By Tammy Ellingson
Lately I’ve been finding myself saying yes more so than no. Then I panic, because everything is not perfect, but it’s too late because I’ve committed myself. I’ve committed myself so it’s not too late to live.
The panic is not isolated – it covers every area of my life: I don’t have anything to wear and I can’t shop because I should lose weight first — been this weight for 15 plus (pun intended) years. Or, my house isn’t ready; the walls need painting again, the yard is a wreck and has been for years, I need to declutter and reupholster, the living room doesn’t look like the magazine picture… and then I just stop. I take a breath, look around, and give the middle finger to all these excuses.
Something happened at the beginning of this year that slowly changed my mindset and made the initial panic preferable to the ongoing burden of a nagging to-do list with undefined deadlines that keep life at bay. My mother died in January, and I wasn’t there. Because I had this unrelenting to-do list of things that needed to line up just right so we had time to get to see her. Life is busy, and I thought we had more time.
Things didn’t line up, and I didn’t get to see her one last time. All that stuff that needed to line up? Well, it quickly fell to the side because when your mom dies, everything changes and priorities shift quickly.
My mom was an amazing mother. She was real, funny, strong, and impatient at times. She said what she thought, usually at the very moment she thought it, regardless of her audience. Sometimes she didn’t have to say a thing; you could see what she thought on her face. For those who were incapable of getting the hint with the facial expression, she had a gesture that was hard to misinterpret, and she flashed it quite a lot!
She was also extremely loving and welcoming, opening our home to masses of teenagers after football games, and most of the time, I wasn’t the instigator of the gatherings – she was.
Our house was not one of those “always in perfect order” houses, and yet she would invite people anyway, and then we’d get into gear to get ready. She didn’t wait until everything was perfect before opening it up to others. She loved having our house full of her kids’ friends, and many of my friends, and those of my siblings, remember sitting upstairs at the kitchen table chatting with my mom and dad while the party was going on downstairs.
She was easy to talk to, and she cared tremendously about the people who surrounded her and her family. Even when the party was going a little late, and my mom and dad had retired to their bedroom to watch TV, kids would stop by their room on the way out, sit on the edge of their bed and continue to chat. There was absolutely no pretense with my mama; her open heart was available to all who needed it.
Mom was 19 when she had me, and at times during my adolescence, there were times when it seemed like we were growing up together, but she was always there for me in every way possible.
Every morning before I walked to school she recited our mantra: “Straight to school, straight home, don’t talk to any strangers on the way, watch out for cars, and I love you very much.” One time, when I was about nine, I stayed after school to play tether ball with a friend. I must have been there about a half hour when I heard, “Tamara Lynn!” I looked up and saw my mom racing through the open field toward the playground. Oh dear God, I knew I was in trouble. She was terrified something had happened to me.
My mom allowed me freedom within boundaries in order to stay safe, but when I wasn’t where I should be at any given time, she worried. This incident was still fresh in my mind when I was grocery shopping one day and decided to buy a watermelon to surprise her. How I was going to get it, and the rest of the groceries home on my Sting Ray bike, well, I hadn’t exactly thought through. I’m sure the grocery clerks were watching and pondering the same thing.
Suddenly, a woman in a car pulled up in front of me, called my name and told me she knew my mom and she could take me home. Well, I thought for a minute; I looked at the watermelon, the woman, the watermelon, and the woman again and then finally said, “Well, you can take the watermelon!” I figured if the watermelon didn’t make it, no biggie, but if I didn’t, I would be in trouble. The watermelon made it, and as I rounded the corner on my bike, I saw my mom on the porch, talking and laughing with the woman. She was laughing so hard, but hugged me and praised me for doing the right thing. We thoroughly enjoyed that juicy watermelon in celebration.
From my mom I learned how to love, live, and laugh with my whole heart. I also learned to speak my mind and not dim my light or ideas because it might challenge others. She was fierce when people said bigoted things about anyone, long before political correctness was in vogue. She fought for the underdog and defied those who had a sense of entitlement due to their race, gender or perceived station in life.
This is when her middle finger did some of its best and most defining work – even when she didn’t flash it, you could tell from her posture and expression what she was thinking.
I would be lying if I said I did not inherit the ability to gesture in the same way, although as I’ve gotten older, I have reined myself in due to the unpredictable volatility in our society today. Most times I can visualize my mom standing strong and flashing it for me, telling the world to back off from her baby.
When we visited the funeral home to make arrangements after Mom died, I saw jewelry that could be made with ashes and thought that would be a nice remembrance. But then, my eyes drifted to the display on the right; jewelry made from the fingerprints of your loved one. It was a no-brainer! I had to do it, so I asked my dad, sister and brother if they would be offended if I had them take a print of Mom’s middle finger for the pendant. In that moment where we had been so solemn and sad, we burst out laughing and crying and all agreed that there was no other choice – that was THE finger!
I have my pendant, and now I can surreptitiously gesture whenever I need to by simply rubbing Mom’s fingerprint on my pendant. They couldn’t get a good print from her dominant hand because it was well worn and too arthritic. So, they took a print from her left hand, and I consider it her way of telling me, her left-handed child, to live true to myself and not give a (insert expletive here) what others think.
In this more volatile world, my mom is still protecting me – freedom within boundaries – using her fingerprint as my shield when the world needs to be told to, well, you know.
Tammy Ellingson is a work in progress, and progress is slow at times. She is a teacher, freelance writer, wife, mother of a creative and compassionate 15-year-old son, and soon-to-be host mother to two adventurous 16-year-old exchange students from Denmark and Finland. She is in hot pursuit of bunk beds and a second refrigerator, as well as tips and tricks on feeding three strapping teenage boys! Tammy loves to make people laugh and to make them think; on a good day, she can do both. Bookstores are her places of worship; coffee shops too. She’s also been known to worship at places that serve baked goods, chocolate, Indian food, Mexican food, any good food, beer or wine.
Editor’s note: I met Tammy when I was working in Hillsboro and looking for local residents willing to share their views through a Community Writers program similar to the one I set up at The Oregonian years earlier. Someone recommended Tammy to me and I was delighted when she agreed to come aboard, bringing her signature mix of intelligence and irreverence.
Tomorrow: Michael Arrieta-Walden, Ripples of fear haunt kids