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The long arm of the mom

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

I’m an only child. Mom had me in November 1963, then decided she was good. Dad was gone by the time I was out of diapers, but that’s a story for another day.

LISTEN TO “The long arm of the mom”

I applaud mom’s chutzpah, though it was more likely blind luck, in gambling I’d not disappoint her so much as to require another child.

I myself have four kids, thus maximizing my chances of having one or more that will put up with me and drive me for tacos when I’m no longer able (and, if I’m truly lucky, will help when things get real dicey at the end, as they often do).

Mom must have had close to no extra money when she was raising me. We didn’t have a nice car. We rented a series of houses and apartments throughout my childhood. Still, I felt spoiled. Her love wasn’t secret. It wasn’t withheld, or conditional. She was a hugger, a sharer, and a full-time, unwavering supporter.

I learned from a very early age that you let the people you love know it, every day and often, both in word and in action.

Mom’s love never waned, even when I was a jerk teenager and kept her up ‘til dawn waiting for me to return from my latest punk rock misadventure.

I became an apprentice adult somewhere around 22. I was a “late bloomer” to put a rose-colored spin on it. Even so, mom was still taking care of me.

My best friend still ribs me about a day when we were visiting mom at her Pomona home. As we rose to leave, mom asked me, “Do you need some money, sweetheart?” My friend was astounded a 20-something’s mom would offer up such a kindness. She also thought it kind of ridiculous. She was right, of course, on both counts.

I married at 23 and mom was all-in. Divorced a few years later, she was still right there. Married again in 1999, she was supportive as ever. When the babies began arriving a couple years later, it was über grandma time. She took them for overnights, and drove out to our place in Venice for regular visits. I always knew I’d hit the mom mega super jackpot, but not until my own kids were born did it truly hit home.

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. It was bad, but treatable. I was radiated, my surgeon cut out the tumor, then I was hit with some more radiation. Mom was there for all of that too.

But soon after that things began to shift; mom began to feel ill herself, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She too had radiation and surgery. This time I was there for her. She bounced back, mostly, but her effervescence was clearly in decline.

In the summer of 2008 we moved to Claremont, ostensibly for the great schools, but also to help mom.

It turned out to be a well-timed change.

In 2010 my grandfather — with whom mom had lived since my grandmother’s 1988 death — died at 96. He had lived a long life, but it was a very rough and painful final couple of years.
Then in 2012 mom’s beloved best friend and only surviving sister, Judy, died of pancreatic cancer.

She was never the same after that. Depression, which had been nipping at her heels for years, now took a firm hold. She’d perk up when we managed to pry her out of her house, but it was increasingly difficult. Her grandkids would visit and spend the night, but she was losing her enthusiasm for most everything.

Then my own family fractured in 2013. My wife and I split up.

With mom’s physical and mental health deteriorating, she would still ask how I was doing and if I needed anything. I toggled between being virtually useless to her and cherishing her, consumed with parenting three small children through a tumultuous, protracted divorce.

Mom’s breast cancer recurred in 2016. Much to my disappointment, she refused treatment, telling her oncologist she didn’t have another battle in her. They gave her three to six months.
I spent all the time I could with her and for a while allowed myself to forget what was coming. She did too, for as long as she could.

I moved in after Christmas 2016 when it became clear she needed round-the-clock help. She outlasted her prognosis, dying at home on January 7, 2017 after making it through one final holiday season with her grandchildren.

It turned out what I’d thought was temporary became permanent. Mom left me her home, and my kids joined me there.

One of the many things mom collected were photos. Her house was full: ancient, delicate, sepia-toned great-great uncles, aunts and cousins; glossy 1940s snapshots of her and her sisters, some of her mother and handsome father, blurry 1970s family picnics, lots of me, her grandchildren, and everything in between.

It took some time to make mom’s home ours. That process was still well underway in March 2020.

The first pandemic project I undertook, in the bad old quarantine days of late March and early April 2020, was to create a family and friends “wall of love” in the hallway.

One by one, I took everything down mom had hanging there. Over two days I replaced them with photos of my own life, my own children and loved ones. I re-hung several of mom’s treasured images as well.

Nearly two years later the “wall of love” has grown and mom’s house feels even more like ours. Soon I’ll be married, again, and my fiancé Lisa and two of her children will join me and my two school-aged kids in our small 1954 home.

Going from three to six has necessitated an expansion, and with my betrothed’s help, we are clearing out a lifetime of old boxes from the garage in anticipation of converting it to living space. Most of the stuff is mine, but about 1/3 was mom’s, including a massive trove of, yes, photos.

As Lisa and I were poring through the mountain of stuff once deemed important enough to stash away, we began pulling photos out of their frames and placing them in a flat file for storage.

One of those mementos — an old-timey black-and-white department store snap of a very young me in a very jaunty sailor suit — had been on display in mom’s home since I can remember. Embarrassed by it as a kid, as I aged and had kids of my own I’d come to appreciate its innocent 1960s cuteness.

It felt wrong to separate it from its frame, but archiving hundreds (thousands?) of family photos was a necessary task.

As I pulled open the old frame, I was instantly transported back to that day in the ‘90s when mom asked 20-something me if I needed money; something caught my attention that was a visceral reminder of her lifetime of loving, selfless care: it was a crisp 100 dollar bill.

The tears came then. Of course she left a $100 for me behind a photo she knew I’d likely take down. Of course she did. I felt her reach through these past five years, into our lives without her, and give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Do you need some money, sweetheart?”

No mom, I’m good. But it’s sure nice to hear from you again.

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