There is truth to the fact that, at least in this present life form, that the only way to get off a mountain is by going down. And so it was as we ended our mountain top vacation, and down from the mountain we came. Down from our cool and lofty peak we drove, to home and the sweltering, humid, subtropical remains of an Alabama August.
We drove home to the heat, to the drone of the cicadas’ buzz, and to the news that in our absence, my mother had taken a downward turn in her health. We had left town on the Friday before, after saying goodbye and wishing her an early Happy Birthday on Thursday. On that Thursday, Mark had taken her portrait, as she had requested, well, more like persisted of him. When we had gotten to her house that day, she was in her living room. She was sitting up straight and proud in her throne on wheels, freshly coifed and made up, wearing a colorful jacket, and had smiled for Mark’s camera, taking his direction to turn this way or that.
The following Monday the 11th was her eighty fourth birthday. My birthday also happened to be that day, not by chance but by my mother’s shrewd calculation and a probable bribe made to the attending doctor of my birth, that it narrowly and miraculously landed, by mere minutes, on my mother’s birthday as well. Joint birthdays and parties were the norm growing up for me, and I hated them. I wanted simply to have my special day like all of my friends did.
For most of my life I was the entertainer and host to my mother’s friends’ children for my birthday parties and I really got tired of the work it entailed. In my teenage years, I would spend my day entertaining these girls, usually at our lake place, dragging them behind the boat on an inner tube or on skies, and I grew to not be so fond of doing this role. In the more recent years of my adulthood, I have found ways to be out of town to avoid this joint party thing, and this year found us again in the mountains on my/our birthday.
While we were gone, we did learn that our daughters had taken their baby daughters to her house and found mom’s beach girls, ladies who all went to the beach house together on occasions, there celebrating her day. There was apparently some pinkish wine served and a cake and from what I was told, mom had a great birthday party. Our birthdays shared another quirk. The sum of the digits that make up our age for that year have always added up to the same number. This year we were both twelve.
When we got back into town and heard that she was not doing so well, it was not surprising, and not alarming. For the past several years, with both of my parents, it has been a roller coast, revolving door, going to and from the hospital, with one of them, or both being on death’s door. A week later, they were back home and kicking it. So one more up and down was not an altogether surprise to anyone. A few days later I got word that I needed to go see her sooner rather than later, as she was going down fast, and so I did.
When I walked into her bedroom, I was surprised to see her propped up in a hospital bed, gazing with a blank stare at the ceiling, quite a contrast from the woman whose portrait Mark had taken a week earlier. I called her name and she turned to me and mouthed my name and reached for my hand. I asked her if the birthday flowers we had sent were pretty. She smiled, and said yes, and something about them being yellow, and then fell asleep before muttering more. I was about to leave when she woke with a startle and I went over to her and held her hand again. She just looked at me, and I said “I love you”. She squeezed my hand, and slept again. This time I left without her waking back up. We were told by the hospice nurse that her time was coming, and that the possibility another rally was not likely.
For several days she fought the inevitable, and it was painful to watch her deteriorating condition. On my last visit with her, my brother and I stood by her while the nurse gave her some morphine to ease things for her. I told her that we all loved her and that it was time to just let go. Fifteen minutes later as I was driving out to the farm, my brother called and said she was gone. Whether the morphine had helped her over, or my words, or a combination of it all, she had released herself from this worldly body that had run its course, and my mother, was gone.
The funeral and all of the many details that a funeral of a notable personality entail, have now come and are almost gone. Three weeks ago, today, my brother and I began a journey to begin picking up the pieces on the day following the funeral. The journey began with our going to her house with the intent to unravel her belongings, to begin to sort them into estate sellable piles, and to eliminate the copious and varied ways that my mother planted possible security breaches, not just for her but for everyone in the family. My mother was a paper trail person, leaving hers and even ours’, personal information and numbers at every turn, in triplicate, in every box, in every corner, and everywhere. It was our job to find them, and to sort through all of the stuff that were the remains of her and my father’s lives.
In a brain numb fog I began with drawers, clearing them out and sorting what was junk, and guessing what was of possible value, either financially or emotionally. I had known my mother was a serious keeper of all things, but as we delved further into her belongings, this definition became a gross understatement. She did not know how to use a garbage can and had obviously never thrown anything away.
Then there were mountains of things she had bought as she had become older and less able to get up and do, and so we found that, in her recent years, she had spent her time and money in catalog land ordering things, ridiculous things, not just once but in multiples.
I have stuffed bags, and have waded through the artifacts of my parents’ long lives, and have begun to see that yes, while my mother was a hoarder, that she was also the keeper. My mother was the keeper of the keep sakes, of the family things, letters, photos, and memorabilia of her parents, my father’s parents, and of the many ancient ones who have passed on before us. I have read love letters from my grandfather to his soon to be bride. I have found the sweet notes my father left to mom on early mornings when he went out to slay the dragons.
I suppose anytime one cleans the drawers of anyone’s long time house, there is a lot to learn about the people who lived there, some of use and some best left unknown. I had not known that my dad regularly clipped his fingernails and dropped the clippings into the drawer of the desk that he used as his home office. I had never seen the racy “how to???” magazines that my mother had tucked away in the bottom of one of her drawers. In finding things like this it did make me more appreciative of the fact that we are all just people, even my parents, and we are all just imperfect humans on this ride.
I have found pictures of ancestors that I don’t know, each photograph taking me deeper into the lives of those that passed before me and who are part of who I am. My DNA comes from the people from these images, and mom kept them all. Perhaps she knew who many of the faces were. Some are marked with dates and names on the back but many are not. Who is now going to be the caretaker of the memories, of the nameless photographs, and for how long? My attic is full already and begs for purging lest I leave a mess for my own children to deal with when I die. Memories are like a flame that must be fed to be kept alive. The stories must be told and retold, the photographs saved, or like the flame, or a bubble, it ceases to be. When will my face be the unknown in someone’s attic and the days of my life forgotten and unknown?
Since my teenage years I can’t say that my mother and I really got along. That’s putting it
Once in high school years, mom had some fancy photographer from England come a do a portrait session with me. I very uncomfortably stood in the living room with a dress on for the first shots. Then the fellow suggested a more casual outfit, which suited me much more better. The fine portrait was finally delivered and it hung for many years in their living room. Then it magically disappeared, when news of my eloping hit them years later. It was found recently it in the attic and was brought down. A hole, and the imprint of the shape of a fist reside on the faded picture of my face. I had heard at some point that she was somewhat angry that night.
Another case of her not knowing me was when I was to turn sixteen, and was learning to drive and thinking about all of the new wheels I might get as my brothers had done when they turned driving age. We pulled into the driveway one day and she said she couldn’t stand not telling me early what I was getting for my birthday. I was absolutely giddy when she said I was getting a Porche and I listened to her describe my new car with disbelief as my car turned from being a car into a porcelain statue of a “Portia” from a Shakespeare play. I held my disappointment then and did not tell her this story until recently. She had had no idea that, as a sixteen year old that I would have rather had the Porche rather than the Portia. Again, we were not on the same track.
I have been struggling with the question of how do I feel about the loss of my mother. In my last words to her, I did tell her that I loved her and meant it despite years of our guarded relationship. We did not get along well, but she was my mother, and somewhere in there that does matter and I had to find something in this process to make this make sense to me. As I dug further into her belongings I began to see her life in layers like the peels of an onion, from the old lady she became, backwards into her younger days, days when she and my dad were having fun in life, running to Europe, skiing in Vail, vibrant and alive. With each boxed up photograph I came across the images of the years of her life stared at me and it made me wonder exactly what year, which phase of her life and mine, did we get crossed up. I then found earlier pictures from my childhood that showed me a different mom, the tender, caring mother who held me and put stupid bonnets on me and dressed me in lace.
I remember the mom who came home one day from a luncheon, dressed in an impeccable pink dress suit, and she and I lay across my bed, making a barrier for our new puppy Skippy so he couldn’t get to the edges and fall off. She wore a pillbox hat that matched her suit cloth and she was beautiful. Skippy waddled around between us and eventually he chose to lay down beside her. This made me sad that I was rejected and asked her why. She replied that maybe he liked the color of her dress and that it made him think of his mom. It was a sweet moment and I wondered how she knew so much about being a mother.
The mom who I mourn for is that mom. That is the person who birthed me, who swaddled and rocked me to sleep. She is the one who taught me to make cookies and mud pies, and how to keep myself entertained. She was beautiful and had legs that I always envied having inherited those of my father’s side of the family. She was the connection to my grandfather who gave me my first horse and it was he who taught me how to act around horses. I loved to see her, and my dad, when they dressed up to go out to a party or to a ball. She was always especially pretty when dressed to the nines and made me appreciative of the fine dresses that my uncle Wilson designed for her to wear. I am part of her and always will be, and the fact that she and my dad now both are gone is stifling.
In thinking about all she taught me, the one that I remember that stands out is, that she taught me how to hold a puppy. Once, I tried to pick Skippy up by his neck and she told me that was not nice and could hurt him. I had no idea and had no intention of hurting anything but I had to learn. I had to be shown how to hold a puppy, and, ultimately how to be a mother.
Thank you for all, mom. I love you.