA heel. She had a terrible time buying shoes. “Why do they think long feet are also fat feet,” she’d say as we left another store empty handed. When she found a pair that fit, my mother would buy them in black, brown and tan. “I have no idea when I’ll find another pair that fits this well,” she’d say, lest I misinterpret a practical decision as extravagant.
4. My mother died of breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones and gone into the spinal fluid. The cells circulated throughout her brain, attaching to one function after another. On a Friday morning near the end, in a brief interval of lucidity just after the sun came up, she turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m going crazy.” Except for the three months before her death, she was the sanest person I knew.
5. My mother couldn’t swim. When we kids went swimming in a lake, she would pace in the sand onshore, hollering for us not to go out so far. “You know I can’t get to you,” she’d say. She was always more afraid than we were.
6. My mother hated feeling helpless. She hated losing control. She really hated it when my father lost control.
7. My mother was the only girl in her family, and the oldest. I am the only girl in my family, and the oldest.
8. My mother was known for her ability to calm fussy, crying babies. Before her double mastectomy, she had large, cushiony breasts that my father and all children loved.
9. When I was a teenager I asked my mother why she loved to clean. “I like things in their place,” she said. “My mind is quieter when things are orderly.” I’m the same way.
10. My mother had asthma and respiratory allergies that acted up when she spent time outdoors, so she mostly stayed inside. My favorite things happen outside. In that way we are different.
11. I have my mother’s long legs, high cheekbones and warm hazel eyes, her stubborn cowlicks, quirky eyebrows and slightly crooked mouth.
12. My mother didn’t ride a bike or play tennis or hike in the mountains but she was a brave cancer patient, braver than you can know.
13. My father had no desire to live without her.
This photo of my mother and me was taken by our friend, photographer Katy Tartakoff, in February, 2001, a few months after her last radiation treatment. Mom died on July 25, 2002.