The Sisters’ Story

I have never “reblogged” one of my own posts before, but here I am, on the eve of Mother’s Day, thinking I should write something about my mother, and I just ran across this post I wrote back in 2012. My mother is long dead; the women I write about here were still around at the time this piece was written. One of them, Mother’s best friend, Eleanor, died not too long ago, which makes this piece, especially the ending, all the more poignant for me. So Mother, this is for remembering you: your beauty, your fortitude, your laughter, your sadness. Your love for my dad and for me. Your sacrifices. Your truth.

Autumn

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?

The Tender, Magical Age of Six . . .

When Santa can deliver a piano down the chimney. When it takes three little boys to walk you to your mother’s car after school: one to carry your books, one your art portfolio, and one . . . well, the cutest was just window dressing.

First grader

In our little town, there was no kindergarten, but I was reading and writing by the time I entered first grade. I was also talking. A lot. Miss Agnes Ray, who had taught my mother when she was in the first grade, got enough of me one day and spanked my hand with a ruler. In fairness I have to say she had warned me more than once. I still remember how my palm stung, but I remember even more how humiliated I felt. It wasn’t over then, either. My best friend told her mother, and her mother told mine, and the hole of trouble got deeper. I didn’t talk so much in class after that.

About that piano

I remember we went to Memphis to shop for pianos so Santa would know which one to bring. In the music store, I spotted a piano with a big red SOLD sign on it and our last name. You should have heard my parents talk their way out of that one, but it was similar to the way they explained the street-corner Santas. They were all Santa’s helpers, my dad said. Santa couldn’t be everywhere at once. That piano must have been delivered to Daddy’s store and hidden in the back part that was like a warehouse. How he (and whoever helped him) got it into the house on Christmas Eve without waking me up remains one of the great mysteries of my childhood. Bordering on miracle, that’s what it was. But then, you’d have to know my dad.

Plate-glass windows

Daddy hadn’t been in the parts business very long when I was six. I loved his store. It had two big plate-glass windows, a serious office-looking desk near the front, and against the wall, a bookkeeping desk where all the account files were kept, a file cabinet with a radio on top, and on the wall, a NAPA calendar featuring forties-type beauties (a little racy; I’m surprised my mother let him get away with that one), cold concrete floors, a big heater, a long counter for serving customers, and behind that counter rows of tall bins that held the automobile parts, hundreds of them. The store often smelled of motor oil or paint, but that didn’t bother me. I loved to play among the bins and pretend they were caves or secret passageways. There was something a little shivery about those dark tunnels, but I could always come out into the light, and Daddy (and often Mother, too) would be there.

Busy dad (note the receding hairline)

About the time I started school, my mother began “keeping the books” for the business. I spent many hours playing at that big desk by the window that looked out on the street. You wouldn’t think much happens in a little north Mississippi town with fewer than 2000 people, but you might be surprised. A lot of life moved past that window.

Going back

I went in that building a couple of years ago. It’s now an antique shop, the brick facade painted dark red. I didn’t want to go in, but my husband encouraged me to do it. “You never know what you might remember,” he said, and he was right. The place felt incredibly small. The bins were gone, of course, and the automobile smells, but the pressed tin ceiling was the same, and I would almost swear I smelled Daddy’s pipe tobacco and heard the ching of the cash register.

Here’s a bit of a poem, “Parts,” about that place and time:

The storefront faced west, the plate-glass window gilded

by the late sun’s angle, hiding what was inside:

The concrete floor stained black with motor oil that poured

like syrup in winter. Smells of paint, metal, rubber, tobacco.

The slide and ding of the cash register.

The tall bins rose, ominous and unsteady, toward the ceiling,

the aisles between them tunnels, their shelves heavy with parts:

spark plugs, carburetors, batteries, fan belts. I knew them all.

In this memory, the windows are spattered

with canned snow, Merry Christmas painted on backwards.

We are there together, my father, my mother, and I.

Through the plastic mist we watch the Christmas parade pass,

the band’s music thin and distant as the shabby Santa who lifts

his slow-motion mittened hand in our direction.

What places are most significant in your early memories? Have you had the opportunity to go back?

This post is part of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge launched by Jane Ann McLachlan. For previous posts, see Recent Posts in the right column.