I could always tell when mom was in a good mood, because she would speak in tongues. It was usually in the kitchen, cooking or cleaning something, and she would start to shout nonsense. “Gooshnanee! Gooooooshnanee kabanee!” If the dog started to bark, she would pick up a wooden spoon and start to chase it around the house with this weird sumo wrestler march. “Gooshnanee hey! Kabanee hey!” And soon it would become this weird foreign opera. “Ohhhhh gooshnan! Halablani ohhhhh kabanee! Gooshnanee!”
I understand now, having experienced other families and adults, that this was not strictly normal behavior. But I grew up thinking it was. That’s maybe the first and biggest piece of herself that my mom gave to Katie and me: an irrepressible spirit that is not afraid to spout nonsense, especially in times of unbridled joy.
My mom was, truly, a bundle of unbridled joy. Even her criticism and complaints came tinged with a hint of joyful joshing. She loved to surprise people – our friends, our dates, our neighbors – by interrogating them, pressing with questions like “how’s your love life? What’s with your hair? What are you doing with my Christopher?” until they got the joke and played along. I’ve heard countless people, from my dad to the Safeway pharmacist, describe her as feisty. I suppose that’s one word that fits.
Mom was unquestionable. She often said so herself, as a preamble to whatever advice, direction, or opinion she was about to give. Her most common quote was, “You know I’m always right.” I spent the first thirty years of my life not believing her, but in the past few years, after countless dictates turned out to be true, I’ve come to accept the fact that my mom was a superhero, and her superpower was always being right. If you have a mother with this superpower, call her often, and ask lots of questions. If you happen to be a mother with this superpower, don’t be too frustrated when your children don’t believe you’re always right. That’s just God’s small attempt at keeping you humble.
Here’s a quick list of things my mother was shockingly right about: #1) A little household bleach will safely remove stains from your teeth. I always enjoy telling this story at holiday dinners, and now that she’s safely beyond the reach of Child Protective Services, I can share it with the world: when I was young, my mom would occasionally have me brush my teeth with Comet. Even then, at 8 or 9, I knew I was putting poison in my mouth, so I protested. Her advice, “Don’t swallow.” Now, as I contemplate otherwise healthy teeth that seem to have a few stubborn brown spots, I’m tempted to reach into the cleaning cabinet for a touch-up.
#2 ) Everyone needs a mental health day once in a while. Much like a dog who’s given a surprise treat for no reason, my mom probably won my undying love in elementary school, when I tried to fake my way into a sick day, as kids sometimes will, and she saw through it, as moms always do, but she told me to stay home anyway. “It’s a mental health day,” she said. We watched TV and ate chips and dip and did nothing. I was not sick; I had no excuse for staying home from school; I went back the next day refreshed and full of life. I’m sure any upstanding school administrator would declare this to be unhealthy laziness, but my mom was always right. When you’re overburdened with stress that comes from no particular place, and your work won’t really miss you, and the weekend just isn’t long enough, and you need to spend some quality time with your child – well, everyone needs a mental health day once in a while.
#3) A well-decorated room follows the rule of threes. My mom was an extremely talented woman. She could take any space and make it feel like a home, a nest, with sometimes the lightest touches. The rule of threes was to have three different objects that shared a color or a style scattered about the room, reflecting one another. It was a technique she put to beautiful use in our home, in my first apartment, in Katie’s first apartment – in any design project she got her hands on. This sense of balance and harmony was something she brought to her own view of life. And also spunk. She lived as if her life were constantly populated with three shockingly hot pink items in each corner of it, a little something to brighten a day and revivify a dull space.
#4) No piece of furniture should ever be discarded. My mom was a notorious collector of other people’s leftovers. Our home is a showcase of restored antiques, repurposed pieces, and even pilfered goods. When she was just a young child, she famously had her eye on an old barrel sitting on a neighbor’s porch. One day she saw that barrel out with the trash on the curb, and she picked it up and trundled it home. She and her dad fitted it for a table top, and that barrel eventually became a witch’s cauldron in our childhood Halloween decorations, then a patio side table in my first condominium, then … well, I’m not sure where it is now, so many layers of paint and uses later. Katie, do you know? We might have put it in the box there with her. My mother loved and cared for an old discarded wooden barrel. And though I make light of it, that’s the one that chokes me up the most. Here was a woman who became a nurse – the first woman in her family to graduate college – and eventually wound up the head nurse for open heart surgery, saving I don’t know how many lives in her career. She used to describe to me the feeling of holding a living, beating heart in her hands. Then she left that behind to become a mother to me and Katie, somebody’s else’s barrels in our own way, and she never let us go, no matter how many coats of paint we went through, or what transformations in life. Her caring was endless. It was the rightest thing she was ever right about: no piece of furniture should ever be discarded.
This has been a hard week, in part because I’ve been trawling through pictures to put together memorials and just remember mom as she was before disease finally claimed her, and I’ve seen, for the first time, so many pictures of her life before she was my mom. You might think it would be hard to look at a mom I didn’t know, but the truth is, I knew her, I knew the young her, too. As an adult, we still carry the child we were within us, and when I see my twentysomething mom laughing, I also see the sixtysomething’s laugh. This is a woman I didn’t just get to know, and Katie didn’t just get to know, but that we will, in our way, become and be for the rest of our lives.
When Jack asks us, “What was grandma like?” Or when my child with Veronica who will arrive later this year asks the same thing. Or when any other children God sees fit to grant us asks … it will be perfectly impossible to sum Sandy Magyar up in words. There are no right words, not even feisty, to say it all. I guess we will just have to grab a wooden spoon and make up some new words, and sing them at the top of our lungs. Good night, mama.