We found out my mother’s cancer was terminal on New Year’s Eve, 2013. Shortly after the news, I felt an overwhelming need to thank her for all that she gave me in my life. I wanted to make sure she understood that I appreciated her and all the amazing gifts that she had given me. I read this letter aloud to her and I couldn’t get through it without crying and by the end of the reading we both cried.
We lost mom in February of 2015 and I read excerpts of this letter at her celebration of life and through this reading, I got to share my deepest feelings with our family and friends. More tears but so much healing.
This letter and the process of writing it has been a godsend for me. It has allowed me to access all the beauty and strength in my mother and has been an important part of my healing process as I walk in this world without her physical presence with me.
Each reading of this letter helps to keep her memory alive . I will read this letter often. I will share her story widely. November 2015
When I was a little girl, mom trained me in the art of naming flowers. We roamed through our backyard and she’d tell me the names of everything that was growing and alive. I’d repeat the words back to her over and over again all spring and summer from year to year. Honey scented alyssum, vibrant zinnias, orange and red and yellow marigolds, nasturtiums that climbed over the ground, baby tears cool and shady, snowball bush so large it was practically a tree and made the most dramatic pretend snowstorms when mom would shake the blooming branches. There was pig wort (that’s a weed), oxalis (that’s another weed), Bermuda grass (once you’d got it, you can’t get rid of it), canna lilies, Nile lilies, calla lilies were the snails’ homes, geraniums marked the spot in our front yard in brilliant orange, Japanese maple loved a spring haircut, Cherry tree got disease and we had to cut it down. Meyer lemon tree had fruit and flowers and was a favorite with the bees. Every year there were more names and once we’d named all the stuff in our yard, we moved on to our neighbors’ yards, the grandparents’ yards and Angelie’s Nursery down the street.
I forgot about the flowers and a lot of other important things when I was in my teens but luckily it all came back when I became a better age. These lessons didn’t stop with the outdoors either. We moved on to our favorite painters and their paintings: Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Rembrandt, Vermeer. We took musical journeys in the company of Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms; with visits to Elvis and Herb Alpert and Chet Atkins and Roger Miller. Mom’s bookshelves were the gateway to all the stories in my world and we read together Tales of Peter Rabbit, Cat in the Hat and The Little Small Red Hen, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Macbeth, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland.
I learned my manners, how to set a table correctly, cupcake making, arranging flowers and furniture, how to mow and edge a lawn, how to wash a car, how to paint the inside of the tiniest china closet in the world. She teaches by letting you observe and then do. She guides with patience and the reward is the completed task. This is how I learned to prune ivy and a whole lot of other seemingly unpleasant tasks. Pruning ivy is a dusty and dirty job. My mother turned this job into something I always wanted to do. She taught me how to make our ivy arbor into a manicured masterpiece just perfect for a tea party and all that was needed for me to achieve the desired effect was to get busy and do it. This was the beginning of her teaching me independence. If you want something bad enough like a tea party or a clean car or an angel food cake, ask someone nicely to teach you how to do it for yourself.
When I was about five, I had a little friend who had a play grocery store in her bedroom. It had all the child sized stuff and I wanted one in the worst way. My mom gave me something better – we made our own. We made the food, the signage, we made the shelves, the little counter, the money for the cash register and the cash register. All made out of cardboard, glue,tape, crayons. We spent several days on this project and when finished, it was so satisfying.
She knows how to keep bored kids entertained on a hot summer afternoon. On special occasions if I happened to be behaving well, in the quiet part of the day, my mom would make a Robin Hood costume out of hydrangea leaves, twigs, sticks and twine. This costume included the tunic, the hat, the bow and a small set of arrows that actually worked. It was a delicate project and involved a lot of watching and waiting while she worked her magic and crafted my ensemble. I was allowed to pluck the largest leaves on the plant, and put them neatly into the pile and also find the smallest sticks possible to be used for stitching the leaves together. I was not allowed to whittle the arrows with the steak knife. I was also not allowed to aim at anything alive just in case I might actually hit something.
Once complete, it was glorious and when you first donned your tunic and hat and strung that first arrow into the bow, it was a feeling like no other. The tunic and the hat usually started to wilt within a few minutes of completion and then started to feel really itchy in the heat of the afternoon or maybe that was the ants. The bow and arrows, however, usualy lasted several hours before the stick broke, the string snapped or the arrows ended up in Bill Toti’s Backyard.
How does she make that magical thing happen with the Easter Eggs, the Christmas Decorations, the Halloween Costumes? I’ll tell you, it takes a lot of effort, and desire to make something amazing for your children. That is what she created every day for me, for my sister and brother and for her grandkids. One year my mom made a special cottage in her backyard for my daughter. It was a little fairy house made with big six foot sunflower stalks and walls and roof of twining morning glories. It took several weeks of waiting and watching and watering for the house to grow but when it was ready for Granddaughter and Grandmother – It was perfection. My mom understands the value of doing something just for joy and for fun and for beauty.
My mom showed me how to love and care for animals: dogs, cats, mice, an iguana, a bat named Charles, hamsters, fish. We always had some kind of pet and not only did we learn the responsibility of caring for something that depended on us completely and with kindness, we also learned the lesson of reality too. Sometimes the pet (Charles) needed to be released back into the wild and sometimes the pets would die and then we were expected to care for them with all seriousness and dignity.
She taught me the fine art of the sale. A master of the garage sale, mom had the gift of matching merchandise with the right customer. We started small, with the summertime lemonade stands and quickly progressed to selling novelty toys at the city garage sales. She taught me young: Organization was of utmost importance, be polite, and close the sale with a smile and a thank you. I learned to make change for a twenty by kindergarten.
She showed me how to be interested in so many things, ideas and people because she was interested in everything. Mom led by example and participated in everything: PTA, volunteering at the hospital, teaching adult literacy at the library, going to night school, learning to water ski when she was in her 40’s. Mom snow skied into her 50’s went ziplining in Costa Rica in her 80’s, rode horses, rode elephants, traveled the world asked questions of her seatmates on airplanes, played tennis from age 11 to age 83 with the heart of a true competitor. Practiced Tai Chi, played mah jong, Bocce ball, painted beautiful water colors, made crafts for many years for school and church bazaars. Hiked in the mountains and down at the seashore and just about everywhere in between. Snorkeled and kayaked in Hawaii. She was a ballroom dancer, a tap dancer and a ballet dancer. She camped and went to Disneyland with the kids and grandkids, went to museums and art galleries and operas and ballets. She played dress-up for the last 30 or so years with her cousin. Planned and executed elaborate scenes and sets for their photos shoots. She never said “no” to a gummy bear, ever.
How does my mom know what all the important stuff is? How did she understand that to teach me she needed a certain recipe of repetition, variety, patience and lots of color? My mom has taught me the value of laughing until you cry, appreciating the beauty around us and doing things that bring yourself and others joy. She understands the value of the small and ordinary as well as the grand and the extraordinary. She sees things that might be hidden to most and understands the importance of fostering the imagination.
My mom always tells me my eyes are beautiful whether I have on makeup or not. Always compliments my driving. When I’ve had a bad day, she’s always on my side. She’s always been in my corner, always encouraging the good behavior and noticing the achievements, she always listens. Some of the most important things I know have come to me from my mother. She had a talent for making something lasting and lovely out of something simple. She generously shared this gift with me my whole life and now I’m sharing it with you.
Love you with all my heart and soul,
Your daughter, Amy Lee