This is the first Mother's Day I won't be able to call my mom.
On Dec. 26 last year, the last day of the holiday weekend, I sat on my mother's bed in Denver, where the little park outside her window was beautifully blanketed in snow. It was my third day of sorting through almost 89 years of a life that had ended three weeks earlier.
Having started a new job in Palm Springs only the month before, I had only the Christmas break to spend, alone, with what was left of my mom. Her memorial service in Denver had been planned hastily, without consulting me, and held the week before. I wasn't able to attend. Apart from a few pieces of furniture, art, jewelry and photos that would be shipped to California, this would be the last time I would touch her clothes, her dishes, her linens and whatever that gooey unguent was living in her medicine cabinet. She was gone, and here I was on the last day, leafing through the photo albums and files whose contents I thought I had seen a million times.
Mom had been ill and declining for most of the year. I had visited every couple of months since February, when she began hospice treatment. Although my visits were usually short, they were golden. Once she was gone, I didn't want to regret things unsaid, or fail to revisit important pieces of her life. Mom's memory had been fading for years, and although she couldn't recall a conversation from 10 minutes earlier, until shortly before her death, she remembered her distant past pretty well. We talked a lot. Although I was sad at Christmas, packing up her life, I embraced my last chance at intimacy with a person I knew well.
But did I?
My mother was among the least sentimental people I've known. Apart from her Depression-sown habit of saving plastic bags and reusing wrapping paper beyond recognition, Mom was not a milestone measurer, or an artifact collector. So why was there a six-inch plait of honey-colored hair in her headboard cubbyhole? It wasn't hers -- too thick, too light in color. I was her only girl, and my hair hadn't been that color since kindergarten. Whose hair would she keep? One of her caregivers later said Mom had told her it was mine, but she had never showed it to me.
Plundering a box of files, I found Our Wedding Book, a white, padded album from 1948 whose pages were mostly empty. But there was a flat, brown be-ribboned assembly presumably organic, presumably a bouquet. A tiny yellowed paper torn from a newspaper listing, "Marriage licenses issued in Kansas City," naming the betrothed and their ages ("Arnold Alperstein, 22; Pearl Greenblot, 21"). A bridal shower invitation addressed to my great grandmother (who died when I was 6 and whom I indelibly remember). A brochure from The Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri ("An All Year Health and Pleasure Resort") -- is that where they spent the night as newlyweds?
I found a taped-up, folded sheet of thick, oversized paper with elaborate gold illustration commemorating her mother, who had died when Mom was 4. It listed what seemed to me to be random days and dates from 1931 to 1976, with Hebrew lettering that also fell outside my barely-Jew understanding.
I found her Paseo High School yearbook from 1943, when she was 16. A bio was written for each student: "Pearl is trustworthy, for she was treasurer of Radio club, her homeroom, and was Defense Stamp treasurer. She also belonged to Girl Reserves and the Honor Roll and will attend Missouri University."
The country was at war. The book listed former students in service, and many of Mom's classmates writing their good-byes were shortly to enlist. Some probably didn't come back. A few comments were poignant, but references to the state of the world were mostly oblique. These were kids, after all.
Today, everything is "awesome." In 1943, it was "swell." My mom was a "swell" girl who had a lot of male attention. And, apparently, an alter ego.
"Dear Pearl, It's been swell knowing you in and out of Paseo and I know our friendship will continue through the years. Good luck and be careful--if you can't then name it after me. Love, Harold (Navy)"
"Dear Pearl, Since I have known you all these years, the more I see of you the better I begin to like you; as I would say in French, voulez-vous couchez avec moi? Your fellow (junior), Mel"
PearlHope Chest, Me and you have worked together and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I hope you have too. Although you owe me a little debt I hope to collect one of these days. Here's wishing lots of stuff and junk that everybody wishes everybody. Sincerely, Hish A"
"Dear Kendall, You are a very interesting girl, very complex. You have possibilities (not so hidden) that would be fun to explore. Don't get me wrong, I think you're a nice girl, but you do provoke comments. You have given me a bit of inspiration at times. ...Jim Ralls
Sitting on the edge of my dead mother's bed, I was laughing my ass off. Was my mother a tart? Hope Chest? And who the hell was Kendall?
Pieces of yellowed paper were stuck into photo albums I had never seen. Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain" clipped from the April 14, 1945 edition of The Kansas City Times; a brochure, "Your Baby's Formula (Terminal Heating Method)" from Rose Memorial Hospital, appended with "Alperstein, girl," date of birth, weight, length and directions for how to mix Pet Evaporated Milk, water and dextri-maltose #1 (apparently, I had feeding issues).
I also found a Denver Post columnist's remembrance of my dad, who was a prominent Denver attorney and political operative, shortly after his untimely death in 1984. But I had read that before. A bigger surprise was the tattered, crinkled, four-page letter in my dad's back-slanted loopy hand. Postmarked June 28, 1947 from Columbia, Missouri, where he was in law school, it was an astonishing depiction of a relationship of two people barely into their 20s. The naiveté of young love was clear, but so was a maturity wrought by the Depression and world war. I had found some notes from my father to my mother, but to my knowledge, this is the only love letter she kept. Was it the only one he wrote?
She was in Kansas City, and the distance between them was painful. They had professed their love and desire to marry. He struggled with others' expectations and his sense of integrity. "...I'd get you a ring now if I could, but I don't have a penny of my own and that is one thing I'd never borrow money to buy."
..."I'm not interested in any other girls and I have full intentions of marrying you. But I also realize that it isn't very practicable for you to act that way due to the pressure of the social circle from where you spring. It is obvious among your 'friends' the engagement ring ... is of principal importance, and the significance which it holds only secondary."
He was responding to a letter she had written, apparently about a dinner invitation from family friends who had questioned her romantic judgment.
"The part of your letter that bothered me (bothered me, hell; it made me mad) was that part about your being practically 'forced' to go to dinner at Sis and Morrie's place so that you would meet somebody who they believe is 'good for you.' I know full well that neither your family nor 'friends' are too wild about the idea of our being in love ... As far as material things go, I can offer you nothing. But you, I know, don't love me for want of material things."
"...If it is against your wishes to [go], for Christ's sake why not tell them, as I've told anybody who cares to know, we love each other and are getting married as soon as it's possible. Then they'll mind their own God-damned business (I didn't like that pimpish Morrie when I just met him)."
On the back of the letter's torn envelope she wrote:
Rib 72 stitches
Rounds 1 to 4 P. 3 K9
followed by impenetrable knitting directions for who knows what.
It has been five months since my mother died. I think about her every day, and wonder what else I failed to know about the person who gave me life. For now, I choose to see that wonder as an enduring gift from someone who always encouraged me to be curious.
I love you, Mom. Can I have a cookie?