My Mother’s Last Gift


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Lately I have seen a lot of women my age shopping with their mothers.  Now I am just assuming they are mothers and daughters, gingerly walking up and down the shopping isles.  I look at these women with sweet nostalgic memories and a twinge of envy.  My mom was a shopper in the finest sense of the word.  She would drive far and wide to seek out bargains.  Together we always had fun shopping and maybe that’s why I am envious of these women, gently guiding their own frail mothers.

Daughters have complicated relationships with their mothers.  My mother was not perfect, but I never felt anything but love from her.  She was a child of The Great Depression and lost her own mother at an early age.  She helped raise her younger siblings when her mother passed away leaving behind eight young children.  I am sure growing up in poverty, without a mother made her the person I knew.  Her memories of her own mother were always sweet stories of her cat Dorothy, placing cardboard in their shoes to cover the holes in the soles, eating sugar and lard sandwiches and always sharing what little you had with someone who had even less.

My mom as a young girl.

My mom’s name was Grace and she talked to everyone.  She would start a conversation with the stranger sitting next to her on a plane and soon would be exchanging phone numbers. Grace’s three children all grew up knowing that mom was proud of them and loved them unconditionally.  

Grace, meeting her granddaughter, Kathleen Grace.

The last five years of my mother’s life were undoubtedly the most difficult.  She was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease .  Not very long after the diagnosis my father, her husband and love of her life passed away.  Grace, the independent working mother, the shopper, the lady that took dusting her home to a new level, the traveler, the conversationalist would soon be robbed of what she valued most, her independence.  

Grace lived with the diagnosis of ALS the way she lived her entire life, with grace.  Very quickly after her diagnosis she lost the ability to walk, sit up independently, she had difficulty swallowing, and soon only had the use of only one hand.

No one tells you when you are diagnosed with an awful disease like ALS how lonely it can be.  Friends you have your entire life often abandon you because your disease makes them “uncomfortable.”  At first, there were many tears when told of her fate, but eventually my mom would say, “well, you’ve got to die of something.”  After my dad’s death she moved in with my sister’s family.  Mom became friends with her caregivers, they enjoyed concerts together she eventually lent money to her new friend to purchase her first home.
Mom continued to travel to my home in Arizona.  There she discovered caregivers with connections to Native American crafts.  One day I came home from work to discover several craftsman selling her jewelry and other crafts in my living room!  Mom also loved gambling and with her one good hand could still operate  a slot machine at the casinos.

Here we are dressed alike, heading out to the casinos.

When you know your mother is going to die you don’t hesitate to tell them how much you love them.  I thanked her for being a great mother and grandmother.  I thanked her for my great childhood.

At the very end of her life my sister called to tell me it was time to come and say goodbye to mom.  I quickly flew out to the East Coast with my three children.  When I saw her it was apparent that the end was very near, mom could no longer eat and she had lost the ability to speak. In her final moments Grace motioned her grandchildren closer and with her dying breath she mouthed the words “I love you.”  She then blew a kiss, closed her eyes and was gone.  Grace’s final gift was to tell us she loved us and to die in peace.

Christmas Memories

I love Christmas and I always have.  As a child, I could not wait for Santa to arrive.  My family would decorate the house and go to bed early on Christmas Eve.  We would always put out cookies and buttermilk for Santa, because that’s what he liked.  While we were sleeping Santa would put up the tree and decorate it for us!  I really don’t know how my parents did it all.  No wonder my mom was always a bit stressed just before Christmas.  We had traditions as children, we would visit Santa, bake my mom’s delicious butter cookies, go to Christmas mass, decorate our house and have parties with friends and family.  But one of the most meaningful memories I have is my mom always finding the family that had very little and giving them special Christmas gifts.  We would wrap presents and bring them to a family that lived on the edge of town, or to the little boys that were in foster care, or to a young pregnant teen that had been kicked out of her home.  What my mom did was show us all the true meaning of Christmas.  My parents grew up in the middle of the Great Depression.  My mom was one of eight children and her own mother died when she was young.   She never forgot what it was like to be poor and hungry and she never forgot to give back to others.

Christmas in the 1960’s with my mom, sister and brother (the Native American)

At this time of the year we often stop to reflect and give thanks for all of the riches we have in this world.  I’m grateful for the health, love and presence of my family and friends.  Every year we have continued many of the holiday traditions our family started.  I host a holiday brunch with girlfriends where we enjoy shopping, french toast, mimossas and the company of good friends.  Together, my family hosts a Christmas party for friends from far and wide.  My kids bring their friends and everyone has a blast.  At the end the guests leave with some homemade Irish Cream.

When my kids were small I would often get lost in the hectic pace of Christmas, shopping, baking, decorating and wrapping gifts.  One day when my kids were driving me crazy my neighbor knocked on the door and asked if she could “borrow my children for a few hours.”  “Absolutely!” I replied.  She explained to me that the children were going to go house to house collecting toiletries for gift baskets for the homeless.  What a great reminder to me about what Christmas was all about.

Every year we look for a needy family or group and shop for them.  There is nothing that makes me happier than bringing some Christmas joy to others. I wish you all some Christmas Joy.


Rambling Through My Stuff

For the last few weeks I have been searching for a project which has a tangible sense of accomplishment, an end product.  Finally, I’ve found some projects around my home where I can achieve that.  I don’t consider myself a hoarder but I do hold onto sentimental objects and especially pictures with an inexplicable fanaticism.  I have always loved photographs and even in college took many pictures of friends and displayed them in my dorm rooms.  I loved taking photography classes and relished the time I was able to spend in the dark room developing photographs.  Back in the early eighties we took pictures with actual black and white film, you never were sure you had the shot until you went into the dark room and saw the magic happen on the photo paper.  I remember being assigned to take two to four roll of thirty six pictures a week.  Film was expensive, photo paper was expensive but the process was so exhilarating that I did everything in my power to make some extra cash to buy my supplies.

Over the years I have taken thousand upon thousands of photographs.  Most of them I have saved, including the negatives.  Pictures of my kids, friends, family and events are all documented in these photographs.  Sure I have albums.  I made sure I had an album documenting basic childhood milestones for each of my three children.  Although, I must admit  for my third child I may have substituted some of his baby pictures with those of his brother, my firstborn who has about a million pictures.

Even with these three photo albums there were giant crates of pictures lining the cabinets of my garage.  Every summers when I was teaching I told myself, this year I will organized all of the pictures in those crates.  And each summer I found something else to do. Well now that I am retired and home much more I had no more excuses.

For days I poured over each picture.  Who were all of the people in the picture?   What year was this?   I remembered stories of the college parties, the pet bunnies, the vacations, and so many more sweet memories of my family and friends. The floor of my living room was strewn with piles of pictures.  I’ve saved friends’ Christmas card photos, shots of tee ball practice, holidays and birthdays.  Each photograph had a story to tell of my life.  Many of the pictures were duplicates, because you often took three or four pictures in the hope of getting one good one.  But my mission was to create photo albums chronologically.  I loved every minute of the project. For many hours I would think of the Jim Croce song “Time in a Bottle” where you can “save every day until eternity passes away.”   By honoring the photographs and assigning them a place in my albums I feel as though I am giving that photograph a voice and an opportunity for the story in the picture to be told again and again.  Reluctantly, I threw away pictures that were blurry, duplicate or had heads missing. Unless those pictures were from my childhood, because the majority of the pictures my mom  took included the tallest person being beheaded.

Childhood memories with my sister

I was able to dwindle down the enormous amount of pictures to just two albums and one small box.  How is it that all the stories can be so succinctly edited to two books?  But they are given the place of honor in my albums.  Hopefully to be seen by many eyes.

All of my photographs placed in albums

It is interesting to see when the pictures stop in time.  They stop when we started using digital technology to take over the documentation process.  I worry that so many pictures are on jump drives and discs and can so easily be discarded.  But I know in my heart that the memories will last forever.