Sweet sly vanishing
Firefly flashing flying gone
Smile before the laugh
Sweet sly vanishing
Firefly flashing flying gone
Smile before the laugh
I became a mother at the age of 24.
Sometimes I wish that fact gave me a pass on the first 10,000 mistakes I made. I was so young. What did I know? But there are no passes for any of us. We are held to the impossible standard of the great mothers our kids’ friends have.
As a new mom, I had two sources of guidance. My mother’s famous line: “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” And Dr. Spock which I read so much and so hard that the pages came away from the paperback binding. I would read what Dr. Spock said and then check back 99 times to make sure what I read was what I thought I read.
I was a mess as a new mother.
My own mother was MIA at the time, probably because I wanted it that way, I don’t remember. I’m betting I wanted everyone to believe I knew exactly what I was doing. But I had no clue. And no one to ask. No friends with babies, we were new to town. And my husband, as nice and kind as he was, had never had a baby either. He was as in the dark as me but got to put on a suit in the morning and go to work.
I remember the doctor telling me to put my baby to sleep on her stomach and turn her feet outward otherwise she would be pigeon-toed. Looking back, this seems unbelievable, that this was the big problem we needed to address. My pigeon-toed baby. What about feeding her? What about her crying? What about my life? Would I still have one? Or was that over now?
I read in Dr. Spock and in Our Bodies Ourselves about breastfeeding but the instructions seemed written for better women than me, women who were at home in their own bodies, women who were confident about their role in the world, women who wore long floral skirts and shawls, had wild hair falling over their beautiful faces, women who never thought about failing as mothers. They weren’t my people. I didn’t have any people. I just had me.
I ran back to work as fast as I could.
I look back at all this now and realize that my mother was right. “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” Babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults and unless there is a catastrophic intervention, the process is a study in resilience. Children can withstand an extraordinary amount of incompetence.
They see, they learn, they sort out.
“Oh well, my mom did the best she could.”
It’s that forgiveness that makes Mother’s Day what it is. An erasing of mistakes. An appreciation of constancy. Children love that about us, that we never quit on them. That we may have been late and ill-prepared and distracted and short-tempered but we picked them up, we held them, we carried them to the car, we made them dinner, we put them to bed, we came in the night when they cried. And we got up the next morning and yelled at them to hurry and we started over again.
Day after day, without fail.
A few years ago, we took our granddaughter camping. It rained all night, thundered with lightening strikes, and in the morning everything was soaked but the day was bright and clear.
We went hiking up a trail to a lookout where we could see all of Devil’s Lake. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine swimming across it. And I right away wanted to go down the hill to the lake to swim.
Of course, when we got there the shore was full of people. It was a vast, shallow lake and a favorite for families especially those with little kids. I took my granddaughter’s hand, she was about eight then, and we waded into the water.
“Look at all the little fish!” I said. A school of baby fish weaved through our legs, tiny slivers of silver grazing our legs, tickling us. It made me happy to see the fish. It was magical. “Put your hands in the water, maybe we can catch one.”
The fish swam away and my granddaughter yelled, “I want to get out!” “I want to get out now!”
So I pulled her out deeper, thinking that if we got out of the shallows where the little fish were skittering about, she would throw herself into swimming and we could have a good time. We had done that before. Swum and jumped, dodged and ducked. It was something we had always done together.
“I can’t stay here!” “I have to get out!” Now she was screaming as loud as she could. Other swimmers stood up in the water to look at her. People on shore stopped what they were doing. It was alarming, hearing her scream so loud. I tried to hug her, pull her up out of the water but it didn’t do any good. She just kept screaming.
It was unbelievable to me.
I smoothed the hair out of her eyes and tried to get her to stop screaming and look at me. “We’ve gone swimming in lakes before. They all have fish, honey.”
“But I didn’t know the fish were there. Now I know.”
My husband told me this morning that he had a dream about us. In the dream, I was in Key West and he was in Key Largo. If you know the Florida Keys, you know that Key Largo is about ninety miles from Key West, driving on the Keys’ only serious road, U.S. 1.
The interesting part isn’t that we were separated although that is a mystery since we are so rarely apart unless we are working which we would never do in the Keys. The interesting part is this. In his dream, he decided to use a skateboard to travel the 90 miles so we could be together.
It’s not like me to describe the dreams of other people but this one was an example of such extraordinary valor that I just had to share it. It’s such a long way to go and sometimes with heavy traffic, all those people in a hurry to see the Southernmost Point of the United States, any one of those flashy vacation convertibles could run him down on his skateboard but he persevered or at least I think he did. He didn’t say how the dream ended.
“How’s your omelet?”
“Good,” he answered. “Unusual, because there’s cheese inside and on top, too.” But it wasn’t gooey, drenched in cheese, the omelet was dry with brown edges like the cook wanted to make sure everything was cooked hard. It was how I would make an omelet, leaving nothing to chance. There would never be anything runny about an omelet I made. I felt at home at Brownie’s, they did things right here.
My BLT was three inches thick, a layer of well-done bacon and then a fat slice of tomato and a wedge of iceberg lettuce between two slices of toasted white bread. I took a bite of the coleslaw and slid the little dish across the table. “Taste it, Miracle Whip.” He did but didn’t mind it. I puzzled over that, how it didn’t bother him when he’d only eaten real mayonnaise the entire 35 years I’ve known him.
We talked about this for a while and then dropped it. There are entire swaths of the country that use Miracle Whip and we will never know that until we travel to those places because who, after all, would advertise this particular fact to prospective visitors? It did make me consider my earlier affection for Brownie’s to have been too hasty.
At the next table, an older couple sat on opposite sides and ends of the table, as far away from each other as it was possible to be. It seemed their intention was to not have to look at each other, they might have been wiser to sit at the counter. He ordered chicken-fried steak and she ordered a taco salad and when their lunches came, they ate, looking down at their plates, him with his arm on the table and her with her arm clutching her purse in her lap. They said not a single word the entire time.
I wondered whether they disliked each other or had just run out of things to say. You can always inquire about the taco salad, I thought. “How’s your taco salad? Does it have Miracle Whip on it?”
At the next table, another older couple sat directly across from each other. He was a very old, small, Western dude with a button shirt tucked into old jeans held up by a leather belt with a big old buckle. She was twice his size in height and weight, wearing a t-shirt and big, flappy jeans, and her hair was pulled back from her face and held with a barrette like she might have worn it when she was 17.
They were also serious eaters. She was eating French fries in such a careful and appreciative way that I wanted to order some. She dipped each fry in catsup and brought it to her lips like it was escargot prepared by a famous French chef. It was beautiful to watch. He ate with his arm on the table like the other man, but his arm seemed relaxed somehow like he as there to enjoy his soup or chili as much as his wife relished her fries. They didn’t talk either but they didn’t seem unhappy or mad.
We talked. First about the omelet and then about the coleslaw, then about Yuma and how far we were from the cut-off for Ajo and Organ Pipe National Park where we were headed before going back to Phoenix through Gila Bend. We talked a little bit about work, a little about our grandkids, some about other road trips we might take, and a little about Brownie’s and how we’d managed to find such a place without even looking.
We hadn’t run out of things to talk about, at least not yet.
There was only one reason why my father would be calling me. My mother must be dead.
He explained how it happened, how just last week he had given up taking care of her at home, that for the third time, she’d gone limp in the bathtub and he’d had to call the fire department to come lift her and take her to the cherry wood bed they’d bought as newlyweds 64 years before.
He apologized to me. If he hadn’t been holding their ancient wall phone, he would have been wringing his hands. She had only lived a week in the Alzheimer’s Unit and he had visited every night, he said, taking tapes of the music he thought she would remember and playing it on the old Press Play tape player they kept in the basement.
He was sure she still knew him. He told me how she had kissed his hands when they last said goodbye. She had taken both of his hands in hers and kissed his hands. I couldn’t imagine it. It was my mother whose hands would be kissed. It was my mother’s impossibly soft cheek and the smell of her face powder and English Lavender soap that drew us to her seeking the blessing of kissing her. Alzheimer’s had changed a lot about her.
The realization that I was, temporarily at least, sibling in charge, hit me hard after I got through Chicago traffic and on to the smooth raceway across western Michigan that is I-96, mile after mile of rolling countryside with no interruptions except the tiny roadside wineries giving away free shots to interstate drivers. I found every possible reason to delay. I sampled the wine, hunted for snacks at massive trucks stops, and even pulled over to check the old Michigan map to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to drive home.
What was I thinking being the first responder on the scene of a catastrophe? That was my brother’s job. I stalled as long as I could, going the speed limit and not a mile faster, but eventually, I made it to my folks’ driveway and, within thirty seconds, my dad was standing at the screen door.
“Thanks for coming, Janice,” he said, like I was the last guest to leave a dull party. To add to the oddness of the night, my father than hugged me. I was 53. My father must have hugged me before this night but I don’t remember it ever happening. So when my father hugged me, I told him I needed to go to the drugstore right away.
“What do you need? We probably have whatever you need here,” he said.
“I need to buy make-up, Dad. I left home without my make-up. So I need to go the drugstore and buy stuff, you know, like mascara,” I answered.
Barely having put my keys down on the table, I grabbed them back up and started toward the door. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” As I walked out the door, I heard the familiar screech as he pulled the level to bring up the footrest on his La-Z-Boy rocker. He was sitting in his chair where he belonged, I thought. In a minute, he’ll turn the TV on and resume watching CNN with the sound muted and then he’ll pick up the book on top of the stack next to his chair and start reading where he left off when he’d heard my car in the driveway. I knew exactly what he was doing. I felt relieved that he was doing what he always did. He wasn’t crying or hugging me. He was being himself.
The drug store had that fluorescent weird feeling that all stores have when it’s eleven o’clock at night and no one is there except the girl working the check-out and the guy in back restocking the Fritos. I walked up and down the cosmetics department. L’Oreal, Maybelline, Max Factor. I got stuck at Maybelline a long minute looking at the mascara and wondering if they still made the little red plastic boxes with the tiny brush and bar of dark color that required a little squirt of spit to moisten. I remembered the little box in the right hand drawer of the cherry wood vanity, sitting atop an embroidered guest towel that my mother used as a drawer liner, and next to the mascara box was the eyebrow pencil she used on her beautiful, business-like eyebrows, and, sometimes, to give herself a beauty mark low on her right cheek.
In the evenings, she would sit at her vanity table with the small lamp casting a yellow light in the darkness of her room, a place so serene and cool and off-limits, and she would paint her nails red leaving perfectly lined half-moons. She was as ephemeral a person as ever lived on this earth and she was not going to be there when I went home. Was she?
We talked about my mother’s funeral. “Whatever you think is right, Dad,” I kept answering whenever he asked what to do. Should we have a graveside service or a full-fledged funeral? My father, once practiced at snap and sometimes life-changing decision-making, was clearly stuck. For the first time in his 88 years, he was indecisive.
“John thinks we should just go with the graveside service. Not that many people would come to a service at the funeral home. Do you think that’s right?” He had just hung up the phone after the third or fourth phone conversation about this topic with my brother, stuck in bad weather across the country.
“I think that’s fine, Dad.” I didn’t really think it was fine. My mother deserved the whole funeral shebang. Plenty of people knew her and liked her. I didn’t want anything about her funeral being quick or cheap. I held my tongue. I had been estranged from my parents for ten years until just a year ago. It wasn’t my place, I thought, to have an opinion.
We picked out a casket together and the clothes that my mother would wear. I took off my pearl earrings and asked the funeral director to put them on my mother along with the locket my dad had given her 65 years before when they were engaged. Later, I drove back to the funeral home to make sure they knew to curl my mother’s hair. In her Alzheimer’s fog, she had taken to wearing a baseball cap over her straight hair. My father may have remembered her curled hair but he couldn’t do anything about it.
Dozens of people came to her wake. My father stood in the center of the large room, my mother lying in her open casket off to the side, and he talked to everyone as if he was hosting a cocktail party. He talked about golf and bowling, two things they had done together. He greeted former employees from their Ben Franklin store and listened to their stories about how wonderful and kind my mother had been to them. He looked toward the door every few minutes to see if my brother was there. But he never showed, still stuck in bad weather in Oregon.
I prepared for my brother not being there the next day when we would follow the hearse 90 miles to her hometown and bury her next to her parents on a hill in the cemetery where, during our estrangement, I had seen their headstones already in place, waiting for them.
That night I searched the house for a Bible, looking for the verse that had the words, “Let not your heart be troubled.” My mother said this to me, so many times, but her version was “Let not your heart be troubled, Bunky.” And so I endeavored to find this passage in the Bible with the idea of reading it (without the Bunky part) at the graveside the next morning. I wanted someone who knew my mother to say something at her burial, not just the pastor at the church in her hometown who she didn’t actually know. I could do this, I thought. I can be the child who does this for her mother.
I found the Bible on the bookshelf in the TV room, the inside inscription with my brother’s name. Of course. Late that night, my brother arrived. We set out the next morning from the funeral home, driving in a tiny caravan to the cemetery where I sat on a folding chair next to my father holding the Bible with the passage marked. I said to myself, over and over, “Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled.” And I held on to the Bible with both hands.
At the end of the service, I stood up, walked across the grassy hill and handed the Bible to my brother, “This is yours, John.”
Prepare a Place for Me
Precipice, The Literary Anthology of Write on Edge, 2012
Love isn’t a mystery.
Loyalty, resiliency, and kindness are mysteries. And humor. Humor is definitely a mystery. And a gift.
I have been in love with many people who weren’t funny. They were thrilling at first but ultimately gave me a headache.
If two people are in love they will be happy for a while. If one or both of them is funny, they will soldier through the giant snow drift of life like it is fresh popcorn waiting to be eaten.
I know this to be true from laughing with my husband in emergency rooms and other places where people are silent or crying.
We would leave the hospital’s circle drive to have a milkshake, one thinking the other would be cheered by the chocolate, and it reminds us of times in the summer leaning against the car with the big neon sign giving our faces a slight blue hue and how we joked about coming there with all the other people who had no other place they’d rather be.