Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story…

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Sherlock Holmes. This is something I should have stood up and said a year ago, but couldn’t.

My mother started reading to me in the womb. I’m almost positive I was born with every word from every sentence from every Little Golden Book ever written already swimming around inside my head. It’s because of her I came into this world with a love of words. She read to me as an infant when others told her it was silly and I wouldn’t understand the stories yet anyway. She built my imagination from the ground up – something I’m sure she might deny knowing half the things that come out if it, but that makes it no less true. Dad may have been entirely to blame for my sense of humor – twisted, not stirred – my love of crime fiction, my obsession with Food Network, and my lead foot, but the rest is all Mom. I’ve frequently told people that Peter S. Beagle and “The Last Unicorn” made me want to be a writer; it was my mother that made me want to be a storyteller.

(Dad, who secretly wanted to be Joseph Wambaugh and thought I never found or read those half-written stories on his hard drive, wanted me to be a lawyer. We’re all probably better off that that never happened. Maybe he’s at least satisfied knowing I put all our talk about cops and robbers and judges and fingerprints and why the way people hold guns in movies is stupid to some kind of use. I think Mom always knew where I was headed all along, though.)

My mother told brilliant stories. She could open her mouth and pour out a tale effortlessly. She never needed pen and paper first to get it right. Her train of thought never wandered off in random, barely connected tangents without the aid of an eraser or a delete key. She is the reason I came home from the first day of Kindergarten in tears, swearing I was never going back, ever. The reason? They hadn’t taught me to read or write yet. How was I going to get lost in all those wonderful books on our shelves and scribble down all those amazing stories in my head if they didn’t teach me this stuff? It only took a day, right? Come on! Mom convinced five-year-old me to be patient and go back the next day. I have this sneaking suspicion bribery might have been involved, though. I’m not saying I’m stubborn, but I’m definitely genetically predisposed. (Thanks, Mom and Dad! Got the double-helping!)

It is because of my mother that I can say I have set foot on most of the battlefields – be they from the Revolutionary War or the Civil one, and in some cases both – in the state of Virginia. She is the reason I learned, at an early age, that those shiny buttons that used to be on historical markers (and maybe still are; I haven’t molested any historical markers in a long time) would tell you a story if you ran up and pressed them. But those stories were so much more special than the ones in my Little Golden Books, because they were true; they were the stories of how our country was born, how places came to be, how WE came to be. Mom was never about sugar-coating history, not even when we were little. The stories weren’t always happy ones, and sometimes even the people who thought they were the good guys were wrong. Sometimes, we pick the wrong side of the war. History wasn’t just something to learn in school and forget later. It was something to study and respect and remember so that we learn from our mistakes and don’t make them again.

Mom wasn’t only a stubborn, story-telling, child-bribing, history-loving force of nature. She was also one of the kindest and most generous people I knew. When she gave, it wasn’t just of her time or her money, but also of her heart. I can’t remember a school event she didn’t attend, or a project she didn’t take an interest in. She made Halloween costumes, she baked cakes and cookies for birthdays and bake sales, and WAS the Shaner Elementary PTA for years. She panhandled every business in town for prize donations for the school carnival (and only complained a little bit when we wound up going home with the exotic fish tank donated by a local pet shop). My sister, Debbie, and I decided to take up softball when I was 11 and she volunteered as a coach, a scorekeeper, and eventually an umpire. Our friends became her kids, even into adulthood, and she would – and did – do anything for them, even if it meant making banana nut bread without the nuts for certain blasphemous heathens in my acquaintance.

Mom loved to cook; she loved to bake more. Maybe it’s no surprise that she worked in bakeries before I was born. I think she made so many donuts before my sister and I came around that she couldn’t stand them after. She especially loved making pies and making cookies, the former for holiday meals, the latter for school treat days or to go on trays for the doctors’ offices or for Dad to take to work (Cops, I learned early on, really like cookies. It’s not just donuts, honest.). Every holiday that Wilton made a cookie cutter for found Mom, Deb, and I in our tiny kitchen on Mayo, rolling out sugar cookie dough and cutting out dozens upon dozens of Santas and reindeer, hearts and Cupids, turkeys and pilgrims, or bats and ghosts. Anatomically correct gingerbread men were Deb’s invention and came along much later. Different house, different kitchen, different life…

Mom was never completely quiet. That was the hardest part of her week in ICU. Her room was nothing but noise – beeping monitors and whirring machines and doctors and nurses and lab techs always bustling through – but it was too quiet. Mom loved to talk; on the phone or in person, with friends or to complete strangers in the line at grocery stores. There was not a place or a situation where she could not strike up a conversation. She didn’t like email, because it felt too impersonal and meant actually learning how the internet worked (she wasn’t a fan), but she liked cards and letters. She enjoyed having people over. In that, she was the polar opposite of Dad, who sometimes bordered on anti-social in larger groups. They made a good team that way. I never really thought about how well they balanced each other out until just now.

It’s been a year. Thanksgiving came and went, and Christmas and birthdays and regular days, too. It took me a month to stop picking up my office phone and dialing the house to check on her like I did, every day; took longer to stop expecting that 12:30, just-after-lunch call to check on me. There have been so many times where I’ve wished she was still just down the hall, just a phone call away, was there to talk to about a good day or a bad one. I miss the sound of her voice and her shuffling footsteps and her wonderful laugh. I miss “Jeopardy” and “Family Feud” and all-day “NCIS” or “Criminal Minds” or “Law and Order:SVU” marathons. I miss scrounging through DVD bins looking for John Wayne movies she doesn’t have yet and teasing her about the kitchen gadget collection that will eventually bury us in our sleep. I even miss wandering through the house gathering up piles of discarded Harlequin novels that seemed to multiply like rampaging bunnies in her wake. Mostly, I just miss her.

I miss you, Mom.

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