This post is dedicated to my mom, Lynette J. Santoleri, who journeyed to a safe haven on June 6, 2016. With her guidance, I wrote the following tribute for her memorial service which took place on Saturday.
Everyone here had a unique relationship with my mom. To some of us she was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, or a mother-in-law. To some she was a cousin, an aunt, a neighbor, a friend, or a confidant. To my dad, she was a best friend and a wife of almost 62 years.
Everyone here had a unique perspective about my mom. To some she was a comedienne and the life of the party. I remember how she loved to catch people off guard with a quick wit and a sometimes risqué sense of humor. To some she was a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear and a problem solver. To some she was a seamstress who could whip up a few festive floor length skirts for her daughters to wear at Christmas, or make matching dresses that had my younger sister, Jennifer, and I looking like twins. To some she was an incredible decorator, giving expert advice on wall colors and draperies. To some she was a visionary and a master crafter – I remember how she transformed a couple of 2 x 4s, some plywood, and a few tiles into a coffee table that looked like a priceless antique…or how she took some bits of nylon pantyhose, cotton, and red fabric and made a tiny newborn baby that became my favorite tree ornament.
Yes, my mom had multiple talents, but like many women of her generation, she was caught between paradigms – of living up to the ideal of the perfect homemaker – like a Donna Reed, or of taking a risk and exercising her independence – like a Gloria Steinem. And although she opted to stay home and raise a family, I could often sense her frustration at having to put a lid on all that she might have been if our culture had been more supportive and less judgmental.
As a highly sensitive individual, I often misunderstood my mom’s frustration and took it personally and it cost us precious time. But it was her frustration that became my driving force to live a different sort of life. In other words, in her own unique way, she motivated me and helped me to cultivate my own free spirit. Through her, I was able to become a more independent women, to leave relationships that were unhealthy, to step out of corporate American and put my own talents to use, and to fulfill my own dreams and passions (and maybe even some of hers).
And although she chose a more traditional route, those who knew mom the best could easily see her non-traditional side seeping out. There were the big hoop earrings and chunky costume jewelry and her ever-changing hair color and styles – I especially loved her bold decision to sport a soft orange afro and bright green eye shadow in the late 70s. There were the long thin brown cigarettes that she puffed on more as a fashion statement than any desire to smoke. And there was also her non-traditional decorating, like when she transformed the colonial dining room in our house in West Chester into a mini Egyptian museum, complete with hand made scarabs that she molded out of clay. Or when she lined the walls of the front entrance with dozens of cactuses of various varieties and sizes.
My mom was incredibly artistic and could often be found at our large kitchen table with paints, clay, crayons, embroidery thread, and ceramics, where her creativity became evident. She also loved playing Chinese checkers or 500 Rummy and I came to believe this was her non-traditional way of opening up conversation with her kids.
During her last several days on earth, I spent more continual one-on-one time with my mom than I had in a long time. I held her hands and told her all the things I had never been able to say. I assured her we would always be connected, but that we would have a different relationship – a better one. I also asked her to put on my heart, whatever it was she wanted the world to remember about her.
The other night I started to write her eulogy and after a page-and-a-half of typing, my laptop crashed and wouldn’t restart. Everything I had written was gone and according to Apple support, it was quite possible that my hard drive was shot. I took the laptop to Microcenter the following day where its usefulness is still in question. Perhaps it was mom’s way of telling me I wasn’t listening! I had failed to write what she wanted me to write. I borrowed my son’s laptop last night and once again, I asked her what she’d want the world to remember about her. And this time I listened. My mom would want you to know the following:
She put a high priority on honesty and had an aversion to those who deceived or stole from others. I remember the time we went Christmas shopping and after leaving the store with her purchase, she realized the sales girl had short-changed the store by giving her too much change. Where most people would walk away, my mother went right back into that very crowded store and stood in line for almost 10 minutes just to return the extra $5. Even the sales girl was surprised. But that was my mom and she prided herself on that quality – she told me that it was something her parents, especially her father had instilled in her. It was an admiral trait and he’d be proud to know she took it so seriously.
My mom was extremely open minded when it came to structures or attitudes that divided people, like religions or politics or racism… She was an early embracer of the non-traditional family, and of multi-cultural, multi-racial, same-sex relationships – as long as people were kind and honest to each other, she could accept what most people resisted.
My mom loved deeply and that love was often conveyed in worry. She worried about her kids the most and would take on their pain, illness, sadness, and frustration as her own. I sensed early on that my mom felt the pain of others – even strangers. Like the time I was a passenger in her car as she drove to a doctor appointment and suddenly pulled off to the side of the road to help some elderly man make it up and over the curb. He was struggling and almost lost his balance as we were driving past him. She threw the car in park, ran towards him and linked arms with him until she was sure he had a solid-footing on the sidewalk in front of him. When she returned to the car, her eyes were moist. That’s the day I realized my mom was also a highly sensitive individual like me.
Like many of us, my mom was afraid of the unknown – especially death. She held on for days, probably for fear of what lie ahead. My dad, siblings, and niece were blessed to be with her when she finally took the step into the great unknown. I saw the look on her face change from struggle and fear to focus – as she truly saw the safety in the new world that awaited her. In that very second, I believe I saw exactly what she saw. A blue oasis, where the sand melted into the sky. A small white dove dotted the blue background waiting to greet her. I knew she had just arrived and found myself saying out loud, “Mom! You are finally safe!” I felt immediate peace as she let go of this world for the next one.
Two nights ago, I opened a folder given to us by the Director of Hospice shortly before my mom died. It contained descriptions of all the wonderful services offered to the grieving family. In the very back of the packet, behind all the printed material was a single page. A poem printed on a scenic piece of letterhead. Chills ran down my spine. The scene was a muted beach where the cream colored sand met the blue sky. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was so much like the vision I had shared with my mom just days before. The poem was too perfect to be a coincidence – it was confirmation from my mom, that not only had she arrived safely to a world where fear doesn’t exist, but that our relationship continues on, only better.
Below is the poem I found in that packet. Thank you to author, Henry VanDyke, for the gift of these words:
“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There she is gone!”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.
Mom, may your spirit soar freely and may your soul experience the joy you have longed for. I love you.
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