An Ode to My Mama

I wrote this many years ago as a new mother who was just beginning to understand the depth of my own mom’s love for me and my siblings. Happy Mother’s Day to all the sacrificial mothers out there—biological & spiritual! Today, look a mother in the eyes (even if via zoom) and tell her thank you!

victorien-ameline-EiXGlD3hmHQ-unsplash (1)

My Mother’s Eyes

I remember my mother’s eyes. They were clear, light blue, deep-set with a faint perimeter of feathery skin that crinkled when she smiled. Those calm, translucent eyes managed to communicate so much. But her childhood snapshots were incongruent somehow. As a child myself, paging through tattered, old-fashioned, black paper photo albums, her youthful eyes seemed slanted and squinty, only faintly reminiscent of the woman I knew. I actually felt a little pity for my homely, little mommy. Her face must have needed to grow in order to accommodate such complex and interesting eyes. As she aged, the skin around the eyes became more delicate, thinner, and fainter, giving her penetrating eyes a whitish, oval frame. Now, when I look back at photos of her during her mothering years, I see so much light emanating from her face. I’ve heard it said those who are filled with goodness sometimes seem as if they are shrouded in light. Her goodness radiated from the eyes.

As a kid, if I got hurt she’d give me a quick, concerned once-over as if silently recounting all of my limbs. Once all were accounted for and intact, her gaze would fix on me, offering such comfort. When she was proud of one of my little accomplishments, her eyes would soften and seem to laugh. They would light up to cheer me on when I was struggling, like trying to get my first hit in softball. My stare would zero in on her eye line in the stands as I waited out the right pitch. But there were also times throughout my youth when her eyes betrayed the otherwise well-adjusted motherly exterior. I had a natural love for baking, one of only a few interests we did not share. My mom was usually exhausted after a long day of work. She was a school teacher who rushed home and did the lion’s share of the housework as well. Having the impeccable timing of a child, it was then that I would generally hit her up to help me bake cookies. Her eyes were incredulous and impatient. But soon, without much prodding, they would look up signaling resignation. In that glance, I could almost instantaneously smell the homemade chocolate chip cookies.

My mom was a voracious reader. She had taken a speed-reading course in college. She could tackle the biggest book in no time, as evidenced in her weekly towering stack of extra dense library books. From my earliest memories, she always had a book on her person. While my brothers and I would whine at the dinner table about the “Texas hash” she would sit peacefully and bore through her giant, hardback library book with laser focus, seemingly unaware of our complaints. I remember how dazed she would appear if I tried to get her attention. It was as if her mind required some type of passport to enter back into reality. The vacant stare would last a beat or two until our pleading and her brain got the green light from the sluggish border agent. Once the commotion settled, her eyes would quickly turn back to the book with renewed intensity.

I sometimes resented her seemingly omniscient eyes, especially throughout my teenage years. It was as if they could sear through the barbed wire fortress in which I had locked away all of my secrets and personal angst. At the time, I perceived her knowing looks to be somewhat patronizing, but as an adult, I’ve come to think of them more as signs of her understanding, commiseration, and the profound concern of a mother.

There was no mistaking the dark blue flash of anger directed at me after I dragged myself in past 3am one weekend. I hadn’t phoned to say I would be out past my 12 o’clock curfew. Her glare was firm and accusatory. My friends and I had “innocently TP’d a teacher’s house” then sat and gabbed at Denny’s. I had lost track of the time, or maybe, in all honesty, I didn’t care. I could be such a mouthy, self-centered teenager. But she did not let me off the hook. I realized immediately that I had mercilessly put her through hell as she waited for me or worse a call from the highway patrol. She didn’t need to say, “how dare you?” She needn’t remind me of how much she loved me and worried about my well-being. There was no lecture about the freedom and flexibility she had afforded me as a burgeoning young adult. I could see all of that in her eyes. I always remembered to call after that.

Although my mom has been deceased over twenty years now, her eyes continue to follow me. I am starting to see them in my own children. When my kids came along as fresh little newborns, I couldn’t pick out any familial resemblance, despite loads of trying. I would stare at them at long intervals trying to glean some link to my mom. Instead, they just looked like their own little elfish selves. I didn’t see myself and I certainly couldn’t point out my parents in their squished little faces, eyes squinting. As they grew I came to know them in their own individuality, not how they related to anyone else. So I will never forget the utter shock, and I mean literal jolt, of removing my son’s first-grade school photo from the large white envelope and seeing my mom looking right back at me! She never took a great picture. She was always the first one to admit it too. Her face never looked relaxed and sometimes her eyes took on a faraway expression as if she’d been caught daydreaming. My son had the exact look. It was that signature, deer-in-headlights,  awkward stare that I treasured.

Imagine my surprise, when at around the age of 40, I began to see her gazing back at me in the mirror. After I put on mascara (it’s such a rare occurrence for me these days), my eyes take a few moments to adjust to the addition of the foreign goop on my lashes. It’s then I see her gaping at me, eyes heavily lidded, as if uncomfortable with the bright fluorescent lights. She had the same look when applying her makeup every single morning as she stared at the small hand mirror, delicately layering her Mary Kay cosmetics. I know because I used to watch her. Sadly, I also sought that gaze on her hospital deathbed. The sight of her dying eyes became seared into my memory. For a long time when I closed my eyes I would see those soundly shut slits, puffy and unnatural looking, in direct contrast with my formerly vibrant 51-year-old mother’s striking eyes.

Fortunately, the painful flashes of her pained expression are almost nonexistent now. I have time to thank for softening those stinging waves of memories. But occasionally they resurface out of nowhere, causing me to flinch. In those instances, I remind myself to look in the mirror or to seek out my children’s eyes. Then I am transported again to that limitless, calm sea of blue. I like it there. No matter how many incredible, useful lessons she taught me with her reserved, common-sense approach to life, it’s her eyes I will never forget… all that light. Most of my memories of her have faded, but her eyes persist. They always will.

 

 

*Photo by Victorien Ameline on Unsplash

5 MUST-HAVE School Supplies to Keep Kids on the Path to Heaven

latest chalk 2

It’s that time again when moms and dads across this great land finish checking off a mile-long list of obscure, annoyingly specific school supplies. We scour the internet, traipse through aisle after aisle of every big box store and office supply emporium around, trying to find the correct color, brand, and amount, at the right price. But there’s always one item at the bottom of the page that is nowhere to be found—that elusive pre-sharpened number 2 red Ticonderoga training marking-pencil with a white eraser fashioned out of rare unicorn dust and angel feathers…?

We’ve come a long way from my school days (way back in 19—ahem, never mind!) when the list consisted of at most four or five items—pencil, scissors, crayons, glue, and paper. This gets me thinking about what kids actually need to get across the finish line of school and ultimately life. Here’s a hint: you can’t get it at Walmart. What spiritual tools can I provide my children to help them navigate the more arduous path to heaven? A couple years ago, I compiled my first list: The Top 5 Must-Have School Supply Items for Every Catholic Kid. In the spirit of growing lists, I’ve added to it. For a refresher on what is at the top of my list, check it out here. Now for my 2019 new & improved edition of the essential spiritual school supply list:

Continue reading “5 MUST-HAVE School Supplies to Keep Kids on the Path to Heaven”

Universal Weirdos

cami-talpone-ej5vXdz3jRI-unsplash

This is the second chapter of my short memoir, “Chasing Normal.” It details the acute period of grief right after my mom died. I posted the first installment earlier.

I felt surrounded by the grave. The last time I had been to my grandparents’ Florida home, I had accompanied my mother. Back then, I was a carefree teenager. A lot had changed. My grandmother had courageously fought mouth cancer, enduring a significant part of her palette being removed. She did not survive. I could not have conceived at the time that her firstborn, my mother, would follow just two years later from lung cancer. It was strange being in that home with two crucial people missing.

The home was completely different. My grandmother’s soft, feminine touch was nowhere to be found. Instead, every available space had been covered in a swashbuckling nautical theme. My grandfather had hung paintings of ships and seascapes, sadly erasing almost every trace of his deceased wife. It was unsettling, but not completely surprising. While hey had eked out forty-nine years of marriage, I suspect it was not always the happiest of unions. They used to bicker—a lot. His hearing was going, so she would raise her voice. “John!” was often punctuated with heavy sighs and exasperated eye-rolls. It never erupted into a full-blown argument, but there was always an undercurrent of seething.

I liked my maternal grandma. Although, I sometimes sensed that there was a time limit or expiration date on our welcome. Past that window of time, we grandkids were interlopers. It was understandable; She had raised seven children, almost single-handedly. As a typical husband of the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather dutifully provided for his family. He was away a lot while serving in the Navy, and later, as a U.S. postal worker, who moonlit as a musician. Grandma had finally retired from the business of child-rearing. This was in contrast to my dad’s mom, my Italian Grandma Pippa. She couldn’t get enough of my brothers and me, as if her happiness depended on breathing the same air as ours. As different as they were, both were as good as gold and surprisingly linked through their deaths. Grandma Pip had died about one year after my maternal grandma, and precisely one year before my mom. Three years, three deaths. The matriarchs of my family were dropping like flies.

Continue reading “Universal Weirdos”

Beloved Children

robert-collins-333411-unsplash

Bear with me. I’m about to brag about my kids. Proud mama alert! Go ahead. Look away and grumble, but there’s no putting this exuberant lioness back in her cage.

And I’m not embarrassed to admit that you will probably be quite underwhelmed by the source of all this maternal delight. It’s neither a virtuoso violin performance nor a  prize-winning science project. In fact, none of my kids even plays an instrument, (excluding kazoo) or cares a whole lot about making scientific breakthroughs. (Sadly, there’s no fighting genetics.) I am fully aware the rest of the world will consider the source of my pride as something banal and utterly unexceptional.

Nonetheless, it causes me to light up like a roman candle in a cloudless, dark country sky.

Continue reading “Beloved Children”

Boasts & Pot Roasts: New Year / Old Me!

gaelle-marcel-8992-unsplash

Is it only me, or is it getting harder and harder to focus?! Since the inauspicious purchase of my so-called smartphone, I’m beginning to feel dumber and dumberer. I used to read a whole lot more—not just those vacuous fashion/entertainment magazines that seem to secretly breed like rabbits in my dentist’s waiting room. I used to read actual books… regularly for Pete’s sake! My hope for the new year is not New Year/ New Me. Nope. My plan rather is New Year/ Old Me. I plan to put the devices down and pick up books, just like I did in the olden days of yore. Yee-haw! I’mana get me edu-ma-cated in 2019! (And in case my first born spelling/grammar drill sergeant should read this, the mistakes are intentional!)

As we all know, transitions take time. So, before diving too deeply into those heavily word-laden dusty old books, how about some other suggestions to whet your intellectual appetite? After all, the libraries of Rome were not built in a day. They had libraries, right? Oh boy. Note to self: sprinkle some Roman history into the reading list. Before I get to my recommended reading Boasts for you, I’ll share some leads that may act as a springboard towards more book-learnin’.

Continue reading “Boasts & Pot Roasts: New Year / Old Me!”

Into the Deep of Advent

julian-dufort-712923-unsplash

We are in the home stretch of Advent. Christmas is so close we can all nearly taste it. But resist!

I took part in a cookie swap earlier this week and all those mouth-watering varieties are calling my name. Ok, I’ve sampled a few. But I’m done. I’m holding out for the big event. They will taste all the sweeter on Christmas Eve. The waiting makes the celebration that much more dramatic, reverent and thrilling. It’s almost party time, folks—one of the biggest feast days of our Church. If you’ve ever wondered why we collectively bow our heads during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, it’s because we are recognizing our belief in the most fundamental mystery of Christianity: That in Jesus Christ, God actually became man, born of a woman by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Incarnation, the most sacred moment in all of human history. That is why we require some serious prep time.

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. -GK Chesterton

Continue reading “Into the Deep of Advent”

A Case for Daily Mass in Catholic Schools

adult-black-and-white-body-of-christ-161081

My kids are officially back in the swing of school. I know what you’re thinking: WooHoo! Carline drop-off must be the most absolutely magical part of the day! I must admit, watching my kids exit through the automatic sliding minivan doors with the exchange of a kiss, is pretty awesome. (What stay-at-home mom doesn’t crave a few hours of solitude to accomplish the endless household chores before they all frantically pile back in taking their seats in the constant carousel ride of family chaos?) But, believe it or not, the drop-off is not my absolute favorite part of the day. There’s another much more special moment that wins by a long shot!

It comes shortly after morning carline, and quite frankly, its significance kind of snuck up on me. Over time I’ve come to cherish it as the treasured gift from God that I know it to be.

Continue reading “A Case for Daily Mass in Catholic Schools”

Filth & Faith Part 2: Weathering the Storm in the Church

A couple of weeks ago, a huge fall thunderstorm erupted in the middle of the otherwise quiet night.  It startled me from a dead sleep. I tried my absolute best to disregard the racket and the flashing light in order to remain blissfully slumbering.

layne-lawson-101816-unsplash.jpg

I was in that foggy quasi-sleep state in the midst of trying to self-soothe back to a deep unconsciousness, when one of my sons snuck into our room and boldly announced, “What is going on out there?!” If you’ve ever had a kiddo swoop in while you’re trying to rest, you’ll understand when I say my hair was now standing on end. Children are like nighttime ninja. You never hear their stealthy approach but are made frighteningly aware when they are hovering mere inches from your face. It’s straight out of a horror film.

Continue reading “Filth & Faith Part 2: Weathering the Storm in the Church”

Filth & Faith: How My Husband and I are Talking to Our Kids About the Problems in Our Church

alberto-casetta-349138-unsplash

Is it just me or have you noticed how every single reading from Mass over the last couple weeks seems to point to all of the unrest and scandal in the church of late? Not in that oblique, beating around the bush kind of way, but overtly, and in a way that seems to strike you to the core. It’s kind of how I remember feeling after a romantic heartbreak. No matter what station I tuned the radio dial to, I’d hear a song that eerily seemed to be speaking directly to me. But this a lot different. It’s not the voice of Tears for Fears. It’s God who is knocking on our collective foreheads, trying to break through so we might truly hear Him in the midst of such devastation.

Continue reading “Filth & Faith: How My Husband and I are Talking to Our Kids About the Problems in Our Church”

Radio-Active (my national radio interview!)

alex-blajan-99475-unsplash

Last week I was on the radio! And I didn’t even have to get out of my bathrobe. My recent post about the etiquette of speaking to those who are grieving got the attention of a national Catholic radio show. A producer from “Morning Air” on Relevant Radio contacted me via email asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed about my essay, “I cried with Michael Jordan.” So, I peeled myself off the ceiling and quickly replied yes. A couple days later, after gravely bribing my children to remain silent in the background, I was live on the air with John Harper of the “Morning Air” show. I can’t help thinking my parents were smiling down on me since I finally got to use the Radio part of my Radio/TV/Film degree from the exorbitantly priced Northwestern University. Thanks, mom, and dad! (My mom used to urge me to apply wherever I wanted. “If you get in,” she’d remind me, “I’ll clean toilets to cover the cost if need be.”) Such parental sacrifice they modeled for me.

Continue reading “Radio-Active (my national radio interview!)”