by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Halloween was one of The Mother’s favorite holidays, which, on the surface, was slightly incongruous. But her beloved grandmother’s birthday was on Halloween, and her death marked one of my mother’s biggest life losses. So to honor her Gran, The Mother decorated our house with somewhat antique Halloween decorations. Every year, the same spiders and witches and ghouls on our windows, never anything truly scary and always with a bit of fun to celebrate the season, and, by extension, her beloved Gran.
She put out buckets of candy on the front porch if we weren’t going to be present for trick-or-treaters, and, when the razor blades started to show up in candy bars (this was the 80s), was one of the few (if not only) mom in our neighborhood to switch to pencils or other non-edible items as a Halloween giveaway (something that didn’t make me popular in grade school, but then, nothing did).
Our youth pastor’s birthday was also on Halloween; one year, The Mother got Big Sis and I up on Halloween at the crack of ever-lovin’ dawn to go fill his church office with balloons before he got there. We were late for school; she wrote us notes. We had a blast. Even after she moved in with me and then when her health derailed and failed, there were always pumpkins and window decorations, even a few wonky gourds. One night, I came home from the day job to find a witch had slammed into my front door–face first.
Her love of Halloween is one of the many things I neglected to share about The Mother when I gave the eulogy in January at her celebration service. I’d planned to write it out rather than do my usual pantser protocol, but I wound up instead staying up till 4 AM the night before, scanning old photos to put into a slide show (that never happened because of a technical miscommunication) while scribbling down notes on a cue card as scattered thoughts about her life came to me.
So pants it, I did.
Grief is a motherfucker that screws with you left, right, and center, and one of the many ways it’s dicked with me over the last nine or so months is the regret I feel when I think of something long forgotten about The Mother–usually while driving or showering or, (awkwardly), while sitting across from my OKCupid date–now that I’ve lost the designated platform on which to share it. I expect there will be years of these moments when something 20 years old or more that I learned from her, or because of her, will come to me, sparking the never-far-from-reach grief back into the foreground of my life.
Halloween is tomorrow and while my personal appreciation for the event has ebbed and flowed over the years (I don’t find it entertaining to be scared, but I do like to wear costumes), I thought this an appropriate time to share a few of the things The Mother taught me that I failed to share back then. This will not be everything–there is likely not enough bandwidth in the world for that. But it’s a taste of who she was and why I loved her madly. Thank you in advance, lovely Lady Smutters, for this indulgence.
Always drive a block ahead. That way, you can see what you’re headed toward. I still do to this day, even if it’s at 80 mph.
Know your material and you cannot fail. As a young woman, The Mother played professional accordion. She hated it; she wanted to play the piano, but my grandfather told her they couldn’t afford a piano, so accordion it was. She’d happily left it behind by the time I came along, but would pick up piano lessons here and there until her arthritis or her financials made it impossible. Once, she forgot her music and played an entire gig completely from memory.
The sign of a true professional is in their recovery. The Mother was at nearly every voice lesson I took. She actively tried not to listen to my lessons because she didn’t want the instructor to feel as though two people were learning for the price of one. My voice teachers never saw it that way, but that was The Mother. I made many mistakes when I performed, I can’t think of any performance where something didn’t go wrong, but she had long ago taught me that professionalism isn’t in being flawless, it’s in recovering and carrying on to an excellent finish no matter what.
Put your clothes out the day before an event. This way, you can see if you need stockings/pantyhose and get to the store before Sunday morning. This was a a lesson almost always related to being ready for church on Sunday morning. I rarely was, ready that is, and the few times I was solely happened because I followed The Mother’s instructions and laid my clothes out the night before. She’d be tickled, no doubt, to know I now mentally prep my day job wardrobe, sometimes even planning multiple days ahead at once. The Mother was big on “being prepared” and often laid us down for camp and whatnot with preventative items no one else would think of (but which are now fairly commonplace), which is probably why in my purse now there are band aids, wet wipes, antiseptic gel, eye drops, eyeglass repair kit (even though I wear my contacts every day), wallet, checkbook, protein bar, backup charger for my mobile, compact, business cards (in a business card holder, natch), 14,000 lipsticks, three pairs of sunglasses (in case one or the other breaks), breath mints, and a small hairbrush. I carry a big purse. Sue me.
Carry condoms. Don’t rely on the guy; protect yourself. If you’re not too embarrassed to have sex, you can’t be too embarrassed to buy your own condoms. The Mother was an RN and spoke frankly and naturally about sex to her two (mortified) teenage daughters. Mortified or not, we grew up with a healthy “yeah, and?” attitude about where we came from and what was happening to us through puberty. Though not one to go so far as actually hand out condoms to her teenage daughters, when I went to the senior prom as a junior in high school, The Mother wrote me this beautiful, emotional note about not giving my virginity away, but to be sure I was making the choice to end it, if that’s what I decided. There was no shame or recrimination in her words, no talk of morality or religion, merely the recognition of opportunity and the desire to be sure her daughter was as prepared for such an event as she could make her–and above all know she was loved no matter what decision she made. Though I didn’t read the note until the next morning, she had nothing to worry about. She’d taught me well enough already.
Be proud of your beliefs, but always, *always*, respect others who believe differently. I grew up in a community with a predominantly Jewish population. Most families who weren’t Jewish were Catholic. My family was (is) evangelical fundamentalists. Around Easter when I was in 5th or 6th grade, it became trendy in evangelical churches to have a “Birthday Party for Jesus!”. I don’t know why this was around Easter and not Christmas, but whatever. Maybe I remember it wrong. What I don’t remember wrong is that The Mother called each and every Jewish family in my class to explain that their lack of an invitation to this party was out of respect for their beliefs and the desire not to insult them with such an invitation that they would have to refuse as the party was in direct opposition to Jewish teachings. She didn’t want the kids to feel excluded or rejected, but she also didn’t want to put their parents in an untenable situation. I don’t remember the conversation that led to me being made aware of this, but I remember the complete “of course I did” attitude with which she told me. It was the natural, respectful, and appropriate thing to do. So she did it. That too was The Mother.
Stand up for what’s right, even when your kid might hate you for it. Sophomore year of high school, I delayed a term paper on Edgar Allen Poe for months. When I was finally given a firm deadline, I wrote the thing in a Coco-Cola infused rush that had my 15-year-old self bouncing off the walls at 2 AM. I got an A on the paper; the teacher said it was one of the best things he’d ever read from a student. The Mother was aghast; she thought this rewarding of my procrastination and late-night cramming was not teaching me how to plan for adult life. She told my teacher and principal this when she dragged me into the principal’s office to demand my grade be lowered. Yes, lowered. The principal, already well aware of the futility of opposing The Mother when she was in a state–and right–order the (amused) teacher to lower my grade. I got an A-.
Play to your strengths, but never sell yourself short. She always pushed us forward, even, no, especially when we didn’t want to move. She liked to tell the story of how I screamed at her all the way up Millburn Ave after my first English honors class, yelling how it was not for me and she had to get me out of that level because the kids in that class used words like “eloquent” and “moving” to describe a poem when all I could come up with was “I liked it”. (Incidentally, this was the same class in which I wrote the Poe term paper six months later.) She insisted I stay, and she was right to do so. She also taught me to recognize when all the eloquent and movings of the world are simply complete bullshit. Throughout the rest of my life, the phrase “eloquent and moving” was one we used to recognize when it was all just bullshit and I needed to press on.
The Mother was a great cook, but a self-confessed crap baker, creative, but completely incapable of sewing anything. She once, under protest and due to extreme best-friend pressure, helped with the children’s Christmas pageant costumes; hers was the only donkey with crooked ears. Her creativity shined in decoration and hospitality. She was the Hospitality Coordinator for our church for many years, a full-time job on its own, and put on extensive missions’ banquets for hundreds of people, creative Superbowl parties to be enjoyed around evening service, somber funerals, and monthly pastoral breakfasts for some of the leading evangelical figures of our era. Big or small, each event under her tenure featured The Mother’s special flare.
She was uncomfortable in front of people, but determined to be heard. Little phased or cowed her. The Mother was one of the few women in our church of her generation to have a full-time job and not be a stay-at-home mom once Big Sis and I were full-time grade school students, and boy, did she catch flack about that. She loved the ocean but never learned to swim. She could (and did!) sit for hours on the rocks on Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine and watch the tide go in and out. She loved antique stores and at one time collected silver spoons and antique books. She was terrified of fire and of the dark, almost irrationally so. She adored music, especially classical and jazz, and took particular pleasure in complex and unusual arrangements. About ten years ago, I got her tickets to see Itzhak Perlman at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. Her joy was too great for words. When they saw her alone with her walker (I could only afford the one ticket, so I took her in and turned her over to a docent charged with her care), the staff upgraded her to an empty seat in a box right above the stage from where she was able to see Perlman’s hands move on the strings of his violin. He played the entire concert from memory, choosing pieces at random that sent his pianist scrambling through pages, while Perlman merely tuned up and dredged the notes from whichever memory vault in which they’d been stored; The Mother was gobsmacked. When she emerged from the concert, she was bubbling over with effervescent glee. A life-long dream realized. The ticket hangs on her bedroom wall to this day.
We once went to a piano recital at the Steinway store; I made sure to get us seats where she’d be able to see the pianist’s hands. She didn’t only want to hear the music, she needed to see the excellence with which it was crafted. She thought herself Salieri to everyone else’s Mozart, able to recognize the genius but not produce it herself. She was wrong; she sang in church choirs her whole life until her steroid breathing treatments stole her voice. She often said her biggest fear was of losing her mind and her voice; she felt those were the only things of her worth mentioning. She was humble and gracious, truly appreciative for what people gave and shared with her, honored to be the one with whom they did. She was also demanding and picky, sometimes hard to please because of both, even as she took genuine joy and pleasure in the smallest and simplest of things Big Sis and I did or gave her. We are lucky women to know how proud she was of us and how much we were loved because she told us every day. Yet she could also be judgmental about how things should be. A properly complex and challenging lady.
Remember to be silly and laugh at life. Our family vacations were spent in the Pocono Mountains and usually involved my father, bless him, making an extra trip up in our VW Rabbit with luggage and supplies. Back then, the closest supermarket was a 45-minute drive away, so we brought everything in with us. One year, after we’d arrived and were all unpacking, we heard The Mother laughing hysterically from her bedroom. She’d packed every single pair of shoes she owned…and not a single pair of underpants. Every time she pulled out a new pair of shoes from another bag, she started laughing all over again, until she and I and Big Sis were sprawled across the bed giggling our asses off.
She once ran out of the house for work in a flurry, coat on, briefcase in hand, turned around to lock the front door, looked down…and realized she’d completely forgotten to put on her skirt. She was standing there on the front stoop in her full suit and overcoat and her half slip. While working for a healthcare review company (a job she loathed, as it made patient care into a numbers game), The Mother did a short stint with nail extensions. She didn’t even make it home before the cackling began–she’d stuck the extension into the seat-belt holder. Then she couldn’t figure out how to pick her nose with the extensions on. The list went on and on. She once, incensed by her job, drank an unusual two glasses of wine on an empty stomach, and only afterwards remembered she and my father had an event that night at church. We wound up keeping a book to record the silliness–which we called “The Book”–and the phrase “put it in The Book!” became regular lexicon for our family.
There’s no reason to be afraid of old people. The Mother worked in nursing homes. She was a gerontologist with a true heart for the elderly. From a young age, she had Big Sis and I visit her at the nursing home where she worked. She introduced us around and we even “adopted” a woman named Gladys as our honorary grandmother. Gladys went on to get her high school diploma at the age of 90 and we were there for her graduation. I don’t remember how or when Gladys died, but I remember how she lived and what she accomplished no matter her age. That too was The Mother.
Choose your signature scent. The Mother always smelled good. Chanel No 5 and Red and Shalimar and White Linen. These were the scents that would waft over me when she bent over my bed to kiss me goodbye before she left for work. She once told me a story of being at a bar when she was in nursing school. A guy she was dating at the time was there with another girl, but he had yet to notice The Mother was also there, and not so very far away either. It wasn’t too long though before she heard him say, “I smell Shalimaaaarie! I didn’t know you were here!”
Always leave the dance with the man who brought you. The Mother dated. She was a size six and 5’7″ in the 60s with hazel eyes and red/brown hair, so yeah, she was a hot ticket. At one point, she dated five guys at the same time who all had names that started with “D”. But when there were three guys waiting for her at the hospital front desk, she went out the back door with my father.
Goodbye is not forever. When I was fourteen and had to have spinal tumors removed, life-threatening tumors that were wrapped around my abdominal aorta, The Mother, the RN, had to let me go into the operating room alone to face death and maybe conquer it. (Spoiler alert: I did.) She couldn’t and didn’t know whether she would again see me alive. But she had faith that she would see me soon one way or the other–either in this life or in eternity. And so the last thing she said to me before they wheeled me away was “see you soon” trusting that indeed, she would. After that life-changing event, whenever we took leave of one another, for the day, for a month, for however long we’d be apart, we would say “see you soon”, sure that we indeed would do just that, one way or the other.
When I took my leave from her after her passing, my final words to her were “see you soon”.
That too, was The Mother.
Kiersten Hallie Krum writes smart, sharp, and sexy romantic suspense. She is the award-winning author of Wild on the Rocks, and its follow-up, SEALed With a Twist. She is also a past winner of the Emily Award for unpublished novels.
A member of the Romance Writers of America, the New Jersey Romance Writers, and the Long Island Romance Writers, Kiersten has been working in book publishing for more than twenty years in marketing and promotion. At other times in her career, she’s worked back stage for a regional theater, managed advertorials for a commerce newspaper in the World Trade Center, and served as senior editor for a pharmaceutical advertising agency.
Writer, singer, editor, traveler, tequila drinker, and cat herder, Kiersten avoids pen names since keeping her multiple personalities straight is hard enough work. Born and bred in New Jersey (and accent free), Kiersten sings as easily, and as frequently, as she breathes, drives fast with the windows down and the music up, likes to randomly switch accents for kicks and giggles, and would be happy to spend all her money traveling for the rest of her life.