I was walking into a commercial audition when my mother called. She asked if I would come home to New York for a weekend retreat in September. My mind was racing with excuses and Tampax Tampon lines but somehow, the word yes fell out of my mouth.
“You will!” my mother yelped. “Oh honey, thank you. That’s very special… good, good. That makes me happy.”
It took just one little word.
A week before my trip home, I started to really cozy into the idea of a retreat. Getting out of Los Angeles for a second would do me some good. I assumed the retreat would be somewhere upstate NY with rolling grounds and babbling brooks. It would be great to have some one on one time with my mom, over mani/pedis and cucumber sandwiches.
Then a frightening thought crept in. I called home.
“Mom is this, like, a religious retreat?”
“Well, yes it’s religious,” she said in her warm, Brooklyn meets Long Island, lilt.
“I don’t think too religious. It will be a nice Mother/Daughter retreat…”
“What!?” I squealed.
“Did you say Mother and Daughter retreat?”
“Yes. I told you that.”
“You never told me that.”
“I asked you if you wanted to go on a Mother –“
“No… you just said retreat.”
She bottomed lined it: “Well, that’s what it is.”
“Oh, my gaaaaad, Mother/Daughter, that’s too much. What are they going to want from me?”
“They don’t want anything from you.”
It was retreat day. I’d decided that no matter how wrong a religious based Mother/Daughter retreat sounded, it wasn’t going to stop me from getting my relaxation on. I was getting at that babbling brook with or without Jesus. My dad brought our bags to the car and then jumped in the driver’s seat.
“What’s daddy doing?” I asked.
“He’s driving us.”
But why? He’s going to have to drive hours upstate and then turn right back around, that didn’t make sense. I was then informed that we were retreating to… Queens. Queens, New York. Queens: the borough of renewal and relaxation… my bad.
With my coffee still warm in the cup, we turned into what can only be described as a Catholic Compound. A small parking lot surrounded by a ginormous u-shaped structure of monastery and church. I begged my father to take me back with him but he tossed our bags out of the car and peeled away.
My mother, without reservation, marched into the compound and over to the front desk. She gave a chipper, “Hello Father! What time is dinner? Oh good, so we have time to relax and walk around.” I peeked into the little office that stored the “Father”. Father smiled at me as to say, “Welcome”. I smiled back as if to say: You scared little man, hiding away in this punk retreat house because you are too scared to live life on the outside.
I stomped after my mother. “This is too churchy. It’s too much. Mom, this is not what I expected AT All – it is soooo churchy.”
In an upbeat lie she said, “It’s not that churchy.”
“Are you kidding me?! I’m suffocating in here – I HATE IT!”
“What can you hate? We just got here.”
“I HATE it.”
As we marched down the cold hallway, I felt the cold glare of the statues judging my every step. My mother stopped at room 105 and handed me the key to 106. I closed my eyes and turned the key. Could this be the lovely, serene hideaway I’d been hoping for?
The room was a 5′ by 6′ shoebox. It contained: an angry bed, a sink and a bible. Getting bitten by mosquitoes while eating burnt hamburgers during a light rain would be more comfortable than this bed.
I marched into my mom’s room. “These are ugly nun’s quarters!” My mother was already arranging her clothes in drawers and placing her toiletries on the sink. She dabbed her cheeks with “blusher” and turned to me with a hopeful smile.
“Well, I am going to take a nice walk outside.” She lowered her eyelids. “Would you like to come?”
“Outside” was a well-manicured, fenced-in area. To the left we had a couple of benches, statues and grass, to the right just past the fence… Queens.
“I thought there would be, like, a babbling brook and a forest or something…this is so crazy.” My mother was oozing serenity and calm, determined to have a “nice walk”. She grabbed my hand, hoping by osmosis some of it will ease through her palm and into mine.
At a snails pace, our entire walk took up four and a half minutes of the two-day retreat. “Where is everyone? What age group of mother/daughters are we even dealing with here anyway?”
Dear God, will it be all teenagers? Religious teenagers who will judge the weirdo thirty-something who’s crashing their prayer party?
“Well, they’ll be serving dinner in an hour. I’m sure they’ll trickle in soon.”
Whipping her around by her shoulders I pleaded, “Mom, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m not even kidding. If we have to sit with people, I want you to face me and just talk directly to me.”
“Oh Deanna, you are being ridiculous.”
“Okay, well, first of all, you tricked me and second of all, I’m not talking to anyone!”
She shook her head at me and we walked back to our rooms in silence.
Alone in my nun-room, I threw my body on the hard bed and forced myself into a nap. My mother woke me up with a knock. It was time for dinner. As I met her in the hallway, I saw my worst fear realized. My mother had sidled up to the strangest of strange mother/daughter duos.
I mouthed, “I don’t want to talk to them!”
But it was too late. Lynn was 70 years-old, five-foot short, with jet-black hair. She wore fuchsia lipstick, exclusively on her top lip. She was rocking a purple velour jumpsuit littered with American flag pins. Linda, the daughter, was way too tall, with short mousy brown hair. Linda was a touch… touched.
“And this is my daughter, Deanna. Deanna, this is Linda and Lynn’s first retreat!”
Linda muttered, “Yeah, I thought this would be a really nice thing to do between me and my ma, real nice for the two of us, my ma and me. Hey, so, Deanna, have you been on many retreats?” Lips sealed, I moved my head slowly from the left to right.
We sat with our new best friends at a round table. I was so checked out of the conversation that I didn’t hear sound. All I saw was a wagging fuchsia upper lip and my mother’s animated expressions. I made it through with a few grunts and nods. Pretty sure if anyone came off touched at that table, it was me.
After dinner, all the mother and daughters – ranging from ages 16-90 – piled into a large meeting room where the star of the weekend, Sister Maria Regina, took center stage. I wanted to dismiss her, I wanted to judge, I wanted to roll my eyes but I couldn’t. Sister Maria Regina she had a sense of self that I couldn’t deny. Her power came from within. She didn’t rely on external tricks. Sister welcomed everyone and shared that the focus of the weekend was going to be communication. My mother shot me a lightening quick glance. Sister Maria Regina told a story about a hard heart and a soft heart. She told us to listen with a soft heart. She looked right at me and said, “If our hearts are hard, we won’t be able to really hear the other person but if the heart is soft, we can listen with empathy and understanding.” I nodded.
After breakfast the next day, Sister Maria Regina opened up the floor up for discussion.
A woman stood up and explained how her 35-year-old son had a life outside of the church and he was an alcoholic. My mom’s hand went up and she said, “You know, I had this with my youngest brother – he got back into drugs last year. He was fifty-five. He lost his job, wife and children. I made it a point to call him every couple of days and in his darkest moments I told him that he was loved and I was here for him.”
Piggybacking on that, Sister said, “It’s my belief that no matter what the child does and how much you disapprove of their choices, you must let the child know that you love them. Even if they don’t want religion in their life or they are married to someone you don’t approve of or they don’t have the right job or their beliefs don’t match up with yours. Your priority must be that relationship.”
My mother and I had gotten through a rough period when she didn’t approve of the guy I was dating. Haitian + Security Guard = Genuine Meltdown. The unconditional love I had always felt was tested. Sister’s words rang strong and true. I had a steady, silent stream of tears running down my face. My mother, who is no stranger to my emotions goes, “ I think this is too much for you.” She had the same response when she’d find me several hours deep into a St. Jude telethon. She handed me a tissue and wrapped her arm around my shoulder.
After the talk, Sister Maria Regina sent us all outside with a half sheet of pink paper. Each mother and daughter team was supposed to ask and answer all five questions. My mother grabbed us a couple of Diet Cokes and we made our way outside to a bench. We got through the first three questions with relative ease. Then I read the fourth.
“How do you want to be more like your mother?” I sat there for a second too long.
My mother jumped in, “Oh, if you don’t know, you don’t have to answer that.” She shook her head a little and waved her hand.
I looked at her and said, “Mommy, there are so many ways I want to be like you. You’re so kind and you listen so intently. You make everyone you talk to feel so important, like they’re an expert. And you’re humble and you’re always trying to make yourself a better person. And I think you’re a great mother. And you eat onions raw…”
My tears start to flow. My mother looked me and sighed. “Deanna, with the emotion, I don’t know how you get through your days.”
As we were giggling about my tear-flow, I absentmindedly wiped up some Diet Coke I had spilled on the bench around question three.
“With our questions?!”
“You just wiped up soda with our special questions? And then you crumpled it up. You just crumpled it up!”
We were laughing hysterically. Through the laughter I yelled, “We finished! Did you want to frame our questions? They’re just questions!”
I looked out at the other Mother and Daughter teams spread out around the fenced in area. It was a sweet picture.
Our two-day retreat ended with a final dinner. Sister Maria Regina asked how many people thought that two days was enough for this type of a retreat and who felt a three-day retreat would be more beneficial. My hand shot up in support of the two-day and to my surprise, so did my mom’s. She leaned into me and winked, “I feel like the two days did the trick.”
On the way home, my mom craned her head around to me from the passenger seat and asked, “Are you happy that you came?”
“Yes, I am.”
“It was special-special for the mommy and the Dee Dee. Are you going to tell everyone that it was too churchy?
That June, my mom died. Even writing those words feels surreal, someone else’s sad story. It was sudden – a brain aneurism. I miss her so much. I miss her big giant smile. That’s what I see when I think of her, just eyes and smile. Most of the time when she’s in my dreams, she’s laughing. That’s what I miss the most – her take on life, her sense of humor, her joy, her love, her support, her stories, her voice, her concern, her questions, her opinion, her vulnerability, her desire to know what I think, her laugh, her laugh, her laugh.
The week before she died, a short film I wrote was presented in the Long Island Film Festival. My parents threw me a big, post-film festival party. That evening, she brought me over to her secretary desk and pointed to three spiral notebooks. “Those are for you three girls. I just wanted to show you where they were just in case… just in case.” I shook my head at her. I didn’t ever want to think about that possibility. “They are my love notes to you girls,” she said and she closed up the desk.
The following Saturday, my mommy was no longer here on this earth. The day she died I opened up my notebook. Towards the back was a fresh, non-crumpled, pink sheet of our questions. She had, in her way, framed them. At the top of the page it read, “Deanna and Mommy, we had our moment.”