Discovering Mom

Mom’s tree, a pink flowering Dogwood

“Jenny Rebecca four days old, how do you like the world so far? Jenny Rebecca four days old, what a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky girl you are…” The first two lines from the song, Jenny Rebecca, on Barbra Streisand’s 1966 album, “My Name is Barbra,” and my namesake. My mom was a singer, an opera singer, and a wickedly talented one. At 16, and too young to brave New York City, she was accepted to Julliard during her audition but didn’t go. She loved Barbra and so when she was pregnant with me and this album came out, she said to my dad, “I sure hope it’s a girl because Jenny Rebecca will be a ridiculous name for a boy!” I have always felt as though the lyrics gave me my life…with trees to be climbing on, ponies for riding on, and pillows for crying on when you’re in love. I have never been able to listen to the song without crying in some fashion. It made me feel so special when my mom would sing it to me, her love for me would pour out of her and saturate me in bliss. One thing I never, ever doubted was my mom’s love for me.

I never really knew her until she died. Maybe that is not entirely true, but the things I learned and discovered about her after she died have been amazing, astounding, disappointing, and wonderful. Kyp, born Karen Ann Parker, was a force of nature. Whatever power deep within her that gave her that voice also gave her a giant personality. She was tough though, tough to get along with and sometimes her love came with a price. As I have grown and matured, I have learned that everyone is difficult to get along with, and yes, that includes me. Mette thanks me for tolerating her, her self-deprecating way of acknowledging sticky points. I laugh and tell her she’s welcome and that I know I’m perfect and so easy to live with…and then we both laugh.

Monday was the one-year anniversary of mom’s death. A year, an entire year has gone by already, having the feel of long yet short. Making it to one year has been a focus for me and so the build-up and arrival were emotional. We are Jewish and in tradition, at one year, we do an unveiling of the headstone. Kyp, a traditionally non-traditional woman, wanted to be cremated and left no other instructions. As a family, we had the idea to plant her ashes with a tree at one year and have that as our ceremony. Mom loved birds, always had a canary to sing with, and bird feeders everywhere, no matter where she lived. We figured a tree could be a home to those feeders and some hungry birds. It was wonderful and she would have loved it. My niece, Hayley and her husband Bill, have a perfect spot in their new yard for a tree and so we planted it there.

With three siblings, two older and one younger, I am definitely a middle child. Tucked between responsibilities, being a middle child has its perks and problems. Not knowing any other way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel blessed to have the relationships I have with my family and happen to like them as well as love them. Julie, my older sister, might look younger (she is the goddamn fountain of youth) but has a wisdom that can’t help but seep out, no matter how hard she tries to hide it. Justine, my younger sister, definitely looks younger but acts older in many ways. Joshua, yes, we are all J’s, was literally the odd-man-out growing up and has sustained that element in his personality across his lifespan. One of the most amazing reveals from losing mom has been to find out how differently we all knew and experienced her.

My sisters live in Pittsburgh, a few miles from the house we grew up in. They both have children and all but one still live close to home. The family there is tight and are together much the time. Julie’s daughters are grown, married, and one is expecting. Justine’s house has been the hub, with the door always open, food always on the table, and laughter all around. I get videos of jokes all the time, making me miss my original tribe deeply. Most of my mornings begin with a call with a sister or both or we “merge” and all three chat and scheme. We all share the same passion for family, friends, love, fun, and contribution. And we all are incredibly different. I have discovered the most wonderous things about my family in this year of mourning and conversation I never expected.

When mom died, we sat our own form of ultra-reform Shiva (a week of mourning). Mom’s death was sudden, so plans were on the back end and much of it was out of reaction and need. I stayed with Justine that week and interestingly, all three of her children were out of town. We had long mornings of coffee and conversation, exploring our grief, sharing our ups and downs, and trying to make some sense of what happened. I did things I never even thought about doing, like arranging for the morgue to pick up her body from the hospital, her cremation, her death certificate, and her obituary. We all went to her apartment to go through and clean out, take keepsakes, and cry, lots of crying. Julie and I went to pick up her ashes and select an urn. I think we both shook the entire time as we drove in silence and fear. There was a room lined with bookcases that contained the urns and was overwhelming upon entry. Julie looked at me and said, “You choose.” My mind raced. Not only a new and unexpected experience, but one filled with grief and distress. I scanned each shelf, but everything was a blur. My eye caught a blue one, but that was not her color. Red, she loved red. I was about to give up and then it was as if it snuck out from behind, a burgundy red urn nearly jumped off a shelf I thought I had looked at already. It was perfect. The mortician took the urn, left the room, and when he returned, she was in there. It was heavy and I should have expected that having cremated a few animals before. I held it, her, in my lap as we drove home, wondering how I felt. I knew it wasn’t her but somehow it felt like her. It was consoling and lonely at the same time. This duality became very common over this year.

Julie has been the bow of the boat, going first, cutting the water, and decreasing the impact for the rest of us. I knew this but never knew this. She has been silent, diligent, relentless, and selfless. She has buried her pain and soldiered on. I thought it was her personality, like a quirk or something, but it was her strength, her fortitude, her sacrifice. Kyp was hard on her and although it showed all along, I never really saw it until mom died. Julie’s mom was not my mom because Julie didn’t have a Julie. By the time I came along, Julie’s bow was well worn, and she was adept at her unintentional job of taking care of her younger siblings. I stayed with Julie this week for the unveiling and so this time, it was coffee and conversation with her. It was just as magical and just as healing as the week I spent with Justine. We processed and processed and tried to wrap up this year and tie it in a tidy, little bow. Bow, I just saw that. The English language is so strange sometimes. As a therapist, I would be quick to point this out, silently thinking about Freud or Jung or Adler.

I keep saying Kyp was tough without really explaining what that means. I don’t want to disrespect her or her memory so I will sugar coat it a bit. Like most young parents, she didn’t know what to do or how to do it. It was the early 1960’s so resources were lacking while culture and “that’s how it is done” wasn’t. Kyp was not one to conform and I’m not sure why not. She had an extremely high IQ, was an exceptional musical talent, and was a girl in a boy’s world. Perhaps her lack of conformity was really a lack of fitting in, manipulated to protect herself. She was bold and brave but paid little attention to how others might react to or feel from her influence. People who didn’t really know her, loved her, briefly. She was big in her emotions, her giving of love, and her voice. People were attracted to her because she seemed so generous. I often wondered if she was truly generous or if it was all self-serving to get people to adore her. She had a deep and early wound to the self that she was never able to reveal, or conceal, or resolve. As a mother, she leaned far too hard on her children, making us bend and sometimes break. When she died, I wanted to say she did the best with what she had at the time, but I have a hard time believing it. She was a tortured soul and the writings she left revealed that to me in a way she never communicated. There were scraps of paper or tissue box lids with notes all over her place, reminding her of her worth, encouraging her to demand us to value her, and expressing her deep sadness from being alone. This was the hardest thing for me to reconcile, her loneliness. She was difficult and sometimes cruel, making being with her a challenge. So, she remained alone. So, how do I feel compassion for her?

Kyp’s death has completely changed my relationship to how I know people. I did not know she felt so lonely or sad, although I knew she struggled. I did not know Julie took it all on the chin and carried on, hiding it from me completely. I did not know Justine created her family to be strong, connected, and loving so as to change the course of our early disintegrated tribe. I did not know that people I thought I knew hid these things, whether they meant to or not. And as a result, I have begun to see how much I hide from the people who think they know me. I am more acutely aware of my feelings, hearing myself feel something and then seeing myself choose to not share it. Explanation for hiding feelings is not yet something I can understand. Intellectually and educationally, the psychology behind it and self-protection is obvious. But these people love me and I love them, and yet, I conceal my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions, and my truths. Sometimes, it would make things worse or unnecessarily complicated, or so I tell myself. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to share it in a way that will really explain it. And sometimes, I am afraid of how they will react. The human brain thinks upwards of 50,000 thoughts per day and I should not be amazed at how many of them translate directly to feelings, whether positive or negative, and how many I have begun to notice. We must all do this, hide our feelings, and I suspect we do it more than we don’t. I wonder how to impact that…

I miss my mom, our phone calls, her voice, and how much she loved my horses. She always asked me to kiss them right on the soft part of the nose for her, and I always did and sometimes still do. As a memory, she is better than she was as a reality, but I take poetic license here and Saint-i-fy her knowingly. At her core, she loved me deeply, regardless of her ability to like, respect, or honor us. So it is that piece I choose to focus on and carry on. I have space for how my siblings remember her and we shall continue to have coffee and conversations, as processing her death will take forever. I have learned a great deal about grief, a subject I thought I knew a lot about. Sounds like a pattern here, doesn’t it? We were taught in graduate school that everyone has their own timeline for processing and to make sure people know that and honor that. But this has been like no other timeline I have known. I have experienced loss before but nothing like this. Sometimes, I catch myself sitting in an airport or at a restaurant and searching people’s faces for the grief they might be hiding and how they deal with it. How much pain is he in? How much sorrow is she struggling with? I feel a deeper sense of compassion for everyone, just knowing how difficult this has been for me, even with the wealth of resources I have. My niece, Caitlin, has a favorite quote from Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” She has lived this for years and is truly kind and truly considerate. Perhaps the newness and difference of this battle has finally given these words resonance for me, all these years later. Regardless, they cross my mind with frequency and impact my behavior with love. I can accept my failure to be this way with my mom and take her love and death as a lesson and opportunity to be a better person. I feel my mom all around me, all the time. She comes to me in my dreams sometimes and in my meditations frequently. I have used this year to forgive; to forgive her for who she wasn’t and to forgive myself for who I was. In my mind, she forgives, too. What a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky girl I am.

Karen Ann Parker
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