A Letter To You

Standard

Today I went to my great aunt’s viewing in New Jersey. My father’s side. Her name was Loretta Hujber, formerly Schwing. She was 88.

My Memom passed away last year between Christmas and New Year’s. She was one of nine, three of whom she survived, and four of whom passed away within this last year.

Take a moment with that: one year ago, there were six sisters living, and now there are only two. Within eleven months. In a way, it’s poetic. Nine siblings, all octo- and nonagenarians, all finding the end of this chapter of their journey together, going through together, and, most beautifully, allowing us, the family, to grieve and celebrate their lives together.

My dad told me about Aunt Loretta’s passing on Monday and immediately requested that I attend her viewing and funeral on his behalf, which was a no-brainer for me. Absolutely. Of course I would. But the request broke my heart a little bit. I don’t really think about how isolating it must be for my parents to be on the west coast. Most of both of their families are accessible only by plane, and all I could think about was that all of the Schwing-extended family (my grandmother’s family) were in New Jersey and able to reach out to each other in moments of grief and despair, able to hold each other, cry with each other, laugh and celebrate life with each other, and I didn’t know who, if anybody, was available for my Da. I felt his request as a plea, really, a soft, but perfectly clear plea from somewhere deep within him – somebody reaching out, asking for a hug, and if he could only get that hug that he needed through me somehow, of course I would do it.

It was especially when my both my mom and Da e-mailed me separately to tell me that they changed their minds and don’t think this was a reasonable request, given the distance to travel (hour and a half drive from Manhattan to Trenton), and that it was smack in the middle of the week, and I had work, and responsibilities at home, weather wasn’t terrific, etc. etc – that I knew I had to go even more. It was in those e-mails that they realized what they were asking was selfish in a way. Something for them that didn’t benefit me in the slightest. Something my Da needed, but, after closer inspection, realized I may be putting other things in my on hold to do. I realized upon their realization that I really did need to do this. And to be completely honest, it wasn’t completely selfless, do don’t go thinking I’m some unsung Family Hero of any sort. I did need to do this. I wanted to remind everybody that I am here. I’m close. I’m accessible and available, and though I was ripped from New Jersey (willingly, for the record) at the age of 12, I’m back and I’m a part of this family, dammit!

The second reason I really felt like I needed to go was the reason I gave my mom in my e-mail response — I didn’t properly mourn Memom. My grief creeps up on me pretty often, surprising me at work, in the middle of a movie, or when I’m out with friends. I’ll feel the prickly heat behind my eyes suddenly, and I’ll have to hastily excuse myself to the bathroom before embarrassing tears stream down my face. A song will come on and I’ll burst into sobs, or a moment during my day will pull the corners of my mouth down ever so slightly.

I like to think those are the moments when she visits me – in whichever ethereal way your belief system allows you to imagine – and since I didn’t give myself the time to work through the grief, I’m just taken by surprise by the feelings.

Anyway, I thought the long drive to Trenton and the time with her sister might give me a proper setting to begin the process.

The drive was easy. It was raining, which added some great ambiance, but it was rather straight-forward and not a lot of traffic. I got to the funeral home about 15 minutes before the prayer service started. I walked in and spotted my uncle right off the bat, and said hello, and found myself trapped in the polite-family-banter with him, so I wanted to break away from that because that is not my safe place. To experience this with Aunt Loretta the way I felt I needed to, I had to get away from polite smiles and talks about my career. I had to break free, get alone, and have a conversation with her.

After saying hello to her three daughters, I was able to sit down and begin our conversation.

“Hello,” I started. “I’m Sam – Samantha. I’m Pat’s daughter. He was Doris’ son. I don’t know why I’m telling you that – of course you know that. Or you don’t, but it really is irrelevant either way, isn’t it?”
She didn’t respond.

“Well, what should I say to start?” I looked at her face, relaxed, made-up, pretty. Her red cardigan, her delicate hands (well, as delicate as a Schwing’s hands could be, in any degree…) folded over her ribcage. “You look quite beautiful,” I continued. “I’m sorry you’ve died. Although, I’m glad you were able to follow your sisters so closely, and that your daughters are all able to be here with you, and their family with them. I’m here for me, for Memom – you know her as Doris – and for my dad, Pat. I said that. Sitting here with you now, I’m actually not quite sure what I expected, or what I want to say. I guess I’ll start with the truth, because that always seems to work well in the books: I miss my grandmother. I missed her before she died, really. I missed her when I lived across the country from her. I missed her when I lived just across the river from her. I felt guilty for not renting a car and going to spend time with her on the weekends. I was envious of the relationship my cousins had with her, wished that I had that relationship and knew that she would have loved to have that relationship, if only I had spent the time to go and see her. I thought about her all the time, and I still think about her all the time. I see her in everything. And, frankly, I know she would have thought I was an absolute hoot, because, let’s be honest, I’m fantastic.

“I wish I gave her the opportunity to get to know me as the Lady-Woman I am now, and I wish I had to the opportunity to spend more time getting to know her first hand, and not just through the many stories everybody told. I know she was a firecracker, sarcastic, and witty, fiercely intelligent and opinionated. Strong-willed and not one to mess with. Sounds like everything I aspire to be. Anyway, Aunt Loretta, I hear that about most of the Schwing women. I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know you better, either. I’m sorry that I moved away when I was 12 years old and wasn’t able to really be a part of this family, and all I want is to be a part of this family again. I want to be invited and involved, even if it’s for these sad occasions. I want to be here, be accessible, be available. I want to stop being so isolated and independent and learn how to work within a family unit again.

“Because, the truth is, I miss my mom and dad. I miss them now, but I also miss them in the future. I know that, in a few decades, it will be Andrew, Patrick, Erin, and me standing up there in a line, accepting hugs and kisses on the cheeks, listening to stories, and, well, that scares the shit out of me – Sorry, Aunt Loretta. Language – and I saw my dad at his mother’s funeral. I felt what he was feeling. I knew how hard it was for him, knowing he had spent the last 13 years in a state across the country from her, only able to see her, maybe, once a year. I saw what that did to him. I saw how it affected him, and I don’t want that for me. I don’t want to be so far away from my parents. I want to be there, available, accessible. I want to be able to see them all the time, spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas together, because I know better. I know that the thing people regret the most if not spending enough time with the people they love, and I don’t know anything that’s more important than that. They tell me my dreams and my career is more important, but I think all of that will come. Basically, I’m scared, and I can’t figure out what I’m exactly scared of, and until I figure that out, Aunt Loretta, I don’t know how to proceed.

“All I know, really, is that I’m lucky enough to have two parents whom I love more than anything in the world, and who both love me equally – though they’d argue more – and I don’t want to waste that on anything. I’m lucky, and I’m one of few, in that regard — especially since I know it. So, what do you say? Well, nothing, do you, because .. well, you know. … Say hi to Memom for me, will ya? And Pop Pop, because they’ll probably be together, bike riding and catching dragonflies. Have a good trip, Aunt Loretta. We’re all here together.”

I went to sit down a few rows back, with cousin Kathy a couple chairs from me to the right, reciting prayer responses with the rest of the congregation, and I sat there, staring at the microphone fastened to the ceiling – probably normally used to amp the choir, but, in this case, it was pointing directly at Aunt Loretta’s casket, and I almost expected her to stand up and give a speech – contemplating everything I was hearing, trying to get in touch with all the different energies in the room, making eye contact wherever I could, and enjoying the room filled with family because, well, even a Family of strangers is still Family, is it not? And there’s a bond, like a golden thread tying us all together, and when you’re with Family, you’re home.

Goodbye, Aunt Loretta.
Goodbye, Memom.

I love you.

December 2, 2014
[ i n d i g o ]

[ You Gotta Be Tough if You’re Gonna Be Stupid ] & other shit my mom rubbed off on me

Standard

As I sit down to write this, I know the exact expression that will come on my mother’s face when she realizes that this is a Mothers’ Day post for her. I know the look so well – not just from witnessing it for so many Mothers’ Days, but also because I now sport the same look. The expression that pulls our lips in a straight line, tugging on our chin slightly, eyelids settled comfortably between high cheekbone and furrowed brow, as our eyelashes have the fun job of holding up that heavy brow, which gives her and my eyes the depth and distinction of a creative philosopher (if I do say so, myself.)

This look. This look of modesty and gratitude with a dash of an eye-roll: this is the look on my mother’s face. A slight shake of her head, a salty chuckle that loops from the bottom of her chest and up through her nose, she’ll smile that flat-lipped, curled-corners smile that reaches the depth of her eyes, and she’ll think how absolutely ridiculous this silly holiday is, surprised at how the sentiment, nonetheless reaches that spot in the chest where it burns in a knot in her throat and prickles the space behind her eyes.

I know this, as I know all the things I do about my mother because, despite the familial mantra that I am the most oblivious human EVER, I have learned a few things over the years, including learning how to look up from my own reflection every once in a while and watch those around me.

There are two truths that have remained constant throughout our relationship: she never makes a promise she cannot keep, and she will not lie to me. Simple, yet hollow rules, right? Easy to recite, impossible to fulfill? I can only imagine the daily struggle to uphold her commitment to me through the years. Especially in sixth grade, when I asked her if I had a good singing voice after a girl in choir told me to stop singing because I was flat. (“Do you think you can sing, sweetheart?” [yes] “Well, that’s all that matters.”) Or, in third grade, when I asked if she believes in Santa Claus (“I believe in magic.”) Definitely that one time in second grade when I came home crying, asking her why I didn’t have any friends – was there something wrong with me? The harder truths to swallow, though, came later with “nobody’s going to like you if you stink,” and “you have to learn to play softball; they don’t let girls play baseball after sixth grade,” and, one of the more devastating (and common): “oh, honey, he’s gay.”

The lesson behind not making promises that cannot be kept is that a promise is intrinsically deceptive. A promise, when made, is a most sacred contract in which the inner-most hopes of a child are delicately enshrined in a gift bag of high expectations and sparkling dreams, locked upon a divine pedestal, dangerously teetering, threatening to topple over the edge, plummeting into the realm of broken hearts and binding disappointment, desecrating that cherished bond of trust.
Instead, my mother taught me to make commitments. Commitments exist within the walls of this reality, with an understanding that Life (capital-L) may interfere, at which point the terms may be renegotiated.

It was paramount that our relationship have a foundation of honesty, for, when Life (capital-L) finally happens for real, and her words are needed, she knew that only the most supportive love is cultivated through honesty, acceptance, vulnerability, and forgiveness, the sanctity of the relationship untarnished by deception. A practice I try to bring into all of my meaningful relationships.

There are all those cliché sentiments that will make their rounds today – here’s to the woman who clothes me, bathed me, fed me, loved me, who supported me through thick and thin, who was a shoulder on which to cry, an embrace in which to feel safe from all evils, a sound board, a therapist, a coach, and a best friend. Why, yes, all of those things, but so much more. So much more that the average Jane may not be able to put it into words. In fact, she’d probably say “There aren’t even words to describe how wonderful, beautiful, generous, bla blahblah my mom is,” but there are words, by George! And I’m going to finally do what my parents have been begging me to do since I first vocalized. “Use your words, Samantha.” Well, you asked for it.

I’ve been blessed with a unique gift for verbose over-explanation, one I’ve been honing since I was about six years old at camp, writing letters to my mom and dad, toying with all of the adjectives I could grasp, stringing them together in a line, stretching and twirling them, twisting them into oxymoronic pairs: “beautifully nasty,” and “awfully, terribly, disgustingly sweet.” My mom would chuckle at these, calling them quirky and charming, showing them with family and friends, sharing in the amusement.
I was mainly describing my nasty bunkmate – a girl who went out of her way to find the perfect, vicious cocktail of biting remarks to cut me deeply right where it hurt me the most, then twist. I wrote a myriad of letters describing the torturous interactions with this girl, my misery, my pain, my wounds, wanting my mom to call her names and put her in her place and make her cry, wanting to make her hurt the way she made me hurt.

It was my experience up to this point, in my eighth year of life, when sharing these types of experiences with my mom, to receive encouragement and retribution by way of satisfying generalizations like, “what a horrid thing to do!” or “girls can be so nasty,” the last word usually spit with a snarl and followed up with a gesture of comfort. But this time was different.

This time, much to my confusion, my mom asked me a slew of questions about this venomous girl. She asked me how old she is (seven years old), how long she’d been going to camp (three years), how much mail she’d get (none, I learned after a few days of investigating.)
That changed immediately. Letters addressed to her in my mom’s handwriting, stamped with our stamps, return-labeled with our return labels came almost every day, followed by care packages meticulously assembled, filled with goodies, snacks, toys, and puzzles – all catered to her!

After a few weeks of this, feeling a bit lost and neglected, I opened a letter from my mom a counselor tossed on the foot of my bed. My mom explained to me that Colleen was mean to me, not because of anything I did to her nor because of who I am, but because of parts of her life over which I had absolutely no influence or control. Colleen was a neglected child who felt desperately lonely and unloved. She was drowning in her own misery, powerless and chaotic, and she was just grasping for any semblance of control and power, and that manifested itself by preying on others’ insecurities and fears, and I noticed per my mother’s request that once my mother started taking an interest in her life through her letters, Colleen had back off antagonizing my bunkmates.

So, there I was: eight years old, sitting at the edge of my cot, staring into the space between reality and imagination – where deep thoughts and epiphanies lie – contemplating this whole Colleen situation, which lay spread open on the floor of my brain, wondering about this world and how I relate to it. I found myself facing this existential dilemma whether to continue reacting emotionally and personally, or, when confronted with this type, to reach further, look deeper, and explore the truth hiding within.

This was the earliest version of what I now know as “the two-percent truth.” My mother always says, “there is two-percent truth in absolutely everything.” My mother heard all of my horror stories about this girl, and, instead of hulking out to protect and defend her threatened cub, she recognized and addressed the aching, lonely heart that plagued my bully.

I guess a simple word for what I learned that summer at Camp Lohikan would be “compassion.” Compassion, patience, generosity, tolerance. All traits learned from both my parents. Add vulnerability and honesty into the mix, and we’ve got the secret recipe for Living Fully in Yourself. In that fabulously awkward stage of pre-pubescent-meets-adolescent, I finally found the strength within to grab a hold of my confidence and plant it firmly within me. By giving it an unwavering foundation, it was able to bloom and spread up my trunk and out through my links to my fingertips and toes. I got in touch with my inself, my outself, my higher being, and my lower self. I learned where I stood in the universe, spent time exploring my energy – what gives strengthens it, what scares it, how far it reaches, how connected it is now, and how connected it wants to be. I learned where, how, and whom I want to be within the cosmos, and, through this exploration and discovery, I gained a much greater, clearer sense of respect and love for myself. As most 14 year olds, I completely understood the universe, I understood life, and I understood what it was all about. I had all the answers. So, naturally, I wore outrageous colors, painted my nails black, dyed my hair pink with Red-Enhancing Shampoo, hooked chains around my hips, and went out for the cheerleading squad.

During this delicious phase of my life, my mom commented almost every day on how much she loves how I’m comfortable in my skin, how I stand up to bullies, speak out against injustices, speak up about what I believe in, how smart I am, how beautifully I write, how bold and strong I am. “You’re the bravest person I know,” she would say to me at least three times a week, a phrase I etched close to my heart and look at still to this day whenever I’m feeling less-than-that. These sentiments always supported with swelling pride – though she’d never use the word “pride” – gleaming usually in the quality of her voice, or the twinkle in her eye, or the way her smile would tug the outside corners of her eyebrows toward the corners of her mouth.

What fascinated me the most about this was how incredulous and awe-struck she’d be on each of these occasions. It was as if she was floored – nailed to the floor to keep herself from floating away with elated admiration. This is fascinating to me because where did she think it came from? I don’t think I ever expressed this to her in the moment, maybe because I didn’t have the capability to properly express the idea at the time, but everything I am, I learned from her. Everything I know, I know from her. I found my strength in her, my confidence. I was always watching. Sitting in the back of the car, in the next room, on the floor of her office, at the dinner table with all her friends. I listened. I listened to everything. I listened to everyone. Her music, her radio stations. I read her books, asked her questions, learned her processes, her practices, her vocabulary, her way of being in the world. Living Fully in Yourself.

She taught me how to cry, “Open your chest up toward the heavens and cry to the skies. It will be a fuller, more satisfying experience. Release yourself fully into the universe.”
She taught me how to connect to the universe, “You get back what you put out. Ask and the universe will provide. Put it out there.”
She taught me how to succeed by teaching me how to embrace failure, natural and inevitable failure.
She taught me how to be brave, “Embrace your fear. If you acknowledge your fear, listen to it, let it be heard, address it, and let it go.”
She taught me how to forgive, “How can you expect him to forgive you if you won’t forgive yourself?”
She taught me to dine with the queen and throw an elegant dinner party.
She taught me how to survive with the secrets to life: “You gotta be tough if you’re gonna be stupid,” and “It’s always easy when you know the answers,” and “this, too, shall pass.”

For My Mom [ Mother’s Day 2014 ]

Standard

As I sit down to write this, I know the exact expression that will come on my mother’s face when she realizes that this is a Mothers’ Day post for her. I know the look so well – not just from witnessing it for so many Mothers’ Days, but also because I now sport the same look. The expression that pulls our lips in a straight line, tugging on our chin slightly, eyelids settled comfortably between high cheekbone and furrowed brow, as our eyelashes have the fun job of holding up that heavy brow, which gives her and my eyes the depth and distinction of a creative philosopher (if I do say so, myself.)

 

This look. This look of modesty and gratitude with a dash of an eye-roll: this is the look on my mother’s face. A slight shake of her head, a salty chuckle that loops from the bottom of her chest and up through her nose, she’ll smile that flat-lipped, curled-corners smile that reaches the depth of her eyes, and she’ll think how absolutely ridiculous this silly holiday is, but, just watch, Mom – you’ll be surprised at how the sentiment reaches that spot in your chest that heats up the sneaky knot in your throat, burning and prickling the space right behind your eyes…

 

 

MY MOM TAUGHT ME WHAT LOVE IS (a poem, sort of.)

 

My mom taught me that

Love is straight-forward,

Love fills you to the brim,

Love is passion and elation and exuberating,

Love is patience, Love is honest, Love is unrefined and Love is raw,

Love is frilly dresses with bows, singing along to My Fair Lady and Les Miserables before dinner, a Saturday afternoon at The Ballet,

Love is hot chocolate on a snow day, lox pinwheels and olives at midnight,

Love is ruffles and frou-frou California shit, a cold beer near the pool,

Love is sitting through the Doctor Who Christmas Special, sharing TV shows, New York Times articles, and grammar snafus,

Love is #nationofidiots,

Love is Lamb Chop sing-a-long THIS IS THE SONG THAT NEVER ENDS

Love is “You bought this place?”

Love is Christmas brunch and Passover parsley

Love is Look at that Face Just Look At It, Look at that fabulous face of yours

Love is dancing in a puddle of Feels at Erin’s wedding to “Wind Beneath My Wings” before I left for Switzerland,

Love is letting me go to Switzerland, then New York, then Oregon, then New York

Love is “THEY’RE JUST TREES, MOM”

Love is the sweet silver song of a lark

Love is May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, Are You My Mother?,

            and Marjorie Morningstar,

Love is Mutsy and Blanky, jewel brads, eyelets, and glue dots

Love is “jussh a minute,” and “Mommy. I weally wanna wea(r) a d(r)ess,”

Love is Family.

 

You’re my hero.

Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom.

I love you.

 

[ i n d i g o ]

 

(and now, pictures of me and my niece)

ImageImageImage