Weird, how your mind still counts the birthdays of someone who isn't here any more.
My mom would have been 74 today. I'll need to see if I have a nice picture handy to scan.
She was extremely intelligent, possessing a genius intellect and a fabulous imagination. She, like my grandmother (her mother), could make anything fun, from filling dozens of balloons for an impromptu water-balloon fight to decorating our neighbor's front yard for their 50th wedding anniversary. She could sew Halloween costumes and prom gowns, arrange flowers, and make baskets and wreaths out of pine cones. She loved to sing
When my eldest sister was in her teens, our next-door neighbor installed a basketball hoop on his yard facing the street. It seemed like half of the neighborhood turned out to play, and sometimes Mom would spring for a bunch of pizza and soda from a local shop to feed the crowd.
One year, a good chunk of this same group came to our house for a candlelit "seance," complete with Ouija board. I was too young to participate, so I was banished to the living room with another friend's little brother to watch TV. I don't know who they were trying to conjure, but I remember screams coming from the other side of the closed door. I'm sure my mother had something to do with it.
She was a mama bear when it came to her kids, but was also tender hearted to the plight of others. One of Jennifer's classmates was somehow orphaned or in foster care. She spent several weeks living with us, and my mom and dad worked hard to adopt her, but it didn't pan out. She often supported the underdog when she believed in his cause.
During my parents' separation and eventual divorce, times were very difficult for her. I no longer care to know his reasons, but my father wasn't dilligent with visiting or with child support. My mom was left scrabbling to keep things together for herself and three young girls. I was completely oblivious to this at the time, which is either testament to my cluelessness or to Mom's ability to cover her anxiety. She was very private in all matters, but when it came to the breakup from my dad, she insisted we not tell a soul. I was ordered, if asked where he was, to tell people that my dad was "on a business trip."
A multi-year business trip. I'm sure they were convinced. Yeah...
Mom was an exceptional cook. I guess most people say that about their moms. Mom, unlike me, wasn't afraid to try cooking something different. A should-have-been caterer, she joyfully cooked for any occasion, including all the food for my stepbrother's wedding, and V. and I dutifully marched from kitchen to guests while my date remained in the kitchen helping mom assemble trays. Even simple bring-a-dish occasions resulted in much more than was asked of her. Cooking was my mother's way of showing affection. If she fed you, she liked you, and all she wanted to hear in return was a moan of delight with the first bite.
Her second love was candymaking. When we were young, she made things like peanut brittle, molasses taffy, fudge, and sponge candy. Her talents evolved to creations that rivaled the professionals. Buttercreams, truffles, toffee... the list was endless and always evolving. She'd make lovely fillings and hand-dip them in chocolate. Her chocolates were a labor of love much like the rest of her cooking. Nothing made her angrier (yet my stepfather did this often) than someone who took one of her lovely chocolates and gobbled it whole. She labored to make the center as pretty as the chocolate exterior, and she expected the taster to bite through the chocolate and admire the inside before devouring the other half. Once you went through this little ritual, you were free to eat its brothers and sisters two and three at a time.
For a long time, my mom drove "hither, thither, and yon," as she'd say, but by the time she met my stepfather, she was more than happy to relinquish the keys to him. By the time I reached high school, she rarely drove anywhere but to work or the Acme. By the time I graduated, she left the food shopping to my stepfather, my sister, and eventually me. (I did all the food shopping for my "surprise" wedding shower.) She hated driving, and I suspect if her employer was located more than a quarter mile away, she would have ditched the car and mooched rides from her coworkers. Over time, this aversion to driving morphed into refusing to get into a car, much less drive one. She told me that she didn't like my stepfather's driving. I'm sure the emphysema played a role too.
Whatever it was, Mom made herself almost a recluse. Her house was her domain, and she ruled from her favorite seat at the kitchen counter.
(I hope I can describe this well. Her seat at the counter faced what used to be the garage. Back in the late '60s or early '70s, my dad and his friends converted the garage into a sort-of family room/dining room, with an all-brick floor as well as an all-brick wall with a fireplace on the far wall and paneled walls on the other three sides with a large bow window in the front where the garage door used to be and another large window in the back. The wall between the kitchen and this room was open, with three flagstone steps leading down to the new room. As such, Mom was sort of Queen of All She Surveyed from her seat at the counter, looking down upon the brick room.)
Every Thanksgiving -- pretty much every meal, really -- Mom would cook her heart out, and once the meal was on the table, she'd retreat to her chair at the counter and watch everyone devour her labors of love. She rarely ate what she cooked until much later, preferring a nap before sitting down to eat. My stepfather would get all bent out of shape over this. Frankly, the woman was exhausted and sick of smelling all that cooking. Been there myself.
Red cups: My mother, for odd reasons, didn't drink out of a glass. She preferred those red plastic 20 oz disposable cups. With a straw. She always had a red cup at her elbow.
One thing Mom ruled from her "throne" at the counter was the television. If mom didn't approve of it, it wasn't viewed. If she didn't like what was on TV, she put in a video. The rest of us had little or no say in matters, and that TV was on all day, every day. If you visited, the TV was on. In fact, the TV rarely went off simply because she had guests. She'd sit at the counter, chopping away or chocolate dipping or whatever, ordering my stepfather to turn on Channel X so she could watch Y. (She rarely did her own flipping. She didn't want to get the remote full of food, and she had a hard time with the little buttons. I also think she liked telling my stepfather what to do.)
Mom loved games. Cribbage, Canasta, Parcheesi, Backgammon, and Scrabble were probably the top five. Mom was killer at all of them. I'd occasionally go over and play with her for a while and drink Snapple over ice in a red cup. I knew things were going downhill when I actually won against her in a game of Scrabble.
I play Scrabble online over Facebook with The Oracle (lazy, yes, but so much easier than keeping tiles aligned on a board), and I can't bring myself to put a great letter on a gray space. I can't permit myself to use an S without making the crossing word plural with it. It's pathetic.
I wish I had her around for another game. I wish my kids could meet her.