All Is Well

            It’s Mother’s Day and I am filled with a tender longing that never really leaves me, only swells larger every May.  There are countless books, blog posts, and podcasts that encourage us, motherless daughters, to celebrate our missing moms or sit with our grief in hopes of calming that anxiety that threatens to destroy us.

            It’s suggested to talk about your mother; say her name aloud, share memories (if you have them), and honor her in some meaningful way.  I’ll probably call my big brother because he knew her best.  He is my only link to her, my lifeline of memories.  Over the years his memories have become mine, for which I will forever be grateful.

            When I was younger, the loss of my mother felt like I was floundering in outer space, not tethered in any way.  I was slipping away and there was no one to catch hold and ground me.  As I have aged, my grief feels more like a heavy wool blanket that suffocates me under the weight of sadness.

            My mother’s name is Margaret.  Margaret Arminta Lane Claughton.  She is laid to rest next to my father in the Llano Cemetery in Amarillo, Texas, where she has resided since 1958.  A lifetime ago. 

If I lived there still, I would take flowers to her grave.  But, since I don’t and I know she isn’t really there and there is no flower delivery to Heaven, I will buy flowers for myself in her honor, which is something I have never done before.

            My girls are coming over for a late lunch on Saturday.  We’re celebrating Mother’s Day and my birthday, which feels okay given the space I am sometimes in.  I want to sob and throw a fit, and selfishly sit and stare completely immobilized.  But I always try to rally where my girls are concerned and welcome their intent to honor me, and I genuinely want to honor them.  After all, I tell myself, we are among the living.  “Let the dead bury the dead.”

            I’m grateful for my sweet daughters, yet I miss having a mother, even sixty-five years later, I struggle.

            I remember being the only one in my elementary class who didn’t have a mother, and as we sat at our desks with crayons and paper, I was embarrassed as we made our annual Mother’s Day cards.  I sat silently coloring away at a card I did not want to make.  I gave mine to my dad and we took it to the cemetery on Sunday after church.  I was the only child without a mother and yet we all had to make a card.  I hope things have changed by now, and while I don’t think my teachers meant to be insensitive, the aftereffects were far-reaching and have stayed with me to this day.

            There are other little girls in this world, even older girls and women who are facing this first Mother’s Day without their mother.  I have no sage advice.  No ‘10 Steps to Honor and Grieve Your Mother.’  My journey has not been neat and tidy.  It has been and still is messy and heartbreakingly overwhelming at times.

            I find that when I am honest and let my heart feel what it needs to, I am sooner to breathe and feel a sigh of relief that everything will be okay.  Sitting in a quiet, calm place, I put my hand over my heart and whisper ‘all is well,’ until I believe it.  All is well.

            Just for today, just for this Mother’s Day, I will buy my mother the flowers I always wanted to give her.  I will set the table with her Dessert Rose dishes and enjoy my daughters and grandson, and it will be enough.  Actually, more than enough.

All is well, I whisper to that little girl within me.  All is well.         

Too Much

My mother, Margaret Claughton

January 29, 1958, on a cold, blustery day before dawn, my mother died. I was just four years old, but I remember waking up early and padding into the living room.  A lone lamp was on in the corner and across the room, my father was sitting in the old rocking chair with his head in his hands, sobbing.

            He saw me and opened his arms as I jumped onto his lap.  We rocked and he cried, holding me tighter than usual.  Behind my parents’ closed bedroom door, my mother lay, having taken her last breath.

            We rocked while we waited for the funeral home to come.  I’m sure Daddy told me that Mama was gone, but I don’t remember his words, only how I felt.  I’ve heard it said, the body never forgets.  My brother was up by now and he and I stood like soldiers watching her being wheeled out of the house.

            My life since then has been a mixture of poor decisions and lucky breaks, answered prayers, and untaken guidance.  I have two beautiful daughters and two master’s degrees.  I’m married to a kind, loyal man and I have a brother, four years older, who shares my early life and gave me his memories about our mother, so I could have them too.  As kids, we survived an abusive stepmother, an emotionally unavailable father, and the never-ending sadness of not having our mother.  When she died, our father said, “I will never be happy again.” And he wasn’t.

            Still…my life is good.  My children and grandchildren are happy and thriving.  My home is open and loving.  I’ve had a fulfilling career and now my husband and I are still healthy enough to enjoy our travels and live the retired life.  Nevertheless, some days I still have an overwhelming sadness that takes my breath.  I’m teary for a moment or for an entire day.  I’m melancholy.  I’m tenderhearted or just plain lonely down in my soul.  I need my mother.  Sixty-four years I have missed her.  Sixty-four years and I still carry this sadness.

            How can I carry so much sadness while still living such a beautiful life?

            Is it God who grants me the reprieve from a sad, sad heart or rewards the sad heart with a lovely life?  As a child, my father would chide me, “You’re too sensitive.”  As an adult, I’ve been told, “You’re too serious.”  Too much of other things like too tenderhearted, too nice, too emotional.  I ask myself now, “Am I extra?”  Do I have too much of the sadness gene?  My being too much of anything is not the cause, it’s the effect.

            Before I had the words, I would just take in that criticism, assuming “they” knew me better than I knew myself.  But now I know it is the shadow that floats across my soul.  The heavy weight of sadness that I sometimes stagger under, all while living my beautiful life.  The sadness triggers a remembrance, and my body reacts with tears or solitude or wanting to rest.  Psychologists now say this remembering is the impact of trauma on the body and the somatic (relating to the body) memory.  The body of the traumatized person holds an implicit memory of the traumatic event in their brains and bodies.  Sometimes it is expressed in PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks, and startle responses.  The body remembers and refuses to be ignored. I have a hard time labeling myself as ‘traumatized.’  But thinking about being four years old and watching the funeral directors take your dead mother away, I feel traumatized.  Having my father pick me up and lean over the casket to kiss my mother goodbye is traumatic.  Not remembering her touch, or face or voice.. what would you call it?

            The definition of trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.  For me, trauma manifests like this:  I am busy living my happy life and I see a young mother holding her child’s hand as they walk home from school.  This never fails to startle me, like I all of a sudden remember I never had my mother walk me to or from school.  I never had anyone to walk me to school, except occasionally my brother.  I missed feeling secure in my childhood.  I was hyper-alert, constantly wondering what would happen next.

               When I see my daughters laughing with their children, playing games, or enjoying a moment, I feel joyous, too, yet empty because I cannot ever remember my mother interacting with me.  I cannot remember her voice, smile or even her face.  Did she think I was clever and precious?  I would like to think she did because I have this wonderful life with loving people in it.  My mother must have insisted I be given an extra dollop of blessings before she left this earth.  She knew I would need it.

            So, I continue to live my beautiful life, while sharing the sadness as it comes in spurts.  I accept the good and the bad, knowing that is just the way it is.  It is my normal.

 I continue to learn the lessons that grief has taught me, like how to listen, to be gentle with myself, and to be compassionate to myself and others.  I try to remember; this too shall pass, and above all, gratitude is the glue that holds me altogether. 

I cannot say I am fully grateful for the sadness, but it is a reminder of where I have been.  That reminder feeds my gratitude for the lovely life I am living now, and proves what I know is true, all things work together for good.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  Romans 8:28

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes

            I was talking to Diana, one of my teaching friends, when the bell rang.  “I’ve got to get to the hallway,” I said, and my feet lifted off of the ground.  The next thing I knew, Diana and I were floating above the students, our arms down by our sides, watching the throng of noisy teenagers below us.  Flying felt effortless and while I seemed to be going so fast, I knew subconsciously, I was right on time.  I didn’t say it, but I was thinking how great it was to be able to fly through the hallways.  It seemed so natural.

            When I woke up that morning I was elated!  Finally, I had had a flying dream.  I’ve always heard people say that they flew in their dreams, and now I was one too.  Through the years I have had several life-changing dreams.  Dreams that taught me a lesson, enlightened a dark place, and even a recurring dream that I had for several years.

            Sleep studies show that our brainwaves are most active during the REM sleep cycle.  Dreams occur when there is stimulation to the brain that brings thoughts to our awareness.  But in just the same way I could fly instead of walk, I have had dreams that I was digging my own grave, but the shovel kept breaking.  On the surface, dreams may seem obscure, even outlandish.  But look a little deeper, and there might be a lesson to learn, or an answer to a question.  Sometimes vivid dreams are a result of eating spicy food or binging on too much TV.  Sometimes they are a direct result of stress or anxiety.

            When my mother died in January of 1958, I was four years old.  One of the only memories I have is of her funeral.  My daddy had picked me up to look at her in her casket and then he leaned over and wanted me to kiss her goodbye.  I distinctly remember kicking and crying, trying not to get that close.  I clung to him like a second suit jacket, turning my head away from hers. 

            I am not here to judge my father, for right or wrong, he was doing the best he knew how.  But the trauma of that incident caused me to have a dream that returned often to me over the course of several years. In fact, I still recall it perfectly.

            It was night-time and I stood perfectly still inside my small, drafty, stucco house on Crockett Street.  I could hear the howling winds and the icicles breaking off of the eaves from the roof.  As a little girl of four, I knew I shouldn’t have been alone, but I was.

In the living room, the big picture window began to rattle, and I heard a scratching, clawing sound of something trying to get in.  The scratching and rattling dared me to peek outside, and when I did, a gust of arctic air blew toward the window and froze everything with a sheet of snowy ice.  I couldn’t tell where the ice came from, but it didn’t matter because soon the knocking and scratching was at another window.  Again, and again, at each window I would peer out to find it frozen shut until that last window when I looked out into the face of a stern, frozen Jack Frost.  His face was contorted and iced over, and he appeared angry and grimacing.  His eyes looked right into mine and challenged me to look away first.

I was petrified and barely able to breathe, when suddenly there came a loud knock at the door.  I stood completely still, heart pulsing in my ears, and my feet glued to the floor.  This time someone or something was pounding on the front door.   As if another force was pushing me toward the door, I felt my hand on the knob turning, turning until it opened and standing there was a coffin …open…empty and icy.  It was standing upright, open all the way and although I didn’t see anyone, I knew Jack Frost was near, and I knew who had been in that coffin.

This was the recurring dream that I had over many years after my mother’s death.  The same sequence of events, and the very same dream, year after year.  I’m sure a psychologist would tell me the icy Jack Frost symbolizes the chill of death.  It doesn’t take much to make that correlation, but what I’ve never understood, is why the dream returned to me year after year.  At some point between the end of grade school and puberty, the dream stopped, as suddenly as it began.  Perhaps it took that long for my mind to make sense of my harsh reality.

I have often dreamed of hosting a party at my home and the party gets out of control.  More and more people start arriving, and the music gets too loud.  I usually run out of food, and everyone is asking me questions all at once.  I’m frantic and trying to make things turn out okay, and then a tall, dark, and handsome stranger appears.

Once, after a particularly stressful day at work, I dreamed that a giant Olive Oyl head was talking to me.  (Olive Oyl, the girlfriend from the Popeye cartoons.)  Her huge head was filling up my dream space and she was yelling at me.  “Get a backbone!  Speak up for yourself!  Don’t let them get away with it!”  When I woke up the next morning, I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to solve a problem with a co-worker.

I count myself blessed and lucky to be able to dream.  I usually try to write them down as soon as I wake up.  I love being able to look back at some of my dreams at certain times of my life.  The more I remember and record my dreams, the more dreams I have.  Silly, scary, frustrating, or fulfilling, my dreams are a window into my mind and soul.  They are an extension of me.

After my father’s death, twelve years ago, I had three very distinct dreams of him.  They were so real that I call them visitations.  In my dreams we would sit very close together and hold hands.  He looked so happy and healthy, a huge difference from his worn and fragile body before he died.  On the first visit/dream, he told me not to worry about him.  “I like it here,” he said.  “I’m doing good.”  That one dream has been a wonderful source of comfort to me. 

I feel such gratitude for the messages, and insights I have received from my dreams, and I wish the same for you.  As Cinderella encouraged her woodland friends, I encourage you to follow your dreams, listen to your dreams and thank yourself for the wisdom that comes from your heart.

A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.” — Song written and composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston for the Walt Disney film Cinderella (1950).

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

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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.