Sunday, March 7, 2010

I Have My Mother's Face

We lost my mother to cancer in 2000. Today would have been her 69th birthday. In honor of her life and the special gifts of love and friendship she gave her family & friends, I say Happy Birthday Mummy...we miss you.

I have my mother’s face. Now I don’t mean I look like her; although, I do look a lot like my mother. A running “bit” between us was when someone would say I looked like her and she’d say, “You think so?!? I think she looks just like Peter.” (My father, of course.) To which I’d say, “You know I look just like you. You can’t not claim me!”

My mother had one of those faces. People, strangers, seemed to be drawn to her. Perhaps because she had one of those faces that somehow seemed familiar. Many people seemed to feel they knew her from somewhere. But mostly, people seemed to feel she had the face of someone they could talk to.

Many times when I was growing up, I was fascinated by how often my mother seemed to have a long conversation with a total stranger in a store or some other public place. They just seemed to want to tell her their life story in the few short moments they had her attention. And since she was one of those persons you could talk to, my mother would listen and talk back.

I have my mother’s face. I seem to experience this same phenomenon. People -- strangers -- just come out and start talking to me. And many of these chance encounters resonate and remain with me, months and years later.

There are the completely bizarre and humorous ones. Like the time on the train between home in Boston and school in Virginia where a nice elderly white woman sat down next to me and the first words out of her mouth were, “We have a black girl in our family and we just love her.” I smiled and said, “That’s great. Every family should have one.”

And then there are the times when what started as a great conversation turned to awkwardness. Like on a plane when after more than an hour of a wonderful conversation with a woman on everything from politics to health & nutrition to education she said, “How are you so knowledgeable? You are so knowledgeable!” She said it with such surprise in her voice that I knew – as any intelligent black person who comes across a well meaning, but still sheltered Caucasian person knows -- the unspoken conclusion of that sentence was, “…for a black person.” And the wonderful experience was ruined. I simply answered, “I read.” And the rest of the conversation just lost its enjoyment.

But then there are those times, which I love. Where I feel like I’m one of those human story archivists who has the pleasure of peeking into another person’s life. Like the time I talked with Mr. Cohen.

On an unseasonably cold fall day, I was at the local post office, waiting in the car for my husband, who was waiting for Triple A to come fix his car. Up to my mini-van window came Mr. Cohen. I rolled it down in response to his smile and gentle tap and we proceeded to have a wonderful and humorous conversation...for more than half an hour.

Mr. Cohen was about in his mid-seventies, maybe early eighties. He lived alone, having lost the love of his life a few years ago. He had a great sense of humor, a ready laugh and obvious from a few of his stories, did not abide by people being just plain silly.

Despite the brisk cold air, Mr. Cohen was determined to have a conversation right there in the parking lot. And aside from the fact that he kept me company while I waited, he also taught me a lesson and made me think about my mother-in-law.

We often joke that we can tell when my mother-in-law calls on the phone because the people on this end barely get a word in edgewise. She is a strong and relatively healthy octogenarian who also lives alone, having lost the love of her life some 25 plus years ago. My conversation with Mr. Cohen reminded me of the importance of taking the time to have conversations with our elders. Even if you find it's more of a monologue verses a dialog, there is worth in the experience.

So not only did I have a great conversation with Mr. Cohen, he helped me to remind myself of the importance of taking time with our loved ones, because -- relatively speaking -- we have such a short time with them.

And it was all because I have my mother's face. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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