Thursday, February 23, 2012

surprised smiles

I saw my Dad everywhere today. Brushing aside his thin white hair. Zipping up his light-weight, powder blue spring jacket. Driving in the slow lane with his seat pulled up close to the steering wheel. Grabbing a shopping cart at DeMoulas.

Each time I saw him my breath hiccupped in my throat and I thought “I want to cry” but I didn’t cry. I smiled. I smiled remembering my Dad and all the love between us. I smiled thinking someone else still had their Dad in the world.

A little more than a month after he died, I went on a short vacation with my family to Florida. On the shuttle returning to the hotel after an exhausting evening in the crowds at Downtown Disney, an older couple boarded. And I spent the remainder of the ride trying to hide my tears. I have been crying ever since.

At home, tears accompanied a chance encounter with a picture or a card. At my Mom’s house – because that’s what we call it now  - I cried putting a bagel in the toaster, getting Christmas decorations from the cellar, planting marigolds in the flower box, pulling the grill out of the shed. I would cry at the sight of any old man’s hands, at the passing of an ambulance, at the sight of navy blue dickies.

When did my tears turn into these surprised smiles?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


This month my family has been celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday. As you might expect, the milestone has occasioned a festival of storytelling and the ritual of reflecting on the importance of Mom in each of our lives.
The storytelling is my favorite part. One of my sisters reminded us how Mom would insist on pulling out rows and rows of crocheted blanket once a mistake was discovered near the beginning. Frustrating as a child, a welcome memory now for the lessons in doing a job right. My brother likes to tell how, when he was a teenager Mom always told him he was not too big to go over her knee. He would laugh at her and Mom would reach up and tap him on the side of the head. None of us has a memory of Mom putting anyone over her knee.
Mom started telling stories too. She told about meeting my Dad at the Rex Roller Skating Rink. And how they broke up when Dad wanted to see if the grass was greener in another girl’s yard. It took him about three weeks to discover it wasn’t. She told affectionate stories about her father, even though he was so mad at her for marrying a man against his wishes she didn’t know until the wedding march started whether he would walk her down the aisle. I learned that the night they moved into the brick house where I grew up there was a snow storm so my Dad had to spend the night plowing, leaving her in a new place with four children, the youngest of them only three months old.
At her birthday party, we left out paper and pen for guests to write birthday wishes or memories of time spent with my mother. My cousin thanked her for always welcoming him to her house, providing an escape from his less-than-perfect living conditions.   My nephew told her she was the best roommate he ever had. I wrote the word “Mom” on my paper then stopped. I could not find words to express the value of having her as my mother. I could not find the one memory that summed up her importance in my life.
 I have memories of my mother beating me at cards, advising me about marriage, sitting by my hospital bed, laughing at the kitchen table with her brother, holding my father’s hand, dancing with her great-grandchild, telling me my Nana had died, yelling at me to pick up my shoes, bragging about her grandson in the Navy, working on a sewing pattern strewn across the kitchen table, beaming when I named my daughter for her. Lessons can be attached to every memory; the morals at the end of the stories are there, if I want to parse them out. But I find that I don’t, not now anyway. I left that paper with that one simple word, “Mom.” I think that is enough.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My father was a bricklayer

“Your father was a bricklayer, not a glass maker.” That’s the smart aleck line my brothers and sisters used on each other when one of us was blocking the TV.  And our father was a bricklayer. That fact of his profession shaped us as a family.
            By the time I was old enough for school, Dad had gone to work for the state to earn a more steady income. He left every weekday in coat and tie. But on Saturdays, he left the house in his navy blue work pants, white T-shirt, and cement encrusted boots. On Saturdays, he was still a bricklayer. And somehow, it was Saturdays that defined him, and so defined our family.
            Growing up in the brick house that he built, we were surrounded by evidence of his profession. The pickup truck in the driveway filled with trowels, buckets, and levels; the pile of bricks stacked in the side of the yard, leftover from one job and waiting for the next. For years there was a small cement mixer at the end of the driveway. When I was in 4th grade I was fooling around with it and managed to get my thumb stuck in the gears. I lost my thumbnail on that little stunt, but broke neither bones nor the mixer.
Sometimes I went with him on a small job, like when he put in a retaining wall at my Catholic elementary school. He let me smooth out the cement on the side of the wall that would be covered by soil.
Being a bricklayer was important to my Dad. His father was a bricklayer, as was his father before him; so were his brothers. I don’t know how far back the profession goes, but I have a feeling that our family tree is made of cement.  Telling people that my Dad was a bricklayer is important to me. I take pride in the physical labor, in the tradition of it. I like to pass by buildings I know he or some other Lamarre had a hand in. My oldest brother was a bricklayer too, and I guess he was pretty good, like my Dad. People tell me that they’d put them on the most difficult work, or on the facades that had to look the best. They were that good.
I’m not a bricklayer. And, since my brother and my father died, no one else in my immediate family is a bricklayer either. I still have a few cousins in the field, but the days of the Lamarre bricklayers seems to have passed. It makes me sad sometimes. But, even if no Lamarre ever picks up a trowel again, we are still a bricklaying family. I have a jointer and chisel on the mantel next to a photo of my Dad on a job site. The tools remind me of the lessons I learned from him about work and art (my mother taught me a lot in these areas too, but that’s another story).  I am a bricklayer’s daughter.