January 28 is the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Sometimes I forget, but my body always remembers.  I become achy. I want to hunker down in my own house, stay in bed longer than usual.  Here in Albuquerque it’s easy to chalk it up to winter–January is the coldest month–but it’s neither winter nor the cold that makes me weepy.

It’s been 34 years and most of the time I don’t get bogged down with grief and longing for something, for my mom, but writing this dissertation means I’ve been dredging up the memories; I’ve been deliberately putting myself back in that time when I was a messed up teenager.

Last week I was at the Children’s Grief Center, where I co-facilitate a bereavement group for teens.  During our facilitator check-in I mentioned that the anniversary of my mom’s death was coming up.  I said I was feeling a little sad, but I was glad to be there as a volunteer.   A couple of people came up to me after the check-in and asked if I was okay.  I said “Yes,” and I meant it.

And then, two days later I had a meltdown in front of my professor and two of my colleagues.   Right there at Winnings Coffee.  It was weird.  I started the meeting feeling good about my pages, about the state my dissertation was in.  (I’ve made peace with the fact that at the time of my defense it won’t be perfect, but it will be defendable. )  We were talking about my latest revisions, and all of the sudden a thought came into my head–that my mom wouldn’t be there.  That my dad wouldn’t be there.  I felt this flush of sadness simply overwhelm my body and I started to cry.  And then I felt stupid for crying.

I know grief comes in waves, and I know that even years later you can feel the loss, that sometimes something triggers the feeling of loss.  But Geez! it’s been THIRTY FOUR YEARS.

I explained to my colleagues that the following day was the anniversary of my mom’s death, and to please just understand that sometimes I feel emotionally unstable at this time of year….  I dried my tears, pulled myself together, and we moved on.

The next morning Suzanne called.   I was buried under my down comforter listening to the radio and just about to start feeling guilty for not being up and about…

“I know you said that today is the anniversary of your mother’s death.  I don’t know if you do anything special….”

“No. Mostly I just feel weepy,”  I said.  Since I’ve been volunteering at the Grief Center, and writing this memoir, I’m much more aware of these kinds of feelings, and much more willing to be open about them, speak of them matter-of-factly.

She invited me out for a walk and showed up an hour later, holding a lavender plant, our mutual friend Cassie in tow.  We spent the morning walking along the Bosque trail, talking and laughing.

A four mile walk may not be something specific I would choose to do to honor my mom, but it was great way to hang out with good friends, get fresh air, enjoy my favorite part of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande (the only place where there is water) and not feel alone.


February 1 (today) would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday.

This anniversary isn’t as tough emotionally.  I had more time with my dad. He was older when he died (though he could have lived longer had he taken better care of himself).   I’m spending the day working on my dissertation, the thing that will get me the MFA degree.  My dad worked hard, worked a lot, he was smart. He had two master’s degrees, so I think he’d be proud.

Maybe I’ll go for a walk later….

Another Mother’s Day

If you know me, you know I’m not a fan of Mother’s Day. It’s a day that makes me feel especially without. More recently I’ve thought about creating some special ritual to honor my mother, but have yet to come up with an idea that sticks….

This photo looks like it may have been a Mother’s Day. (I’m the little blond girl)

Mothers Day?

On a whim I entered this contest to write 200 words to share my personal story about what my mom means to be…. so I could win 2 tickets to the Womens Conference (Maria Shriver’s big shindig). Here’s what I came up with:

frozen at the doorway
it was a dream, no
a movie I watched once
lights flashing like red lightening, or
a projector,
not an ambulance
not that ambulance
everyone in slow motion—
You, Mother
on the floor, tiny and still
Father crying

I lost my mother when I was thirteen. Cancer. She had cancer. Sometimes I like to say cancer twice to give it more impact. Sometimes still, more than thirty years later, I have trouble saying my mother died. It’s not like I can just introduce myself and say, “Hi, I’m Jennifer, my mother died when I was thirteen.”

For a long time I let memories of her death cloud memories of my mother’s life. It was through writing about her, about her life and about my own life that I realized how much more there was to her. To both of us. I keep on my wall beside my desk a scroll, decorated with purple and pink tissue paper flowers and a poem of sorts from second grade:

Great, Fantastic,
Helps, Thinks, Cares
Loving, Joyful, Warm, Fun-Filled Mother

That is the mother I want to remember. That is the mother I want to be like.

Too Many Funerals, Not Enough Weddings!

My dear dear friend Ralph lost his mom last week, and I went out to Chicago (I use the term loosely as his parents had retired to a town called Huntley, which Ralph tells me is the Algonquin word for “way the fuck out there”). Ralph has not lost his sense of humor.

It’s hard to lose a parent at any time. As we age, it means there is no longer a layer of a generation separating us from being elderly ourselves, or separating us from death. It’s a little shocking to look around and all of the sudden realize you are, in essence, the head of the family. I saw this with Ralph this week past. His father, elderly and defeated, his mother now gone and Ralph as oldest son stepped up to his new position as de facto head of the family with grace and strength.

Patricia M Walton was a loving wife and mother and a doting grandmother. Never one to dwell on the past, she looked to the future with strength and optimism. She always looked on the bright side, had a positive outlook, and kept smiling right up to the very end.

In 1958 Pat married Ralph S Walton and became a mother first on August 12, 1964 when Ralph V was born and on April 22, 1969 when Patrick was born. On July 12, 1997 she became a mother again when Eva Venus joined the family upon marrying Patrick. “Pat” became “Grandma Pat” when Ryan was born on January 24, 2002 and again on April 17, 2008 when Elizabeth was born.

Pat worked for several companies, including Garcy Corporation, NBC, Continental Bank, and American National Bank, from which she retired in 1994. When not keeping the rest of the family in line she could be found gardening, reading, working crossword puzzles, watching over the neighborhood children, and feeding birds, squirrels, and various stray animals. The world was Pat’s family and it is a better place for it.

In keeping with Pat’s focus on the future, we are comforted in the fact that she lives on in everyone she has touched. She is still with us in spirit, just not in body.

My heart went out to him as I was able to welcome him into a club I wish I did not even know existed, The Motherless. Sure, when you’re forty-something it sounds overly dramatic but no matter the disfunction(s) of our families, no matter our age, we love our parents and grieve them.

Now… if someone would just get married! It would be way more fun to get together for a wedding and not another funeral.

The Power of Words

“My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Robert Kennedy said, “and he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

You can read the full text of the speech here.

Or listen to the story from Morning Edition, today, forty years after Martin Luther King Jr was shot.

On Death and Life

Per previous post, I was in Modesto, CA this weekend… the reason for my delayed Photo Phriday was that my sister and I went up to Modesto for my Aunt’s service.
We opted to go up on Thursday night (flying into San Jose) and spent the night with my Aunt Mary K and Uncle Bill. Cousin Jay flew in from New Jersey so the Simpson side of the family was well represented.

JUNE 11, 1921 – FEB. 18, 2008 Betty was a native of St. Paul, Minnesota and a resident of Modesto, age 86. She was interested in art and was an Artist herself, she was an avid reader and loved to travel. She is survived by her husband, Raidesel Vargas of Modesto; and her son, John Vargas of Sparks, Nevada. She was predeceased by her children, Nancy Lynn Vargas and Jeffrey L. Vargas. Visitation will be held from 3:00 P.M. – 6:00 P.M. Friday, Feb. 22 with Services, same day, 4:00 P.M., at McHenry Chapel-Franklin & Downs. Private committal at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery. Remembrances may be made to Salvation Army, P.O. Box 1663, Modesto, CA 95353.
Published in the Modesto Bee on 2/21/2008.

I’m so glad we went up for the service, and that we were able to spend the day with my Uncle Ray– who’s nearly 90 and still as handsome as ever!! We used to visit them frequently, but it’s been a while. I even forgot that Uncle Ray and Aunt Betty were my godparents, until Uncle Ray told me that he and Betty wanted to adopt my sister and I after my mom passed way. The picture here was taken in front of their house in San Jose. I’m the sceptical blond in the front row.

They moved to Modesto 8 years ago! I had never seen this new house they bought (and you won’t either, I forgot my camera!) They turned one bedroom into a studio so my Aunt Betty could paint. I walked through the halls of my Aunt Betty’s house admiring her paintings and I came across a Family Photo wall. I recognized my Grandma and Granddad (Betty’s brother and sister-in-law), my great grandmother Simpson (Betty’s mother) and a photo I have never seen of my Great Great Grandparents Jay Ferris and his wife (name unknown at this moment).

As I stood there at the wall looking at pictures a woman came behind me and said, “La Familia.”

“Mi familia!” I said, turning to look at this dark haired, dark eyed woman a little older than me.

“Mi familia” she said.

“I guess we’re related then!” I learned that she calls my uncle Ray, “Uncle Red” because his name is Reidesel. She pointed out her mama, abuela, bisabuela los primos…. tio Red y su hermanos…

I came home with a tamale recipe that upon closer inspection calls for 12 pounds of meat. The Vargas family is much larger than the Simpsons!

(not so) Wordless Wednesday

Backrow L to R: Granddad, Grandma, Dad, Mom, Great Grandma Simpson, Aunt Betty and Uncle Ray.
Front row- Cousin John, Debby. I seem to be MIA. Or not here yet. Since I am four years younger than Debby (look at her posing for the camera in her red dress and matching tights) I am pretty sure I am not the one taking the photo.

Aunt Betty passed away the day before yesterday (she sure was a dish!). (Uncle Ray is still with us but he must be sad. He and Betty were married for over 50 years for sure) She was actually my great aunt, my granddad’s very much younger sister. The last of the Minnesotan Simpsons. We had not been close the last few years. She and my Uncle Ray had moved from San Jose to Modesto. They were older and didn’t travel much. I think they stopped travelling all together. And I didn’t have much call to go to Modesto.

I was busy with my life. (you know how that goes– work, home, writing, friends, busy busy). I think the last time I saw them was for Granddad’s funeral in 2004. (This is a problem with my family– too many funerals and not enough weddings!) The truth is I didn’t make the time to go visit. And except for the occassional Christmas card, didn’t make the time to keep in touch much either, relying on my sister or my Aunt Mary K and Uncle Bill to keep me posted.

My fondest memories are of going up to their house when I was a kid, swimming in their pool. I could say I’ll miss Betty… but really I’ve missed her for a long time I guess.

Its not Easy being Green er, uh, Blue

Maybe not really blue, but definitely out of sorts. Is it winter? the holidays? Or one more step in the grieving process… post holiday blahs? post vacation (I have a boring life) blues?

We are almost done closing up my Dad’s estate. For our trip to Hawaii, Debby and I were able to use my Dad’s US Air air miles for a free trip (did YOU know you can inherit miles?). When we got home the lawyer told us that the IRS is going to forgive the penalties and interest they wanted to extract from us. So that’s good news, right?

Somehow it makes my Dad’s death all the more real. Finalizing makes things, well, final.

It is time to move on, I feel it. And even though in some ways having all this paperwork pending keeps me closer to my Dad, I know it’s closer in a thoroughly unhealthy way. I’m just not entirely sure how to push through. I have projects of my own I am not working on. Writing I am not doing. So if anyone has any tips, or recommendations for a good therapist, let me know. 🙂

Quiet Endings


I’ve been quiet on my blog lately for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I had to put my little friend Alex to sleep last Saturday.

I knew it was coming for a long time. I’d posted about her various health problems over the last couple of years, first with diabetes and me having to give her insulin shots twice a day, then on to the never ending urinary tract infections. She couldn’t walk very well because of nerve damage from the diabetes, and so she couldn’t use a litter box. But last year, since I was busy grieving my Dad’s passing I didn’t have the strength to make the tough decision to put her down.

Earlier in the year I decided that if there was another health crisis it would be time. A couple of months ago when Alex had the last urinary tract infection I was able to simply get a prescription over the phone rather than take my kitty in. You see she really hated going to the vet, and they were never able to handle her well enough to get a good sample so mostly I would haul her in, she would growl and hiss a lot and based on the symptoms I described the vet would prescribe antibiotics.

Alex spent most of the day Saturday outside in her box enjoying the sun and the birds and the ocean breeze. In between laundry in and out of the garage, I would poke my head out and check on her. In the late afternoon I looked out and she was on her way in, but her back legs had collapsed and she was meowing. I went out to the garage to switch out some more laundry, then back into the kitchen for some ice tea, and Alex still hadn’t made it back into the house, and when I looked closer she wasn’t meowing but rather panting, tongue out and everything. I rushed out to see what was up, maybe she was trying to hock up a hairball (these things happen on occasion) but when I went to pet her she was really in distress and then she had a convulsion sort of flopping like a fish.

While I went to get the cat carrier, I called my friend Karin who I was supposed to meet for a beach walk and I told her that I wouldn’t be meeting her, that I was taking my baby to the vet and I was afraid I wouldn’t be bringing her back home.

Karin said she’d meet me at the vet. Then when I was at the vet, my sister called and I all I could do was cry… so she said she would come. Debby called Ralph, who then called me and said he was on the way up.

The vet told me that Alex had a really high temperature, they had her on oxygen to hopefully relieve some of her respiratory distress, and they would need to do more tests to determine the problem. That it was possible that the infection was in her brain which caused the convulsions… And so I said I didn’t think it was a good idea to put her through all that, only to maybe have me bring her home for a couple more months until the next urinary tract infection. Her quality of life was not good.

This was the hardest decision I have ever made. Alex was a special kitty. at least to me.

When she was a kitten she used to wake me up in the morning by sitting on my chest and licking my nose. She was smart too. When she first played with the kitty dancer (cardboard thingy on a long flexible wire that you dangle in front of your cat to make her crazy) she was watching it in the mirror, and instead of charging the mirror she flipped around and attacked the real one.

She used to love to drink from a dripping faucet, in fact, she loved water. When I lived in Chicago I had one of those big claw footed porcelain tubs and she liked to walk around the edge of it while I took a bath. Until one day when she fell in. (let me just say ouch– she used my leg as a launching pad to get out).

She also loved ice. Sometimes I would put some in her water bowl so she could fish it out with her big (I mean seriously big, like 1 1/2″ wide), fur lined paw, then batting the ice cube around the kitchen floor until it melted. I forgot to tell Ralph about her penchant for ice cubes. When he took care of her while I was gone he was sitting there in my living room, his nice scotch (on ice) was sitting on the floor and along came Alex, dazzled by the ice, reaching her big furry paw in to scoop out a cube, only to be thwarted by a vigilant Ralph… not sure if he was saving Alex from the scotch or saving the scotch from Alex….

Alex drove across county with me (and Karin) and survived the car accident in Nebraska (when we hit a deer). She survived being attacked by not one but TWO Chows. She comforted me when my Grandma died, when my Granddad died and last year when my Dad died. She let me huddle over her and cry into her long soft fur.

Her favorite thing to do was to play Sunday paper. I would read and toss the pages and she would dive under them… she enjoyed this even lately… it may be awhile before I can read the Sunday paper again.

I miss mer more than I can say. She is not waiting in the kitchen for me to feed her in the morning– and in fact I’ve been buying my coffee from Starbucks on my way to work because I can’t stand being in the kitchen. And she is not waiting for me at the door when I come home from work– so I’ve been working late, and running lots of errands after work. There’s a big empty spot in the living room where her box was, and a big empty spot in my heart.