Happy Mother’s Day from Sylvia & Erma!
I don’t know what time she was born. I guess I could dig out her birth certificate and find out easily enough. To me, my mother was born the day I came into the world. Obviously, she had a life “B.K.”(before K.Morgan), but I didn’t know her then. All I know of that woman who became my mother, both the little girl who wore braids and gingham and the young, blond-haired teen who played the drums before it was cool for a girl to play a full kit, has been conveyed to me through others’ recollections; her own accounts as she would share an anecdote from her past with the slightly or even poorly veiled purpose of teaching a lesson (Mom was not subtle in getting her points across especially as she neared death); and the photos that I have and covet, still kept in the rubbermaid container that she bequeathed to me before her passing and after my childhood home was cleaned out and sold more than a decade ago. And what connects all of the snapshots, real and those that I have taken in my mind’s eye which remain guarded like priceless treasure, are her eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, it follows and must be that my mother, B.K. and always, was and remains one of the most beautiful, trusting, and trusted souls God could have offered this world.
Most of us, not all – and I say that without one iota of judgment – love our mothers and have been loved by our mothers. I have been accused of worshipping mine. In fact, my mother often reminded me, especially as she closed in on fate, that she was indeed human, flawed like the rest of us, so she too should be allowed to make mistakes. She would often say that the one bad rap that mothers had to endure was that they were held to a higher standard than everyone else on the planet! Now that I’m a mother, I admittedly understand this so much better. I digress though.
I did worship my mother, something she never demanded or expected, but it happened nonetheless. How did it happen? Ah, that’s the question. The trusting and trusted eyes! My mother had xray vision, vision that led her to know exactly what another human needed. To many and certainly to her family, this special sense (some call it a sixth sense while others deem it intuition) was who she was and how she lived her life at the very core. And while she may have regretted not doing all of the things she had hoped to do before she died, I do believe she lived a purposeful life and her legacy is an honorable one. Her legacy? Her gift? She left it to everyone who had the honor and pleasure of looking into her eyes. My mother made those who crossed her path feel important, no matter their lot in life. She gave others hope. She found and saw something redeeming in everyone. She wasn’t oblivious to the harshness or evils of the world. She was far from naïve. She was perhaps not even optimistic. Mom was hopeful though; and I do believe there is a big difference between optimism and hope. I think, actually I know, that her trusting and trusted eyes became reflective of that difference.
I’m babbling a bit because as we all know the totality of a life cannot be put adequately into words. Indeed, my mother’s life cannot. Her legacy can though. Hope. She believed in me. She believed in my son, the only grandchild she actually witnessed enter the world. (That connection proved stronger for them than I could have every imagined.) And if you had the good fortune of meeting her, befriending her, working for or with her, she believed in you. That belief, the depth of it in those trusting and trusted eyes, keeps me hopeful to this day and through each day. I don’t believe that life is perfect and I’m far from thinking everything will turn out well in the end. However, I am hopeful.
On her birthday, I am going to trust her and her legacy. I’ll celebrate her life buying her favorite purple blooms, reminiscing about how she and my father captivated wedding crowds with their dance moves, and thinking of my son’s smile, the one he wears when he recounts either a memory he made with his champion, Nana. Her legacy of love and hope endures.
Thanks, Mom. And finally you will be happy to hear that I’ve come to realize that you never wanted to be worshipped; you wanted to be loved. You were. You are. You always will be.
Hey, you! Yes, you! Call your mother today. And when and if you have the chance to see her in person, squeeze her tightly—from me and my mom with love.
2021. All rights reserved. “The Adventures of Sylvia and Erma” overfiftyandfine.com
“Where have you been hiding today after your long, productive night of writing?” Erma inquired.
With both a tear and a smile, Sylvia thoughtfully replied, “I was pleasantly spending time in the room of Remember.”
“The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
I know. I know. Most of you are probably thinking that because we are a month into summer, Sylvia and Erma are preparing to rant about swimwear, body image expectations, and disappointments in both. Nope. Not at all. While Erma has accepted that the hourglass form she once coveted has erupted into collagenless dunes, so much so that she avoids the mirror for anything other than lipstick application, Sylvia is only mildly disappointed in her glow this year. Though a little less than satisfied with the topography that this past year has mapped onto her flesh given the angst and havoc being wreaked globally (let alone her corner of the world), Sylvia is not sizing herself up like that. At all. She’s measuring life in memories and moments– not inches or centimeters. Sylvia finds herself missing little things, simple tidbits that she thought would be a part of her life but that she hasn’t experienced at all yet. She also laments huge unfathomable and immeasurable losses this year. A tape measure, a scale, a barometer? No, none of those will suffice, even superficially.
Erma: How can you miss something you’ve never known, Sylvia? Why do you torture yourself with wanting the unknown? Remember, the grass isn’t always greener.
Sylvia: Don’t you know by now that I can’t give up. I won’t give up. It’s not a matter of the grass being greener. It’s not even that I want morsels of life that are out-of-reach. What I’m missing are pieces of life that I eagerly anticipated, those which I thought I’d have to look back on by now. I don’t miss memories of times or places I have visited. I miss those memories that I thought I would have made by now- that I should have made by now.
Erma: See, that’s the problem. You set a schedule, a timeline for your happiness-years ago- never factoring in life changes.
Sylvia: That’s just plain silly. Of course, I anticipated changes. I knew I’d graduate. I knew I’d work. I knew I’d become a mother and a wife and a million other things. I factored change into the life equation as a variable.
Erma: Ah, there it is. That was the mistake. Well, maybe not a mistake but surely a misguided assumption. Change isn’t a variable at all. Change is a constant. Everything else is a variable!
Sylvia: Working. Motherhood. Marriage. Relationships. They have consistently made up my days. They most certainly have felt like constants- cores of my being.
Erma: I fear you’ve really missed out on how to assess your decades or even if those years need to be examined, quantified, and qualified, my friend. I never thought you quite so naïve.
Sylvia: I don’t think it is naivete at all. I simply never factored in death – the demise of relationships and final goodbyes of those I loved deepest. I say “simply” but it’s anything and everything but simple.
Those moments and memories that Sylvia feels she’s missed out on? They are not inconsequential, but what she has learned and continues to navigate is they aren’t everything. She has made choices, set priorities, and picked her figs from the tree as they have been dangled or dropped before her. Perhaps what Sylvia feels she has missed in life is not lacking at all. She has time, not to regret or reshape memories but to make more. She is finally realizing that life is not one tree with many branches; life comprises many trees from many different orchards.
Erma: Stop trying to measure. Inches. Centimeters. Pounds. Barrels. Bushels. Baskets. So many ways to quantify everything. And I’d rather believe that life is not made to be measured at all, not by what we have or what we don’t have. Life is meant to be savored- in totality- after all or most of the fruit has fallen or been picked from the tree. You’ve eaten the plump and juicy, tasted the bruised and rotten parts, and made a whole lot of juice.
Stop measuring. Squeeze out the juice. Press on.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Sylvia: Happy birthday, my dear! Older and wiser!
Erma: I don’t know about wiser, but I’m hopeful!
I don’t know what time she was born. I guess I could dig out her birth certificate and find out easily enough. To me, my mother was born the day I came into the world. Obviously, she had a life “b.k.”(before Kay), but I didn’t know her then. All I know of that woman who became my mother, both the little girl who wore braids and gingham and the young, blond-haired teen who played the drums before it was cool for a girl to play the drums, has been conveyed to me through others’ recollections, her own accounts as she would share an anecdote from her past with the slightly veiled purpose of teaching a lesson, and the photos that I have. And what connects all of the snapshots, real and those that I’ve taken in my mind’s eye which remain guarded like priceless treasure, is her eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, it follows and must be that my mother, b.k. and always, was and remains one of the most beautiful, trusting, and trusted souls God could have offered this world.
Most of us, not all, love our mothers and have been loved by our mothers. I’ve been accused of worshipping mine. (In fact, my mother often reminded me, especially as she neared her last days, that she was indeed human, flawed like the rest of us, so she too should be allowed to make mistakes.) She would often say that the one bad rap that mothers had to endure was that they were held to a higher standard than everyone else on the planet! Now that I’m a mother, I admittedly understand this so much better. I digress though. I did worship my mother, something she never demanded or expected, but it happened nonetheless. How did it happen? Ah, that’s the question. The trusting and trusted eyes!
My mother had xray vision, vision that led her to know exactly what another human needed. To many and certainly to her family, this special sense- some call it a sixth sense while others deem it intuition- was who she was and how she lived her life at the very core. And while she may have regretted not doing all the things she had hoped to do before she died, I do believe she lived a purposeful life and her legacy is an honorable one. Her legacy? Her gift? She left it to everyone who had the honor and pleasure of looking into her eyes. My mother made those who crossed her path feel important, no matter their lot in life. She gave others hope. She found and saw something redeeming in everyone. She wasn’t oblivious to the harshness or evils of the world. She wasn’t naïve. She wasn’t optimistic. Mom was hopeful. I do believe there is a big difference between optimism and hope, and I think her trusting and trusted eyes became reflective of that difference.
I’m babbling a bit because as we all know the totality of a life cannot be put adequately into words. Indeed, my mother’s life cannot. Her legacy can though. Hope. She believed in me. She believed in her grandson. And if you had the good fortune of meeting her, befriending her, working for or with her, she believed in you. That belief – those trusting and trusted eyes- keep me hopeful. I don’t believe that life is perfect and I’m far from thinking everything will turn out well in the end. However, I am hopeful.
On her birthday, I’m going to trust her and her legacy. I’ll go to celebrate her life with my dad today, and in that gift alone, I’m offered hope.
Thanks, Mom. And I’ve come to realize that you never wanted to be worshipped; you wanted to be loved. You were. You are. You always will be.
Out on the deck and under the umbrella, before the real heat of this August day, Sylvia wondered. Would it be more of the same? Coffee, household chores, lists. Or would she experience something new today? Perhaps a first of the best kind? As she gazed out into the woods behind the house, her curiosity wasn’t piqued by the panoramic view of the landscape that had recently changed in her life. From the quiet, seamless lines of blue where sky meets water on the cove to the lush drapes of greenery that fortressed her now, the change marked a beginning and an end. Or an end and a beginning. And that is where she stopped. The order of things had her baffled momentarily, yet with the very next sip from the sweaty tumbler of iced water, she was struck by a concept that she had never really thought about until that very second. Beginnings and endings are always, always, always firsts.
Sylvia: Firsts are daunting, anxiety-ridden, and paralyzing, Erma.
Erma: Firsts are exciting, hopeful, and motivating, my friend. Just think. When something unpleasant ends, it’s the last of it. That leaves you open and eager for the next step, a new lease, a new beginning.
Sylvia: I get that, but it also signifies the end of an era, a final point in the history of a relationship or process. That’s sad, wouldn’t you agree?
Erma: Sylvia, stop. Not every morsel of life needs to be qualified as happy or sad. It’s not that simple–or in your case, that complicated. Some times, most times in fact, firsts and lasts just happen. It’s not until you look back and you are in the thick or thin of another life experience that you can even begin to really define the impact of a beginning or an end.
Sylvia: Okay, for once I’m going to sit back with my mouth shut and let you explain. At this very second, every first of my life is flashing before my eyes and as I see each of them again, I’m becoming more and more distraught. Trapped somewhere between nostalgia and progress.
Erma: Jesus, Sylvia, it’s now afternoon, and we’re just beginning. No pun intended. I’m going to grab something out of your wine fridge. So, clear your mind, and don’t think until I get back. Seriously. Do not think at all. Do not deliberate, contemplate, and above all, do not ruminate. I’m going to share with you the best and worst of firsts over a nicely chilled Pinot Gris today. You’ll see. You can’t catalog the moments of your life as happy or sad, or as beginnings or endings for that matter. You can only define each moment as a first, for better or worse.
Firsts are when and where life takes place. All of it. Every moment. Some actions and events seem repetitive, and indeed they are! That does not mean that they aren’t different though. Two moments in time are never identical. Erma learned this powerful tidbit over the last seven-plus decades, and that fact alone imparted credibility to her words, even as she explained how brushing her teeth each morning had become firsts for her. She illustrated how she had gone from grinning ear-to-ear as she brushed her pearly whites each day of her teens and twenties to watching a reflection of a waning smile as she lost enamel and gained wine and coffee stains in her forties and fifties. And now, as she thought about those decades of brushing, Erma introduced more examples of firsts. Caps, crowns, root canals, veneers, and partials. “See, Sylvia. There are no instant replays or do-overs. Each brushing is and was a first. Each day is a first.” All of this seemed obvious and a bit comical as Erma so often tried to weave a lesson with just a dash of whimsy. It should have been clear, but it wasn’t to Sylvia. Until she and Erma mulled it over and hashed it out, Sylvia hadn’t considered that firsts represent both the best and worst of life.
Through smiles and intermingled tears of joy and sorrow (none of which either woman could attribute to the rich, sweet, golden elixir or to the fact that they had consumed the entire bottle of it as they indulged in one of their ordinary chats), Sylvia sat looking out on the verdant scenery she now called home. She reflected on those singular firsts which transported her from joyful and full of hope and pride one minute to melancholy and brimming with fear and guilt the next. First friend. First sleepover. First move. First date. First kiss. First one to travel abroad. First “D” and “F”. First one to graduate from college. All her firsts. She paused, took a breath in, and then exhaled. She began again. His first breath. His first tooth. His first word. His first step. His first tumble. His first day of school. His first heartbreak. His first paying job. His first apartment. She beamed for a split second. She hesitated, looked out to the woods beyond the fence, and started again. The first time she heard the word cancer. The first night without her. The first morning they woke up to her empty room. The first time he left the water running. The first time he forgot she had passed. The first time he couldn’t remember her name. The first time he needed to be fed. The first time he looked at her and somehow spoke more clearly than ever with his eyes because the words were no longer there. All firsts. Each and every one was the very last first of its kind. The best and worst of firsts, indeed.
Sylvia (sighing) : I get it now, Erma. It’s how you look at it and what you learn from it.
Erma: That’s right. You’ve got it, my dear. Love it or hate it? That’s not the point. Appreciate it all. Every first is your last first of that kind, with that person, in that place, at that moment. Beginning or ending.
How ironic that one tiny, fleeting moment can fill the heart, and that the resulting fullness renders one nearly weightless!
Savoring moments like velvety spoonfuls of an ice-cream sundae, Sylvia and Erma discover the key to successful dieting.
Being happy. Zero calories.
Erma: Sylvia, you can’t measure the immeasurable.
Sylvia: Thank goodness, Erma. That explains why I’m at my lightest when I’m at my happiest.
I don’t believe in heaven. Not as a destination anyway. Well, let me further amend that to say that I don’t believe that “good” people -those who lived life both honestly and vulnerably, with purpose and love in their hearts for themselves and the world around them, those who atoned for their “sins” (you know, those so-called egregious lapses in judgment for which we seek forgiveness and absolution throughout life, not hurriedly as we stand at death’s door)- I don’t believe that they simply, miraculously, and invisibly rise to the sky, “up to heaven” upon death, and gain actual wings. I’m not deluded or crazy after all, though I’m certain there are many who would say differently.
When I look to the sky, whether it is just to the level of the horizon as I watch the fiery orange sun come up to touch the still-sleepy blue sky or straight up into the depths of the black night canvas that on some nights appears riddled with stardust and on others is so dark and vacant that no strangers have even dared to stop at the countless, lightless inns above, I picture heaven. It’s not a place at all. It’s a feeling. For me. It’s the promise, the hope, and the possibility that a new day brings. It’s the unconditional love between a mother and a child, between a daughter and a father. The seamless and steadfast love between friends who are also soulmates.
I’ll find heaven today. It’ll be in my child’s laugh whether I hear it over the phone or recall its hearty playfulness when I read a text from him. And most assuredly, I’ll see heaven in my father’s smiling eyes today. I’ll find her right here in all that I do today and in everything and in everyone who loved her and who loves and supports me. Seven years without her – some might say “hell on earth” and oh, I’ve said that quite often! Today, I’m going to tell myself that I’ve been blessed to know, feel, and experience heaven on earth. I had a mother who shared and who continues to share life’s bounty and beauty with me. Now and evermore.
“A mother’s love is a slice of heaven.” (~k. morgan)
(Photo credit: Florence McGinn)
Sylvia: What the hell, Erma? Really? I’ve got a mountain of laundry, a sea of bills, a couple of screaming kids and a whining husband/partner. (Actually, just a husband since partner suggests some sort of sharing of responsibility, and well, not to complain, but well, yes, let me complain.) Anyway, understand that there is no time to try it on. I’m wearing it whether it’s clean or dirty at this point. Live it? Do I have a choice? I have too many people depending on me to choose otherwise. Exhaust it? Exhaust what? It’s almost all gone- my energy, my concern, my motivation, desire of any kind, money– even me. Yes, I’m exhausted but not in an “I’m tired so I’ll take a nap and feel rejuvenated” kind of way. I’m exhausted as in spent, depleted, nearly vacant, used up, and nothing left to give.
Erma: Have you been heeding my earlier suggestion and pouring yourself that deliciously steamy and virile cup of coffee every now and again, dear girl?
Sylvia: Really, Erma, I don’t have time for such nonsense. It’s not like a daydream will solve my problems or change my life.
Erma: That’s crap. Complete and utter bullshit. It’s time for coffee. It’s time for you. In fact, fuck it. Let’s forget coffee and go for something stronger.
And with that, Erma proceeded to tell Sylvia exactly what was required to get her through.
All women need time to themselves. All human beings do I would suspect, but for the purposes of helping to maintain the sanity of every Sylvia who reads this, Erma’s only talking about women here. Now, time to oneself may be alone time or it may be time with a dear friend or even a crazy and wildly raucous group of your most trusted allies. It may be time doing nothing special- reading a torrid novel or emptying your email trash and spam folders. Let’s just imagine that in this instance though, time to oneself means time doing whatever the hell strikes your fancy at any given point in time. It means taking whatever time is needed to turn a dream into a plan. It’s the point in time when your real or imaginary Erma convinces you to throw caution to the wind and just do whatever you want. (Some may call it wildly irresponsible and demonstrating flagrant disregard. Those are the individuals who should kindly exit stage left or any other way you must rid yourself of them from your theater. You don’t need fun-bashers, naysayers, or any of that ilk.) Erma’s appellation, however, for this much-needed “me” time is far more fitting: survival. Ah, yes, that’s it. “Try it on…live it…exhaust it.” Survive IT!
Erma: Sylvia, here’s my advice, and yes, you will take it. After all, we cannot have you at your wit’s end sticking your head into an oven or doing something equally horrific and final. First, forget the coffee. It’s five o’clock somewhere, and while coffee will help on a daily basis and even in a pinch of soul-sucking desperation, there’s nothing that creates possibility as fast and fervently as an Old-fashioned. We’re past daydreaming, Sylvia. You need time for you. You need a plan–a survival plan.
With pen in one hand and an Old-fashioned in the other, and with her older and wiser girlfriend by her side, Sylvia thought – out loud this time- about what she wanted to do for herself. As she jotted down possibilities that included everything from the mundane albeit therapeutic dinner-and-a-movie to the unimaginably dreamy vacation in Bali (yes,contemplate Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love), she devised a very doable, planned yet seemingly spontaneous getaway to the Windy City. And in an instant or however long it took for Erma and Sylvia to indulge in two cocktails and create an itinerary, Sylvia had set her plan for “me time” in motion.
Sylvia: Okay, Erma, there, are you happy? It’s done. I’m going to try it.
Erma: Sylvia, it’s so far from done. It’s just beginning in fact. The living part. The living-for-you part, that is.
Sylvia awoke that morning with a knot in her stomach but a spring in her step. The living part, whatever Erma meant by that, was about to begin. She managed to get everyone out of the house on time- in other words as quickly as possible-and have a minute to pour one last cup of coffee before heading out the door to the airport. As she raised the pot to serve herself what remained of the morning’s sustenance, she saw a bit of steam rise. Sylvia, anxious for her adventure, set the pot back on its burner and muttered quietly, “What are you thinking? You don’t have time for a daydream right now, foolish woman.”
Announcement: American Flight 136 to Chicago has been delayed. The scheduled departure is now 2:30 pm.
At that moment, Sylvia’s plan didn’t look so good. She had booked a cheap flight to Chicago from Boston with a stop in Charlotte. What was the big deal? Charlotte sounded quaint and manageable and completely unimposing. She had convinced herself that she could only afford “me-time” if she found ways to economize and be free from any more guilt than she was already feeling. Now, she was stuck in Charlotte for three hours with nothing to do but ruminate about her selfishness and play the mental ping-pong game that most mothers play when they leave their families behind to take care of themselves. Serve: Do I really need time to myself? What have I done to deserve it? Return: Yes, you deserve it. You do everything. And with a couple of rounds over and the score tied, Sylvia decided to move forward to step two…live it.
There’s a cute little wine bar tucked away in between the gates of the American Airlines terminal in Charlotte. For once, Sylvia didn’t overthink her next move and headed in its direction. It wasn’t quite noon, but in Erma-fashion of it being five o’clock somewhere, she decided that a glass of something, perhaps a bit of bubbly, was definitely called for on this occasion. With her overnight bag on her shoulder and attempting not to wipe out any tables that she passed by, Sylvia made her way to the Mediterranean-inspired bar and tried to fit in, all the while noticing that only she and one other woman were either brave enough or naive enough to belly-up to the bar alongside stool after stool of men.
Sylvia managed to find a spot at the end of the bar closest to the exit and within earshot of any announcements from the loud speaker. She kept reminding herself that she was worldly, cosmopolitan even. She had traveled extensively in her youth and up until marriage and children, so sitting at a predominately male-occupied bar was no big deal. Her twenties were filled with such happenings- in Florence, Paris, London, DC, and LA. What the hell, this might just be as memorable and at least as enjoyable. She sat down, quietly and confidently, and politely ordered, “A glass of Moët, please.”
Within seconds, the flute of what Sylvia likes to call one of her most delicious tastes of survival arrived. As she reached for its stem, her hand happened to graze the hand of the man next to her and a bit of his draft spilled on the bar. “Oops, so sorry,” she apologized without lifting her head. In that instant, Sylvia was overcome by a strangely familiar scent that was both inexplicable and unexpected. The intensely bold aroma of freshly brewed coffee was enveloping her. She was drinking champagne. How could that be? She felt a rush. She was oddly clammy and flush, as she once again reached for her glass remarking that the arm she had brushed seconds ago was tastefully tattooed and muscular. Surely, she was daydreaming. Could this be real? She lifted her head with every intention of making an apologetic comment, but she could not. As her eyes met his, she blurted, “Oh my, it really is you.” The attractively rugged man, he with the piercing, soulful, walnut-colored eyes from her very first coffee-inspired daydream, was looking back at her with a twinkle in his eye.
“Hello there. I’m Cam, uh, Cameron. Do we know each other?” And without hesitation, Sylvia replied, “No, no, not yet, Cam, but I do owe you another beer- or at the very least a nice, hot cup of coffee.”
Erma: Try it…live it…exhaust it…
Sylvia: Oh, that’s the plan, Erma. That’s the plan.
photo credit: Kobi Yamada