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Friday, May 6, 2011

Missing Mother's Day: Words for Clare

Clare Kaplan Goldman 1918-2004

My mother never said good-bye.  Literally.  Good-bye was not in her vocabulary. And she had a spectacular vocabulary – a slam-dunk seven-letter-word-Scrabble-game, Sunday-New York-Times-crossword-puzzle kind of vocabulary. 
"We never say good-bye," she always corrected. My mother taught us: it’s “so long.”  So long for now. See you.  See you again.  Until next time.  It’s never good-bye. And never, never a long good-bye. In the etiquette of “so long” there was also brevity.
Make it short.


Ironically, my mother’s good-bye was painfully long when measured by her own standards of efficiency.     
Clare’s good-bye was, in fact, painfully short.  A roller coaster ride.  A nose dive. From diagnosis to decline. A  mystery to her doctors, her nurses, her caregivers, Clare seemed clear about her path.  It was going to be just “so long” and not a long good-bye.  
Alzheimer’s.  The robber of memory and speech, of privacy and dignity, of vitality and independence, took my mother by surprise.  In response she defied its course.

"I’m too old to die,"  she said to me, not once but on many occasions.  That wasn’t the Alzheimer’s talking. I think Clare liked the joke, playing with the language, pleased with the irony of that statement. 
Call it denial.  Call it defiance.  She called it arrogance. Even robbed of memory and speech, my mother had just the word for most everything.  In her last months of life, she told me how “arrogant” she had been to think that she was invulnerable. Assisted living? To Clare that was out of the question, impossible to imagine. 
Clare was hard on herself, so often a mystery to us.  “I’m no artist,” she’d say, even though she made a living at her drawing board for more than 25 years, even though she said drawing was like breathing to her, even though every wall in her home was filled with her art, even though she painted portraits and drew cartoons as gifts to family and friends, and sometimes just casual acquaintances. "I’m no artist," she’d insist.   
Clare insisted on lots of things. Use an ATM machine? Never.  Pay with a credit card? Never. Pump gasoline at a service station?  Never! Why call it a service station? Vote Republican? Never. Eat MacDonalds?  Never ever.  Not even once. 

My mother’s insistence was a lovely thing too.  “Oh, no, I insist “– “be my guest.” Clare had a big, generous heart.  She parted with her things easily and delighted in giving gifts. “They are only things,” she’d say, routinely moving entire households and giving away all manners of furnishings, valuables and clothing.  It’s only money, she’d say.  She spared no expense to do or make something right.  Clare gave with her heart. 
Clare liked to shop, not necessarily for bargains.    She loved to cook and entertain.  The holidays and family dinners and celebrations were all hers. We all remember vividly my mother’s resplendent tables.  Paper or plastic? Never. Wedgewood china, gleaming Waterford crystal, silverware and fresh flowers.   Dansk servers filling her long buffet tables.  And those wonderful pies.  Two daughters, two weddings. Both hosted in her home. Nothing catered. She baked and cooked and arranged everything herself with love. And tremendous energy.
In my  heart, I will best remember my mother going full-force at forty-something, in the prime of her life, in the robust health she was blessed to have well into her eighties. 

Clare, my mother, was my best friend, my cheerleader, my best critic,  my mentor,  my ma.   Ma. I still cry for her.  Seven years since she's been gone,  and I look in the mirror sometimes, startled to see her image staring back with penetrating green eyes, my image so like hers,  in the way my hair has turned to frosted grey, in the expression of surprise, the furled brow, the set jaw, the tight-lipped smile.  I've turned into my mother. A grandmother now. . . and yet. 

Mother's Day? Oh, don't be silly," my mother would gently chide, "You're so sentimental,"  she'd say, "What's all the fuss?  Don't you know Mother's Day is just a Hallmark made-up holiday?"  

In my mother's last days, people would tell me that the images of her devastating illness would fade in memory.  Not true.  They are vivid, and still haunt my dreams.  People would say I did everything I could for her. But I don't agree.  She left me guessing,  misguided, her wishes unknown: And so I live with questions that will never have answers.  

But  I’ll always carry with me the memory of my mother's courage. With Clare in such fragile condition over the final months of her life,  in the hands of nurses, caregivers, "strangers" to her, no one would ever guess how forceful and strong she was.  Clare was tough.  A stoic.   
She prided herself in her strength and stamina, shunned what she felt were signs of weakness of any kind.  I’m fine, she’d always say. Fine, no matter what. 



Clare, indeed, was fine.  Fine looking.  Beautiful in her youth.  A fine sense of style and clothing.  A fine, sharp intellect, a fine student earning a scholarship to Oberlin. A fine seamstress, a fine cook, a fine bridge-player, a Great Books discussion leader.  A “working” mom, back in the 50’s, long before working mothers were common, Clare liked to break the mold, followed her own interests. She was athletic in her youth and youthful for nearly the full measure of her age.  She was a tennis player in her early years.  Roll back in time, before we were a two-car family, and there’s my mother, grocery shopping with a bicycle.  And there was her passion for golf – golf chosen for its complexity and sociability, but most of all the fact that she could play it in Florida through the golden sunshine years with my Dad, her Edward.


Clare and her Edward.  Now there’s a love story.  A long story, to cherish for another time.  Ed and Clare.  Married on New Year’s eve, 1939. Inseparable, but for almost four years during the War.  The great generation.
Clare always defied her age, preferred the company, activities and interests of young people.  Too young to be a grandmother at 45, she insisted that her first grandchildren,  call her Clare. At 60-something, she graciously accepted, but never fully embraced the designation “Grandma.”  Clare was blessed with three ‘sets” and two generations of grandchildren. We should all live to see a span of grandchildren ranging in age from 6 to 40.  

Clare lived well, and lived long.  Reason to celebrate. Without tears.
Clare never cried. Privately, perhaps, but never openly.  I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen tears in my mother’s eyes.   This phenomenon  - a mystery to me --she attributed to growing up with twin brothers close in age. Never let ‘em see you cry. Later in life, she would say, I wish I could cry, maybe I’d feel better.  But I can’t. 
Clare was reserved. Fiercely independent.  Capable, proud.  And robustly healthy.   
So telling are the last words I heard my father say to my mother, the week before she died.  “So long, big guy.”  He knew.  Partners for life, they would soon part. Clare was my father’s rock, his shoulder, the love of his life, the heart of his family, his Clara.  
Clara.  As far as I can recall, only my father called my mother Clara.  Among the nurses who cared for her,  Clara was the name they most used. Her defenses down or failing, “Clara,” the softer version of her name, really fit her.  You could barely hear her speak, but what she said really touched everyone she came in contact with, and made an impact.  The last thing my mother ever wanted to be was a “sweet little old lady” . . . but in her frailty she was most true to herself. Gentle and fierce.  So vulnerable and yet so fiercely private. 
“Clara, my Clara”  . . . I’ll never forget the response of the nurse who cared for my mother the night she died. I was not at my mother's side.  I had left the room, but the nurse was there, and shared those last moments with me, like a parting gift from God. "Sometimes a mother just knows," she told me."When the children leave the room, it's time to just let go."   And so my mother slipped quietly away, like a thief in the night, stole a piece of me... and never said goodbye.  



In memory of Clare . . . and in celebration of Mother's Day, Sunday, May 9, 2011.


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