Life gets in the way

If you have to pick a bill to be delinquent on, this would probably be the worst one. Somehow we fell three months behind in our $30 monthly sponsorship of a girl in Haiti. My excuse: We got mailed a new credit card after the Target security breach and I never provided the nonprofit organization with our new number. They sent polite notices and I still managed to forget to pick up the phone and call.

Then one day I did. I apologized quickly and profusely to the kind man who answered the telephone. I explained how I had meant to call. I was really sorry. He interrupted me politely with the following words: “It’s called life.” And I immediately felt such relief. I even wrote the sentence down on a sticky note and taped it to my bulletin board. Yes, “It’s called life.” Thank you for understanding. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we don’t do what we want to do, or should do. And then we can be pretty tough on ourselves.

This is my long-winded way to explain the absence of any blog post since Mother’s Day. Our oldest daughter graduated from high school in June and I think our family has been preoccupied with all the events and emotions this rite of passage brings. Work has been busy, and the weather has been too nice to sit at a computer on weekends. These are all excuses, of course. My mother told me not to worry about it. She understood we had a lot on our plates. You’ll get back to it when you are ready, she assured me, as she always has.

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Sarah and my mother after her recent high school graduation.

On Sunday, like my mother did back in 1985, we brought our daughter to the University of New Hampshire to begin freshman year. My mother recently told me she felt nervous and a little horrified as we pulled up to the eight-story Stoke Hall dormitory for my drop off. She remembers seeing people throwing empty beer cans from top-floor windows. I honestly don’t remember that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen from time to time. (I did once see  a mattress pushed out of a top floor window.)

My room assignment was what they called a built-up triple, meaning three people squeezed into a room for two. Back then we didn’t have Instagram and Facebook to scope out our roommates ahead of time. We didn’t text to coordinate comforter colors. It wasn’t until move-in day that I first learned one of my roommates really, really liked Jimmy Page of  Led Zeppelin, after she hung up a huge poster of him shirtless. She learned that I liked Michael Jackson. I also hung a poster. Mine was of a dancing Snoopy and Woodstock with the line, “Braces are cool.” I thought I was cool. Cringe-worthy, I know. She probably wanted to speak to the RA about a room re-assignment that day.

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Me, far left, with a bad haircut, in a dorm room near the end of my freshman year. (Sorry Amy, if you see this, your head was cut off in original photo). 

I don’t remember a tearful goodbye when my mother left. She remembers crying all the way home. “You were only 17,” she told me this morning. “I didn’t want to leave you.”

UNH move-in day went smoothly for our family. As my husband, Paul, said, “I don’t think it could have gone better.” Elizabeth climbed up on the top bunk to help Sarah make her new bed and hang pictures. Her roommate and her parents could not have been any nicer. A polite sophomore engineering major helped us carry up a few boxes, and told us there are always games on the TV in the first-floor lounge. It’s a big basketball dorm, he said. Sarah loves watching basketball. All good.

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The Leighton family on move-in day. 

Like Alice, I cried on the way home. To be honest, I am still sad and feeling a little unsettled. We all miss her a lot. The house feels a little empty without her dirty dishes in the sink (or on the counter and coffee table). In one of her many pep talks, our daughter Elizabeth reminded me that UNH is only an hour away. We will see her before long. It is all true.

I must say I am happy about the opportunity for her to meet new people and embrace new ideas. My mother recalled how all four of her children came home from college with new thoughts about the world, some of which surprised her. In many ways, that’s the point of the whole experience. It’s exciting to think what lies ahead. 

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One of the new wildcats in the UNH Class of 2020.

 

Happy Mother’s Day

A nice lazy Sunday brunch somewhere cozy would be a much easier way to celebrate Mother’s Day. But what my mother really wants every year is the gift of manual labor. So our tradition is to weed, rake, edge and mulch around her house on Cape Cod the day before Mother’s Day, with her getting dirty right beside us. I still laugh at the memory of my brother grumbling under his breath, sweat drops pouring off his forehead, as my mother suggested we return to the Agway store for the third (maybe fourth) time to buy just a “few” more bags of mulch. It’s hard to disappoint Alice.

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My mother and I yesterday after our work is complete. See that beautiful edging?

This year I added a new tradition and decided to interview my mother with some Oprah-like questions as we rested our weary limbs. I think I know my mother very well, but I learned a few things. I also confess I committed some cardinal sins of interviewing and tried to influence some of her answers. I laughed a lot and cringed a little as I listened to the recording this morning. Here’s an edited version of the conversation complemented by some of my favorite photos of my mother.

Me: What’s the most important thing that your mother ever taught you?
Alice: I would say mostly to always be kind to others. Nana was a very kind, thoughtful person. That’s what comes to mind first.

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My parents with her parents, John and Elizabeth Kelly.

Me: What is one of your best childhood memories?
Alice: When I was 13 or 14 at Christmas and I received a record player. We didn’t receive big gifts in our family. My father went out on his own and bought me this record player after my mother had bought all the gifts. And knowing it came from him was very special. I think I had everyone crying because I was so surprised. I know Aunt Eileen was crying. He hated listening to that kind of music, but for him to go out and buy that was a very important thing for me.

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My favorite picture of my mother, about 1980, guitar in hand. My cousin Ed’s painting of the Prudence Island lighthouse is in the background.

 

Me: What’s the bravest thing you have ever done?
Alice: 
The biggest undertaking I ever did was going to Europe with my friend Marie McLaughlin for 12 days and going to three countries I didn’t know anything about. I had never been away from Dad that long. We never traveled apart. But I had this opportunity to go with Marie’s school and Dad encouraged me to go.

Me: What do you consider your greatest strength?
Alice: 
 Patience.

Me: You think so?
Alice: 
I guess you don’t think so.

Me: I think you can be an impatient person. I think your greatest strength is empathy, always trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. But, huh, so you think you are patient?
Alice:  I guess you really don’t. (She laughs.) I think I have also always had a way of laughing at things. I can laugh at myself, as long as people don’t laugh at me; they laugh with me. I think my brother, Jack, helped me to be able to do that. He would tease me and we would laugh a lot together. Looking back I can picture a lot of laughter in my life, there is sadness, but laughter too. OK, move on.

Me: See, you are impatient.

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She has always been all legs.

 

Me: Name one place in the world you would still like to visit?
Alice: If I won the lottery, I would want to take everyone back to Ireland. But I have seen a lot. I have been lucky.

Me: Name something you think is better about the world today than when you were growing up.
Alice: 
Not much. I think so much is harder for kids now. But I also think any older person kind of forgets all the bad things and kind of thinks everything is better back in the good old days. I think one thing that’s better today is the emphasis on preventive medicine and how people are now living longer.

(Interruption hollered from the other room: “Red Sox lost two in a row to the Yankees.)

Me: What makes you smile consistently?
Alice:
 Your father. He does, he makes me laugh. We do laugh at the same things. And my grandchildren.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom. You always say you were very lucky to have the mother that you did. That’s another way I am living like Alice. Thank you for, well, everything.

 

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I’m laughing with you here.

 

NOTE: The drawing at the top I made for a Mother’s Day card in 1983. The shamrocks are a nice touch, I think.

 

One good thing about April 15

Fifty-five years ago today, Alice and Tom Flynn tied the knot. Most Americans think of the Internal Revenue Service deadline when they hear the date April 15. I think of my parents.

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Outside St. Paul’s Parish in Hingham, Mass, April 15, 1961

As the story goes, my father first spotted my mother while taking the train from Boston to Hingham. He noticed her red hair and asked a friend of his who also knew my mother to share some details about this gal. The guy knew her name was Alice Kelly and she often went to a dance with her friends on Saturdays nights. A few days later my father showed up and asked her to dance, even though my mother was dancing with someone else at the time. He did not have all the social graces back then, or now. But my mother fell for this freckled-face guy from South Hingham who made her laugh and liked to ice skate and fish and take walks on the beach.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder why my mother would ever jump in the car and ride to the town dump with my father and a station wagon full of trash. As a parent, I now know it was probably to get a break from her four kids. But I also know  that she genuinely enjoyed his company. My parents like to be together, always have. If my father went clamming, my mother was by his side to point out the shells she spotted poking out in the sand. If my mother went to a craft fair to sell her flower arrangements, my dad was there to load and unload the car, and count up the profits. They have shared many adventures together, along with five houses and four kids. They are still having adventures.

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On a recent private tour of Boston’s New England Aquarium, which my father helped build as a union pipefitter almost 50 years ago.

Today, they returned home from a short anniversary celebration stay at a hotel on Nantasket Beach, which is where they had their wedding reception many years ago. The venue was called The Showboat and it was destroyed in the Blizzard of 1978. I always liked the wedding photo of the happy couple at the head table that shows my mother holding a sign, “Under New Management.” On their recent trip, they managed to walk the length of the beach a few times, and at night they left their balcony door open a crack to better hear the waves and smell the salt air. They like the same things. Always have.

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Showboat S.S. Mayflower Nantasket Beach

Like Alice, my wedding anniversary is in April, one week later, on April 22. When selecting our date,  I liked the fact that we would be married the same month as my parents and also the fact that our chosen venue would be a lot cheaper in April than the summer months. With forsythia blooming, the grass greening and the sun growing stronger, April is a month of so much promise. Seemed like a good month to start a marriage.

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Glen Magna Farms, Danvers, Mass., April 22, 1995. Photo by Amy Sweeney.

Twenty-one years later, I can honestly say that if my city had a dump, which it doesn’t, I would jump in the car to take a ride with my husband anytime, even if the car smelled of trash. Because, like Alice, I married someone who I like to be around, pretty much anywhere.

This year my father gave my mother an anniversary card, which she described as perfect. The front reads as follows:

The moment I saw you I knew we’d fall desperately in love, get married and have kids … (open the card)  …  And drive each other crazy for the rest of our lives.

Sounds about right. Happy anniversary Mom and Dad!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New traditions on St. Patrick’s Day

The day before St. Patrick’s Day, I called my mother to ask for her corned beef and cabbage recipe. I had never made the traditional holiday dish before and decided this would be the year to try.

“I don’t really have a recipe,” my mother said. “I hate corned beef and cabbage. I always have.”

What? What is this blasphemy from red-headed. fair-skinned Alice Kelly Flynn? Growing up I distinctly remember my mother cooking corned beef and cabbage on many occasions. I even recall a few years ago visiting my parents’ house on Cape Cod on St. Patrick’s Day when my daughter Elizabeth held her nose the entire afternoon because the smell of boiled cabbage was making her sick. I think her word was “disgusting.”

But my mother said this week that she only made the dish for my father’s benefit. She grew up eating boiled dinners all the time and if she doesn’t have to eat another one for the rest of her life, she will be happy. I think her word was “gristly” when describing the cuts of boiled beef from her childhood.

One year my mother actually forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day and my father came home from a long day at work to find his wife in the kitchen making chicken stir fry for dinner. My father insisted they adhere to tradition and head out for corned beef and cabbage and my mother obliged.

With this new information about my mother, I decided to adjust my St. Patrick’s Day plans. After all, if my mother didn’t even like corned beef and cabbage and my daughters were already proactively complaining about the smell that would soon infiltrate our house, why should I bother?

What Alice does love are Irish scones, especially ones “dressed” as they say in real whipped cream and strawberries as served at the Keltic Kitchen in West Yarmouth, home of the traditional Irish breakfast.

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Elizabeth and my mother at Keltic Kitchen last fall. Sigh. I miss warm weather.

 

I decided I would make scones instead. Seemed pretty easy. But the cupboards were pretty bare.  My mother and father went to Sons of Erin, a social club near their house, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with music and food. Paul and I headed to Market Basket, also surrounded by music and food.

 

 

Here’s the recipe I followed after I Googled “Easy scone recipes.” I often add the word “easy” to my searches for recipes.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup milk

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in butter. Mix the egg and milk in a small bowl, and stir into flour mixture until moistened.
  3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead briefly. Roll dough out into a 1/2 inch thick round. Cut into 8 wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet.
  4. Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

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Caroline, my other favorite redhead, helped make the whipped cream from scratch.
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Who needs corned beef?

While Alice does not love boiled corned beef, she does thoroughly enjoy a Reuben sandwich. Which is what brought us to The Indo, an Irish pub in downtown Beverly, on Sunday afternoon.

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My good friend Debbie (who considers St. Patrick’s Day one of her favorite holidays) and I split a delicious Reuben, the tried-and-true sandwich composed of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressed grilled between slices of rye bread.  It was a lot easier and more enjoyable to sit in a festive pub than to make my own boiled dinner. I think Alice would be proud of me.

Our St. Patrick’s Day weekend festivities were rounded out with a trip to the local Cabot Cinema to catch a special screening of The Quiet Man, the 1952 classic starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

 

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Wayne plays the role of  Sean Thornton, an Irish-born American who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family’s farm and his birthplace in Inisfree. He meets and falls in love with the fiery Mary Kate Danaher, played by O’Hara. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, and the movie won an Academy Award for director John Ford. But the romances sure were different back in the good old days.

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At one point, Wayne’s character forces the woman he loves to return to their village by alternately dragging her, kicking her and shoving her over the course of five miles. In another scene, on their wedding night, he throws her onto their bed and breaks it. She slaps him pretty routinely and concedes to possessing a “fearful temper.” I think we were simultaneously laughing and gasping at the ridiculousness of it all. #relationshipgoals, this is not.

The Emerald Isle scenery, though, is certainly beautiful. The pub scenes are funny.  And there is character name Michaeleen Flynn and another named Mary Kate (the same as my niece), so I consider those two additional positives.

The movie is an American classic that I have heard about my whole life so I am glad I could finally see it in my hometown theater with a friend I’m very lucky to have. Thank you, Mom, for talking me out of the boiled-dinner route.

Sometimes traditions are better off tweaked.

ONE NOTE: The “Irish Lass” sign at the top of the post hangs in our living room. I found it washed ashore on a beach on Prudence Island, Rhode Island, when I was 10 years old. I have walked many beaches in my life and never come across anything nearly as good.

 

 

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Feathered friends

When I was young, if anyone in my town asked me where I lived, I might say South Pleasant Street. But more likely I said, “Across from the Duck Pond.” It was a landmark with instant recognition

From my mother’s bedroom window, she had a nice view of the pond and could watch the ducks every morning as she sipped her first cup of tea. More than once she invited our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Raymond, to bring the whole class to our house so all the kids could experience the thrill of feeding the always obliging ducks pieces of stale bread. (She came with my younger sister’s and brother’s classes too.) I felt like a big deal when kids told me how lucky I was to live where I did on our walk back to school.

Every afternoon the “Duck Lady,” as we called her, would arrive to feed the assortment of waterfowl cups full of dry corn from the trunk of her white Pinto. The ducks would get flustered and jockey for position as soon as they spotted her car. She was an odd character — eccentric might be the better word. But she was nice to my grandfather who lived with us, and she sent my sister a get-well card when she was in the hospital for several months, so I always liked her.

In the winter, my father would become a wrangler of sorts and help convince the ducks to leave the pond that would soon freeze and waddle or fly across the street to the brook. As a kid, I thought his actions bordered on heroic.

The Duck Pond is where I first learned to cast a fishing line, hook a worm, row a boat, skip a rock and ice skate. We knew to be on the lookout for snapping turtles and wary of the lily pads’ tangled roots below the surface. Every now and then I used to row our boat to a quiet cove where no one could see me. I was seeking solitude before I knew what the word meant. Many years ago, my sister Christine gave me a copy of a Claude Monet print that reminds me of this special place of my childhood.

Monet

I hadn’t thought too much about ducks until this past Saturday when I went to the see the documentary The Million Dollar Duck. The film, screened at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of Salem Film Fest, introduces viewers to the world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government.

Every year wildlife artists from around the country submit their best paintings of ducks in the hope that their artwork will be chosen for that year’s Federal Duck Stamp. The stamp is used for hunting licenses and for entrance to any National Wildlife Refuge. Revenues from the stamp have bought and maintained more than 5.3 million acres of waterfowl and wetland habitat in the U.S. It’s considered one of the country’s most successful conservation programs, and I knew nothing about it until Saturday.

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Roughly 300 artists enter the contest each year, and this amusing documentary follows seven of them right up until the nerve-wracking public judging. They are a quirky, competitive and talented crew of characters and we found ourselves rooting for almost all of them. Although there is no prize money, the artists can generate lucrative deals from re-licensing the stamp image on other merchandise, hence the title “Million Dollar Duck.”

“In music you have the Grammys. If you’re an actor, it’s the Oscars. If you’re a wildlife artist, it’s winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.”

— Mark Anderson, 2004 Federal Duck Stamp winner, The New York Times

The filmmaker, Brian Golden Davis, and one of the artists, Tim Taylor, were in attendance at the screening. The film had its premier at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and Davis shared that Animal Planet had acquired the TV rights and another company acquired the movie rights. Really try to see The Million Dollar Duck, if you can. We were all cheering and laughing and grateful that such a program as the duck stamp existed.

My 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth said she was trying to think of how the movie could be better and she couldn’t think of a thing she would change. Who would have thought a movie about ducks, stamps and the federal government could be so much fun for adults and kids alike? 

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My husband and sister Kathleen chat with the filmmaker, who gave my sister a Million Dollar Duck button after she told him she was here to celebrate her recent birthday.
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The girls look at one of Tim Taylor’s duck stamp entries. The detail is pretty amazing.

On my way to work today, I stopped at the post office to see if they sold the Federal Duck stamp. The worker shouted yes, and was so excited because no one had ever asked to buy one from her before. I gave her $25 and officially purchased the 2015-2016 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

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This year’s stamp features ruddy ducks. Art by Jennifer Miller of Olean, N.Y.

 

Screen Time

Before kids, one of my sisters used to refer to my husband and me as Siskel and Ebert, as in the thumb-up-or-thumbs-down theater critics. We went to the movies a lot. Our third date involved seeing a movie: A League of  Their Own. There was a year we had seen every movie nominated for the Academy Awards. Then we became parents and there was a year (or two) where we hadn’t seen a single one of the nominated movies.

I partly blame my mother for our drastic reduction in movie viewing post-kids. She babysat for one of our first dates after our daughter Sarah was born. We were thinking of catching a movie, but then my mother gently suggested that we use the rare time off to catch up without interruption. In a movie, after all, we couldn’t talk to each other. You know, share our hopes, our dreams, our fears … I bet we talked about how little Sarah slept. But it seemed like sound advice. And for years, we always felt like we should reconnect on dates and not sit in silence at the movies. Although I know now, sitting in silence together is reconnecting. Sometimes it can be healthier for a relationship than talking.

This year, I saw three of  the Academy-Award nominated films: Spotlight, Brooklyn and The Martian. I loved them all  (rooting for Spotlight to win Best Movie ). I also saw  all three in the movie theater., which, to me, makes all the difference. It’s an event. There are no distractions. I hope to see an even higher percentage of the Academy Award-nominated films when 2017 rolls around.

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Brooklyn makes me want to go to Ireland again.

Thinking of the Oscars and, of course, my year of living like Alice,  I asked my mother recently about her top three favorite movies. I knew Barbra Streisand’s  Funny Girl was high on the  list. Let’s just say we don’t share that in common.

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Beautiful voice, but she has always grated on my nerves. Yentil anyone?

A Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara is another one. My mother says she tries to watch the movie  every year around St. Patrick’s Day. ( I plan to do the same this year if anyone wants to join me.) The third top pick is American President. Following in the footsteps of Alice, we decided to watch the movie early this morning, which seemed especially appropriate with the Massachusetts presidential primary  on Tuesday.

Written by Alan Sorkin, the movie came out in 1995.  It tells the story of  a widowed U.S. president (Michael Douglass) who falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening). Like his TV show West Wing, Sorkin’s characters speak in such clever sound bites that sometimes it’s not very believable conversation. But I liked it.

Toward the end of the movie, Douglas’ president lambastes his fictional Republication opponent, U.S. Senator Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss:

“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

Remind you of anyone? I am not afraid of what Donald Trump wants me to fear. I am afraid of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not far from the tree

My sister-in-law called my cell phone the other night around 8:30 pm. And my first question after hello: Is everything OK?  I don’t know why I jump to the conclusion that people are calling with bad news. It wasn’t midnight; it was 8:30 pm for God’s sake. I do the slightly panicked voice to my husband on occasion. Paul will sometimes offer a preemptive strike if the telephone call is out of the blue: “Nothing is wrong,” but just checking on … Sometimes he calls just to say hi. Imagine that.

In my effort to spend the year acting more like my mother, I have come to discover how much I already act like my mother, in ways big and small. I would never call my mother at an unusual time of day (or at work) without first assuring her that everything is fine. As kids, if one of us was not home and she happened to hear sirens in the distance, she would assume one of us was in a car accident. And now that my oldest daughter drives, I sometimes do the same thing.

But there are little things too. I cut butter the wrong way, just like my mother. I used to think everyone sliced the stick horizontally across the top in a thin layer until a high school friend commented on my unusual technique. I discovered that, in fact, most people cut butter in a vertical motion, as in pats of  butter. But old habits are hard to break and I never retrained myself to cut butter the proper way.

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Her influence extends far beyond the refrigerator. My kitchen windowsill is lined with glass bottles and usually a few flowers, just like my mother. I keep the dining room table free of clutter. Before a party, I shove things into closets to make the room look neater. There is an abundance of throw pillows on our bed.  All very Alice Flynn.

 

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If I come to a sudden stop while driving, I use my arm as an extra seat belt on the occupant in the passenger side. Every time an ambulance races past, I say a prayer for the people inside. My mother taught me that. Whenever I talk to someone on the phone to make a reservation, or ask a question on a bill, I always ask for a name.  I don’t like to waste my day by sleeping late.

For good or bad, many of us act like our mothers in more ways than we probably realize or are willing to admit. We have to decide for ourselves what we want to do the same or set out to do differently. I want to worry less than my mother does. But I’m also grateful every day to still have someone so deeply invested in my life.

The other day my mother happened to pick up the phone at the same time as my Dad. She didn’t catch the caller’s name but heard him asking my father about making an appointment to check his fluids. My Dad’s had a tough winter of colds and coughs, but my mother worried why  the doctor was calling now? Were they hiding some bad news from her? She kept listening to the conversation as my father scheduled an appointment to come in to have his fluids checked, with the auto mechanic up the street.

My mother couldn’t stop laughing at that one. Neither can I.