As I type this very early on New Years morning, I am watching a candle burn. I am not observant of many traditions or rituals, but the tradition of lighting a memorial candle is one that I have decided to follow.
As some of my regular (or semi-regular, or irregular) readers may remember and as I noted here, my mom passed away early in the morning on January 1st last year. Many of you expressed your condolences to me, and I am very thankful for all of your kind thoughts.
For a variety of reasons, we did not hold a memorial for her until many months later. We got family, friends, and my mom's former colleagues together in New Brunswick, New Jersey, near the place where she had lived and worked the longest. My sister put together a wonderful photo-essay for that occasion. She sifted through many hundreds of photos and slides, and this one, taken in 1952, is the one she identified as my father's favorite amongst them all. My dad asked me to say a few words -- he suggested 3 to 5 minutes, and I set out to do that and started taking notes and writing an outline... it wasn't easy at all. As with my approach to most things in life, I was being organized, precise and direct ... and totally missing the point.
A few nights before the event, however, I had a few inspiring thoughts while starting to drift off to sleep, and I got out of bed at 2 AM and started to write with a completely different approach. Still organized, but metaphorical and so indirect that as I started writing I didn't really know what themes could possibly emerge from what was inspiring me -- but I felt compelled to find out. When I was just a few lines into the writing I decided to throw away all my notes and my outline, and just follow my thoughts to wherever they were going to take me.
Perhaps I got a bit carried away -- at least as far as the 3 to 5 minute target goes, I surely did. I knew that what I ended up with was going to surprise a fair number of the attendees at the memorial, especially those who knew me best. I honestly didn't know if what I was going to say would work at all for anyone other than myself; but from several people's reactions I think that it did work well. Here's what I wrote that night, which -- although I did improvise a little bit -- is very, very close to what I said at the actual memorial:
We’re not in New England today, but I think it’s fitting that we’re here today, on an autumn day, to remember my mom.
I think that autumn was my mom’s favorite season. Autumn in New England has a special appeal. That’s why she loved pomegranate and Concord grapes, and she passed that on to me as well.
More so the Concord grapes than the pomegranate. But yes, even the pomegranate. And yes, I’m passing them both along to my own kids, too.
And even though she left New England years before I was born, somehow she managed to pass New England on to me, too. Not the Red Sox, but New England.
There are other reasons why I think autumn was her favorite season. Summer is pretty short in New England, and not really that much longer in New Jersey or Connecticut, but I think it seemed too long a time for her to go without wearing a stylish Icelandic wool jacket.
Pomegranate and Concord grapes, and Icelandic wool.
Anything Northern, really. Not just New England. It was something of a recurring theme for her.
We went to Florida once when I was barely old enough to be conscious, and of course I know that mom went down to Fort Benning in Georgia years before that. And we went to the Smokey Mountains one summer, but mountains are cool and rustic, much like New England. Apart from those forays South, what I most associate with mom is places to the North, and things associated with those places.
Northern places, Icelandic wool, pomegranate, and Concord grapes, and cranberries.
I never really had much of taste for cranberries, but that was something else mom liked, and another New England autumn treat. Another sign that autumn was her favorite time of year. Another sign that part of mom never left New England, though she hadn’t lived there for more than 60 years.
Connecticut doesn’t count as New England. Not Darien, anyhow.
I do seem to like cranberries more so now than I used to. Some things of hers took longer than others to rub off on me.
Concord grapes took no time at all to rub off on me.
Maple syrup, too.
Pomegranate and Concord grapes have short seasons, then they’re gone, but maple syrup keeps.
Syrup is a spring-time product of New England, but it keeps year round, unlike pomegranate and Concord grapes. She could have maple syrup year-round, including in the autumn. That’s when the maple trees are at their best. They turn brilliant red and yellow before they yield their leaves to the wind.
And they yield their leaves to my lawn. Not everything about autumn in New England is perfect. That’s not actually why mom left New England and went to New York, but then again, it could have been.
The trees in The Bronx don’t quite turn the colors that we get in New England, but you don’t have to rake them yourself. And she could have maple syrup in The Bronx. She bought it at Gristede’s market, and at Runyon’s in Somerset. Mom definitely had a preference for the smaller, more personal markets. I remember her lamenting the fact that the A&P and Grand Union’s own brands of syrup didn’t have a drop of actual maple in them.
For a time, the brand of maple syrup that she bought was “Vermont Maid”. I think it would have been better if it had been from New Hampshire. I think mom thought so, too. But the pun in the name probably appealed to her. It certainly would to me. I think quite a bit of New Hampshire, and quite a bit of intellectual playfulness rubbed off of mom and onto me. The New Hampshire part was probably not intended, but both parts probably were inevitable.
Just like the pomegranate, Concord grapes, and the maple syrup.
She could have maple syrup on French toast in autumn, and she did. I’ve learned many things about French toast, like the fact that in France they call it “German toast” if they have it for breakfast, and “pain perdu” for dessert. And I’ve learned that nobody made French toast quite like mom did; and I dare say that a bit too much of her French toast with maple syrup may have rubbed off on me.
And I’d tell mom that since “pain perdu” is French toast, “Frank Perdue” obviously must be “toasted chicken”. She’d like that, because she would see my dad’s sense of humor in me, and seeing that made her happy.
And then she’d go into teaching mode, and tell me that chicken is “poulet” and bread is "pain", and “perdu” means “lost”, so “pain perdu” is “lost bread”, or idiomatically “leftover bread”. Then she would tell me that “Franc Perdu” means “leftover French coins”. Mom’s sense of humor was pretty much the same as dad’s.
Mom’s little finger knew more French than I will ever know. It’s odd that I’ve been to France so many times now, and she never went. But perhaps it’s not so odd.
I think perhaps the most important thing I ever learned from mom is that what you study when you are young, French in her case, can be something you have a passion for, but it doesn’t define who you are. It’s something you will always keep with you, but it doesn’t define what you do, or where you go. No one thing does. Not your upbringing. Not your interests. Not your talents. Not your education. Life is the choices you keep making, not the choices you made once, not the choices made for you, not the choices expected of you, and -- perhaps most especially -- not the choices that seem logical to others.
New Englanders are known to be independent and non-conformists. Mom assuredly was both. I’ve been told that, although I’m as about as serious and logical as they come in most respects, I might just have little bit of that independence and non-conformism in me too.
Pomegranate and Concord grapes may be evidence of that.
And maple syrup? Well… you can’t be a non-conformist all the time.
I really don’t know if autumn was mom’s favorite time of year. Sometimes seasons are a metaphor for the stages of life.
I think mom had a good autumn, though too short. The winds blew too early, the leaves came down before they could be their most brilliant, and the winter came too quickly.
But before each winter, there will always be the pomegranate and Concord grapes. And maple syrup will always be there year-round. They’re all sweet things. Sweet things that mom enjoyed. Sweet metaphorical things, which connect me back to my mom.
1. Pete Lyons01/01/2008 10:09:56 AM
That's a wonderful story. Great job.
2. Joe Litton01/02/2008 10:44:30 AM
I was born in New Jersey (my mom grew up in Brooklyn). We moved to the west coast when I was in high school. My mom passed away way too soon, almost 25 years ago. But your tribute to your mom reminded me of so many things about my own mom.
Many thanks - to you and to our moms.
3. Amy Blumenfield01/02/2008 12:09:49 PM
Thanks Richard. That's a really sweet (oy) message.
4. Andrew Pollack01/03/2008 02:13:50 AM
Rich, I've known you a fair number of years and I've considered you a trusted friend in that time. People who don't know you pretty well may have a hard time believing just how your outward methodical nature fronts for a warm and complex inner self.
I can't tell you how happy I am that as this year of mourning drew to a close you were able to get beneath the surface of your own mind and really dig deeply into what your mother meant to you. The cathartic nature of such a thing will serve you very well.