Tuesday, April 4, 2017

For Mama: Happy Birthday

I miss how she used to dance in the kitchen.

She had this thing she did with my sister where she would throw her arms up in the air and sway her hips and move about in a circular motion. Humming this drum beat while she did it.

My dad would watch her from the other room, pretending to be horrified.

My sister would egg her on. She probably started it actually.  On occasion I would join them. My brother would look upon the scene and smile and shake his head.

We would all end up laughing.

I loved her laugh. It was this high pitched giggle. Think of a happy humm mixed with a little bit of Ernie from Sesame Street.

Sometimes her face would crinkle up while she did it.

It was adorable.

Aside from her laugh which brought joy she made another sound that brought fear.

My mom had this piercing get-your-behind-over-here-right-now whistle. The crazy thing was, she didn’t have to use her fingers. All she did was twist her mouth in this sideways smirk and blow.I swear her whistle could be heard 300 miles away.

Okay, maybe not 300, but it didn’t matter when you are 7. It sounded like a bazillion trillion miles.

We usually heard it in the summertime after hours of playing outside, covered in sweat, smiles and bugspray. A whistle meant dinner was ready. It also meant we were late. So when we heard it we would drop everything and run.

I loved summer. Swingsets, ice cream, fireflies, long green grass. No school. NO school.

I think my mom loved it more though. It was her favorite time of year. She was a teacher during several points of her life and summer meant no school for her too. It also meant that the kids were home and the days were longer which meant more time outside.

She loved being outside. I think it was just in her blood. That and feeding animals.

If there ever was any kind of animal that wandered into our backyard my mother would feed it. It didn’t matter what kind of animal. It didn’t matter if it would become a frequent diner or a visitor passing through. Rest assured, that furry nomad would not leave hungry.  

There was a bird feeder, several small bowls scattered about and what we would call “the stump,” which is this magical place where leftover food would mysteriously disappear. It could be the most disgusting leftover meatloaf from the church potluck that no one wanted, it didn’t matter, mom would take it home “for the animals,” put it out on the stump and it would be gone.

There were racoons, deer, dogs, cats, squirrels, chipmunks, you name it. The only thing missing from our backyard was a Disney soundtrack.

It really wasn’t a surprise she loved animals and the outdoors so much. She grew up on a farm. My grandfather trained horses and my mother learned to ride at a very young age. She became quite good. One of my favorite photographs ever is one taken of her practicing barrel racing in her backyard.

She is a young woman sitting astride a horse like a pro, a determined yet calm look on her face. I know that look well.

But, as fate would have it, a few years later she met my dad and fell in love. And as love does sometimes, it  makes you put aside certain habits and hobbies and take on new ones. My mom stopped riding horses and learned to swim.

And swim she did. For almost 30 years she would get up around 5:30 in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and drive to the local YMCA to swim laps.

She was a creature of habit regardless of her situation. She loved to tell the story of how she was pregnant with my sister and past her due date. Instead of hoarding precious pre-newborn resting hours she went to the “Y” as she always did. The young lifeguard on duty, upon seeing her waddle out of the YMCA dressing room, had a look that was part horror and part desperately hoping that he would not have to use his minimal first aid training to delivery a baby.

I don’t have many memories of her swimming at the YMCA. But I do remember her swimming a lot up at “The Lake.”

Now “the Lake” is a lake about an hour away from my parent’s house. My paternal grandparents had a little cottage on a lane that is now used by my extended family. It was an Akemann family summer staple.

Being at “the Lake” meant boat rides, playing cards, playtime with my cousins, reading and of course, swimming.

I swam for fun. My mom swam for routine, with that same calm determined face.

I still see her so clearly doing the breaststroke up and down the roped swim area.

She rarely put her head in the lake though, too murky.

“The Lake” also meant some of my favorite things, like fireflies and fireworks.

I still have yet to see fireworks that match what I remember seeing when I was little. They were probably just average fireworks, but to me, they were amazing. The 4th of July ones were the best.  We drive over to the town, get a blanket and get as close to them as we could. A few times, we got so close they exploded right over our heads and we would get dusted with ash as they fell to the ground.

My parents usually didn’t join us when we went to see them. They stayed behind, snuggling on a bench at the end of the pier. Perfectly content to watch at a distance. They didn’t need fireworks, they lit up for each other.

They had “IT.”

If you are not sure what “IT” is, I imagine it is like being lit up like the 4th of July.

If you need advice about “IT”, my mom would probably say this.
If you have “IT”, it’s a gift, treat it as such.  
If you don’t have “IT” and want it, keep looking.
If you aren’t sure if you have “IT”, give it time.

My parents had “IT.”

But my mom’s favorite holiday was not the 4th of July.

Easter was her favorite holiday.

Now, I know that is almost sacrilegious to say. Christmas is supposed to be your favorite holiday. But for my mom, it was Easter.

She loved the colors. The pretty pastels. Pinks and greens especially. Light, airy, not flashy but still incredibly beautiful. Like her really.

She even had this Easter tree. (Now if you don’t know what an Easter tree is, look it up, they are delightful.) And I loved this tree. It was all white with easter egg ornaments and pastel lights. It wasn’t very big, but she would put it in our front hallway and it made the whole downstairs remind you that it was Easter.

When my sister and I were little we would get excited because Easter meant a new dress and sometimes a new hat too! I felt so fancy hunting Easter Eggs in my frilly threads accompanied by my hat and gloves. But don’t be fooled, it was serious business.

But once I collected my spoils I would look up at mom and think how pretty she was. I wondered if I would ever be as pretty as her and doubted that I would.   

She glowed in the Sunday sun, delighting in the things she loved best. Her family, her faith and her favorite holiday.

Unlike Christmas there was no pretense about the Easter bunny. We all knew who hid the eggs. And you could tell the difference between a mom year (fairly straight forward) and a dad year (need several hours, a couple of tears and a GPS to find them).

Afterwards there would be the traditional ham which we all tolerated, not because it wasn’t delicious, but because it was ham. Grandma and Grandpa usually made an appearance.

Some years my mom would bake this Lamb cake (also worth looking up) It was a beautiful white cake in the shape of a lamb. Which, thinking back, was actually kinda horrifying, cutting up an innocent lamb, but when you are young you don’t care. Cake is cake.

And Easter is Easter. Resurrection. New life.

I have an Easter tree myself. I don’t think I can quite get it out of the box this year. I still feel a bit tomb-like.

Today is April 4th. My mother’s birthday. Easter occasionally would come near or even on her birthday which she loved. But she loved it for other reasons too. Early April meant early spring.

My mother loved spring, it was a close second to summer for her. After a long winter the ground thaws, the snow melts, and things begin to bud.

For mom this meant the beginning of being able to do one of her favorite things.

My mom loved to garden.

She didn’t grow vegetables or fruit, except for the occasional crab apple tree. She loved flowers.

She LOVED flowers.

If it was warm enough or the weather was good (sometimes even if it wasn’t) You could find her there. In the garden. Weeding, clipping. More weeding, more clipping.

The tasks were never done. The deer would never leave it alone. The bugs would come. The roses wouldn’t quite bloom. It was as frustrating as it was joyful for her. A true labor of love.

She loved it so much she did it at my house. Now, I don’t have a green thumb, it is more like an off yellowish color, so whenever my mom would visit she would always seem to end up with gloves on, walking out to my little patch of patio dirt and pretend to ask me if she could get a few weeds out. Really she was just informing me of what she was going to do.

A few hours later it would end up looking spotless.

One year when she came out to visit me she broke her arm. One of the first things she did was lament about how she, newly retired, had been looking forward to getting into her garden and now would have to wait.  She eventually healed from her injury but it took several months.

She only got one more summer in her garden. Then she got sick.

A year and a half later she was called home.

I miss her. I miss her voice. I miss her touch. I miss her looking like HER.

I miss being able to call her on the phone. I miss her hallmark cards.

I miss that she would get so excited whenever she saw a hummingbird.

I miss her expressions like “For Pity’s sake, ” “Bless their heart,” and “Praise the Lord,” an expression she kept on saying through her whole ordeal, up until the end.

I miss her smell. I miss her singing. I miss her putting on her driving glasses.

I miss going shopping and getting a coffee (always with whipped cream) or a bagel (always Asiago).

I miss her singing in the church choir. I miss the way she ironed.

I miss going to visit and coming in late and seeing a note by the door telling me she loved me and to make sure the cat was in the garage.

I miss waking up in the morning and coming downstairs to see her reading her Bible.

I miss how she always knew what I needed and what I needed to remember.

I miss that whenever we said goodnight, I would kiss her cheek and she would say, “See you in the morning’s bright.”

I miss how she knew when I was upset and would tell me to go take a walk and that I would feel better. I did, and I would.

I miss her.

When I think of what heaven is like for my mom I picture a garden. I picture her being so happy that she gets to do what she loved doing on this earth.

I picture her hunched over with gloves on, pulling weeds. I picture her walking through the grass, looking at the flowers. I picture her stopping and smelling the roses.

They are more beautiful than anything we have ever seen here.

She is lovely and good all at once.

She is tall and proud, calm and determined.

She is not in pain.

She is joyful and free.

She smiles.

She blows me a kiss.

I blow one back.

I love you mama.

Happy Birthday.