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Essay: Mothers and Old Friends

Recently I attended the funeral for Mrs. Murphy, the mother of a childhood friend. Her passing took everyone by surprise. And, it was another sober reminder that the parents of Baby Boomers, my generation, are quietly slipping away.

We last saw each other this past summer. My friend Kathleen was in from the East Coast and suggested a lunch date with our moms. We were joined by another childhood friend, Joanie, who had lost her mom a year before.

It was a lovely afternoon of reminiscing and giggling, decades long overdue. The last time we had all gathered as a group was at my wedding, nearly 30 years before. Here we were, our mothers’ daughters in our 50s, reading menus with bifocals, streaks of gray in our hair. Our mothers, soft-spoken white-haired widows, were simply thrilled to have an afternoon out. We ended the luncheon with plans to meet again this year.  Sadly, that won’t happen.

Attending Mrs. Murphy’s funeral was very difficult. My Mom didn’t have the heart to go. Even though she had lived a long life, Mrs. Murphy hadn’t finished living yet. She was active in the lives of her children, grandchildren, community and church. One of her granddaughters was pregnant and she looked forward to welcoming her first great-grandchild.

Mrs. Murphy—and I say Mrs. Murphy out of habit and old school respect-- was a bright, well-read, curious woman known for wearing colorful scarves and delivering wicked and wry one liners. She was also well-liked. The gathering space in the church was teeming with family, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and friends of her children. In keeping with a popular funeral ritual, there was a special display of family photographs, spanning her childhood, young adulthood and family life.

Kathleen took time to tell us short little stories about her Mom’s early years. It was something we never bothered to ask when we were younger. Naturally, at the time, the world revolved only around us.

During my many childhood visits to their home, Mrs. Murphy would greet me at the door, usher me into the living room and then bustle about her business. Back then, it was rare for our Moms to have lengthy conversations with us. We liked it that way. While I’m sure they eavesdropped a bit when they could, they weren’t actively seeking to interact with us. We were left to our own devices to play, and later, as teens, gossip.

Standing in the church, we also talked about the lifestyle of our mothers’ times. We grew up in a very middle class, mostly blue collar community. Our Dads’ paychecks went towards basic living expenses and a Catholic education. There was never extra money for luxury items like a new car, scenic vacations, or even fast food.

Our Moms were homemakers, first and foremost. The kitchen was their domain. It was a tiny and simple one by today’s standards. Sitting with a family of seven around a kitchen table with a stove mere inches from your back is something I’ll never forget. No fancy kitchen gadgets either, except an old blender that made the best Ovaltine milkshakes. A dishwasher? What was that?

Somehow our mothers stretched our dads’ paychecks in crazy, creative ways. The kids were always hungry. Milk was always running out. My mom would have to dig into her little coin purse to give us change for the milk machine. Mom always had coins, never dollars.

My friends and I reflected on how much our mothers had sacrificed during those Baby Boomer years. By sacrifice I mean giving up one’s sense of personal fulfillment for the betterment of the children. Although to hear our mothers talk today, they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Years of housework, boredom and drudgery seemed to be forgotten when they proudly watched their grown children make their way into the world and start families of their own.

During the funeral mass, the priest gave a touching personalized homily, citing lines from the Book of Proverbs, remarking on Mrs. Murphy’s deep love for her faith and the wisdom and love she imparted to her children. While he talked, I couldn’t help but think about all those worry lines we gave our Moms as we tornadoed through our teen years.

At the gravesite ceremony, we stood shivering in the cold winter chill, praying with Kathleen’s family and feeling their pain. Then Joanie and I took a short walk over to the gravesites of both her parents to pay our respects. We finished our visit to the cemetery with a stop by my Dad’s gravesite. It had been months since I was there. Ignoring the cold dirt, I started pulling out the grass that grew over his marker. My understanding friend waited patiently for me.

The beauty of having old friends is that you can be away from each other for years and magically pick up right where you left off. Those bonds formed in childhood are like no other. These are the kids who knew you before you knew yourself. They were partners in adventure as you explored undeveloped, wild spaces. They played Red Rover with you, danced in recitals with you, crushed over boys with you, and shared sips of their parents supposedly hidden Martini & Rossi in the basement.

The beauty of having old friends is that they’re by your side when it comes to saying one of life’s hardest goodbyes.

Freelance writer, essayist, and mom Denice Ryan Martin lives in Genesee.