In 1987 I realized that my parents were mortal. Northern Ontario was a long way from Pt. Charlotte, Florida. Now my mother faced advanced bowel cancer, an operation, and chemo at 74. “Should I come down?” I’d say in our call every Sunday. “No, I’ll be fine,” she’d assure me. Frankly she’d looked like “death warmed over” last year, her signature blood-red lipstick a symbol of defiance. All that time she kept her condition to herself and refused to see a doctor.
Stiff-lipped English, we’d only started to hug as she got more sentimental. I gathered the last forty years into a letter telling her how much she meant to me. Not that I hadn’t over the years, but I wanted her to have something tangible. Perhaps she would know why I was sending it. I would have to write one for my father, too, to make them equal and to disguise the seriousness of my mother’s illness. I typed it of course. This was before I had a computer, and my writing was unintelligible, unlike her perfect Palmer script. When I had been twelve, she’d bribed me to finish a book of typing lessons at twenty-five cents apiece. How well it served me.
Standing thin-nylon-jacketed at six waiting on a snowy day for the bus, or renting a horse for the day only to find that I couldn’t put the bit back into its mouth, or beating a rented conga drum until I never wanted to see it again, I always had my stubbornness indulged until I learned my own lessons.
And for all those hours shortening eternal lined jeans or appointing my braids until my eyes squinted or sewing Oriental letters on my smelly gym suit or fine-tuning my dress for the prom down to the last ounce on my figure, my remembrance.
Not every teenager had a motorcycle, borrowed the family Thunderbird for a trip to Canada, or had the cream of trumpets, a Bach Stradivarius, envy of the boys in the band. Quality was paramount even if it did shoe me in suede and vicuna; as a seventh grader I was ahead of my time, and loved it, especially those black lace underpants.
Those marathon dinners you served so gladly to the world. None so poor or old or lobotomized that he couldn’t find a welcome at your bountiful table, and plenty of leftovers to take home. If only we could have understood Uncle Jürgen’s low German we could have heard by his words what a gentleman he was by his actions. How many times did I bring home a friend from college, Richard, Barb, Sachiko, Cookie, Molly, Bernd, Dewey, only to find a five-star Michelin treatment?
And here’s to the thousands of thoughtful touches that show your ever-present talent to delight: tiny soaps, sprays, perfumes, splashes, and basket of sweet-smelling rose petals, your whimsical birthday candle and succulent jumbo shrimp bought especially for me.
Most of all, your letters: warm, witty, and charming. I came by my passion for words in honest genetic fashion.
A multi-colored rose of many fragrances,
Tall above all the others,
You radiate your strength
And the garden you made surrounds you.
My mother died not long after this letter arrived. But I know that she cherished it because her friends told me that she sent them copies.
My mother was a tiny woman, barely five-two and a hundred and five pounds. But she was a powerhouse in the classroom and as a vice principal in the Cleveland inner city. One glance would quiet a rowdy group, and they loved to see what shiny and exotic dress she would be wearing or what picture she could chalk on the board like a master.
She always wanted to be tall, and a rose. I wish I could say that I had put her ashes on the roses, but I was too late arriving for that. Twelve years later, I came through with my father’s hearty bone meal. She might have enjoyed that irony.