Monday, October 18, 2010

I was the favorite.

It's an in-joke with my brothers and sisters. I'm not sure I get the joke. It's possible I was favored somewhat because I was the quiet one. When you have six kids, the quiet one is the favorite.

It was nice to be back at the old church, though it's changed somewhat -as we all have. But when I was young, the place was like a second home to me. I remember my mom trying to get me to go to church when I was a kid. It was a battle, but she finally found the one thing that would get me to go. She paid me. It's true. In the fifth grade, I got, like, 50 cents every Sunday. By Junior High, I had upped it to a dollar. We both won.

Though her parents were of dedicated, Bible-Belt, Christian stock, she never spoke to me of Jesus. She never quoted the Bible, prayed with me, or pondered aloud -at least to me- the Big questions of Life and The Universe. She was busy with six kids. I guess she figured, at a dollar a week, it was a bargain to pay me and have someone else do it.

If you knew her like I did, you know she was a saint. She was not like my father, who was more the "hardened adventurer." She was like Mother Teresa, and he was like Humphrey Bogart. They were an unlikely couple. As a matter of fact, a good portion of my youth was like being a deckhand on The African Queen. I remember, distinctly, one time being on our boat, the whole family. I was probably about ten. We were motoring upriver, and my Dad spied a large cave, port side. He wheeled the boat around, excited for some spontaneous exploring. It looked dangerous. When my mom saw what he was doing, she stood up in protest. She groaned and said something like, "Oh, Gary. No." My Dad just smirked and said –and I'll never forget it- he said, "Oh, Lois. The world is probably going to end in the next five minutes. What are you going to do about it?"

He was a tough guy. But she sat down and took it, prepared for anything. She made sure our life jackets were properly buckled. And I remember thinking, The world's going to end in the next five minutes? And we're just sitting here? In a boat? In a cave?

My mom could take anything. And she didn't play to win, she played to outlast. She knew a certain wisdom of life: that it's better to use your strength absorbing the blows in defense of others, than it is in delivering the punches. She was like Muhammad Ali.

But she didn't see herself as Muhammad Ali, or Mother Teresa. I think she saw herself as more Audrey Hepburn or Cyd Charisse. Or, on her bad days, that character in the 1948 classic film, The Red Shoes, about the ballerina who dances to her end by way of a pair of enchanted slippers. It was one of her favorite movies. But when I think of her, I think of the Gene Kelly classic, An American in Paris. She loved Paris, though she never went there. It’s good to have a dream like that, in life. And that Paris that she loved was not the real Paris, but the Paris of a Hollywood soundstage. And I think that even she believed that sometimes it’s better to just leave some things as dreams, where they are sure to be beautiful forever, and where hope can spring eternal.

The cancer was her toughest fight, and she fought it for a long time. But in the fight she never gave any thought to any preconceived, inevitable end. Her doctor would never say how long she had, probably because he couldn’t tell himself. “Your mom's a fighter,” he would say. And, as far as I know, she never asked how long she had, either. She asked when she could go back to work.

And that's who she was. A fighter, a dancer, a hard worker, and if you thought you were the favorite... well, you had five brothers and sisters, and there were hundreds of other children she was off to take care of there at the church, at the hospital, and elsewhere. And then, eight grandchildren. But she made you feel like you were the favorite.

She had her ditsy moments, as we all do. But she took them all in stride, with her ever-present, self-deprecating laugh and smile. I hesitate to tell the story, but my family will never forget the Christmas a few years back when one of us had gone to open a gift from her. It was wonderfully wrapped, but upon opening we'd found that the box was, well, empty. She'd neglected to put the gift inside! It was actually pretty funny, and my mom laughed about it, too. And, to be honest, I don't remember any gift she's ever gotten me. But I remember The Empty Box. We all still laugh about it. Just last week, after my mom died -it was so hard- and we all got together at my sister's and we ordered a bunch of pizzas. When they were delivered, it so happened that one of my nephews opened one of the pizza boxes and it was empty. There was no pizza in it. My sister said, "That's mom's!"

Maybe my siblings claimed I was my mom's favorite because we both liked the movies so much. But even though I was the one who went to film school, she liked movies more than me. At film school they taught you to analyze and critique them, pore over static images and look for symbolism. But my mom just loved them. She loved all of them. I don't know a frame of celluloid that she didn't enjoy. So often it seemed she was incapable of criticizing a film, and it drove me crazy, for some reason. But what a lesson: Let it go. Just enjoy it, while you have the chance. It’s a movie, after all. What was the point, otherwise? My mom. Always a positive outlook. Never critical. Ever-loving.

She was a Christian like no other. She didn't preach the gospel, she bore it out in her life, and in her manner. She was humble and unassuming, but mighty. And she was good.

This is what I learned from my mother: That you should work hard, but enjoy the movies. That you should surround yourself with children. That the world, in many ways, really is going to end in the next 5 minutes, and that you can turn the other cheek and take the blow with more strength than was used to deliver it. And that, like her unforgettable Christmas gift, the Tomb is empty. That there’s always hope.

And that we are all God’s favorites.