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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mother's Day Geisha

                      Mother’s Day Geisha

Start with Soccer

It’s noon Saturday, and we’ve just returned home from a morning of kids’ soccer.  I toast cheese sandwiches for my hungry players while Pete dozes in a front room chair. Before I scamper upstairs to write, Fiona (who’s ten) shows me a friend’s business card, asking, “How much is it for a massage, Mommy? That’s what you said you wanted for Mother’s Day.”

“No honey,” I say. I don’t want you buying it. It’s too much.”

As I climb the stairs, I see eight-year-old Finley though his bedroom window, stuffing string into a homemade Mother’s Day card.

I warned my family en route home that since tomorrow is ‘my day,’ I would pick an activity we could do together. Fiona said, “Oh no, not some kind of exercise!”

Finley said, “We don’t wanna walk anywhere.”

Pete smiled while driving the minivan and said nothing.

“I want us to ride our bikes and go for a nice walk, then have gelato,” I said.

“Oh no!” cried Finn.

“You don’t like gelato?” I asked the boy who once gobbled three servings of Italian ice cream in fifteen minutes: his, the rest of mine and nearly all his sister’s.

“I do, I do! I just don’t wanna walk.”

Keep it Simple, Stupid

This is the long way of saying I want to keep Mother’s Day simple – share it, even, with child-free family and friends. I felt my head nodding in agreement yesterday while reading author Anne Lamott’s musings about Mother’s Day:

"I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure... Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am
still opposed to Mother's Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents."
Of course we should honor our mothers by acknowledging them more than once each year. I am, indeed, grateful for my mom and for other women who’ve offered kitchen table wisdom, judgment-free advice and a fresh perspective.

Mother's Helpers
Spokane, WA, February, 2010

One of those women is Aunt Cheryl. Cheryl is 64 years old. She’s never birthed children, but was stepmother to two teenagers. I didn’t see a lot of Cheryl growing up. We haven’t had much contact the past few years. News about Aunt Cheryl comes mostly through her sister, my mom.

Cheryl lives in Dayton, Ohio, about four hours by car from where I grew up in Ashtabula.  When I moved to Oxford for college, Aunt Cheryl was just an hour’s drive away. I’d travel through the hamlets of Middletown, Franklin and West Carrolton, past fields of corn and soybeans, before arriving at Cheryl’s home in the suburb of Kettering. I remember feeling like a pampered niece when she treated me to restaurant lunches and showed me to her guest room with high thread count sheets and fluffy duvet. When I suffered a fever that sent me shaking under my cap and shivering beneath my graduation gown, Cheryl brought me to her home to recover.

Memories of a Ten-Year-Old Geisha

Aunt Cheryl was a critical care nurse. She also liked to draw. I remember when she stayed with us in Ashtabula and made up my sister, Heather, and I to look like geishas. I can still see my ten-year-old white face, drawn black eyebrows and painted red lips with peaked Cupid’s bow. Cheryl completed the look with a large, pointy-top bamboo hat. She took photos, later producing lifelike portraits of her nieces, smooth faces of pre-teen probity.

Glamour and Exes

Cheryl’s the Joan Collins of the family, with three ex-husbands, a large wardrobe, and enough makeup to spackle the cast of Dynasty. Her second husband, Byron, would joke that Cheryl and my mom followed a 42-step process to get ready each morning. In my early teens, I would watch, wonderstruck, as Cheryl outlined her naturally bee-stung lips with liner before filling them in with lipstick, and polishing them with gloss.

Cheryl spoke softly and slowly, a kiss of New Orleans in her voice from years of living there with her first husband in her twenties. She liked talking about energy fields and the metaphysical. She brought a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – the eighties epic about the origins of the universe – when she visited in Ashtabula.

Spanning the Globe

Cheryl's Christmas and birthday gifts were legendary, procured from trips across the country or around the world from Italy, France and England. She gave me a wooden nutcracker about the same height as Finley one year; the following year, she sent a nativity set requiring a five-foot long table for display.

Mom and I met Cheryl in Thaxted, England, in 1999, for her third wedding. The ceremony took place in a 14th century stone church. We buzzed with excitement during the reception, when we were greeted with a vintage airplane flyover.

Family Tree
Spokane, WA, February, 2010

In the last decade, Cheryl developed a passion bordering on obsession for geneology, spending hours researching every branch, stem and leaf on our family tree. She could talk about dead relatives until you started wishing you could join them yourself.

Like my mom, Cheryl developed breast cancer around age 55. Unlike Mom, Cheryl did not get regular mammograms Her lump went undetected until it had grown to two centimeters. Doctors later found cancer in her shoulder and said she was Stage Four. The malignancy was incurable. But Cheryl could still be treated and continue to live.

And live she did, ditching husband number three, ballroom dancing and finding love again.
50+ Dancesport Challenge, Columbus, Ohio, February, 2012


Then, last November, I got an e-mail from Mom. Cheryl was in the ICU. The cancer had invaded her brain.  She left the hospital. I lost track of her, spinning in a cyclone of engagement, wedding preparations and parenting. A couple days ago, after another message from Mom, I called to learn what was happening. Cheryl returned to hospital. Then hospice. And now, according to the boyfriend, doctors say she has just hours or days to live.

This is where my own guilt about the fact I haven’t seen Cheryl since Sean’s memorial in 2010 sneaks in like a cat through an open window. I’m sad my aunt is (according to Mom) drowsing in a drugged state, unable to reminiscence or talk much at all. I’m sad I’m eight thousand miles from Dayton, Ohio. Shame about my lack of contact, things left undone and unsaid rests on my shoulders as useless and uncool as a pair of 80’s shoulder pads. That’s what Death does, even if He hasn’t yet arrived. His twin, Guilt, starts buzzing in your ears like a housefly evading capture.
Me, Mom, Cheryl - Davenport Hotel, Spokane, February, 2010

Big Hearts 

But this isn’t about me. It’s about Cheryl. And all the other aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends whose hearts are big enough to care take someone else’s kid.

My Mother’s Day wish isn’t for flowers, chocolates or a restaurant meal, though I like all three. What I want is to drag my husband and two small fries to the top of the Mount. And eat gelato afterward.

And I want to think about my mom and Aunt Cheryl, and all the other men and women who’ve added flavor, love and a sprinkle of glamour to my life. The ten-year-old geisha in me will never forget.


  1. So sad to learn about my Cousin Cheryl! Is there a way to get a message to her, or is she not coherent? You write very well Dawn! Keep me posted please! Marilyn.puccinelli@gmail.com

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. I'm told Cheryl hasn't been lucid and may only have hours to live. I'll pass along your e-mail to my mom. I'm pretty sure she has arrived in Dayton by now.

  2. Your post was magnificent and a tribute to Cheryl.
    I know she would be proud of your tribute.
    I worked with Cheryl at Kettering for many years.
    She was everything you said.
    Not only a talented nurse, but an outstanding artistic in so many mediums.
    So many of us at Kettering did not know that she had become so ill, and that she had passed.
    I found it accidentally from the funeral home posting when I came
    across her face.
    I was truly shocked and heartbroken.
    We all have so many Cheryl stories, so of them funny most of them endearing.
    We would have been there for her had we known and certainly would
    have been at her service.
    God Bless her, and I pray she is resting in the hands of God, enjoying everlasting peace, rest, and joy.
    Know that many loved Cheryl and you are in our thoughts and prayers. Pia Kanistros, RN, BSN PiaKan99@aol.com