One of my mom’s primary contributions to our Thanksgiving meal for the extended family was sweet potato casserole. You know the kind: yams that when coated with a fine layer of brown sugar, cinnamon and marshmallows, become ‘candied’ and basically taste like candy. She had a gift for making this simple dish something from another culinary world. There were always Thanksgiving leftovers, but the heirloom dish she used to make her casserole was always scraped dry by ravenous spoons--and maybe a finger or two.
I awoke this morning to greet another family-filled holiday without her. I felt the familiar tinge in my heart to which I’ve grown accustomed when remembering her—and still grieving her absence. She’s been gone a few years, but it still hurts. It will always hurt.
Like her signature Thanksgiving dish, my mom was a simple person. She never required much from life aside from a good sewing machine, hot tea, art supplies, and Motown records. But she took simplicity and made a richness out of life that was irreplaceable.
It’s so simple. Life is sweet, isn’t it?
The good stuff, the bad stuff, and everything in between. You take what you’re given and make sweetness from those simple ingredients. Love the people around you. Love the people that piss you off. Love the people that don’t wish to be loved. Once they’re gone, there are no leftovers, just memories.
I'm going to attempt to make that casserole and it will taste nothing like my mom's, but that's okay, I'll still try.
My life sweet today and cherish the fleeting and be grateful for the simple things.
My mom would always tape a 3x5 card to the fridge. On the card was a written list of our bills for the month. While walking through the kitchen or opening the fridge to steal a hunk of bologna, I often found myself pausing to look over the list. I was only in the 5th grade so I was just beginning to understand large numbers and how money worked—but I still had no clue as to the amount of work and time it took for my mom to pay for those 2 to 3 digit numbers on the card. She held down a full-time job, and spent many other hours either employed part-time or fulfilling various sewing or art related requests to support our family. My mom loved her kids; she grew tired of work, but never grew tired of us.
So when the time came for me to join the band at school—and buy an instrument (snare drum)—I knew it would be difficult for my mom to afford the extra cost. But she believed I had the ability to play drums and she wanted to provide the means for me to do so. Luckily, the music store selling the band instruments offered a monthly payment plan to spread out the cost. So on to the fridge it went: $15/month – Snare Drum. To some people this may have been a drop in the bucket, but this was money that could be used for groceries or gas for the car.
We would have band rehearsal on Wednesday afternoons, so that morning my mom would drop me off and I would carry my snare drum (in a big case that weighed almost as much as me) from one end of the school building to my classroom on the other side. It was heavy and my back ached. When the school day was over, I couldn’t transport my drum on the bus so I had to be picked up from school, which meant I would be waiting a good 30-45 minutes until my mom was available to pick me up. I would watch as numerous teachers left the building, occasionally one would speak to me asking if I had a ride and then I would have to explain the situation to them. I was extremely shy so I was often embarrassed and awkward as I talked to them. I grew to loathe Wednesdays.
My mom would eventually arrive in a beat up car and greet me with a Hey Kiddo and I would respond in kind, but underneath I was so angry and disappointed in her.
As we drove home I would steal a glance at my mom. She was tired. She spent many hours each day working because she loved her kids. She worked jobs she disliked to provide opportunities for us to live and grow. She knew music would become a passion for me, and her sacrificing some time and effort on her part was totally worth it.
For the rest of the school year, I happily carried that snare drum through the halls, and Wednesday afternoons still found me sitting outside the school, alone, on my drum case. Teachers would stop and ask if I had a ride and I would simply smile and proudly say, “My mom will be here soon.”
We all have people we admire and look up to, maybe even aspire to be. They may be a celebrity, author, or a friend. For a child, professional athletes are a popular role model choice—I was no different—well sort of.
I was 6 years old. One winter morning I was eating some cereal at the kitchen table with my mom while she was reading the newspaper. She perked up and said that there was a professional baseball player named Barry Larkin coming to an antique mall in town to sign autographs. I had no idea who he was, but her enthusiasm was more than enough to trigger my own excitement towards the event.
The following Saturday we all piled into our Gumby green colored boat-of-a-car, and drove the few miles to the antique mall. There was a ridiculously long line filing out the front door and it would turn out to be a 2-hour wait to see this guy, but my mom didn’t seem to be troubled by this. I, however, was pacing in circles, hunching my shoulders and waving the flaps to my hot winter coat because I knew if I took it off I’d have to carry it. And, a six year old has little desire to look at antiques if he’s not allowed to touch them anyway.
I kind of wanted to leave.
What was I going to do with this guy’s autograph anyway? Throw it around with my friends? I had yet to discover my love for baseball cards and memorabilia, so having a signed picture seemed worthless to me.
The line creaked along and we finally came to a small table that displayed cards and photographs of Barry, which could be purchased for him to sign. My mom bought an 8x10 photograph of the shortstop in a batting stance. I don’t remember the exact price, but I know it wasn’t cheap—and we didn’t have much money in those days—so I didn’t really understand her reasoning.
I overheard the dad from the family in front of us say, “Thank you,” and they turn and walked away. And there he was: sitting at a small table in a Cincinnati Reds jersey and matching red hat. He looked at me and smiled warmly. My legs began shaking as I realized I was meeting an actual professional baseball player.
He motioned for me to come forward saying, “Hi! What’s your name?”
My mind went blank and I almost said ‘Barry’ but I finally murmured, “B…Ben.”
“Alright,” he chuckled, “Big Ben!”
That statement, coupled with my rising triple-digit body temperature inside my winter coat, almost made me faint.
He took the photograph my mom bought and signed it:
To Big Ben.
Then he shook my hand, at least I think he did, I couldn’t feel much at that point.
We left that day and for the next 10 or so years I would constantly wear shirts with the name ‘Larkin’ ironed on the back, or request the number 11 (Barry’s number) on my baseball jersey when playing pee-wee baseball. Christmases and birthdays would all include some type of Barry Larkin merchandise. I loved the guy and he could do no wrong.
Over the years I’ve looked back and reflected on my childhood loyalty to Barry Larkin and I couldn’t have picked a better athlete to emulate. In his baseball career, Barry Larkin was one of the best. He also was (and still is) supportive of many charities and remains a faithful husband and supportive father. Thankfully my mom put me in a position to meet him and discover an honest and hardworking role model.
That’s when I realized that maybe Barry Larkin wasn’t my true role model after all.
He was a great athlete and good man, but he didn’t actually know me. My mother knew before I knew, that I needed someone decent to admire. She put Barry Larkin in my life because she loved me and selflessly took a back seat in that respect.
No ball player could ever compete with that.