Illustration by Brian Stauffer
There’s a picture I look at often, of my mother and me, taken on my front deck in West Shokan on a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining. My mother and I both wear sunglasses, short dresses, and big smiles. We are holding our mismatched mugs, her coffee dirt-strong, my decaf swimming in milk. My mother’s hair stands out from her head in thin little wisps, and while you can’t see it in the photo, a slight tremor had recently started to play on her bottom lip. Smoke from one of her constant Kents drifts all around us.
The rhododendrons are not yet in bloom, so it must have been May, probably around Mother’s Day, a day I have purposely ignored since my father died when I was 15. My thinking was, if I cannot celebrate Father’s Day, I will not celebrate the day that would honor my mother. In her usual fashion, she has given me a pass on it for all these years.
I don’t remember who took that photo, but it might have been my sister, Helene, or my niece, Mara. I am looking directly at the camera, my mother is looking off at a strange angle, like a chicken eyeing a hawk. She had been blind for a few years by then, so her sense of where someone was standing was often wrong.
Whoever took it must have said “smile,” because we both have the same caught-in-the-headlights look, although it’s clear from the way her finger is cocked that my mother was talking, and making a point, too.
She had a way of making that point. She was engaging and funny, with a memory that rivaled an elephant’s. People liked her, and she had an endless capacity to listen to their stories and offer sincere and smart advice. Once you told her something you became part of her tribe, and from that minute forward she was fierce and loyal. She could immediately suss out a situation, the way a leopard might in the wild. She had dropped out of school when she was 14, but her street-smarts were as wide as a European boulevard.
When I look at that picture I don’t cringe, although, if I’m honest, I remember cringing quite a bit when she was alive. If she told a story I had heard a thousand times before, I would cringe. If she told me how to wash my pots and pans, I would cringe. If she said or did or thought — cringe, cringe, cringe.
And yet she seemed never to be embarrassed by me. When I quit college on a whim, she said it was a good thing, because I would be able to do whatever it was I wanted — only sooner. When I got blind drunk at a family wedding, she held my head till the puking passed, and never mentioned it again. When I was petulant or silly she would be quiet and let it pass. When I was moody or angry, she would take my hand and we would go for a walk until I calmed down.
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She died a little over five years ago. What I wouldn’t do to wish her a happy Mother’s Day this year.
Martha Frankel is the author of Hats & Eyeglasses: A Memoir, and coauthor of Brazilian Sexy: Secrets to Living a Gorgeous and Confident Life. She lives in Boiceville.
Read our interview with Martha on her book, Hats & Eyeglasses: A Memoir, here.