Other days, they take you utterly by surprise


Some days it’s all you can do to hold it together, they’re driving you so nuts, and you step into a nearby room for the quiet opportunity to drop your face in your hands and attempt to recover equanimity before one of them scampers in and bumps the mania/sadism up a notch. Other days, they take you utterly by surprise.

We had a little extra time at one point yesterday — her brother’s nap, we didn’t have to go anywhere just yet. I had been at work at the computer, and the lil’ monkey wandered up. Not so lil’ anymore. I was preparing to foist on her a plan to watch some Jaques Pépin cooking videos which I’d recently found online.  We’d had a dandy time over the weekend happening upon his show on the TV set,  what with “Jaques” being the name we give me when I do the fake French accent, and what with the girlie really hitting her stride lately as a sous chef.  Okay so mostly we make pancakes and biscuits and cookies.  But still.  For the whole show, she insisted I stay in character as Jaques.  We learned a lot.  Thank heavens she has a seemingly photographic memory, because we didn’t have a means to pause the show and scribble down the recipes.  

So there I am, poised at the computer, and she walks up to me ready to play.  I’m prepared to announce that I found more Jaques on the computer, when she says, breathlessly, “Baba, I have an idea!”

“What?!” I am almost certain she is about to say, “Let’s watch another cooking show!”  But instead she says:

“Let’s look at your mama’s violin!  We haven’t done that in a long time!”

It’s something she knows we can only do when her brother’s napping, at least so long as he is likely to ram a crayon into one of the f-holes.  You can see by the dilapidated hair on one of the bows that it’s already sagging under the weight of years of benign neglect.  I can’t wait to (a) afford to have it thoroughly repaired, and (b) watch my daughter or son pick it up and play it.  Given the frequency with which the girlie asks for violin lessons, this may actually even happen.

“That’s a great idea, sweetie!” I say, and up I pop to pluck the violin case from its safe berth at the top of a closet.  Down it comes, I open it, we breathe in the aroma of rosin.  I breathe in the scent of memory.

This object holds my mother for me as much as any single thing could.  When she shuttled my sister and me around our suburban youth in that huge gold Plymouth station wagon with the fake wood siding, it was all classical music, all the time on the radio.  She tried to interest my sister and me in the instrument that gave shape to her youth — and whose abandonment, for a more financially secure career path, she seemed always haunted by.  All I remember were the hairy legs on the gal who came to teach us, and what seemed to me to be the faint aroma of marijuana about her.  Or maybe it was patchouli.

At any rate, I couldn’t sit still long enough indoors on a summer’s day, and I doubt I lasted a season’s worth of lessons.  Now that I know what I know, I can’t imagine the blow that must have been for our mother.  Another of the 5,000+ things I would tell her that I regret.  If only I could.  

Still, when I hear the sound of a violin I might as well be hearing my mother’s voice.

My daughter picks up the violin and carefully places it in her lap, pulls out the bow and draws it scratch scratch across the few strings taut enough to generate a sound.  I pick it up and show her how — if she were holding an instrument sized to her — her chin would go, thus, and her elbow would be held out, thus.  The bow is held in the fingers this way: thumb here, pinkie there.  She watches as carefully as if I were filleting a fish, or de-veining an orange.

I hand her back the instrument, watch her do her best to repeat the posture, the gesture.  Look at her little fingers on the fingerboard, the same fingerboard my mother’s fingertips danced around on, just a moment ago.  Just fifteen, twenty years ago.

Which object, I wonder, will speak as eloquently of me to her, long after I’m gone?  I have no idea.  It may never be an object.  But I tell her, and her brother, every single day, how very much I love them.  Because I know keenly that one day I will be as gone as my mother is now.  Meantime I write and write, hoping that a tumble of words might suffice.

7 thoughts on “Other days, they take you utterly by surprise”

  1. That is among the top most brutally difficult things I’ve had to contend with as a parent – the fear of leaving them too soon. I still struggle with the fear of it daily. My own mortality meant nothing at all to me before I became a parent, and now the question of “when” haunts me daily. Not for myself, but for them.


  2. my father left a tumble of words, scattered between hundreds of floppy disks and dogeared printed pages paperclipped and filed in manila folders.

    i’ve carried them from pennsylvania to ohio to tennessee to texas. his words are presence. i remember i remember, even when i forget.

    already, i’m shoring up my presence for my daughter. it’s the best i, we, can do, being the writing sort.

    your girl will know you well when she reads this post as an adult.


  3. Having a child made me feel very strongly that I could not bear losing my mother. We had not been that close but parenting myself strengthened our bond. I wanted her as a background presence for me and as a grandmother for my child – forever. Of course, life did not grant me the wish for my mother’s immortality – she died a year and a half ago after a very intense six months of me caring for her through an illness. My daughter was not quite five at the time. I hope she will have memories that last.
    I’ve always enjoyed how your writing is informed by the losses you’ve incurred. It makes it real.

  4. Thank you both, ohchicken and cardamom.

    I so thoroughly believe that we are all informed by the losses we’ve incurred — and no one gets more than halfway through their life without a big one, I’m convinced. The difference is simply in the degree to which we watch their impact, and mine them for a brighter vision. Since I believe too few of us experience enough space in which to “go there” and feel all that (and those of us who take or make that space so often feel alone), I take it upon myself to go there often. Though truthfully, “there” comes to me. Probably because I sit still as often as possible.

    Anyway, thank you. And I am so sorry, each of you, for your losses.

  5. While you feel regret about not learning to play your Mother’s cherished instrument, think how wonderful it will be should your eldest child learn to love it as much as her grandmother once did. I know that all of my Grandfather’s proudest moments watching me grow after my Grandmother passed, involved me doing, without ever knowing or thinking about where I may have gotten the talent from, all those creative things that once made my grandmother happy and her children rejected. Though it may or may not be in the genes, I think we somehow know, through pictures and stories perhaps, what once made our ancestors happiest and eventually that tradition is once again picked up from it’s dusty case and given new life.

    And, thank you for all your tumbling of words. I often come here when searching for inspiration for my own writing. Your words seem to flow so freely and often reading stories like this one triggers an idea for something I have been struggling to put into my own words.

  6. Thank you for this. Not only, and especially, for the ruminations on your mother, but also for the admission that some days they do drive you nuts.

    My own four-year-old is working through the ramifications of the potential loss of his mothers, and, in so doing, is pushing many of my own buttons, unintentionally (for a change, or so it sometimes seems).


    The loss informs everything, parenting, of course, in particular.

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