Chris Erskine: Goodbye to a mom who was quite right

The thing about my mother’s eulogy is that I used note cards. After 55 years, you’d think you could remember a mother without such prompts. But this was no regular mother. Tell me, are there any regular mothers?

She could be hell in high heels, my mom — a little French, a little fussy about what other people wore on airplanes these days. She once bought a Christmas tree, hauled it home, decorated it with a thousand lights and a million ornaments, then took the whole thing down and returned it to the tree lot.

“It’s not quite right,” she told the puzzled tree man.

Hey, Mom, I said: That tree isn’t the only thing that’s “not quite right.”

We’d visit her every summer back on the outskirts of Chicago. It’s not Anywhere USA, but close. Where farms once stood, now subdivisions. In what passes for progress, Wal-Marts have replaced the wetlands.

My mother died peacefully in her sleep the other night on the same shady street she was born on in 1924. Who does that anymore? She was of another time. In summer, she’d fill big pickle jars with flowers from her yard and surprise neighbors with them. Who does that either?


We buried her on the first day of spring, in a dark blue casket she picked out herself. Picasso had what is known as his blue period. Lasted about three years. My mom’s blue period lasted nine decades: blue furniture, blue garden, blue clothes.

And, finally, this blue coffin. A dozen years ago, she went down to the funeral home and selected it on her own, fearing that the rest of us would not share her same exquisite sense of style. When the sun hit it, my sister noted at the grave site, it looked like a ski boat.

We buried her on the first day of spring, in the creamy Midwestern soil she loved so much. It was an uncommonly warm March morning, in the mid-80s, just like her. In the backyard, a cherry tree had burst with blossoms overnight — spooky and divine all at once.

Neighbors came to the garden party after and spoke of how she’d inspired them and remembered that great laugh of hers, the loudest laugh in the room. Her mind was sharp till the very end. She mowed her own yard till she was almost 80. She shoveled snow, cleaned the gutters, drove, lived alone, sipped her nightly bourbon.

If there’s something for us to glean from all this, it’s to stay crazy-active, to treat old age like a strong wind you face head on. She never thought of herself as elderly, had no patience with self-pity. When she finally needed a pacemaker, I told the doctor to err on the safe side: “Give her three.”

Life moved through her house like light through crystal. I remember the little things. Snow against the streetlight. The way the lawn smelled after mowing. The pink prairie sunsets. How, as kids, we would play all over the neighborhood from dawn to dusk on summer days — mosquito bites, sunburns, Bactine.

But mostly, this house has lost its hum.

We will sell it now, the place Mom and Dad built on the edge of town and raised two beautiful children in — plus me. My sisters and I are hopelessly sentimental about some things, but it becomes increasingly clear that she was this house, and without her, it’s just another three-bedroom ranch with a big yard and gutters full of willow leaves.

So, no, there are no regular mothers. Just yours. Just mine. Most don’t leave huge histories. They live on in the smiles of their grandchildren, and their children, and the children after that.

On the wall of her house, this poem:

“One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much was in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like.

“But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”

Thanks, Mom.