Last week when you read “the only one,” you were no doubt left with the impression that my mother’s principal attribute was a deep sense of responsibility tempered with a splash of endearing vulnerability.
Perhaps some of you, though, caught the passing reference to her ability to poke fun at herself (and others) with a “woe is me” gesture reminiscent of French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt or her finger-to-thumb symbol of tiny violins playing a tragic song. Happily, my mother’s great appreciation for the weird and wonderful perfectly balanced her more serious qualities.
The note Mom left behind that inspired this column is not actually one she left for me. Every year for 13 years, our family has sponsored and organized the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt, a popular event held in honor of statehood day, October 31st. We choose a spot to hide a commemorative medallion and write 15 clues that are published online and in the capital city newspaper until someone solves the riddles and retrieves the prize. Mom was president of our organization’s board of directors and traditionally wrote the first clue. While preparing for this year’s hunt, my son found a slip of paper that was Mom’s unfinished working draft in 2012.
To the heroism of the military men and women — past present and future – this treasure hunt is respectfully dedicated. Don’t be the last —- —-, the shadowy past, unknown future and present.
Some words are crossed out on the note. Other lines are incomplete because she was still searching for just the right combination to pay tribute to the over-arching Nevada Day theme that year. What the note called to mind was that Mom had a definite affinity for the unconventional. Every year one of us would gently offer her a hand in adjusting her clue so that it met the accepted idea of meter, form and rhyme. My daughter’s handwriting is also on the little slip of paper because, apparently, she was the one trying to coach Mom that year. In the end, Mom agreed to cut down the number of lines, but she wouldn’t compromise on anything else. No matter how many times I’ve read the final version, I can identify no real rhythm or meter and certainly no rhyme. It is simple, to the point, and free form at its best.
To the heroism of
The military men and women
Past, present, and future
This hunt is respectfully dedicated
Free form was Mom’s personal rebellion against life’s sometimes rigid structure. Every spring and summer, I thank the good Lord for the example she set when I stroll slowly in my rose garden and take in the unique beauty that surrounds me. I had originally decided to emulate my favorite bouquet de jour and alternate a light yellow variety with ivory, but Mom was horrified. She yelped something akin to:
“Why in the world would you want to do anything as boring as that? Plant lots of different colors!”
Because I took her advice, the garden is a rainbow of red, pink, purple, orange, pumpkin, gold, yellow, and white. Some blooms are multi-colored and may start out a cool shade of lemon but, as they open, transform into a warm ruby sunset. My garden is a bold splash of vibrant color in the middle of the dull shades of tan and brown that dominate the high desert. And so, my friends, was my mother.
Long before I was born, she was wild, free and unconventional. She rode motorcycles when it was still an oddity to see a woman on a bike because, in the 1940s, nice girls didn’t ride. She ferried her friends around in jalopies with rumble seats and, in a jam, could repair them herself. After she passed away, an old friend wrote a letter of condolence and reminisced about breaking down in traffic in downtown Los Angeles and holding up the Red Car trolley. Mom hopped out of her stalled coupe, popped the hood, jimmied something with the long end of a rat-tail comb, hopped back in and fired up the engine. Everyone on the Red Car cheered.
No matter what life threw at her, she never lost her sense of humor or her zest for life. In the 1960s, I remember her striking a Hollywood glamour pose with a long, shiny, gold cigarette holder perched in her hand. I can imagine her, at that very moment, altering her voice to imitate film star Gloria Swanson and murmuring, “All right, Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close-up.” In the early 1970s, when seatbelts and vehicle safety were still emerging concepts, my younger brother and I squeezed into the narrow passenger seat of Mom’s 1952 MG so she could happily ferry us 250 miles across Oregon for a summer swimming meet. No radio; just the songs we sang at the top of our lungs. No air conditioning; just the wind whistling through the non-existent windows. It was magical.
Fast forward to the 1980s and Mom still knew how to have a good time. She bought a second-hand stuffed gorilla the size of a large child, named him Theo, dressed him in a shirt and pants, and let him routinely ride shotgun as she ran errands around town. For a local pioneer parade, she decked him out in a fringed vest and cowboy hat and propped him up on the float entered by the nursing home where she worked. It amazes me that she ever parted with that scruffy old beast.
Around the same time that Mom was audaciously carrying on her friendship with Theo, she also was enjoying her growing brood of grandchildren. With them, she could be as silly as she wanted without raising any eyebrows … not that she cared about such nonsense. One of my favorite memories from 1984 is my 60-year-old mother leading a giggling band of giddy grandchildren around and around the coffee table in her living room while wearing a multi-colored fright wig.
Nine years later, during a group trip to Universal Studios, she was the first in line to have her photo snapped against a green screen, later to be merged with a still from an old film. Others opted for romantic shots with their favorite leading man or asked to be dropped in beside fantasy film characters. Nothing so demure for Mom; she chose an action scene from Dracula that allowed her to show off her talent for melodrama.
Even after her body gave up on her, she didn’t give up on humor. She was always game for a moment of spontaneous gaiety.
Picture an 80-something woman riding in a wheelchair in a home improvement warehouse picking out accessories for our newly redecorated living room. Boxes of this and that completely cover her lap and the footrests of her chair, and plastic bags hang from the handles in back. There is absolutely no more room for one more thing, but she still wants the blood-red lampshade over there on that shelf. Moments later, she’s wearing it on her head, smiling from ear to ear as we make a spectacle of ourselves on the way to the checkout counter.
I hope I never lose the appreciation for the weird and wonderful, and for the bright and beautiful, that Mom instilled in me. Shortly after she died, my slightly serious brother asked my slightly silly sister and me, “Do you think you got your wild and crazy side from Mom, or do you think she got it from you?” My sister and I answered practically in unison, “No. We definitely got it from her.”
The 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt begins on Monday, October 6th. To say the least, it has been bittersweet working on this year’s clues without her unconventional contributions. As our family prepares to hide the medallion and kick off the search, we wonder how it will all turn out in her absence.
The 2014 hunt is
respectfully irreverently dedicated to her colorful memory.
To the bizarre this is dedicated
To humor and glee it is predicated
Here’s to Mom, our inspiration
And this last line doesn’t rhyme or fit the meter … because she would hate that