Among many other things, my mother Dorie was a gifted and patient teacher. Patience is not a quality that I come by naturally, nor was it my father’s strong suit, so we were both very lucky to have lived in her sphere. Most certainly I could never have become a novelist without having benefited from my mother’s lessons in patience and persistence.
She taught me, patiently, for it did not come easily to me, how to tie my shoe. She taught me how to write my name.
She taught me how to speak in a low-pitched, clearly enunciated voice.
She taught me how to answer the phone—”Kallos residence, Stephanie speaking”—and how to lie politely—”I’m sorry. Dr. Kallos isn’t here right now, may I take a message?”
Even though she was raised German Lutheran, Mom was a bible school teacher for a time at the Greek Orthodox Church, and in that setting she showed me how to cross myself the Greek way: three fingers together, and right-to-left.
She taught me how to put on lipstick and iron a shirt.
She taught me to never kiss a boy on the first date. (I should add at this point that not every lesson sunk in.)
She taught me songs: “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” and “April Showers” (which was accompanied by a special hand ballet). It strikes me now that they are songs of great cheer and optimism, Depression-era songs meant to banish hopelessness and engender joy. They are songs about Spring.
She taught me how to make tuna fish, potato chip, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup casserole, and a German/Russian dish called “glace”—dumplings slathered in butter and dill and sour cream – which the two of us reserved as a special treat for those occasions when Dad wasn’t home for dinner. Dad hated sour cream.
My mother never taught me more than she did during the last year of her life. All of those lessons could be summed up by saying that she taught me how to soldier on with a broken heart, for indeed, I believe her heart broke when Dad died, and she said as much on more than one occasion.
And when Mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness six weeks later, she taught me about courage—expressed through humor and grace and a steadfast adherence to keeping up appearances.
The first full sentence she spoke when she started to get her speech back after her surgery last February was “Pluck…my…chin…whiskers,” and the last full sentence I heard her say—with great effort, and in a barely audible voice—was “I love you, too.”
She charmed all her caregivers this past year—dressing beautifully for each and every chemo and radiation appointment, saying, “I can’t tell you how hard it was for someone who loves to talk as much as I do to lose their speech!”
She made many friends among the residents and staff where she lived, and she continued to get her fingernails done on a regular basis. I think she’d appreciate the fact that, inside her casket, she’s dressed to the nines in a black and silver lamé gown, velvet beret, and high heels—all ready to go to the opera.
When Mom started to lose her speech again in November, she still laughed and smiled and kissed and hugged us. One day she was having trouble getting her words out and said, “I read this story…I read this story…Story, story, story” and then she made a funny face, shrugged, squeezed my hand and said, “Oh Storphanie. Storphanie, Storphanie, Storphanie.” I may adopt that as my pen name.
My mother gave me so many gifts—the gift of my own life, of course, and the great gift of letting me be present at her own death, which certainly couldn’t have been easy, for she was a intensely private and proud person. I take comfort from knowing that—with the great love of her life, my dad—she lived a full, wonderful, rich, adventurous life—a life far beyond anything she imagined for herself as a young girl growing up in the Russian Bottoms neighborhood of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a house that is now home to the Germans from Russia Museum.
It is also from my mother that I inherited by love of books and reading. She used to say, “As long as you can read, you never have to feel lonely,” and indeed, books were her most cherished and enduring companions, as they are mine.
One last lesson: It was my mom who taught me the right way to open a book: with reverence, tenderness, excitement, and above all, a sense of hope.