Friday, July 8, 2011

A Daughter's View of Janet

These were the stories I told at my Mother's memorial 2 weeks ago. - Karyn

In many ways Mom led a charmed life. True, she never had major disasters in her family or close to her, but she also chose to look at the positive and to make the best of what she had.

She had two kids who were anything but what she expected - both adding challenges to her life she would not have asked for, but she loved us and accepted us for who we were, which is how she accepted most people in the world. As she never failed to remind us when times were hard "just look at it as a learning experience." David and I were HER learning experience!

On the surface, Mom was dignified, extremely conservative and traditional. But, those of us who really got to know her, knew "the other Janet".

For instance - while other kids were being raised on Winnie the Pooh, these are the words my mom read to us while tucking us in at night…..

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I'll never forget looking for Mom at one of our family all-night New Year's Eve parties and finding her in a back room, teaching the younger kids how to play strip poker. Fortunately she had loaded them all up with hairpins, jewelry and extra clothes so things wouldn't get too out of hand.

Through college I dated a guy who made the mistake of complaining to me that the glasses she served liquid in at meals were too small. I mentioned this to Mom in passing, then forgot about it until, at one huge family function at her house, we all went to take our places at the table and found, at the boyfriend's place, an enormous terrarium which she'd cleaned out and filled with tea. He was humiliated. She just gave the famous "Janet smile".

Upon learning that the same boy had two toes on each foot that were webbed, she began cutting duck jokes out of newspapers and sending them to him. He always told me that we were NEVER getting married. I was bad enough to deal with, but having to deal with my mom, too, was just asking too much!

I remember coming home from college and laying on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, happily reading a book. Suddenly, a hailstorm began beating on me - and I looked around to find Mom sitting with a bowl of lemon drops, throwing them at me to get my attention so I'd talk with her.

She held this "dark side" pretty close to the vest and not many people saw it. One day I was telling a friend some of my "Mom" stories. She thought she knew her pretty well and complained that I was making them up. Of course, I blabbed this to Mom, too, and soon, my friend received a huge box in the mail. She opened it to find it contained just 10 lemon drops bouncing around. Mom's way of saying "be careful what you choose NOT to believe!"

For the most part, Mom chose to see things very innocently, yet she had this kind of twisted idea of gifts to give people. Once, when visiting a cousin in California, we went to a museum/art gallery and mom came out with two strange figures. Some kind of big nuts or gourds with legs hanging off of them. She proudly gave one to my cousin and myself and when we asked the people at the gallery about them, they told us they were some kind of African fertility icons. As neither of us were married, we thought this kind of odd - but it was the kind of thing Mom would stumble into.

3 years ago she visited me in Washington. It was right before Halloween and she found some candles in a store that she fell in love with. "Oh, shouldn't we get some of these for people?" "Ah, sure mom….." I said, looking at the 12" long pieces of wax, shaped like long hairy, dead fingers. She was so delighted with her purchase that she insisted I take her back for more several days later.

A couple weeks after she got home she called me totally embarrassed "I gave some of the candles away and someone said 'why Janet. Are you giving me the finger?' I didn't think about that when I saw them, did you?"

Well, I had, but knew she didn't and I just hadn't wanted to spoil her delight in the gifts.

Then, there was Sicily…

When I lived in Italy, word got around that the mother of the American was coming to visit. Mom's are the next things to God in Italy - certainly more revered even than the Pope, so her arrival was a huge deal.

In typical Sicilian fashion, neighbors rushed out of their homes when we drove up with my parents. My Sicilian mom, who lived next door to us, insisted we come into her kitchen where she proceeded to make a pot of thick black espresso. I showed mom how to load it up with sugar so the thimble of coffee would be easier to drink, and she managed to drink it down.

Leaving there, the neighbors to the other side of me grabbed us and invited us in for yet another round of coffee. I waited until their backs were turned and quickly drank mom's coffee down.

As we left their home, a third woman grabbed us and scampered us away to her home, where she offered up - yes, more coffee. By now mom was onto the drill and politely declined. I tried to warn her - she NEEDED to take the coffee here - but Ina had heard mom and quickly shifted gears. Into her cabinet she went and out came a bottle of - well, rot gut.

As I tried to explain to Ina that my parents did not drink, she happily poured the glasses and set them in front of my parents. Mom looked at the offering and before I knew what was happening, mom picked up the glass and slammed it back, drinking it down. As my father and I stared wide-eyed, she slammed the glass back to the table and in a huge voice said "YUUCK!"

"WHAT got into you?" I asked mom later…. "Well, I just remembered when your cousin was in the Peace Corps and her host family served her parents guinea pigs with the feet still on them. They HAD to eat those guinea pigs. So, I figured it was the same thing…. I drank it for World Peace!" While the thought was good, the following "YUCK" insured that no-one was coming to mom for a world diplomatic position.

Mom refused to be dependent on anyone or to ever get down. When my father died she instructed me to do anything I needed to to make sure she didn't cry at the funeral. "Watch out for people talking to me. If I seem to be getting serious, you come stop me from crying," she insisted.

With the funeral over, she set about rebuilding her life. She took on chores of banking, care of the home, and such as though she'd been doing it all her life. The one thing she never learned was how to pump gas.

When told by her doctor that she had but a week left to live, she seemed overjoyed. She didn't want to be dependent on anyone and a week gave her time to be back in her home and for those who loved her to tell her they cared.

Even in those her final days and confined to a wheelchair and her bed, when she knew people were coming to visit, she insisted on getting up, fixing her hair, putting on makeup and her bright red lipstick so she would look her best.

To the end, she was a class act.

Those final days, she would visit with callers, then I'd help her to bed for a nap. After a few hours she would wake up and the two of us would visit. She had no regrets. She said "Please tell people how important their friendship has been to my life."

And every night she'd say "You know, I realized early on that I wasn't extremely smart and didn't have a great talent, but the one thing I could excel at was to just be nice to people."

I think she underestimated herself, but the legacy of being nice was perfect.

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