coming home to an empty house and other things that matter…
i was dripping from the shower, rubbing the fluffy towel around my ears, when i thought i heard the very last sound you want to hear at 6:15 in the morning: “r-r-r-ring, r-r-r-ring!”
the phone at this dark hour is never the nobel committee calling to say, “you won the prize!”
and i, being of celtic root, always suspect disaster. “oh no, this must be awful,” i muttered with certainty, as i leapt down two steps at a time to grab the phone, to take the blow i knew was coming.
“good morning, good morning,” came the first four words. and, then, my mother’s voice went on to tell me this: “i’ve been worrying.” (no news, there; she and i have a special knack in that department.) “i’ve been thinking about tonight, and i don’t want T coming into an empty house after soccer. i think i should skip your book thing. i would love to be there. but he shouldn’t be alone when he comes home. i should be there to give him dinner, keep him company.”
and in those short few words i heard, once again, love defined by my mother.
“don’t want him coming into an empty house…he shouldn’t be alone.”
i added those few words to the lines already etched across my heart.
the ones that include:
“i always felt the most important job i could do was take care of the family so the rest of you could go out and change the world.”
and: “once your father died, i told God i was dedicating the rest of my life to however God needs me.”
in my mother’s book of life, the litany of love reads like this: clothes pulled from the dryer, folded, stacked and delivered to your bedroom chair; hot dinner, complete with cooked frozen vegetables; houseplants given weekly dose of fluids; children driven — without grumble — to where they need to be; soccer matches attended — even if they’re in kingdom come at 7 in the chilly morning.
my mother, who quietly puffs her chest at the fact that she was the only one of her circle of friends deemed worldly enough and smart enough to date my father (this, by virtue of the fact that she subscribed in 1953 to forbes magazine), is not one to knock you over with pythagorean theorems, or deep analysis of the threat of ISIS on the world stage. she will, however, quote you lines from emily dickinson, or robert browning, till you beg her to stop. and she will recount every feather she’s spotted since daybreak in the boughs outside her window and at her 18 backyard feeders (that’s a tad of an exaggeration, the feeder count, but i told you i have irish roots; embellishment is our mother tongue).
and she will quietly, wordlessly, go about the business of taking care of your house — or mine. because to my mama it is in doing that we love.
it is in wiping dry the dishes i’ve left dripping in the rack. it is in ferrying her little blue plastic cooler to our front door every tuesday, always bringing along a zip-lock bag of this or that, the ingredients for dinner pre-measured at her house, in her kitchen to bring to mine. she’s driven 9.62 miles to mix, to stir, to crank the oven, to set the table, and not forget the salt and pepper shakers. she makes a nice hot meal, circa 1970 — the prime of her cooking years when she had six hungry mouths to feed, not counting her own, of course not counting her own.
my mother is not alone in stitching the tapestry of life with petit point, those fine-grained stitches not grand in scale, not at all, but the very threads that hold us all together, that make our lives just a notch more beautiful, more breathable.
talk to anyone who’s dying. listen in on what they tell you matters most: curling up with a child — and a picture book — pressed against each other’s curves. sitting one minute longer on the edge of the bed while tucking someone in at night. spooning one extra dollop of butter in the mound of mashed potatoes. hearing the click of the front door that signals someone’s home. catching the moonlight drool across the bedclothes.
have you ever heard how hard the dying pray, for just one more round of gathering the tiniest glories of a day?
so, last night, my mama was not in the rows of a charmed bookstore, one with paned windows and oriental rugs and books bursting from the walls. she did not listen to her only daughter read from the pages of her just-published dream-come-true. (she’s not yet been to a reading, so it’s not like she took a pass because she’d already sat there drinking it all in.) no, my mama was home to turn the hall light on. to press her hand to the door handle when a tired fist knocked. she was there to warm up the orange chicken she’d made two nights before. to scoop out peas in butter sauce.
and there she sat, with the boy we all love — so he wouldn’t be alone, while his mama was off reading, and his papa was far away gathering notes for a newspaper story.
my mama stayed home at my house because she knew — without words — that it was the purest form of love that she could ladle out for all of us — not least of all for me, always torn when pulled away from where i, too, know i most belong.
my mama, once again, taught us with so few words that there’s no headline-grabbing heroism in a certain brand of loving. but in the end, the very end, those small acts of utter selfless majesty are the surest holy gospel we could ever know.
and it’s why — to this very day — i understand so deeply that i’m most at home, most solidly rooted, when i too partake of the tender acts of stitching a certain kind of attention into the daily cloth of those i love so truly deeply.
dear mama, you are loved. by all of us whom you so ceaselessly love.
what truths did your mama teach you?
p.s. as of tuesday this week, october 7, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door is a living-breathing published book. amen to that.