Updated: Oct 24, 2020
For years my children marked Friday Eve with dinner at their grandparents’ house. Mom started the tradition when the Golden Boy was a baby as a way for her and Pop to see their chubby grandson once a week. It was also a break from my monotony. In those days, my husband worked nights as he climbed the restaurant executive ladder. Most weekdays, I spent eating grilled cheese sandwiches and watching reruns of Friends while the baby nuzzled in the crook of my arm. But Thursdays at Mom and Pop’s meant a home cooked dinner, complete with protein, vegetables, and starches. I could eat with two hands while they took over. Mom would fill the deep kitchen sink with bubbles and bathe the boy while Pop sang the same ridiculous songs to Golden Boy that he once sang to us: “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?”
By the time Middle-Man came along, Mom and Pop were in a newly built house with nooks and crannies in which the boys would hide and pretend to be animals hibernating in caves. Middle-Man, part dinosaur from birth, also chose these “caves” as his carnotaurus lair and would play into Pop’s Jurassic Park make-believe games by retreating there with his “kill” (saltine crackers) after the two engaged in ferocious battle. When The Girl was born, Thursdays would have been chaotic were it not for Mom’s amiable nature that permitted the boys to turn her living room into a massive kingdom of forts while she finished their favorite dinners of chicken and dumplings or baked wings with crispy potato rounds. Pop meanwhile, was completely smitten with The Girl. Early on, the two were bosom buddies and spent every Thursday at the dining room table with felt tip pens and stacks of paper doodling through the evening. She wasn’t even a year old when she had her first drawing lesson.
“Circles,” Pop would say, guiding her tiny hand. “You have to learn circles before anything else.”
And she would sit there, content in her high chair, sipping on her milk in between circles, while he sipped on a merlot beside her.
They eventually advanced to other shapes until The Girl caught on, just as I had thirty years prior. If she asked sweetly, Pop would draw her anything she wanted. Pop, an old school architect -- an artifact in a field that once employed skilled artists but eventually went the way of digital design -- could turn anything into a fascinating picture.
“Pick a letter,” he’d say.
“P!” she’d exclaim.
And before her eyes, the letter P would become a flamingo bending its neck into a pond.
It didn’t stop there. When the kids were learning “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie,” they went home with pictures of apple pie convertibles zooming off to a levee. Middle-Man had collections of dinosaur sketches. Golden Boy, who borrowed and returned a back issue of Model Railroader Magazine from Pop each week, had stacks of train drawings. And The Girl had pictures of every animal known to man as well as the New York City skyline and strange illustrations, like a banana in a trench coat.
When Pop died, I mourned Thursdays almost as much as I mourned him. All five of us did. The boys missed the forts and the caramel sundaes after supper. My husband missed the last couple of years when his schedule eased up and he’d finish a bottle of wine with Pop as The Girl colored and I chatted with Mom. And The Girl? Well, she missed her best pal, something fierce. Deep down, I always knew those years were precious, and each Thursday as I closed the door behind us, I took one last look at Mom and Pop together at the dining room table, old but able, and I’d whisper a prayer that time would stand still.
The Girl was only seven when Pop died, and my greatest fear was that she hadn’t had enough time with him to remember everything about him. I went into overdrive, keeping his memory alive. I hung pictures of him with the kids on empty wall spaces. I framed his sketches and hung those up too. I added “Pop Pops, pray for us” to the end of every prayer. I brought his name up whenever possible. (“You know who also loved buttered noodles? Pop Pops.”) It’s been almost two years. And as her mentions of Pop dwindle, I fear I haven’t done enough and time will have its ugly way on The Girl and Pop will be but a sweet snippet of her childhood.
Then a few days ago, she brought home from school a picture she drew of a donut. It was quite good. The edges were rounded in three dimensions. The icing was cleverly drawn and filled in. The sprinkles were perfectly scaled, and she’d even drawn an identical donut on the opposite side of the paper a little off to the left so that when you held it up to a window, the donut had a shadow.
“Wow! This is really good,” I said, admiring her work. And then out of habit, I added. “Pop Pops would love it.”
The Girl smiled down at her picture and let out a longing sigh.
“Especially since all I used was circles,” she said with satisfaction.
She ran off to hunt down tape and I caught my breath.
She remembered. In everything I’d tried to hold onto for her, I’d forgotten the circles. But she remembered them without me.
I find that it’s this desperate grip on the past that is the most difficult part of grief. It’s what prevents me from advancing and at the same time, it’s what comforts me the most. If I cling to Thursday nights too much, the present hurts. If I don’t cling, I fear I’ll have to face their absence. But it’s a hyper-nostalgia tug-of-war not limited to those who’ve passed on.
Thursdays are now my busiest day of the week. Between the hours of 3:30 and 8:30 p.m., I’m Uber Mom, driving to and from ballet, football, and swim team. Somewhere in there, I make dinner, answer homework questions, and nag until chores are completed. In the back of my mind are work deadlines and tomorrow’s to-do list. One might say, “I don’t know how she does it.” My answer would be, I do it because I learned from the best.
Mom never seemed to stop when I was growing up. When I began school, she started working part-time again. But when the dismissal bell rang, she was waiting for me at home, ready to shuttle her kids here and there, make dinner from scratch, and even bake a homemade dessert every hump day. When I was twelve, she went to grad school. A competitive swimmer in her youth, she took to it again and swam between classes. Then she started a brand new career, while still managing to make Pop his favorite chicken, attend each of my performances, babysit my cousin’s children, and volunteer with her church group. She did it all -- my first example of a good hustle. What better to draw from on the days when it seems I’ll never make it to the finish line.
Except that Mom is eighty-years-old now, and she can’t do what she used to do. Mom walks with a walker. Making dinner is often too difficult for her. She no longer drives or volunteers, and going places is a trial for her mobility. It was determined after Pop died that it would be best for her to not live alone, so she moved in with me. She is now part of my hustle, the hustle I learned from her. And while I’m grateful for the blessing to be there for her, to still have a mother, I’m embarrassed to say that my longing for the past clouds my appreciation for the present. Many days when I walk into her room to kiss the top of her head, I stand back and look at her, picturing her rushing out the door way back when. My heart lurches as if I’m grieving her already. And then I hate myself for taking her presence for granted. The worst part about getting older isn't getting older. The worst part about getting older is that our parents get older too. And it isn’t just because it’s hard to care for them. It’s because mortality ceases to be a tabled issue. It’s haunting, reminding us what we were once too young to concern ourselves with: Nothing lasts forever. Eras are fleeting, eras like a mother’s unstoppable, amazing hustle -- hustles that captivate a daughter. One day, my hustle will stop and The Girl will look at me as if I’ve already left. It scares the living shit out of me. So I beg time to hold still like I used to on those sweet Thursday nights and I will the old Mom back, aggravating the crap out of her all the way.
Finally one day she said to me, “Please tolerate me as I am.” I’d gone too far. I felt like such a turd. It was only because I loved her so much that I pushed her to her limits.
I know enough to know that it doesn’t matter how old you are when you lose a parent. You still feel like a child. I’ve felt like a child for the last two years, and I guess somewhere in my psyche, I stomped my feet and threw a tantrum in a rage of denial so the past wouldn’t vanish. I pushed it onto every wall, into every conversation, and out of my mother. But in my attempt to control time, I failed to see what was most important to those around me. My girl only got seven years with Pop. But for the rest of her life, every time she draws a circle, he’ll live within her. Time may take some memories from her, but she will keep the ones that are most important to her. My mother may no longer rush out the door with unstoppable energy, but she is as alive today as she was then. All she wanted back then was to be appreciated and loved. I know because every Thursday night between ballet, sports, and supper, that’s all I want now. And that’s all she wants today. In the present. In the time we have.
Check out my latest article in Mississippi Magazine's "Southern Stories" section. In it, I share the remarkable story of finding my family's long-lost cookbook in an antique shop and also some of my favorite recipes from within its yellowing pages. Available for download or single issue purchase.