the stories we tell
in a hospice room 719 miles away, a cluster of people i love sit circled round a bedside: a son, a daughter, their mother. words are few now, hours vary by breaths per minute, by doses of morphine. i am there/not there by the miles on a map between us, but my every breath is with them. vigils are kept without proximities. vigils are kept by heart. and my heart is there…
this vigil, as with most any vigil, is one syncopated by its own time and twists, all of which are beyond — far beyond — our inclinations toward clock and calendar, those false measures by which we mark things. minutes turn to hours turn to days. in the timelessness of now, i’m reminded how we set our hearts sometimes by timekeeping tools of our own making. we allow for acceleration, we slow, we pace. but really all of it is no more than device within which we pour ourselves for the comfort of the walls around us. as a species we seem to prefer to plunk ourselves in vessels rather than fling ourselves unbounded onto undulating limitless seas.
i steady myself inside this landscape of not knowing by extracting and considering the stories that emerge, that tell us who we are, who we mourn and who we aim to emulate. as is always the way, the stories we extract from lives well lived are the very fibers that will weave us back together again, in the wake of our emptiness. they’re the totems and road signs that point the way for every day thereafter. the etchings of the heart that prove inextinguishable instruction, the wisdoms and glories that keep the radiance from dimming.
here’s one of the ones i will tell from the life of a woman who from the start was always in my corner. that alone is everything (especially in a mother-in-law), but more than anything i have loved her for her goodness. her endless, endless, bottomless goodness.
in a parade of tales to tell, this one i’m forever seizing: it’s the tale of a gas-station attendant and my mother-in-law, who just two months ago was as blonde, beautiful, and fully engaged as ever. the gas-station attendant, it turns out, is an immigrant woman from a sometimes-unwelcome country, who some years back with her now-late husband bought a CITGO station in new jersey, worked the register seven days a week, long hours every day, and came to know the blonde-haired lady with the old volvo as a friend, one who never failed to deliver kindness every time she filled her tank, and carefully-wrapped gifts at christmas and easter. when the gas-station lady hadn’t seen my mother-in-law and her spiffy new Honda Fit for weeks, she tracked down the home phone and left a message, saying she missed her, and hoped all was well. my husband—who has meticulously been attending to all matters of the heart, and much else besides during these long weeks—called her back, and the woman explained that my mother-in-law had always been so kind, and over the last few weeks she’d grown more and more worried by her absence. the gas-station woman said that when her own husband had died — leaving her to run not only the register but the whole gas station on her own — my mother-in-law was right there with sympathies and kindness, and had become something of a rare american friend here in this strange new land.
to befriend the folks who pump your gas, to befriend them to the extent they notice your absence, and track you down, leave word and hope you’re well, that’s a measure of goodness worth remembering.
here’s another story that’s emerged, that tells us who she is and was in the silence and the solitude when no one was looking: in poring through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in his old boyhood bedroom, my mother-in-law’s first-born and only son found a yellow legal pad with pages and pages of carefully enumerated names and gifts. my mother-in-law, an inveterate bargain hunter and irrepressible gift giver, spelled out her christmas lists every january, once the post-holiday sales were cleared, and her bedrooms filled with carefully chosen dollar-sale finds. when the Gap marked down winter scarves from $20 to $1 apiece, my mother-in-law bought the whole lot, and squirreled away each one for her endless christmas list. (she also never missed a new baby gift, a wedding, a graduation, or a sympathy gift, but hands down, my jewish mother-in-law’s favorite holidays were those wholly christian christmas and easter. maybe it’s no wonder she never minded the idea of a catholic daughter-in-law.) christmas 2021 was months ago enumerated, executed, and laid out in shopping bags all across the bedroom floors. all that’s left was the wrapping, a months-long ritual she usually began each october. indeed, my mother-in-law had her giving down to something of a science. a science of goodness, of calibrated, counted-out (and bargain-hunted) perpetual goodness.
it’s a goodness without measure, and she lived and breathed it every blessed day.
what stories do you tell of the ones you’ve loved most dearly? or even ones you barely knew but whose stories became the measures of your own every day?
for all these 15 years here on the chair, my mother-in-law was among its most loyal dedicated readers. she was the first to call if she liked it, and if she didn’t….well, the silence….
i tell her tales here with love. with so much love….
“Vigils are kept by heart.” My heart goes out to you and yours and all who love Ginny including the gas station attendant. xoxoxo
thank you sweet hh, xoxox
Have been praying, for all of you. So much love coming your way. How I love these stories of her big, kind heart, but most of all, the one about how she always loved you from the very start. (And who wouldn’t? But we know the stories of how some parents have been.) I am “the second wife,” and my own dear m-i-law was all loving towards me, for which I was forever grateful. Love you.
“all loving towards me….” pure blessing, non? xoxoxox bless you, and thank you, always always.
Sending your family and you many prayers for peace! Your mother in law is a role model for all of us1
bless you, and thank you! xoxoxoxoxo
What wonderful stories… Thank you for sharing these sweet vignettes of your beloved Ginny. Would that I could hug her and tell her that her stories are a part of me now, and that I’ll remember her kindness…. Sending tender love to each of you, and my prayers for peace and comfort. xoxo
beautiful and blessed sentiment. and somehow perhaps she will know…..xoxoxo
The gas station attendant – that is truly a testament to who your mother-in-law was, the kind, caring heart when no one was looking. An inspiration. Holding you all up during this precious waiting time, when words are no longer and presence now says everything.
thank you, dear P. xoxox hope all is well out on the western prairie…..the other night’s tornado was not far from you, non?
Thank you for you concern. The tornado swept past just 6 blocks south of us – very laser-like. Our neighborhood was unscathed, and so were friends in both Naperville and Woodridge, except for some house damage and patio furniture and grill whisked away to who-knows-where by the vortex. Thank God for phone emergency weather alerts!
Ginny is striking, so beautiful! I love hearing about this lovely woman, Blair’s mom! Mesmerizing! I’m so sorry for her not being well. Sending love to each of you! Thank you for sharing her goodness with us!! xoxo
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dear mar, her story weaves a thread into all of us. if only we could weave tapestries of everyone’s radiant threads…..sending love up BC way!
Sending prayers for everyone. What a beautiful life and gift as a mother in law!
thank you, MDP. xoxox
That was lovely, Barb! She sounds like an amazing mother in law.. Please send my best to Blair. Jacqueline >
ah, thank you, dear J. have been thinking of you so much this summer. hope your sweet boy is under your roof and making you joy. xoxox
It’s a gift to be able to read these stories, and through them to know Ginny, and through Ginny to reconnect with what makes Blair and you special. O
It’s a gift to read these stories and through them to know Ginny, and to connect again with you and Blair through her. Grace and peace….O
ah, dear dear owen, what a joy to find this on a drizzly monday morning. i’d no clue you wandered by the chair, and my heart skips a beat to find you here. we should sit at the same actual table one of these days, when the summer quiets or autumn unfolds. it’s long overdue……and would be a blessing….i will of course report to Blair of the OY sighting!
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