My life was wine and roses until I was 25, and it wasn't because Mom and Dad were living it up. It had to do with Gerald and Shirley's immense love and the safety they provided for their three children.
Today is "Puggie" Syrja's 82nd birth anniversary; she was five weeks younger than my father. She was the first grade teacher who was the first one to arrive and the last to leave each day. When she and Dad took in their son and his year-old child after I was widowed in 1980, my relationship to both my parents became tighter and stronger than it had ever been. One of my favorite ongoing memories with Mom--whether I was 17 or in my early 30s--was sitting in her kitchen on Sunday nights while she prepared her lessons and visual materials for the upcoming week. I did a lot of lettering for her classroom posters; while I drank coffee (Mom may have quit having evening java by the time I was 30) and worked with her, we shared lots of thoughts. In my college years, late teens and up, I wrote home often and wasn't afraid to talk about that coming of age stuff--too much information! But it was so easy to do that, because Mom and Dad didn't judge me.
Mom has to be credited with igniting my love of music. And while I was never a great student, proper English, correct punctuation and a dignified manner of speech (Mom:
"I can't stand it when parents let their children say, 'I have to pee' ") meant everything to her and eventually to me. Mom disdained direct lyrics, such as the 1980s ballad "Always" by Atlantic Starr (where the husband says to his wife, "let's go make a family"). On the other hand, she was no cultural prude, either, as she loved television shows like "Two and a Half Men" or the first few seasons of "Desperate Housewives." In the 1970s, when Mom was into the TV mini-series "The Thornbirds," both my brother and I referred to it as "The Hornybirds." Good thing we were teenagers by that time, or Puggie would have come after us with the wooden spoon!
Unlike my third grade teacher, Miss Payne, who told me that I was "wasting my life" by going nuts over the Beatles, Mom encouraged every passion that her two sons and daughter had. She became my daughter Mirelle's mom after that horrendous day in 1980 when my life turned into a fog. She raised a remarkable young woman--I wish I could say that my parenting skills were even close to that, but they weren't. Mom and I had an emotional moment in 2004, when my Dad was a year in the grave and Mirelle graduated from law school. I was regretting my serious shortcomings as a father and my teary-eyed mother shot back, "You did the best you could!" She meant every bit of that. I wish I could believe her assessment.
Mom stood by me throughout my life; I used that as a crutch for far too long. When I was 12 (I know it was 1967 because the Easybeats' great "Friday On My Mind" was a hit at the time), I would sometimes ride with Mom into downtown Mt. Clemens on Saturdays when she had her hair done. She would go inside and I would stay in the car, playing the radio. Or I would go over to Kresge's and get a submarine sandwich. One time I was at the food counter, showing no assertiveness whatsoever. Mom watched in the background as the clerk kept waiting on others instead--did she ever yell at that gal for ignoring her boy. But Mom loved children so much that I think she would have done something similar to that for any kid. Gradually I got out of that wallflower existence; today, when I introduce myself to strangers at a social event, I know where that mature gesture comes from.
Thank you Mom for everything you did for me, whether or not I deserved it. Your love has always been life-enhancing.
My first Mothers Day without my Mom.
I am consistently reminded of Mom, who passed eleven months ago. Since I still like noisy indie rock'n'roll and usually don't find it on the radio (thanks to all the corporate chains, who have ruined my life in more ways than I can mention) I often listen to a station that plays stuff my Mother loved.
Yes, I love "old people" radio: Sinatra, naturally, and the other day I heard Matt Monro's version of the heartbreaking "Softly As I Leave You." Growing up with Mom playing all those Sinatra and Nat King Cole records, and later buying things by Matt Monro, I had a constant music appreciation course going at home.
A couple of weeks ago, there was Raymond LeFevre's "Soul Coaxing" on the car radio. For easy listening, it's pretty bluesy and I find it delightful (especially compared to wimpy stuff of that era, like "Love Is Blue"). I was especially touched by hearing "Soul Coaxing" because it was a record that my mother came home with in 1968.
It's still in my collection.
At the end of my errand, the Mariners were in Detroit and the Seattle station started their radio broadcast with old clips of Ernie Harwell calling Tigers games. They played one from the night the Tigers clinched the American League pennant in 1968. My Dad took brother Joe and me to that very game! We were amazed when fans poured over the fences and onto the field as Don Wert's single knocked in Al Kaline and Detroit won its ticket to the World Series. So I got big audio doses of my late parents within 30 minutes. Let's just say it was bittersweet.
Happy Mothers Day to all the moms: my loving wife Gina, my sister Margo, and to everyone else.
I really appreciate everyone's support in recent weeks, as Gina and I had to fly to Michigan for my Mom's funeral. It was a difficult thing to go through, but she's really the one who had a horrific road to travel and I am so glad that she's no longer in pain.
My Mom (Shirley, whose childhood friends called her "Puggie") taught me all the basics, and with so much love. Reading and writing, of course, but also manners, respect for people. Family loyalty. Hard work. But although Mom was a teacher--who didn't stop until she was almost 75 years old--she wasn't academic in the strictest sense. She taught me to appreciate music, art: all things beautiful.
Oh, how did she love music. Show tunes and Classical. The warmest vocalists, like Nat "King" Cole. And more than anyone, Frank Sinatra. She went to see him several times in Detroit as one of those bobby soxers of the late 1940s. I'm glad to say that Mom got me interested in Sinatra, too, although many years after the fact. One of my favorite things we ever did together was go to a Sinatra concert in January 1982. Detroit was crippled by an absolute blizzard that day, and we left the house four hours early, rather than the usual 90 minutes, in case the snow slowed us down. Was the show going to be cancelled? Frank received his paycheck long before the gig, I'll bet, so the show was on.
Although early Rock'n'Roll might not have been her thing, Mom went with it. At our house, "American Bandstand" was on TV every day--thirty minutes worth. My Uncle Bill, Mom's younger brother and now the only surviving sibling, would stop by after school with some great 45s we would stack onto the record player spindle and play. Mom bought me some EPs (extended play records) with Dick Clark's picture on the cardboard sleeve. The music wasn't that candy ass Philly Pop that Clark was known for; instead, it was authentic and thrilling, as in Chuck Berry, the Coasters, and Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns.
By the mid-'60s, Mom was into some truly great Pop music. The Righteous Brothers' majestic "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." And the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," which was something she said she wanted to be played at her funeral, although she changed her mind on that in recent years.
Whatever Mom thought about the hippie/drug days of Rock, she somehow believed that I wasn't going to fall for that crap. She supported my love of music, my endless drum practices, and even my first band, where we were trying to learn the Allman Brothers Band's "Whipping Post" over and over. She did like us doing "Heart of Gold," though.
Back in the summer of 2000, I was visiting Mom in Michigan and we were out shopping. "I never did get you a Father's Day gift," she said. "Don't you want that new B.B. King & Eric Clapton disc or something?" How many Moms do you know, nearly 70 years old,
who would ask their son a question like that? That was just my Mom Shirley--endlessly thoughtful, loving and always in my heart, even though I lived nearly 2000 miles from her for the last couple of decades.
For awhile, the big mystery at the funeral home earlier this month was an entry in the guest book of the people who came to pay last respects to Mom. The entry was signed,
"Frank Sinatra--a fan of Shirley's."
I'll love you always, Mom.