While it was upsetting to me last Sunday morning to learn of the sudden changes in Ma’s health, I can’t deny that the irony of what I was doing in that moment now brings a smile to my face. I had stopped for coffee on the way to get a money order to send my dear friend Kate and her daughter Anika in Michigan $200 to cover the cost of their utility bill. Having no one else to borrow from, I had spent several hours talking to her the previous day reminding her that it was okay to ask for help, telling her even, that I would postpone the several thousand dollars of dental appointments I was currently undergoing before I let her and her daughter go without electricity. That is a perfect example, of who Ma was to me. And though I lived with her for two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until after I finally left my home of 24 years at 12913 Church Street that the impact that she had made on me truly began to sink in. More and more, as time has passed in my time away from New York, I have come to realize that the longer I lived in her absence from my everyday life, the more I subconsciously have adopted many of her characteristics. After working in social work for a non-profit in Phoenix for the past 3 years, I know that although I could not be there in her final days in Demay, that she would be proud to know that I was living my life in service of homeless, abandoned, abused, and neglected youth, survivors of circumstances not unlike mine that she rescued me from as an infant to raise me as her own.
Ask anyone who grew up in North Wolcott in the past several decades if they know who “Ma Jones” is, or "Doris" at Towpath Manor or Demay, and you will no doubt be showered with smiles of recognition and heartfelt stories of memories long past. Ma was a lover of life, and a mother to all who knew her. Whether it be her neighbors the Sampsons and the Syrells in North Wolcott or all of her friends and fellow residents of Towpath and Demay, one thing is for certain, Ma had no enemies. Although she and Grandpa lived a simple, old-fashioned kind of life and didn’t always have much money for extras, she never had a shortage of love to go around. And though our house they rented from our dear friend Norris Flint for over 30 years was by no means a mansion, every one of her kids knew that at any time, in any circumstances we were always welcome back to it as our home.
Ma was a one of a kind individual who by some people’s standards probably had quite a nontraditional style of parenting. I don’t recall a single time in my life that she ever raised her voice in anger or frustration to anyone. She virtually never complained, never argued, and rarely ever layed a finger on one of her kids like we were always raised hearing the stories of how her parents would send her out back to get a switch to be whipped with if she misbehaved. If anyone she knew ever needed anything, she would be the first to offer help in whatever way she could, often even, if it meant that she would live without any extra. She was one of the most selfless, generous and compassionate people I have ever known. She also never judged anyone, and hated drama, though she was still always tolerant of those who often created it in their life, accepting them for who they were.
Though I was sad when she moved to Towpath, I was excited that she after 70 years had the opportunity to be surrounded by so many new friends and live a whole new life with a new community and new activities around every corner. Similarly, even when as her health and mind slowly deteriorated and she had to be checked in to Demay, even in the years that followed when she did not always have her wits about her, I could not help but be continually moved by how she remained a friend to all. She was always a caretaker and a mother to the core, often for those who seemed the most lonely and outcast, who didn’t always have any other friends or visitors. Even in a nursing home surrounded by dying, lost and forgotten people, she continued to make others smile, and to be a ray of light until the very end.
Ma’s unique sense of humor and quirkiness I hope still brings people joy when they think of her for years to come. From her cheesy jokes, silly facial expressions, to her absolutely shameless and sometimes constant farts, I for one can’t help but think of her without giggling. I will never forget how she always kept money in her bra, and her perpetually dry and dirty feet in flip-flops. I can still smell her saliva from when she would always feel the need to plunge a finger into her mouth and spit-shine us in public if we had dirt on our face, or how she used to always stick her pointy fingernails in my ears trying to clean out earwax when I would least expect it! I remember her always turning the light on for me when I used to be afraid of the dark, and always checking on me each night to tuck me in and turn off my music or TV I would always need to fall asleep to, though often I was still awake, and would turn it back on. I remember how she rode the school bus with me on my very first day of kindergarten when I didn’t want to go, and how she bought me an Atari of my very own because Grandpa was always stingy, not letting anyone play with his, and also used to worry about me always running up and down the stairs to play Robert’s. I remember all the walks I always begged for her to take with me to explore--around the block to pick up pop cans, up the hill to pick blackberries and look at the lake on the horizon, down the road to visit the Sampson's or to throw rocks in the creek. I remember picking blueberries as a family and always having a shelf full of frozen ones we each loved more than anyone else, and how she always would steal handfuls from the freezer for me when she got some for her shredded wheat. I remember how, though I was picky and didn’t really like it, that everyone always made it seem like her biscuits and chicken and gravy were like cuisine from a 5-star restaurant, the biscuits of which to this day it seems no one can replicate exactly, even though they have the recipe. I do however remember always begging for her chocolate mayonnaise cakes and no bake cookies, which I still make my own modified versions of to this day. And I will never forget all the jigsaw puzzles we put together, and how when I finally left New York to travel, it felt like every new and exciting place I saw after all those sheltered years in North Wolcott, that I was getting to see all those beautiful landscape puzzles come to life, and how I always wished she could have seen them with me.
I know that I would not be the person that I am today without the unconditional support of Ma growing up. No matter what color my hair was or what flamboyant clothes I ever happened to wear, what strange diet I happened to be practicing, there was not a single day in my life that Ma ever made me feel judged for the way I lived my life, no matter how drastically different some of my beliefs and behaviors sometimes were from hers. She may have made a funny face at me, but she never once told me not to be an artist, or a vegan, or not to dye my hair, not to put on her dress and her mother’s wig and go to an art show. In fact, she even let me record her saying a bunch of silly phrases I had written to play from a tape recorder in my purse at the gallery that night when I bumped into people! Though I know that she missed me throughout her final years, I know that she never was upset or judgmental of me for moving away to find a new home and new life for myself. She was always supportive of all her kids, in any way that she could be. I still remember her taking care of Carol after her car accident. I remember the door always being open for anyone in transition or having a difficult time to move back into the house, not just for a few weeks, but indefinitely! I remember her always helping any of us pay our bills if she could. Though all of her kids moved out at one time while I was growing up to begin their new lives, virtually all of them also moved back IN for a while (including myself) before we finally all left our North Wolcott home.
Ma’s compassion and sense of self-sacrifice has been unmatched by anyone to me in 33 years, and it is something I myself continue to strive for. She always believed in the inherent goodness in all people, their ability to persevere, overcome, and find happiness and success in their life, and was also aware that it might have taken some of us a little longer than others to figure that out. She always believed in helping people. When it came to caring for her kids, no matter what the circumstances of her own life entailed, it was a lifelong responsibility that she never once took for granted. Anyone, after all, can bring a child into the world…but it takes integrity, compassion, kindness, understanding, patience and most importantly, LOVE to truly be a MOTHER.
I encourage us all, that whatever you believe, to not be sad today. Ma’s memory will forever live on through us, in the stories we tell, and in our actions each day, as who she was and all she meant to us continues to inspire us and all of whom we share her spirit and teachings with. Though some may not understand why all of us could not spend as much time with Ma as others throughout the years and in her final days, I for one wish to point out that I am filled with absolutely nothing but joy and gratitude for every second that I ever got to spend with her, and her love continues to pulse through my veins as I continue to offer it to the Universe daily wherever I go. I aspire every day to do her memory justice, and hope that one day I can ever shine to the world with even a fraction of the ray of light that she always has to everyone who loved her.
Thank you, Ma, for always taking care of all of us, sometimes even at the cost of taking care of yourself. Thank you for always giving us a home and thank you for accepting the no doubt often daunting responsibility of raising me as your last crazy child when others did not. You were my first real best friend and partner in crime, and I will never forget all the time we spent together in the years after Grandpa died when it felt like we were all alone. I never would have imagined in a million years that the weird, shy little kid I was back then could have ever come this far. I hope that you are proud of me. You will always be the “mother I never had,” and my greatest inspiration. You have always made me want to be a better person, and made me smile when nothing else has. I love you, Ma, and I hope that you can finally find peace. You don't have to worry about me anymore. Thanks to you, I turned out "pretty good."