It’s been six months or so, since my mother died. I’ve thought about her every day. I’ve been thrown from the paroxysms of despair and an ever deepening sense of gratitude for the gift of her love. On most days, I feel it was a gift I did little to deserve. But that is not the contract of a mothers love for her son, is it?
I’ve been waiting since may for the cold stone of grief to drop from on high straight onto my heart. And for some reason it just hasn’t come. I’ve told myself multiple times that it would come. And I would have that moment where my heart would finally break, and I would weep with despair. I can’t say that it will ever happen that way. But I did have a good old blubber today while listening to a new band, Cloud Nothings. Upon hearing their bumpy youthful energy pound out, “I’m not a part of me”. I am not stating that the song has some deep hidden meaning that will change your life. But the refrain from the tune, “I’m not you, you’re a part of me”, finally laid that cold stone of grief over my heart.
I’ve struggled most of my life to fit in anywhere. I am a jagged bitter pill to be taken with a bit of good bourbon at times. I know this. My mom, I know for certain celebrated this, while also enduring the worst of it through my youth. I would love to say that it has gotten better. Maybe I am just better at putting a big white sheet over my more anti-social tendencies as I get older, maybe not… But they have held me back from things that most people would have deemed opportunities in this life, whether it’s relationships, jobs, or anything else. I suppose I found my way, sort of. But the overriding gift from my mother was that I stopped worrying about fitting in being my fault. It’s a big world.
This battle for a place in this world started at home. Something I could never reconcile was my mothers desire for a bigger, better home filled with things you couldn’t touch. We didn’t have plastic over the furniture or anything weird like that, but there seemed to be a conspicuous set of choices regarding homes, and home decor, as I grew into my teens that I never quite understood. We moved on my 13th birthday from Fox Chase Lane to Pine Tree Valley, and this is kind of where it all started. My brother and I were rambunctious destructive boys. If it wasn’t nailed down, we would break it. And we wouldn’t break it, unless it was worth something.
When it came time to do the memorial, I had a whole narrative about this, but I quickly jettisoned it, because it was more about me, than it was about my entire family losing her. I felt the eulogy I gave served that audience. But something in me has never let go of these feelings that I have. And this isn’t to say that her love was any less for me. Or that I didn’t get a relationship with her because of these niggling things at the back of my mind. But instead it was a marked difference in how she saw the world from how I saw it.
The simplest thing I could ever say is that I wanted a home, not a museum. It seemed I lived in a museum as a kid, full of very beautiful things that had very little to do with me, that I couldn’t touch, sit on, or go anywhere near. Mostly because of how destructive we were (being honest.)
I remember an Art History professor telling me that everyone makes art. Art has been made as long as there have been humans, it is what separates us from other beings. We just do it. Nothing can stop it, there was art made in the concentration camps. And it finally occurred to me, that the art my mother made, was her home, and when we were growing up, she essentially had the Mongols from the steppes wrecking her art for 18 years. It created a lot of tension at home, and in my heart a bit of resentment, that, perhaps stuff was more important than I was. And even further, that I didn’t really belong at home, let alone anywhere else. And to make matters worse, perhaps sometimes, I sometimes do the exact same thing with my own kids.
This art, to her credit, was calculated and relentless as even my father would tell you. But it left little room for sentimentality. It’s possible there might be as few as three pieces of furniture from my childhood left in their home. Each time I would visit, there would be less and less of anything I remembered growing up. And I think it brought back those feelings of not belonging in my own house, and I struggled for some sort of contextual signifier, or marker in the house that would let me recognize it as where I grew up. But alas, it was never to be, I never lived in that house, only visited, and the old house and all of the things inside of it were gone. So I continually yearned for something that was seemingly destroyed in the pursuit of higher art, like a Briton sitting around crying about the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and wishing that Stonehenge hadn’t fallen down. This wounded me, that she felt so little attachment to the time when I was in her life.
Funny thing is, as I began to look around in the wake of her death. I realized how little it had to do with me. It was purely hubris on my part that the house, the furniture, and the decorations inside it had anything to do with me. It never did. It was merely an expression of my mother’s changing sense of taste. But because I tend to be egotistical I took it personally. And further, when I looked around, some of these changes were made because she wanted to make me and my family welcome when we visited from Kalamazoo. One of the last times we spoke, I was upset with her and my dad over this very topic, and she got off the phone crying. And I think about this a lot. Who does that? Who makes their 69 year old mother cry over a bunch of stuff that no one wants? I guess I did, and I will have to live with it.
There was a story I think Jim Tibensky told me that I think sums up my feelings on this topic. And for the record Jim, this may not be the story you told me at all, I may have heard part of it, and completely filled in the blanks with a series of details that fit my narrative, or perhaps it is close…
Jim and a tour group arrived on Crete from a sea kayaking trip, and walked up the stony cliffs into one of those beautiful villages that glitter white under the sun. Once in town, they group stopped at a quaint little cafe on the terraced hillside overlooking the wine blue sea. They order some food, it’s late afternoon. The owner, let’s call him Thanos, he’s really friendly and they start to chat with him at this outdoor cafe. In the middle of this meal, a young woman walks up to him and tells him something. Thanos gets very excited and he starts giving away food and drinks. Pretty soon word has spread to the whole village, who shows up at Thanos’ cafe. The kayakers have pretty much walked into the best party they’ve ever seen on accident. As it turns out the woman is his daughter, and she had gotten into college in Athens. She would be going away. She would be the first person to go to college in her family. As the evening winds on, things get kind of crazy, Thanos starts a bonfire, people are getting really drunk, and they begin breaking up all the wooden furniture and throwing it on the bonfire. Pretty soon all the kayakers are helping Thanos and the village dismantle his outdoor cafe and throw it on the bonfire. Jim asks him why he’s burning his own cafe furniture. He replies, “All of this was for her. The cafe, the business was for my daughter. Now that she has gotten into university, I can start again. You have to burn the past, so that there is a future.”
Whether he actually said this or not, I don’t know, but I got it from somewhere, and it is a kayaking blog after all.
This brings me back to my original point I suppose. As children we struggle to become ourselves, and we think better than our parents, hence the statement, “I’m not you, you’re a part of me.”
I’ve made a lot of very different choices in my life from my parents, but they’re a part of me. And I have started to burn the past, so that the future can survive. My mother has made me the man I am. Who can survive his own mistakes and shortcomings, and who loves his children and his wife without doubt, the man who runs across counties, skis through snowstorms, who surfs the storms of the great lakes, and who never ever gives up on himself because she didn’t.