Passing the Mantle

Last Thursday was the first anniversary of my mother’s passing.

All day long I toyed with what I could or “should” say on social media. I thought about all the tributes and photos that people place on Facebook at such a time, all the comments from friends and acquaintances alike who never met my mother, but who would in all probability post something kind or predictable.

I guess I’m just not a Facebook person, and frankly, I don’t know that I will ever be one of those people who advertise what they were thinking, eating, doing – although I acknowledge that for people of other generations, that is a perfectly good way to stay in touch.

However, since Mom’s passing, I have realized that I am now a Senior Citizen and therefore not compelled to act like a Millenial, Gen-X-er or Boomlet.  I am a BOOMER, and proud of it, and I still say VCR and ‘surf the web,’ which, according to http://www.dictionary.com, are several of the ten words that will show my age.  If I were they, I’d be less concerned about advertising my age than I would be to not recognize that ‘surf the web,’ ‘wet blanket,’ ‘Dear John letter,’ and ‘long distance call,’ are phrases and not simply words (of which the article declares there were supposed to be only ten).

But my sister ‘picked up the mantle’ – another obsolete phrase straight from the Bible (2 Kings 2:1-25) and wrote a tribute to Mom, for which I am grateful. She wrote a terrific blog post on Travels with Buttercup  that captures the essence of my wonderful, and dearly departed mother and best friend.  I can trust Andrea to remember a lot of things that I’ve frankly forgotten. I don’t have a memory disorder, just a disorderly memory that at times is better equipped to recite academic facts than recall family events. (Once, I swore to her that I wasn’t at a function only to have her pull out a photo and challenge me with, “If you weren’t there, then who is that?”)

She’s also better at taking photos and sharing them than I, at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. (Are you old enough to know that one?) She excels at finishing huge projects like patchwork quilts and enormous painted murals and furniture, and as for telling jokes and stories…after decades I can still start laughing when I recall her Timbuktu joke, although I couldn’t retell it to save my life except for the punch line that I am not about to quote here. (If you are interested, I think you can find it in one of her blogs.)

Hillary and Andrea on bikes

Hillary (left) and Andrea

So the fact that she pulled out old photos to trigger her memory and her muse on a day when all I could do was weep, was greatly appreciated. Nice to know my kid sister has my back! (Do folks still say that, and is the word, ‘folks’ still used by anyone outside of remote areas of the country?)

How did I mark my mother’s anniversary? I raced around all day, but in the evening, I sat quietly at the dining room table and had a little ‘tea party’ to commemorate all the cups of tea Mom and I shared over a lifetime. I brewed P.G.Tips, her favorite brand, and drank it in a lovely English bone china cup and saucer. The radio was tuned to our classical music station, W-QXR, just as it always was, although infrequently turned on at night as she usually headed to bed around 7:30 PM.

As I listened to the Chopin nocturnes and waltzes on ‘Reflections from the Keyboard’ I thought of how my mother always yearned to play the piano, and took great delight when my sister Andrea would take her lessons, practice, have concerts, and accompany the singing at our Sunday School. I think Mama vicariously played through Andrea’s fingers, whereas I never took to the study of music as I did to the listening of it – and singing to it – even when there were no words.

I recall long phone calls with her in the early years when my children were small or in school, when we lived twenty miles away from one another. There we’d be, phone in hand, music tuned to the same station, making cup after cup of tea and talking about our lives, our dreams, her successes, heartaches and losses. After my adolescent turmoil had passed, I learned that I had a pretty incredible and interesting mother. I came to appreciate her resilience, creativity and innovation, her indomitable spirit, fortitude, optimism and childlike innocence.

I now adore classical music in a way that I never thought possible as a young woman. The past forty years hold so many memories associated with the great symphonies and operas shared with my mother.  We’d challenge one another to identify the composer or piece of music, or the era, or interpret the emotions it elicited, or discover the story behind the man who wrote it.

Each New Years’ Eve we would celebrate the ‘Classical Countdown’ and I’d conduct an imaginary orchestra with a chopstick for a baton as we sat around the kitchen table and our tiny radio with its excellent reception while others watched the Time Square New Year’s celebration on television.  I’d sing arias or pantomime ballet and she’d laugh with delight as we snacked on savory and sweet goodies and sipped sparkling cider out of champagne glasses.

So exactly a year after her passing, at 9 PM, as I tearfully thought about the last moments I shared with her, I heard Alec Baldwin announce the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. The program included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” conducted by some of the greatest maestros of the modern era, including Arturo Toscanini, who was once a neighbor of my young mother.

My ears perked up. I felt as though my parents were speaking to me through the radio, confirming their continued presence in my life. These two pieces have a special significance for me, and even though they are played more often than almost any other, I still love them unconditionally.

Beethoven’s Fifth was the first symphony Mom and I enjoyed together on the phone. If you know this piece of music, as I was just beginning to appreciate, you will remember that several times it seems that the last note has been played, only to have it start up again and again. Whether Beethoven conceived it as a joke or because he couldn’t figure out how to end it, I know not.  We always laughed in later years when it came on the radio.

The Dvorak 9th Symphony was a piece I always associated with Dad as it was somewhat ‘modern’ and symbolized to me the families of immigrants who, like his parents, had come from a country filled with oppression to a New World.  The bit of melody from it known as “Going Home” played spontaneously on my CD on the morning of Mom’s passing. I took it as a message that Dad was waiting for his love on the other side, and it wouldn’t be long. That gave me such comfort.

I think this turn of events was a message too, dare I say from my Mom and Dad? It is, to me, a confirmation that death is not the end, and I am never separated from those I love.Hillary Mom Dad

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