Paying It Forward

Marking what would have been my mom’s 70th birthday in a way that feels right.

Last year, my mom’s birthday, on Sept. 3, was a complete blur. It was the day before what would have been four months since her death, so I was still in a foggy haze of grief, and on top of that, it was less than a week after Hurricane Ida upended everything, and we were in rural Tennessee on the day itself. 

Pre-hurricane, I’d talked with my daughters about what we should do to honor the occasion, and we had settled on doing what we did every year for her birthday, just (sadly) without her this time: making an angel food cake with abundant homemade whipped cream and fresh berries. 

Except when the day arrived, I was in someone else’s home in another state, without access to my KitchenAid mixer or my fluted tube pan (which I bought solely for making angel food cakes for my mother because no one else really likes them that much and they’re a pain in the butt to make). Georgia lobbied for us to get one from the store, but the Piggly Wiggly up the street only had overfrosted sheet cakes on offer, so in the end, we just shared a few of our favorite memories of her and called it a day. I knew she would have understood. 

This year, I was in better shape mentally (although still really sad), and I decided that, in addition to making angel food cake – provided we have a quiet hurricane season, please God – I wanted to do some sort of service project in her honor. 

I’ve missed her every day since she died, but I’ve missed her really acutely a few times when I heard a song I knew she would have loved (I can imagine her cackling at the clever breakup anthem “ABCDEFU”) or watched a show that would’ve been right up her alley (she adored Martin Short and would have loved “Only Murders in the Building,” especially given how much she used to tease me about my fascination with true crime). 

But when it came to picking a service project, I was sort of at a loss – not because she didn’t have causes or passions but because she had so many causes and passions.

She was always rescuing animals. She had the greenest thumb imaginable and cultivated incredible gardens. She had a true gift for working with children, especially the more vulnerable ones like incarcerated youth or those in the foster care system. She dabbled in all of the arts, every single one, from writing a libretto to writing a novel to painting to videography. She sang and she acted and she took great photos. She built a house with my dad in the 1970s and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. 

There are several stories I still can’t entirely tell without tearing up.

One is the story of her work with 17-year-olds aging out of the foster care system. She worked with a program to teach them life skills – changing a tire, doing a load of laundry, writing a check – and the program ended every year with a celebratory dinner at a Golden Corral buffet. My mom wanted more for them than a buffet off of the interstate service road, and so she went to the fanciest restaurant in town, made her case, and got every kid in the program treated to a gourmet dinner where the staff fawned over them. She showed them how to read the menu, how to order, how to use the right forks. More than that, she told them that they deserved the finer things in life and that she hoped they would have many more special meals like this one.

Another thing that still makes me emotional is all of the plans she had when she died. She had become obsessed with tiny houses and, using her expertise from building the house with my father, she had drawn up plans for a tiny home she planned to build herself. She had put down a deposit on some land two days before she died. I found the receipt and the blueprints in her papers when I sorted through them later that summer. It broke my heart all over again.

So when I heard about Pivot, a program in Oklahoma that was building tiny houses for youth aging out of foster care, it clicked. This was going to be the service project I did on her behalf. 

I’ve found the Amazon wish list for the organization (it’s here if you’d like to donate), and I’m collecting other basic food and hygiene items to send as a care package.

Doing something – something that’s not fleeing a Cat 4 hurricane – helps keep my mind off the sadness, although that still comes in waves. 

But this is something I know she would have been thrilled about – even more than any pop culture phenomena.

If you’d like to contribute in any way, please let me know by emailing me at – or maybe just eat a piece of angel food cake in her memory if that’s your thing. 

(While you’re at it, please send up a prayer or light a candle or perform whatever sorcery you want to send all hurricanes spinning off harmlessly into the open seas and not entering the Gulf.)

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