My Mother Lived a Happy Healthy Life

 

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by Karen Topakian

My mother lived a happy healthy life for 92 years. She experienced her share of sadness during her mother’s and my father’s health challenges but she managed to avoid other struggles and heartaches that plague many families.

She lived through lean times, which fostered a commitment and practice to not waste money or resources.

While visiting her, I helped around the house including taking out the trash. As I prepared to empty the kitchen basket, she never failed to instruct me.

“Just empty the contents into the trash barrel but not the bag. That bag is clean. I can use it again.”

As I huffed off, annoyed at her for schooling me about how to empty the trash, I stopped to realize she was practicing one of the tenets of environmentalism: reuse. By reusing a paper bag she was protecting resources.

My mother enjoyed owning nice things and taking care of them. She didn’t mind spending money, if she received value in return. Though she owned lovely clothes, she didn’t spend a king’s ransom for them because she knew how to shop. When we would enter a clothing store, she immediately felt the sale rack’s magnetic pull. As her mobility decreased, she would ask me to check it out for her.

We shopped together for decades. Truly a rite of passage. She possessed a keen eye for color, design and appropriateness.

She liked to hold the item, feel the fabric, see how it hung, look at the color. She wanted the full experience.

And she had opinions about every garment.

While plowing through a pile of sweaters at Talbots, I held up a red V-neck sweater. “Mom, what about this one?” She smiled and said, “Theoretically, it’s a nice sweater.” Then pointed out it was the wrong color red, the V was too deep and she didn’t like the sleeve length.  Other than that, it was fine.

My mother always enjoyed improving her home, going places, and seeing people. Despite her advanced years, she never lost those desires. Her mobility slowed her down but didn’t take her out of the game. She maintained the same level of enthusiasm for people and new experiences.

For example, before I arrived for a visit, I would suggest she start a list of things we could do together. At first, she poo pooed the idea saying she just wanted to see me. But as time wore on she would jot down a few items. Shortly after I arrived, we would review her looong list so I could organize them into time blocks.

Here are some examples of what she wrote:

  • Visit the cemetery
  • Pick out a light fixture over the kitchen sink
  • Visit Helene – a friend since childhood
  • Try the new restaurants in Garden City
  • Buy a new wicker chair for the deck
  • Go to the movies, preferably the Avon Cinema and Andreas Restaurant
  • Visit our CT cousins
  • Go to Wickford for lunch
  • Go to Newport to see Judy
  • Visit cousin Bob in MA
  • Go to the RISD museum

Miraculously, we managed to do all if not most of them. If Peg had come to visit she would join us sometimes my sister and sometimes just the two of us.

I would drive while my mom chattered away in the front seat about politics, family news or her friends’ lives. She made the journey as enjoyable as the destination.

My mother had an uncanny ability for remembering people whom she may have only met once or twice or met many, many years ago. Once they entered her memory they never left.

My friends fell into that category. Often she would ask about people whom she had met years ago during her visits to San Francisco or may have never met but heard me talk about.

“You haven’t mentioned Joell and Tricia lately, how are they?’”

Or

“How are Nina and her daughter doing?”

Frequently, I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t seen these friends recently. She never made me feel badly for not knowing about their wellbeing but her query reminded me of the importance of maintaining friendships and relationships.  And of the importance of remembering people.

My mother possessed a strong sense of humor but she couldn’t tell a joke. She could tell you about the joke, then couldn’t quite remember the punch line. But she could tell a story.

Nothing left her memory. For example:

“I still remember the first time I saw Cousin Eddie with a woman. We were all at Sophie’s beach house in Buttonwoods. He never brought a woman to meet the family. We all thought this must be serious. There was Lillian looking very pretty wearing a polka dot dress. I can still see her standing with Eddie.”

She could tell you about taking her dinner break with Helene when they worked at Kennedy’s in the 1940s. “We would walk down Weybosset Street to a Chinese restaurant. We ordered chow mein and it came with cole slaw and a roll. All for 25 cents. Imagine, a Chinese restaurant serving cole slaw?”

She connected with people very quickly. Always looking for a common thread.

Recently, a physical therapist named Sonja came to the house to help improve her mobility and balance.

When I inquired anxiously about the first visit, she responded. “She’s young. Very pretty with long blonde hair. She lives in Cranston and has two children. I don’t think either one is in middle school.”

I interrupted her, “Mom, what about the exercises? Did you do any exercises?”

“I marched around; I lifted my knees.”

Relieved to find out they hadn’t just been gabbing, I continued, “Did she give you homework?”

“Yes, but I don’t know if i’ll do them.”

Before I could chastise her, she beamed through the phone, “She’s a Baxter’s customer.”

Bingo my mother had a found the common thread with Baxters Jewelry her former employer and most favorite place to work.

When my mother was a child, her Uncle Archie commented about her chatty nature by asking, “Hey Alice, were you vaccinated with a Victrola needle?”

Her gift of gab never left her and created a rich world of friends and family.

One of my mother’s longtime friends former Cranston mayor Jimmy diprete once described my mother has someone who could “talk a dog off a meat wagon.”

Her talking not only forged relationships but also kept her vibrant, relevant and sane.

She kept up on political news, local, national and foreign and tales from the Mafia.

When the head of the Gambino family was shot recently in front of his home on Staten Island, I called my mother to discuss the details.

“At least he wasn’t shot at that steak house in New York.”

“You mean Paul Castellano in front of Sparks?” showing off my mafia history cred.

“Yes. Your father and I ate there once,” She proudly answered.

Her politics changed with the times and as she aged. From her family roots in Republicanism, she moved toward more liberal ideas and values until today where she supported the ACLU and Greenpeace.

One time many years ago, she shared a revelation with me “While I was vacuuming, I thought about how national borders and organized religion caused so many wars and problems in the world. Why don’t we just get rid of them?” I said, “wow mom that’s pretty deep.” She responded “I’m just a middle-aged middle class housewife, if I can think this then…”

My mother lived her life surrounded by Armenians. Not all of them had a firm grasp on English. Once when she was driving a friend of her grandmother’s home, the woman said, “Thank you for delivering me.” My mother laughed when she told us later. That phrase stuck with me.

Every year on my birthday, I would call my mother to utter one phrase when she answered the phone, “Thank you for delivering me.”

I’m so grateful for having had her loving presence in my life for so long.

Earlier, I talked about how Alice always remembered people. Once someone entered her memory, they never left. I like to think the reverse is true, too. Once she entered their memory, she never left.