Sunday, October 16, 2011

Life Bites

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would be sixty-six today if pancreatic cancer had not claimed her life almost nine years ago. Last week, I got a special reminder of her from my oldest friend, Katherine.
Eleven years ago, I threw Katherine a wedding shower. I sent everyone a recipe card and asked them to bring her a “recipe” for a happy marriage. Katherine recently found these among her things and thought I might like to see the one that my mom brought.

When I first opened Katherine’s note and pulled out the recipe card, the first thing that struck me was that I recognized my mother’s handwriting instantly. It took me only a few seconds to realize what it was Katherine had sent, but in those few seconds I had one of those surreal moments where I was transported back to a time when my mother lived, where I saw that handwriting on a semi-regular basis in cards and letters. In the years since she died, I have occasionally found one of these notes or some of her writing in the margin of one of her books. It always feels, just for a second, as if she’s written me something from somewhere beyond death, even if it’s not even directed at me.

This recipe was no different. The fact that it was a recipe was kind of funny, because one of the things I often complained to my mother about was that whenever I asked her for a recipe, she often couldn’t really give me one, because she just made things from memory, never the exact same way from one time to the next. My favorite example of this was when I asked her for a recipe for her Thanksgiving cornbread dressing. Her instructions included to add broth to my cornbread until “squishy but not liquidy.” Right.

Anyway, this recipe is for “Life Bites.” I have no idea if Mom intended the pun she created, but knowing her, it’s likely that she did. Here is the recipe.

Life Bites

Time required: Eternity
Serves: All

Ingredients (in proportions as needed):

Directions: Combine together for best results. Use as needed each one and all together when clouds arrive. Remember always that love is something you do no matter how you feel. And also that you are never alone. God will help you. Read Matthew 6:31-33* if consistency becomes too thin.

Store in your hearts.

Will remain fresh indefinitely.

This was my mother’s proposed recipe for a marriage, but it applies equally well as a recipe for living. The one ingredient that is conspicuously missing to me is humility. This is not surprising, given that this was one of my mother’s biggest blind spots. It’s not that she was overly proud—in fact, she suffered from severe self-criticism and low self-esteem. But these manifested as a near-inability to ever admit that she was wrong.  And of course, my version of faith is different from hers, but I think it serves me equally well. 

Among other things, my mother was a passionate, loving, intellectual, spirited, brave, and deeply wounded woman. She was very good at giving others advice but not so good at following it herself. Reading this recipe, I am both inspired and saddened. Inspired because she was certainly able to visualize the necessary ingredients for a life well-lived as she offered these wise words to a much younger woman embarking on a new journey in life. Saddened because she was generally unable to follow her own directions and ultimately died sad, unfulfilled, and lacking deep connections with those she loved most.

Today, I celebrate the day my mother was born. I honor her memory—all of it, both the ideals she believed in and her inability ever really to live them the way she would have liked. When I first learned that I was going to be a mother, I promised myself and my as-yet-unknown child that I would always endeavor to embrace everything that was wonderful about my mother and avoid everything about her that she would have changed herself if she had only known how. As I continue to learn how to mother both living and dead children, as I keep trying not just to survive Hudson’s death but to really live in its wake, I renew those promises.  I will try to heed my mother’s advice, even though she couldn’t.

Life bites, but love, forgiveness, faith, hope, thanksgiving, joy, humor, kindness, endurance, persistence, praise, understanding, and of course, humility, will see us through.

Thanks for the lesson, Mom. It came at a good time.  I love you and miss you. 

*Matthew 6:31-33:  “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”


  1. Mandy,

    What a beautiful, honest post. I think that the promise you made when you knew you were to become a mother, to embrace your mom's good qualities and also to learn from her shortcomings, is one you have lived out beautifully -- both with Hudson and now with Jackson. And I think the aspirational recipe for unconditional love written by your mother lists ingredients which are found abundantly in your own marriage.

    Last week my father would have been 67, and even now, twenty years after his death, i often wonder if he would have been proud of me, of my life's choices. I wonder what advice he would give me as I make difficult decisions and try to do the right thing. So often I long for that 'fatherly' advice I've missed my whole life.

    I wonder if you ponder similar questions about your mom, if you wonder how she would consider your parenting skills in the face of all you've walked through since you became a mother. If you do, I think I speak for so many who have borne witness to your strength when I say that your mother would look at your life, at your testimony of unconditional love and she would be so proud of you. I think she might have even learned a thing or two from you, her daughter, about being a good mother. I know I have.

    Much love to you, Ed, the turtle and the penguin, as always.

  2. Again and again I am struck by how well you understand people, how insightful you are about them, and how articulate you are in describing them. That is a gift. I think it also shines through in how well you are able to describe your journey of grief, which I know is a light to many grieving people and those who love them.

  3. I remember going to your house once-I think it was after volleyball practice. Before practice we'd eaten pizza, then headed to your house for a study session of some description-likely Modern European-and your mother made us these monstrosities, these sandwiches piled so high with meat and cheese that I could have sworn that she was an apprentice at the Carnegie Deli.

    I was stuffed already, having eaten pizza before practice, but Caroline wasn't really someone I said no to. I ate the whole thing. I don't mess around when it comes to good food.

    When I went home afterwards, my dad had made spaghetti for dinner. He didn't cook often, and I felt obligated to eat, wanting him to know I appreciated his efforts.

    I'll spare you the details of the aftermath of three substantial meals in the span of four hours, but the results weren't pretty.

    I'm reminded of this story as it's your mom's birthday and you were sent a recipe she had written in her hand, and by her hand I was fed on many occasions. I always felt welcome in your home, was always struck by Caroline's opinions, her dynamism, her energy. She was a force, no doubt about that.

    She'd be proud of you and all that you are.

    Love you to today and always.

  4. Maybe the words in the recipe were not only her advice for a bride to be, but also her desires for what she herself wanted more of for herself, even though she was lacking in some areas. I agree with Lindsey- I think your mom would have learned a lot form you as you became a mother yourself. Perhaps she is learning....
    Sometimes I look at myself and (gasp) my own shortcomings... and the biggest fear I have is fucking things up with my living kids. I really hope that when they look back at all of my shortcomings, that the good will outweigh the bad. I'm working on it... ;o)