My mom died last week. I won’t talk here about how she died, but I do want to talk about how she lived. These are the remarks I made during her remembrance:
My mother, Joanne, was all about that bling. Anything and everything shiny. Her hair, her makeup, her clothes were always 110% on-point. She had style and always looked good and the effort she put into it that meant she was on her own timetable for any event. She would be ready to go when she was ready to go.
She wore what she liked, what made her feel good. She kept her hair colored and defied convention by keeping it long well into her grandmother years. Her outfits and shoes and purses were so stylish … and sometimes outrageous … she wore black leather pants and a leopard print blouse to meet her first grandchild. I have a close friend from college who came for Thanksgiving for many years, and the highlight for her was seeing what Joanne was wearing. In the years she couldn’t come visit, I would have to text a photo. And, big note here — Mom never paid full price. She was all about those sales to get that bling.
Owning your style and being comfortable in what you like is something my mom taught me. She did not give a F-U-know-what, what anyone else thought.
She took care of her body, inside and out. So, my mom did not allow my sister and I much sweets. If there were any, it was basically rationed. We had Oreos go stale trying to conserve them, because there was no telling when she would let us have them again.
I remember desperately wanting Hamburger Helper as a kid. Everyone else I knew got to have it and the tv ads were non stop. Nope, my mom would cook full meals most nights — chicken, rice, a vegetable, pasta, always a salad, that sort of thing. She didn’t like to slave in the kitchen, but she insisted on good food.
That was so she would have the energy to go to the gym or do her living room step aerobics. Always when I wanted to watch something. I can still hear that bouncy, repetitive 80s synth music of that VHS tape. As if she needed MORE exercise after all the vacuuming cardio!
That was another thing she taught me: Take care of yourself.
She was always beautiful, and certainly did not look her age, ever. (Wanna know her secret? Moisturizer, sunscreen, and most important, eye cream).
But there was more to her than skin-deep beauty.
Joanne was not a cookie-baking-kind of mom or grandmother. She showed her love and care in a different way.
One was education. From my earliest memories, she made it clear to me and my sister that we would go to college. It wasn’t an opportunity she had until a little later in life. She went back to school when I was in the third grade, at age 38. And when I objected because I wanted mommy around to be at my beck and call, she said to me very gently but directly: You are an important part of my life, but you are not my whole life.
I learned at that moment that she was a whole person, not just my mother. That’s a big lesson for a kid! And going to college for her was something she always wanted. It’s important to follow a dream.
It took her four years to earn her associates degree in chemistry. After dinner, she would spread out her books and notes on the three orange-carpeted steps between the kitchen and living room — I don’t know why there, probably to keep an eye on whatever we were doing. So she would be there after dinner and late into the night doing calculus. Could YOU do calculus now?? — All while we were blaring MTV or yakking on the phone, or both.
When she took a psychology course, my sister and I became unwitting lab rats. She started replacing salt with lemon juice at the dinner table, and admitted to me only a couple years ago that there was some conditioning experiment in that, I don’t remember exactly what, but I’m pretty sure that to this day my sister still likes lemon juice on her cooked broccoli.
My mom was smart, she valued learning, and she worked hard. Worked her ass off to get top grades and that college degree while wrangling two pre-teens and keeping a whole house immaculate.
That’s another thing I learned from my mom — be smart. I mean, when we brought home report cards, there were no cash prizes for every A, no ice cream sundaes. No rewards for doing what you were supposed to do, and “A’s” were what we were supposed to do. She would look over my grades, sniff, and ask why I had a B in some subject (or a C in math). Ugh, she was so good at math, and could never understand how I, a word-lover, didn’t understand math.
In fact the full lesson she said, when I was just a young teen, wasn’t just BE SMART, it was this: Do not ever pretend to be dumb. You are smart, so be smart. I think maybe it was dating advice, but it is really just good life advice.
And I know that for all the high expectations, she was incredibly proud of us. I saw it whenever someone I worked with as an adult would meet my mom and tell her some nice thing about me. Mom beamed.
She knew her kids were smart and was thrilled when other people noticed. And she just wouldn’t accept anything less than excellence.
That includes keeping a spotless house.
When I tell you that I could walk into her house at any time and literally eat off of her kitchen floor, that is no exaggeration. Her home always sparkled. Sometimes it was like living in a museum — there was a whole room of furniture that was covered in plastic that we basically were never allowed to touch. Even with the plastic on. (And yes, she still has that furniture to this day and at about 45 years old, it still looks brand new.)
We had a wooden picnic table in the garage that I stained it for her one spring. The stain went on foamy. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it — I had stirred it or whatever. So I called her out to come see. And she said, “Oh, that’s just soap. Don’t worry about it, keep going.” Yeah, so from all the vigorous cleaning with a soapy sponge, the liquid in the stain was activating all the soap dried down in the wood. A PICNIC TABLE. FOR OUTDOORS.
She was always wiping down something with a wad of paper towel in her hand. More than one high school friend of my sister messaged or posted to say one of their memories of my mom was being on the phone with my sister and then my mom picking up another extension to clean the phone. Which she did daily. It made this awful crackly rough noise and Tiff would yell MOOOOMMMMM, but she went on polishing that phone and then you would hear “clunk” as she slammed it down when she was done. To move on to cleaning something else.
Yet another thing mom taught me — keep your things clean and cared for. I joked for years that I would bury her with a wad of paper towel in her hand. And, yes, I did.
Joanne is the very definition of the Shakespeare quote, from a Mid-Summer’s Night Dream:
Though she be but little, she is fierce.
My mom was not someone to be trifled with, and was often underestimated. She was a first-generation Sicilian American and could very much be that stereotype of a hot head. (I totally got that gene, and, despite being blonde, so did my sister). But it was because she had a deep sense of justice, and was not timid about speaking up. She was calm and polite until pushed just too far, then all bets were off. As were the gloves.
This also meant she was a yeller. In a way, anyone with Italian/Sicilian relatives know that most conversations, whether one-on-one or in a group, were less spoken and more yelled. It’s just the way it is! So it wasn’t a very far leap for her to go from asking nicely to screaming “TiffanyANDTerra” as all one word. Mom and I were chatting about this a few years ago, about growing up and parenting in the 80s. And she said, completely serious, and I quote:
“We yelled at our kids and took valium. It was the 80s.”
I mean, yeah, my personal recollection and current understanding is that teenagers generally don’t seem to hear or act unless you’re pushed to shouting like a lunatic — which we certainly did push mom there. Sometimes so far her voice would crack yelling at us, and we’d be like, “Jeez, Mom, calm down…” … while we finally jumped up and did whatever it was she had asked for 52 times.
But she advocated for us just as loudly. In fact, she told me often “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
So that’s another thing mom taught me: Have a big voice.
I could go on and on. A million great, funny stories, like her questionable driving skills (she could barely see over the steering wheel, and loved it when I got my license so I could chauffeur her around). When I moved into my house 20 years ago there was a huge tree just at the end and edge of my driveway. Bets were made on how long it would take her to clip it, since at that time she had a count of at least 5 side mirrors broken off from garage mishaps. But so much time went by and it never happened. Years later, maybe 10, I laughingly told her about the bet. And she said, Oh, yeah, I hit that tree one of the first few times I was there.
The night she jumped the curb and screeched to a stop outside Dunkin Donuts. Then telling the stunned counter guy inside that she was driving a bunch of girl scouts to Canada the next day.
Jumping another curb (again, couldn’t really see over the steering wheel!) at a McDonald’s with a carful of teens who thought that was the most hysterical thing in the world. The car got a flat and my mom asked to use a phone at McDonald’s. Some random guy overheard and offered to help, or drive her somewhere or something like that. Clearly hitting on her. Until she gestured to the gaggle of rowdy teens with her, and he backed away…
My mom just had crazy stuff happen to her. Like the time when she and her husband were on one of their beach vacations, taking a long stroll following the shoreline and found themselves walking along a rocky path next to a … nude beach. And there were … nude people walking towards them on this path. And my mom was not sure-footed. And that is the story of how my mom once fell on a naked woman.
She never got mad about these silly things happening, or being the engine of the joke. She laughed and laughed along with us whenever we told these stories. Another lesson: Be part of the fun.
While who I have grown into is different from my mom in a lot of ways, who I am is because of her. Because of all she taught me.
So, remember: Be like Joanne.
Own your style
Take care of yourself
Have a big voice
Be part of the fun
Thanks, Mom, for everything.