In my family, we tend to keep our history right where we can see it.

That’s not because we are important, or unusually fixated on the past.  We do tend to hold on to things and use them, objects that serve a function—here’s a cast-iron skillet that sizzled a half-century ago under the mastery of a cook long gone, or there’s a cherry bed frame that supported slumber for three previous generations.  These items stand as living reminders of our predecessors, keeping those souls often in the lexicon of our daily lives.  If my grandson asks me what my grandfather was like, I can point to his portrait on my bedroom wall.  If a guest drops into the seat of a simple, carved cherry rocker next to my fireplace and comments on its creaking comfort, I can smile and say it belonged to my grandmother, and so forth.

Like all families, we’ve had our share of characters, and the occasional ne’er-do-well.  But we know their stories, generally, whether or not they occupy in a place of honor on someone’s portrait wall.  They are part of who we are, and who we’ve been.

That’s why a photo that surfaced recently of an attractive, wavy-haired young man with kind eyes and the beginnings of a gentle smile represents such an intriguing puzzle.  A small, sepia-toned print of his portrait was preserved, for several decades, most likely, in a special place used often by a couple of prominent women in our family.

Yet we have no idea who he is.

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Mystery Man, liberated from an old button box

The little print, in the style popular decades before the advent of color film, measures just three by four inches, with a couple of small water stains and ragged corners. The back side of it, where names and dates are so often inscribed on family shots, is completely blank.

My mother is Chief Curator on behalf of several generations, and she delights in pairing old family items with anyone who might actually admire or use them.  Some time back she presented my daughter, a skilled seamstress, with a box of antique buttons that belonged to her own grandmother–Granny, we called this formidable matriarch.  Few things slip by my mother’s sharp eyes, but she hadn’t noticed the little portrait tucked inside the ancient button box.

“Look what I found in that button box, Mom,” said my daughter, handing over the old photograph some time later.  “Who is this?” Without thinking, I answered, “Looks like Uncle “K”—he had a wild head of wavy hair like that.”  My father’s Uncle Kenneth was a distinguished-looking physician born in the 1890s.  But, wait–wrong branch of the family. Why would a photo from my father’s side be stashed inside a button box belonging to my maternal great-grandmother?  Just to be sure, I e-mailed a digital image of the photo my father’s cousin, who replied promptly.  “Dad sure had hair like that,” he agreed, “but it’s not him.” His sister speculated that the photo subject could be a cousin on her grandmother’s side of the family, another interesting possibility, though the route into the button box still makes that seem unlikely.

I sent the digital copy to my mother for examination, wondering if it might be her maternal grandfather, a gentle, well-educated Baptist preacher who served a string of churches in central and Southern Kentucky and died in the 1940s.  “Oh, no,” my mother said flatly, shaking her head.  “That’s not Granddaddy.”

The hiding place of the little image may provide the most important clue.  The button box must tie Mystery Man to my mother’s paternal grandmother, Granny the button collector, or perhaps her daughter, with whom she lived until she died in her early 90s.  Both women sewed and crafted prodigiously, were busy and committed volunteers and activists in the ways open to women of their eras.  They were strong females who, decades before more options opened to women, forged their owns paths, professionally and personally, in part by circumstance, in part by choice.  But neither, as far as we had known, had a man in their lives for their last half-century on this earth.

Or did they?

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Formidable Granny with her daughter and youngest child

If there is a woman in our family history who had a tougher go of it than Granny, I can’t name her.  Born in Central Kentucky in 1870, Granny was forced in mid-life into an almost unimaginable situations for a wife and mother in the early years of the 20thcentury.  Married in her late 20s, she bore six children, five boys and a girl, the last one, her only daughter, arriving when she was 41 years old.  Sadly, her husband did not linger to meet his little girl, leaving the family behind, his wife pregnant, his five sons ranging from teens to toddlers, under circumstances never shared or discussed with subsequent generations.  The story was simply told like this:  He left, and never returned.

Could he be Mystery Man, in the photograph?  Could this little illustration be our only visual record of him, more than a hundred years after he abandoned his family?  My grandfather said that the children were never allowed to visit him, wherever he was, in the years that followed.  The oldest son, 15 when his father vanished and surely inspired by the wrenching dilemma of his mother and siblings with no regular means of support, struck out from his troubled Kentucky home before he was 20.  Early military experience landed him in Texas, where he settled and ascended quickly in the booming days of the early Texas oil business. This uncle amassed the only notable fortune that grew anywhere on my family tree, then became a philanthropist later in his life, with university chapels, veterans’ programs, and scholarship programs bearing his name.  He supported his mother until she died and showered generosity on others in his family.

Even though she raised a successful and generous son and remained close to all her children, it’s impossible to fathom the heartbreak, the shame, the fear Granny must have felt in those early years, alone as a mother of six.  Along with that wide spectrum emotions, did she pine for the man who left her behind after almost 20 years of marriage, maybe hide his photo from her children, underneath all those buttons?

Maybe, but I doubt it. In the language of a later era, Granny became one tough broad, and who wouldn’t, in that situation?  Determined to feed her young family, she took up needle and thread and built a business as a seamstress, designing, mending, altering clothes for men and women of her community.  That would account for a great button collection. She also apparently saved and stored some lifelong resentment, exhibiting bitter disapproval of the wives of all but one of her boys.

None of that sounds like someone who would hide a small portrait of the departed, a tiny love token of happier times.  More likely that she burned any photos or evidence of their life together.  Besides, Mystery Man’s countenance bears no resemblance to the five sons Granny’s husband left behind, of whom plenty of photos are extant.  Their sharp noses, angular chins, and high brows speak of other genetic ties.

With today’s online research tools, of course, one no longer relies on the memories of our elders or copies of old photos to document who we.  All kinds of information, much of it gleaned from archived public records, is available with a very few keystrokes, should the curious care to search. The curious should take care, however, to be prepared for what may be found.

Less than an hour on one ancestry website added a few more elements to the barely faint family image of my errant great-grandfather.  Census records when he was younger show that over the years he toiled as a farm laborer, a tobacco warehouse supervisor, and possibly an auto mechanic. There’s a record of a second marriage, just a few months after his daughter was born to his first wife, but no readily accessible evidence of divorce.  A draft registration recorded late in World War I, when he was in his forties, listed his occupation as bartender. There’s no way to know for certain, but it is possible he lived out his life as a bigamist.   All those details add shadows, brights and darks, to our image of him.  What they can’t show us is his face.

Even so, I am resolved that Mystery Man is not him.  This is a portrait of a young man, his face unlined by years of hard physical labor, or bad decisions or tragedy.  Likely a blonde or redhead with light eyes, he has strong brows, kind eyes, and heavy lips.  Perhaps he was embarking on his profession when this picture was taken—a teacher or professor?  A young lawyer?  You might even speculate he was a bachelor when the camera caught him, with no discerning wife to fulfill her role in those days of supervising his appearance. His tie is askew, his collar slightly untucked, and he needs a barber to trim the wavy mane combed severely back from his forehead.

Long before the mesmerizing ease of ancestry websites made genealogy a virtual sport, as easy as ordering shoes or sheets online, my mother undertook her own family history project.   For painstaking hours over a period of years she carefully accumulated photos, news clippings and letters into carefully organized binders, each focused on one major branch of our family.  Along with those, she added what no website ever could, in the form of page after page of personal stories about family members, gathered in writing from those who remained to tell them and copied for us, the next generation.

The first volume of this project was a Christmas gift back when I was a frantically busy single mother, too vested in my career and daughter to pay a lot of attention as the volumes began to arrive, over the years.  How nice, I thought, predicting the day would come when I’d be really glad to have them.  That part, at least, I got right.  Interestingly, I think she began assembling them when she was about the age I am now, the season when friends begin to pass on, young grandchildren grow quickly, and one’s appreciation for one’s roots may deepen with reflections on the relentless pilgrimage of time.

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Photos from Mom’s family history volumes.

And, of course, there is no sign of Mystery Man in her pages.

A reasonable guess for the identity of Mystery Man may be a fellow whose existence we knew but whose name we did not.  My mother’s Auntie, the daughter born to Granny after her husband left her, stayed with her mother the remainder of Granny’s life and never married.  Many lonely years later, Auntie reminisced about a missed chance at love with a young man who wanted to join his life to hers. Convinced that her first obligation remained to her mother, Auntie turned down his marriage proposal, later calling it the biggest mistake of her life.  Could this little portrait show us the face that she cherished?  And maybe tucked carefully away to remember, after he moved on?  How long did she think of him, after letting a different life slip through her fingers? Did she hide the photo from herself—was she too attached to destroy it, but too saddened to keep it in ready view? All those answers died with her, more than 30 years ago.

So now Mystery Man resides with us, liberated from his button-box captivity to remind us that probably no one really knows everything about their family, even a close-knit bunch like ours.  Part of me hopes we someday discover that he actually was our blood kin.  I like his thoughtful eyes and the humility in his expression.  If he belongs in the fabric of our family, via whatever unknown thread, we should keep him in remembrance.  Whatever the reason he was hidden there, he’s a portrait of bygone days when privacy and discretion were attributes valued and cultivated, when some people really kept only their own counsel and were content to take certain knowledge—call it secrets, if you like– to their graves.

 

 

My mother turned 87 a few weeks back, so I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about her legacy—never more, of course, than around Mother’s Day.  And I remembered a time a few months ago when a kind friend told her, in my presence, that she had raised wonderful children.  My mother smiled in gratitude, but responded, “Well, I had a lot of help.”  At the time I assumed she was referring to my late father, her partner in parenting and life for nearly 63 years, a memorable character and strong (to understate it considerably) father figure.  I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but now I would wager that she was acknowledging much more than just the good fortune of marrying a man who became a good father.  There were so many, many more people who helped shape the adults that her children would become.

The same has certainly been the case throughout my own journey as a mother.  My best as a mom was only however good it was because I, too, had a lot of help.  They were the scores of people who stepped onto the path with my daughter and me and walked some portion of it with us. 

I became a single parent before my daughter turned four, and I am grateful that to this day that her father and his family play a vital and major role in her life.  But as custodial parent and, well, her Mom, much was left to me to decide, to evaluate, to do.  I remember so clearly how, over and over again, I turned for help to others who stepped up when we needed them.  Or, in other cases, help was offered when I might not have been smart enough to know I needed it.  Perhaps the smartest thing I did as a mom was learn how to find help, and how to accept it when it was presented to me. 

So many faces and names come to mind.  I hope I thanked them then, but it seems like the right season to do it again, for those I haven’t seen in decades and those who remain part of our lives.  The list I started quickly grew too long to include them all here.  Nevertheless, here are some snapshots of those heroes who performed what often felt like minor miracles, in ways too broad and deep to accurately describe.  They deserve a cut, you might say, of any kind thoughts that come my way on Mother’s Day, and I send them all kudos for teaching me that parenting is perhaps the most fundamental of all team sports.

Starting in those intense early years, thank you to Miss Sheila, one of our first and most fearless daycare angels.  When I choked back tears of stress to admit, pre-enrollment, that potty training was not yet behind us, Miss Sheila patted my shoulder.  “Don’t you worry about that,” she said.  “We’ll take care of it.”  And she was right.

Warm gratitude to Miss Alice, who managed the after-school program and loved my daughter so kindly that she cried on our last day there, as we prepared to move out of state.  How could I possibly have carried on a serious career without knowing those precious after-school hours were so well accounted for?

I can hardly summon sufficient words to thank my parents, for their hands-on help and the lifelong example they set.  And my sisters, Jane and Kate, who (along with their families) took turns hosting her for summer trips, where they took her places she had never been, and enabled her to know her long-distance family so well.

Her stepmother, Lisa, once called to tell me something very difficult had happened, to make sure I could jump on it quickly.  It was not an easy thing to do, I’m sure, and I’m forever grateful to her for it.

I had a time-intensive job when my daughter was in early grade school, in those pre-internet days when you couldn’t easily work at home.  More than once I had to pick her up from after-care and bring her back to the office, with dinner in a sack.  A kind co-worker offered to walk her around, and the next thing I knew, I found her drawing happily in the executive-suite office of the elderly founder of the company.  I was mortified, but he was delighted.  Speaking of that company, thanks to Rick and David for the award that became our first trip to Europe, where my daughter and I toured London and Paris in style.  I could never have managed such a thing in those times without the company’s generosity.

Heavens, there are so many others.  Thank you, Nancy, for running a summer camp where generations of girls learned brilliant outdoor technical skills and the risk-taking and bravery that comes with them.  Nancy had to teach parents, too, and on one panicked phone call (note, it was me that was panicking), she patiently explained how the camp’s excellent safety training prepared my daughter perfectly when she was bucked out of a raft in the rapids of a North Carolina river.

Special thanks to Charla, mom of her high-school best friend, for choosing the tougher option, the hard but right thing, for calling me when you learned that my young teenager was experimenting with things that so many kids do.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to intervene at such a potentially crucial time. It could have changed so many things; who knows?

To the long series of stellar art teachers who encouraged her, thank you for inspiring skills and creativity that she continues to grow to this day.  Stained glass, ceramics, mixed media, pen and ink, fabric collage, jewelry—she excelled in all those things, thanks to your guidance, and the evidence adorns my house to this day. That’s a particular kind of gratitude from a mom who does well to get the top off of the crayon box.  

A special bouquet of Mother’s Day love to Cassie, a college student I hired years ago to ferry my daughter to sports practice and get her started on homework in those tender junior-high years.  Cassie was (and is) a godsend model of common sense, practicality, and kindness, very happy virtues for a mom who now has four boys of her own.

I’m so grateful to Carol, an early boss in the first years after college, who ran a good, values-based family business that wrapped employees in team spirit and loyalty.  My daughter has long since moved on, but when the business closed recently, the outpouring of good memories from my daughter and her friends spoke volumes about the kind of people who founded and ran it. 

When they say it takes a village to raise a child, it is a profound truth that may be undervalued in our times, where independence and self-direction may often be prioritized above family-style collaboration and support.  Maybe it’s time to re-think that status, as we renew these annual celebrations of parenthood.  For me, this week, I’m celebrating my Mom, of course,  But along with her, I’m raising a glass to all those villagers who helped make my motherhood journey what it was and continues to be.  

I could never, ever have done it without you.   Between us, we raised a fine woman, now a wonderful mother in her own right, but it took every one of us to do it.  Happy Mother’s Day, everybody.

 

I saw Death
And I grieved, right then
Stock still, I recalled the you of summers past, at your finest
Suave sentinel, on duty at the front door
Loosely, artistically lounging at your post
Terribly handsome, careless and oblivious to shape or direction, reclining where you pleased
Your blossom deliveries grew more robust every season, mellowing with the summer sun
Until tinged with pink gold dust, though your nearby friends bowed and curled in heat’s surrender
How I’ll miss you, I thought, averting my gaze from your bare limbs, ugly, chicken-bone stalks shedding nasty scales from ragged ends
Guess we’ll have to cut you down.
But a stay was granted, an unseen judge knew more than I
When a few mornings later the cold spring wind coyly waved a branch at me and the dog
Look here look here look here, the wind waved, at these tiny, itty bitty green tips, just two, tentatively emerging from the jagged drumstick end
And I remembered that nature books her own appointments, strictly on her own time, her calendar revealed to none in this life
And I remembered to hope.

And here we are: The Holiday Aftermath has arrived.

If you are among the fortunate for whom the holidays brought fellowship and giving and celebration, you may hope that memories of those times will sustain you as you face the stark days of winter’s depth and the blank page of the New Year. If you are one of those for whom the holidays mark shadowy times of isolation and unrelenting longing for the departed or the bounty out of reach, you are understandably relieved to emerge on the South end of another holiday season. Either way, up or down, the Aftermath is upon us.

Lucky enough to be in the former category this year, I was wandering around the house a few days after Christmas, swatting weakly at the detritus of celebration. As I puttered, flattening the occasional box here, tossing the ripped ball of tissue paper there, I mused on the times just concluded, on small ones who had grown and others who had aged, on gifts given and received, meals shared, rituals renewed. Pondering the inevitability that future Christmases will be different, I found myself wishing I had stopped to snap a few more photos. There are a few, to be sure, but generally, it was more appealing in to participate in the action at hand than to capture it for history.

When the puttering eventually morphed into a more serious effort to restore order, the time was ripe to load up a trunk full of recycling for deposit at our local collection site. Joining the throngs of Aftermathers clustered around doing the same, I popped open the car hatch and stared into the bags and bins for a moment. There I noticed a rather colorful portrait of the times just concluded, a sort of disorderly burst of concluding holiday color, a bit like the heightened brilliance in the sky just before the sun vanishes, on a day when the clouds are kind of ugly. Here was a more authentic portrait of our holiday, it struck me, than any photo from the scene might have been.

There on top of the bin, a few morsels of brilliant ruby contents still clinging to the sharp tin edges, is the can that held 28 ounces of crushed tomatoes for the slow-cooker beef brisket marinade. There’s a small, wistful sigh at that sight; the Christmas dinner roast mysteriously simmered itself into tough this year, failing to generate the universal acclamation it garnered last time. Ah, well. Nestled next to it, butt side up in the bin, is the empty bottle of that excellent cabernet we poured. It was dang good quality for the price, I recalled, with the estimable side benefit of a label featuring illustrations and a name that fired the holiday imagination: Freakshow. Perhaps that cab was good enough to dull the disappointment in the meat, at least for the adult participants who tried the red.

As usual at this recycling center shortly after Christmas, there was a line of Aftermathers waiting to stuff the bins for discarded cardboard, so I began to break down my boxes while awaiting my turn. Ah, yes, here is the carton that delivered the matching shoes I bought for the family, pink velvet topped with soft bows for three generations of us girls, my daughter, granddaughter Sis, and me, along with smart gray, leather-trimmed canvas for the boys, father and son. That experiment seemed successful and yielded some of the few entertaining photos I did manage to get.

And here is the carton that affirmed my passing into a brave new phase of Grandmother Gifting: This year, I gave our six-year-old Buddy a game I could not define or explain. Really, I had no idea what it was. That applied when I ordered it (trusting his mother’s excellent instincts regarding its priority on his wish list) and remains the case, now that I have seen him and his father play it. Something about spinning tops that joust each other, or something…another sigh. Perhaps G-ma’s task is to rejoice that he loved it, and relinquish my own need to understand. Never easy, but one endeavors to persevere.

Finally, it is time to toss the outer paper wrapper from a box of old-fashioned assorted chocolates, the kind my father always bought my mother, to have treats at hand for the ever-present holiday sweet tooth. Four years after Dad left us, I still couldn’t quite hand it to her and say, ‘This is from Dad.’ Instead, I stumbled awkwardly on my tongue and mumbled, ‘This is from an old friend.’ To which my mother cracked, ‘When you get to be my age, all your friends are old.’ Age may be depriving her of certain things, but crackerjack delivery of a smart line is not one of them.

And so, that was that. Thanks for the memories, Trash. Off you go, to be born again in some other form, maybe as a new can of beans destined for a pot of soup in some far away kitchen. Or recast into another solid cardboard carrier, waiting to land efficiently on some other doorstep, proudly offering a new sweater to warm aging bones on a chilly day. Into that giant green dumpster you went, so that you could rise again, once again useful, in some other place, at some other time, in a future I believe in but likely will never see with my own eyes.

Dispensing with the last bag, I slammed the hatchback, and climbed in to head home—with a welcome, but unforeseen and surely unorthodox, reason to ponder rebirth this season, now that I think of it.

4 Generations visiting New York

I noticed the other day that Christmas is back.

The signs were small, but distinct. I went looking for my holiday coffee mugs, grinning as I liberated them from an upper shelf, where they had been imprisoned for four straight calendar rotations of December 25s. Oh, yes, and far back in the dusty, unused section of the closet, there is that bling-y Christmas t-shirt, black with a reindeer outlined in silver sequins (ooh-la-la). A colleague at the office looked up the other day from her screen and smiled when I motored past, unconsciously humming the soul-powering refrain from Oh Holy Night. (Oh, NIGHT, dee-VI-I-NE, oh, oh, night…)

Hahaha, may come the retort, of COURSE Christmas is back. It is everywhere, right? That surging sea of commercial madness, as unavoidable, as intrusive, as omnipresent, as the morning sun in the dawn sky. Where have YOU been, under a rock?

Where I have been is a place where Christmas vanished with apparent finality. Four years ago, my father took his last breath in the early morning hours of December 22, his eyes on my mother’s cherished face. Somewhere far away that morning, a trap door opened, and Christmas fell silently away, vanishing without a whisper, leaving behind an empty, fathomless shadow.

When Mercy is doing her job, memory blurs a great deal about tragedy. Thankfully, there are gaping holes in my recollections of that Christmas. I do remember showing up at the appointed time for the family gatherings already planned, because that is what my mother asked us to do. I also remember two dear friends rushing over to be present that morning, just after the news came. Among other acts of solidarity, they helped wrap my pile of gifts, the Christmas task I always leave for last. I hauled the packages out to the car like a bunch of fallen alien asteroids, existence unexpected, definition and destination unknown.

When Christmas rolled around again, 365 + 3 days after Dad died, I was angry. I stayed out of the stores, away from parties, nowhere close to church. Why should I join in something shrouded in pain? How dare everyone indulge in this endless excess when others are suffering? Only the required shopping was completed, and no decorations hung. Celebrations were shadowy shams for other people, and my own deep faith had not yet moved me to the place where I could again see the Light of Christmas. I thought I never would, when the next year was about the same. I managed a few more routine traditions, mostly for the sake of those close to me, but the Light was still absent.

Fast forward to the present, a few days before the fourth anniversary of Dad’s passing. The coffee is steaming in that mug with the Christmas tree on it, and the schedule includes tonight’s Lessons and Carols service. Christmas melodies cannot be silenced inside my head, where there is no pause button to click.

How did that happen? I wish I knew. So many learned people have studied the psychology and theology of grieving (including some very dear friends), but I can’t pretend to share their insight. I did pursue help when I couldn’t navigate alone, and I certainly learned to respect grief and loss along the way. They are forces that will not be harnessed or controlled, but will march onward with power that is unique to the intricacy and scope of the love that the grief represents.

I long to understand more as I think of a dear friend who lost her life partner unexpectedly a few days ago. Each journey is singular, so no one can pretend to stand in her shoes in these early days of heartache, but I do recognize the crossroads on which her feet are now planted. How we long to comfort those who suffer at this tender time of year. We can listen and offer presence, and to that I can only add my humble testimony that grace and healing are indeed possible, in time. Perhaps it is not for us to know when, or how.

I believe that those we loved and lost play a part in that process. There is no doubt what my father would say, as clearly as if he sat next to me at this table. Never one to preach, he forged his legacy by enjoying life to the fullest, to the very end. So I say aloud, right now: Daddy, my heart is aching. I miss you so much at Christmas. And echoes like these bounce back, in response: “Watch this joke I’m going to play on your mother and see how she laughs. She’s going to love what I got her for Christmas. Can I get you a cocktail? Is the game on yet?”

And so I affirm the empowering words of author Jan Richardson, below:

“It is hard being wedded to the dead; they make different claims, offer comforts that do not feel comfortable at the first. They do not let you remain numb. Neither do they allow you to languish forever in your grief. They will safeguard your sorrow but will not permit that it should become your new country, your home. They knew you first in joy, in delight, and though they will be patient when you travel by other roads, it is here that they will wait for you, here they can best be found where the river runs deep with gladness, the water over each stone singing your unforgotten name.”

Thank you, Lord, for Peace and Light, wherever and however it may be found. Grant comfort to those who need it so much this season.  Welcome back, Advent. And Merry Christmas, Daddy.

 

A few years back, a well-intentioned therapist probing my history for signposts tried to steer me down the Mother Track.  It must be routine and fruitful territory in her line of work.  It was high on her list of questions, and she seemed mildly surprised by my responses.

“Did you resent your mother when you were growing up?”  she began.  Not that I can recall, I answered.  “Was your mother around when you needed her?” it continued.  My mother was ill for a period of time when I was an adolescent, but otherwise, always, I replied.  She tried one more time: “Did you feel that your mother understood you?”

It didn’t take me long to resent the implication that most people have Mother Issues.  Therefore, if I didn’t readily confess some, I must be in denial.

“My mother is a lovely person,” I countered, impatient at this presumption.   “I can barely remember arguing with her over anything that mattered.  She’s kind to everyone, including us.  Everyone loves her—puppies, babies, men, appliance repair people, tax accountants, everybody. ”

She took the hint and moved on, but I pondered the question later, searching my heart to make sure I wasn’t ignoring something important.  Did Mom miss any major milestones in my life?  I pictured her leaning over the gurney when I was being wheeled in to deliver my daughter.  Nope.  Did she favor one of the four of us over others?  My younger sister was her kindred spirit, the soul most like hers of all her children, so it always seemed they understood each other on a deeper level.  Did that connection serve to deprive the rest of us?  I can’t see it that way.  Did she disapprove of my choice of husband?  Maybe, but she kept it to herself and adopted him as one of her own, succeeding far better in understanding him than I did as a wife.  She grieved when we divorced, but never criticized that life-changing fracture in the family.

So, maybe it defines me as an outlier when it comes to Five Therapeutic Fundamentals that Work for Most of Us, but I loved my mother growing up.  However, emulating her was something else altogether.

In the cultural tumult of the Sixties and Seventies, when the roles of women changed forever, we so often thought (sometimes rightly, sometimes not) we knew better than the previous generation. I never really wanted a life like hers.  While she would be the first to point out she was not born to such things, my mother was, in my eyes, bridge and country clubs, stunning ball gowns and cocktail parties—while I was smoky blues bars, horse barns, jeans and bandanas, and bad boys.  Our family of six lived comfortably on my father’s income, while I instinctively knew I would always have to pay my own way.  As a working mother, later a single one, I juggled priorities that sometimes seemed a world away from Mom’s daily life, through no fault of either of us.  It was easy to assume that my father, in our traditional family structure of the era, was the tough one in the family.

Most likely I was too absorbed in my own problems, in too much of a hurry, too perennially distracted to develop the wisdom to appreciate my mother’s character.  Instead, I saw myself as different, not really cut from the cloth of her lifestyle and traditional family roles that were so easy, in those heady times, to disregard.  Maybe daughters always think they know more about their parents than they really do.  Could I ever be the person she was and is, or should I be?

The circle of life brought that question back around recently.

The phone rang early on Sunday morning, on Mother’s Day, ironically.  The screen showed my brother’s name and photo, and my stomach clenched.  When one has elderly parents, it is never a good thing when the phone rings at an unexpected hour.  Sure enough, this was one of those.  My brother, a veteran of many difficult phone calls, kindly began with the encouraging end of the painful news.  “Mom’s OK now, but we thought you’d want to know she fell during the night,” he reported.  “She banged herself up pretty good, bruised her wrist badly and cut her forehead, but thankfully, nothing was broken.  We took her to the hospital, just to be sure everything checked out OK.”

How is she now?  I asked fearfully.  Sore?  Confused?  “I’m sure she will be sore tomorrow,” he said, “but she said she is fine and seems like she really is.”

I called her a couple of hours later, anxious to hear her voice for myself.  “My arm is throbbing a little bit,” she admitted, “but nothing that a couple of ibuprofen won’t take care of.  I can handle that.”  That last sentence was delivered with the slight edge that emerges in her voice when the point is not to be mistaken or disputed.

My sister, who like my brother lives just a few minutes from Mom, dropped by with her husband to check in later, then delivered another update.  “You can’t see the cut on her head, I promise,” she confirmed.  “She’s wearing the sweater you gave her for her birthday, with pearls, and I swear she looks fine.”  She’s wearing pearls?  I echoed, amazed.  After being at the ER in the middle of the night?  My sister sent the photo above as evidence.  She captioned it The Invincible MM.  (MM is short for MartyMom, the name her grandchildren call her.)

What, I wondered for the umpteenth time in the last couple of years, gives a person that kind of strength?

Surely, the circumstances of upbringing generate roots for the character.  Born in the spring of 1931, my mother is a young member of what journalist Tom Brokaw christened The Greatest Generation in his book of the same name.  Mom was too young to have immediate contemporaries fighting in World War II, but plenty old enough to have experienced and remembered the sacrifices and the preceding Depression.  Brokaw described the age group this way: “It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.”

Along with the times in which she has lived, there are the bonds of love and family that serve to mold the soul.  An only child adored by parents, aunts, uncles, and countless friends, my mother left her parents’ home to marry a man who loved and cared for her for nearly seventy years—literally, in sickness and in health, until they were parted by death.  Not that there weren’t tough times.  Every family has them, and ours was no different, though the bonds were not weakened by circumstance.  Does a foundation of unwavering love inspire a lifetime of courage and good humor, stalwart good spirits in the face of suffering?

It’s impossible not to look inward with these questions.  Will I have that determination and grace if the fates allow me to reach my mid-eighties?  Deep in my heart, I am skeptical.  Self-pity and slights claim me all too quickly; remembering the many blessings of my own family and life is a daily effort in which I don’t always triumph. What if I become one of the grouchy ones, whose pain and isolation drive wedges between them and those who love them best?  Is it too late to hope something of my mother is inside there, deep down?

It is funny to think, at the age of sixty, that it’s finally time.  I want to be more like my mother, when I grow up.

The status of grandmother was bestowed on me six years ago last month.  Oddly, it didn’t come with a manual.  Though it is surely one of life’s richest blessings, I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.

There must be others out there who, like me, feel so different from grandmothers of earlier generations that it is ironic to even use the same title.

After all, look how the role of women has changed in our culture in the last few decades.  Neither of my grandmothers worked outside the home.  Their parents died younger, and I have no memories of any of my great-grandparents.  They had lifelong partners, enduring marriages of five decades or longer.

In 2017, it’s a different picture for many women whose kids have kids.  Having just entered my seventh decade, I’m still a working professional, with miles to go before retirement is visible on the horizon.  I’m a single woman, looking after myself and striving to maintain a social life at the same time.  My precious mother is, thank heavens, still with us at 86, so I strive to stretch my time across four generations of family.  And many of them are 200 miles away.

Mom stirring applesauce June 2016

My mom taught us to make homemade applesauce.  I hope I get to pass that technique on.

My grandmothers occupy such large places of love and respect in my memories, but can I be to my grandchildren what they were to us?  Not likely.

 

My maternal grandmother often wore an apron, and could roast the most beautiful chicken any chef every claimed.  She came to visit for working trips, joining my mother in the kitchen for the all-day process of cooking country ham, and she patiently hemmed and mended hand-me-downs.  She was a crackerjack card player, demonstrating tactics that belied her gentle demeanor.  I liked attending her church, because its rituals were open to “all who believed” and not restricted to those who completed some class or ritual declaration.  That meant that a child could share in the communion celebration with the adults.

My paternal grandmother was a stunning, petite blonde who stayed beautiful as she aged.  She had elegant taste, a fine wardrobe, and the manners of an accomplished socialite.  That included certain standards that were not to be compromised, and when they were, hell might demand the settlement of accounts.  She hosted elegant parties that required dressing just so, and my mother prepared us carefully.   If my grandfather told raucous jokes at dinner and enjoying himself too much in his cups, she registered disapproval by threatening to leave the room—and when he didn’t behave, she vanished.  No shrinking violet, that one.

Is any of that a heritage I can pass on?

Elegant parties?  I like to set a nice table, and I have china and lovely dining treasures from both of them.  But my holiday dinners are more likely to be thrown together in the wee hours the night before, after a 50-hour work week.  By the time the guests arrive, I’m lucky if I remembered to shower and put on lipstick.  I would love to learn to cook a country ham myself.  But one has to weigh a whole day invested against the convenience of buying it cooked from one of the fine Kentucky purveyors, of which there are many.

Teach my kids how to maintain a home, how to get spots out, one of many of my mother’s great aptitudes? Don’t be silly.  Not long ago, I asked my extremely handy son-in-law to tighten the handle on a finicky kitchen faucet.  Got mildly irritated when I noticed him stockstill in the middle of the kitchen, staring intently at his phone.  Don’t they ever put the dang things down?  That was before I realized he was watching a You Tube video about repair of not just any faucet, but THAT faucet.  The next generation doesn’t need our knowledge.  They get it from strangers, on a tiny glass screen.

So what CAN we offer?  After six years, here are some intentions I have set (as the yoga teacher calls it).  The important things, it seems, are less about the hands and more about the mind and heart. They are not necessarily new to this generation, but perhaps take on a different hue in today’s times.

We can show up.  When they are older and look back on important days in their lives, I hope it means something if I was there.  So getting there is the goal.  Other things can wait.

We can listen.  The world is roaring with noise and distractions that defeat good conversation.  Yet communication defines our relationships.  If my grandkids have something to say, I want them to know I am interested in hearing it.

We can ask questions.  What happened at school today?  What’s that book about? I want Buddy and Sis to know I’m interested in their observations and ideas, their kiddie jokes, their fears.  Their parents are good talkers, wonderful at encouraging the kids to express themselves and talk through things.  But it takes a village.

We can show mercy.  A while back at a family meal, my daughter relayed a story about a particularly trying episode with Sis a few days before.  Absorbing the details of this transgression, I turned to notice Sis watching me intently, brow furrowed with anxiety as she awaited my reaction.  I support the parents in their excellent standards for discipline—but there was no need here to extend the sentence already rendered by the court.  Sis’ little map flooded with relief when I returned her gaze, winked at her, and changed the subject.

We can offer sanctuary.  It’s a tough world out there, getting tougher.  Buddy and Sis are lucky to be happy and safe in their home, but when they need another place to be encouraged, empathized with, or just to raid the cabinet for snacks, my door can be open.

At six, our Buddy is an intense thinker, progressing through reason and root cause and relevance at an astonishing clip.  Thoughts tumble out so quickly I struggle to keep pace, but I do my best.  He also seems to pick up particular turns of phrase that linger for a period in the Lexicon of Buddy.  He repeated one of those multiple times over dinner not long ago.  “Evie,” he kept asking, “Can I tell you something?”

Yes, Buddy.  You bet.  I might not get it, and it won’t be long before you are so much smarter than I will ever be.  But I am listening.  Tell me.

Like so many Americans, G-ma has been diverted from her usual ruminations on grandchildren and family and turned instead to pondering this historic time in our nation.

Anyone with their eyes open in America this week has watched shock ripples that will be recounted for many generations to come.  For me, processing shock (and its close cousin, grief) seems to require a strange sequence of polar opposites.  With no intent to trivialize or make light, but only to affirm the oddities of humanity, I confess to the following map of shock in the days since the Great Eye-Opener (or GEO, also known as the American president election on Nov. 8):

Sometimes couldn’t eat; no appetite.  Then, I consumed doughnuts three straight days at the office, followed by candy later.  The sound of the television or radio was unbearable, then I found myself obsessing over every morsel of consumable news, everywhere.  One night was insomnia, then one night it seemed I would sleep until the next decade (and sorta wished I could).

Meanwhile, a funny thing happened on about Day 3, post-GEO.  I was brushing my teeth and casually listening to a TV commentator, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by so many people opining on what everyone should think, do, feel or envision now.  How exhausting, how useless. It’s too much.  I switched the TV off.

Spitting out the toothpaste with greater-than-usual velocity, I looked in the mirror, and a thought occurred. Maybe I should pay more attention to the inside of my own head, and start my examination there.  And really consider what I’ve done, just me.  Maybe, Mirror, those things are not quite as obvious as they seemed. Before.

The Mirror looked back with some questions.

“So,” the Mirror began, “Did you do what you thought was right for your country this past week?’

Well, I thought so, I began, tentatively.  I voted, early, even, wore my sticker to the office, wrote a check to my candidate, did my best to stay in the discussion in some places and out of it in others.  I stayed up later than anyone my age that I know to listen to the results and grapple with the implications.  I prayed for insight and understanding.

“And?”  The Mirror inquired.

And, what?  I stared back.

“Do you think what you did mattered?  Was it enough?”

Oh, you know, it was about the same as most people I knew—more than some, less than others, but generally the same.

“Then I’ll ask you again,” said the Mirror, one eyebrow raised, like my mother giving us the mean eye when we were kids. “Was it enough?”

Dang.  This is hard.  I fumbled for a response, but the Mirror won’t break my gaze.  And probably won’t like the first answers that float up.  They’re about status quo, and meeting my obligation, and how so many nice people think politics is icky, and sometimes I do, too, and sometimes my friends don’t like it on Facebook, and at least I didn’t write in some crazy person…on and on.

But the Mirror is not going to let me off with this, I can tell.  Best I can manage, without averting my eyes, is:  Okay, no.  In the deepest part of my conscience, down deeper than what rustles the pillowcase on the average night, I don’t think it was enough.  I’m not smart enough to know the precise factors that would have changed what happened this week, scientifically, analytically.  All that stuff.  But yes, fine, OK, I admit it, I could have done more.

“Now we are getting somewhere,” the Mirror agreed, lowering the eyebrow just a fraction.  “Would doing more have made a difference?”

I don’t know that!  I started to raise my voice.  I can’t know that.  Who can say?  I’m just one person!

“Okay, One Person,” the Mirror volleyed.  “That’s true.  But we are talking about you, after all. You are the only person we can manage.  And you think there could be a different answer, or we wouldn’t be having this little chat.”

True enough, I sighed.

The Mirror pressed on. “Sounds like you think next time should be different.  Must be different.  Fair?  If so, what does that mean?”

I don’t know!  My voice rose again, with just a shade of embarrassing panic.  It’s only been three days!  I don’t know what to do next time!    Or, now, even.  Join the march of women on Washington?  Give more money?  Help start a new party?  Wear my friends out on Facebook until they all erase me from their feeds, or find new Facebook friends?  Talk more about this at cocktail parties, or talk less?  More yoga and meditation, and better kindness to all peoples? C’mon, Mirror, help me out here—surely you can think of something!

“Go away,” the Mirror said, calmly but firmly.  “Go away and find out.  You were a reporter once; you know how to ask questions.  Start talking to people.  Watch for ideas.  Follow the people you respect whose conscience points them the same place that yours points you.  Take a step, even one.  If it’s the wrong step, take a different one.  Remember what Dad always said:  Do Something, Even if it’s Wrong.  Then come and report back.  I expect an update.  Don’t wait long.  It’s time.”

The Mirror is right about that last, for sure.  It’s time.

I switched off the light, and left the room.

Back Camera

It’s a funny thing about sisters and brothers.

You might long for them if you don’t have any.  But if you do, nothing in your life will ever drive you nuts in quite the same fashion.  That is, if you are like most of humanity.

Ours was a family of four kids, so common in those boomer days, three girls followed by a boy. My memories of my siblings as young children are distinctly unremarkable.  They might have been the bathroom wallpaper or the kitchen chairs–just there, the landscape of daily life, to be worked with, or around, as daily functioning might require.  No more, no less.

And then there was later, when inevitable dissonance and occasional outright war emerged with the arrival of adolescence.  Cruelty comes so easily then, and we devised our fair share and pointed it at each other.  When my older sister embarrassed me in front of, heaven help us, a BOY, I wrote a filthy epithet on her bedroom mirror in Vaseline (an interesting tool, yes?), using words I had never uttered out loud and might not have been able to define.  This awkward retribution earned me one of the most significant punishments of my young life.

But we three girls earned an even better one when we decided to show our young brother that he could not expect privacy in our shared bathroom.  When he sensibly resisted by locking us out, we picked the lock with a coat hanger and burst in before he could finish his business.  Our strict father exhibited zero tolerance for such bullying, thank goodness.  And really, remembering how we often we tried similar nonsense, it is a miracle that my brother is not a serial criminal, and still speaks to us.

Such stories, added to the routine family dynamics of adulthood, can crowd the heart at times.  So, when my daughter used to joke that she wished for a sister, I joked in return that I would happily give one of mine away.

That was before we lost one.

Back Camera

Perhaps more than any of the rest of us, my younger sister Jane signaled very early the adult she would become.  Named for both my parents, she was my mother’s spiritual and emotional twin, a magnetic personality endowed with faith and energy and a focus on others that drew people to her like hummingbirds to red petunia blossoms.

Her innate sense of right and wrong was maddening when we were younger.  Constitutionally incapable of tolerating unkindness or rule-breaking, she became an incorrigible tattle-tale.  For this saintly behavior we christened her Susie Good, and we dispensed revenge any time we could manage it without being caught.  We mocked her teeth, adding the nickname Snaggletooth (from the villain in the cartoon Quick Draw McGraw) and denied her entry into many of our games for no explainable reason.  Once on vacation we told her the only place available for her to sleep was in the closet, then watched with waning teenage superiority as she made the best of it and refused to cede victory by complaining.

A disposition to care for others that was embedded in her bones drew her to nursing school, and for a quarter century she nursed surgery patients, wounded diabetics, birthing mothers, and a long list of others.  She left active practice a few times, unable to disregard frustrations at the system, but she always went back to where she could get her hands on people in need.  When I observed that she would have made a great doctor, with more money for less hours worked, she rolled her eyes and shrugged, noting sarcastically that nurses are often closer to patients than doctors, and wasn’t that, after all, the point?

I can’t remember when I went from mocking what I perceived as a campaign for sainthood to admiring the person she became.  It might have been when I noticed that she showed up at every major turning point in my adult life.  She spent the night before my wedding, dispensing meds for the wedding-day diarrhea, my system’s physical signal of the unspoken fears that I was making a terrible mistake.  She took turns with my husband coaching me through labor, joking with the doctor about my cranky demands and patiently explaining every step.

Years went on, but her pattern remained.  With my older sister and brother, she came to unpack on moving day and stood by as I sobbed through my daughter’s graduation.  She drove an hour to my house so I didn’t have to be alone to tell my daughter the cat died.  Then my daughter married, and her aunt helped coached her through the birth of her first child.

My opportunity to try to balance the ledger of debts arrived way too soon, in the way you think happens to other people.  Suddenly, other people were us.  Diagnosed in her late forties with a rare and lethal form of breast cancer, she set out to wage war, and she succeeded so well for so long that at times we allowed ourselves to assume she would be among the few who beat the odds.  Whenever possible, I showed up for appointments and treatments and tests and sat in as bench support.

Even with all her professional insight, the system occasionally failed her, with an insurance snafu or a small clinical step overlooked.  At those moments, I bared proverbial claws and wanted nothing more than to use them to rip flesh somewhere on somebody, anybody, creating an uglier, bloodier version of Shirley MacLaine’s rant around the nurses’ station in Terms of Endearment.  My ferocious anger at any missteps astonished even me, but it didn’t take psychoanalysis or genetics to understand its roots. Watching her struggle was the tiniest millimeter away from experiencing it, since a sister is the nearest replica ever created to a woman’s own being.

When she said she just wasn’t up to attending the birth of my daughter’s second child, instinct told me time was short.  Diagnostic affirmation soon followed.  Along with her own two daughters  (both steadfast, brave and pragmatic like their mother), all three of us siblings took turns at her bedside in those final days.  In my heart, deepest dread joined with surprising gratitude for the privilege of being nearby, of witnessing the final steps in a journey she had defined so remarkably, all the way to the end.  As I bent to say my farewell on the last day I saw her, I said, “I’ll see you again.”  And I still believe it.

A person who lives life in service to others leaves behind a wide legacy of gratitude and, for one taken so young, profound heartbreak.  My own sense of loss at first seemed strangely functional, oddly physical.  It was like a power tool had ripped away one of my toes or fingers, or like I sat on a stool with a leg missing and was dumped sharply onto my butt on a concrete floor.  When grief is described like a part of you is missing, I had never before known how literally that’s true.

Thinking of her so constantly three years after she left us, I’m watching young siblings in our newest generation.  Their bonds and conflicts, their tender affection and dissonance, all ebb and flow with time and context.   After Buddy and I viewed a spectacular exhibit of antique Italian cars one day recently, the first thing he selected in the museum gift shop, without pausing to ask, was a present for his sister.  A couple of days later, I stepped in between them just in time as he screeched in frustration and lunged for her.  Her mistake?  She had boldly subverted his demands that she stay on her side of the line (literally) and color on her own dadgum side of the page.  And so it goes.

Will love triumph over the oceans of things that shadow sibling relationships over time?  Will they stay close enough to cheer each other’s successes, maybe even help the other one get there? If one is touched by tragedy, will the other stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to fight whatever needs fighting?  Of all my prayers for their future, none is more fervent than the one hoping nothing alters that singular sibling bond.

That, and the chance to be around long enough to see what happens.

An age-old instinct was triggered the other day, when I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, felled by a nasty stomach virus and trapped at home, recovering but still weak and irritable.

I wanted my Mom.

A little old for that, aren’t you, you might say to a woman with grandchildren who is approaching a significant birthday, one of those landmark years that ends in zero.  Who cares?  If your Mom is good at doling out sympathy, why bother to outgrow reaching out for a healing dose?

Mom ranks with the best at dispensing heartfelt consolation to the sick or injured.  (On some other matters, she leans more toward the help-thyself-and-get-over-it methodology, but that’s another story, another day.) Lucky for me, she’s as close as the phone, so I dialed her up, hoping for the desired helping of conversation.

A few months back, it seemed those days might be over.   With no warning signs, Mom was suddenly taken by something that looked and felt like a stroke.  Conversation became halting, confused, a struggle, and in a blink she went from taking daily strolls to being unable to rise from a chair unassisted.

Immediately, painful decisions shadowed the horizon.  Maybe a different facility was needed, with a higher level of care?  And a smaller room, with more reduction of her beloved inherited belongings, another change, another set of caregivers to learn. From where we stood on the path–and certainly for her– the journey ahead dictated hard, hard steps.  My attentive brother and sister, both in the same town with her, shifted into efficient action.  They got her on the list for a good nursing home.  There was a long round of doctor’s appointments, parallel to conferences with the staff at the assisted living facility that has become Mom’s home and community these last two years.

The thing about living with aging parents is the uncertainty.  Those blessed with good genes and life choices may walk the aging path with few health-related diversions, but for so many, there are constant ups and downs that leave us, still the children at whatever age, unable to know what any given day may bring.

Against the odds, the days might bring a pleasant surprise.  A little time passed, and we paused to reassess.  Slowly and determinedly, Mom showed some improvement.  Physical therapy renewed strength and motion.  She brightened up in conversation and felt strong enough to tell my patient brother in no uncertain terms that she was simply not up to moving anywhere, period.  A second episode occurred, but she recovered even more quickly.  The inevitable, detailed physical workups revealed—nothing.  Mysteriously (as modern medicine remains, more often that we think), the doctors told us what didn’t happen, but not what did.  There was no stroke, no heart problem.  Mom has changed greatly in recent years, that’s for sure, but for now, she is pretty much back to where she was before these frightening, inexplicable episodes.

So what does that mean for today, for the journey ahead?

It is hard to fully banish, in the back of the mind, a whispered undercurrent of unrelenting dread.  Practically speaking, of course it can’t last forever.  When my cell phone flashes my brother’s name at an unusual time of day for his calls, a small vise grips the heart.  Is it The Call, the one I don’t want to answer?

Of course, the flip side of this thought process is simple. What could be more absurd than seeking to predict what cannot be predicted?

To release that anxiety and turn to living each day to the absolute utmost, I probably should study the example set by:  my Mom.  Along with the hoped-for sympathy for my embattled digestive system, a rather persistent state of misfortune she acknowledges I probably inherited, there was other news on the recent phone chat.  There were updates on the summer garden, a visit by the great-grandchildren, and a satisfactory report on the interim pastor at church.  A recent surprise engagement party for one of her granddaughters required dressing up and traveling two hours in the car, each way, with a late-night return home.  True to form, she firmly refused to miss a good party. Even with all that time has wrought, and the roller coaster of what has been and what will someday inevitably be–for now, for today, the things that matter, matter still.

And that includes a few helpful details, such as instructions on what to eat when one is recuperating.  “Now, you take care of yourself, sweetie,” she instructed cheerfully, wrapping up our chat.  “You’ll have to eat something to get your strength back.  Bananas, lots of bananas.”

And there was nothing to be said in response except, “Yes, ma’am.”