“The first year is the hardest.” May I live another year for every time I’ve heard that since May 24th of last year. I don’t mean to sound too sarcastic; I sincerely hope that old saying is true. As we hit the one-year mark since my mother’s death, I must pause to reflect on the changes wrought on me and in me in the course of that time:
- Photographs, especially family photographs, look different to me now. They mean both more and less than they did before. They mean more because they can evoke a time and place that is irrevocably past and I feel that sense more keenly than ever now, and they mean less because it is clearer than ever that they are but the vaguest shadow of reality; in fact, they practically mock reality even as they presume to honor it. But I will continue to utilize them.
- Speaking of photographs, there is one thing illustrated in the photo below that I might as well say because we’re probably all thinking it – my mom was kind of short, especially in her later years! I mean, I know I’m kind of big (6’2”; 6’4” in heels), but I never thought of my mom as being at all short, even as I was bending way over to hug her.
- About that photo – it was taken in October 2003 as we stood on the front stoop of my apartment building here in Chicago (that’s her purse I’m holding, just so you know). That was a very special couple of days because it was the first and only time mom ever visited me here. I moved to Chicago in 1992 and had long since abandoned all hope that she would ever come here, but several of my siblings got together and set it up. She came here and saw me in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. The photo below was taken there. Pictured are: Seated – Mom, brother Art, nephew Adam. Standing – sister Bev, Tina, me (as Vinnie Black), Tony, sister Ellen (Adam’s mother). There was another less formal picture taken that day that I wish I had a copy of. It was taken during the show and features me as Vinnie standing next to my mom. She told me long after the trip that I was the first person she saw every morning because she kept a copy of that photo on the dresser next to her bed.
This world in which I now live, the one in which my mother may no longer be seen directly, has some different rules regarding my relationship to the rest of my family. I think I may feel this change more distinctly than my siblings because of the fact that I live in Chicago while the rest of them are all in southeastern Michigan. No disrespect to my father, but it is clear now how much our mother’s presence was a point of contact between the siblings. Without her serving in that role, it will require much more of a conscious choice on our parts to maintain our relationships with one another. I’ve seen this play out in other families as parents have passed away, and I can see that my own family is not immune from this process.
Much of my life has been lived out of sight and knowledge of my parents. Sometimes that approach had the benefit of preventing needless worry on their part – such as when my apartment was broken into while I was home sleeping. At another point in my life, that approach had the benefit of saving me the trouble of explaining what those rolling papers or condoms were doing in my possession. Looking back, I think my parents may have made some general assumptions about my lifestyle, but they appear to have trusted me enough to let me work it out on my own, and I’m grateful for that. I have to say though that my mother had an image of me that sometimes diverged greatly from reality. I haven’t had what I would call a lot of girlfriends, but I have had many friends who were women, and my dear mother often liked to assume that there was something “going on” between these women and myself. By contrast, when I actually was having a torrid affair with a stage manager of my acquaintance, my family never met her or heard of her existence. Let that be a lesson to you, you parents out there! For her part, my mother always liked to think that I lived a very glamorous and fascinating life. To be sure, I have tried to have a bit of glamour and fascination in my life, but I think she might have been a little disappointed if she had known the truth!
When it became clear that my mother had very little time, a part of me began to quietly wonder how my family and I would handle the aftermath of her passing. I have seen so many people go into extended periods of self-recrimination and family bickering and I didn’t want that to happen to me or to us if I could help it. I never really thought that it would, considering the personalities in my family, but we were entering into uncharted waters in our family history, so I wanted to be prepared for anything. More than once, I sat down with my own thoughts and took inventory – was there anything I needed to say to mom that I hadn’t said? At first, there were a few little things, so I made sure I said them when we spoke. At times, I could hear her doing the same thing on her end of the conversation. But mostly, I was at peace with that aspect of the equation.
The inescapable part of it, though, is the sadness. There’s only so much one can or should do about that, I think. Mostly, you just have to be sad when it’s time to be sad. One thing that helps is the memory of how much mom’s life was the antithesis of sadness. She found the joy in her life and in the lives of others. Oh, she had her own brand of cynicism and tactlessness at times, let that not be stricken from the record! But rarely did she stray far from joy. There were a thousand times more laughs than sobs heard in our home; I don’t think it’s hyperbole to set the ratio that high, and mom’s laugh rang above them all. I’ve spent most of my life embracing that laughter and trying to pass it along to the wider world. If it’s true that a part of her still lives in this world, then I will see it in the smiles and hear it in the laughter.