“Tomorrow morning put on dancing shoes.”
I picked up my mother early on an April morning last year to begin her birthday celebration. She was ready and waiting dressed in a gay blue-green polyester blouse with neat ascot tie at the neck, green plastic button earrings and green luminescent raincoat. Her hair was newly permed and the white-gray waves held close around the soft wrinkles of her face. She looked like a new sprout of life emerging after the long winter’s frost. No one would guess that a woman with one seeing eye, one hearing ear, and one working lung was headed for a polka club at 10:00 a.m. to celebrate her 82nd birthday.
This became an auspicious day for our family not only for the fact that mother has been graced to celebrate yet another year, but mostly for me and our family because today my mother left us her legacy statement. She did it as she has done everything in her life –with naïve intelligence and intuitive heartfeltness.
The focus of our celebration was the Major Tap, a Chicago neighborhood tavern. Here every Tuesday morning you can hear a polka beat inspiring the spirits and feet of 150 seniors. We arrived to see eight musicians squeezing concertinas, bellowing into wind instruments, pounding on drums and sawing on a violin. Voices echoed the lyrics of the lead singer (whoever got to the mike first) while swinging couples, even women with women, spun circle to the left and the right. Some couples wore red and white sequined vests emblazoned with ‘We’re Polkaholics.’
Across one musician’s stand lay a needlepoint sampler reading: Remembering is mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. I’d seen it on previous trips but today the phrase took hold. My mother’s mind these days resembles a shorted circuit board – charged but with spotty performance. She’s aware of the dementia history in her family and cryptic messages are pinned to the refrigerator, telephone pad and calendar in an attempt to anchor the routine in her life that can no longer rely on memory.
Whole portions of her life: working in a sewing factory for 30 years, friends from the old neighborhood have faded from her screen. But she still manages to find the senior center, the bank and the church, tends her home and garden, and I hesitate to interfere with the independence that activates what brain cells remain. If she doesn’t mind what’s lost, well, it doesn’t matter.
We had two wonderful hours dancing the polka, then a waltz, then a polka. As we returned home in mid-afternoon, I began the daughterly duties of making grocery lists, checking her mail, monitoring the bills. I was sorting out the stack of papers that weekly mound on her dresser when I spotted the note – a scrap of paper no larger than a gum wrapper. It read, “Tomorrow morning put on dancing shoes.”
So there it was. When it does matter, she does mind. In six short words my mother left me her timeless daily blessing – one that has served her well for 82 years. One that I can carry with me long after she leaves. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy.
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