My mother died about six weeks ago. I thought in the months after her death that I would be pretty out of kilter. I expected to be a lot more grieved than I actually am. I thought I would spend hours crying over her loss, because I did love her and still feel bonded to her. That I am not is due I suspect to the opportunities we had for closure during her final months. It was certainly not fun to witness her progressive decline every week, but I found some catharsis from the experience nonetheless.
Mostly I accept her passing. I awake in the morning fully aware that she is gone but it does not interfere with my day. Yet I still find myself getting teary from time to time. Christmas found us at my Dad’s apartment. I spent some time going through his huge stack of Christmas and bereavement cards. I took special care to read the notes in the bereavement cards. So many people, many of whom I did not know, were touched by my mother. I had no idea because she rarely strayed outside her comfortable bounds of family. Yet over 85 years even someone whose life struck me as very cloistered developed friends. Tears came to my eyes as I read the heartfelt condolences.
Aside from a lifetime of memories there is not much tangible left to remind myself of her. Almost all of her clothes and jewelry have been given away. My wife got a fair amount of her jewelry. A cookbook of her favorite recipes assembled two decades earlier by two of my sisters survives. I will likely recreate her recipes from time to time. However, the food will not taste the same. For as the preface to her cookbook says, “Of course, when I make this dish, I always add a little dash of…” That in a nutshell was my mother in her favorite role as master chef. Every exquisite yet familiar meal tasted the same yet was subtly different. Perhaps we will have family contests in the years ahead to recreate some of my mother’s many scrumptious dishes. With luck, some of us will come close, but no one will quite recreate the original. We cannot cook a meal with passion. For us, cooking is mostly a means to an end, not an end itself. Since my mother expressed much of her love in her cooking, this is perhaps a truest measure of my loss. It sounds silly but the quality of the food prepared here on earth took a dramatic nosedive with her death.
We tried to create a familiar Christmas meal at my father’s apartment. We had many of the right ingredients. There was a spiral ham, purchased at the local BJs. It was very tasty. Nevertheless, it was missing the cloves that my mother would have pierced into it. My wife made au gratin potatoes that needed a wee bit more time in the oven. They were blander than my mother’s, and did not have that layer of lightly burnt cheese on the top. Salad? My mother would have made a wonderful fruit salad, slicing all the fruit by hand. The rolls came partially cooked from the store. For dessert, we ate Christmas cookies contributed by both my sister and my wife. My mother probably might have made her exquisite Snickerdoodles. For me my mother’s favorite dessert was her Goober Roles. They were something like a cinnamon role, but made with biscuit and slathered with butter, brown sugar, karo syrup, cinnamon and nuts. The syrup invariably stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, but you did not care: they were a sugar, fat and carbohydrate nirvana. You could not stop at just one. In fact, it was hard to stop after a pan-full.
Afterwards I helped clean up in the kitchen. It was quite a mess. Fortunately, my mother had trained me well. For years, she did both the cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Then one day she realized she had eight children: let us do it for a change. Therefore, we did, and to her exacting specifications. Now KP has become something I do on autopilot. I can take the messiest, greasiest pan-strewn kitchen and make it sparkle. Thanks Mom. She (and my father) taught me to stoically accept and take some modest pleasure in the many routine and unexciting chores that invariably populate a family’s life.
One thing my mother would not tolerate was dirt. This surprised me after reading her biography, because she grew up in a cleaning impaired house. She did not get the cleanliness habit until she went to nursing school. There she realized that the world was teaming with microbial life. Much of it, she was convinced, was aimed directly at her family. She got a bit obsessive with her cleaning. Not only did everything have to look clean, it actually had to be clean.
With two weeks off from the press of work, I had no more excuses. Our house is generally picked up. For example, our kitchen usually looks clean. Okay, my daughter may be thoughtless about forgetting to wipe the counter down after making her sandwiches. Occasionally even my wife or I will let a dish sit in the sink after a meal. Moreover, our kitchen table is almost always a semi permanent resting place for all the transient stuff that enters the house. It may be reasonably picked up, but is it clean? Alas, no. It would not meet my mother’s standards.
What it needed was a little Mr. Clean: me. And so yesterday I found myself at 10 AM in the kitchen. My mission: to get the kitchen clean. I could feel my mother watching down on me from the afterlife. “Your kitchen, Mark, is a not really clean.” “Yes Mom, I know. I am sorry.” “There’s no excuse for it. Cleanliness is next to godliness.” “No there isn’t, Mom. And I have two weeks off from work. I have run out of excuses.”
So out came the sponges, detergents and latex gloves. I went to work. I started by pulling out the refrigerator. Just cleaning the refrigerator turned out to be a two-hour project. I removed all the dust bunnies and wiped the wall behind the refrigerator. I threw out dubious food. I wiped down all its interior and exterior surfaces. I got rid of a decade of old photographs and magnets stuck to the door.
This was just the beginning. Abrasive cleansers went on the kitchen counters. They had been wiped numerous times but my discerning eye could still see the dirt ground into their textured surfaces. I scrubbed and scrubbed until it was as white as the model’s teeth on a tube of Pepsodent. Then, I scrubbed and bleached the sink. I wiped the windowsills. I even scrubbed the baseboard. After four hours I stopped. All this work and I was nowhere near being done!
I was exhausted. “Mom, I cannot do this anymore! I don’t have your stamina!” I had grand ideas for the kitchen. I was going to mop the floor. I was going to clean the windows. I was going to scour the oven. I was going to sweep out every cabinet, and remove all the crap in the junk drawer.
Yet I have not given up. For I still hear my Mom’s voice in my head, dreadfully concerned about my filthy kitchen. Tomorrow I will resume my clean kitchen quest. Then I will try to do the same to each room in turn. I will also shampoo the carpets. I will get all the dust bunnies in the corners of every room. I will dust then use Lemon Pledge (my Mom’s favorite) on all the wood furniture.
Then will I stop hearing my mother’s voice in my head? I am not sure. In reality even if I work at this full time, I will be lucky to get a quarter of it done. For the list of things that need cleaning and straightening is truly endless. And if I ever finish, I will have to start all over again. By that time, I am sure the kitchen will be filthy again.
Perhaps at some point I will sense my mother’s benevolent smile. Perhaps though her real thoughts from the afterlife are, “No! You got the wrong message! You are remembering as I was long ago. That’s not how I think now! Life is too short to spend it cleaning all the time. Get a life! Go for a walk! Smell some roses!”
But no, I am remembering my mother at my age: age 48. It is 1968 and that is what she was doing. She is waxing kitchen floors. She is bleaching sheets and our underwear. She is darning our socks. She is hustling us off to church. She is making sure our shoes are shined for parochial school.
Maybe this is how I grieve. Maybe, when my house is finally clean to her satisfaction, my grieving will be done. For now, I am not done channeling Mom.