A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!
I don’t know how you feel about rules. I tend to think of them as suggestions for less creative sorts of people. But Mom believed in them. They defined her. There were rules for every situation, but most of them revolved around what to wear, how to behave, and food. They made me crazy. However, when I asked my niece Molly which rule of Grandma’s she remembered most, it was “Grandma’s rules don’t apply to grandchildren.” Which may explain why kids listen to grandmothers so much better than they listen to their mothers.
This mom who loved rules looked a little like Ingrid Bergman, though she’d deny to the death that she was pretty. Clothes were important to her. The right ones helped stack the deck in your favor.
Some of Mom’s rules were universal: hats and gloves to church, white shoes only between Memorial and Labor days. If you’re too young to have lived the old dress code rules, you’ve probably heard of some of them.
Other rules were Mom’s Iowa girlhood rules: The only way to drink coffee is black. When drinking coffee mid-morning or mid-afternoon, serve cookies. Only Dad and children may dunk. Jell-O is acceptable, sometimes preferable, as a salad, even when it is not green. The way to a man’s heart is pie.
At some point, Mom shifted from “You must” to “You really should. . .” Whatever. Either phrase triggered eyerolling, sighs, automatic shutdown. You really should so many things, too many things. Use a little makeup, edge your yard, install California closets.
“Ma!!! I can’t keep the parts of the house everyone sees tidy. Do you really expect me to have orderly closets?!” The neat gene is a recessive one and I don’t have it. I need the chaos of rule-less closets to contain who I really am.
I was probably about 50 when I finally figured out her passion for rules. Raised by loving grandparents and aunts until age 14, Mom was sent from the city she loved, Portland, to a pig farm in Lincoln County, Iowa. She’d gotten off the shiny train and into a dusty truck with a bug screen. She’d gone to live in the corn fields with a stressed young stepmother and an embarrassed stranger she hadn’t known was her father. There were three adoring half sisters and brothers to rescue her with love, but no one to teach her how to make her way through life.
It shouldn’t have been like that.
Everything she knew, she'd had to learn the hard way. And so the rules grounded her and made her safe in a scary world, one without guideposts. But I'd had her and Dad, a solid comfortable home. Someone was ALWAYS showing me the way, whether I wanted to see it or not. I didn't need no steenkin' rules.
By the time I was really ready to listen to my mother, she was ready to move on. At eighty four and frail, she said it really was time to turn the defibrillator off. I listened to her this time. For 25 years she’d been operating on about a third of her heart capacity. That last night, she thought we really should have a little pineapple sherbet. We watch a little American Idol and she opined that that young man really should lose those dreadlocks. Then it was time to help her into her softest jammies, to help her into bed, when she died in my arms, but not until my sister arrived and we’d said the Lord’s Prayer with her.
Because that’s how you really should die, in the arms of love and the presence of the God whose rules comforted you.
Her biggest rule was “love shouldn’t end with death.” “I talk to Daddy every night,” she told me, for the decade she outlived him. So when she died I sort of expected to hear from her even though I’m not much of a believer in visits from the other side.
She’s been pretty tight lipped. I have to tell myself the shoulds. I’m getting better at it. The other day, getting ready for a job interview, I looked in the mirror and noticed my lipstick was wrong. A year ago, I had long blonde hair. Now, thanks to chemo, I have short salt and pepper hair. You really should use something brighter, darker, redder, Mom would have said.
I put on her old camel hair coat, real camel hair, because it makes me feel pulled together. It’s the kind of coat you really should wear to a job interview. There was something in the pocket: a tube of Mom's lipstick: brighter but not too bright; darker but not too dark, redder but not red.
Thanks, Mom. I always could count on you. You really should know that I knew that.
This was written to audition for Listen To Your Mother, which will take place April 27 at Alverno's Wehr Hall. It didn't make the cut, but I hope you'll go to hear the Milwaukee area stories that did. More about this growing story-telling homage event here.