The World According to Jessica

Isa's mother vintage photo

Jessica in one of her hats.

My father liked lists and made one the morning after my mother died. He did not want to forget the quotidian, the smaller gestures and all those details that we take for granted about our beloveds. So he reached for a pen and paper to impose some order in his shattered world. And he wrote down a numbered list. I do not know where that page went, which is what I say about the bulk of those first few days without my mother. But I do remember a few items. Number One: “The thud of Tuffy’s (his nickname for her) feet when she got out of bed.” My mother was of average height and weight but she stomped like a giant. It made sense – she always had a big footprint in the best possible way.

She died 10 years ago as I write this and I thought I’d create my own list to bring her back for you. But mostly for me.

  • She preferred to be in her bare feet and always kicked off her shoes under the table.
  • She raised four kids in six different houses, two of them in different countries.
  • She was old-style Hollywood beautiful and whip-smart. She wore very little makeup and would often blow dry her hair by sticking it out the car window.
  • She was always late. My father, always prompt.
  • She was a ruthless gin rummy player and had a longstanding imaginary tally with my father and he owed her one million dollars by the time she died.
  • She has staying power. I see her reflected in the genetic repeat in our daughter, in my nieces, and in my own reflection.
  • She thought true class belonged to the intellectually curious, to the ones who probe, to those who ask "what about you" and to the compassionate. In the world according to Jessica, class has nothing to do with money or status and everything to do with generosity of spirit, humility, and intellect.
  • She preferred her dogs to most. She loved animals and never stopped advocating for better animal welfare.
  • She was a constant reader. She loved Robertson Davies, William Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, and Emily Dickinson. She liked PBS and she adored “Murder, She Wrote”.
  • She was not a great rule follower. She didn’t leash her dogs, she invented parking spaces, and often crept up in the quue.
  • She loved Elvis, opera, and all the great musicals.
  • She loved her mountains and her mountain flowers.
  • She was a pragmatist but very superstitious. She painted ceilings blue to keep the spirits out. She put mirrors up in hallways to block bad energy and if she felt hostile otherworldly forces in a house she would immediately scheme for an exit.
  • She was socially adroit but anxious at large parties or in crowds. She was very private and favored her own hearth. She eschewed what she termed the “lady in waiting” culture where women (and men) dance attendance on a queen bee with the most wealth and status. She always felt sorry for those in search of social pyrite or borrowed light. She was true to herself.
  • She was a social smoker and died of metastatic colon cancer. She tried every kind of treatment to stay alive and died nine days before my mother-in-law Iris Shaw.
  • She didn’t suffer fools.
  • She hated flavored chocolates and would flip boxed chocolates then poke them until she found an unsullied one. Then she would put the discarded ones back in the box for the rest of us to find.
  • She loved her Sauvignon Blanc and took care to set a beautiful table for dinner parties.
  • She was a fine poet but was shy about sharing her work.
  • She had astonishing eyes and wore huge sunglasses.
  • She was loyal and adored her children and grandchildren most of all. I regret that she never knew our youngest daughter, who was three when she died. They would have hit it off. She liked quirk and a quick wit. She used to watch Danny Kaye movies with our older daughter and celebrated when our girl refused to engage with the Santa Clauses and Easter Bunnies. “The beginning of wisdom,” she quipped. “You are clearly my granddaughter. Always be a little suspicious and stand your ground.”
  • The light is the same golden light as the day you died. But the world, my dear mother, is not. But you knew that. But maybe you don’t know how much you are missed.

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