March 23: A Memoir

Today is my mother’s birthday.

She should have been ninety-six years old today. She should have lived that long; she had the genes. Her mother, my grandmother, lived to be ninety-seven. Mother would have lived to see seven precious great-grandchildren, some of them now almost grown up themselves. But she didn’t live. She died of uterine cancer in 1985, when she was only sixty-five, so young by today’s standards. Had she gone to the doctor sooner, it’s possible that she might still be here, but she ignored the signs that something was wrong. She was too busy taking care of my grandmother, who had had a stroke that fall, to take care of herself. The way she’d neglected herself to look after my father.

In February 1982, my father had died of a heart attack and the bottom dropped out of my mother’s world. They were married forty-seven years. She was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married–an unlikely pair, but they adored each other. A couple of months after his death, Mother hemorrhaged, and her cancer was diagnosed. She underwent horrible treatments: radium implants in her uterus that kept her in bed for a week in the hospital, unable to move, then surgery, then more radiation. And after, she suffered from various complaints, strange swellings and numbness, odd neurological symptoms nobody seemed to be able to explain, weight loss. But she persevered. I can see her now, doggedly walking the block of broken sidewalk in front of her house, back and forth, back and forth, to get in her “mile” for the day.

The thing is, she lost the will to live. I asked her once, when she seemed particularly down, “Why aren’t we enough?” By we, I meant me, and my sons; why weren’t we enough to make her want to live? She had no answer.

I read a piece this morning in The Washington Post about depression and suicide. I don’t believe my mother ever contemplated suicide. She would have believed that suicide was wrong, sinful. But I know she suffered from depression, and periodically, when she felt “low,” she would go to her local doctor for a B-12 shot to pick her up.

motherme 1
Mother and me

When I look at photos of her now–her pretty blond hair, her blue eyes, her smile–I think about how those photos belie her real nature. She was often sad and insecure, even though she was smart and beautiful. When she was dying, the nurses in the hospital talked about how beautiful she still was. But she had a complicated and difficult relationship with her own mother, and much of her insecurity must have sprung from that. I remember one day when my grandmother made a cutting remark to Mother and stalked out of the room. My mother stood with her back to me, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter. She was already sick by then, but it wasn’t the sickness that spoke when she said, “Why is it that nothing I do is ever good enough?”

I don’t remember what I said to her. I was too furious with my grandmother and if I recall correctly, I followed her to her bedroom and told her so.

Today I’m remembering the complex dance of three generations of women, our lives bound together by blood and place. Long after my mother’s death, and my grandmother’s–she outlived my mother nine years–I  still feel my mother’s presence. Sometimes when I laugh, I’m startled because for a second, it’s my mother’s laugh I hear. Because she did laugh. She grew roses. She entertained her garden club. She was active in her church. And she loved my father and me and my sons so very much.

One last memory: when she was getting sicker and could no longer drive, she would get a friend to drive her to meet me half the distance between our towns so that my two younger boys could spend a few days with her. I wonder how they spent that time together. I’ve never asked them. They were old enough to understand that she was ill, but they went anyway, willingly. I think she was determined to spend time with them so they would remember her, and they do. They loved her.

As do I.

It’s a Wonder-filled World

My third-born son and his daughter are off on an adventure this week. They are in New  York City to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. He decided a couple of years ago, when his oldest turned thirteen, that he would take each child (there are four of them) on an “adventure of choice” for that special birthday–just Dad and Kid. His son chose a rafting trip in Georgia and a Braves game. Pretty easy. Doable. A Guy Thing.

NYC

It’s a Wonderful Town!

When he asked his daughter back in the spring where she wanted to go for her birthday, she said, in her lovely, a-bit-melodramatic way, “Oh, Dad! I want to go to New York!” He was more than a little taken aback, I expect, but he’s worked hard to pull this trip together–a special time with a special girl who’s growing up fast. They do that, you know, these children and grandchildren. They seem to go from floor-walking  nights to terrible twos to first grade to “Where are the car keys?” overnight.

My son sent me a text message right after they landed in NYC. “She’s freaking out!” he wrote, which about says it when you’re in that city for the first time. They’ll see a play or two, take in the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, and Central Park, Strand Books, and do some of the usual sightseeing.

Mostly, she’ll see a world that’s very, very different from hers, even though she’s spent most of her young life in Atlanta and Memphis–cities, but not cities in the sense of New York. Not colossal. Not stupendous. Not larger than life. I expect, knowing her sweet, caring nature, that she’ll be disturbed by the street people. That’s a hard dose of reality, but I hope, I pray it won’t overwhelm her wonder. Maybe it will become part of her vision of what her life can and will be, of how she can make a difference.

What a birthday! What a gift is wonder, tenuous and rare and without price.

But wonder is something we grownups often lose along the way. Disappointments, failures, loss, illness, betrayals–the big doses of reality keep our eyes to the ground, not like we’re looking up at the Manhattan skyline in amazement. I remember that feeling. I wasn’t thirteen the first time I saw the big city. I was in my twenties, but my “freaking out” was much like this child’s. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot to keep looking up.

Re-discover Wonder!

Granddaughter Lucy at three

So here’s a tip for you, if you’re mired in child-rearing and work and housework and tending to elderly parents, if you’ve got your nose to the grindstone and don’t think you have time to look up. This applies especially to my writer friends who, regardless of age and stage, struggle to fit the writing into a “life happens” schedule.

It’s possible to re-discover wonder. You find it in the smallest things: hummingbirds hover at the feeder; something you’ve planted takes off and grows, blooms, yields fruit; music gives you goosebumps; the waves just keep on pounding the shore, timeless and immeasurable. You find it in your children (or your grandchildren), when you see reflections of yourself and their parents and your own parents, generations come together to make these remarkable individuals. You imagine their lives years from now, who and what they may become. It’s wondrous. Miraculous, really. And that’s just the real-life side of wonder.

Wonder on the Page

There’s wonder, too, when the voices come in your head and you put words on the page. When you re-create your own life experiences. When you make characters, lives, places, worlds. When you make the stuff of poetry. When you read your words aloud, new words that didn’t exist before you put them together just that way, and really hear them. Wondrous. Yes.

This child, my granddaughter, has the writer genes, for sure. She reads voraciously. She acts, she sings, she writes poetry. I encouraged her to take a journal with her on this trip. I’m hoping she’ll share some of her observations–her words–with me.

So happy birthday, Granddaughter. Life is wondrous indeed. It’s nice to be here.

Today, look up. Discover something wondrous in your world. Write about it. Read it aloud and hear your own voice. Tell me about it here.