Updated: Oct 22
My mother, Barbara H. Rice, died last month. You know what? I buried her. And I am sure there was a moment two years ago when she thought she might bury me. But I don't think she believed it for very long. Because she believed in happy endings.
But she did one thing for me that was very hard for her, that went against her upbringing. She asked others for help.
And that was hard for her, because she was raised to give help, not ask for it.
But she asked other people, people who didn't know me or who barely knew me, to pray for me. And I think it made a difference.
So here's a little more about my mother, who I loved dearly and miss every day as I start to call her and then remember, oh, oops, I can't. At the same time, I fought with her more than any other person in my life. Isn't what what we mothers are made for? And us daughters too?
My mother made art out of anything and everything. For years, until she had the fourth of her five children, she painted, using water colors, acrylics and oil on paper, canvas and wood. She did portraits of my dad and my sister and me, landscapes of farms and of our house itself, a red brick Victorian house that she painted as so full of energy it looked like it would burst out of the frame.
She made art with cakes and cookies, our lunch bags, even with butter! She was famed for her birthday cakes and trays and trays of Christmas cookies: trees, wreathes, elves, children, Santa Clauses and Mrs. Santa Clauses with large, butter-cream frosting boobs topped by tiny silver ball nipples. She drew caricatures of us on our lunch bags along with our names. After we kids were all out of the house, she started to write, taking writing classes, pitching and finally selling freelance articles—often good-naturedly complaining about her kids— and, ultimately, becoming a writing instructor at a local college.
She and my dad threw lots of parties. Lots and lots. Parties with as many as 100 people in that big red house. Dinner parties where butter wasn’t served in a stick or as slices but as rolled-up butter balls that she made herself using two wooden paddles. Birthday parties for all of us, She made bread-and-butter pinwheels for birthday snacks. She’d have the local bakery dye bread pink, slice it lengthwise, butter the long slices, roll them up and then slice them into pinwheel slices and serve them. We played games she made up for us. She set up outdoor art studios for us and our friends. She gave us her old party dresses that we played dressup in and used for plays that we’d write and perform, with her encouragement.
She knit Christmas stockings not just for all of us, but for our dogs! And also for a lot of our cousins. She sewed stunning prom dresses for my Liz and me.
She filled our house with music, playing musicals like Camelot, My Fair Lady and Carousel, and, at Christmastime, Christmas carols, always singing along to all of it. She and my dad would dance in the kitchen.
I get my love of fitted sleeveless sheaths from her. I look at old photos of her and baby, she had style!
She was the daughter of a US Army colonel and engineer. She was raised on structure and discpline. She liked the concept of order—even though her own kitchen table was rarely clear and was usually full of memos and flyers for any one of the many local community causes she worked on. Next to the piles was a yellow legal pad full of her notes for menus, parties and fundraisers.
She had rules and schedules and expected me to do exactly what she wanted, immediately. No questions. Just do it. Now. And, look, with five kids, you’ve got to have a certain amount of regimentation. But insubbordination simmered in the ranks, and began with me, her oldest, a dreamer with a messy room who’d hide under a bed to finish a book instead of doing chores. I infuriated her.
Once I was well out on my own, working for newspapers and magazines and freelancing, we fought a lot less and, as the years went by, got along better. We had some wonderful adventures. She and I and my daughters traveled to her grandfather’s birthplace in Wales. The four of us threw Rice Girl Christmas Parties in the big red house for years.
She once told me, somewhat wistfully, that she wished she had had a big sister like me.
What a tribute that was!
Anyway, whenever people are amazed at my resilience, I have now started to say, "You never met Barbara Rice."
Meanwhile, here's a photo of Dad. Boy. I miss him too. I hate it when people like that have to leave the party. But at the same time, I appreciate all that I learn and feel because of them, both when they were alive and now that they're dead. Death sounds really final. But increasingly I feel that it's more of a transition.