As my 10-year-old daughter sat in the backseat of my car intently searching through her goodie bag from her friend’s birthday party, she remarked with such fervor to me that “Bubbe would not be happy with this goodie bag.”
“How come?” I asked wondering what made my daughter think of my late mother, the grandmother whose name she had, but who she never knew.
“It’s filled with gum. Bubbe hated gum chewing right?”
“Yes she did,” I said with a smile emerging over my face. I wondered if my daughter could see my smile in the rearview mirror and if it confused her or not.
My mother died when my son was just a few months old and my daughter was just about a year away from being conceived. Life without my mother was hard to imagine in those immediate days, weeks and months following her death, but raising children who would never know my mother, that seemed unfathomable.
And so I made a very conscious decision that my kids would know my mother. Although they would never have their own real memories of her, they would know that her favorite colors were pink and green, that she hated to cook, but set a beautiful table. They’d know that she loved kids having taught nursery school for many years. They’d learn that she was a good tennis player and an even better friend. They’d know that she sang in the car and in the shower, and yes, she despised gum chewing.
My mother never let me chew gum in her presence and never bought gum for me (save the Double Bubble she’d send me at sleep away camp knowing that she’d never have to see or hear me chew it.) At some point, I must have told my daughter this story, and she must have filed it away somewhere – to a place where it became a memory of sorts for her.
Mission accomplished, I thought to myself that day in the car. I wanted my kids to be able to place my mother somewhere in their own lives of which she would never be a part of. I also wanted my kids to feel comfortable initiating a conversation about my mom in front of me without being scared they’d make me sad.
It felt so good to know that my daughter could talk about her Bubbe with me. It even struck me a little funny that my daughter and my son had their own name for my mom. After all, they never got the chance to call her by that name. When I was pregnant with my son, and when my mother was fighting the cancer in the hopes of meeting her first grandchild and the only one she would ever know, she thought it would be “just great” if she was a Bubbe. I always thought of a Bubbe as an old little gray haired lady, which my mother, even in her sickly state, was anything but. Now I’m so glad my mom gave herself a grandma name so that we had and still have something to call her in all the years of her not being alive to be a grandmother to my children.
I talk about my mom a lot with my kids, but only when it feels right, being careful not to shove boring family stories down their throats. They like to hear about how despite her fear of heights, my mother skied with my father, my brother and me every year, but she never looked down below while on the chair lift. They get a kick out of me describing how she’d play golf in colorful mismatched outfits always carrying a stash of Tootsie Pops in her pockets. Sometimes I even employ my mother’s memory as a teaching moment to my kids as in “I would never talk back to my mother like you just did.”
We buy balloons for Bubbe every year on her birthday as the kids sing “Happy Birthday” to her and launch the balloons off to her “wherever she is.” This past year, as I watched the balloons float higher and higher into the newly crisp fall evening air, hoping they wouldn’t get tangled in the trees looming overhead, I imagined my mother smiling down on us and our smiley face Mylar balloons. I remembered how she signed every birthday card with her own crooked smiley face.
My mother never missed an opportunity to celebrate a birthday or really any occasion – no matter how big or small. I think she’d be pleased to know that we still celebrate her, that she is known to her grandchildren and that these grandchildren of hers, they still don’t chew gum.