Thoughts of My Mom

Thoughts of My Mom

This Christmas, my thoughts are of my mom almost exclusively.  All the memories that go along with the lifetime of love she’s given me are drawn into particular focus this year, and the time I spend with her now might be more precious than it’s ever been.   

My 92-year-old mother is fighting a particularly aggressive form of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma.  It originates in the bile ducts and spreads quickly to other parts of the body.  Her oncologist, and the relevant staff at the local hospital and associated rehab facility (where she remained from early November to nearly mid December) assure my sister and me that she’s in the final stages of her disease.  Diagnostic imaging substantiates this prognosis.  And I’d be flat-out lying if I told you that she was up and around.  My mom’s cancer has spread, and she is very sick; of this, there is no question.

My mom, Bessie Stamos, returned to her home on Friday, December 9th, 2022.  After nearly six weeks of hospitalization, futile physical rehabilitation efforts, and a kick-in-the-ass prognosis, she was sent home to live out the rest of her life in as much comfort as hospice care could provide.  My sister and I have effectively moved in with her to assume the bulk of her care.  (To be fair, my sister has taken on the lion’s share of our ongoing caregiving operations – she’s an angel.)

My mom’s return to her home has resulted in an array of (what I consider) almost miraculous happenings, not the least of which was, at least initially, more than just an uptick in her physical and emotional well-being.  While she was in the hospital, in the bed there, she looked small and gray.  And she was despondent.  But once she was back in her own digs, her color returned, and so did her smile.  And the ominous rock-hardness and distension of her gut – a calling card of her disease – seemed to relent.  For awhile.  Maybe none of this is signs and wonders material, but it’s still definitely something. 

I think, though, that maybe the most miraculous of these not-quite-miraculous happenings concerns primarily me.  Me and my thoughts.  And my mom’s reactions to them.  Here, in my mom’s home, within these walls, reside the memories of a family.  Or rather the tokens of those memories.  There are furnishings and decorations here, photographs and childhood treasures, crocheted afghans and Christmas ornaments, and books…  an entire home full of items lovingly created, acquired, and curated by my mom over the course of nine decades and four different homes.  I am here all the time now, with my mom and my sis.  It’s up close and personal these days.  And while the material items which have faithfully marked the passing of the years for my family and me are here to see and hold, my mom herself remains the most tangible.  In her tired and sick little body, and beneath her brow, furrowed occasionaly by pain but more frequently with worry for her two late-middle-aged children, I see the woman who so long ago bore me and read to me, who sang me nursery rhymes and slept on the floor next to my bed when I was sick.  (Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?)  I see my mom as I remember her years ago.  She is here, in her sickbed, and I hold her hand and feed her broth.  And I remember.  We remember…   

On my mom’s refrigerator door, held in place by, among other things, a heart-shaped magnet inscribed with the words “Artwork for Grandma,” are two very old photographs.  Both are black and white.  One was taken in the late 1930s, and the other in the early 1940s.  The newer photo is a picture of my dad, taken while he was on base with the U.S. Army.  He was stationed in the Pacific theater during WWII.  My mom loved him with all of her heart.  She lost him in 1982 when he died of metastatic lung cancer.  In my dad’s day, unfiltered Camels were the thing.  The older photo is of my mom, her best friend and next door neighbor Margie Capes, and Aunt Margie’s little sister, Claudia.  My mom and Aunt Margie were probably around eight or nine, and Aunt Claudia was a toddler.

My mom, and Margie and Claudia Capes grew up on South Colfax Avenue in an ancient Chicago neighborhood known appropriately as South Chicago (92nd Street and Colfax Avenue is pretty south as far as most Chicago neighborhoods go).  My mom’s folks were from Greece, and when my mom was born on October 31, 1930 at South Chicago Community Hospital, Greek was what was spoken in their home.  She learned English from Aunt Margie, whose own parents were first generation English-speakers.  Aunt Margie’s grandparents were from Hungary.  On warm summer mornings, the best friends sang “Oh Little Playmate” to one another, and puffed on catalpa tree “cigars.”  They passed the seasons together in a sublime innocence which was born of their respective upbringings and of the times, and they remained best friends until my Aunt Margie’s death in late 2012.  My mom told her schoolmates that a witch riding a broomstick dropped her off to her folks on that Halloween night of her birth, which happened to be the second Halloween night of the Great Depression.

In the face of the little girl in the eighty-something-year-old picture, I see my mom.  In her face and in the way that she’s standing, I see her gentleness, her sincerity, and her honesty; I see the woman she would eventually become. 

Now, my mom and I talk about the photos and her childhood, the cigars, my dad.  And in her bedroom, which serves now as her infirmary, but which also houses the mementos of a lifetime, my mom’s memories stir, and the glad glories they stoke within her heart shine in her eyes.  Of her birth date coinciding with the early months of the Depression, she tells me, with a straight face, that she was sent here to fix the problem.  Together, the two of us are immersed in her happy past.  These memories are a balm; they run together in a mix of quiet teardrops and become an elixir more effective than any prescription painkiller.

Thoughts of My Mom
My dad in a photo (on the left) from the early 1940s. He loved his mom, too. In the photo at right, my mom's lifelong best friend, Margie, and her little sister Claudia, pose on a summer day in the late 1930s. My mom is the little girl on the far right.

Here in the infirmary that was once my mom’s bedroom, I sit and hold the patient’s hand.  Together, we take in a few more photos that hang on the walls of this particular room.  One shows my dad in his seargent’s uniform.  While serving his country, he attained the highest rank that the army assigned an enlisted man.  My mother has always been proud of this fact, and has shared it many times with friends and family throughout the years.  There’s another photo of my dad hanging on that same wall.  This shot was taken during peacetime.  In it he sports a topcoat and pipe, and, according to my mom, he looks like Clark Gable.  She held him in her arms when he died from the ravages of his own cancer in their bed at home nearly forty years later.  I look at my little mother now and I find the parallels inescapable, in spite of the enveloping warmth of the memories that these photos create for her and me.  My mom has attached a picture of herself to the peacetime photo of my dad, where it remains as an inset, over his right breast.  This small photo is carefully taped to the glass protecting the handsome framed image of the Gable look-alike, ensuring that the married couple will remain together forever in this ensemble.  I can’t meet my mom’s gaze for a few minutes after I’ve absorbed the full impact of this promissory tribute’s portent, so I keep my back to her and pretend to study the picture during this time.

Another photo in this room is of my mom’s family; her own mother and father (Celeste and Bill), her older brother, Chris, and the lady herself are all here.  My mom is somewhere south of two years old in this one, and it reminds her of when she once pooped in the corner of the family living room at just about the time of this particular portrait’s taking.  She acknowledges that indoor plumbing, even back in the early 1930s, was indeed an existing feature of their flat.

My dad in the army during WWII. This, and the next two photos hang on the walls in my mom's bedroom where they're the first things she sees each morning, and the last things she sees when she falls asleep every night.
Thoughts of My Mom
My mom and her family circa 1932. She's the one sitting on the plant stand. My mom's parents - my grandparents - were noble, hardworking people. My grandmother lived to the age of 102.
Thoughts of My Mom
My mom taped a photo of herself to this one of my dad. She wanted to make sure she was close to his heart.

About two weeks prior to this writing, my sister and I put up and decorated my mom’s Christmas tree (again, my sis did most of the work).  The tree is artificial, and for every single Christmas, it has resided in her living room.  And even though my mother is incapable of leaving her bed in her bedroom cum infirmary, it was imperative that the tree go up, and that we decorate it – as we have for as long as my sis and I have been old enough to walk – with the ornaments which have adorned it for nearly sixty years.  From the manger and its inhabitants beneath the tree, to the delicate glass balls which my mother’s mother for years had hung from her own family Christmas tree, to the diminutive porcelain bells my folks bought together during their first Christmas as husband and wife, my mom’s Christmas tree ornaments serve collectively as a glimmering looking glass reflecting back the kaleidoscope of all the years of our family’s history.  My sister and I, of course, took photos of the decorated tree to show my mom in her bed, but I’m convinced that just knowing the tree and its treasures are faithfully in their place in her living room are enough to make her happy this Christmas.

All the time I spend directly with my mom nowadays is spent in her bedroom.  We are together there when she tells me to look at something in the closet.  Accompanying this directive is first a look on her face of sudden realization, which is quickly supplanted by one of unmistakable excitement.  These kinds of expression have become increasingly sporadic.  I’m happy to see this level of animation.  It beats the now-characteristic furrowed brow look.  The items she wants me to see are in a box on the closet’s shelf.  I take the box down and open it.  In it are a white pillowcase and matching bed sheets.  Embroidered along the borders of these items are railroad tracks, steam engines, and rail cars.  These are the bedclothes of a child.  In fact, they were my own bedclothes from the time I made the move from my crib to my first actual bed, until I was five or six years old.  I turn to my mom with my mouth wide open.  She has been saving them for me all these years and is clearly delighted by my reaction.

The memories that accompany my recognition of these simple items are overpowering.  Even jolting.  The little head which once rested on this pillowcase was filled with the stories from the books my mom had carefully selected and bought for me.  She read to me from these books until I was old enough to read myself.  And even then she read to me.  With my head nestled on this scene of trains and tracks, I listened as my mother sang nursery rhymes to me when I was sick, or when the dark frightened me and I couldn’t sleep. 

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full…

From my pillow, I watched the fireflies we’d caught together turn their lanterns on and off, until my mom released them back out into the night.  I could hear the crickets chirping outside my bedroom window on those summer evenings.  And my embroidered steam engine and the tracks it ran upon were there.  My mother introduced me to life’s wonders and joys, and my child’s heart was filled with them.  When I pulled my railroad sheets up to my chin, that little heart of mine felt safe.

As I look down into this cardboard box which I’ve pulled from my mom’s closet shelf, what are perhaps the most indelible memories of my childhood look back at me.  I need to turn my head to keep a tear that has formed from falling on the tracks.

When I return to the chair which remains next to her sickbed, I see that my mother is equally touched.  Although her own eyes brim with tears, she seems positively radiant.  She is certainly pleased.  After more than half a century, the memories are still there.  And they’re just as crystal clear to her as they are to me.  This is a moment in time neither of us will ever forget.  It is etched as permanently into the essence of each of us as the original memories themselves are.  Though no words are necessary, they come anyway.  We reminisce, and I see in my sick, little old mother the face of that long ago angel who protected me and taught me while she unlocked for me the gates of the universe and pressed into my hands the keys to my own heart.

I know, beyond the shadow of any possible doubt, that if this particular moment in time could miraculously continue indefinitely, that if the emotions she is feeling right now as a result of these resurrected memories could somehow be sustained continuously and in perpetuity, my mother would beat her cancer.  I know this just by looking at her face.  And remembering.

Today, right now, my sister and I are with my mom in her bedroom.  I watch her while she sleeps.  She is almost always asleep now.  Her disease has exacted a terrifying toll.  We administer morphine for her pain and discomfort, and Xanax to calm her worries.  These products come to us courtesy of the hospice organization we’ve retained to help care for my mom, and their use is supervised by the hospice nurse who comes to visit more and more frequently. 

It is clear that my mother does not have long to live.

But it is also clear that the joy she’s derived from being in her own home these past few weeks, surrounded by her two children and the inanimate, tangible representations of a lifetime of memories – hers, my sister’s, and mine – has been immeasurable.  She is comforted by the fact that my sister and I will be with her until the very end.  She remains enveloped in the warmth of the milestones in her life and she basks in the glow of her legacy.  She can rest easy knowing that, as the architect of the three happy lives currently dwelling beneath her roof, she is the greatest memory-maker of all.

John G. Stamos, December 29, 2022

When I read the initial draft of this piece to my mother a couple of days ago, she insisted that I mention the importance to her of her faith and her church, and of the incredibly good and kind friends she’s made while a parishioner at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church and Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church (both in Chicago), and, for the last 52 years, Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Hammond, Indiana.  While at Saint Demetrios, my mother has been a widely loved and respected member of the church community.  She started the church’s chapter of G.O.Y.A. (Greek Orthodox Youth of America) 50 years ago and built it into one of the most successful chapters in diocese history.  She is a lifetime member and was, until recently, an officer of Saint Demetrios’ chapter of The Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society.  The friends she’s made from within her faith over the course of a lifetime, and particularly those she’s made during her years as a Saint Demetrios parishioner, have been incredibly and completely supportive and attentive to my mom throughout her battle with cancer.  She loves each and every one of them dearly, and, again, she wanted to make sure I included these facts in this feature.

I thank you, my dear readers and subscribers, for your interest and your readership, and I wish each of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2023.

Cheers, and Happy Gardening!

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38 thoughts on “Thoughts of My Mom”

  1. And of course – I re-read this one also.

    This is such a beautiful tribute to your wonderful mother.

    Blessings to you and your sister.

    1. Thank you once again, Annie. I truly appreciate your lovely thoughts and kind words. My mom was a remarkable woman, and an even more remarkable mother. I love her and miss her terribly. I wanted to re-visit this piece in her honor. Thank you again, Annie. Your interest and your kindness are truly appreciated.

  2. John, my brother, I’m sitting in my kitchen, with the little ceramic Christmas tree I made for Mom in ceramics class in the ‘70’s glowing as it sits on my kitchen table, wearing Mom’s little Christmas reindeer shirt and the sweater she has on in the photo you chose for your lovely story, surrounded by recipe books. These particular recipe books have chapters of Lenten cookie recipes and of religious offerings. I’m readying myself for my first attempt at making the Kolyva and Prosfora for Mom’s one year Memorial which we will “celebrate” at her beloved Saint Demetrios Church this Sunday morning after the Divine Liturgy. I’m also looking for Lenten versions of the traditional Paximadia cookies (do you recall what Patti Leach used to call them? Mom would lovingly tell that story over and over!) to serve her dear friends and loved ones who will gather in her memory at the “Coffee Hour” immediately following the service. I was asked by sweet Rhea if we would mind if the members of our beautiful choir were to sing some “appropriate” Carols at that time. They asked permission because they didn’t want to offend us. Can you imagine they would even think that was possible? Mom loved her church, her choir, her people sooo much… she would be honored to have them singing… if there’s any way possible, and I truly believe there is, she’ll be singing along with them. Your story is beautiful, John. Thank you for re-publishing it. I think I was likely too numb and heartbroken at the time to really process all the words, feelings and beautiful memories. I love you, John. We will get through this. It will get easier in time. Like Mom always said, “one day at a time.”

    1. My dear sister, what you’ve written here is beautiful. I’m reading it and I’m starting to leak. I’m going to totally break down in a minute… Thank you for reading this one again. If you’ll remember, I read it to Mom before I published it. Even though she wasn’t able to reply when I asked her what she thought, I believe she approved of it. You were there. I think you might agree. I love you, too. We’re lucky to have had Mom and Dad raise us, and we’re lucky to have each other.

  3. I loved your mom so much. She was such an intelligent speaker, and so smart, passionate and very easy to talk to.
    I cherish the times in Lansing, love of family all around and the very special friendship that blossomed between our moms and Aunt Bertha.
    We were blessed to be raised by such great parents.
    Love to you John… I understand it all. 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading this piece, Debbie, and thank you so much for your lovely thoughts and remembrances. You’re absolutely right – we are very, very lucky. Thank you once again.

  4. Your mom’s essence really shines in your tribute to her. She was such a loving, caring, and thoughtful person that was a true light to the world. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your mom’s life story and these beautiful memories with all of us.

    1. Thank you so much, Carla. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed reading it. And thank you so very kindly for your lovely thoughts about my mom. I’m so glad you feel this way about her. I’m honored beyond words. Again Carla, I thank you so very,very much.

  5. John I’m sorry to hear of your mother’s cancer diagnosis. I am moved by how you, your sis and your mum comfort and love one another. Thank you for sharing Bessie’s fascinating journey-abundant in family, friends, faith, and love. (Yes, Clark Gable, I see the resemblance.) So many beautiful memories, the most treasured gifts. I am keeping your mum, sister and you close in prayer.

    1. Thank you so much, Jill. My family and I appreciate your incredible kindness. Your lovely words and beautiful wishes and prayers mean so very much to us. We are forever grateful. Thank you once again, Jill.

      1. John, words can not express my deepest sympathy to you and your sister. Your mother was an angel who touched the hearts of everyone who knew her. She has left her mark on so many people. I hope you find comfort in all the memories that you have of her. Thank you for sharing her story with all of us.

        1. Thank you so much, Kevin. My family and I are eternally grateful for your lovely thoughts and your incredible kindness. Once again, I thank you.

          1. I love peeking into her world through these old pictures. They don’t make frames like they used to. And your mother is one of a kind too.

          2. Thank you for giving this one a read, Tamara. The photos and frames are amazing, aren’t they? And thank you for your lovely thoughts about my mom. I truly appreciate that. And I must agree. She was an extraordinary lady and a wonderful mom. Thanks once again, Tamara.

  6. Dear Cousin,
    What a beautiful tribute to your wonderful, ever kind, mother. May she rest in peace.
    My deepest condolences to you and Tina.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful and loving essay! I’m glad your mom was able to leave the hospital and that she’s surrounded by her memories, with you and your sister caring for her, as she approaches the end of her life. Wishing light and peace to all of you. Take care.

    1. Thank you so much, Mary. My family and I appreciate your kind and lovely thoughts and wishes. We are forever grateful. Thanks once again.

  8. What an amazing tribute to your Mom🙏❤️
    Words can’t describe how special this is!!!!
    I couldn’t stop crying reading your story…..
    I can barely hold back my tears, it’s even hard to write,I lost my mom last year, I took care of her until her last day, she was everything to me, my heart will be bleeding for ever……. Your story just reopened all my memories….. God bless you for taking care of her, there is nothing more precious than a mother and those last moments are priceless. Thank you for sharing those absolutely beautiful family memories…..wishing you all the strength to you and family and my prayers are all with you . You are an amazing human being, God bless you again, I am blessed to know you, forever in my prayers 🙏🥲❤️🌹
    Wishing you a very blessed New Year 🙏❤️🤗🌹

    1. Oh Roxxy, your incredible kindness is loved and treasured beyond words. I am so sorry to hear about your own dear mom. There is nothing like a mother’s love. My dear mother passed away peacefully on Friday, December 30, 2022. I will love her and miss her until I die. Once again, your beautiful thoughts, and incredibly kind wishes and prayers, are very truly appreciated. My family and I are forever grateful. Thank you once again, Roxxy.

      1. I can’t hold back my tears,
        My heart is saddened by the news of your loss, I want to extend my condolences to you and your family. May you look to the heavens with a smile on your face and know that you have an Angel watching over you. Saying goodbye to someone we love is heartbreaking. wishing you peace to bring comfort, courage to face the days ahead and loving memories to forever hold in your heart. My thoughts and prayers are with you🙏🥲
        May she rest in eternal peace.🙏🕯️🌹🌹🌹

        1. Roxxy, this is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for thinking of my mom and my family and me with such compassion, kindness, and honor. I am touched beyond words. Bless your heart, Roxxy. My fanmily and I are forever grateful to you.

  9. This is so beautiful. I have tears in my eyes reading this.

    Blessings to you and your sister for being so wonderful.

    Blessings to your dear mother.

    1. Thank you so very, very much for your lovely thoughts and incredibly kind wishes and prayers. My family and I are eternally grateful. Thank you once again, Ann.

  10. I am glad that during this difficult time , you wrote about your mom.
    The days spent with your mom and sister are a blessing for all three of you. Thank you for sharing. You are a great son.

    1. Thank you so much for these incredibly kind thoughts and words, Rick. I am honored. Beyond honored, actually. My family and I are very grateful. Thank you once again.

  11. Oh, John! I feel I’m desecrating something sacred with my simple expressions and my poor vocabulary… but I want to make sure you know how beautiful I find your story, your mother, her life, your family history… and the beauty and sensitivity of how you tell it shows the depth of the love you profess to each other. The great admiration I feel for you, for your impressive talents, is greater now that I have read this. Many would like to live such a family love story, and what you and your sister are doing now accompaning your mother, conforting her, delicately wrapping up the memories she’ll take there (where you know she’ll meet your father and so many others)… She’ll go peacefuly and happy. Thank you for writing so beautifully and for sharing your sensitivity and kindness.

    1. Your lovely words and beautiful thoughts touch my heart and have made my family very happy. We are honored by your kindness and your eloquence, Maria. Thank you so very, very much.

    1. Oh Tina, you are so incredibly kind. My family and I thank you for your lovely thoughts and words, and we dearly appreciate your kindness. Thank you so much, Tina.

  12. Such a moving tribute to your mother, John! It is heartbreaking to watch your loved one to struggle, and all we can do is to be there for them. The fact that your sister and you are there for your Mom, literally brings a color and a smile to her face. That’s what makes a difference. Thank you for sharing your family’s heartwarming memories and mementos in pictures. Please be sure to take care of yourself and your sister during this difficult time.

    1. Thank you for your lovely thoughts and words, Rita. Your kindness is very dearly appreciated. My loved ones and I are truly grateful.

  13. Such a loving tribute to your mother… comforting and joyful thoughts will be with you forever. How fortunate that you are able to share these with her. Absolutely beautiful.

  14. What a beautiful tribute to your Mom and family, John. Sending prayers for her peaceful transition and for your peace of mind and heart. Katha

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