We lost my Mom over fifteen years ago. Too soon. To bad luck. To poor medical practice. To a surgery that should have been routine, but turned sour. To no one person’s fault, but it shouldn’t have happened, which haunts me.
“Where was she being cared for?” my doctor friend and teammate asked.
“New York Hospital,” I said.
“It’s too bad she wasn’t in Boston,” his response. “Wouldn’t have happened here,” a statement that rattles around in my mind like an injury that never quite heals, occasionally shooting pain through raw nerve.
The other night, thirteen of the family joined a Zoom call for a Christmas tradition that started when my Mom was still alive and when we all felt overwhelmed by excessive gift giving. Thirteen that used to be fifteen, before the loss of both parents.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “Find gifts for everyone. It’s too much.”
This from a most generous person. But she was right, the crazy gifting out of hand, so she embraced an idea her daughter in-law Tamra suggested, something that many families now practice — The Yankee Swap. An idea suited to my Mom’s disposition, gifts modest in price, suited to any in the group, easily wrapped, less easily guessed. We’d gather one night at Mohonk near New Paltz, at an inn Tamra found that could host the entire family for a few days over the holidays.
“It’s too much for one of us to host and cook all the meals” Mom declared one year when we gathered at my brother Jim’s house in Vermont. “I certainly can’t do this anymore, and neither should any of you.” My mom never one for hosting big feasts, she embraced another of Tamra’s suggestions — family friendly place where we could all gather, eat together, hike, do puzzles, play games, and just be family. Mom savant at doing family, thinking of others before worrying about herself, maybe out of necessity given three unruly sons and a career distracted husband.
This year’s Zoom gathering offered a chance to share recollections of Mohonk where, for over twenty years each holiday, we gathered away from the pressure of everyday life. Like that first year, when our son Ben was just six months old and a perfect fit one of the bureau drawers, which is where we decided he should sleep, in a drawer, in the closet, his snuffling just far enough at bay to allow proper sleep.
On the call this year everyone shares something special about a place now as much part of the family as any place could be. Shared memories making it so. But also common ground, and by that we mean the ground we stand on. The nine boxes of our Zoom call come to life, these virtual events the silver lining of lock-down, calls that wouldn’t happen in another year, command performances and orchestrated chat sessions that families lean on as travel and physical gatherings are compromised. Not sure when our entire extended group will again meet given both matriarch and patriarch are gone. Everything now harder to pull off with grown children living their lives, appropriately making plans independent of what parents are up to.
“I missed the small talk at the beginning of the call,” Scott says. “So if everyone has time, let’s go around with a highlight from last year, and something you’re looking forward to.”
“And add a Mohonk memory,” my brother John chimes in.
“Yes!” we all say in unison, the group settling in for another hour of much missed storytelling and laughter.
Thank you Scott! For that wonderful prompt. For the chance to remember the strength of family. Of togetherness. Of sitting at those round tables in that huge dining room where Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton appeared tucked away in a corner one night late in 2016. This their first outing after losing an election so many thought she’d win. Mary leads the large hall in a thank-you ovation, creating another lifelong memory.
Mom helped champion Tamra’s idea — one gift — like many traditions Mom quietly supported. Go to church. Hum in the kitchen. Sail out to the lighthouse. Talk to strangers. Volunteer. Be the life of the party. Help each other. And smile even when it hurts.
It’s hard to conjure-up meaningful highlights from 2020, a year we all will surely want to forget. But there’s ton to look forward to, like being together as a family again, maybe at Mohonk. I remember Mom at the Mountain House, insisting on certain things — dress up for dinner, sit properly, and have conversation. And especially — no phones, no distractions, just family.
Thank you Elizabeth Coleman Brooke Mooney. For your spirit. For embracing the notion that one gift is enough. For the gift of love.