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.

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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.

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.

Gerry Wilson

Enter a room with four elderly women–all in their nineties–in various stages of infirmity and alertness. They are sisters, and all of them grew up with my mother in a small town in north Mississippi. This means they were all born within a few years of 1920. They were girls during the Great Depression, young women around the time of World War II. I’m visiting with them just before Thanksgiving. They are having a grand reunion, and I’m grateful to be included for a little while.

I have driven to the family farm on a gorgeous late fall day, caught up in my own memories, a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect. One of the sisters, the one I see frequently and have stayed most connected with over the years, has Alzheimer’s and is declining. I’m relieved to see that the others–Julia, Eleanor, Genevieve (what beautiful names!)–are in fair…

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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.

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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?