Little J wants to turn everything into art lately.
He climbed into our bed yesterday with a torn shoe box, and in his still sleep-froggy voice announced, “I’m going to make this into a diorama with Indians and a stream and stuff.”
The diorama actually made for a perfect Saturday afternoon project because the boy and I could avoid the crazy-making winds that have been rattling the windows here in Sugartown lately. So, while Dennis built raised beds for our backyard vegetable garden, Little J and I concentrated on the still and wind-free world we fashioned from glue and foam: a crayon stream and fake grass, a putty tee-pee, and a glow-in-the-dark Indian poised for attack from behind the shrubbery.
While we worked, I wondered, as I do a lot lately, whether Little J would remember that moment years from now.
I tried to think of memorable times I had with my mom when I was around his age. What was it that made me hold on to certains memories and return to them again and again? If I knew, I’d try to fill every moment with Little J with the magic ingredient, the one that makes memories stick.
I remember sitting at the piano with my mom, playing duets and singing, “Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” The smell of something simmering filled the house, so it must have been dinner time. I can also see her dress, a small red floral print, her simple gold wedding band, and I can feel her love of the music, our togetherness, anything silly, anything that could turn to laughter.
My mom worked full time. My brother and I probably got up a little earlier than most kids, but her being a working mom had no negative bearing on us. On the contrary, I was fascinated by her working life, by the fact that, after having graduated from UCLA before I was born, she went back to the same university for her MA and other credentials to further her career in the LA County School District. She was a teacher trainer and strategist for quality education for kids who spoke English as a second language.
She worked in schools in the rough parts of LA. She brought me to work with her on days I had off. I remember the holiday celebrations, the kids from Lebanon, Mexico, and Guatemala. “We are a country of immigrants,” my mother would remind me. All of us. We have to remember that.
I watched her get ready for work as she donned her classic skirt suits, made for her by a woman who lived nearby. “You pick the best quality fabrics and have them hand made,” she’d tell me. “You pay less and get more, the best quality, not quantity.” Simple jewelry, modest and clean-looking make-up, pretty little size five shoes. She was a cross between Jackie O and Catherine Deneuve in those days.
I think that, on occasion, my mother felt a bit of guilt, working every day instead of being a stay-at-home mom, like the mom across the street. But she shouldn’t have. To me she seemed more present with and more involved in our lives than that mom, who stayed at home and seemed to me, more focused on her own social life than her kids, always shooing them away to talk to her friends, share the neighborhood gossip, or finish a card game.
When my mom came home from work each day, she made a meal that usually combined ethnic Armenian food and seventies convenience “food.” So we might have handmade spicy meatballs (kuftas) with Minute Rice, and always a salad and a veggie. And then it was homework time, or piano, or a game of cards by the fire. Yes, there was TV: The Muppets, The Carol Burnett Show, and of course, ChiPs. But TV time was together time, too.
When I was little, there were no “play dates.” You played with the kids on the block or invited kids over, but it just all seemed less arranged. And I remember my mom often played with us. She taught a group of us to jump rope on the driveway of our house in Woodland Hills. We roller skated. We baked cookies from scratch so often that I can still do it with Little J and his friends without looking at the recipe. We did crafts, and danced, made popsicles, and went swimming. I think one of the things that makes certain memories stick is my mom’s genuine presence, seeing her laugh and enjoy herself right along with us.
More than anything, she was committed to our education. She worked, but like a lot of working moms, she was active in the PTA and met with my teachers regularly to discuss everything from my test scores to my math and reading progress. She worked with me on the things that gave me nightmares (FRACTIONS!!) and encouraged me to challenge myself in the areas that I loved, reading and writing. I fashioned little pop-up books with stories I made up, and she treasured them.
Since education was so important to our family, the few days that my mom took me out of school to go shopping for a graduation dress or a winter formal dress were beyond memorable. We’d drive down to the Sherman Oaks Mall and spend a day trying on Gunne Sax until I thought I’d pass out. Then we’d have lunch, sometimes at the Moustache Cafe in Westwood, my favorite. On those days, I knew I’d lucked out in the mom department, big time.
My mother was no doubt inspired by her mother, who was Armenian and one of very few women to attend the American University of Beirut. And I was, in turn inspired by my mother, not only to seek out the best education I could and to travel and live abroad, but more importantly, to work and to do what I love.
Love, my mother always taught me, was the cornerstone of everything. “Marry for love,” she told me. Money doesn’t matter and can never ensure your happiness. If you don’t have love, you have nothing. Do what you love. Prestige doesn’t matter and neither does power.
“If you love digging ditches, I will support you in that, as long as you do your best at it,” she told me during the time I’d decided that I didn’t want to go to law school. “Working is good for the soul,” she said, “but only if you’re doing something you love.”
It was always so clear to me that my happiness meant more to my mother than anything else. Do what you love. Marry for love. Fill your days with love. She instilled these lessons in me by actions and words. If I could pass anything on to Little J as his mother, it would be those same lessons.
I try to surround myself with other moms who inspire me to be even more creative, to be more relaxed in my parenting style, to be present when I’m with Little J, to expose him to things that will enrich his life.
But overall, if Little J grows up knowing that his happiness is what matters, that he’s worthy of love and people who will treat him well, then that’s all I can really ask for. And when I look at all the love and loving people in my own life, the sweet diorama I’ve created, I have to thank my mom for the nurturing in me, more than anything, the capacity to give and receive love.
I love you mom. Happy Mother’s Day.