Jul 8 2012

The fuschia coat

Hi Mom, Did you see me? I was wearing that bright fuschia jacket. You remember –  the lightweight down one which you used to wear as a winter coat. I never had a chance to ask you if I could take it back with me to Sweden. You had already left by then, but I figured that you wouldn’t mind my taking it. Its more like a jacket on me and it’s been perfect for the chilly Spring and early Summer days we’ve been having here in Stockholm. I never had a chance to say it, but thanks Mom.

I think about you a lot since those days back in December. Every time I’ve worn that jacket I’ve said a silent Hi Mom. But, mostly,  in the evenings, when dinner is done and I haven’t quite decided what to do next, I think of you. I remember how every evening, for the past 4 or 5 years, I would think “Okay, I have to call my mother now”. I admit that it wasn’t always a pleasant thought – it was more like a chore – something I felt I had to do. I always called you, because it was more difficult for you to be able to call me here in Sweden. Since you got sick and had to leave your beloved house in Homestead and moved into Monroe Village, the kind of conversations we would have weren’t really about much of anything anymore – just superficial chatter, both of us trying to be cheerful.  Before I would start up Skype I sat for a bit to try to think of cheerful things I could tell you about my life here in Stockholm.

Back when I was still young and living in New York, I called you quite frequently – just to chat or to ask you your opinion, or how to do something or just quite simply as a sounding board for some of my own thoughts. But I wasn’t able to have those kinds of discussions with you much anymore. Mainly I called just to make sure you were still answering the telephone.  I also was trying to edit what I talked to you about. I tried to only tell you good things – to cheer you up – so you wouldn’t worry about me. Successes Bevin was having in school, what I was working on at work, the funny things our cat had done and what I was making for dinner. If potatoes were involved in the dinner, I always made sure to tell you. You liked hearing about us eating potatoes. I know you tried not to ask but you always wanted to know if I would be coming to visit and when. I know it saddened you when I had to say that I wouldn’t be able to come visit until later. Sometimes I would hear the regret in your voice that you were no longer able to come to see us anymore but I would say, that’s OK we would come to visit you. Later.

If I wanted to discuss something from the past it seemed like you couldn’t remember what I was referring to or maybe it was just that you  didn’t want to remember that long ago. Your days had become a routine of indignities and infirmities and I think you were trying to protect me from hearing about them – to keep me from worrying. And you were always trying to be positive and cheerful too. You would never tell me if you had fallen or hurt yourself. I often found that out much later. I was so glad when you met Marty. The world changed then for you. You had something to look forward to each day and to brighten your life. And when it got really tough the last year, he was always there to be with you. I am so grateful for that. You weren’t so alone.

Its summer now, I’m on vacation and we are at our summer place. A few days ago I was wearing a short-sleeved, navy blue cotton cardigan over my tank top. That was also yours – found in your closet, never worn. I wear it now – its perfect for Swedish summer and I’ll wear the fuschia coat in the winter. That way a part of you is with me all year round.

Jan 10 2012

Lightning flashes and the movies

“How are you doing?” people ask me. “Are you OK?” And in all truth I can answer them, “Yes, I’m OK, I’m doing fine.” I suppose they expect that I should be feeling grief, or great sadness or be suffering a terrible case of mourning after the death of my mother. But I don’t really feel that way. I sort of feel… just…normal. I think it has to do with the fact that for many years now I have lived so far away from her – across an ocean. I maybe only got to see her once a year for about 2 weeks at the most. While we often talked on the phone during that time away, she wasn’t a constant physical presence in my life. I find myself still thinking and acting as though she is still just “over there”. But sometimes I see something or hear something or do something and like a lightning flash through my brain, I think, “oooohh, I have to tell Mom that.” And equally fast, I realize, “Oh, I can’t.” Then comes this deep sadness washing over me momentarily. But soon enough I am once again back to normal until the next time lightning strikes.

I have lived so far away from old friends and family and for such a long time now that I’ve become like one of those old movie projectors. And I have become a repository of old films. I carry around in my head short clips from movies recorded during my life – in Budd Lake, in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, on trips upstate to the Catskills or to Maine or California or back to New Jersey. They replay suddenly against the inside of my skull without warning. I’ve been collecting those clips a long time now – scenes of friends and family I rarely see – frozen in time. A few years ago I met someone who reminded me very much of an old friend in New York. The friend here in Stockholm was in her late 50s but the friend she reminded me of is now in her 70s. If I were to tell the Stockholm friend she reminds me of someone in their 70s she might get insulted. But in truth she reminds me of my friend as she was 20 years ago before I moved away and when the image of her was captured in the movie in my head.

Until I can capture new scenes upon my next visit to the States, I just replay the earlier versions I have stored in my memories. But now, I’m starting to gather a small collection of films that no longer can be updated. My grandmother, my father, and now my mother are among those films. There will be no sequels made of their stories. They remain the same, etched in time and memory – classics. Waiting for me to turn on the projector light and replay them.

Jan 4 2012


Today was my mother’s funeral. The service was at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Wrightstown, NJ, where she will be buried alongside my father. It was a very cold, crisp day but sunny. Here is the eulogy I spoke at the service.

My mother was an artist.

Unfortunately, she was born into a time and a family where being an artist was a luxury that a girl couldn’t afford. The time was the Great Depression and the family was ruled by my grandmother Bertha Littman. When Mom was a young girl, getting a new dress that cost a whole 5 dollars was a major expense and she felt grateful that her parents bought it for her.

WWII was just ending when my mother was about to graduate from High School. She considered the possibility of going on to Cooper Union, an art college in New York City that you didn’t have to pay for. But you had to take a test and you had to have a portfolio to show in order to get in. And you had to believe in yourself. But if you had a mother who believed that the only thing a girl should do was get married, then what was the point of going to College? So, being the good girl who listened to her mother, my mom got a job right after high school and packed away any dreams she had of art school.

She went to work as a secretary for the Navy department and continued to live at home, contributing to the family budget with her salary. But a fellow co-worker suggested they run off and enlist in the Navy, in the women’s division known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She considered it but she had just met my dad and she had my grandmother breathing down her neck with so? so? So instead of going off to see the world she got married and settled down in Jersey City, New Jersey.

7 years later the family moved to Budd Lake in Northern Jersey and there, my mom stayed for the next 34 years. She wasnt idle during those years: she worked full time. She raised 2 kids. She was very active in Temple Shalom, the Reform Synagogue which my parents helped form, several times holding the post of president of the Sisterhood and working hard to raise money to erect a building to house the new congregation.

But she never really forgot the art thing. When I went off to Pratt to study art I think, in a way, I fulfilled the dream she once had for herself. But she used her visual creativity in other ways. She, with my dad’s help, totally transformed the house in Budd Lake after we kids moved out. She used materials in unusual ways. I remember back in the 60s helping her hang wallpaper on the ceiling of our dining room. What a job that was – so unusual and it looked great. She hung exterior wall lamps on a textured, bright red living room wall creating an exciting focal point. She had my dad put up ceramic tile on counter tops in the dining room. Each piece of furniture she chose was different but everything blended together to make a beautiful unified whole. She did the same thing when she and my dad moved to their new home in Homestead. She had the ideas and my dad with his meticulous craftsmanship made it happen. I think she could have been a very successful interior designer in a different life.

I think of her and the generations that have gone before her. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. There on the track ahead of me has been my mom. She had the baton. She got it from her mother. I see mom coming around the bend. I enter the track, jogging towards the hand-off zone. We both run together for awhile until finally, the time is right and Mom hands the baton off to me. I’m off! Running my race through Art School, then life in New York City, then the really big curve – moving to Stockholm. Mom, of course, doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along, until she slows down to stand on the sidelines cheering me on as I run my race. But now my mom is gone. Her race is done.

My mother loved ice cream. She loved potatos. Mah Jongg was her life-long passion. I remember as a child falling asleep to the sound of the tiles being shuffled downstairs in the living room. She liked reading. She liked to write. She wasnt so interested in sitting and discussing the big questions of life that I often tried to engage her in. She would rather be doing things with people. At the end of her life she got to do something she really enjoyed. She edited the Monroe Village Residents newsletter for 18 months. In that she got to write, to fix other peoples articles, to layout the pages and to draw the covers.me and mom

I remember way back in High school I had to read a novel called ”The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder. Now 40 some odd years later, I admit that I no longer remember any characters from the book or what even happened in it. But through all these years, the central theme of that novel has always remained with me: No one is truly dead and gone as long as there is still someone left who loves and remembers them.

I love you mom.

Dec 31 2011

Resting at last

December 29, 2011

My cell phone rings on the night table. I fumble for it thinking it must be time to wake up. I look at the screen, without my glasses, trying to make out where I push to turn off the alarm. But then I realize its not the alarm but a phone call. I have no idea what time it is – but its still dark outside. I push the wrong button and accidentally hang up. The phone rings back. I say “Hi, its Hilarie” to the phone. The phone says, “Hi this is Karen down in Health Care. I’m sorry I have to tell you that your mom just passed away.” It is 1:30 in the morning and December 30th has already started

Karen asks me what I want them to do. I tell her I will throw on some clothes and will come down there. They are very kind when I get there. I go in to see her. I walk up to her bed. I put my hand on her cheek. It is cold but so smooth, as I stroke her face. This is what I came here for – now there are things that need to be done.

I am told that Hospice and a doctor have been called. My cell rings – it is the Hospice Rabbi, Rabbi Kraus. He tells me about my mom but I say that I already know – Health Care found me. He says he has just called my cousin and by that I know that I can also call her. Karel and I talk for a bit then I say that I have to call my husband. Its morning already there in Stockholm. I call him and we talk for a bit. He gets to work making plans to come here – ordering astronomically priced airplane tickets for him and our son.

The funeral parlor is called. They will send someone to come for her. I return to mom’s room and sit in front of this screen. I wait.

Dec 26 2011


The alarm on my cell phone rings. As I reach over to turn it off, I think, “OK, I made it through another night without any middle-of -the-night phone calls.”

A new day begins.

My schedule here at Monroe Village is pretty much the same each day: Wake up at 6:30, shower, get dressed, put on my face and by 8:30 or so head out the door to the “cafe” for my complementary breakfast. I’m a regular there so all I have to do is show up, for Laurie or Michael to see me and say “the usual?” and in a few minutes there are 2 eggs, scrambled, with toast, bacon and a cup of fruit on my table. I get the coffee myself.

By the time I get to my mom’s room, they have already served her a breakfast of various colored puréed foods of which they managed to feed her a small portion.

I go over to her bed and say hi to her. I stroke her cheek, trying to get her to see me. Often she is talking out loud when I come in but not speaking any real words, rather just some kind of nonsense mixed with moans and crying. Sometimes when I say her name Evelyn, she manages to respond with a weak “yes” so I feel that she is in there somewhere. But she no longer has much ability to express what is going on inside her. I think of the Science Fiction story by Harlan Ellison called, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’.

The rest of my day is spent there in her room. I feed her lunch, give her something to drink. While she sleeps I often sit at my computer but when she is awake I mostly sit by her side, talking to her, trying to reassure her, to calm her. Often I just sit there looking at her. And I think. And the thoughts are not good ones. They make me feel like a terrible person, a terrible daughter, self-centered and selfish.

And this is what I think: Three weeks ago, my mother’s doctor told me she had a few days to a week to live. Within days I rushed over here. And that was 3 weeks ago. And here I still sit, by her side, waiting, waiting, waiting…… Why is she still alive? How long will she live? My time here in New Jersey has a limit. She needs to die before I have to leave and I need to have time to organize a funeral. And I feel like a terrible terrible person – that I want my mother to die. I try to convince myself that I am thinking of her. That it must be horrible for her to just lie there, unable to move or talk or to be truly alive. But really its me that I am concerned about.

And as I sit there, trying to spoon baby food into her mouth, I sit there with this terrible weight of guilt on my back. And yet, at the exact same time I also know that I am being a good daughter.

What one feels and what one knows to be rational and true are not always the same thing. You can feel one thing and at the exact same time think something completely different. Is this the kind of complexity that makes us truly human?

And then another day is over.