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  • Writer's pictureElisse Gabriel

Luff, Mudder: A tribute to the most prolific writer I know

I’m not by nature a hoarder, but I do have multiple boxes in storage filled with letters. Hundreds of them, adding up to thousands of pages. What’s most amazing about this collection is that it has been written by a single scribe— my mother—for 34 years and counting. She calls them her Mommy Muddlings.

Mom began writing these letters when I was in college. Rather than share family news with each of her four kids individually, she decided to craft just one letter and give each of us copies. This way we all received the same information and she didn’t have to repeat herself or try to recall what she’d said to whom.

Mommy Muddlings began as a few pages, then expanded to 15, 20 (and once nearly 40 pages) in length, depending on what was going on at the time with our family, the world, or her personal experiences. Each one is hand-written on plain white paper adorned with comics and articles for added humor and interest. At the beginning she writes, "Greetings and salutations!" At the end she signs, “Luff, Mudder.”

Through the years, my mother has shared the latest comings and goings, contemplations, family history and genealogy, thoughts on current events and politics, experiences while traveling, celebrations and family milestones—recording and recounting weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, births and deaths. She’s explored her personal philosophy about life, imparted words of wisdom, waxed poetic about moments in history, and explored memories as a child in Belgium during WWII.

In the most recent edition, Mom recounted memories of attending Catholic school at age five in Brussels, when the only school still standing after countless bombings was one run by nuns, who scared her so much she threw up every day on the way to school. At lunch she’d remove the limp celery from her soup and stealthily place it under her chair, hoping not to be caught (she never was). She still hates cooked celery.

In the edition prior, written over the course of several days—before, during, and after the 2020 presidential election—she took us through the rollercoaster events leading to the eventual victory of Biden and Harris. While reading her account, I felt like I was experiencing the highs and lows all over again, but was so thankful that she had documented this experience like a play-by-play history chapter.

This past fall, Mom wrote about falling asleep while listening to the High Holiday sermon through Zoom, not bothering to dress up for services because she was just sitting and watching it at home. Ordinarily she’d write about her yearly travels, but since last March my parents have rarely left the house except to run errands or go to the doctor (with the exception of a recent adventure to nearby Amish country, where they adopted a Bernese Mt. Dog/Newfoundland puppy). Even so, Mom’s found plenty to write about, connecting us in a way that's been far more nourishing than staring at a multi-square computer screen.

While she doesn’t craft a Muddling each month, Mom writes regularly, and sends one off when it’s reached a satisfactory length, realizes too much time has passed since her last issue, or simply decides it’s done. She intersperses original pages among the copies, folds the letters in half, and mails them off with an array of hand-picked stamps. For years they arrived in a bright pink envelope, her signature packaging.

These days, she mails Mommy Muddlings to her college and post-college grandchildren, too, soon to be eight of them. It’s become a rite of passage—leaving the nest and receiving your very own Muddling, a paper tether that keeps us connected through the miles. I don’t know that my kids read these letters as closely as I do, but they never cease to comfort me, give me the sense that we’re back at the house we grew up in, sitting around the kitchen table together kibbitzing, talking about everything and nothing. No matter how long they are, they always seem to end too soon.

For her 75th birthday, I compiled the entire collection of Muddlings and had them bound—three spiral books totaling more than 1800 pages. That was five years ago. I imagine she’s written several hundred more pages since then, perhaps more. And the virus hasn’t slowed her down, despite travel plans and social plans and family get-togethers being put on hold.

My mother was a teacher before having kids, then went to work at the family business, Office Emporium, to help support my Dad, where they worked together for nearly 25 years. All the while, however, she remained a teacher. And, of course, a prolific writer, whose words kept us connected through the years and across the miles.

If you asked her to describe Mommy Muddlings, Mom might very well tell you it’s a stream-of-consciousness rambling, a jumble of comings and goings. But it’s become so much more than that— a recorded family history, a document that unites us, a love letter from a mother to her children and grandchildren, long after they’ve left home. Most of all, it’s a rare gift that I still cherish and stow —in boxes. And boxes. And boxes.

Helen Marks (in yellow rain gear) in Alaska with the family in 2016 (from left to right): Jonah Firestone, David Firestone, Eric Rickin-Marks, Gabriel Firestone, Hannah Firestone, Zachary Marks, Madeline Marks, Abby Rickin-Marks, Ben Rickin-Marks, Melissa Rickin Marks, Helen Marks, Bob Marks, Elisse Gabriel (author), Noah Gabriel, Aidan Gabriel, David Gabriel, Wendy Firestone, Becca Marks, Joshua Marks.

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