My mother believed in celebrating not only holidays but momentous occasions in life - big or small - and passed on her love of honoring these special times in a way that was fun, meaningful and filled with anticipation and love. As a result, our family celebrated far more holidays than those listed on a traditional calendar.
Like her own mother, Mom adored children and believed that they should be protected from the tough realities that adults can face; as a result, she was lovingly strict about our activities, curfews, and created a home environment that offered structure and safe haven from the world. Amidst the endless demands that she faced as the mother of six (her youngest with Down Syndrome) as well was caring for an elderly mother and ill brother who lived forty minutes away, it would have been understandable had she missed small triumphs in our lives – but she never did. Following a personal accomplishment, we kids could always count on receiving a little loving note, special treat, a few warm words at the dinner table announcing a victory to the rest of the family, or a small gift on your pillow which communicated “You are important….I love you and am proud of you.” In addition to healthy foods, Mom certainly fed us substantial doses of self esteem on a daily basis by acknowledging our successes with expressions of praise and celebration.
Though ladylike and proper, Mom was not a Pollyanna. She’d experienced her share of trials and tragedies in her life and understood hard work and sacrifice. Perhaps from this she also embraced the importance of balancing fun, adventure and good times against the daily grind. Mom shared fondly about how my grandmother -also no stranger to toil – created memorable holidays such as each Halloween when friends would be invited for dinner. Following the delicious meal, the living room would be cleared and kids given a peashooter and a big supply of peas as adults left to enjoy dessert and coffee. Mom said the ensuing “war” was tremendous fun and vowed to weave similar happy memories into her own childrens’ lives someday. In my dad’s large metal filing cabinet, we knew existed under the F’s a manila folder marked “FUN FILE” – filled with brochures, articles, coupons, and other information that Mom would store for future use.
While we ate home-cooked meals daily and Mom kept a good house, she was not domestically oriented (preferring to curl up with a good book). While I find great pleasure in baking, cooking, making crafts, and other pursuits, Mom confided in me years later that she never enjoyed those activities at all.
Knowing this, I doubly appreciate now the extra cakes she baked and her graciousness in indulging our whims. While we obviously celebrated all of the traditional holidays knowing that gifts were chosen with our wishes taken carefully into account, Mom always found a way to infuse a little charm into the smallest of celebrations. She celebrated Friday afternoons, awards received at school or in extracurricular activities, the end of the piano-lesson “season,” first day of summer, becoming a teenager, and so on. July 4th picnics, beach party outings (always extending the invitation to neighbor children), birthday celebrations always involved much planning. preparation and organization. Long after her children were adults, Mom would continue to fill our childhood Easter baskets with See’s candy (the shop required a special trip as it wasn’t near our home) and then invite us over to pick them up!
Sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, Mom could always be relied upon to supply a tray of food at a memorial, or would thoughtfully travel (again, not near home) to a good bakery uptown to purchase some breads and pastries for an elderly friend or shut-in. She would purchase gifts for lonely neighbors and take us to deliver the presents to friends with special needs. Mom would make a point of inviting a newly widowed friend for Christmas Eve and have a lovely little gift (personally selected, not randomly grabbed) at hand. I remember a Mother’s Day luncheon that Mom planned for her godmother, whose only son was living in a foreign country, and a special birthday party held not long after in honor of a dear elderly friend who was terminally ill. My mother clearly believed that good times and love were meant to be shared!
In thinking about the words that I would share in this essay, my mind recalled a little valentine pressed into the pages of a baby book that Mom made for me years ago. It was the first valentine I ever received at the tender age of six months, with the simple inscription “With love from Mama and Daddy.”
The first time I read it, I teared up thinking of the care that Mom spend selecting a little Valentine’s Day card for her newborn – what a lovely intimate gesture! Over the years, like most girls, I’ve received jewelry, flower bouquets, and my share of keepsakes marking that day of declared love, but nothing is sweeter to me than that precious note.
I was deeply impacted by my mother’s example of adding some whimsy to this life, and now that she is afflicted with dementia, I do my best to provide for her (and Dad) fun and special times as frequently as I can. Life with confusion, caregivers, and other constraints present a new kind of challenge, and I want to offset these hardships with the same game spirit Mom possessed. At first I strove to replicate earlier celebrations, which I learned is not feasible. I have modified our celebrations to accommodate limitations of time, energy and tolerance. The activity is simpler, food not as elaborate, and gifts hold less importance. But Mom responds to the same sense of excitement in the air which I work to arouse in her as she did to us, and convey the hint of fun and reward and togetherness. When I can achieve that, we both return to a very special place that makes us all childlike in anticipation.