My first memory of my mom involves standing in the living room when I was 6 and asking who the man sleeping with all the flowers in the newspaper picture was. She said he was a bad man who had hurt a lot of people in Russia and now he was dead. I must have said something like "Good" or "Yea!" or given some other sign of happiness at his death. She told me in no uncertain terms that we do not cheer the death of others, no matter how horrible we think they were.
I thought of that last night when I saw the cheering crowds celebrating Osama bin Laden's death. Not that there wasn't a part of me that was silently saying "Yea!" But 10 years after my mother's death, I'm still not willing to show that outward exuberance for fear she'll find out and be disappointed in me.
My mom missed the horror of 9/11 by just a few months. I remember how glad I was that she didn't live to see it. As the first generation of an immigrant Italian family, America represented all the promise and hope the world had to offer. It was a promise she'd seen fulfilled as the second generation went on to become bankers, doctors, teachers and nurses -- each a professional from a family that but two generations past had been illiterate farmers. The sights of 9/11 would have caused her unbearable pain.
When I was 16 and got my driving permit, my father was my designated driving instructor. He would drive to a deserted parking lot on the back end of the island and allow me to drive in circles while he held on for dear life. He never actually let me in a street, near another moving car or in sight of a traffic light.
Mom had a driver's license but did not drive. She'd given that up years before when she started having what the family forever after referred to as "her nerves." Mom was also as much of a clotheshorse as she could be given our limited finances. This meant that sales were very, very important. So when a sale came up at Blatt's, our local department store, and my father and our delivery man were too busy in the store to drive her there, she grabbed me, put me behind the wheel and told me to get going. And that's how I learned to drive. If it had not been for her, I would still be doing circles in parking lots.
Mom and I had a rocky relationship most of the time. When it came to how we viewed living our lives, we shared more miscommunications than clear communications. This made the good memories all the brighter for being spaced so far apart.
Now 10 years have passed since she died and the problems we had seem to fade while the good moments we occasionally shared grow brighter. I'm not trying to sugar coat the bad times. I can still remember the fights, the strained silences and the pouting teenaged glare I shot her way when I didn't think she was looking. But what sticks out more in my memory is the look on her face as she watched a pig at the Alaska State Fair go into labor or had her picture taken standing next to a very big zucchini with a very large grin on her face. My mom liked state fairs. I was 50 years old before I found that out.
Whether you and your mom have some Hollywood-style perfect relationship or, like most of us, have your ups and downs, you'll find as you age that your mom gave you some pretty important lessons that you maybe didn't always understand at the time. I was only 6 when she told me that cheering anyone's death was wrong. No matter how evil they were, we prayed to God that their soul found some peace in the hereafter. It's simply the right thing to do.
Maybe there was a little Italian superstition mixed in with her wisdom that day. But it's a lesson I still remember almost 60 years later. It's one I wish we could have all lived up to this week. We would have been better people for it.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.