She would labor for hours on those crème puffs. Rolling the pastry ever so gently, forming the outer shells - the bottom a cradle, the top a tiny crown - and happily peering through the curlicues on the oven window to watch them become the color of beach sand.
While they were cooling she would compose the filling, orchestrating each ingredient as to have too much or too little would ruin the finale. Light, fluffy, and just the right touch of sweetness this confection would be strategically placed in the cradle shell, layer on layer until they were high enough to earn the crown. After a light dusting of powdered sugar sifted on, they would patiently wait in the coolness of the fridge until it was time.
The presentation of the puffs came with a delighted look on her face. Upon a china plate they graced the center of the dinner table and she would wait for us to ooooh and aaaah over them but all we did was groan - crème puffs again? My father would praise them and remark on their deliciousness but his was ignored as it was ours, her daughter and son, that she yearned to hear.
* * *
She got pregnant again after losing a son and birthed twin girls. So happy was she and she made crème puffs again. Then my brother drowned and she grieved for weeks. Her sisters came and helped care for the infant twins. A year or so later after the birth of her last daughter, my father whisked us off to Arizona to start a new life with me and her new babies, but it wasn't the same. I now belonged to two families - the one with a father who labored for other people in the hot sun and a mother who made crème puffs and cared and loved too much her oldest daughter and son, and the next family, short a son, the one that would fall apart, leaving her to raise us four girls alone.
I am now in my fifties and it struck me this morning as I was holding my grandson and watching the rainbow created by the prism that hangs in my kitchen window that I am now, her.
I have done everything for my daughter and son and now grandson. I love them, cry for them, and cry for me. I watch them grow and head toward their lives while I remain behind, a little spec on the road that they used to walk backwards and wave to until they were out of sight but now I wave to them until they are out of sight and continue to watch just a bit longer, simply because I feel I must.
For my children I made pancakes from the size of silver dollars and the entire fry pan, cut sandwiches in geometric shapes, decorated plates with cucumber strips and olives to form smiley faces just to watch them put the olives on their little fingers and munch them off, giggling at that simple joy. I ran from window to window to keep an eye out when I allowed them to venture through the neighborhood on their own and called the school the first few days to make sure they were all right. I rubbed their backs at night to help them fall asleep, read the same stories until I could recite them by heart, and always made sure as they got older they called whenever they got where they were going.
But I never made crème puffs.
And now they are in their twenties and aren't impressed with smiley faced sandwiches and don't put olives on their fingers anymore. They sometimes aren't even impressed with me. They have grown into their own selves, created their own circles of friends and interests, and I find other than being related we really don't relate anymore because their world isn't mine.
My world is my mother's and I want to call to tell her I'm sorry that I was such a shit daughter and can we please make up for lost time, but I can't, because she died.
February 29th, 2012 at 9:36 p.m. The day after my brother's birthday and on a leap year date, to protect us, yet again. We were all by her side, I never left her side, always whispering how much I loved her, how sorry I was that I hadn't been smarter to see things more clearly so we could have had more time. She lifted her little girl arms and hugged me with her last bit of strength and said "my first born, I love you so much." And then she started to slip away from us, from her life, from our world.
It isn't easy to be a mother without a mother.
* * *
Friday I made vibrant kitchen curtains and wanted the enthusiasm of my two kids as it was when they were young and thought I was The Best Mom On The Planet, but they just glanced at them and said "sure Mom, they're great." Just like my brother and I had done with the crème puffs.
What struck me this morning is that it wasn't about making perfect puffs or sewing most of my sisters clothes or growing an African Violet plant from one leaf (which I still cannot do, but she grew dozens). It was about validating herself. It was about proving to herself that she was contributing to the beauty in the world, to making something wonderful out of something simple, and that she could be dazzling just how she was.
She had put a silk flower on every hanging thing in her house. She wrote the name and dates and a lovely message on the gifts we had all given her throughout the years. She seemed to have four of everything remaining - perfume bottles, rings, sets of dishes and glassware, and a set of Italian measuring spoons decorated with grapevines that we would later divide among us, the tablespoon going to the oldest, me, and the 1/4 teaspoon to the youngest.
This realization of detail she took in her life would not connect with my brain until we had to pack up her home. Now I get it. Now I understand.
She was wise enough to know that we really didn't care that she shopped, cooked, cleaned, sewed, laundered, vacuumed, dusted, planted, replaced and discarded. Or that she cried, fretted, ached, or worried about us. We thought she was annoying. Bossy. Interrupting.
Then I got older and realized what it's like - what it means - to be someone's mother. To hate being a mother and love being a mother within seconds of each emotion. To ask God why in the world he thought I could handle this one minute then thanking him profusely for the gifts of my children the next and please, please, please, don't listen to my whining, just keep them safe. Just keep them healthy. Just keep them happy.
I now talk to my mother constantly and I know she's listening. I see pennies on the ground and messages on license plates and hear one-liners on the rare occasions I watch tv. I pay attention now, I notice the details.
* * *
My sisters and I have adopted most of her treasures. Hanging in my hallway I have the huge picture of her in her wedding gown taken in 1957 that remained in the portrait studio for one year as she was a beautiful woman in a beautiful gown. Next to her is my brother's almost as huge picture of him, proudly sitting on his first bicycle. At third picture is an assortment of all of us at different ages, all smiling, all at home.
I have placed her same silk flowers on each item that hangs on my walls. Her pictures and pictures of her are clustered on my armoire, a piece of my parents' walnut bedroom set they bought over 40 years ago that has been mine for the last ten. I have the gifts I had given her, with my name written all over them, most of which state "from Nancy, my first born, the love of my life". They make me cry. They give me peace.
A few years ago I confessed to her that I was writing a book. She was so excited and told me that she wanted to read it and knew it would be wonderful. She also asked me if I was actually going to finish it because I do have a tendency to procrastinate. Pretending to be shocked and somewhat actually because although I do, she didn't typically reveal our shortcomings to us so bluntly. I said of course I am. I have since started three of them, none finished. I have written a dozen stories, most of which need editing. If she were the writer, she would have finished them. She would have done it for herself.
So I'm doing it now. I will finish that book, simply because I told her I would. I will reserve minutes of each day to write for me, and for her, because I have value and something to share. Funny ... I have always written and have somewhere stored upstairs in my barn remnants of my former self, binders and notebooks of words I wrote before I even knew I wanted to write them so why it has taken me this long is a mystery.
They say that everything you do in life brings you to a point where the dots finally connect and you find yourself faced with the thing you were born to do, ironically being the thing you have consistently run away from. You also realize in your 50's that at some point your time will be up, so when I am standing in line at those golden gates and asked why I should be let in, I want to say because I kept my promise. I want to say that I used the gifts I was given. I want to be let in and see her and my brother and grandmother and aunt and uncle and all the others I never met. It's all I can do. It's all I have.
That and maybe someday, I will attempt to create crème puffs.