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Legacy

Last weekend, I went to see the Broadway musical Carousel. I had been anticipating seeing it for months. Three bars into the opening number, The Carousel Waltz, my eyes filled with tears. Not because I was anticipating the sorrowful plot elements or the poignant ending (though of course I was). I was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.

My reaction was visceral. In the space of a few seconds, I felt the gorgeous music take root in my gut. It surged through my chest as if it were a powerful river tossing my emotions in a rushing current. Moved and overwhelmed, I wept.

I know that this must sound like overwrought hyperbole. I promise it is not. To say I love music doesn’t come close to describing its effect on me. I don’t just listen to music. I devour it. I experience it with all my senses, not just my ears. It takes me out of the here and now. Unlike most people, I can’t have music playing in the background while I work, or tidy up, or have a conversation. The music commands my full attention, pulling me in and enveloping me.

When I was growing up, the house was filled with music. The phonograph played all day long. It was one of my mother’s greatest joys. She could fall into music as if down a rabbit hole in the same way I do now.

Mom played many different types of music. There were the Yiddish songs of The Barry Sisters, World War II-era popular music such as The Andrews Sisters, classical music, even some soft rock such as Simon and Garfunkel or Don McLean. She didn’t expose my brother and I to this variety of genres and sounds with the conscious intent of providing us with a solid music foundation. She simply played what she loved, what made her happy, and shared it with us because she wanted us to be happy too. I know you can’t teach someone to love music. However, by creating a musical environment in our home my mother most definitely nurtured and reinforced an innate predilection.

The deepest musical bond my mother and I shared was a love of Broadway show tunes. We played the same albums over and over and over, inhaling the songs and learning every single lyric. Our standard rotation included Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Man of La Mancha. You can see she had great taste. These are arguably the greatest musical scores in the musical theater canon of that era (from the 1940s through the early 1970s).

While our passion for music created a bond between us, it didn’t follow that I appreciated it. When we went to see a musical play or movie, my mother would inevitably sing along. Every. Single. Time. Not loudly but most definitely audibly. Typically, she was set off or inspired (depending upon your perspective) when the actors performed one of her favorites, either something especially upbeat (think Seventy-Six Trombones) or intensely poignant (The Impossible Dream). Every time, her behavior annoyed and embarrassed the hell out of me. I would tap her on the hand, and if she didn’t get the message I would hiss at her, “Shhh! You’re disturbing everyone.” I knew I could have said it in a nicer, gentler way, but I didn’t care. I thought a grown woman should know better. Now I wish I had been more generous of spirit.

In the late spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a virtually incurable type of leukemia. One day I will write of her courage and grace during the 14-1/2 months she lived after her diagnosis. The chemotherapy and clinical trials (eight of them) she underwent during that time required many lengthy stays in the hospital. Since my mother felt fine until the last two months of her life, she was bored to tears during these periods that she was trapped (as she justifiably called it). My father and I were there nearly every day, but there was no escaping the ennui. We passed the time with small talk, reading, watching sitcom reruns, and staring into space during periods of silence.

One early evening, the three of us were sitting in her hospital room watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that we had seen at least twenty-five times before (if not more). There was a knock and in walked a young man holding a guitar. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked if we would care to hear him play on the guitar and sing for us.

My swift and cynical reaction, one I fortunately kept to myself, was no I don’t want to listen to some corny amateur musician. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to plaster a fake smile on my face while he performed.

My mother, on the other hand, replied, “Yes, thank you, I would love that.” I looked at her and saw she was beaming with delight. When he asked what she wanted to hear, mom thought for a moment before she asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?” “Of course,” he replied. “How about The Sound of Silence?”

That was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Throughout the performance she was smiling with her entire face, and singing along, which made the young man smile back at her. Swept up in the moment, I sang along too. He played a second song (I don’t remember which one) before he left. My mom’s smile and upbeat demeanor lasted the rest of the night. To this day I thank the Lord that I didn’t voice my contemptuous view about an experience that gave my mother such joy, as music always did.

During the last few hours of my mother’s life, she was uncommunicative. I remembered someone telling me that hearing is the last sense to go at the end of life. It was possible she could still hear the world around her. I positioned myself on a chair near her head and tuned in to the music I had stored on my phone.

There were a lot of songs from which I could choose, from many different genres. In many ways the music collection on my phone mirrored the musical life she and I had shared. I turned up the volume and held the phone to her ear. I played some classical music. Then I played some country music, a genre she and my father had come to love later in life. Finally, I played If I Loved You from Carousel. Soon after that she died. I hope the music she loved was her final awareness of this world.

Thank you, mom, for a gift that has transformed and enriched my life. I miss you.

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Most of us have memories of our mothers, whether they are still living or have passed on. Memories may be happy, sad, heartwarming or any combination of emotions. These memories–not material items–are the true legacies our parents leave us. In honor of Mother’s Day, it would be great if you would share a memory of your mom in the Comments section below. Thanks and to those of you who are mothers, Happy Mother’s Day!

Stuff Part II

My prior post, Stuff Part I, addressed some of the issues and emotions many of us feel when we have to dispose of possessions—either ours or those of a parent or other cherished person. In this post, I discuss wrestling with the decision of which of your kids’ childhood possessions to save.

I would like to keep EVERYTHING. Really, I’m not kidding—everything. When I think about disposing of any of these items, I feel as if I am throwing away a piece of my boys. I pick up a size 2T shirt, or a crayon drawing of a dog, determined to toss it. But I just can’t do it. My family tells me that I have built a shrine to each of my children. They don’t mean that in a good way.

If you were to come up to the third floor of my house, you most likely would be amazed, concerned for my sanity, appalled—or any combination of these. Custom built cabinets run along two of the walls. Yes, you read that correctly: custom built. I had them designed and built by a carpenter for the sole purpose of storing mementos that I have collected and preserved since I found out I was pregnant with my older son (who is now 31).

The cabinets measure 36 running feet in total, stand a bit over two feet high, and are two feet deep. That’s a hell of a lot of space (many would say a ridiculous amount) dedicated solely to stockpiling chazerai (Yiddish for junk or garbage). This does NOT include the even more capacious cabinets I had built to house my collection of family photos. If I start going down that rabbit hole, I will never get to the end of this post.

Many of my contemporaries have faced this same dilemma, either when moving or simply wanting to reduce the clutter that threatens to engulf them. Most of them are proud of the fact that they have filled one plastic bin per child with keepsakes. One entire bin! They think that having retained that amount of child-related memorabilia is a big accomplishment.

I think so too, but in a different way. How did they manage, I wonder, to get rid of enough stuff that everything they are keeping fits into one bin? I am both incredulous and envious.

I decided to consult my children. Perhaps they appreciated the fact that I had kept so many souvenirs of their childhood. When I asked for their thoughts, they both howled with laughter. Once they regained their composure, they enthusiastically offered examples of my “crazy lady hoarding.” Here is their list. I am certain that given more time, they could come up with a much longer one.

Outdated and dangerous baby furniture and other equipment: The modern parent knows that many items that generations of parents have used are now considered unsafe. One of these items is drop side cribs. The crib in which my children slept is simple and beautiful but of course has a drop side, as did all cribs at that time. For years I imagined a sweet little grandchild sleeping in the same crib as his or her father. I know this is not going to happen, and that crib will never be used again. Yet I just can’t part with it.

Crib accessories: Same rule for pillows, blankets, and bumpers as for old cribs—do not use them. They may cause suffocation or SIDS. Wait, what? No bumpers? Won’t the little baby hurt his or her head on the crib slats? (No.) How can a baby stay warm without a blanket? (By swaddling.)

I remember the thrill of picking out these items for each of my boys, taking time to choose just the right colors and design. They are adorable, and still in good condition. I was certain I could use them when my grandbabies came to sleep at grandma’s house. Wrong. Do not use them and don’t donate them, so that no other parent will make the mistake of using them. (This applies to the aforementioned crib as well.) Still, I neatly fold and place each piece into the cabinets. Those tiny but fluffy things eat up an awful lot of storage space. But they hold sweet memories.

Random tzotchkes (Yiddish for junk that creates clutter but serves no useful purpose): Broken crib mobiles; a cracked, and therefore unusable, plastic baby bowl; bottles and nipples; a paper diaper (unused) with Son #2’s name painted on it (received as a gift); The New York Times published on their birthday each year (not just on the day they were born); jars of disintegrating baby teeth; and the bottle from Son #1’s first prescription. Go ahead, laugh. I know it’s nutty.

Clothes: The clothes and shoes my sons wore are magic to me. I can hold a shirt up to my cheek, close my eyes, and be transported back to something one of them did or said when wearing it. Yes, weirdly I actually do remember these things.

Even stranger (at least I am self-aware), I have tucked little notes inside many of the garments so my kids will know the story associated with it. Son #1 will know that I bought him an outfit decorated with ants because his teacher said he had “ants in his pants.” Son #2 will know which stretchie he wore when we brought him home from the hospital.

When I placed these clothes on the shelves in the cabinets, I honestly believed that one day I would dress my grandchildren in their fathers’ baby clothes. Not happening. So many of the clothes are outdated, or frayed, or the elastic has disintegrated. Looking more closely I see that many of them bear stains from food, formula, or spittle.

What’s more, I have saved multiple items from each category of clothing. Why would I need ten pairs of the same pajamas, 12 plaid flannel shirts, fifteen stretchies, seven Osh Kosh b’Gosh overalls, 18 pairs of shorts, six parkas, and on and on? Because I couldn’t decide whether to keep the pajamas decorated with cowboys or the ones with aliens. Should I keep the red plaid flannel shirt or the blue one? I didn’t want to decide—and with all those cabinets I didn’t have to!

Art: Or, as my kids refer to it, “shitty artwork.” I probably have 98% (a conservative estimate) of the art created by my precious angels: drawings, paintings, homework containing drawings, handmade cards, ceramic and clay objects. Some are framed and hang on the walls of my house. Others sit in display cases. The rest are jammed into those cabinets on the third floor. They are stored in boxes, folders, and scrapbooks. Lots of boxes, folders and scrapbooks.

Some of the items are absolutely worth keeping. There’s a ceramic eagle sitting on a nest, and a cross-section of a planet made from clay, with aliens working industriously in the various compartments—both are creative and required a lot of skill. And no one can fault me for hanging on to cards the boys made for me, my husband, or their grandparents. But why keep page upon page of yellowing, dried out paper covered in scribbles?

One of my friends (who was probably on the brink of staging an intervention for me) told me about a service called SouvenarteBooks (www.souvenartebooks.com). A professional photographer takes pictures of each piece of art, and creates a book from the images. The books are museum quality, printed on archival paper, and assembled into a beautiful hardcover coffee table book.

I really liked this idea. I was hopeful it was the solution that would liberate me. When I received my books, they were everything the web site promised and more. They were gorgeous.

So here it was—time to fish or cut bait. I am sure you have guessed the outcome. I had my beautiful books, but I also wanted to keep the actual artwork. It hurt too much to imagine any of it ending up as landfill. For all their teasing, I told myself, my sons wouldn’t really want me to throw out something they had made with their own hands.

The next time Son #1 was home, he noticed one of his clay pieces on a shelf in the family room. He picked it up, turning it over in his hand. “Yes!” I thought to myself. “He likes being able to hold something he made.” Then he looked at me, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t throw out this piece of crap.”

I guess I was wrong.

Letting Go Because I Love You

Before I begin this post, I want to thank all of you who have been reading this blog and following The Tarnished Year’s Facebook page. I hope you continue to enjoy and learn from my pieces, as well as from the featured articles. I also hope you find comments by fellow readers to be thought provoking and present points of view you might not have considered previously. My intent in leaving space for comments is to stimulate discussion amongst my readers.

Please tell your friends and family about us. If any of you are interested in being a guest blogger, you may reach out to me at Rhonda@TheTarnishedYears.com.

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The title of my last post, Stuff Part I, (posted October 2nd), suggested that my subsequent post would be Stuff Part II. There will be a Part II, but events in my life compel me to write about another topic first.

I often think of raising children as a series of transitions. They go to preschool for the first time, and every few years there is a graduation: from elementary school to middle school to high school. They have their first haircut. They get their first tooth and, later, lose their first tooth. There’s their first sleepover and the first time they go away to camp. They learn to drive and go out on their first date. Each one of us has our personal Achilles heel, that one transition (or transitions) that makes us sad. You may be puzzled about why you feel this way, and then you realize it’s because you are wondering where your little boy or girl has gone.

Until three weeks ago, the most wrenching transition for me, personally, was when I dropped each of my sons at college for the first time.  I still cry every time I think about it. It marked the first time I felt that they were leaving me behind. I worried that a fissure might develop in our emotional bond, inviolable up to that point, because I now would play little to no part in their daily lives. I wouldn’t know their friends or when they had a paper due. I wouldn’t be able to walk into the next room and give them a hug. Of course I was excited for them, but it was excitement tinged with a feeling of loss.

Then came my son’s wedding day, and I realized all those prior transitions were bush league by comparison. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I was aware that our nuclear family was being altered permanently. It nagged at the back of my mind, but I didn’t dwell on it. I did not cry as my husband and I walked him down the aisle, nor during the ceremony. But in addition to feeling joyful, it was bittersweet for me when they said their vows and walked through the crowd as husband and wife, wearing the widest, most radiant smiles I have ever seen. Perhaps some of you had similar feelings when your child married.

I have joked on more than one occasion that when I attend a wedding, I want to take the couple aside and tell them, “You have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you are getting into!” Yes, I am trying to get a laugh, but I am not entirely joking. When your children get married, you hope you have helped them develop the wisdom, common sense and courage they will need pretty much every day of their marriage.

Newlyweds—my son and his wife included—have faith that they will be able to handle any challenge they encounter, fortified by their love and respect for one another. Having observed my son and his now-wife for six years, I agree. They love and understand and support one another unconditionally. I can’t imagine a couple more prepared to deal with adversity when (not if) they encounter it.

As I am not a soothsayer, I have no way of knowing what bumps in the road await them. In my head I can reel off a list of the more common ones: one spouse feels the other spouse spends too much time at work; your child is sad or struggling and you have to decide what (if anything) to do while your heart twists and contracts with pain; disagreements over money or childrearing issues arise; someone is diagnosed with a serious illness that puts a strain on the whole family; there is bickering about trivial things (you always forget to take out the garbage, you never turn the lights off when you leave a room) that stealthily erodes the edges of a marriage, perhaps doing more damage than larger arguments.

I am confident they will function as a team, collaborating to solve difficulties that come their way. But I also know I will have to watch, silently, from a distance, as they do so. My mother-in-law used to mime zipping her mouth closed when she had an opinion she knew she had to keep to herself. I will be rooting for them all the way, but it will have to be from the sidelines. They will need to navigate their paths, both as a couple and as autonomous adults, without my input. Much of what comes to mind when one thinks of being a parent—nurturing, advising, molding character, leading the way—is now a thing of the past for me.

At the reception, each parent had an opportunity to speak. My remarks began with a few amusing anecdotes about my son’s childhood, continued with some playful ribbing about my daughter-in-law’s reaction when she first met our family, expressed our delight that she was joining our family, and told everyone what perfect partners they were for one another. (They really are.)

Then I directly addressed my son and his wife.

______, marrying _____ will be the most profound change you have experienced in your life so far. You are starting your own family unit, distinct from the family that your dad and I have nurtured and cherished for 31 years. Now your primary responsibility will be to your wife, to this new family the two of you will create. That is, of course, how it should be, and it is a type of happiness I have always wanted for you. However, while you and _____ are building something new, your father and I can’t help but feel some degree of loss, as if a rope connecting us to one another is fraying a bit.

No matter how much you and _____ love one another, marriage is SO hard. The fact is the two of you have many challenges ahead that right now you can’t even imagine. So, I would like to leave you with these words that are from the book and movie, Corelli’s Mandolin.

Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those who truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

I wished them a marriage and a life of intertwining roots, of growth that creates one indestructible tree out of their love. We all raised our glasses and drank a toast to the newlyweds. And then it was time to dance.