Elegant setting and gorgeous music notwithstanding, I started dreading the next year’s concert as soon as the first one ended. Of course I forgave the person who compiled the program; I hadn’t taken leave of all the pillars of Catholicism (just the guilt). The real sticking point for me was the contrast of my mom singing “Silent Night” with the memory of my dad struggling to communicate after his surgery. His frustration was unspeakable, unforgettable, imprinted on my DNA. I’d made an uneasy peace with an empty seat at the table, but a crowded pew was too much; my dad’s absence took up the whole bench. Sitting there flanked by toddlers who wouldn’t remember their grandfather, I felt like Our Lady of Sorrows herself.
The following December, I plotted an array of traditions intended to stave off this sadness: holiday cards, an Advent calendar, cookies in every shape, size and sprinkle color. I even dragged my kids to a lightly-advertised winter solstice soiree at the Starbucks I used as an office, thinking it would be good for them to see where I worked. When I asked the barista what time the festivities would start (the store was empty), she sliced a lemon loaf, plunked it on a cardboard plate and said, flatly, “How about now.”
We left after a steel drum version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came on — holiday music was still my weakness — only to find that our car had been towed. In my haste to get to my fake party, I’d parked in a bus stop.
The choir concert loomed on my calendar in red ink. Every time my mom left my house, she made sure I knew where to sit and how impossible it would be to park. (For the record, the parking lot is mall sized.) By the time the afternoon was upon us, I knew the order of the songs, the name of the harpist and the curriculum vitae of the soloists.
This time, the program included my mom and was six pages shorter than it had been the year before, a blessing for restless grandchildren. As the choir filed up the aisle, my mom gave me a little wave. She wore a new robe — blue, flowing, majestic — prompting one of my kids to ask, “Why is Marmee wearing a nightgown?” There was no misery this time, just candles and wind instruments and a sublime rendition of “Away in a Manger” from the children’s choir. When I scanned the church, I spotted several of my parents’ old friends. How had I missed them the year before?
Later, as we placed ornaments on the tree, my mom said, “Well, it looks like we made it.”
I realized — as I would hundreds of times over the next two decades — that this was not my second act, it was my mom’s. She didn’t want my script; she had her own libretto. She will never move to the beach or to a cozy studio near Lincoln Center. She won’t get a microwave, a flat screen television or even the internet. She won’t sign up for Match.com.
My mom has her cats, her music and her grandchildren. We no longer need a babysitter, but we’re grateful for all the years she showed up with homemade meatballs. She watched every episode of “Phineas and Ferb” and “Good Luck Charlie.” She drove my kids to swimming, dance and basketball, insisting on Mozart in the minivan. When they hit adolescence, they celebrated their independence, accepted their prickliness and embraced everything about them except their “godforsaken music.”
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