Sunday, April 30, 2006

For My Mom

Today is my mom's birthday!

She is off for the weekend celebrating at some hot springs in California, and I am trying my hardest to create a post in her honor before she is back in internet and cell phone range. I've been in front of the computer for most of the day, thinking about how much I admire my mom, all the important lessons she's taught me, and how grateful I am for our indescribably wonderful relationship. It's hard to capture it all in words.

Instead of trying to create an all-encompassing post about what an amazing woman my mom is, I've decided to share some of my favorite things about her, some of my dearest childhood memories, and a few stories that show what a strong, intelligent, kind-hearted, and sensitive woman my mom is.

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My mom is a fabulous cook. When I was a little girl, maybe 4 or 5, I remember helping her in the kitchen as she would make these delicious homemade cakes and cookies and flan. I would stand up on a stool so that I could reach the counter and help measure a cup of sugar, mix batter until it was smooth, or use cookie cutters to form neatly shaped sugar cookies. My mom always let me lick the leftover batter of whatever it was we were cooking, my favorite being the 2 ejectable beaters of the electric mixer.

Stored away in a shoebox full of photos at my mom's house is a picture from one of our cooking sessions. I am sitting in one half of the kitchen sink (it was dry, I suppose) licking a batter-laden beater from the electric mixer. I am wearing a pink tutu and purple leg warmers and have a crown on my head. I'm not sure if I actually remember the day that photo was taken or if I have created a false memory from looking at the picture together with my mom, but for some reason I remember that the photo was taken around Christmas. We had gone to see the Nutcracker ballet (like we did every year) and I decided to dress up like the Sugar Plum Fairy as my mom and I cooked together. We hummed the songs from the Nutcracker and I danced around the kitchen until it was time to lick the sugar plum batter leftover from the cake my mom was making.

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My mom is in incredible shape for her age. Every day she takes an assortment of vitamins, wears sunscreen on her face and hands and disciplines herself to exercise, be it a run with the dogs, the same Jane Fonda tape she's done since 1986, or a walk with her husband through the open space park near their house. My mom also lives the life of a Buddhist monk - she wakes up at 4am, has a cup of tea and reads or writes for several hours in the morning, eats brown rice and vegetables, and doesn't drink alcohol or smoke.

Last month when my mom met up with me and Rico in Brazil, we went on a hike in a town called Monte Verde. It was about an hour hike through the mountains of the Atlantic Rainforest - all uphill and on very muddy and irregular terrain. But my mom was a trooper and kept up like it was no big deal. Other women about her age passed us and were quite literaly being pushed/carried up the mountain. Not my mom! She was even more fit than me or Rico, something that was a big inspiration in our decision to incorporate exercise and a healthy diet as an essential part of our lifestyle.

(my mom and Rico during the hike in Monte Verde)

(we made it to the top!)

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My mom and I vacationed together to Kauai, once during spring break of my 8th grade year and again when I was in 10th grade. I remember driving around the island in a turquoise green rental car, listening to mix tapes I'd made of REM, Tori Amos, and Concrete Blonde. My mom and I sang out loud to the tapes as we zig-zagged down Waimea Canyon, very justly dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, looking at the red cliffs and even redder dirt broken only by taro fields in the valley below.

We visited a ghost town that used to be the heart of Kauai's sugar industry and walked up and down streets lined with tin-roofed buildings now taken over by artists and hippies. In one of the old buildings, a woman had opened a clothing boutique and my mom bought me this beautiful Chinese-inspired black satin skirt and blouse with lace trim.

I remember going to the farmer's market in the middle of a field, browsing the fruits and vegetables despite a light rain. We tried breadfruit and pineapples and lovely prepared dishes with fresh ginger.

One day my mom and I got an adventurous bug and began to explore the island off the beaten track. We turned off the main highway and followed a smaller road up a steep hill. At the top, we found a Japanese cemetery with most of the graves dating back to WWII and before. All the writing on the tombstones was in Japanese characters, some were crumbling with age and humidity, others were well-kept with vases of silk flowers and candles.

Another day my mom and I were driving to Hanalei to have a coffee when we passed a hitchhiker on the road. She was in her 20's and had braids and a hippie dress and a big backpack over her shoulder. I almost died of shock when my mom - at that time a very proper, rational, in-control and organized person - pulled over on the shoulder, motioning for the girl to hop in the backseat. I always had the image of my mom as the kind of person that would *never* pick up a hitchhiker, no matter how inoffensive s/he looked. But there all of us were in the car, my mom and the girl talking about how they'd both studied at Santa Cruz and how the girl was part of a commune on the island. We dropped her off a few miles down the road, then went to have a coffee in town. That day I got a peek into a different side of my mom's personality, one that is free-spirited and intuitively trusting and adventurous, a side that has definitely blossomed in recent years.

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Many of my favorite travel memories with my mom are in Brazil, from Iguaçu Falls to the Pantanal to Rio. Most of all, though, the thing that impresses me about my mom's experiences in Brazil is that she taught herself Portuguese the year I was an exchange student in Paraná state. By listening to tapes, talking with some Brazilian friends of ours back in New Mexico, and reading articles in Portuguese my mom was able to learn a new language when she was 46 years old! My mom can now take part in any conversation, do business, order at a restaurant, take a taxi and do anything else she pleases - all in very good Portuguese.

(here is a photo I love, taken in front of an art shop in Santa Teresa a few years back)

Another thing I love about my mom is her willingness to take a risk and not be at all bitter if things don't turn out exactly as planned. While I was living in Rio, I fell in love with a beautiful pink villa from 1910 for sale in Santa Teresa, a culturally and architecturally rich neighborhood on a hill above the city center that has an unfortunate reputation for violence. I called my mom up and propsed to her that we buy the pink house as an investment. I had (and still have) plans to move back to Rio someday, and the timing was perfect. The Brazilian real was at 3 to 1 with the dollar and this beatiful house was more than a bargain. My mom took a trip to Rio to visit the villa and close a deal with a laywer and the previous owner of the house, and it was a done deal. Thus began the story of the Casa Rosa, my current "home" and one of the places on this earth that truly has my heart. I am forever grateful that my mom was willing to take a risk and invest in overseas real estate, and hope one day to be able fulfill equivalent wishes for my children.

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My mom is the queen of nicknames. Each of our pets has had at least 10 nicknames, each more unique than the next. I don't know how my mom comes up with these names, it's like she has a nickname factory in her head that rolls creative monikers out whenever she pleases. A few examples:

Lady, our cocker spaniel that died last year, was also known as Pearl, Hunnifer, Pearl-Lynn, Perf-a-Lynn, Schnarfling and BD (baby dog).

Azul, my burmese cat that is currently living with my mom, is also called GC (girl cat), Zeeny, Zeenzibar, Zul-Salamin, Zulie, Zeen-Been and, simply, "a girl" or "the girl."

Not surprisingly, I am also blessed with many nicknames. Some of them my mom has used since I was a little girl like Monkey Bars, Alf, Alfie and Alifer. Others are more recent, like the series of nicknames based on initials we've adopted and now almost exclusively use when we talk to each other. These newest nicknames were inspired by names given to Lady and Azul. Instead of just calling the cat GC, my mom also started calling *me* GC (girl cat). Same thing with BD (baby dog). The logical progression from there, of course, was for my mom to become GC (grandma cat) and MD (momma dog). When I talk to my mom on the phone or write an e-mail, 9 times out of 10 I call her either GC or MD.

The latest additions to the initial nickname series are AC (Africa cat) and RD (Rico dog). In a move that just made my heart glow with happiness, Ricardo started calling my mom GC-in-law! I love it!

(here we are, GC and GC or BD and MD if you prefer)

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My mom is effortlessly elegant. She loves to wear tailored clothes and big pieces of jewelry with gemstones and silver or gold. When I was younger she wore mostly black, but in recent years she has branched out and included colors in her wardrobe. Either way, she is always pulled together and looks just beautiful!

One of the best things about my mom is that she is naturally elegant. Long ago she stopped getting perms and is self-assured in her decision never to dye away the whites in her salt-and-pepper hair. She has also decided never to get plastic surgery, something that she definitely doesn't need (thanks to all the exercise and healthy living and suncreen) and that I think is a wonderful decision in the face of all these women nowadays botoxing and lifting away any wrinkles or expression lines. My mom is confident and self-accepting about her looks, and this comes through as a beauty that no plastic surgeon will ever be able to create.

(shopping and looking chic in San Francisco)

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My mom gave me the best birthday present ever when I turned 16. I was on exchange in Brazil and homesickness and culture shock had hit me big time. I felt very alone, very frustrated, and missed my mom! She wrote me the following in an e-mail, a message that gives me comfort to this day:

"I am always with you. Just touch what I have touched and I will breathe into your lungs a wind for the singing of your songs." (anonymous)

Perhaps this is the greatest gift any mother can give her child - the realization that we carry each other with us no matter how great the distance, no matter what the circumstances. My mom is always with me, just as I know I am always with her.

(breakfast together in Austin the week before I moved to Mozambique)

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When I was a little girl, my mom would entertain me on long trips with what she called "The Color Game." My mom carried around in her purse dozens of colored fabric swatches cut into triangles. The game was to hold each swatch up to each other's faces and determine which colors looked best given our skin tone, hair color, eye color, etc. We would then separate the swatches into piles and classify each one. "These are winter colors," or, "these are summer colors." Sometimes we would think of another person, like my grandmother, and choose the colors that would look good on her.

Another favorite game involved the Scarf Bag, a huge straw bag full of old scarves that my mom and grandmother had collected over the years. I'd play dress-up with the contents of the Scarf Bag, creating sarongs and headwraps and tube tops, then model everything for my mom. The Scarf Bag was also an endless source of Halloween costumes, my favorites being Diamond Belle (skirt and top made out of black lace scarves, colored ostrich feathers in my hair) and a gypsy with a Hungarian-looking shawl around my shoulders and my mom's huge filigree earrings from Mexico.

(in front of a wall of color at my friend Jamie's house for Thanksgiving dinner)

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My mom is always there for me in a crisis. Always.

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My mom and I love to shop, love to have a Diet Coke in the middle of a long afternoon, love to order 2 delicious vegetarian dishes for dinner and split them, and love to talk about psychology, celebrity gossip, meditation, clothes, and the general joys and crises of living with other people throughout all of the above activities. Our conversations are wonderful, just the right balance of light and heavy. I miss them dearly.

(dinner at Fonda San Miguel, my favorite restaurant in Austin)

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When I was at the Nia training in February in Cape Town, one of the activities we did was called "The 5 Stages of Development." The idea is to relive the key stages of early life - birth, creeping, crawling, standing and walking. Each of these stages is linked to important developments in a child's personality, and if a child skips over one of the steps it can have consequences later in life. For example, studies show that children that skip creeping are less motivated, and that kids who do not crawl tend to have concentration problems. This activity is incorporated into Nia with the idea that by reinacting each of the phases, our body can compensate for what we may have missed as children.

We started the exercise by lying on the floor in the fetal position. We were instructed to remember what it was like to be in the embryonic state, to be completely safe and cared for inside the watery environment of the mother's womb. After a while, we were called on to reinact our own births, to respond to that unconscious call that it was time to come into the world and take the first breaths of air. We looked around with curious eyes, seeing light and faces for the first time. Then we started creeping, using our arms to raise our chest off the ground and pulling our slack legs behind us. Creeping is really hard. Your legs are useless and heavy, but the desire to move and explore is greater. Then we were instructed to crawl, to find a use for our legs and experiment with cross-pattern motion of the arms and legs. Finally, we felt what it was like to stand up for the first time, and to take the first tentative steps of a toddler. It was a strange exercise, but one that provoked surprisingly strong reactions from the women in the group, including myself.

When going through "The 5 Stages of Development" I was able to imagine perfectly what it must have been like at the moment of my birth. I felt my eyes come into focus for the first time, and saw the loving face of my mom in front of me. I felt her warm embrace, and knew immediately that even in this strange world of cold and light I was safe. I felt the bond between mother and baby, imagined how beautiful and moving that moment must be for those actually experiencing it.

More than anything, the exercise made me realize how much I miss and love my mom. I wish I could see her more often, that we could talk every day and hang out like we did when I lived in the US. I wish life weren't so short, that we could have unlimited time to enjoy each other's company and bask in the relationship that we have built over the years. Alas, as my mom taught me, we must accept that everything is impermanent in this life including ourselves. We can't buy more time and we can't go back to fix things we wish we'd done differently. All we can do is take advantage of the moments we do have, precious few they are...

Happy birthday mom. I love you!

(Monte Verde, 2006)


telfair said...

This is a really beautiful tribute to your mom -- you made her personality just shine off the web page. It's easy to tell from your loving and proud words that she's an amazing person, and you two share a special connected bond. I feel like I know *both* of you after reading this.

She sounds like a fabulous mom, and of course all of your faithful readers know that she has a wonderful daughter to prove it.

Alina said...

First of all, Happy Birthday to your Mom! Second, I think what you have put up in this post is amazing. A collection of nice memories is the best tribute of all!

I remember something about the leftover batter and always having them saved for me. I also loved the mixer...guess it was because they were the harder parts to lick...

Living Part Deux said...

What an incredible exploration of your mother and your life together. Having just found your blog, I am enthralled. What an interesting life she has led. I would love to sit with a cup of coffee and listen to her talk about it - often.

no exist said...

Hey there,
Oh Ali, I would love to sing happy birthday to GC "na ziseis katerina kai xronia polla, megali na gineis me aspra mallia pantou na skorpizeis tis niotis to fws kai oloi na lene na mia sofos" well in english that means:"live long Catherine and many years of health, get older with white hair, spread the light of youth around you and let everyone say here is a wise person".
I met your mum and she is a very warm person, full of life, with many interests and as far as i remember she had an amazing house in New Mexico, full of art. Her house was full of light , with a very good sense of decoration, colors and very cosy. I suppose a house represents the person.However, I was amazed to receive a unique e-mail from your mum,which arrived right on time to get me out of a dilemma I had at the time, so I would like to openly thank her for her kind words and you for introducing me to her.
Well Happy birthday GC and hope we speak soon....kisses Ali