Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Another Empty Chair

My mother is just short of her 86th birthday. She's had a long and full life.

She was a great story teller. She loved to tell stories about when she was young, during the Great Depression.

Even how she got her name, Stephanie, was a story. She was the youngest of her sisters. One of her older sisters was named Stephanie. When my Mom was born, my grandfather had been drinking, and really like the name, so... He had two Stephanies.
Eventually, the older one came to be known by Stella, and my Mom retained Stephanie.

Remember those old "Little Rascals" film clips? According to her, they could have been a documentary. For example, every time the dog catcher parked his truck on their street, he would be sure to find flat tires, his battery missing, and all the dogs released.

... then there was the time when she was 12, and got into a fist fight with a nun. Apparently, she had no fear of authority figures from an early age.

Up until the very end, anything she set her hands to became a work of art. She painted fine china, made Dresden porcelain dolls, and even recently crocheted a beautiful dress for my little niece.

What she was known for, however, was dressmaking. Dressmaking is the more common term, but what she did would more properly be known as courtier work. Courtier work is characterized by the attention to fine detail and workmanship.

Her mother died when my Mom was very young. She found her mother's sewing machine in the attic, and taught herself how to sew.

She had a bridal shop, Stephanie's, on Joy Rd, in Detroit, for decades. A common story would be for her to have made a baptism gown for a little girl, who would come back a few years later for a communion dress, then a prom dress, then finally a wedding gown. A few years after that, that same young woman would be ordering a baptism gown for her own child.

If someone came in and said that the price was no object, my Mom would take them at their word; but she couldn't help outfitting a less wealthy bride whom she liked far beyond what she could pay, or even for nothing.

She made a lot of dresses at the store, but not a lot of money.

My Mom's knack for creativity has found it's way down to my two daughters.

And of course, with the store, comes more stories. My favorite one involved a motorcycle gang who had moved into the adjoining building, whom she sort of adopted; or maybe they adopted her.

One day, a young punk came into the bridal shop, and what he intended was to intimidate my Mom and shake her down, along with the ladies who worked there, for whatever cash they had on hand.

My Mom could think pretty quickly on her feet and started speaking to him in Polish, pretending she didn't understand him; while telling one of the ladies (in Polish) to go out the back door and get "the boys."

Well, the boys showed up. The next thing he heard was "why don't you come with us." They escorted him out, and he never came back.

She loved entering sweepstakes and contests. When she first started, I was in high school, and she won a trip to Chicago to have lunch with Alex Karras and watch the Lions play the Bears. After that early success, she was hooked.

There were plenty of contests she didn't win, and she had her share of t shirts and baseball caps, but she won a lot of really nice stuff too. An entertainment center, some trips; in fact, I got to see the Olympics in Montreal, in 1976, because of a contest she won.

Trips were her favorite prize. She loved to travel. She had been to Europe several times, she cruised up the Alaskan Inside Passage several times - once she was traveling alone, and signed up to blindly share a cabin with a stranger chosen at random. She ended up with a hooker who was on vacation. I bet she had some stories.

She's been to Australia twice, and even rode a camel in North Africa.

She took some of her nieces on a couple of trips, and I think it influenced one of them to go on and work in the travel industry. Today, she works for an airline.

I think perhaps the strangest thing she won was breakfast cereal. Lots of it.

One day the doorbell range, and UPS delivered a case of cereal. The next day it rang again, and we got another case. After that, we didn't want to answer the door anymore.

I thought we were all set for birthday and Christmas gifts, but my wife thought we should donate it to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and so we did.

Up until a few months ago, she was still cranking out those contest entries. It didn't matter what she won, she just liked winning something.

... and she loved dogs. The only bigger dog lover might have been my Dad.

When they lived in Detroit, they had a neighbor who had several dogs, but took wretched care of them.

So - she just took one dog away from them and wouldn't give it back. For another one, she found another home - my sister in law and her husband, and placed it there. That little dog thought he had died and gone to Heaven.

It wasn't all fun and games though. She had quite a few rough spots in her life.

Before the US entered into WWII, many Americans enlisted in the Canadian Army to go fight in Europe. She married one of them, 2 weeks before he was to ship out with the Canadian Commandos.

She never saw him again. She was a widow at 20.

She married my Dad, the next door neighbor, after the war. I'm the youngest of three sons. My brothers came along right away, there was a big gap, then I was born.

My oldest brother died in a car accident when he was 21. I was only 10, but I can still remember what a blow it was to her.

About 15 years ago, out of the blue, by Dad had a heart attack and died shortly after. Almost 3 months to the day later, my other brother died as a result of a gun accident.

My Mom moved in with her sister, and best friend, Helen.

Almost 10 years ago, my Mom had her first stroke. The main damage she suffered was to the part of the brain that connects where a thought originates, and where it is expressed. Basically, she couldn't speak or even write her thoughts. It was terribly frustrating, especially to her, as social as she was, but she adapted.

A few months after that, she fell and broke her hip. While she was in the hospital, I had to tell her that her sister, her best friend Helen, died of a massive heart attack.

She moved into an assisted living home where she stayed for several years. While there, I had to bring her the news that her favorite niece died of cancer.

A couple of years ago, as a result of her not being able to quite take care of herself adequately, and her having developed diabetes, she moved into a nursing home.

On Wednesday, she had another stroke. A big one. Today they moved her into hospice.

The reason I bring all of this up, is because no matter what she went through, no matter how small her world became, or what new restrictions were placed on her, she simply loved her life.

She appreciated her life. She simply didn't have it in her to complain. She didn't have any room or use for it.

If she taught me anything, it was from her example. She accepted whatever life brought her - "Thy will be done" - and made the very best of it.

She could daydream and imagine along with the best of them, but she never forgot that all the "would haves, could haves, should haves" don't add up to a hill of beans.

You life is what you choose to make of it.

Even towards the end, when she was restricted to bed rest and could do little else but read and watch TV, She found a reason to get up every morning and look forward to the day.

She appreciated her life, and she appreciated the people who came into it, in whatever way.

I was talking to some of the workers at the nursing home, and they told me how even though she couldn't speak, how appreciated she made them feel for coming in and doing their jobs to take care of her. Every day. Every time. Without fail.

If my Mom could speak for herself, she'd want to thank everyone. She can't, so I will. Thank you.

Good bye, Mom. We'll miss you.


Empty Chairs

A table full of empty chairs,
Reminders of Christmas past.
The children were too young to know
That's where Grandpa used to sit.
The brother who couldn't make the flight.
Close cousins becoming strangers.
The daughter with her friends,
the son at his in-laws house.
The party becoming smaller, quieter.
The children grown,
their table put away.
They have lives of their own,
each has a full house...and not enough chairs.

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