Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother's Day remembrance: Complex relationships treasured for their gifts

 Bruce Keller and his mother, Jean Keller, board a harbor cruise
at Oceanside, where Jean taught Keller to paint as a lad.

It's always a bit melancholy in our home on the second Sunday in May.
Both Keller and I are orphans now.  We remember lavish brunches, parties, cruises, corsages and other merriment when we think of our mums.  We had similar celebrations, albeit thousands of miles and several states apart.  Both of us fussed over our mothers.  
Our two mums never met, but if they had, we think they'd have been friends.
Keller's mother, Jean, was a talented watercolor painter with a snappy sense of dress and style. She painted into her 90s and loved colorful scarves. She always had a bouquet in the home.
The writer, Christene, with her mother,
Ellen Cosgriffe, during a Thanksgiving
 celebration in Davis, Calif.
My mum, Ellen, was a gifted musician and singer who owned a steamer trunk of beautiful shoes and loved hats. My mother was drum major in college and played violin in the university orchestra. She and I played piano duets even on her last trip to my Beartooth Mountains Montana place. She, too, loved posies.

Keller's mother pursued a promising art career at University of Minnesota, and left in her senior year to be an artist in Hollywood.  She told her family she was going on spring break, but returned from southern California only on holidays. She gave Keller his sense of adventure.

My mother had wanderlust, too, planning trips to Europe and touring Montana and Wyoming as a high schooler, playing dances with the Nystul Family Orchestra in World War II days. Her $5 fee per gig fed her shoe fund. She planned our family's ambitious six-week trip to New York and New England in 1964, complete with 19 pieces of baggage and trains, boats, cars and planes, Broadway plays, Yankee games, Monticello, Plymouth and the World's Fair.

Both mums were funny women. Quick with one-liners. When I met Jean near the end of her life, she was in an assisted living complex.  As we were helping her out the door for a harbor brunch cruise, she told me, "You're not the first woman he's brought to see  me.  But you're definitely the most interesting." A few months later, when Alzheimer's altered her memory, she was looking through vintage albums with Keller and came across a photo of Keller's dad Bill. "That's your father," Jean offered. "He was a handsome man, but I don't believe we ever met!"
Baby Cookie and her parents.
My mother liked to say that her mother wasn't a big fan of sex.  "Close your eyes and think of something pleasant," mum quoted gran. "But she must have had sex twice," mum demurred, "or you wouldn't have a mother or your Uncle Bob."

My mum taught me the actor's good luck line:  "break a leg." Keller's mother taught him "forgive and forget" and "don't go backwards." Both liked dancing and gardening.  Both were inventive cooks, who didn't need the luxury of a recipe.  Memories of Jean's lemon pie make Keller misty-eyed. Or picking bags of pomegranates with her, steadying the ladder as she reached for the fruit. My mother's specialty was Sunday brunch for each birthday, with a buffet of pineapple, ham, biscuits and Hawaiian punch.

Both loved us dearly. So their legacy lingers as we remember what they taught us this weekend.  
Baby Keller and his mum and dad.
My mother taught me to tap dance and play piano.  We practiced comedy routines in the bathroom and she helped me draft my first essay, "How to Eat a Daisy," which I delivered in the best deadpan I could muster to the delight of my fifth-grade class.  When I bowed to accept the applause, I experienced a Julia Child-like sense of breathless elation. Thanks, mum. Her high school principal told me that she became valedictorian "by her astounding brain power.  It wasn't by studying or going to school because she missed class half the time and still aced every test." Mum would rather play piano, write poetry, sketch or listen to Bizet.

Keller's mother pulled him from school for day trips to the sea in Oceanside near their family home.  That's where she loved to paint and she set an easel for little Keller, teaching him colors and shapes, and an abiding wonder at nature.  He swam in the ocean, brought her shells, shared her picnic and learned from Jean the painterly sense that marks his fine photography.  It is evident in his beautiful photos, always framed with his sharp eye. And he knows every seashell, sea plant and amphibian. Thanks to Jean for fanning those fires.

  Ellen enjoys a cuddle with Nora,
just out of a bath.
The relationship with one's mother is one of life's most complex.  Everything wasn't always roses in our family. Nor for Keller and his parents. Like many households of the 1950s, both of ours  experienced alcohol abuse. Both my parents struggled with alcohol and daddy was not always faithful, leading to divorce when I was 17. (Both were, happily for all, clean and sober for many decades.)   But as a child, little Cookie became her mother's  "little helper." I was 10 when the wheels came off the van, and the next years were tough for the family. Thank heavens for having gran next door.  Looking back, I figure that all the turmoil short-changed my childhood.  But it also made me strong and generous of heart, empathetic to others, capable and self-assured. Mum, brilliant mum, emerged from her darkness, returned to college, finished a couple degrees, learned Spanish, forged a career in counseling and became my pal. Remarkably, she and my father remained lifelong friends and mum became my father's caretaker when he contracted Alzheimer's -- even though they had been long been divorced.
Keller's parents, Bill and Jean,
on an outing in the post-war 1940s.
After daddy's death, mum often visited my country place in the Beartooths of Montana, and we spent long weekends at High Chaparral listening to Broadway musicals, talking about family, watching birds, reading, fixing lovely meals (no recipes!) doting on the Yorkies.  I regret that Keller and mum never met -- she died the year we started dating.
An only child, Keller dearly desired a baby brother or sister.  When he asked his parents if he could please have a sibbling, he was around age 10, my critical time, too. He was told "no way, it's not going to happen." Keller's parents had begun to argue -- his dad, too, had an alcohol problem.  So Keller left home between high school and college, removing himself from the conflict.  When he journeyed to the Middle East to work on the Red Sea for several years, he pursued his travel and aquatic interests. When he returned to finish college, he reconnected with his parents and after his father passed away, he became his mother's treasured friend and visited her weekly in Oceanside. On Sunday drives, they drove to the harbor of
Cookie and Jean board a harbor cruise at Oceanside,
with Keller's son, Branden, and his girlfriend Karie.
Keller's youth, where Jean taught him to paint and explore the shore. He misses those Sunday drives, their day trips to the harbor they both loved, their suppers in the fish place or her favorite Chinese restaurant. At the harbor, Keller would bring pictures she'd painted 50 years earlier, and those evoked memories and stories.

Memory is what keeps our loved ones alive. Love is the link between life and death.
So here's to our mothers. Their mothers (that's another story!). Your mother. Mothers  everywhere. If you've lost touch, it's not too late to rekindle the friendship. If you're an orphan like we are, honor the good things your mother did for you. If you're lucky enough to still have your mother, do something fun for her.  I am thankful to have traveled to Europe several times with mum, seeing the world she introduced me to with the wonders of theater, restaurants and museums. I'll treasure to my own urn the knowledge that mum had a happy marriage -- for a while -- that she and daddy loved one another then came full circle late in life.  Keller believes his parents had good years, turmoil then stabilization. They were married nearly 50 years.
Cookie's parents, Ellen and Richard, had many happy times.
I think of our mothers' love of travel, passed on to us me. I see my mum smiling in the entrance of the Paris Opera House, climbing the steps to the Louvre, sailing under London Bridge. Sitting to the captain's left on a world cruise!  Keller's full circle with his mother was completed on the same beach where she taught him to paint. Lucky, lucky, us.
I picture our two spirited mums sitting around a coffee table or in a bird-bedecked garden, gossiping about books or politics, planning a cruise together, singing '40s tunes, or hitting the casino for a little blackjack.  Maybe they'd take in a Broadway play.  Break a leg!
COMING WEDNESDAY: San Diego hosts its second chocolate fest on the harbor in the Berkeley ferry.  We learn about the delectable concoction and its history, sample a few chocolate treats and prepare to sail on the historic Californian -- complete with cannon boom!, and remember to explore, learn and live.
Enter our contest to win an autographed poetry book at

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