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A Phone Call to Mom by Michael Kass

Published February 22 , 2017 in Life Well Lived Blog | 0 Comments

Michael Kass is a facilitator, coach, award-winning storyteller and founder of The Center for Story and Spirit, a project dedicated to helping individuals, organizations (including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles), and communities to discover and harness the power of their stories to create change. Check out his Facebook, website http://www.michaelkass.co/, and follow him on Twitter @michael_kass!

About a year ago, the staff at Hillside asked if I would share a story about my mother at their Mother’s Day Remembrance event.

This struck me as odd on a couple of levels. First, my mother was (and is) very much alive. Second, cemeteries had always seemed a bit solemn for the type of confessional, often humorous, stories I told. The thought that I might one day be asked to share a story about my living mother at a cemetery’s mother’s day remembrance ceremony had never come close to entering my mind.

The whole thing felt odd. Which is why I immediately agreed.

Over the next several weeks, I struggled with my story. My relationship with my mother is far from saccharine greeting card sentiments. It’s complex, conflicted, full of moments of pain and love, humor. . .you know, human. I did my best to capture that humanity in the story.

I submitted the story, fairly sure that my invitation to share it would be rescinded. To my surprise, it was accepted and even praised!

On the day of the event, I found myself nervous. Not because I’d be performing; I’ve shared hundreds of stories over the years. My nerves came from a deep fear of disrespecting the people who would be there to remember their loved ones who had passed on.

Who was I to tell a story about my mother in the face of their remembrance and grief?

When the moment came to share the story, I took a deep breath and stepped to the microphone. I looked out at the audience and did the only thing I know how to do: I told the truth.

As I spoke, I could feel the audience leaning in, laughing in recognition at some of what they heard, breathing as emotions stirred. And afterwards, a few people thanked me for my honesty and for honoring their memories. Speaking with them reminded me how powerful our stories can be.

I’ve included the story below.

Stories have the ability to capture humanity in all of its complexity, nuance, joy, grief, frustration, compassion, and wonder. When we share our stories, we keep our memories alive and reignite the memories, the spirits, of others.

My experience at last year’s Mother’s Day Remembrance inspired me to think about a few questions. Perhaps they will be as powerful for you as they have been for me:

What stories am I telling myself about my relationship with myself? With my family?

How do those stories empower me? How do they keep me small?

What deeper truths am I afraid to explore?

How can my story honor myself and others while embracing the ambiguity and complexity of humanity?

As a storyteller, I love hearing from others. If you feel inspired to do so, please feel free to reach out!

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A Mother’s Day Remembrance

A couple years ago, my mother ended one of our rare phone calls by saying ‘I love you.’

For many, this would have been a completely regular occurrence. Almost a reflex, ending a conversation with an expression of affection. For my mother, not so much. This was the first time she’d ended a call like this.

My mother, and my relationship with her, is complicated.

She is a woman of powerful intelligence and drive. She spent her career helping women, minorities, and people with disabilities secure opportunities in science and technology, fields traditionally dominated by white men. Her dedication to equality and social justice runs deep. In the 1960s, she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. She marched on Washington and attended rallies. Her involvement was more personal than most--she dated Reverend Bernard Lee, Dr. King’s confidante and close friend. Growing up, Bernard and other Civil Rights luminaries were regular dinner guests at my house. Only years later, when I studied the movement did I realize what a gift it had been to have these people be a part of my childhood, even if only in a small way.

A powerful presence with little tolerance for mollycoddling, she spoke truth to power. My junior year of high school, we had a ‘college preparation night.’ All of the parents and students assembled in the cafeteria to listen to our college counselor, Mr. Gage, talk about the college application process. Most of the other parents showed up in suits, dresses, or business casual-wear. My mother, for reasons that are this day beyond my understanding, appeared in a Chicago Bulls Warm Up uniform and hair freshly dyed a deep, resonant purple. As Mr. Gage intoned pompously that no one should be concerned about getting in to college, for, indeed, there is a college for everyone, my mother raised her hand and cleared her throat.

Caught off guard, Mr. Gage called on her. ‘When are you going to stop feeding these kids a line of BS? College just isn’t right for some people and that’s fine. You’re making some of these kids feel terrible.’ With that, she stood up and walked out, her nylon and polyester pants swishing with each step. My father and I looked at each other, shrugged and followed her out.

As we left, Tela, one of the coolest kids in the class, gave me a thumbs up and mouthed a few words at me: ‘Your mom is cool.’

It’s true. My mom was cool. She still is.

And there is another side to her.

My family ate dinner together almost every night when my mom wasn’t traveling for work. These dinners were far from the American idylls portrayed in Norman Rockwell paintings or on Leave it to Beaver. More often than not, my dad and I would heat up microwave meals while my mother abstained from eating more than a couple of peas. She’d light up a Benson Hedges Ultra Lights Regular and take long drags, a fan whirring overhead, spreading the smoke over walls yellowed with years of tar.

My parents would exchange terse pleasantries about their respective days. Slowly, the conversation turned sharper. It started as banter, almost like a 1940s screwball comedy, the two of them falling into an easy rhythm of verbal thrust and parry. Soon, however, the volleys would intensify, words becoming daggers. My mother would call my father fat (he wasn’t), he would call her smokestack, it would go on like this for a few minutes and finally my mother’s eyes would narrow and the corners of her mouth pull up in a tight smile. She’d point her cigarette and utter her favorite phrase: ‘You’re pathetic.’

It always ended the conversation. We’d clear the dishes and I’d go upstairs to do my homework.

That word, pathetic, haunted my childhood. There were times when I wanted nothing more than to ask my mother for a hug, to seek solace in a moment of adolescent heartbreak or insecurity. When I wanted to look into her eyes and see a bottomless well of unconditional love and acceptance. Or pride.

But I never did, the fear of showing vulnerability and being met with the tight smile and that epithet--’pathetic’--kept me silent. It repressed that instinct to seek and express affection. It worked itself so far into the fabric of my being that it became an unconscious part of how I related to the world.

And so when my mother ended our phone call with ‘I love you,’ it was more than a platitude or formality. In those three words, I heard a recognition that, at the age of 72, my mother wanted to change the frequency of our relationship. I heard that she understood that her relationship with me had fallen into the same pattern as her relationship with her parents--occasional phone calls punctuated by annual visits characterized by long periods of silence broken up by the odd outburst of angsty emotion--and that she wanted to end the pattern. Most of all, I heard that she wanted me to say ‘I love you’ back.

The words hung on the phone line between us. The silence gathered. Part of me wanted to say ‘I love you’ into the receiver, but the words got stuck in my throat. Old, long-forgotten wounds caught them in a web of fear and a desire for revenge. That young, wounded part of me wanted her to feel lost and small and inadequate and unseen. I started trembling. How dare she change the rules of our relationship?! I was supposed to just forget the years of passive aggressive oppression, the smoke blanketed childhood without so much as a discussion, much less an apology?

After a few more moments of silence, I said ‘Ok, talk to you later’ and hung up the phone with a mixture of childish triumph and a more pronounced sense of disgust with myself.

If the story ended there, this would be the strangest and possibly saddest mother’s day story ever. So there’s more.

That disgust sent me on a journey over the past three years that has taken me to South America and therapist’s couches. To the desert, into the darkest corner of my own heart, the places where that wounded kid who hung up the phone lived. And it took me to Puerto Vallarta last December to spend the holidays with my parents and their friends.

At one point, I found myself reading on a hammock swinging over a sun dappled deck. My mother came up to ask where I wanted to go for dinner. I looked up and saw her. Really saw her, perhaps for the first time. She looked younger than I remembered, a light twinkle in her eye. She’d quit smoking a few years earlier. She and my dad had spent the past couple of years enjoying retirement, traveling all over the world, having adventures. I saw all the compromises she had made over the years to provide for me, her battles against her own fears of experiencing and expressing emotion, a sense of curiosity in the world that had been rekindled by adventure after years of lying dormant.

I saw all this in a single sunlit moment. Before I could think about it, words slipped out: ‘You’re different. I’m proud of you.’

She looked at me for a moment. Then replied: ‘I feel different. Thank you.’

For us, this exchange went much deeper than ‘I love you.’ After all, that can be a reflex, almost a formality, and love is deeper and more complex than that. Real love, the kind of love I have found for my mother, is about acceptance and embracing complexity. My mother is fierce, wounded, passionate, sardonic, brilliant, funny, cutting, brave, terrified, cool and loving, sometimes all at the same time. She is a mother, my mother, and, even more importantly, she is deeply human, with all of the layers and beauty that that implies.

I am proud of her, proud to be her son, and proud that she, and our relationship, continues to grow, evolve, heal, and transcend the pain of the past to find new footing. And I’m grateful that she’s still here so we can find that footing together and carve a new path not just for ourselves, but for all of those who came before us.

This is my wish for my mother, and all mothers, both those with us and those who have passed on, on this Mother’s Day: that you be seen, acknowledged, heard, and celebrated in all of your multi-hued humanity. That you continue to grow and evolve, communicate and discover. That you are proud of what you have created as mothers, humans, and bringers of life into a sometimes confounding world. And, most of all, that you know that you are deeply, truly, and authentically loved. Thank you.


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