there should have been a gathering of little wax sticks, a whole cloud of them poked into the landscape of a buttery cake, each wick flickering, sputtering sparks, as she drew in a very deep breath, ready to blow them all out.
we should have flown in from our corners of the continent, gathered at her old kitchen table, brought our stories and quirks, raised a glass or a skinny-necked bottle.
she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
and she’s turning 90 on tuesday.
in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.
because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.
watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.
there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried.
there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest.
there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.
my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.
my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah.
my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.
she’s not one to bellyache about the missed birthday candles (all 90 of ’em), nor the noise that would have bounced off the walls of the kitchen.
on tuesday, as on every other morning in all these immeasurable years, she’ll almost certainly get out of bed before dawn, feed her birds, sit down to her crossword puzzle, shuffle off to church, maybe take a stroll in the woods, and pour herself a “drinkie poo” soon as the twilight turns on.
we won’t be there in the ways that we’d hoped. but we will all raise a glass. as i’ve just done here, a glass spilling with words. happy birthday, mom. and thank you.
what are some of the life moments you’ve missed, no thanks to the red-ringed virus?
and a bit of housekeeping:
one, a fine friend of the chair, a master naturalist i met at a meeting of the thomas merton society, a friend named paula, had a hugely glorious moment this week when USA Today ran a beautiful, beautiful essay she wrote about the bedside vigil she kept during the final hours and funeral of a world war II veteran, and i am delightedly sharing the link here.
on tuesday evening, as my mother is sipping her amber-colored refreshment, i will be ZOOMing in what amounts to the first, last, and only book tour event for Stillness of Winter. and you’re all invited! it’s a virtual book launch, courtesy of a lovely local bookstore, The Book Stall in Winnetka, and i will be reading one or two pieces, and generally delighting in seeing a host of fine faces through the screen of my laptop. it’s at 6:30 chicago time, and you’ll need to register here to get the link. it would be more than wonderful to make this something of a little chair gathering. it’s via Crowdcast and there is room for everyone! (my hope is that my brother can zoom in my mother, so we can toast her as never before…)