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Losing my mom — and finding her in my sisters

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When my phone rings on Saturday, I always know who it is: my sister.

I may not know which sister — I’ve got four spread across the country — but I know on Saturday one (and sometimes more) will call to share the latest development in her life: a fabulous estate sale find, an adventure in motherhood, a choice piece of political gossip, and, more often than not, a funny, familiar story about growing up.

For us, it’s a way to stay close to each other, but it’s also a way to stay close to our mom. Saturday was the day Vi (short for Viva or “Vivacious” as we often called her) would always check in, usually sitting down to phone her daughters after she’d finished up all of her chores.

“Oh say, kid, how are you?” was her standard hello, a greeting my sisters and I will sometimes use with each other, as if conjuring up her voice can bring her back again.

Viva died of congestive heart failure nine years ago, when she 72. There were no goodbyes, no tearful arguments over how she should be cared for in her old age. She simply got up one Saturday, cleaned her house, mowed her lawn, baked a pie, cut herself a piece, then shuffled off this mortal coil.

In Keds and an apron.

The Saturday phone ritual with my sisters began shortly thereafter. In some ways, when we lost our mom, we found each other. Death will sometimes do that to a family, although I know in other cases it will split them apart, like a vase smashed by a hammer. Her death taught us that life is fleeting and family counts. Conjuring her voice, her raucous laughter and her Saturday check-in calls have become a way for all of us to keep her close, to gather together the bits and pieces of her that reside within each of us.

Our mom is gone, but she’s not gone. Not as long as I have my sisters. Or so it seems.

Laughing through tears

Born in 1928, our mother’s life spanned the Great Depression, WWII, the repressed ‘50s, the stormy ‘60s, and, yes, even disco, the digital revolution, and beyond. She died in the fall of 2000, before 9/11, before Iraq, before Katrina and Britney and Botox and Barack Obama and Susan Boyle and a million other things I still pick up the phone to call her about each day.

Baffled and bereft, the five of us somehow muddled through in the days after her death. We planned a funeral and burial, clueless as to what we should do since she hadn’t left any instructions, at least none that we could find. That Christmas, three of us even managed to spend the holiday together where we alternated between laughing hysterically over some of our mom’s antics (Case in point: She insisted the 1940s screenwriter Ring Lardner was actually named Lard Gardner) and weeping uncontrollably because she wasn’t there to tell us all to go jump in a lake.

Or, as she would put it whenever we used to tease her about mixing up someone’s name or talking into the wrong end of the cordless phone: “Ditto cabbagehead, have another onion.”

My mom left us with lots of famous sayings, lots of funny stories. She also left us with a 20-acre farm, which she somehow managed to pay off and maintain after our dad decided he’d had enough of farming, and, as it turned out, fatherhood, while most of us were still in our teens.

Viva stayed put, though, working her way up the ladder at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services in order to take care of “her girls” and the family home. It was a safe haven to which we returned year after year for birthdays and holidays and summer weekends full of fried chicken and wilted lettuce and corn of all varieties.


Courtesy of Diane Mapes

Diane Mapes and her mother, Viva, in a 1996 photo taken on the 20-acre Washington farm where the family gathered to celebrate holidays, birthdays and summer weekends.

Image: Diane Mapes and her mother, Vivi


When my sisters and I go back to the farm now, we can almost see our mom’s face peering out the kitchen window as we drive up. She’s been gone nearly a decade and her presence still permeates the place.

I guess some people are just hard to suppress.

Viva’s personality is so strong it even shows up in her recipes. Before she died, she wrote out a cookbook for each of us. Mine contains three salads, 11 entrees and 46 desserts. The recipe for Mark’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (my brother-in-law’s favorite) starts off like this: “Sorry, I just turned the kitchen upside down trying to find that recipe, but can’t. Get it from Mark.”

Oxtail Soup is equally entertaining: “Take 1-2 lbs. of oxtails and cover with water in a large heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat until tender and meat can be taken from bone. Do not give bones to dogs! I did this once and it cost me $175 for the vet to remove them from Tugs!”

My mother loved animals so the oxtail episode (and the warning) make perfect sense. In fact, my mother was such a soft touch when it came to animals — taking in every one-eyed, three-legged stray that stumbled onto her property — that my sisters and I often joked that her farm was a stop along a secret Underdog Railroad, an Island of Misfit Pets surrounded by a sea of rural disregard.

This is how we get through the loss of our mother — by telling stories of her exploits, by laughing at her infamous mispronunciations, by remembering her strength, by following her recipes (moldy green salad! tortillas and beans! pie!) and, yes, by standing in for her.

There are the Saturday phone calls, the proudly displayed photos of nephews and nieces, the sick bed grocery deliveries, the sisterly conferences to hash out holiday dinners and health concerns. Considering how much we used to fight as kids — epic battles over everything from stolen shoes to the last Swanson Chicken Pot Pie — my mother would be flabbergasted at how well we get along today.

A last letter

In a letter she wrote for us to read after her death, which we finally found two years after she was gone — buried in a drawer beneath ancient bank statements and boxes of expired flea collars — she must have used the phrase “Please girls — don’t fight” at least five times. I’m sure she’d be tickled at how the five of us mother each other now.

I think she’d also be proud.

I never really thought about death until I lost my mom. But losing someone close to you gives you clarity. It helps you see what matters most; it allows you to appreciate the precious pieces a person leaves behind.

I recognize my mom’s touch in the homemade cookies Gloria sends every year for Christmas, in the way Mary accidentally (and repeatedly) hangs up on me whenever she calls me on a new phone. It’s my mother’s voice I hear whenever Frances says “Eat something, you’ll feel better” in response to my worries about money or work or weight. And I still don’t know if it was my mom or my little sister Peggy who showed up at 1 a.m. when I had to go to the emergency room with a bronchial infection a few years back.

Our mom is gone, but she’s not gone, not really. She’s in the orchard at the family place where we gather apples and pears and Italian prunes every fall. She’s there at Christmas whenever someone unwraps a gigantic pair of Sears underpants (a family joke stemming from her diehard pragmatism) and the room explodes in laughter. And she was certainly there on election night when my 5-year-old niece got very excited about her new president, Rock O’Bottom.

This Mother’s Day, there won’t be a big family dinner at the farm as there have been in years past. But there will be smaller, bittersweet celebrations in Bellingham and Seattle and Dallas and the cold climes of Vermont, as five far-flung sisters reach out to share laughter and memories and the secrets to a flaky crust. And perhaps the sweetest morsel of all — the unforgettable, irrepressible love of a good mom.  

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." She can be reached via her Web site,