A Mother’s Day story you must read, then tell a friend

PATRICIA CHARGOT, right, with her mother ZENIATODAY, we are pleased to celebrate Mother’s Day with this story by journalist Patricia Chargot. A long-time Detroit Free Press staff writer, Chargot has specialized in recent years in reporting news for young readers. She has circled the globe several times in her quest for stories. And, as so often happens in writers’ lives, one of her best stories was right there—so close to home.
Thank you Pat for this story!
Read it.
Then, share it with a friend.

A Box of DOTS,
a Bouquet of Zinnias,
a Remembrance of My Mother

By Patricia Chargot

Where is she? I look at my mother’s portrait and that’s what I ask myself: How can a face so familiar and dear no longer exist in this world?

Our eyes lock—mine on hers in a photo taken on her 80th birthday—and for an instant I might as well be a newly hatched gosling or a newborn gorilla in one of those behavioral studies, imprinting her mother’s sight, sound and smell.

How I wish I could be with her now, watching “Sex in the City” reruns and eating DOTS, her favorite candy, in her tiny assisted-care apartment. I spent one night a week there for seven years as she wound down like the Energizer Bunny on bad batteries. There will be no reruns of that.

“Be with me always.”

That’s what she said to me as she lay dying 18 months ago at age 84—whispered it with her eyes closed and barely able to speak. Such a pretty little sentence! It sounded quaintly old-fashioned, like an expression of love in a Victorian valentine. It’s what I whisper now when I gaze at her picture, gladdened by my undimmed response to those sparkling blue eyes, that warm, radiant smile.

“Be with me always, Mom.” I hope she will be, that I will somehow get to see her again, that at the very least, love proves to be indestructible and permeates everything, like neutrinos.

This piece is for my mother on Mother’s Day, a belated valentine of sorts, but also a spiritual sounding of the living link that I—and so many others—feel to the mothers we’ve lost.

A mother is what Mom was. She didn’t have a brilliant career—though she could have; she didn’t work outside the home—or not for long. But she was special, as simply charming as a zinnia, the flower after which she claimed she was named. (She lied!) Zenia, nickname Zennie (ZEE-nee). Maiden name: Panfil. Married names: Chargot, then after my father died and she remarried, Lowe.

Zennie—even I sometimes called her that; we were girlfriends, after all—was elegant and beautiful with none of the arrogance or self-absorption that elegance and beauty so often confer. I really liked that about her. She was a privileged white suburbanite, the daughter of a Detroit high school principal, who graduated from college in an era when only about four percent of all U.S. women held a bachelor’s degree or higher. She was proud of her education, but she was no elitist.

You could park my mother anywhere and she’d strike up a conversation with anyone. I once left her on a bench outside a hospital while I went to get the car, and when I came back she was chatting up a young African-American woman who was poorly dressed and a tad scruffy, asking about her family. I really liked that about my mother, too.

ZENIA as a young woman.I didn’t like her much while growing up, though. She was the police, hot on the trail of any child—she had four—who broke any of her many house rules: “Stay out of the living room,” “Straighten the rug,” “No bare feet or shoes in the house! Wear socks!” You couldn’t be out of sight for 10 minutes without her yelling, “What you are doing?”

But she enabled our creativity.  The source of hers was her love for us. She taught us how to see animals in clouds, lying on a beach blanket in the backyard crooning Perry Como and Doris Day songs. Que sera sera.

She made sure we had plenty of crayons and other art supplies, and even taped rolls of white shelving paper to our playroom walls so we could work big and draw murals. What a clever mother!

She never said “no” to a large project, however grandiose. One summer she let us stage a carnival, complete with a half-dozen games, including a pie-throwing contest. She even helped us figure out how to concoct a convincing strawberry pie filling—flour, water and red food coloring—and let me enlist my little boyfriend as the target.

Another summer, Mom let me set up a summer school under our oak tree and recruit neighborhood kids as students. And she was always good for a lemonade stand. The agreement was that we could do pretty much anything we liked as long as we cleaned everything up when we were done.

And she could really surprise you. Once I bit into a sandwich at school and fished out a torn scrap of paper with the message, “I love, you. Mom.” 

One Easter, I found my first bra under the chocolate eggs and jellybeans in my Easter basket. I was ecstatic! The next year, the Easter bunny left my first pair of nylons and a little garter belt.

Mom was our muse, our playful trickster, and a relentless taskmaster rolled into one. Then she did an about-face when her first child left for college: She granted me the great gift of my freedom.

The night before I left, I burst into tears in the family room—our former playroom—convinced that I wouldn’t make any friends. I begged Mom to come get me the following weekend.

“You’re not going to want to come home,” she said, laughing. “By this time next week, you’re going to have a new life and new friends.”

Two days later, I called to say that college was great and that I’d see her at Thanksgiving. After that, she never pried or hovered, unlike today’s helicopter moms. She let me become my own woman.

When I was 22, shortly before my father died of cancer, my mother had a massive “nervous breakdown”—they didn’t use the term clinical depression then. She was 47 and just entering menopause. She wouldn’t even wash. I had never seen my mother nude, but I held her in my arms and bathed and dressed her for Dad’s funeral home visitation, perhaps the single most sacramental act of my life.

ZENIA and her second husband ED.Our roles reversed and for years I kept an eye on her. When she was 51 and I was 26, I took her with me to an inner city wine store and introduced her to the co-owner. Later, she drove back and left her glove on a store counter—accidentally, she insisted. He returned it, and three months later, they eloped.

Even as she continued to suffer from depression, she encouraged me to take risks. When I was 35, I again burst into tears the night before I was to leave on a six-month solo trip to China.

“Patty Chargot,” she scoffed, “you were in this same room and said the very same thing the night before you left for college. You’ll have a great time in China.”

I did. I called her once a month—collect—and after that called her from wherever I was in the world. No one ever has been more unabashedly thrilled to see or hear from me.

My mother blossomed, too. In the late ’80s, she planned a trip to Europe—her first—with minimal help from a travel agent. In 2002, a year after my stepfather died and she had recovered from bypass surgery, I watched as she ditched her fears at the door on the day we moved her into assisted care. She walked in on my arm, smiling, and never looked back.

My brothers and I transformed her apartment. It was our grandiose project that summer, and when we were finished, it looked like a cross between an art gallery and a chapel. There were paintings and religious icons everywhere. We even hung a crystal chandelier.

Mom soon became dependent on her walker, making it more difficult for me to take her out to dinner. One day I realized I was dragging her down the hall, and felt totally ashamed of myself. After that, I made a concerted effort to match her pace. It was her last great gift to me: She helped me to slow down.

It was hard watching her fade mentally, yet there was still so much intact: her lovely spirit, her good cheer—and she always knew my name.

Regarding hers: I had long suspected the flower story to be a fabrication.  She had hinted as much, but I could never get the truth out of her. Finally one night, after I had plied her with a little wine, her lips loosened:

“I was named after a St. Zenobia, but promise you won’t tell anyone. It just sounds so strange.” (I promised, but I lied. Sorry, Mom.) 

I googled Zenobia and found her on a roster of Greek Orthodox saints, which was hard to figure because my grandparents were Polish-American Roman Catholics. Zenobia also is one of many old Greek daughter-of-Zeus names for girls. Zenia, daughter of God, beloved mother of Mark, Clem, Karen and Patricia!

She deteriorated like the Parthenon, but there was no fixing her. She spent six weeks fighting four infections in the hospital, in her room, back in the hospital, in rehab, and in the hospital again. I was there every day, but missed her passing, for which I am grateful. I don’t have an image of her corpse in my head. She’s alive and smiling, turning her face to me as I gently wake her to say that I have to leave for work but that I love her.  “I love you more,” she says. Always.

We adored her, our beautiful, vivacious mother. The photo that captures our affection best, I think, shows my two brothers carrying her through the house like a log, one holding her feet, the other her arms. All three are laughing uproariously.

We laid her to rest between her two husbands, both World War II vets—an Army second lieutenant and a Marine captain—each married to her for 25 years. Lucky guys.

You don’t get everything in life, but I really lucked out in the mother department. I got St. Zenia, and yes, I pray to her. I built a little altar with her picture, a candle, flowers and today, a Mother’s Day card. Why not?

Shortly after Mom moved into assisted care, I met Annie, the facility’s oldest resident. She’s dead now. She was 101 then and still making daily rounds of the place with her walker, visiting all eight ’hoods, each with 10 residents.

One day, she started telling me about her mother.  She talked on and on. Finally, I asked, “How long has she been gone, Annie?”

“Sixty years,” she said, adding: “You never stop missing your mother.”

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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