Thursday, March 19, 2009

My mom always told me I was a "surprise", not an "accident". That I just decided to exist, and that's why she knew I was here for a reason. Here is my reason.

mem·o·ry \ˈmem-rē, ˈme-mə-\ noun

plural mem·o·ries

Middle English memorie, from Anglo-French memoire, memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor mindful; akin to Old English gemimor well-known, Greek mermēra care, Sanskrit smarati he remembers

A person’s power to remember things;
The power of the mind to remember things;
The mind regarded as a store of things remembered;
The capacity of a substance to return to a previous state or condition after having been altered or deformed;

something remembered from the past; a recollection
the length of time over which people continue to remember a person or an event

I spent a great deal of time – more than one would ever spend doing such a thing – attempting to find the right definition of this word. And I spent a great deal of time debating whether or not I wanted to explore memory’s verb, remember, as the correct context of honoring my mother. It was then that I discovered that “memory” is very different from “remembering”; the former is eternal, unmoving, and the latter is a choice, something that can be stopped and started. Memory cannot be stopped; and it starts every second of our waking lives, beginning again and again until all moments overlap to create the latticework of memory we call life, a woven artifact that knows no destruction. Death sets it free: memory becomes the present, no longer obscured, a finished product that deserves celebration and admiration.

These definitions suited my goal. I liked the use of the word power, as our ability to look back with our minds eye, to feel with our minds fingers and taste with our minds tongues is like a superpower. I didn’t really appreciate this until the loss of my mother became imminent, and I began embracing every little moment that made me think of her. When I put on my costume for the opera last Thursday, I smiled, hearing my mother say “You look so wispy on stage! Eat some cake!” and , as I put on my maid’s headscarf, “You have such a beautifully shaped head!”. And while those are things she had said in the past, I knew she was saying them now. The past had become the present. The shift is a thing of power – one under which all of us who knew my mom can live our lives in peace, making our own active memories and letting them touch and harmonize with the memories generated by my mom.

What I also liked about this definition was the evocation of return, as to a previous state after being altered. None of us want to be remembered in our weakness, which is why my mom’s passing is also a gift to her memory. While she was beautiful, courageous, strong, and full of humor throughout her short battle with cancer, the real essence of her being thrived for 55 years and 5 months prior, which is the image in which she deserves to live forever.

Which brings me to the exploration of her life. As her only daughter, I feel a compulsion to become her, to understand every fiber of her life as intimately as my own. This is not a mammoth task – I am already halfway there, as I am made of her flesh and blood, every cell in my body being born of hers. Physically, I’ve inherited much for which I can thank her, notably her darling figure and wavy hair (not so much a blessing on humid days); and some for which I do not want to thank her, such as my rough, disgusting, calloused feet. But to become her, internally – this is what awaits me, and this process begins with memory. I am sorry that I can only honor her from my own perspective; but perhaps the eyes of a child are the most honest, the most intimate, for there is no place for façade or misinterpretation in parenting.

The etymology of memory is key : from Latin memoria, mindful. Mindful. Conscious or aware, as my friend the dictionary asserts. To always be conscious and aware of my mother scares me, as the fear of her image becoming amorphous in the library of my mind is forefront. But this is where her beauty as a woman and a parent begins: she trusted me, she trusted every person that she loved, with complete assurance. And now I know that she’s trusting that I will be mindful forever. Really, it’s a scenario not much different than numerous occasions throughout my childhood:

“Mom, I’m leaving.”


And a pause, while she drank her coffee, read her Coastal Living magazine, watched Keith Olberman on the perpetual light fixture in our house, MSNBC.

“Don’t you want to know when I’ll be back?”

“I know when you’ll be back.” She said, putting down her accessories, coming over to grab me and kiss my forehead. “I trust you!” And then she would kiss me again and go about her business of enjoying life, and I would leave, calm knowing that she trusted me to do whatever was best. And I always did.

And she’s doing the same thing, right now. I can hear her: “You’ll be fine, sweetie. Everything happens for a reason,” her eternal mantra that I believe with every cell of my brain, that has brought me the most serene comfort in this hardest of times. “And besides, I’m much more comfortable now, I have a great view, and I can see the orcas WHENEVER I want!”

With the trust entrusted to me by this woman, I know that I’ll be fine, just like I was every time in my childhood, and I know that she is fine, better. It is my duty to share this peace with my family should they ever lose sight of it; for as I become her, I never will.

And, my favorite thing about my mother: she truly, TRULY did not care about what anyone thought. Perhaps this is why she left us early, knowing that something better awaited her, and she wasn’t about to stick around just because people thought she should. Especially since she gave us so much as a mother, wife, and friend, she knew deep down that her gifts would allow us to live on happily with her memory.

Her extreme confidence was no clearer than when she wore (upon numerous occasions) her heinous, yellower than the sun garden clogs to pick me up from school. Or when she walked into my French class, freshman year of high school, to bring me a cake for our class party, the day after her Lasex surgery, wearing – can I even say it without cringing? – a gargantuan EYE PATCH and acting as if nothing were at all unusual. Things to which I would always look at her, an incredulous expression on my face, and say – “SERIOUSLY.” And she would do nothing but laugh. “ I don’t care,” she would say, and I knew that she meant it – not an ounce of vanity. Just the truth. I am now realizing how extraordinarily fortunate I am to have been raised by a woman of this caliber, of this outstanding confidence, as all too often a mother’s insecurities detract from the full flowering of her children’s strength.

Not only did she parent with confidence but she gave us a model of her independent self to follow. Only a woman who dared to practice law in the 70s and 80s in a swamp of testosterone, only a woman who worked as the one of the first white teachers in an inner city elementary school in the south, only a woman who gave it all up with the most graceful pride to sit on the floor and play with her babies could harbor this self-assurance. As my career as a performer takes off, and I face critiques and demands daily, I am ever more blessed. From her I will continue to learn that my self-image can be whatever it wants to be – I answer to no one.

It is in this confidence that I am able to deal with the loss of my mother – because she gave me myself, she blessed me with the ability to deal with hardship. This, with my father’s incomparable optimism and his glorious sense of humor, both of which I can proudly claim inheritance, equip me for whatever the world will throw at me next. In my mother, I saw first hand what a human being is like when they have embraced loss; my childhood was peppered with stories and thoughts of her own father, whom she lost at an age not much older than my current age. But never did she speak of him without a smile, and a truly joyful grin at that. When I looked in the mirror this morning, smiling at the thought of my mom, I saw that exact same grin come on my face when I pictured her finally reunited with her beloved father. Her and I, mirror images of each other; now both spending our futures with our daddies.

And memory – the length of time over which people continue to remember – is poignantly ironic. If a length of time is continued , it loses length and becomes forever. Forever is the length of time I prefer to allot to my mother’s memory. Forever is quite a long time to try and fit into a single written tribute, which is why I could only start with a mere definition of the task ahead of me. So consider my entire life a tribute to this woman, as every step I take will be one she’s taking in heaven, and every song, every opera that I sing from now on is sung because I know she can hear music up there just a little bit better than talking.

When you look at me, see Janet Lane.
When you talk to me, hear her.
When you hug me, feel her; when you taste the food I cook, taste hers.
And when you hear me sing, please see her smiling. I won’t do it for any other reason.