Long before doughnuts commanded their very own glaze and sprinkle celebration, mothers managed family calendars. My mother didn’t need to keep her fingers on the pulse of every pop culture holiday that came bunny hopping through town, because few of them existed. What was important to my mother were the occasions that swirled around her family and friends. In my eyes, her ability to keep track of so many people and so many dates bordered on possessing a super power. This was an enviable skill, and says an awful lot about the fact that my mother genuinely cared about so many people.
Critical to keeping my mother’s life in order was her ‘day book,’ the yearly calendar published by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. I know these books well because I turned to their fresh pages year after year, recording the minutiae of my life, until just recently when production of the books was cancelled due to declining sales. I took this as a sad sign that the number of Sisterhood ladies who chose to keep paper calendars over online calendars, was dwindling.
The calendars rolled out yearly in late August, starting with the month of September, concluding the following August. Aligning itself with the Jewish New Year, it was convenient for anyone ringing in a new school year, and in my mother’s case, critical for keeping track of four children. Not only were Federal holidays clearly marked, the Jewish holidays were noted in excruciating detail. Dates tethered to the celebration of Jewish Book Month, lighting the Hanukkah candles, or ushering in the first box of Passover matzohs, sprawled across pages in easy to read font. From my perspective, I enjoyed counting how many school holidays lay in wait.
Every year, my mother transferred the essential family birthdays and anniversaries into her book. As the year unfurled, she added novelty dates, such as music recitals, graduations, even immunizations. My mother could tell how many years she had lived in a certain house because the moving day was jotted down in her book. It was less of a diary, more of an all-news-all-the-time compilation. When one of her children started graduate school in the Pacific Northwest, it was noted in the day book. Ditto for when said child relocated to Canada, decades later.
There were smaller notes indicating routine bouts of influenza, the rare invasion of scarlet fever, tonsillectomies, sinus surgery, sprained ankles, a broken leg. When we were younger and my mother was busy shuttling us back and forth to after school appointments, she kept concise notes. This eliminated any mix-ups regarding who was scheduled for the orthodontist, the pediatrician, or if you were a German short-haired pointer, a seasonal visit to the vet. Every detail was written in my mother’s ruler-edged penmanship, a style of handwriting that shares elements of both cursive and calligraphy, and for the life of me, I cannot replicate.
Recently, I had some time on my hands with nothing to do but fill the hours with naps, salt water gargling, and a constant staccato of coughing. It was the perfect opportunity for a small organization project, a chance to chip away at chronic disorder.
I suffer from an inability to keep my dresser and desktop clear of extraneous papers. Recalling a similar mountain of papers perched on my mother’s desk and dresser assures me this is an inherited gene, not a rogue tendency I picked up on my own.
My mother always suggested filing away the important papers and pitching the rest. I tried the “file/pitch” approach with marginal success. Files couldn’t accommodate the stacks of pertinent papers dotting my dresser top. Recipes plucked from out-of-print glossy food magazines, highly coveted travel articles from the Sunday paper, Jane Brody’s sage advice on living a long, clutter-free, healthy, life. I tried a 3-drawer filing system in the kitchen, ultimately moving it out to the sunporch as a catch-all for cookbooks and correspondence.
The top of my dresser smirked, laughed, practically guffawed at my feeble attempt to clear wayward papers into a sensible stack. Case in point, a 4” x 6¾” 2010 National Federation of Temple Sisterhood calendar. It was opened to a page with a furiously scribbled headline in my handwriting, “The recipe for macaroons.” Clearly, this was the one I had been searching for.
My spiral bound day books did more than provide ample space for recording birthdays and anniversaries. It chronicled my days, my nights, and my weekends. It reminded me of appointments, of commitments. It nudged me towards dreams and allowed my self-obsorbed self to consider the couldas/shouldas/wouldas.
Within the fine lines of the September through August calendar, I jotted down copious details of favorite meals, notable travels, bouts of flu. There were names of salons and stylists responsible for haircuts good, bad, and occasionally ugly. In the margins of the weeks, I wrote down how many miles I had run.
Spilling out of the confines of the ‘additional engagements’ pages were too many notes-to-self, many of them food related. Jessie’s matzoh stuffing for a big crowd, Jessie’s pie crust for the 10” pie plate, the right amount of tapioca for blueberry pie filling. The Lemon Meringue Pie. Tossing years of personal history into the recycling bin seemed sacrilegious. If revisiting this still brings joy, do I just throw it all away?
Fortified by a Halls honey lemon drop followed by a Riccola chaser, I decided to broach the subject with the woman responsible for introducing me to the Temple Sisterhood yearly calendar, my mother.
Absurdly, my mother was orchestrating her own symphonic pneumonia, attired in a blue, breezy, hospital gown, tethered to an iv and a relentless johnny-one-note beeping monitor. Her cough traveled the phone lines, echoing long after she’d caught her breath and brought me up to date on Jeopardy.
“I saved every calendar, squirreling them away in shoeboxes in the back of my closet. Every now and again I would retrieve a box, looking for a specific year, a scribbled note about childhood diseases, who had what, when, and who didn’t. That’s when you all had the chicken pox.” She paused to laugh, cough, then continued. “I taped up the shoeboxes full of books and moved them from Woodland Terrace to Cassin Hill and finally where they are now. And then I threw a lot away, because I realized I needed the space more than I needed the date books. But every now and then, I’m sorry I tossed them because I wonder about a certain year and I know it’s in those books...”
I had also pitched quite a few calendar books into the recycle bin when we moved almost seven years ago. I didn’t think I would revisit them. But every once in a while, a pair of shoes that are wedged on a shelf where they don’t belong, comes in contact with a few spiral bound day books, and one takes a nose dive. Eventually it ends up on my dresser where I allow it to linger, sucking me into its bittersweet nostalgia.
On Saturday, Pajama-grams will frantically make their way across the country, to many unsuspecting moms who probably don’t need another pair of pajamas. I’ll be in the throes of the retail Mother’s Day pie frenzy and counting down the hours until Sunday afternoon, when I can finally turn off the oven. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be with my mother.