All About Joan, Pt 4

I never saw my mother as more beautiful then when she was dying. I know that’s strange to say, but it is the truth.

As a little kid, I thought she was gorgeous. I’d pore over old black and white photos of her and her twin sister in high school. She looked like a movie star to me.

She was always a pretty lady, though she herself could never own her own beauty. She’d brush off compliments like they were flies on the rim of her iced tea glass. (Remember sun tea?! She got on that bandwagon big time when that hit the ‘burbs.) But during my middle childhood, she stopped putting much time into her looks.

I learned from an early age that being a female in Houston meant a heavy investment in one’s appearance. I developed an intense concern over how I looked, especially my weight, and constantly compared myself to other girls. So I remember wondering why she didn’t seem to care much about how she looked. Now I realize she was probably just tired from taking care of three kids and a husband. (And maybe depressed, but that’s not for me to diagnose, right?)

Once I was out of the house and off to college (the last of her three children,) she started to give more attention to her self, treating herself to nice clothes and wearing makeup. It being the eighties, she especially loved shoulder pads (yikes, remember those?) I think she thought they made her hips seem smaller. She was always self-conscious about her weight.

Throughout my early adulthood, she thrived. She became very involved in a charity organization, eventually holding several offices. I loved seeing her stretch her wings. She was a smart lady and loved people, and they loved her. The Empty Nest was a terrific departure point for her life. She and my Dad had a great time after we were all grown and gone. Until she got sick, of course.

Cancer does something oddly beautiful to some people. It’s as if it strips away all excess of the ego’s physical manifestation down to the spirit-bone. What remains is pure essence. And her essence was simply beautiful.

She had dwindled down to a size that was next to nothing, which of course she teased that she’d have loved if only it didn’t come with the other consequences. Her hair had been lost to the chemo fight, so she had taken to wearing little soft cotton caps. Just in the last months of her life, her hair started to grow back, the lightest dusting of silver-white. Against her porcelain skin, and the bone structure that showed through in full force without any extra softness to shape her face, she was stunning. She had taken to wearing a navy kaftan-style robe of the softest cotton. To me, she again looked like a Hollywood movie star from the Golden Age. She was just missing a gold turban.

I still have one of those little caps she had taken to wearing at the end. I keep it along with one of the hundreds of Beanie Babies that she had collected. She was an avid collector of many things: antique cut glass, Brownware, Fiesta ware, to name but a few (and I do mean but a few.)

She loved decorating the house for all holidays, including Presidents Day and graduations. Much to my father’s chagrin, she had a whole room dedicated to these decorations as well as part of the attic: there were drawers filled with easter eggs and bunnies, a wardrobe filled with Santas, a closet filled with turkeys, ghosts, and black cats and such…you get the idea.

And the Beanie Babies. Oh, the multitudes of Beanie Babies. When my brother’s two beautiful children were born, she began collecting them with a fervor, planning to save them for the children that they would have one day. She became an E-bay specialist, hunting down the hard-to-find ones with the skills of an bounty hunter on the tail of a high-paying felon.

My father ended up donating all those Beanie Babies to the children’s hospital that my mother’s charity supported. But I chose one to keep as a sort of talisman – a little pony, that I keep along with her little turquoise hat.

For the first two years after she died, they traveled everywhere with me. On the tours, they were the first thing I unpacked in the hotel room. Once home again, they were on my bedside table, the first thing I would see when woke.

I needed them in a way that is beyond logic.

After my Mom died, it was as if a giant invisible hand had turned the kaleidoscope of my life, shifting the pieces so that they settled in a new pattern, one I didn’t recognize. I felt adrift, and it was a terrifying sensation.

That little Beanie Baby and her cap were touchstones as I found my way in the New World that held no Mother. Maybe they also helped me feel connected to her loss as the rest of the world around me continued on its way, as it must. Physical proof that she had existed, and that I loved her.

Today they sit on a shelf in my office, part of my small collection of muses, totems that bring me strength and support. They still carry the beautiful spirit that was my mother, and I am so grateful for them.

Pt. 5 to come.

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