I met her on a September night in 2008.
She had kind eyes and a smile on her small face.
I was new at the whole PTA mom thing. She was a seasoned pro, the experienced committee mom.
And she made me feel welcomed at my first PTA meeting. Included.
Over the course of the first year my son attended elementary school, I watched as she lead the PTA with a kindness that was far from the mean mom stereotype. She gratefully accepted help from parents, worked tirelessly to fill committee positions and she attended every event with a warm smile. And not just an obligatory lip widen when she saw you, either. Rather, it was a smile that reached her eyes and radiated genuine gratitude.
She was never too busy for a quick smile or a chat in the aisles of the grocery store. And, even after our paths parted ways as her children moved on to middle school, I remembered her kindness to me in those first years fondly.
From time to time, I’d run into her in stores or see her in passing. Sometimes, it was just a wave in the parking lot on a hurried morning of errands. We coexisted in our small town, both busy PTA moms trying to be everything to our families, amidst car pools, soccer practices and never ending piles of laundry.
Through the grapevine, I heard she was given the sentence no mother wants to hear: cancer. And it didn’t look good. Through it all, though, she smiled, even when she was in a hurry at the grocery store, cancer and all. When I saw her about two years into her battle, she was hopeful and filled with faith. The last time I saw her, she smiled at me with tired eyes, body frail, and made light of the bad wig she was wearing.
Last week, I stood, stunned, as I heard her name read at Mass as one of our departed church members.
She died the day before Thanksgiving.
Her smile gone forever.
We weren’t close friends. At best, our relationship could only be described as distant acquaintances and though I hadn’t seen her in many years, hearing the news that a mother with a kind smile was gone hit me hard.
Later that evening, as I quietly watched a video of photos her family had compiled, I was struck by how many of the same photos I have with my kids. Photos in stupid pajamas under the Christmas tree. Arms around them after First Communions. Cheek to cheek selfies at the beach, at the park, on the couch. Vacations. School plays. Photos of life with kids. Smiles next to the two creatures who mean the most to me in the world.
I have photos of wonderful gatherings with friends. My college roommates have rather damning photos of me behaving very badly at the age of 20. Wedding pictures. Fortieth birthday shenanigans. In almost every photo I have from my thirties, Hubby is either right next to me or the one taking the picture.
My life in pictures shows me, smiling right at the camera, arrogantly documenting another milestone in my world.
And I wondered, would my smile matter to others? Have I smiled at people enough over time that they’d remember me for how I made them feel?
As I reflected about my photos, I thought about the moments the pictures were taken. The twenty seconds before the click of the camera where I’m rolling my eyes to “Hurry up, sit down, let’s take this picture” and the annoyance behind a quick photo as I’m trying to serve Thanksgiving dinner to twenty people. The hurried Back To School photos in front of our front door, where I’m positive they’ll miss the bus because I’ve fussed with Fruit Loop #2’s hair to get it “just right”. Our tendency as mothers is to “Click and Move On” and, because we are the historians of our family history, it falls to us to capture all the memories, all the time. It’s no wonder we are irritated in pictures.
Is it okay to be capturing the moment but not really be IN the moment? Will my kids remember my irritation and frustration or will they truly remember that amazing afternoon on a Florida beach when they look at our photos? When I saw my friend’s photos, I wondered what the real story was behind her smile. Was she annoyed because her son had a school project to do that afternoon? Was she itching to get to the grocery store because they were out of toilet paper? Was she rolling her eyes just before the camera clicked because her husband said something crass?
The snapshots in our photo albums aren’t necessarily reality, I know. They are an amalgamation of hundreds of moments that lead up to a quick second frozen in time. But, as busy mothers, we are all guilty of hustling and eye rolling to get that perfect family shot. How many times have you been at a Santa display and seen parents trying to get their kids to “Look here. I said at Mommy. Look. HERE.”? If I had a dime for every time I gritted my teeth while posed with my kids and said “Sit still, let Daddy take the picture”, I’d probably be sitting on a Jamaican island right now.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. She smiled. And that’s what we see when our loved ones are gone.
My point: Smiles, in their simplicity, make the world a little easier and help us to remember moments in time. Whether genuine or contrived in a moment of “Omg, just frigging sit still for the Easter Bunny”, smiles matter. Especially at the end of a life lived well.
She smiled at me at a PTA meeting in 2008.
And her smile mattered to me.