Labor Day weekend is always a time of goodbyes–to beach swimming, enthusiasm for tending the garden, and white pants. I said goodbye to my son last Saturday as he set off on a four month trip to Asia. My husband’s dear Uncle Roy went off to heaven at age 96. And our grandson said goodbye to infancy as he celebrated his first birthday, ready to take his first steps.
The first anniversary of my Mom’s death was just a bit ago, marking a whole revolution through the seasons and holidays, special days that measure a year. I can’t say I felt relieved or glad to pass this mark, as if the grief over losing her should now be some other stage or feeling. I told a friend who asked about it that it felt like a bruise healing, turning from black and blue, then fading to green and yellow and disappearing altogether– but remaining tender. I don’t want to yet probe that tender spot too much. It still hurts, especially when I think of mom in the most ordinary of moments.
My mother-in-law suggested I read The Summer of the Great Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle. You all know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, but I am also a fan of the Crosswicks Journals she wrote in the 1970s, especially A Circle of Quiet about balancing a writing life with family life. It was my first introduction to this type of memoir, written about “ordinary life.” Granted she lived a very different life from mine, note * French Boarding school, and a husband who played a doctor in a daytime soap opera, but I found a connection to what she explored through her writing. And I found a shared experience in The Summer of the Great Grandmother in her description of the last months with her aged mother, who like my mother died within the short season–of one summer. MLE’s mother died at 90 of atherosclerosis, or what she calls “senility.” My mom died of pancreatic cancer just after her 81st birthday, within only eight weeks after we learned about it.
She says, “The most ordinary of deaths is the death of a parent, so what I experienced last summer is something I share with many other people. And I feel the need to reach out and say, this is how it is for me. How is it for you?”
These are MLE’s words but could be my own. Yes, expected, but the loss is something entirely individual. MLE and I tried to help our dying parent have a “good death” and saw to it that they had care at home. There would be time to reflect on mom’s life’s purpose, what kind of parent they were. Did they love us, did we do enough for them in their last months and days? The hesitancy to leave them at all, momentarily or forever.
She talks about Ousia, what she calls the essence of being. We all have it. And that is the part of loss that we mourn, and cannot quite fully comprehend, but feel most acutely.
“To the ancient Hebrew the ultimate hell is being forgotten, erased from memory by family tribe and from the memory of God. If God forgets you, it’s though you have never existed. Your life, your being, is of no value whatsoever. This is the cold fear of death, that this person who we love will be forgotten. Each day passes we feel their presence less and less, their image and impact on your life fades.”
Yep, that is what I most fear, feeling her presence less and less. But I will never forget my mother. It’s just that remembering her is still hard, because her presence is something I can’t have.
My husband, Phil in an effort to deal with the plastic bins in the garage from Mom’s storage locker tackled the huge job of scanning the Bertrand family’s photographic slides. There were dozens of Brown Photo’s orange and brown boxes containing tiny cardboard-framed images, some filed in boxcar style magazines for the old Airequipt projector that brought these images alive on our living room wall. He scanned each and made them in to a new kind of slide show- a digital album of my childhood. It seems my life was made up mostly of birthday parties, Christmas morning, first days of school, and family vacations. Because in those years, the cost of film and developing made each frame count, a picture’s composition was weighed before the shutter snapped. A frame was not to be “wasted” on trivial moments. There are few photos of me in the act of an ordinary day.
But there is one photo that stands out for me, one I don’t remember ever seeing before. It is my Mom and I sitting on the edge of a rock wall, possibly at Lake Mille Lacs in the Fall, when I am eight or nine. Just the two of us. Her hand is on my wrist, in a protective way, likely concerned I might fall backwards in the water, or wanting me to be still for the photo. Her gaze is fixed on something unseen, my sisters playing on the shore? My Dad who is taking the photo?
She looks like my mom, the young and beautiful mom of childhood who was always there– to get me off to school with a decent breakfast, to be there at the kitchen table to help me get started with homework, while she chopped celery and onion for the casserole for supper. She was at school as the room mother, the one who sewed the dance costumes, led the girl scout troop, allowed us to rearrange the furniture to make apartments for our doll families or to make a mess mixing cookie dough with the neighbor kids. The mom who was capable and friendly, someone you wanted to be around. She made things safe and fun. Whether she was a sympathetic ear to a friend over the phone, or demonstrating how to make a float out of a card table and a wagon, she was the one who knew what to do, what to say, how to be Mom. I couldn’t imagine being without her comforting touch, the back of her hand at my forehead, or smoothing my hair.
Many of the images of Mom may not be captured in the photos, but reside within my head and heart. And her Ouisa feels very close when I study this photo–of just the two of us.