Autumn

I’m writing today in response to Wordsmith Studio’s Weekly Writing Prompt. Autumn isn’t so much a season here in the deep South as a blink, a held breath between our unbearably hot summers and what passes for winter.

This year has been different, though. We’ve had pleasant days and cool nights since September (granted, with a few summer-like days thrown in). By Wednesday, we’re in for our first shot of “arctic” air: a cold front is headed our way, promising to drop our night-time temps into the twenties. The maple tree in the photo below is now bare, and the ginkgo trees down the street are not quite at their peak, but in a day or two, they’ll drop their leaves in a chorus of yellow, all at once, a carpet on the ground.

Image

The glorious season

I was already thinking about the change of seasons before I read the Wordsmith challenge. I love this time of year. It’s such a glorious season: the riot of color, a certain quality of light that renders everything sharper, the clean air. Autumn, for me, is almost one of those “thin places,” where the temporal meets the spiritual in an unexpected way. So why am I melancholy, I’m wondering.

And then: this memory

My mother died on an unseasonably chilly October night. She had been sick for three years, off and on, but the “terminal” aspect of her illness had lasted only a couple of weeks. I say only because I’d been told it could take months for the cancer, which had spread to her lungs, liver, and brain, to kill her. What awful weeks those were. Once I’d known her prognosis, I’d arranged to move her to a local hospital so I could more easily take care of her. All the doctors could do was try to alleviate her pain.

I remember asking a friend to bring my younger boys to visit her in the hospital. (My two older sons were already away at college.) I thought it might lift her spirits. I helped Mother “primp”: I brushed her hair, put on a little rouge and lipstick. She looked awful by that time, and there was no disguising it, but for the children, she wanted to try. By the time I was done, she was exhausted. The boys came, and the visit was awkward, silent. Mother tried, she really did. But her eyes already seemed to look far away at something or someone I couldn’t see.

A week later, my mother was dead. I sat with her in the last hours. One of the nurses told me to talk to her, to tell her it would be all right if she left me. And so I did. I told her it was okay to go, that my dad was waiting for her, that I would be all right. My sons, whom she loved dearly, would be all right. Her eyes, half-open, seemed to register nothing.

I had never been in the presence of death before. Oh, my maternal grandfather, had died in the house when I was ten, but that was different. This time, I was in the room. Up close. A friend came to wait with me. I’d been told it would happen soon. I sat there, listening to my mother’s breathing that had gone shallow now, such a relief after the past two days when every breath had been a terrible struggle. And then, suddenly, the absence of breath. Silence.

The nurse came and confirmed what I already knew. She and my friend left me alone with my mother for a few minutes. I was calm, struck only by how quiet it had been at the end, as though death was the most natural thing in the world, far less brutal that the slap on the bottom of a newborn.

After the paperwork was done, about midnight, I walked to my car, alone. Cold, a gorgeous full moon shining. I would have to tell my children. I would have calls to make, and arrangements, but all of it could wait until tomorrow. I did not cry. I had already done a lot of crying in the previous days and weeks. I breathed in the chilly air. The moon and the beautiful night seemed like signs: of life and joy in the midst of death and sadness. Of gain and loss. Of earth and heaven, joined.

So maybe that explains my love of this time of the year, even though it’s tinged with nostalgia. I love the passage of all the seasons, reminding me of the stages of life and how precious it all is.

What is your favorite season? How does it feed your memory and your stories or poems?

Age Ten: The Hush of Ice and Death

My dad after the ice storm

People might think of Mississippi and imagine almost tropical weather. Along the coast, that’s true, but in the hills of the north, the winters can be harsh, and it’s not that unusual to see snow. Snow immobilizes us Southerners, but the worst winter weather element is ice.

The winter before I turned ten, we had a terrible ice storm. I remember thinking how beautiful it was at first, that fine glazing of everything in a shimmer of ice, but as the ice got heavier and weighed down the trees, some of them bent, and others snapped. So did the power lines. The frightening sound of limbs breaking and big trees coming down went on all night long. We woke to a wonderland of white and crystal, blinding in the sunlight.

We were without power for at least a week, but we were a hardy lot. Or at least, my parents and grandparents were. I remember candles and kerosene lamps, and biscuits and scrambled eggs cooked on top of an oil stove that was our only source of heat.

Papaw and me

My grandfather’s health was failing by then. I’ve told you that I grew up in a kind of hushed atmosphere because of his illness, and as he grew sicker, there was a pall over that house. My bedroom was next to my grandparents’, and I would hear his coughing all through the night. I still have a vivid image of him, gaunt and frail, propped against pillows, smoking a Lucky Strike, listening to a baseball game on the radio.

The funeral was held at our house. It was what he had wanted; no fine church funeral for him, and there was no funeral home in town. Somebody moved all the living and dining room furniture out except for the piano and brought folding chairs in. In the dining room the casket sat on sawhorses draped in black velvet. It was February, and carnations were the flower of choice. To this day I can’t abide the smell of carnations.

I remember how we stood in the hall, my mother, my grandmother, and I, waiting to go in for the viewing. My heart pounded. I wanted to run. I was ten years old. I could not imagine death. When my grandmother leaned over and kissed my grandfather in his casket, I was astonished. How could she do that? What did it feel like to kiss the dead?

My grandfather became a character in a story about a boy, Jack, whose father deserts the family, and Jack and his mother go to live with the paternal grandfather. The grandfather–Pop–teaches Jack to smoke when he’s thirteen. After that they often smoke together. When Pop is dying, he asks Jack to bring him a cigarette, which creates a dilemma for Jack. It’s against doctor’s orders, but what can it hurt?

Here’s a bit of “Smokers” (the “I” is Jack, the grandson):

I raised all the windows in the room and switched on the attic fan we used only on the hottest nights because Mama complained that it gave her sinus trouble and made Pop’s coughing worse. When I handed him the cigarette, his hands shook so that he dropped it.

“Light it for me, Jack,” he said. “I don’t think I can do it.”

Now that we’d tricked Mama into leaving, I was getting scared. “Pop, I don’t think this is a good idea. Maybe—”

“Please, son. Just light it.”

I had gotten pretty good with practice. The old lighter flicked once, twice, then caught. I lit the cigarette and handed it to him. I had to cup my hands around his to steady it. I was surprised at how deeply he was able to inhale and exhale. Then he held the cigarette himself, balancing it between two fingers of his right hand, almost gracefully. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and let out the longest sigh I ever heard. For one awful moment, I thought he might be dying, but when he opened his eyes, they were light and alive. He wagged the cigarette at me and said, “Don’t you want one?”

“Yes sir. I do.” I lit up, too, and we sat there and smoked together. I watched the clock, and when I figured we had only a few minutes to spare, I pulled the Juicy Fruit from my pocket and took his cigarette and mine outside and crushed them in the dirt under the shrubbery next to the house.

My heart was pounding when I walked back into his room. There was no way that Mama, with her practiced, keen sense of smell, wouldn’t notice cigarette smoke. I stood in the middle of the floor like I’d been nailed to it, not knowing what to do.

What age was a turning point in your awareness of death? Was there a time in  your childhood when you felt deeply threatened or frightened? Tell me about it in a comment, or if you don’t want to share, write it down. I believe you’ll be glad you did.

This post is the tenth in a series of memoirs in response to Jane Ann McLachlan’s October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge.

Age Three: Some Life Lessons

A dress my mother made for me

When I was three years old, my paternal grandmother died just days before Christmas, almost a year to the day after her husband had died. What awful Christmases those must have been for my dad, but I never knew it. As I said earlier, I have no memory of my dad’s father. I don’t remember his mother, either, but I remember the wake. I remember being carried into that little house that felt close and hot (it was late December, after all) and seeing a big box placed against the back wall of the living room. The room was dimly lit, but there was no avoiding that box. My grandmother was inside it. I remember wondering why she was sleeping there. I didn’t associate her stillness with “dead.” I had never seen anything lifeless. I didn’t know what dead was.

I filed that image away in memory. Many years later, thinking maybe I had dreamed it, I finally asked my mother if she and Daddy had really taken me to the house after my grandmother died.

She looked at me sort of funny. “We did,” she said. “Why?”

“Well, I remember it.”

She shook her head. “That’s not possible. You were too little.”

“But I do.” I described the room and where the casket was placed against the wall and how it seemed like I was looking down at my grandmother.

“It’s because your daddy was holding you,” Mother said, looking stunned. “That would explain why you were looking down.” I don’t remember whether Mother asked me if I was afraid. I was later, with other deaths, but I did not see another dead person until I was ten years old.

“There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead . . .”

An only child, by the time I was three, I was used to playing quietly by myself. I was a girly-baby doll kind of little girl. I had already begun to collect storybook dolls. Each time my dad went to Memphis on business, he brought me a “surprise”–sometimes a little doll (Bo Peep, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood . . .), sometimes something very special, like the rabbit fur hat and muff that made me sneeze. I loved pretty dresses. My mother was pretty, and I wanted to be pretty, too. (She did her part, rolling my hair in pin curls to try and tame it.)

I loved playing dress-up. I could make a playhouse out of anything–under the table, outside under the willow tree or even under a shrub!

Early morning dress-up time

About this time, the first thing I did every morning was put on a pair of my mother’s slingback heels and a hat and stash a big purse under my arm and head out to the garden. Never mind that I was still in my nightgown or that my hair was in pincurls. Nothing stopped me!

Meanwhile, in the house, there was sickness. But that’s a story for another day.

Maybe I was already learning to escape.

I still have some of those dolls, by the way. What childhood mementos do you have? What brings the memories back?