Category Archives: Memories of Mom

It’s Genetic

Must be in the genes.

What incites us to clean with such zeal when we expect company? The closer the kin, the deeper the level of “clean” is required.

The “us” to whom I refer are individuals of the female gender.  None of the males I know seem to be infected with the super-clean bug.

I saw the cutest cartoon, I’ll paraphrase here.

A father directs his two girls’ attention to their rooms. “We need to clean up the house, it’s pretty bad.”

The more precocious of the two girls asked, “What level of clean are we talking about, Dad? She listed out the possibilities; “Mom-Clean or Hospital ICU clean?” The father shook his head to each query.

His expression took on a more serious composure and he spoke in a hushed tone. “Grandma-Clean.”  His girls scurried off with brooms and rags.

I joke about this and yet as I type I sit here in a sweat soaked tee shirt. I spent a good deal of this week, which reached a climax today, in Grandma-Clean mode. My little sister is coming for a visit tomorrow.

I’m not as obsessed as some members of my husband’s family, who for sake of embarrassment shall remain anonymous here. They’ve been known to not only clean the house, but paint the house. Not just the interior. On one such visit, I recall we drove right past my in-laws home. The exterior sported a new hue, rendered necessary by the impending arrival of relatives from back East.

I plead insanity due to family genetics. My grandmother, on my mom’s side, was said to clean her house to a standard that enabled one to “eat off of the floor in any room.”

Why do we care? Does anyone, besides my own mother, rest in peace, look at the quality of housekeeping when they come to visit you and your family?

My own mother, infected with that same genetic disorder I described earlier, saw every visit as an opportunity for a white glove inspection. Mom’s other obsession, to arrive “on time.” Mom was always early, a good hour early.  Way before the designated time the events were scheduled to begin. Each time, Mom seemed to be surprised when greeted at the door, by me, with a sweeper attached to my other hand. Mind you, not an early arrival to help out, just more time to poke around.

On a past visit, she emerged from my guest bathroom and announced to all seated at the dining room table; “Kathy, there is some black, gunky stuff in your sink. I’d spent the previous hour in preparation. I scrubbed every surface and decked out the racks with fresh, color coordinated towels.

All I could muster was, “Thanks so much, Mom.”

OK, back to the mop and broom or I won’t be ready. My sister’s plane lands at nine, tomorrow morning.

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Honor your Mother

MothersDayCard

Rummaging in my box of cards, I found a Mother’s Day card I’d purchased, but never sent.  I planned too far ahead that year. Mom was no longer at an address serviced by the US Postal department.

I’remember many Mother’s Day celebrations, for my own mom, her mom, mom’s in law and the celebrations of my own motherhood.

Mother’s Day was the one holiday orchestrated by our dad. “Stand still.” A stern look from Dad, as we twisted and squirmed. The toasty temperatures in the Midwest heralded an early summer.  A line that never seemed to move, at the fancy smorgasbord in Hagerstown, became an endurance test. A testament to how much we loved Mom. We did not connect this expenditure on Mother’s Day to frugal meals of scrambled eggs and toast for dinner in days to come.

“Kids, have you made cards for Mom?”

Back when I was a kid, the majority of families had a dad to coordinate the gifts and a special meal that would honor his children’s mother.  Single moms today are beneficiaries of grade school teachers who inspire their children to commemorate their mothers with art projects.

For a brief time I walked in those shoes. Grateful when my son’s teacher shared a comment she received, “Nick, how old is your Mom?”  I laughed aloud when she repeated his answer.

“She’s about twenty.”  Nick is blind, but still I appreciated his proclamation of my youthful age.

“Thanks for sharing, it made my day.”  The momentous occasion of my thirtieth birthday, the previous month, felt more like sixty when reinstated in the singles dating scene.

Reality hit me in the gut, that first Mother’s Day. No dad in residence. My children were not of an age to go shopping for a gift, let alone bankroll the elaborate meals of past years, funded by their father.  I sensed expectation in their faces and bewilderment at the lack of celebration.

I put together an impromptu picnic. We sat in the shade and I mused over what Mother’s Day truly meant for me. “I am so glad you are my kids.” I told my boys how much I loved them. “I’m so glad to be your mom.”

Deep appreciation for my own mother surfaced. She’d weathered many years of “no father in residence” holidays.  Humbled, I shuffled along in my mom’s worn and threadbare house slippers. I redoubled my efforts to celebrate with her, at any opportunity, every year.

The last day I spent in celebration of my mom’s special day, found her silver hair well coiffed at the salon in her assisted living facility.   Clad in a bright pink top that showed off the special pin she’d made in crafts at her assisted living residence. It was a diaper pin, strung with bright beads that spelled MOTHER.  She rolled her eyes as I admired her work.

I wasn’t sure if disdain or humor emerged from the fog of her dementia. “I’ve spent plenty of time fooling with diapers and pins. Never thought of them as jewelry.”

Happy Mother’s Day to you.  You washed your share of diapers and wiped many tears with the same cloth. I hope there is a good internet connection in heaven so you can read my blog.

 

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Powder with an Extra P(ee)!

My Grandmother prayed as she sifted the tainted contents of the “Gay Powder Puff Design” box of Coty Fragrant Face powder. She needed Divine Intervention to endow the flour sifter from her kitchen with magical properties that would transform this substance back to its original state.  A miracle was required to restore the gossamer lightness and caressing texture to the Coty face powder.  If not perfectly, at least close enough that her oldest sister, Mary, would not suspect that her two young nieces had urinated into the beautifully decorated container!

 

My mom’s Aunt Mary was the terror of her siblings and extended family. She had quite the temper.  Woe to those who crossed in her path when she was in a mood. Family lore has it that my grandmother had failed to successfully toilet train her almost two year old twin boys.  Aunt Mary decided this was enough and took over the task. Her “rat tailed comb” incited such fear that the boys scrambled to get on the chamber pot. Even if their pants were still up, they peed in the toilet bowl.

 

Urination is the theme of this tale. For some reason, which to this day my aunt cannot explain, she and my mother took the box of face powder under the bed, squatted over the box and urinated. My mother and her cousin were only 3 months apart in age. My grandmother folded her youngest sister’s child into her brood of five while Evelyn worked at her beauty salon.

 

This was at the height of the Great Depression. Most of the family lived with their mother, my great grandmother. My aunt’s family being the exception, her father was a well to do business man and her mother’s salon was successful enough to support their more upscale home. But my aunt still was not in school and happily spent her days with her cousins.

 

A box of Coty Face Powder, purchased at the cosmetics counter at O’Neill’s department store downtown, for one whole dollar, was quite an extravagant luxury. Advertisements claimed this substance to be the preferred choice of the world’s smartest woman. My grandmother certainly counted her older sister as a member of that posh sounding group.  Aunt Mary worked full time and had no children of her own. She pampered her complexion with the porcelain finish provided by Coty’s silky product.

 

Upon discovering her daughter and niece’s prank, my grandmother was horrified. Whatever possessed these two little girls? They were always getting into trouble. She shook her head to hide her smile; “What one didn’t think of, the other did.”

 

Clothing was often provided to my grandmother’s children via the generosity of her sister’s thriving beauty shop. My mother and my aunt took their brand new snow pants and draped them over the bedroom lamp to make the room dark enough to play their hiding game. Suddenly the room filled with smoke and the snow pants were smoldering from the heat of the lamp. Much to their embarrassment, the two girls had to wear patched and repaired apparel that winter. Not a happy memory for my grandmother.

 

More fondly she remembered the time the two girls decided to sample the family dog’s milk! Their golden haired Collie named Lady was a wonderful and patient mother to her pups.  She seemed ambivalent to the little girls cuddling in with her puppies and stealing a swig from her teats.

 

Mostly grandmother feared her sister’s wrath when she discovered the fancy face powder defiled by the girls. Fortunately the beautiful fluffy puff had escaped their ministrations. She carefully spread out the powder on a linen tea towel to dry. Next she sprayed the mixture with the Eau de Toilet from Mary’s dresser, hoping to mask any unpleasant lingering smell. When the powder was dry again, she carefully pressed the freshly scented talc through her flour sifter. Satisfied with the results she gingerly spooned the contents back into the fancy box decorated with powder puffs, replaced the fluffy applicator and closed the lid.  Whispering a prayer, she placed the powder box back in its place of prominence on her sister’s dresser. Both of the girls knew without my grandmother threatening them, to keep silent about the incident.

 

My aunt reports that my grandmother’s efforts passed muster. Aunt Mary never knew about the new and improved ingredient added to her facial regime.

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The icing on the cake was much thicker when I was a child.

I was about four years old. There was a beautifully decorated birthday cake sitting on the counter at my Aunt’s home. I was supposed to be down for a nap, with my cousins, to rest up before the party. I was so excited in anticipation of the upcoming party I didn’t fall asleep at all. I slid quietly off the bed and traipsed down the long hallway and into the kitchen. There was the cake.

I just could not resist. With one little, tiny, swipe of my pinkie finger, I was tasting icing. It was wonderful!  OK, well, maybe just another little one and hopefully no one will notice. I am sure you have guessed by now my 4 year old will power was no match for that yummy cake! Boy did I get into trouble! Fortunately my Aunt was able to repair the damage and the cake was as beautiful as before.

My Aunt was a great dessert and candy maker too.  I lived for her vanilla caramels at the holidays. The recipe was basically in pounds! A pound of butter, a pound of brown sugar… and more, but I am sworn to secrecy on revealing the entire recipe. I made my first batch when I was pregnant with my oldest son. I developed a very elaborate system to hopefully slow myself down and not eat the entire batch in a short time. I laboriously cut and double wrapped every single caramel with waxed paper. Next I put the pieces into not one but two Ziploc bags and placed in a cupboard. My rule was I could only eat one piece at a time and had to take them out individually and reseal both bags each time I ate one!  I remember tipping the scales with a weight gain of 40 pounds and those caramels helped me get there, I’m sure!

My Aunt’s particular ice cream recipe, for the hand cranked treat that was always a special part of every family birthday celebration on my dad’s side of the family, was a well guarded one. Even as an adult I do not believe I ever obtained that one.  I remember the caramel taste profile. I believe it had some canned milk added that made it extra creamy and just a tad smoother than my Mom’s mix.  I do remember how happy we was when it was this Aunt’s turn to provide the mix for freezing. Here is the closest recipe I have found:

HOMEMADE ICE CREAM
1 qt. milk
1 c. sugar
6 eggs
2 c. Milnot
2 pts. half & half
2 c. sugar
4 tbsp. vanilla

 

Beat eggs and sugar 3-4 minutes. Add milk. Cook until hot. Cool. Add Milnot, half & half, 2 cups sugar and vanilla. Put in gallon of ice cream freezer. Freeze.

To offset the expense of ingredients needed to produce ice cream for the whole tribe, each family in attendance contributed additional batches of “mix” for the freezers or toppings.

At a different birthday party, my Mom elected to bring peanuts for our family’s part. Times were tight and the purchase of expensive canned peanuts was a splurge in the grocery budget. It was decided that the entire can could not be taken to the party, so a portion was doled out into a suitable serving dish, sitting on the counter next to the kitchen window.

I observed the preparation of these precious treats.  I waited until the supply was unattended and decided to get a taste of the rare snack.  When I reached up to get a peanut, I noticed that insects had discovered our treat for the party as well. A tiny stream of red ants was going to and from the bowl and out a hole in the kitchen window screen. I ran to report the ant’s invasion to my mother. She was horrified. Already in a bit of trouble with Dad over this extra expense, and knowing that there were no funds to replace these Peanuts with more from the grocery, she made a decision.  Very carefully she sifted through all of the peanuts in the bowl, removing every last ant. I was sworn to secrecy and promised to not reveal to any family members, especially my Dad, of this little deception.

When the ice cream was served and family members worked their way through the various jars of chocolate and caramel syrups, the sprinkles and of course those peanuts.  I stood by keenly watching in anticipation of a scream of discovery that additional ingredients were discovered in that bowl of nuts. When this did not happen, I finally blurted out “Gee I am so glad that none of those ants got in the ice cream toppings.” This let the proverbial cat out of the bag. My red faced mother grimaced as she explained to everyone what had transpired prior to their arrival at the party. She had a very stern look for me too. I was definitely in trouble. I knew that when we returned home, punishment awaited me, from both my parents.

The best part of every family birthday party was cranking the ice cream, either in a back yard or during the winter month birthdays, in the basement of the host  family’s home.   We youngsters could start cranking when the chilled ice cream mixture was first put into the cans and paddles set for churning. As the cream mixtures turned to more solid form, the men in the family all took turns, putting their muscle to the task required to complete the process. Think about that extra high pitch that my modern CuisineArt ™ electric Ice Cream maker makes as it nears the end of a cycle. That sound would be similar to the emanations from the men as they did those last few cranks!

4-grandma-hand-crank-ice-cream

Removing the paddles to let the ice cream “cure” was the best part. Any kids who happened to be hanging around in the kitchen were handed spoons and lined up for a turn to clean off the ice cream that clung to those wooden paddles when removed from the can. It was more the consistency of soft serve frozen custard, not hard like the store bought ice cream. We’d line up with small bowls and spoons drooling in anticipation for a few rapidly melting dollops.  Probably the only time ever I remember getting to have dessert first. I chuckle at this memory when I see the Pacific Dessert bumper stickers on cars. They read “Life is Uncertain… Eat Dessert first”.

Eventually my grand dad purchased an electric ice cream freezer. He had to endure a lot of kidding from his sons and other men in family, but he said it was too hard on his back to bend and crank! This and many other changes occurred as I grew up. I eventually married and had ice cream freezers to crank and birthday cakes to ice for my own children’s birthdays.

Grandparents age and die. Sadly, sometimes little cousins do also, way before they should. My Aunt had to endure the ache created by her youngest child, leaving this earth before she was even in Kindergarten. The cake I mangled that afternoon may have been one of the last my Aunt had made before her young daughter died.

I imagine that the icing, on any cake, was never thick enough for my Aunt ,ever again.

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Vivid imagination…my entertainment!

As I rounded the corner I saw an ominous sign- a black dress on a hanger in the back window of an unfamiliar vehicle.  I looked up to the deck at the back of the house; a fluffy down comforter was hanging over the railing.  This was an odd time of year, I thought, to be airing out the bedding.

I have a vivid imagination. I love to tell stories, to anyone who will listen. If another set of ears is not available, I will entertain myself with a possible tale. I take a single clue and weave an entire story around that one little bit. A sound I hear or the sight of an object that seems a bit unusual will pique my imagination and off I go. The trajectory of that flight of fancy soars into the blue for miles.  Return to Earth happens when the reality of facts, unknown to me at the take off, pull me back into its atmosphere.

My latest story was sparked by the observation of a vegetable garden in obvious need of tending. Vegetables that I’d observed being planted and tended all spring and summer, were begging to be harvested!  I had my eye on this patch of ground for several months while walking my Norwegian elkhound.  He was a bit older and our walks were more leisurely strolls with many pauses to sniff and for me to take in the scene.  Norwegians are scent hounds. They relish every opportunity to engage their olfactory equipment, to the detriment of either one of us getting any real exercise.

That spring I strolled down that particular street, past that house on many occasions. I’d seen an elderly woman, grey hair pulled back into a bun, crouched on her knees, working in the soil of her garden.  If I spoke in greeting she’d nod and then be back to her work.

Each time I passed that corner, I would check the progress of the plantings, seeing seedlings start push through the earth.  On occasion the old woman would be bent over the rows, pulling out a weed or two that threatened to take away nourishment from the tender new plants was so intent that she did not see me or respond to my greetings.

Nor did she express any interest in my canine companion, which was rare since Norwegian Elkhounds usually garner lost of attention as we walk.  “What kind of dog is that?” is a very common question. Many a person will fondly reminisce; “Our family owned a Norwegian Elkhound when I was a kid. I loved that dog”. This comment usually followed by lots of petting and a wagging tail accompanied by joyful yips from our dog. My husband and I jokingly wonder why so many adults have such great memories but seem to have no interest in owning a Norwegian Elkhounds at the present time.

As the growing season progressed, I was  able to distinguish the feather tops of carrots, green straight tips of new onions, tendrils of what would be snap peas climbing up the stakes she’d put into the ground. A frustrated gardener myself, due to lack of space to plant on our own small property, I envied her the variety produce that I supposed she would be harvesting later in the summer.

Now on my latest walk, I saw abundance! A garden full of the fruit of the old woman’s labors appeared untouched since my last visit. Peas ready to be picked.  Rows of little baby lettuce and other greens crowded together and needing thinning out so that mature plants would have the room and nutrients needed.

What was wrong here? Looking around I saw no one at the house, or in the yard. Several cars were parked along the edge of the yard, not vehicles that I recognized either. The usual vehicles were in the driveway.  I remembered especially the Prius, since I owned a similar vintage. Mine was Salsa red; their Prius was the Cobalt blue. Maybe the old woman truly was ill, or worse had died! Maybe, the black dress hanging in the car was worn at  her funeral service!  The bedding was being air as a prelude to being packed away, never again to warm the older woman on a cold night.

What could have happened to the old woman to bring about her demise so suddenly?   Certainly nothing in her manor on the occasions I’d seen her out in the garden indicated poor health.     I had admired her agility at her older age, to be able to stay down on her knees, bent into the work, without seeming to be uncomfortable at all. I envied her this too, along with the abundant space available to till and plant! I have bad knees and if I did have the luxury of soil to be planted, I’d need that to be in raised beds, preferably hip height.

No one in the household seemed to be aware of ripe, ready to pick vegetables.  Should I offer to help out?  Intrude into the routine of caregivers busy with the tasks to help this sick woman?  A family who may be in the midst of grieving the loss of this old woman might welcome the assistance of a prepared meal arriving at the door. Receiving freshly harvested raw vegetables, needing to be cleaned and prepared might not be welcomed at all.

During a recent time of grief in my own life, I relished the distraction of preparing food for my family. A long standing family tradition, Pork and Sauerkraut served on New Year’s Eve, just after midnight, had morphed into a New Year’s Day event, but still was well attended by everyone in the clan. The most recent gathering was for my own mother’s memorial service. Though she died in the late fall, the majority of the family had already made plans for the usual New Year’s Day feast and so our memorial for Mom was scheduled to coincide.

I considered harvesting the biggest of the peas, some of the larger greens, leaving them at the front porch with a note. What should I say in my note?  I had not yet confirmed any of the possibilities that my imagination supposed. Could I knock at the door?  Maybe later without my canine companion I’d return and catch someone coming or going from the house. I decided this was a less intrusive course of action.  I certainly was not prepared to do any harvesting at that very moment anyway… the dog was whining, anxious to continue our walk. I went off, looking back over my shoulder, to see if more evidence would present itself to help me solve the riddle of the untended garden.

Back at home common sense prevailed over my impulse to harvest.  I convinced myself that any intrusion into this situation would be unwelcome. I did not actually know this family. We certainly were not on speaking terms beyond the friendly hello and nod when I passed by admiring the garden on my walks.

The next day my courage returned.  I went back up the block to the brick red Master Craft home. Reader, I did not mention this before, but this house was one of the old style homes probably build back at the heyday of the catalog homes. There were several in our community. I enjoyed seeing this one in such wonderful condition.

Seated on the front porch steps was a woman dressed in modest running gear.  She was a very fit person, several years younger than I.  Her body benefitted from regular vigorous exercise.

“Hi there, I am an envious neighbor who wishes she had as much success as you do with your garden plot.” She looked up at me but did not comment, just continued to lace her athletic running shoes.

“I am curious about the older woman I’ve seen on many occasions working out here in the yard, is she doing well? I notice that lettuce is beginning to bolt and the peas will become a bit tough if they grow much larger. They need to be picked soon.”  “I offer my assistance if that would be welcome. Or you are here today do the harvesting already?”

She chuckled, “The woman you saw is my Mom. She doesn’t live here but has enjoyed helping out in my garden. We’ve been very lazy of late. My husband and I need to get out there and cut some lettuce at the next opportunity.”

Still uncertain about the older woman I pressed on. I sheepishly explained without giving too much detail of my fantasy story; “I’d assumed your mother was the owner of the home, given its age especially.  I’d supposed that the lack of harvest had to do with her inability to complete the task and I would be happy to help out.”

“No, my Mom is just fine”. The younger woman, obviously the owner of this home, was looking at me a bit more closely; I thought to myself maybe even a bit suspiciously. Maybe she wondered that I paid too much attention to her garden!  She stood and I felt I was being dismissed. “When you walked up, I was preparing to go for a run. I need to get going now.  Thank you for your concern about my Mom and your interest in my garden.”

“We usually have more produce than we can use and often put out baskets on the curb to share with others. Please feel free to help yourself when the occasions arise.”  There was no more conversation or opportunity for me to learn more about the family.

I started to think about the fluffy goose down quilt that covered my king-sized bed and decided upon my return to home that I would air it out a bit.  It was a nice sunny day with a gentle breeze, perfect to do the job.

More strolls later in the season revealed the generosity of this errant gardener. I delighted in the occasional offerings in baskets of greens and even the occasional bouquets of flowers.  My old canine companion succumbed to the arthritis plaguing his rear legs. Most days I loaded him into the car and we drove to the local beach with a flat level boardwalk that better suited his gait than the hilly terrain of our residential neighborhood. Our neighborhood strolls curtailed, so was the opportunity to see and possibly chat with the older woman again.

I never discovered who owned the black dress hanging in that strange car. Perhaps a visitor who’d later be attending a formal gathering and needed a change of attire?  The bedding hanging over the railing was another mystery to remain unsolved. Perhaps this would be fodder for a future mystery novel.

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Mammary Memories?

“What do you suppose they did with my left breast?” My mother’s question was a bit daunting to my sister Liz and me.   We were visiting with our 83 year old mother, who was a resident at an assisted living facility. Mom had a funny expression on her face and we were not sure if she was joking with us or if this was a serious question.

My sister has just recently had breast cancer surgery, a radical mastectomy in fact. Her recent bout with cancer has obviously triggered a stroll down “mammary lane” for our Mom and the question elicited responses from us on several levels.

We’d waited until Liz had the surgical drains removed; knowing Mom would want to “see” how she looked. And as expected she’d asked Liz to show her incisions and she had complied.  After inspecting her daughter’s skin and noting that both of her breasts were indeed removed, she commented that she looked pretty “normal”. This was due to the fact that saline bags had already been inserted to start the reconstructive process. My sister was a very small breasted woman and the insertion of the saline bags surpassed her previous AA cup sized tissue.

I lived in Seattle, Washington and I was visiting in Phoenix to give some post surgical support and TLC to my little sister during her recovery.  I’d arrived the day of her surgery and was playing nursemaid, chauffeur and chief moral officer.  I’d driven us to this visit as Liz was not yet cleared to do the physical task of wrangling a steering wheel so soon after her procedure. The reconstruction process and implanting of the saline bags involved stretching some major chest muscle tissue to get ready for her final implant placements after her surgery.

Liz had decided not to burden our mother with her recent medical condition, until after the surgery was completed.  The discovery of cancer cells in both breasts and diagnosis that this was in the early stages prompted her decision to have both breasts removed and have reconstruction with implants.  Hopefully this step would put an end to any future growth.  Our first response to our Mom’s question was one of practicality, appropriate only if this was indeed a serious question.

“They probably threw it in the waste disposal at the hospital, Mom. Back then they probably didn’t have medical waste containers and saving the breast tissue after surgeries, beyond the testing to confirm that it was indeed cancerous, was not the normal proceedure. Your breast probably went into the trash and into the local land fill. That was a long time ago, Mom.”

“No, it was just here and now it is gone”. Our Mom is patting herself on her left side where over 50 years ago she’d had surgery to remove her breast tissue and lymph nodes to prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of her body. Her surgery was a success! She often commented that her doctor “got it all” as she never had a re-occurrence of cancer anywhere else in her body.

Mom had been dipping into the fog of dementia during the past year or two.  She’d be clear and appropriate with her comments one moment and off in left field the next. Liz and I exchanged winks. “Mom, are you talking about your mastectomy bra? You have not worn that for a while and without your prosthesis you may feel that you are missing a breast.”

Back in 1962 when she had her breast removed there were no such things as prosthetic under garments for women breast cancer patients. She’d not been a particularly well endowed woman and so was content to make do with cotton balls filling the A cup of her brassiere on the left side. In the early 1970’s she’d had her first visit to “Barbara’s Mastectomy Boutique”.  Mom discovered that as a breast cancer survivor she was entitled to two free prosthetic bras every year on her health plan. She looked forward to the excursions across town to get new underwear each year. She was amazed that she could get a variety of colors and even a swimming insert.

More recently, her tolerance for anything that was binding, meant her choice was to not wear any close fitting clothing, including her prosthetic brassiere. But it was clearly not her prosthesis she was missing.  She yanked up her top and showed us the scar that ran vertically from her sternum and under her left arm, still red and angry looking after 50 years.  “It was just here the other day and now it is gone” she said sadly.

“Mom, don’t you remember when you had your breast cancer? It was in 1962. It was before Jonathan was born.”  She looked at us both, in a fog of confusion. We tried again.

“Mom, how old is your son, Jon?”  We hoped that her memory of his recent 50th birthday would jog her back into the present and give her perspective in time of the events.

She brightened up at the mention of our brother. He is clearly the favorite child and we do not begrudge this at all. Mom was divorced by the time her youngest, our baby brother, was 5 years old. She had a different relationship with him than she did with us girls. She allowed him to climb into her bed when he had nightmares. Rather than risk him getting sick, drove him around to deliver his paper route on cold mornings. In his early high school Thespian club days, Mom served as the wheel man to drive Jon and his friends to the prank missions played on various cast members! This involved midnight drive-bys like toilet papering of the trees in friend’s yards or sprinkling computer punch card discs into the grass before sprinklers came on the next morning.  They were buddies more than Mother and Son.

We verbally walked her through the chronology of her having Jon and not breastfeeding, due to the breast cancer surgery. She still didn’t seem to follow.

We changed the subject but Mom circled around and back to the subject of breasts again. This time she was worried that she needed a mammogram. She could not remember the last time she’d had a visit to her “GYN Doctor”. Mom had named all of her various medical practitioners by their specialty. So she had her “Kidney Man” who was actually her Urologist whose bi annual treatments helped keep her bladder infections at bay. Her primary care physician was simply “Griff”.

As she continued to fret about the lack of mammograms, we decided that scheduling a rather thorough exam with her current visiting practitioner at the facility would probably help put her fears at rest.  “Mom, we will have the nurse schedule a visit and get a breast exam done real soon”.  She seemed to accept this and smiled.

On our next visit she informed us that her “doc” had done a real good job. Later she commented that there still was no Mammogram but that was a fleeting thought and she quickly moved on to more important topics like getting my sister to pluck chin hairs.

One of my Mom’s fixations was chin hairs. The family lore was that her Aunt Mary was displayed at her funeral, in her casket, with her chin hairs sticking out.  This was a family scandal. There was apparently some bad blood between this Aunt’s last husband and her remaining sisters. They were not “allowed” to attend to their sister’s body and rectify this whisker issue. So the family shame was that Mary was on view chin hairs and all for the whole world to see at the visitation.

Our mother lived with a fixation that started in her early 30’s. There were potions of some sort of foaming bleach that were regularly applied to her upper lip.  On more than one occasion I got scolded for screaming “Mad Dog” when I would observe her “home bleaching treatments. Mostly because when I’d tease her she’d laugh causing the hardened bleach application to crack open.

When she was more financially well off, she engaged in a series of “electrolysis treatments”. This involved some sort of shocking device, a needle that zapped the offending hairs at their very roots and was guaranteed to get rid of these stubborn barbs once and for all.  Indeed for many years the plucking and bleaching treatments were not needed.

But in her older years those little black barbs fought their way back. So each visit from my sister was an opportunity to be groomed. One never knew…she could die the next day and she wanted to be ready.  The fact was that Mom had already requested to be cremated.  No one was going to see her chin or any other part of her body, post mortem for that matter, didn’t seem to deter her fear about a possible chin hair viewing.

After a few tries with ordinary tweezers, which were tedious to use for extended periods of time, Liz saw on TV an item called the “Tweeze®”.  This was a marvel. A battery operated facial hair epilator, similar to the Epilady® Electric Hair Remover that somewhat painfully denuded the legs of many a brave woman. This little gadget latched onto the offending follicle with a death grip that prevented any slip up in its removal, roots and all.  Mom was enthralled by this device.  So now all upcoming visits were preceded by a phone call request to bring the “chin plucker thingie”.

My sister has the patience of Job!  I was along one day to observe the ritualistic dance between Mom and my sister.  Mom would ask, as soon as we entered the room for her chin hairs to be removed. Liz would comply. Thinking they were finished, she would wrap up the device and put it away. Mom would sit in her chair, stroking her chin and sure enough she’d feel a barb.

“Oops! Here is one you missed”. Sighing, Liz would get the Tweeze® back out and continue with the plucking ritual. Mom would continue to feel her chin, her cheeks, and anywhere else she suspected there were little hairs lurking. Several more time the Tweeze® would be in and out of Liz’s handbag before Mom was finally satisfied that they were all eradicated.

Not too long after my sister’s surgery and recovery Mom did die very peacefully and painlessly.  Mom’s sister and her first cousin, a woman was almost as close as a sister, were keeping vigil with us.  Unconscious and not responding to our touch or words, Mom’s shallow breathing was the only proof that her life force still was present.

We were comforted by the fact that there was not a chin hair in sight.

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