The Duck is Dead, but My Goose Isn't Cooked: Meditations on Not Being a Chicken

Pre-Mortem Duckling 

Woke up yesterday morning to find that my son's little duckling had suddenly died. I cried and cried. When my son woke up, I tried to break the news to him gently through my sniffling. "Honey, I have some very sad news for you. Your duckling has somehow died during the night." My son just looked at me and laughed and said, "Don't tease me, Mommy."  Then he want into the room where the duckling had lived.The sight of it keeled over on the floor horrified me, but my son just picked it up and said, "It's just sleeping." He kept carrying around the poor dead duckling saying, "I think it's going to wake up." Once I finally convinced him to put it down, he set it  down very unceremoniously on its back with its feet up in the air, and went back to playing-- after washing his hands, of course. While he went about his business, I called up a friend in tears and asked for help disposing of the body. (Not a sentence I wish to see quoted out of context, folks.) 

My son seems fine. In fact, the only mention he made of the unfortunately ducking was at dinner. He said, "Mommy, this is chicken."  I said, "Son, it's fish, not chicken."  He thought for a few second and suddenly his face lit up, "Hey, Mommy! We could have eaten that dead chicken!"  I said, "It was a duckling not a chick. And we don't eat things that are dead." And that was that for him. I, on the other hand, am still mourning the duckling. May 7th is always a hard day for me, even without dead ducklings. It has been twelve years since  my mother passed away, and time has managed to change but not mitigate my grief. It gets both easier and harder.  For me, the sharp, burning pain of grief has mostly gone, but the sense of loss remains and with it has come a growing realization of just how many precious moments were lost when she died. My mother never got to meet my son. My son never got to meet my mother. Twelve years ago, I grieved for what I had lost. Now, I grieve more for what my son has lost in not having his grandmother,  for what my mother has lost in not being able to see her grandson.

So yesterday, I asked myself, "What would my mother want me to do--both today and in general?"  It is not a hard question to answer. My mother always verbally encouraged me to be myself.  My mother made it clear she wanted me to be me without shame or apology. I interpret this not as encouragement to live selfishly but as an exhortation to be both bold and realistic. Bold enough to be yourself without fear. Realistic enough to be yourself and not try to be something else. Being yourself isn't about doing whatever the hell you want with no regard for other's feelings. It's about living with integrity. If you are something, you should have the courage and integrity to be that something. If you believe something, you shouldn't chicken out when it comes time for you to act on what you believe. That's what I think my mother would want: a daughter who is not fowl. 

High School Graduation Photo 1964
My mother said she had a hard time learning to be herself.  Born in Seattle, Washington on December 29, 1945 to a Mexican-American soldier just returned home from fighting in the Pacific against the Japanese and to a Swedish-American mother, my mother's looks were striking. She was tall with broad shoulders and she carried herself in a way that made her seem even taller. Even after I was fully grown, she towered over me in size 11 red high heels. (I can't remember my mother wearing sneakers even one single time. She was perpetually in heels). She had the black hair and olive-skin of a Mexican combined with height and bone structure of a Scandinavian.  For a person with such an avowed aversion to exercise, she was incredibly strong. She beat my father arm-wrestling when they were first married, and always beat me too. (Do many daughters arm wrestle with their mothers? Or is it just me?) She was fashionable and loved color-blocking and black eyeliner and red fingernail polish.

She wasn't a natural fit in in the inland Northwest, though people there loved her and she loved them. The Eastern-Washington/Northern Idaho area I remember is the home of white people in white sneakers driving station wagons, Suburbans, and Subarus. The good ones were boring, and the bad ones shaved their heads and lived in semi-militarized compounds. Breaking out your best jeans was considered formal dress. There were almost no minorities visible, especially not Hispanics. My mom would have been less of a oddity in L.A. or Dallas, but in Spokane she was nothing if not an odd duck. If not a quack. (My mother had the unique ability to perfectly imitate the voice of Donald Duck.)

Even I didn't exactly realize just how much my mother was Mexican-American in her behavior and attitude until after she died.  Perhaps, I still don't. Being an adventurous eater, I one day ordered something new from a little Mexican restaurant on South Hill. My sopa de albondigas came out of the kitchen, and with one sip I was taken right back to my childhood. My favorite soup of all time, the soup I always begged my mother to make was a Mexican dish. I hadn't known. 

Mom's Ketchup
Perhaps my mother would have been more comfortable in a community comfortably populated with other half-Mexican, half-Swedish, former dwellers of Indian reservations with a penchant for Tabasco sauce.  Or perhaps not. She had a past. When other people complain about their mother's puritanical leanings "Mom disapproves of this. Mom frowned on that", I can only be amused. My own mother had no puritanical leanings. She told me stories of when she lived on the Indian reservation with her Indian boyfriend, and they'd drink things no human should be drinking. I think it involved butane. She told me about some her failed marriages, and there were more than a few of those. She told me about living in the 1960's free and wild, but failing to be a good hippie. She said she was too "plastic" to be a hippie--meaning she liked high heels and regular showers and deodorant. She told me about finding Jesus, and marrying my father, about getting permission from her parole officer to go on a honeymoon.

In the end, I don't think my mother ever managed to integrate herself into a seamless whole. Nor do I find that fact to be even remotely tragic. She lived as herself, without fear of others, and she lived well. I hope I can do half as well.  (And I wish I could learn to do the Donald Duck voice.)

8 comments:

  1. Hannah, your mom was a distinctly individual woman and I never knew a soul who didn't love her! The kids at Sunday School flocked to her (maybe because she quacked at them)! She seemed to love everyone and they loved her back. Maybe because she just gave of herself, honestly. There was never anything phony about her. But even tho she was funny, outgoing and fun, she was also very sensitive to other people's feelings. And she was kind. So very kind. I can't see thru my tears; I don't feel a daughter's loss as you do, but I still miss my friend.

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  2. wow, i am floored. What a grand post, and a grand tribute to your mom, i only spoke to her a few times, but she was so charming (an understatement for how wonderful she was to talk to). Your last paragraph, Hannah, is pure inspiration, my friend.

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  3. I totally forgot about the Donald Duck voice!! Reading your blog, I teared up remembering the voice quaking at me that it was my turn to wash up. She was so funny, beautiful and sweet. I also miss her and I'm really sad we lost touch. That makes me doubly glad to have found you, someone I can tell my Yvonne stories to who actually knew Yvonne! -Cary

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  4. I totally forgot about the Donald Duck voice!! Reading your blog, I teared up remembering the voice quaking at me that it was my turn to wash up. She was so funny, beautiful and sweet. I also miss her and I'm really sad we lost touch. That makes me doubly glad to have found you, someone I can tell my Yvonne stories to who actually knew Yvonne! -Cary

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  5. Very nice post, Hannah. Thank you for sharing. I can see through it what an extraordinary woman and mother your mom was. It's been eleven months now since I lost my dad and you're right, the sharp pain of loss has somehow diminished as time passes but I too can't keep myself from weeping every time I think about the fact that my baby will never know his/her grandfather.

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  6. I love stories of people who aren't afraid to be themselves, who dance to their own tune, who make mistakes and move on. It's people like your mom who make the world interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Hannah, I just LOVE the way you write!!! Your mother was so precious and I feel priviliged and blessed to have known her. I still have the PB chocolate chip cookie recipe she gave me and it's still my favorite.I love what you wrote about her. She was so charming! I know she would be very proud of you!

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