Thursday, May 13, 2021

Day four thousand eight hundred and eighty two . . . Superlatives

This is a picture from my mom's surprise 40th birthday party on May 14th 1981. I wrote about this party ten years ago to the day.

Today she would have been 80. 

You see, on Wednesday, May 14 1941--seven months before America threw their hat in the ring and made the decision to join the second world war--my mother was born.

Judith Ann Johnson. Judith Ann. Yuuditta. Judy. Momma. Mumma. Mummy. 


Judy was born into a then-happy family. My grandfather and grandmother had only been married for a little over ten years and had already had a son--my Uncle Alex--so they were used to the whole child rearing thing. Judy was showered with love and laughter. Togetherness was the rule of the day. She was cherished and adored by her brother, and she loved to sing and dance and walk her poodle, Trixie, up and down Bedford St. regaling the neighbors with tales of kings, queens, princes, princesses, knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, or so the stories go. 

It was my Aunt Lynda--born six years later--who got the "shitty end of the stick" as she used to say. 

She was the child some couples have to help "save the marriage." I don't know the statistics on how often these work, but let's just say that Aunty would have admitted she belonged in the "not successful" category. 

But Judy. Judy was the princess. Judy was the queen. Judy was the angel.

Judy was . . . the best. 

I can attest to this because . . . well, because I can. And I can because I know who she was better than most people.

My mom had a lot of friends. Teacher friends, mostly, but people who she knew well-enough to talk to about many things. 

She had a best friend named Adele--my "Aunt Del"--who recently just turned 80 herself. And these two were "thick as thieves" though even the thought of stealing so much as a paperclip, I'm sure, would be out of the question. 

But my mom was a private person. Not as private as her sister, mind you, but private enough so she kept a lot of things hidden from the world.

These days nobody hides much. Everyone wants to share everything they know and everything they do. It's like the whole world is one big only child and the internet is the guest who stops over ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every little thing that's pulled out of our collective room for show. It grows tiring. We turn off. And it gets easier and easier to ignore. I see it and feel it all around me every day. 

But Judy's secrets--and I know a few, though I'll never say--weren't very salacious compared with what is commonly known about many people these days. Pull up even a venerable outlet such as CNN and there you have more people's dirty laundry out for inspection than you could ever imagine.

But my mom rarely used a computer.

She never sent an email by herself.

She only used a cell phone when it was connected to a giant curly cord in her car and ONLY for an emergency. I think it was around $2 a minute or something crazy.

But it's not because she didn't want to. She just had better things to do with her time. 

My mom once told me that when she was young--in her teens--a fun thing she liked to do was to stand on the corner and just stare up into the sky. She would just keep looking up into the heavens as if there was something incredulous up there. Maybe exclaiming "wow"--softly under her breath--with one hand on her hip and one cupped over her eyes. She said she would do this until she got several people to join her--just staring into the sky. I remember her telling me this story more than a few times. She wanted to impress upon me that joyful living could involve something as simple as looking up into nothing. 

My mom was the best. 

I have so many "forever moments" from my lifetime. Those glimpses of time--almost as long as the average GIF--that will stay with one forever. 

As I go about my days I often wonder if the moment I'm experiencing will become one of these in time. Anything is fair game. I've had several of these since moving to Japan. They aren't burned in like most are yet, but the color and contour on them is still sharp. I feel they have promise. 

One of my favorite examples of this involves a trip my mom and I were on when I was in my early teens. I think it was somewhat far away--far enough so we weren't familiar with the area. And we were walking along a riverbank. There came a point on the river where several large rocks made a sort of walkway out to the very middle of this very active river. 

My mom said to me (in her low and gentle voice) "Alex, look at that! I bet you could run right out to the middle if you wanted." And before she could take the next breath I was off and running. I hopped lithely from stone to stone until I was in the middle of a rushing, gushing river. I could barely hear her "Eeeeeee!" from where I stood the water was so loud.

It was this moment in time that happened nearly 40 years ago that I learned the word "facetious."

My mom said, "Sweetheart, I was being facetious." But I told her I didn't know that word yet and it made her laugh and I was still alive so it couldn't have been a bad thing to do.

And again, this is a loop in my mind that encompasses probably three seconds in all, but I will take it to the end of my days. 

My mom and I had a game we'd play when I'd come home--two games actually.

When I'd get off the bus at the station in New Bedford my mom would always be in her car in the same exact spot around the corner. I'm sure she got there wayyy early just to make sure she'd be in that exact same spot. 

And when I got off the bus I would always--always--walk in her direction and pretend to not see her. I would be looking the other way, or up in the sky, or behind me with a bewildered look on my face. I'd walk past the car knowing full well she was watching me the whole time--enjoying the show--and when I got to the other side of the parking lot I would dramatically look back with amazement. 

"Mamma!!," I'd yell. And then run to the car and open the back door to put my backpack in and say "I thought you forgot about me!" Then I'd get in the passenger side and give her a big hug around her big belly and a kiss on the cheek. I'd slink back into the seat and slowly put my seatbelt on and my mom Judy would say, "Oh Alex, you are a crackpot."

A crackpot. How funny is that. Who says that? Who ever said that?

Judy did. Judy was the best. 

The other game involved the next step in our journey from the bus station to her house. We would always stop for a gallon of milk at the store. See, I may have moved away from home at 21 but she could still give me errands to do. And one of the errands was to go into the store with one of her crisp $5 bills and pick out a big ol' orange-cap gallon jug of 2%. Always Guida's Dairy. Always tasty. I could drink a gallon in a little over two days. 

I'd get the change (usually a little over $2) and put it in my pocket.

I'd get into her car and strap on my seatbelt--the one with the rainbow colored fur wrap so that it was comfortable on whomever was seated in the passenger side (which would more than likely be either me or my aunt) and put the gallon of milk on the floor and then I'd wait. 

My mom knew I got change back. I knew I got change back. The cashier certainly knew I got change back. 

But Judy would sit in that car and wait to turn the key in the ignition for as long as it took . . . until I said (with mock surprise) "Oh! You want the change back? Oh! I'm so sorry I forgot. Okay, here you go."

And yes, she called me a crackpot then too. 

Funny, I don't think I've drank a glass of plain milk since the last gallon she bought for me over 15 years ago. 


My mom died of pancreatic cancer on January 11, 2007. 

She was 65.

We had way more time with her than many people who get that awful diagnosis. I wrote about the fender-bender that gave the doctors a reason to do x-rays a while ago. If it hadn't been for that who knows when it would have been found. 

Cancer runs in my family. It also took my grandmother (and many of her brothers), my uncle and my aunt.

Even though I quit 16 years ago, I still was a heavy smoker from age 16-35.

I lived a "rock and roll" lifestyle for almost that long.

I had a pretty average (read: awful) diet growing up. Basically endless meats, starches, sugars and salt including TV dinners and lots of microwaved foods. 

I worry just a little bit every day if and when cancer will become part of my life.

But I am reminded by my incredible wife that one never can just lump it all in and expect that sort of outcome. 

I have a whole other side of my genetics that I really know little about. And though I did treat my body poorly for a long time I have been making up for it for many, many years. 

I just turned 51 five days ago. I don't want to assign a number to it but I'd like to tack on a bunch more years to my life now that I seem to have figured out what is important. 

Yeah. I figured that thing out. 

Oh, you want to know what it is? 

You want the change back from the milk? 

You've been sitting in this car the whole time???

Well, okay, I'll tell you. But you gotta promise me this doesn't go any further than you and me.

Okay, here goes . . . 

What's important is . . . 

It's that feeling that you get when you don't want to go to sleep because the day hasn't finished telling you its story.

It's the feeling that you get when you wake up and you don't want to look at the clock because it could be 4:00am and you still have over two hours to sleep or the alarm on your phone might actually go off when you pick it up.

It's the look on a friend's face when they see you and smile--the moment you can both stop thinking about what you were going to talk about and just start talking.

It's the feeling when somebody buys you dinner. 

It's the feeling when you pay for your first meal for your parents (even if it entails finding the waiter on the other side of the room and giving them your new debit card).

It's the feeling when you make a decision for somebody who isn't thinking straight--somebody who might tell you it's no problem and also won't remember saying it.

It's the note you find on your lunch bag. The one that's worth getting made fun of for. 

It's the first button you learned to sew back on. 

It's the dog you loved almost as much as they loved you.

It's the people you had to excise from your life.

It's the magic trick you still can't figure out.

It's the kid that you taught how to read, and the way you realize the reason he or she suddenly can't make out a word is because your excitedly hovering finger hasn't moved on from the last one.

It's that first kiss.

It's remembering how your mom's breath felt as she reached her lips out to kiss your bearded cheek and wondering why it wasn't long after she passed away that you started shaving all the time. 

It's the last kiss.

It's the way spaghetti tastes plucked from a rolling boiling pan when you know it has no chance of being done for ten more minutes but you just love half-cooked pasta that much. 

It's the color black.

It's the color of jade.

It's knowing your mom never got her ears pierced yet she never went one day without wearing earrings. 

It's gaudy lipstick.

It's cat hair.

It's not Pepsi but it's definitely Coke.

It's real whipped cream.

It's Easy Cheese and Triscuits.

It's the last batch of frozen home cooking she made for you--the last bite even--and knowing it's really over.

It's that last clock you forgot to turn back.

It's realizing you're not actually late for work after all.

It's the smell of lavender fabric softener.

It's knowing you don't use it anymore but you remember who it reminds you of. 

It's that last cigarette.

It's that last drink.

It's the first early morning. 

It's the first late night.

It's loving yourself.

It's knowing you are loved.

It's knowing you can return the feeling. 

It's how she says "I love you" before you can even open your eyes.

It's the way she waves at you from her bicycle each and every morning on her way to work.

It's the smell when she made dinner unexpectedly.

It's knowing it's okay to let go of the wrapping paper.

It's a good cry.

It's now.

It's then.

It's just being good.

That's what's important.

See, you should have just pretended the milk cost $5. :)

Happy Birthday, Mom!!!

Sto lat!

All my love, always.


Thank you all for reading.