Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder and Lightning

Unlike my father, my mother came from a loving, close-knit family unit and knew the value of being loved. Though her life married to my father was tough and far from what she might have imagined it would be, she tried to pat us on the head, hug us, kiss us, and tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Even President of the United States! This was quite remarkable and confusing because coupled with this message there was my dad often exploding in rage, hollering “You bums! You’re all three nothing but BUMS!” so I had a hard time reconciling which I was. I would say to my mom, I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be. If I wanted to be a brain surgeon, I couldn't cut into someone, so there were limits to my capabilities. But she would just shake her head and say, “You could if you put your mind to it.” This made me feel that my mind was the all-important instrument I had. No one in my family had attended college but from the time I can remember, maybe beginning in 3rd or 4th grade, my mother always talked about me going to college. It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a statement of “when.” Years later, as my mother deteriorated from dementia and multiple strokes, it was hard for me to accept that she wasn’t the pillar I had always known. Our roles had reversed and being the pillar was now up to me.
I peeked into the darkened room amid the thunder and storm and saw my mother huddled into a tight ball in her bed. I waved as she didn’t have her hearing aids in and I knew she’d do better “reading” my message. “Hi Mom” I mouthed,” Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she replied, looking at me cautiously. “I’m fine.”

“Can I get you anything? Do you want me to turn on the fan?”

“No. I’m scared,” she answered.

“Scared?” I asked surprised, “Of what?”

“The thunder. I’m scared of the thunder.”

I knelt down beside the bed and squeezed her hand.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s raining hard and lightning, but it’ll pass.”

Wide-eyed, my Mom began to talk. “I was always afraid of the thunder. I would tell my mother and she would say, ‘Don’t worry hokess (an Armenian word meaning sweetheart) I won’t let anything get you. I’m here. You’re safe with me.’ And she would climb in my bed behind me and put her arms around me and hug me.”

At 83, my mother was not a child but her dementia made her very childlike. As I frequently had done with my children, I tried to put myself in her place, tried to imagine what it must be like looking at the world through her eyes, but in this case, that was very difficult. With my children, I too had been a child, had been looking to my parent for love, guidance, help. But now, with my mother as the one who needed me, I couldn’t picture what she must be feeling because I had never known her to be afraid.

My mother had worked until she was 81; the last twenty years in a department store, four hours a day, five days a week. Even as a part-timer, she always outsold the full-time help. Maybe it came from years of running her own business, maybe it came from her intuition about when to pursue the customer and when to withdraw, maybe it came from her extraordinary sense of customer service — whatever it came from, she was a terrific salesperson.

Customer service was something my mother taught me starting at the age of 10 when I graduated from working in the back of our drycleaners to working in the front. I was eager to learn because I hated the back of the store with all those dirty clothes and all that steam and the hangers and plastic bags….besides, the front of the store was the only place where there was air-conditioning. The rest of the store could rise to 110 degrees in the summer with all the pressure from the steam pressing machines. Waiting on customers in the front of the store was a huge step up.

“As soon as they come in, take the clothes from the counter and begin sorting: ladies, men’s, pants, shirts, skirts, dresses.”

“Make sure you put suits together — it’s cheaper for the customer to pay for a suit than separates.”

“Ask, are they pick-up or delivery?”

“If you can’t remember their name, ask them, ‘Would you please spell your name for me?’ that way they won’t know you forgot. Write clearly in all capital letters so it’s easy to read when they come to pick-up.”

"Remember, there are five drycleaners in this town; the only reason they go to one over another is customer service. Our prices are about the same, our cleaning is the same, but it’s how fast you can get them out of the store that they appreciate. Stopping at the cleaners isn’t something they want to do — it’s something they have to do. Either racing to work or racing home or racing to pick up their kids, we’re always just a stop on their way to something else. The quicker you get them in and out, the happier they’ll be.”

I listened carefully but what she made sound simple didn’t seem simple at all. We had over 400 customers and whenever they came in the door somehow, my mother knew everyone’s name and she always seemed to know exactly how and when they wanted their cleaning.

“Hello Mrs. Shapiro, how are you today? Will you be picking up next Tuesday? I’ll make sure the shirts get heavy starch.”

“Good morning Mr. Turner, we can deliver on Thursday and the shirts will be on a hanger, no starch.”

As I counted and marked the clothes to throw in the basket for cleaning, I felt sure I was getting the hang of it. I carefully checked the pockets and put anything I found in a small pay envelope that got attached to the ticket to be returned to the customer upon pick-up.  

Once I found a beautiful pair of earrings in a man’s pants pocket; but my mother surprised me by removing them from the ticket. At the time I didn’t understand. I watched as she checked her files for the man’s work number, called and I listened. She told him I’d found them and did he want them attached to the suit or did he prefer to come pick them up himself? When he arrived within the hour I got a ten-dollar tip for finding them…ten dollars! That was a fortune to me. Still I didn't understand why she'd called him.

“They weren’t his wife’s.” my mother told me.

Through my life there was nothing she didn’t know, nothing she couldn’t do, and yet here we were. As the thunder clapped in the distance, I climbed in beside her shivering body and soothed, “It’s alright, Mom. Nothing can get you. I’m here — you’re safe with me.”


  1. I absolutely LOVE this blog. The daughter got the mom's IQ. The mom had an incredible insight into people and kindness. Retiring at 81!! I wonder if she could have gone on longer.

  2. The detail about the earrings is wonderful--it evokes that sense from childhood of having stumbled into adulthood without really understanding how or why. Lovely piece.

  3. I cried reading this Denise