All photos by Cecelia Garbin.
My mother would have celebrated her eighty-third birthday last Thursday. Though I did little to commemorate it except perhaps to raise my glass in her honor, and to remind my daughter of it, I do find myself back in her house as I write this.
I do not enjoy these treks up to the house as I once did. Each trip evokes a grimness as I take them mainly to settle yet one more aspect of her estate. We have the house on the market, but as we all know now, houses don’t exactly sell like hot cakes, especially in a city like Springfield, Massachusetts.
My mother took good care of her little home, though. She cherished it. I’ll never forget a moment years ago, when I was still in my early teens, for fun she and I looked at these brand new condos that went up not too far away. I loved the innovative use of space and all the modern amenities. I must have then made a disparaging remark about our crummy little house, because mom fired a verbal slap at me that still smarts today. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I sure remember how she said it — something along the lines of “At least it’s OUR house.”
Given at my mother’s memorial event held at Tony & Penny’s Restaurant, May 19, 2012.
I’d like to thank everyone for coming today, and I want to thank my beautiful wife for organizing this event.
I’d like like to mention how grateful I am to the Boston Red Sox for winning not just one, but TWO championships in my mother’s lifetime. I’m sure many of us wondered if we’d EVER see anything like that.
I’m fond of saying that it’s all about the story. At the end of the day, it’s the best that most of us can hope to leave behind. We tell the story to remember, and I can always say that Mom left us with many good ones.
Most of us know the general outlines of my mom’s life. She won’t be featured in any documentary. She never invented anything.
But as most of us know, my mom lived a hardscrabble life. For most of it, nothing came easy. She was the product of a stormy relationship, and she grew up under the watchful eyes of her many aunts and uncles, and spent a difficult year at a boarding school in Montreal, where no one spoke English. And when she came back to Three Rivers, neither could she. She would eventually drop out of high school to begin another three decades working in various mills and shops around the valley.
It should be no surprise then that mom loved Shirley Temple movies. I hated them. I found them depressing. Because they were always about a little girl with no home, passed around from one evil relative to the next. With the exception of the evil relatives, it’s clear that Mom saw these stories as autobiographical. Except that her happy ending took a little longer to get to than your average Hollywood movie. As hard as it was, she would manage to sum up her experiences with comments like, “We didnt have much, but we knew how to have fun.”
Times were hard, even after marriage. The Garbins in the 1950s and 1960s were not the Cleavers. And yet she managed to shield her problems from us — at least from me. My mother did her best to give me a childhood she didn’t have. She was there as much as a mother with two jobs could be. And she was as much of a father to us as she could be.
To say that my mom didn’t live an extraordinary life belies the fact that she somehow managed to raise three kids and turn them into well-rounded, productive adults. She did this while working menial jobs, earning barely enough to pay the bills and put food on the table.
We grew up in a household where you only saw soda or ice cream on special occasions and holidays. As a child, I thought those were just the rules. Little did I know that we just didn’t have the money. I mean, didn’t everyone mix powdered milk with regular to extend it?
If we went out to eat, we went to McDonald’s. When we wanted to live it up, we went to Friendly’s.
Realizing that my mother did that with THREE kids for about 17 YEARS tells me a lot about her true strength. I tried being a single parent for ONE WEEK a couple of months ago, and I thought I was going to kill that kid.
But we knew how to have fun, too. Despite her troubles, we got to take family vacations. We went camping. We took day trips to Misquamicut. We spent two weeks on the shore in Maine. We didn’t travel very far, but we got away.
When she finally had enough of the menial, dead end jobs, Mom went back to school. First she got her G E D, and then at the age of 49, she earned her Bachelors Degree from AIC. I’m only two years older than that now, and I still don’t know how she did it.
In some circles, they might describe my mom as one tough broad.
She was by no means perfect. She was no angel. My mother was often a study in contradictions and stubbornness. She had expectations of us and if we did not live up to them, she let us know it. She spoke her mind and told us things whether we wanted to hear them or not.
Not a few times did she say things to us like, “If I were born later, I never would have gotten married.” It wasn’t a jab at us, necessarily. She got married, she told us, because everyone was getting married. It was what you did back then.
More to the point, it was her assertion that she didn’t like to be told what to do.
Some would say that her kids inherited some of that. I know my daughter did.
But Mom knew right from wrong, and I think that a parent has no greater responsibility than to pass that ability on to their own children.
I’m proud to say that my mother lived life on her own terms. Even in the face of the horrible disease that slowly broke down her body, my mother adapted and endured. She died in her own house, surrounded by those she loved. I think everyone in this room aspires to that.
I couldn’t be with her as often as I wanted, but when I was there, I clearly saw mom facing this thing head on. She did it, of course, with the selfless assistance of my sister Marlene, who managed to keep Mom’s house in order, both physically and financially. We could not have done it without her.
I’m sure that in her private moments, it frustrated Mom to no end, but in those final years living under the cloud of A L S, I always saw her in good spirits and as willful as ever. I never heard her question the fairness of it. I never heard her ask, “Why me?”
I want to think that Mom looked back on her own life and saw it as I see it now, as a good one. It took her a little too long to get into a comfortable place, but when she got there, she enjoyed every second of it.
When she found herself spending one night too many sitting on the couch watching television, she met up with a group of women in a similar situation thanks to an ad in the Reminder. In her fifties and sixties, my mother kept making new friends and doing new things.
She was off and running — again. Unencumbered by children, financial pressures, or some man to take care of, she got out of the house and had fun. She realized her life-long dream and traveled to Hawaii. Then she went to New Orleans, to Alaska. She went out and danced every week. She took up cross country skiing. She bought a computer. She spent summers on the Cape. She often said that her 60s were the best years of her life.
If her genetics were any guide, I thought I could look forward to having my mother around well into her 90s, but 82 is nothing to sneeze at. We should all live so long. And so well.
Still, I know we’ve all heard or maybe said it once or a hundred times. If I could have just one more hour with her, I would move heaven and earth.
When I was maybe four or five, my mother taught me my first French words, albeit in the Canadian dialect. At the completion of this simple dialogue, she’d beam with pride as my aunts and cousins laughed and clapped. And of course, we would continue this routine well into my teens and adulthood.
She would ask me in “Aimez-vous votre Mama?”
And I would answer, “Oui, Mama, je taime.”
“Avec tu mon coeur.”
To which I can only add today, “Pour le reste de ma vie.”
For the rest of my life.
We have set a date for a memorial luncheon for my mom, Elaine Garbin for Saturday afternoon, May 19, 2012 at one of the restaurants that Mom always loved. This is an invitation-only event, and we will be asking for invited guests to R.S.V.P.
We will be serving a buffet style lunch, while we remember mom with words, pictures, and plenty of good stories.
If you’re interested in attending, please let us know by emailing me at email@example.com, by leaving a note in the comments, or by contacting me via my Facebook page.
Good to see all of Mom’s friends and family last night during visiting hours. All of mom’s neighbors, all our cousins, and many, many friends stopped I with kind words and good stories. Even her plumber, carpenter, and hairdresser came to pay their respects.
For many, mom left quite an impression. As someone who tended to speak her mind (maybe a little too often), this is to be expected. Most of the sentiments centered around my mother’s live of a good time, her children, and her determination to live life on her own terms. Indeed if anything impressed me most about Mom, it was her desire for independence, and indeed she raised three kids, intentionally or not, who picked up on that, entering adulthoods of self-reliance.
We hope soon to announce the time an date of Mom’s memorial service where we plan to more fully celebrate her life.
We’ll be having visiting hours for our mother at Sampson Chapels on 21 Tinkham Road, Springfield, Mass on Friday, April 13 from 4 to 7 P.M. We will be having a full memorial service at a date to be announced. If you’d wish to attend that service, please let me or my sisters know and/or leave us your contact information.
This finally ends my mom’s seven-year struggle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. While this stoic and hard-scrabbled French-Canadian woman managed to put up a good fight, adjusting to her condition admirably as it progressed, the one-two punch of heart attack and a bout of pneumonia triggered a fairly rapid decline.
When I arrived that afternoon, mom opened her eyes, so I believe she knew I was there. In fact, the house was full of people, my sisters, my niece and her husband, and later on some friends. Mom was surrounded by people who loved her in her last hours.
After everyone left later that evening, I went to bed only to be awoken by Mom’s aid at about 2:45 to let me know that she didn’t sound well at all, and indeed her breathing had slowed considerably. Less than fifteen minutes later, she let go.
My sisters and I will be announcing our plans for a memorial service for Mom soon. She had informed us in no uncertain terms years ago that she did not want a wake nor did she want people to buy flowers. She asked instead that if people wanted to, that they donate to the ASPCA, and we would also ask that donations be made in her name to the ALS Association.