I Didn’t Know

         

            I didn’t know I should play with my children or join them in creating art with finger paints, Play-doh, or watercolors.

            I never knew to let them help me in the kitchen, baking cookies or bread.

            Growing up without my mother short-changed my own daughters in ways I never expected, in subtle ways that surprise and sadden me.  My mother became ill when I was three years old and died when I was four.  I have no memories of playing with her.  I have no memories of her interacting with me at all.  My basic needs were met as a child, but playful interactions by an adult were extremely rare.

            I recall once, my father coloring with me, but when I didn’t want to outline each picture and make sure I was within the lines, he lost interest, feeling frustrated at my lack of perfectionism.  To this day I can feel my relief when he stopped correcting my coloring and just moved on.

 “Go play,” I would say to my girls. “Find something to do in your room or just go outside.”  But now I see my own girls teaching their children how to play games and think creatively.  Their interactions are sweet and tender and not rushed, the way I imagine my mother might have been with me.  They show patience by letting a little one crack an egg to help make cornbread or when they play ‘Go Fish’ for the hundredth time, seemingly having fun, and enjoying their time together.  It amazes me.

            As a mother, I was always hurrying, and if I am honest, I was always anxious.  Children hate to hurry and often it would be me causing their meltdowns, by forcing a quicker pace.  In the mornings, I wanted to get as much done as possible before heading out for school.  “Make your bed!  Brush your teeth!” I barked at them, while I hurriedly straightened the house, wanting to leave everything in order.  Rushing a child is like herding snails, it rarely works out well.  My underlying anxiety was focused on doing ‘it’ right.  “Am I doing it right?”  I constantly asked myself.

I only knew how to be productive, as in working.  I worked at work, but I also worked at running my home and parenting my children.  My heart was filled with love for my girls, but I didn’t know how to relax and enjoy the moments together.  An impromptu tea party would have made more memories than mess.   If I could only go back.

            As a working mother with two girls, I felt exceedingly inadequate and always lacking.  I lacked time, energy, and patience.  With deep shame, I confess my short fuse and agitation at their questions and childish dallying.  I felt I had to run a tight ship, remembering to color within the lines.  I didn’t know there was another path with less resistance and much more peace.

            I began my grandmothering in much the same way.  When my grandson was born, I was more than excited; I was genuinely in awe of this child of my child.  I felt honored to hold him and tend to his needs.  But soon I became aware of an underlying tension that threatened my happiness and serenity.  It lived right under my skin for months.  One afternoon when he started to cry, I walked him around the house and patted him, but nothing would work. “Shhh shhh,” I whispered in soothing tones.  No nourishment or jiggling or patting; nothing would quiet him and so without even being aware, tears began to pour down my face and I sobbed right along with him for reasons different than his own.  I had to lay him in his crib, and I sat sobbing in a chair nearby.

            “Dear Lord,” I prayed.  “Help me.  Calm me.  Help me to be enough.  Forgive my anxious, anger at not being able to soothe him.  Change this, change me and heal this hole.”

My mind shifted that day and my heart cracked wide open with such reverence, and love that I finally saw my truth and felt a change within me.  I felt calm, and I realized that my trying to be perfect, to do “it” right, only caused me to feel less than and kept me from just loving.   In the time it took to whisper my prayer, I hugged that little one to me and felt a peace inside that began from the inside out.  I was able to slow my breath and heartbeat and when I did, his did too.

“Oh,” I thought.  “This is what it feels like.” And I took a long, deep breath.  If ever I start that anxious dissent or forget to enjoy the little moments, I have only to whisper, “Help me.” And the calmness returns.  I can breathe in the joy and settle my insides.  I can stay in the present moment and let go of unattainable perfection that threatens to flatten me like a penny run over in the streets.

            And so, my house is messy now when our grandchildren are over.  Train tracks, Hot Wheels, and glitter.  Dress-up clothes, blocks and books are scattered about because we have fun together.  Playing, imagining, laughing; all the things that create a bond of love.  The love in my heart is demonstrated as I showed them through my time and attention how important they are to me.

            Last year, my little granddaughter and I spent an early morning watching the snails on our patio table.  We created the Snail Motel and talked about life as we herded the snails back into their make-shift housing.  And as much as I feel I didn’t know these things while my daughters were growing up, I do know this now.  That morning on the patio was delightful and pure and memorable, and I am filled with gratitude for another answered prayer.

            My grandmothering has become an amends to my daughters.  Amends for the things I didn’t know back then.  Amends for so much hurrying.  Amends for not enough play, silliness, and laughter.  Amends for too much stress.

            And almost as important is the amends to me.  For after all, I did the best I knew how.  I just didn’t know.

            But I do now.

Hello, Old Friend

Hello, Old Friend

            It matters not if your mother has been gone for six weeks, six years or sixty-four years, as mine has.  A mother’s love was our first love and remains that anchor always.

            Sometimes unexpectedly, I will feel an ache deep inside that sits heavy like a boulder and has the makings of an avalanche.  I go about my day, my life, as if there was no weight upon my heart, but my insides recognize this visitor.  I am reminded of it, this faint knowledge that it’s almost Mother’s Day, and I hope the rockslide of emotions don’t start.  I want to stay the course and keep everything in its place.

            I love being a mother, myself, although I have endured times of angst as I stumbled along trying to do “it” right.  Being a mother and grandmother has been my biggest blessing.  My daughters have grown up right before my eyes and no longer make me macaroni angels or hand painted plaques that say, “Prayer Changes Things.” They are always so good to shower me with gifts and thoughtful cards that I save in a big box, safely tucked away.  Someday, when I am gone, they will find it and laugh at me for saving so much, but that’s alright, I could not bear to throw away their words or thoughtfulness.

            Yet, when it comes to Mother’s Day, I fall silent.  I feel uncertain of what to do with myself and I am deeply aware that the sadness I feel is not in aligned with the way most of the world thinks.

            I want to cry and sit alone with my sadness.  I want to look at pictures and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine.  And, at the same time I want to go with my daughters for a long walk among flowers and beautiful trees, feeling the sunshine on our faces, confirming I am alive.  My feelings are a contrast as day is to night. 

            I want to celebrate my mother.  I want to celebrate being a mother and my daughter being a mother.  But there’s that ache deep inside that wants nothing to do with sunshine, long walks or brunch.  That ache says, “You’re alone, so be alone. No one understands anyway.”  That ache makes me separate and odd because I hurt on a day others feel joy and gratitude.

            I’ve long ago made sense of being left motherless.  I understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and more than that, I understand that this ache will not kill me.  While there are times I thought it might, it has become an old friend, although unwanted, that is familiar and will retreat after a time. This old ache will go back to where it lives, underneath my heart, lodged over to the side.  But it will come back another time, perhaps unannounced, smaller in size. 

 Please don’t feel sorry for me, as that is not what I want.  I know I am okay.  I am not alone on this motherless journey; I know there are far too many who travel with me.  I want them to know it is fine to have feelings that go back and forth.  It is okay to have the ache and still want the sunshine.  It will not always hurt this bad, so go ahead and feel.  God in His wisdom has given us the ability to see both sides, to feel both sadness and sunshine. 

            “And gradually his memory slipped a little, as memories do, even those with so much love attached to them; as if there is an unconscious healing process within the mind which mends up in spite of our desperate determination never to forget.”
― Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds  

The Angels Sing

The Angels Sing by: Nancy Malcolm

Playing outside in a gentle rain, stomping through puddles, and laughing wholeheartedly

            Eating ice cream for breakfast

            Wearing my Easter dress shoes to school before they became too small.

            Coloring outside the lines

            My daddy would say these things were frivolous, irresponsible, even wasteful.  Thus, the spontaneous gene was not passed down to me.  It died a fast death somewhere between The Great Depression and my mother’s passing.

Growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, we were rarely allowed to have fun.  My father, a recent widower, was structured and purposeful as electrical engineers are prone to be.   I feel he became even more so due to my mother’s absence.  He felt overwhelmed at times and we could tell because his voice would rise, and he would enunciate his words with harsh diction and authority.  We, my brother and I, knew exactly when his anger would peak and tried to avoid it at all costs.  He never admitted his struggle to hold us together and remain functional, as that would have been seen as weakness.

I remember one specific time when I saw my father happy. He was in the kitchen making us a homemade pizza.  Benny Goodman, The King of Swing, was playing on the turn table and my father was drinking a Gibson.  This stood out to me because he was not really a drinker and I had never before seen little white onions on a toothpick.  Daddy was dancing to the music and making our pizza, and my brother and I felt awash with his happiness and sudden break from our strict routine.  It was a spontaneous moment for Daddy, and we were witnesses to his ability to laugh and dance.  Now, as I look back, I say ‘bless him.’  He wanted just a few minutes of normalcy, a few minutes of fun.  Perhaps he had a memory of my mother floating along with the smooth clarinet notes, holding her in his arms and swaying to the beat.

            The story doesn’t end well, though, because my brother and I complained about the pizza with garlic, tomatoes, olives and other strange ingredients.  We were kids doing what kids do, but the mood ended as my father began to feel frustrated with our immature pallets and bickering protests.  I remember the music being turned off and us having peanut butter, while he finished his drink and pizza.  I felt his sadness reappear as another lonely Friday night came to an end.

            Benny Goodman and his Orchestra played a song entitled, “And The Angels Sing.” This was popular around 1939 and the early ‘40’s and just listening to it brings back so many memories of my dad through the years.  He loved jazz.  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few, were his favorites.  On rare occasions, his music seemed to transport him to a more carefree time, and it showed on his face and in his demeanor.  Sometimes he would break into a Charleston or foxtrot by himself, always on beat and always with a smile. And I was always amazed at his spontaneous display of pure joy.

            ‘Bless him’ and bless Bennie Goodman for showing us a part of our father we might never have seen.  This must have been the part my mother fell in love with.  She probably admired his spontaneity and smooth moves on the dance floor, and no doubt, as she looked down on us from above, she wanted nothing more than for him to be happy again, carefree and spontaneous.

We meet and the angels sing,

The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard,

We speak and the angels sing,

Or am I reading music into every word?

You smile and the angels sing,

And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start,

We kiss and the angels sing,

And leave their music ringing in my heart.

Listen

Story and photographs by Nancy Malcolm

I was not prepared for the relationships with my grown daughters.   I am forever their mother, but I am not needed as a parent anymore.

That was and is a hard dynamic for me to change.  We wrestle with control and often talk in circles, trying to be heard.  We have a back and forth, push and pull dance with multi-meaning dialogues.  They seem to understand this much better than I do.

“Mom, I KNOW.  I know what I need to do,” I hear them say.

“Mother, you raised us, don’t you realize we KNOW what you think?” they recite.

“Mom, I just want you to listen.  You don’t have to fix anything or give advice.”

But, sometimes I say ‘it’ again, only louder or rephrased, thinking they didn’t hear me or quite understand my point.  The real point is, I think I know what is best for them and what they should do.  On one such occasion when frustrations were high and tempers rising, I heard a voice inside myself whisper, 

“Listen.  Listen with your heart not your ears.”  

My lips clamped shut almost instantly, but my self-righteousness still wanted a voice.  Smugness is a deadly sin you see, and even a shaft of light cannot penetrate the hard outer shell of a superior, puffed up wisenheimer.  Old habits are hard to break.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old.  In my childish mind I envision myself as the perfect daughter.  So perfect in fact, she would never have left me.  I would have been obedient, and hung on her every word.  I would have sought her wisdom and cherished our talks.  I would give anything to hear her voice and listen to her point of view.  I saw myself that way and I admonished my girls for taking me for granted.  My self pity reminded me that I had no mother to listen to and my ungrateful girls had me.

“Listen,” my whisper said.  “Heart listening opens closed doors, hushes smugness, sends love not loathing…listen.”  

My sanctimonious attitude does not listen well.  It strains to get one more word in.  It plans a good comeback.  It is selfish and self-centered.  

I heard an acronym once:  WAIT- Why Am I Talking?  There are very few times in life when you should keep talking and talking.  Most of life is listening, at least if you want happy relationships and peace.

 “Listen” my whisper said.  “Hush.”

Listen to the ocean when you are there.

Listen to the toddler ramble on about his musings.

Listen to your husband’s snore and be grateful he is alive.

Listen to the elderly person in the grocery store and ask a question.

Listen to your heart, your gut and your best friend.

I wanted my daughters to listen to me.  But, what I really wanted was to be heard.  My thoughts, my heart, and my words were all vying for a way out, expressing what was inside.  My outside didn’t match my inside and I wanted the real me to be seen and heard.  Instead, I said to my daughter, “You’re not listening to me.”  Neither one of us was listening and we ended our conversation agreeing to disagree, leaving dissatisfied and hurt.

Finally I got quiet and sat with my hand over my heart, a practice I knew, but had conveniently forgotten.  “What’s wrong?”  I asked myself.  “What can I do to make you feel better?”  And then I listened.  I heard myself ramble on about my feelings and fears; my doubts and worries; my suggestions for my daughter.  Sometimes my worries are so vivid that I can’t seem to stop the cycle of obsessive thoughts.  I want my girls to be happy and I mistakenly think I know what is best for them.  I forget to remember that my adult children must listen to themselves.  They have their own inner guidance and wisdom to tap into and their own hearts to follow. They are wise, strong and courageous.  

 So, I listened to myself and in the process I did feel heard, all without continuing to talk.   My shoulders lowered, my breath deepened and my body finally felt relaxed.

“Go on,”  I whispered to myself.  “ I’m listening.”

Remembering Happiness

Clare and I

 

In 1959 I was six years old, missing a front tooth and playing dress-up with my neighbor, Clare, and my black cat, Sylvester.   For some reason, we always had a black cat and always named each one Sylvester, whether they were male or female.  Sylvester was not an original name, for sure, but convenient when one of the cats would run-off or meet with a tragic demise.  We never had to wonder what to name the new cat.

Clare’s daddy was a doctor and they lived directly catty-corner behind us in a large two- story house.  Our street was like a dividing line between upper and middle class houses.  Our house, the house my mother died in, was at the lower end of middle, but Clare didn’t seem to mind.  She had this large modern house, a little sister, a doctor daddy, and a beautiful, vibrant mother who drove a station wagon and baked cookies.  All of these things I did not have, especially the part about having a mother.

My daddy, although usually not generous with my mother’s belongings, had obviously allowed use of a few of her things for this dressy occasion.  My white doll blanket skirt was held up by a brooch belonging to Mama and as most elegant women I knew, I had a fake fox fur around my neck.  Completing the ensemble was a smart white, plastic headband purchased from Woolworths downtown.  It was the hallmark accessory for most of my early years.

Clare, one year my senior, went to a private Catholic school, while I attended the neighborhood elementary.  She was taking violin lessons and had Brownies after school, while I was walked straight home after school by our live-in housekeeper or my older brother, Jimmy.  I was always wishing she had more time to play or that I had after school things to do, too.

I don’t know why my daddy took a picture of us that day.  I could speculate and say maybe he was celebrating my missing tooth, or my recovery from chickenpox, but he was not usually one to celebrate those types of things.   Maybe it was because I had on a few of my mother’s things, which reminded him of her absence.  I’ll never know the reason, but I’m glad he did.  I’m also grateful for Clare.  Her parents were aware of my mother’s passing and they generously included me in their picture-perfect family.  They extended the hand of fellowship and normalcy to a little girl who was dauntingly unsure of her place in this world.

Because my mother had died in this house, my daddy could hardly wait for us to move.  When our lease was up, we moved down the street into an old parsonage that had big floor furnaces and window unit water coolers.  Our new, old house was bigger but too far for Clare and me to play as often as before.  We eventually went our separate ways, but she was my childhood friend for a season of time, distracting me with warmth and laughter.  Her friendship brightened my days and put this smile on my face, a face that was struggling to remember what happiness really meant.

No One Wants To Hear My Story

Nancy 4 yrs old

Four-year-old me

No one wants to hear my story anymore.  The story about my mother dying when I was only four years old.  No one wants to admit that I still have pain and grief over losing her because I am sixty-seven years old now, and should be way past the acceptable time for mourning.

For so long I have felt societal rules about grief and the invisible timeline for sadness.  ‘Hurry up,’ it says.  ‘Get over it, so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable around you.’  My pain hurts others and touches them in a place so deep that they want to deny it is even there.  No one says these things of course, but they side-step around me and cleave to the edge of the room or conversation as if I might poison them, or worse.

I’ve gotten very selective about who I share my story with.  Most people are visibly shaken to hear that I grew up without a mother’s touch, but then they really don’t want to know more.  It’s just too much, especially women I know who still have their mothers and who complain a little about having to take them places or call too often.

They are uneasy admitting that they have a different story.  That their mothers were vividly alive, engaging, and understanding.  Some are embarrassed to tell me good things about their mama’s and to some, I want to say, “Be grateful!  Be glad you can still tell her you love her and breathe in her scent.”  But, no one wants to be told, “Be grateful.”  It’s like coaxing a child with, “Tell the nice lady thank you.”  And the child says, “Thank you.” with very little feeling.

“I am grateful,” they say and maybe they are, but it is really to silence me more than anything else, and then the subject changes.  I am never ready to change the subject, but I hear the whisper, “No one wants to hear your story.”

“Am I too much?” I ask myself.  “Am I just supposed to stay quiet and not tell my truth?”

It stifles me and mashes my spirit like a corset that labors my breath.  Sometimes I even become ashamed or worse…silent.  The grief turns in on me and feels sticky and complicated, like an expiration date that tells me it is too late to talk about this, the pain should have run out by now, but it hasn’t.  It has lessened, of course, but it’s there right under the surface….waiting.

Please don’t shy away from those who have a different story.  Pray for enough peace to hold space for those who grieve.  It will bless them and you, beyond measure.   How else do we learn from each other?  How else do we really know another soul?  Don’t be afraid to witness someone else’s pain.  Feel it together, talk about it, breathe through it, and embrace each other.  Hold the ache in a sacred place and dare to learn something new about yourself, dare to hear the story. We all have one to tell.

Just Do It

209

 

As long as I can remember, I’ve been discreetly cautious around water.  I detest the icy water of a swimming pool or even the ocean before the sun has warmed the tide.

I’ve never been one to Baywatch-run into the ocean and frolic in the waves, and I watch with envy those that do.  I’m the one at the swimming pool who gets in inch by inch trying to gradually get used to the water.  I sometimes hear the whisper, “Just do it.  Jump in.”  But I argue with myself, listing all the reasons I can’t do that.  I don’t want to get my hair wet, it’s too cold, or I feel fat.

I’m getting tired of the inch by inch life that weighs me down until I cannot move.  I’m disgusted by my lack of adventure and cautious moves.  I’m ready, I think, to embrace a more fulfilling way of life.  If others can do it, why can’t I?  This hesitancy is a long-ago habit that started when my mother passed away.  My four-year-old mind could not fathom the loss of my mother, but her death left an imprint on my body and soul.

That’s when I began my demure misgivings.  Shyness and fear took hold of me like a creeping fog from the sea, enveloping my very spirit.  I didn’t hear the whisper then;  I only felt the grip of an uneasy foreboding.  “Shrink back,” it beckoned.  “Hold back,” and so I did.  It’s much easier to shrink back than to push forward.  It instantly felt like a safe place to be and I began to try it with every situation.  My carefree childhood came to an abrupt halt and I became wary of life in general; my maturity at a standstill.

This past summer I heard my grandchildren prodding me, “Jump in Nannie, it won’t be cold for long.  Just do it!”  I sat on the steps of the pool watching them splash and play, their joy out front for all to see.  Where did their bravery come from?  It never occurred to them to shrink back or limit their fun.  I envied their unbridled joy.  

As I began my slow descent inch by inch into the water, I was aware of their growing impatience with me.  They stopped encouraging me and I felt the sting of disappointment from them and myself.   On my deathbed will I say, “I’m so glad I didn’t get in the pool and play?  I’m glad I shrunk back?”  I know I will not feel that way.  I fear my regret will be heavy and I will be deeply saddened that I missed their screams of delight and wet grip around my neck.  I’ll ask myself why?  And so, against my fearful judgment, I did jump.

I jumped for all the shrinkers who let the icy voice of fear stop them in mid-stride.  I jumped to prove to myself that I could, and I jumped for that little four year old who lost her mother and was afraid of life.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who was a pioneer in near-death studies, knew this very fear and spoke these wise words, “Live, so you do not have to look back and say: God, how I have wasted my life.”  Never again, I tell myself.  Never again will I shrink back from life, although I know there is a big chance that I might, at least a little.  I have made progress and perhaps that is all I can do.  It’s a good start, and today I can let that be enough.

This Motherless Daughters’ Dream

Mother's Day for a motherless daughter

In the spring when flowers come alive with vivid colors and my birthday, on the first of May has come and gone, I unconsciously start to feel anxious like I’m skating on a thin layer of ice.   My life gets smothered with unease and dread, my two old friends since childhood.  The dread of marking another year without my mother.  Another Mother’s Day to sit quietly by and watch the whole world celebrate.  Another milestone with no memory attached, just a blank hollow space that looks like the mother-shaped hole inside me.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old and now at sixty-seven, I still cannot conjure a voice or face or hand that might remind me of her.  I’ve never caught a whiff of her perfume lingering in the air and turned to see if she was near.  “Did she even wear perfume?”  I wonder.  

Lest you think me selfish and ungrateful, my appreciation and value of being a mother myself is at the top of my gratitude list.  I am grateful for the blessing that daughters and grandchildren bring.  I humbly acknowledge these beautiful gifts of life and what sweet music it is to my ears to hear them call me Mother or Nannie.  But, the little child in me struggles.  I struggle every year with those Hallmark card commercials and advertisements for “a free rose at brunch”.  I struggle with thoughts of envy and chide my friends who still have their mothers, to cherish this time before it slips away.

In the sixty-three years without my mother, I have never dreamed of her until just last year and even then, I did not see her face.  I often have asked God why.  “Please,” I would beg, “send me a dream or vision of her to let me know I am not alone.  Help me feel her presence.”  I’m always afraid I will forget her.  Afraid, my soul will not know hers when we meet again.

In my dream, everything and everyone was in black and white, except one person.  I was running down a crowded street and searching frantically for my mother.  I spotted someone in a bright red dress and I fought my way through until I reached the red dress and I touched her.  Her face never really came into focus, I just knew it was her from the thick brown hair and the red dress, the dress she was buried in, I was told.   As she turned around, I asked, “Are you, my mother?”  I remember thinking in my dream that I should hug her or pull her to me, but it was all very quiet and serene.  She nodded yes and gave me her hand.  We stood on that crowded street and looked at each other for a while.  It was quiet all around us, like in a bubble, and I felt she couldn’t stay very long.  I didn’t want to let go of her hand, but she let go first and touched my arm, saying, “I’ve been here all along.  You are going to be ok.  You are going to be just fine”, and with that, she was gone.

When I woke up, I could not believe that I had finally had a dream of my mother.  But, I felt sadly dissatisfied because it was fleeting and strangely generic.  I wanted longer.  I wanted her to hold me and explain her thoughts….tell me she loved me.  I wanted a reunion.  Was I being petulant, like a little child that didn’t get her way?

I have since had time to process this dream and think rationally, as best I can.  There is an old gospel song entitled, “We’ll Talk It Over” by the Gaither Vocal Band.  The gist of the song is that we only know in part why things happen in our lives, but when we get to heaven, we have a chance to ask God why and talk it over.

I don’t know why my mother had to die or why my brother and I were chosen to be among the motherless.   I may never know why my dream was short and took so long to come.  But, I can choose to believe that in the by and by, as the song says, I’ll have the chance to ask my Creator why and finally understand.

And, I can choose to believe what my mother said to me in my dream.  She has been with me all along, for if I search, I can recall her presence amidst a crisis or two and her hand in mine when I needed her most.  I can choose to believe that she has missed me as much as I have missed her, and in the by and by, we will meet again.

 

I am going to be ok.

I’m going to be just fine.

I know I will.

 

 

Angel Wings

Angel Wings

written by Nancy Malcolm

 

I’ve never really been a good sleeper.  I remember waking up early that morning while it was still dark outside and padding into the living room.  My father had closed the door leading into the bedroom he and my mother shared. I imagine he scooped me up and asked why I was up so early, as he sat us in the rocking chair.  He might have told me my mother was gone, but I don’t remember his words, only being held and rocked.

In the way that four-year-olds know things, I knew something was wrong with my mother.  I’m sure I was told about her illness and hospital stays but some sixty years later, I cannot remember the details.  The adults in charge of me most likely explained the circumstances in simple, cryptic words appropriate for a child. Only much later would I learn that my mother had died in the night and that my dad was rocking me as we waited for the funeral home to take her body away.  I find it unnerving that I awoke at just that time. Did her soul pass over my sleeping frame to tell me goodbye? Was I awakened by an angel’s kiss or my father’s sobbing?

All that mattered to me at the time was the warmth of my daddy’s lap and the rhythmic creaking of that old rocking chair.  It would be years later before I would feel the complete impact of her death and even now, I am taken aback at the enormity of my loss.  Our loss.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old.

I have only two vivid memories of my mother.  One was the day we brought home a wheelchair for her.  After the surgery to remove her brain tumor, her face was droopy on one side, her speech was slurred and she had trouble balancing enough to walk.  Because I was only four years old, I was told these facts, I don’t remember them first hand. I truly have no memory of my mother’s face, voice or mannerisms.  My dad always said that our mother was very frustrated with her inability to care for my brother and me after the surgery.  My brother was eight years old and with us being so young, I’m sure we took advantage of her slow mobility. The realization that she could no longer keep up with us was probably more than she could bear.  She was only 33.

I remember my dad and me pushing the wheelchair into the house and us laughing and talking.  But, she didn’t want it. I can see her now, standing in the living room in her robe. She had one hand on the piano to balance herself as she said with her garbled speech, “No.  Don’t need it.” She cried and was angry and shoed it away with her good hand. My brother and I were sent to play outside while my dad tried to calm her down. I do not know if the wheelchair stayed or not, but I know that she became resigned and despondent after that.  Her life as it had been as a healthy, young mother of two, was over.

My second memory is of my mother’s funeral and my dad picking me up to look at my mother in her casket.  He wanted me to kiss her goodbye. I didn’t want to because her lifeless body scared me. My reluctance made him more sad and upset.  

 My mother looked as though she had been gently laid in her final satin bed.  She wore a bright red shirt-waist dress made from a heavy wool fabric. While her face had been stitched carefully to disguise the drooping eyelids and mouth,  her dark brown hair looked fresh and stylish and her lips, painted in a blood-red matte finish, looked pleasant, not pained.  

“Don’t you want to kiss your mama goodbye?” he prodded and held me up to see her.  He leaned over with me so I could kiss her cheek and I kicked my legs and began to cry.  

What a sight that must have been, a young widower and his two small children standing at the casket.  As a child, seeing my mother’s body stiff and unnatural had to have been frightening.   I realize now that my father was lingering at her side.  He didn’t want to let her go. He knew that for the casket lid to shut and for her grave to be filled meant the end of his life as he knew it and ours too.

Years later I would recall that story to a therapist and for the first time, someone acknowledged for me how scary that must have been.  That was the first time I admitted it to myself. Unknowingly, my dad had made me feel ashamed at not wanting to kiss her goodbye and I was finally able to see the scene through a different lens.  For most of my adult years, I was petrified to attend funerals and I couldn’t figure out why. I would make up stories saying why I couldn’t attend and if I couldn’t get out of it, I would become anxious and shaky, nearly making myself sick.   I had a true fear of death and seeing a dead body and that did not change until much later in my life.  

There is a huge distance between my mother’s angel wings and the harsh reality of death.  My childlike mind never fully understood it or separated the two. My father would tell us our mother was an angel in heaven now, and still, we felt the fear and ugliness of death.  How can they both exist?

To this day, I don’t like loud noises such as gunshots and slamming doors or references to the dead coming alive or anything unpredictable that would make me jump.  I still cover my eyes or leave the room if a television program seems too frightening or the music too intense. It’s all just too much for me. I’ve been afraid since way back when…afraid of everything.   And for me, real life has been much more disturbing than make-believe. As an adult, I understand the process and realities of death, but the child in me is chilled to the bone and I can’t stop the shiver.

The Christmas Corsage

corsage

The Christmas Corsage

 

      Our house is decorated inside and out during Christmas time.  My heart is full of joy when I open the storage boxes and see my old familiar decorations just waiting to be loved and cherished.  There are so many ornaments on our Christmas tree that have special meaning because wherever we go, we purchase an ornament from that location.  A red lobster from Maine, bear paw from Yosemite, cable car from San Fransisco…you get the picture. But, there is one decoration on the tree that is above the rest, a simple silk Christmas corsage with Poinsettia flowers and a candy cane.

 

     For as long as I can remember, my Daddy always loved to decorate for Christmas.   Not until I was grown with a family of my own, did he show me a silk, red Poinsettia corsage  that lay on one of the Christmas tree branches. He told me that my mother was in the hospital her last Christmas and one of the nurses had brought her the corsage and laid it on her pillow, as a token of the season.  She died that January, exactly one month after Christmas and from that time on, my Dad would place the corsage on the tree in her memory.

 

     I’m not sure why he never shared that story before then.  As was his way, he held things in, especially about my mother.  Because my mother died so young, only thirty-three years old, his love and grief mingled too close to his heart, he feared the emotions that threatened to break him. He could little afford to let his guard down with two young children to raise alone.

 

     After my dad passed away, my brother and I divided his ornaments between us, and I received the corsage.  Every year as I place it on our tree, I whisper my mother’s name, inviting her to be with us and know that she is not forgotten. I feel her spirit and I know she longs to be with us, too.

 

     A simple red corsage laid among the baubles and bells was a generous act of kindness that carried a mother’s love all these years later.  My heart is full as I whisper “Merry Christmas Mama,” and her presence fills me for yet another year.