The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 9, 2008


You never stop learning from your mother


Penny Collins Zezima and her mom, Nell, circa 1962. (Courtesy photo)

File this under “Things they never told you:” there is always something new your mother can teach you, even when she is no longer around. When my mother passed away 35 years ago, I thought certain doors were irrevocably closed to me: I would never get to know her better, as an adult and a mother, and she would not be there to give me any guidance. I could not have been more wrong.

At unexpected times and from around surprising corners come new insights into my mother. For instance, it wasn’t until last year that I came to the realization that my mother and I share a penchant for prowling consignment shops. One day, out of nowhere, came a memory of shopping trips with my mom to a strangely named store called The Bicycle Shop. I say strangely named because they sold no bicycles. Granted, I was around five at the time, but even at that young age I noticed the lack of wheeled vehicles. I didn’t care, though, because while my mother chatted with the shopkeeper in the front room, I went into the back room, where there was the most magical collection of princess attire that could be purchased for $1 per paper-bag-full. I became an expert at tulle compression, so I was able to bring home three gorgeous confections of pink tulle and chiffon, worthy of the most elegant of royalty. I realize now that they were used prom dresses, and that the store my mother paid so many visits to was a consignment shop called The Buy Cycle Shop. I always wondered at my mother’s strange pronunciation of the shop’s name, but I chalked it up to her being Southern. Now, whenever I stroll through a consignment shop, I feel a lovely extra connection with my mom.

My daughter’s childhood, when I thought I would miss my mother’s help the most, became instead a time of happy revelation to me. Many people, including my older brothers who should know, have commented through the years on how much my daughter reminded them of me as a child, both in good traits and exasperating ones. So often, as I watched my girl grow up, it would occur to me, “Oh my gosh, I remember doing that,” and suddenly a new understanding of my mother’s experience would dawn on me.

Times when I formerly was sure I must have driven her crazy, I now suspected she had found highly amusing, because that was my reaction. After so many years, and without my mother being there to tell me so, it finally occurred to me that my mother might have actually gotten a kick out of raising her late-in-life daughter. I had always known my mother loved me, but now I felt she had enjoyed me as well.

Recently, it has been my mother who has helped me most during a difficult time. When I learned last year that my son was to be stationed with the military in Afghanistan for four months, I felt lost and frightened. I knew no one with whom I could share these feelings because I didn’t know anyone whose child was living in a war zone. Then a memory long-buried in the daily detritus of my mind resurfaced from 1968. My brother Ed was in Vietnam; I was fifteen and it was Mother’s Day. Flowers arrived with a card that read “Flowers from your faraway son,” and my mother glowed with a light that I realize now had been absent for a while. The flowers took pride of place on the baby grand piano; my mother enthused over the anthurium and the bird of paradise, exotic blooms I had never seen before and believed came all the way from Southeast Asia. My overall perception of the day was mild confusion – why was mom so excited over a bunch of flowers?

Of course, I see so much more now, but what I only saw recently was the reason that this delivery did not seem so momentous to me: my mother never made a melodrama over what must have been one of the hardest years she ever experienced. She worked hard to keep life as normal as possible for everyone around her, no matter what shape her life was in. Every day she put one foot in front of the other, taught her classes, saw her friends, took care of her family.

I remember one co-worker being surprised to learn of Ed’s deployment only when his wife and daughter came to live with us for a while. Mom’s one concession to this new reality was to go to Mass every morning; otherwise outwardly nothing changed.

It has taken all these many years for me to see this strength on my mother’s part, and now, in my son’s second spring in Afghanistan, it serves as a guidepost for me. One step at a time, one day at a time – it gets me through. I never stop learning from my mother. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito