On Christmas in 1999, my mother passed away. Sure, they left her on the support system until December 26 at about 12:30pm…but she was gone on Christmas. I could feel it with my heart and with my spirit when she left this earth earlier in the day and then, that was it. Like a flick of light passing through me…or was it before me? Sort of like a door opening and a final wave good-bye. No, I am not new age…but I do believe that there is a spirit in each of us that must find a final resting place. Now, it was her time for her spirit to rest.
My mom was 73 when she passed and had done the best that she could with what she had been given. Or, more appropriately, made the best that she could from what she could make of what she had been given. She barely had a semester of high school but she was well read (on her own), could do math in a split second and loved to read. She also had a knack for cooking. She could feed an entire family and half the neighborhood on a piece of chicken, a slice of bread, parsley and some kind of noodles and sauce combination that she had made from scratch. It might have been the same flour and water, but it never seemed like the same thing.
But she was more than that, she worked for RCA during WWII and used her math skills as a waitress and finally was an in-home health care worker in her later years. She had lived through the Great Depression, wars, loss of a brother in his youth, loss of another in WWII, and had watched her own son go to war in Vietnam. It had seemed to me that she had lived a thousand lives, too many for me to even begin to understand.
It was also ironic for me. Mom had a flare for pomp! What a day to exit. On the day of her first stroke, she had been busily preparing for guests for the holidays. Hmm, I keep thinking of her in a gold lamat jacket at my nephew’s wedding a few years before. She was one of the few women in the world who could pull it off wearing the shiny gold material without looking like a NASA outcast. I still love that picture of her. It was uncanny. Even if you had doubts as to whether you would be able to wear that outfit, it seemed to be ok for her to do it. And well, that was her charm. That, and the fact that she denied aging. No, she didn’t deny her age—on the contrary, it was a source of pride that she never betrayed the fact that she had fought through life. She just never showed her age. But it was even more than that.
I was the youngest of her seven children and for her to be gone on Christmas was, well, more than tragic. I did not have a family of my own as the rest of the brood. She was my family. Most of my fondest memories revolved around her cooking something or of me eating something that she cooked. One can only wonder why I have a propensity for self-gratification from food!?! But, on that particular day on Christmas 1999, I was also dealing with the loss of my Father less than two weeks before. It was a series of unresolved issues. Madness about things that could not be changed. An ache to make it better. A hope that some things could be changed. And, a realization that some things cannot be undone in this world. She had called me about a week before he passed and asked if I had talked to him. It prompted me to call my Dad as was her subtle intention. I called but he did not answer. He was 67. I did not think that I would not see him again, just that he was not home or maybe out with my brother. I think that I should have broken down and just drove over to see him that day, it may have made a difference. But, I was stubborn and right about something or another so I didn't go. Being right just doesn’t mean as much anymore after that.
But, then there was Mom. That was the real key to my sadness. I had a place to ‘be’ when Mom was alive. I was always welcome there. I was sent a Christmas card every year…and she remembered my birthday. Some years, she even sent me cards or had some cute little thing on Valentine’s Day to keep my spirits up if the love life was null and void. And that was nice. It was home even if I wasn’t home at all. Sure, other family members send pictures and all that. But, it was never quite the same. My Mom loved me unconditionally. Even when I did not like her or my Dad very much. You know, I regret that most of all. I wish that I had held to the Biblical truth of honoring your mother and father. I think if I could change one thing in my life—and I have made quite a few mistakes along the way, I would change that first and foremost.
The funeral came and went. I had just started to work at an engineering firm in the Northwest suburbs of Illinois but the loss of both parents in less than two weeks let them see me at my worst. I felt weak. I learned a long time ago that you cannot even begin to BE weak let alone feel weak or have the impression of weakness by co-workers or superiors. I knew several months before I left the company that I would start to find another place to work as soon as realistically possible. I did. I took an assignment in July 2000 that plunged me into work on a special project for a PC board manufacturer. The tedious work being performed at a rapid pace covered up the loss.
But, I was already dreading the holidays and they were several months away.
One weekend, I visited my stepfather and was able to retrieve a cook book that my mom had used from many decades before. Some of the ingredients are not even called the same thing anymore as most ingredients are more refined and processed for more specific use. Since I was the youngest, I vowed to keep her memory alive and I devised a way to do so by deciding that I would create a memorial type cook book on her behalf. So, I went through her stuff and created a cook book for everyone based on some of the family’s favorite recipes. It was also a way to vent…to share the memories, and to remember my own memories. But, while I was making copies of some of those old recipes, and rummaging through some handwritten items and recipes that were stuffed into the cover from long ago, I noticed that flour was falling out from between the pages. I laughed. She sure used a lot of flour and it generally got everywhere for a brief period of time when she cooked. I smiled out loud. Then, I tried to carefully tip the book over to knock out some of the flour. To my surprise, a four leaf clover fell out. In fact, several of them did. I was perplexed!
When I distributed the cook books that I had created to relatives across the United States, I was on a mission to discover the story behind those cook book four-leaf clovers. No one seemed to know. Finally, when talking to my brother Danny, (that’s his middle name but his first name Mark just never quite seemed right to us), he gave me some insight into the great four-leaf clover mystery and he presented me with the following tidbit of information. (Danny is the second oldest in the family. He was also the one who was deployed overseas to Vietnam during a tour of duty there when he was in the US Army. For the record, he graduated from DePaul University and became a CPA. So, we are not talking dumb in any way, shape or form.)
He relayed the details of life before television and that there were things that were ‘necessary’ in order to make sure that little boys stayed out of trouble back in the day. You could not sit the little ones in front of a VCR or DVD player and then go on about your business. Nope. You had to find some way to keep them busy without too much commotion. So, my mother, grade school educated Italian lady that she was, initiated a game that my brother Danny would play for many years. That is…search for the Four Leaf Clovers in the grass after school until dinner was ready. To wit, he would promptly display them to her upon being called into dinner and she would add them to her growing collection. To this day, I am not sure if her cooking ability was the result of her actual ability or the result of the tremendous amount of ‘luck’ brought on by the four-leaf clovers!
I laughed…mystery was solved. But something else occurred in my memory banks. When I was about seven, my mother told me to ‘get occupied’ with something as I was plainly in her hair and she suggested that I hunt for four leaf clovers. Being worldly as I was at age seven circa 1972, I simply refused and opted to find entertainment reading quietly in my room. I recalled this story to my brother after he brought me up to speed on his ‘hunting’ days of old. He mused how times had really changed and how clever our Mother really was. This, coming from a brother who used to send me birthday cards to the ‘second most intelligent’ member of the family! A point, several other members of my family argue, including myself, as to who is the first most intelligent.
I tell you, that cook book has its covers torn off and a faint mist of flour permeates the air on a sunny day when you open it. It is not what you would call the latest and the greatest. But, inside that book is an envelope with a remnant of the wonderful four-leaf clovers who had lived their lives in it and a fondness for how clever an otherwise ‘officially’ undereducated mother could be when faced with the need for creativity.
It was refreshing. It was human. Pure. Simple. It served a greater purpose. And, it always brings a smile to my face around the holidays when I would otherwise have remorse for the loss of my Mom. Oh, yes. Especially around the holidays when the house would be filled with an even stronger scent of vanilla and cinnamon and assorted goodies like lasagna, sausage with peppers and onions, and some of the best pies and cakes you could ever imagine.
In an age of technology and microchips, it would hardly seem likely that a simple thing like a four leaf clover and a convoluted old cook book would inspire anything but a walk to the trash heap. Yet, cook books and four leaf clovers have done more than inspire—they have allowed me to replace a sad time with a happy memory that I will cherish forever. Not bad, Mom. Not bad at all.