Sunday, June 26, 2016

All There Is, Mom

Elogy. The word in Spanish, I discovered while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mexico, is a part of everyday speech.  Elogia – or elogias in the plural – are words of praise bestowed onto the beloved. Nombre, are the Latinos good at that!

Well that’s what I’m here to do today for my mother. It’s not so easy for us in this culture to accept praise.  But as uncomfortable as it may be for you mom, here goes…elogias para ti, Mama. 
To begin, just a bit of background…

Rosemary Copp was born in Springfield IL (land of Lincoln) on August 23 1931 and died in Peoria, IL (Land of Vaudeville) June 26th, 2014. In-between, Mom lived in Washington, DC (Land of the Do-Nothing Congress) along with my dad, her late husband, Angelo Pellicciotto and their three children – myself the eldest, my sister Jane, next in line, and brother Nick.  

She and dad met in the Chem department at St Louis U in the mid-fifties, graduated, married and headed to Washington in the tumultuous sixties to join the fledgling bureaucracy - Dad working for the DOD and mom for the VA. 

Jumping ahead a few decades, my Dad, sadly estranged from the family, met his un-timely death in 1987.  At the time I was still young, just out of college, and for various reasons, I was unable to sing my father’s praises at his funeral.

I am older and (I hope) a bit wiser now.  My relationship with my mom was very different; it had a chance to evolve over the years, fortunately, beyond mother-daughter to friends. 

So I hope I am able to provide a window – only one view – into the life of Rosemary:  a Challenging, Engaged, Open-minded, Courageous, Forward-thinking, Inquisitive woman.

1.  Challenging
People say my mom was an easy-going, go along with the crowd type.  But I don’t see her that way. She was a challenging mom – a mom who challenged. She set high standards, though she was generally tight-lipped about them. You knew by a look and a feel whether she was disappointed or proud.

I’ll focus on the proud…

I think we children did our best to make her proud – in different ways of course - bringing home good report cards, stories and ideas, interesting friends. I liked to bring mom trophies, evidence of my triumphs in swimming, tennis, running. When I lost, I stomped up to my room and slammed the door, mom liked to remind me. But when it was a win…I’d walk into the house with a big smile and she knew right away. The prize hidden behind my back: which hand? I’d ask.

She liked that, up to the end.  Just two weeks before she died, I brought mom home a wood plaque in the shape of the State of Illinois – first place, 4-mile Steamboat Classic, master female category. She laughed giddily, as I perched the plaque on her dresser. You’re still winning, Anne, she said. And it STILL felt good to make her proud.

As I said, Mom was usually tight-lipped about her expectations of us.  But there was this one time she put it right on the table, delivering an unforgettable line to my husband-to-be (and now my ex, John Gerschefski): ‘I have great things in mind for my daughter and I don’t want you fucking them up.’

2.  Engaged

Yes, mom did put the pressure on, in her own usually-subtle way. But she didn’t simply set expectations and sit on the sidelines. She was engaged. I remember hours spent on the linoleum floor of our kitchen – from playing store and learning to make change when we were little – to memorizing the periodic table of elements in high school – well this WAS her forte. I had the hardest time understanding the concept of a mole, the amount of a chemical substance that contains as many atoms, molecules, ions and electrons as there are atoms in 12 grams of Carbon.  Huh? I could not accept this without understanding why? And she repeatedly begged me: ‘Please don’t ask Why, Anne?! That’s not the point.’

Mom loves to share this story about Jane who, in high school chem, after hours toiling over Avogadro's Number, attempting to calculate the rate of a reaction, said to Mom:  ‘What do I care about the RATE of the reaction? I don’t even care about the reaction!’

I imagine Mom, at that point, to be both frustrated and wholeheartedly amused. What would become of these progeny? Both of our parents were chemists – practical, rational, employable. And their three kids were heading in divergent directions:  music, art and design, writing and English lit, hmm, business.

3.  Open-minded

But thank god, Mom was open-minded. She was a great supporter of my ‘creative’ life. She managed to let go little by little over the years, encouraging me to travel where life’s road was taking me, reserving judgment, though not ample motherly concern.

‘Maybe it’s time to come home,’ Mom told me often, as I regaled her with stories of adventure and woe over Skype from the Peace Corps.  She was scared for me – the drug cartels, parasites, cross-cultural communication roadblocks. But she knew I couldn’t abandon the cause. I had something new and important to learn from my PC experience.

Mom never got in the way of learning.

 I did complete my service, landing back on US soil after a harrowing bus ride from Rioverde across the border; and mom was there in Austin, TX to meet me. Her relief was palpable. I was in one piece. We celebrated with a bottle of mescal I’d brought from Oaxaca, which had remained in one piece too!
Soon after, when I announced I was embarking on this Kickstarter campaign to turn my Mexico stories into a published book…that got her shaking her head once again in joyful disbelief.

'Kick what?' she questioned, then went right online to research this new crowd-sourcing wonder. Once convinced, she got behind me once again, as my biggest funder and moral supporter, sharing the link with her friends, and boosting me closer to my mark at the most crucial time in the campaign.

4.  Courageous

Of course we all have stories of mom the scardy-cat. Oh my god, she was terrible in the car. I remember one road-trip with my ex John out to Yosemite, and the woman was literally crouched, whimpering, in the foot well in the back seat as we drove through those expansive breathtaking mountains.

There was the raft trip down the Blackwater River in WVA.. We had to almost tie her into that rubber boat; and she was stone silent for the first six rapids, all class 2s, maybe a 3. But finally, on the 7th , the fear broke. Drenched and delighted, she turned to the guide, grinning like a kid.  “How many more?’ she asked eagerly. Sadly, he replied:  ‘That was the last one.’

I know you all have your own stories like that. Janet I know you have many into the car for a trip from DC to NY so we could all take advantage of that Riverside Drive mansion where I was cat-sitting. You did make it; and we did have fun.  

But Mom had this quiet courageous side too.

The way I look at Mom, she was a Y2k woman raised in the repressive 50s. Her options HAD been limited. She wanted more for her daughters. And she managed to have a breakthrough herSELF!

Once she’d divorced and we kids emerged out of the nest, Mom got out of the ‘rat hole’ (she called it) of the NIH lab and into Corporate America! She landed a job with Abbott Labs as a tech rep for their diagnostics division.  Despite here directional challenges, Mom spanned the Midwest region in her Ford Taurus (company paid) – Peoria to Paducah to Kalamazoo – installing blood analysis machines in doctor’s offices and training their staff.  In 1997 she made the prestigious President’s Club for her stellar customer service, and invited me along on the no-expense-spared trip to Ireland where we had a chance to travel the Ring of Killarney, sheer sheep, golf an Arnold Palmer course on Dingle Bay, browse bookshops and gulp Guinness in Dublin, all on the company dime.

In those Abbott years mom caught the buzzing current of the technology – becoming proficient with email, reporting her progress to Headquarters via Lotus notes, uploading test results via the world wide web, researching on the Internet and even making her own e-trades.

Mom would have and did say she got lucky with that Abbott job.  She retired at 71 and her stock options had split many times.  But I say she made her luck; she took the plunge late in life; and it paid-off for her.

But where I saw my mom’s real courage in life was in the final stage. I know death is not an easy topic, but I think an important and relevant one.  As many of you know, my mom was hit unawares by this tumor in her colon and rushed to the emergency room last April 2013.  I was just back from the Peace Corps a couple weeks and still did not have a phone, so she sent me an email to alert me. 

She recovered quick and strong from the surgery; we even had an Easter brunch at her house the day after she left the hospital.  But the cancer had already spread to the liver. 

So Mom bravely took the plunge into the dark waters of chemo, and to the credit of an otherwise strong and healthy body and keen mind, she fared well through 3 different regimens of the therapy.  By all standards she had a very good year – she traveled and visited her children – hosted a Christmas gathering – got her affairs in order.  Then it hit – on Mother’s Day while mom was visiting Nick and Lauren and grandson Noel in Austin – it would be for the last time.

We never really got to know Rosemary as an old lady. As you know from real life and will see from the photos, she was always vibrant. She had a perfect brain, heart, lungs, legs, and lovely feet. She could proudly do 20 leg lifts that final week she was bedridden – it was just that darn bowel.  But it happened the way my mom wanted it to – relatively quickly and in home hospice. She received visitors graciously over those 12 days, carried on animated phone conversations with nieces, nephews, sisters and friends – voice strong and hair looking good up to the end. And she was so touched by everyone and everything.

A week into home hospice she seemed so content – conducting Vivaldi with her long, elegant fingers, watching the light change from morning to dusk, overhearing her the booming voice of Gerry, next door, chatting with neighbors, noticing the simple beauty of her variegated-leaf ivy dangling from the basket in the corner – ‘the ONE plant I’ve managed to keep alive!’, she marveled.

She said to me one of those days, between bouts of pain:  ‘I think I could lie here like this forever.’ 
She couldn’t. But Mom knew what she wanted those final days. While her body was ready to go, her spirit kept her in a semi-conscious state, conserving her energy, as she awaited Jane’s arrival, so that all of us, her children, could be by her side.  Jane arrived at 11 from Portland; and Mom passed at 1 am with a serene smile on her face, just as it was meant to be.
In a split second I think:  better get back inside. Then a firefly flashes, startling me, a presence bigger than that tiny light. I start to cry.

Lying back on the cool cement walk, looking up at the stars, faint on a hazy Midwest summer night, tears stream into my ears like when I was a child, inconsolable.
The firefly flickers again, in a different place, higher in the sky. And this time I smile, reach up, try to follow it in the darkness. But it’s gone.

Mom’s light was like that on earth: on, off, drifty, reach up, catch it in my fist, put it in a ball jar, carry it with me.

6.  Forward-Thinking

I want to end on a high note:  my mom’s desire for all of us, this next generation of cousins and their children, to continue to be all we can be in the world.  She is so very proud of all of us – our adventuresome and creative spirit – our kindness and open-mindedness – our accomplishments and our attempts.  We are entrepreneurs and geologists, physical therapists and artists, scientists and social workers, flyers, leaders, planners and doers.

Perhaps one of mom’s favorite stories comes from that Christmas ski reunion in the mountains of Fraiser, Colorado. We’d all assembled the first night for dinner in a restaurant, and they had to push a number of tables together to get us all 20-something of us to fit. It was musical chairs to find a seat, and my then partner, Tom, wasn’t sure where to go when he paused, took a step back, and said aloud, gazing at the group: ‘It really doesn’t matter where I sit; there’s not a dud in the bunch.’

Tom’s gone; but that moment stuck with mom. And it sticks with me too, now. 

It’s so wonderful to see all your faces out there – here for this celebration of mom’s life.  Truly, there’s not a dud in the bunch. 

8.  Inquisitive

And finally, Mom’s Inquisitiveness – or as I like to put it:  The Power of Questions.
I’m sure many of you have been grilled by mom over the years.  Strangers open up to her on airplanes and in bars because she invites them in with her questions. And she listens with presence to the answers.

I remember her drilling into us as kids:  don’t accept anything your teachers or the preachers tell you.  Don’t swallow it whole. Challenge them for different perspectives and share yours. She was raised in Jesuit schools and they taught her well, in this way. This skill has been a blessing and curse over my lifetime. I remember once being thrown out of 11th grade pre-cal for questioning Mrs Goldman about a calculation. I sent her from the room crying, and was forbidden from the class after that. Oops, well, mom made me apologize for that one. 

On the plus side, this inquisitiveness has come in handy in my career as a change consultant and coach, and even while I served in the Peace Corps in Mexico. In fact, I was invited to speak at a conference on innovation in Mexican organizations. My topic was entitled ‘The Power of Questions’; and the first slide was attributed to mom, my teacher and role model; or as the Mexicans would call her, la preguntona, the good questionioner.

In conclusion, here’s to my mother, Rosemary Copp. I will miss her mothership. But more than that, I will miss her friendship.

I leave you all with this musical request by mom – perhaps a bit cynical (we’ve all seen that side of mom), bittersweet, and hauntingly beautiful, and asking the deep questions about life ‘til the end.  

Is that all there is? (Peggy Lee, 1969)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Story Slam ~ Momentos of Home

I got slammed, friends.

I was selected as one of eight contestants to stand before the Busboys and Poets audience and a panel of judges and tell my story of home.

It was a packed house, and many supportive friends had come to cheer me on. My hair was looking pretty good despite the humidity. I wore my colorful Mexican camisa. I had the sound guy play a song by my favorite huapangero, Guillermo Velazquez y los Leones de la Sierra de Xichu, as they announced my name and I danced up to the stage.

But it was not easy to compete with homeboy stories about the ‘Mayor for Life’ and rants about endless, senseless murder in the hood. How about the fellow who opined about Metro? The problem is not lack of funding, he told us, but lack of love.

These stories, so close to home, DC, USA, were told extemporaneously, limbs and lips loose, while I, the gringa, stood still, shielding my eyes from the spotlight, and carefully read my well-edited words from the typed page. Mine was a story of a different home, not found here, in a place, but in fleeting moments, on my journey through Mexico.

Momentos of Home

It’s another day fighting Mexico. On the Vencedor bus with the backed-up bathroom, we all hold our breath anytime someone ventures in. Seven hours traveling in the driving rain from my pueblito in the high plains desert has me squirming in my seat. But I welcome the deluge, like a baptism, after endless months of dust and burning sun. I plug-in my headphones and close my eyes to block out the noise: the crying baby behind me, videos overhead blaring violence in Spanish, the restless niños across the aisle. The guru whispers her wisdom in my ear: ' You’re going to die and I’m going to die and we have these moments together.'

I sink into the seat, lazily crack open my eyes, and notice the little boys are playing with their tongues. I blink and pull-out my ear buds, curious what they are doing.

Su len-gua se si-en-ta co-mo un car-a-col,’ the little one says with perfect diction. Your tongue feels like a snail? I grin at their discovery and my comprehension of it.

It’s the older brother’s turn. ‘Ahh-bra,’ he says, ordering his little hermano to open wider, grabbing the tongue and pulling on it. ‘Ewwwe,’ the older boy cries, an exclamatory that requires no translation.
The mother beside them sleeps right through: It’s the only way she gets a break. But my seatmate and I are riveted. Strangers, we bond through our mutual eavesdropping.

For all the alone time I’ve had, the lone gringa in my rural village, divided by language and culture and a subtlety of small-town suspicion, I feel an instant kinship to this señora. The expectation to do or fix, develop or improve that has defined my Peace Corps service is non-existent on this bus. It’s a relief to just be.

The bus pulls-off at a muddy truck stop. There’s a long line at the toilet. I pull papery rectangles from a napkin dispenser and wait my turn. Inside it’s dark. My eyes adjust. I suspend myself over the hole in the ground then flush with a bucket of water I fish from an oil drum.

Outside, the smell of coffee and cinnamon, exhaust and pork fat, hangs on the wet night air. Men in splattered aprons chop barbacoa on a greasy woodblock, piling stringy meat into double layers of tortilla. We stand around the plywood table, spoon guac sauce and chile verde, runny, green and super spicy, onto our tacos. I slosh back into the bus with raindrops on my head and chile on my tongue.
When we land at Terminal Central, my seat mate and I turn to each other and smile. I wonder if we’ll part ways with Mexican cheek kisses, but instead we bid a polite buen vieje and shake, the American way. I watch as the niños, like barrel of monkeys, are pulled through the station by their mama, around the corner, then out of site.

You’re going to die and I’m going to die y tenemos estos momentos conjuntos.

O’Hare Airport is decked out for Independence Day. American flags hang regally from the rafters of the shiny concourses. Embarrassed by the touch of patriotism, I snap a few photos when no one’s looking. It’s Saturday night in Chicago and I’ve got some time to kill, a three-hour delay to DCA. But Mexico’s taught me something about patience.

I find a bar playing the baseball game, and Julio from Jalisco serves me a tall Blue Moon with a bright wedge of lemon. We speak Spanish because now I can, and I feel a little bit proud. He’s proud too: he’s lived in the US for 24 years, he tells me. And I’m living in his country, for the last year, I say, and one more to go. We laugh about this cambio de casas, trading places.

My beer costs 10 US dollars including tip, a lucky Mexican’s daily wage. I take a final precious gulp and head for the baños. I’m awed by the granite countertops and polished marble floor, toilet seats with protectors that rotate to a clean place when you press the button. Whiiir. Endless rolls of toilet-paper and automatic flush. Full-length mirrors for primping, soft peach light that makes you look like a movie star (though I’m playing a raggedy traveler), soap in the dispensers and your choice of hand-blowers or towels for drying.

At the gate the children sit quietly reading books and tapping Ipad screens. Airport TV hums overhead reporting go-local organic markets, heirloom tomatoes and artisan cheeses. The AC purrs, the laptops click, the air hostess smiles, English is spoken.

America makes it all look so easy, smooth, in-control. It’s not fair.

The flight is announced and we line-up by zone. As I file down the jet way I feel both drawn and repelled, straddling two worlds, two homes, the orderly and spontaneous, the haves and have-nots, divided by a thin line that is thickly fortified. And I get to enter.