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.
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…
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 shape physically, considering their advanced age, and their minds seem reasonably sharp. They all exclaim over me and say I’m the image of my mother.
Eleanor is exactly the age my mother would be. They were very best friends growing up and throughout my mother’s life. With some difficulty Eleanor stands when I walk in the room, comes to me, and hugs me hard. In spite of her age and having suffered a broken hip a few years ago, she stands straight and tall, but she feels fragile in my arms. I can still see the Eleanor of fifty years ago in her features. When we sit on the couch together, she takes my hand and holds on tightly.
Over the course of the afternoon, Eleanor tells me many times that she and mother walked to school together “from the fourth grade on.” I wonder how that was possible since they lived across town from each other, but I don’t ask. I have brought photos of Eleanor and of my mother and dad, hoping to jog her memory, hoping for stories. She talks about how beautiful my mother was and describes in detail a blouse Mother wore about the time she and my dad married. “It had a beautiful, pleated collar that framed her face,” Eleanor says. Remarkably, she has described the blouse in the photo below. Mother would have worn it around 1940, more than seventy years ago.
My mother died in 1985, and I never see Eleanor that she doesn’t tell me that she still misses her. But Eleanor’s stories are changing. She tells me she has letters Mother wrote to her about my dad when they were first dating. The last time I talked with Eleanor, the letters were about Mother’s pregnancy with me. I’ve never seen them. I’m not sure they exist any longer. The topic of letters reminds me that these women went off to college, and my mother did not. I wonder how painful it was for Mother to be left behind. Of course, if she had gone away, she wouldn’t have met my father when she did. They might never have met. She might have had an entirely different life. I wouldn’t exist.
One of the other sisters says, “You played at my wedding reception!” It’s true. There’s a photo to prove it: Genevieve in her beautiful wedding dress, standing beside me at the piano. I was ten. Today, she has a lovely, serene face. She chats and smiles. But when it’s time to go to the table, her daughters lift and carry her.
During lunch I sit next to Eleanor. There is lively conversation, but she’s quiet. After lunch, a couple of the sisters doze in their chairs. “When are you coming to see me?” Eleanor asks. “Will it be soon? Will it be December?” I say I’m not sure, already feeling guilty, thinking about all the reasons I should go and all the reasons not to. They aren’t valid excuses. What better way could I spend my time during the holidays than to take a day–just one–and go and visit her?
When it’s time for me to leave, I’m filled with sadness. I wonder about the memories and stories my mother might have contributed had she been here. I think about how, when I laugh, it’s my mother’s voice I hear.
Eleanor insists on getting up from the couch and following me to the door on her walker. She stands in the doorway and waves as I’m driving away. My last glimpse of the farmhouse, she’s still there at the door. I wonder what she’s thinking. My eyes fill with tears. I hate to leave her especially, not knowing whether I’ll ever see her again.
I’m overwhelmed by such an accumulation of life and memories and years gathered in that house. I’m struck, as I am so often now, by how stories change over time. I’m sure my own stories are changing, but what time robs from us it also invents, as long as we keep telling.
Are you “in between” the very young and the very old? What are you doing to preserve the stories?
The best way to describe Esther is to let her do it in her own words:
Esther Bradley-DeTally is a writing teacher, creative process coach, author, community activist. She has written two books, Without A Net: A Sojourn in Russia, and You Carry the Heavy Stuff. Just out is The Courage to Write, An Anthology. She is editor of this book and writing teacher to those within its pages. The Courage to Write is published by Falcon Creek Books and is a publication of the Pasadena Public Library, The La Pintoresca branch/Pasadena READS.
Her writing is whimsical, spiritual, serious, laugh out loud funny and offers themes with keen observance of what it means to be human. Someone once said her stuff was “A refreshing read that combines a depth dimension with the tragicomedy that is life.” She is a Baha’i with a passion for making oneness a social reality, fascinated by ordinary people transcending their own inadequacies and limitations in homage to a vision.
She jumps out of airplanes to visit pug dogs, and her best times are with Mr. Bill, her husband and pal extraordinaire, family, and her inner circle of 700 friends.
Being on Watch—Second Bout With Cancer (Spring 2007)
What day do I run to? Does my twin Elizabeth think of this? Her body is a mere cipher. She’s buying the farm. How do I run to her call, “Help me, help me, help me,” which starts just after dawn and carries through the day and night? I jolt out of bed at 5:30 and run into her room, a two-second trip. Early mornings and late evenings require me, her twin. No one else can help at the moment. Bill covers the ritual of medicine doses, and Lindsey and Matthew—her son and his wonderful wife—are going to start staying over.
Liz worries about my dying alone. “Who will you have?”I reassure her, and then I fantasize my demise. I would notrealize this was a religious choice reference—that she fearedmy acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh would hold me back. At thetime, I laughed and said, “I’ll be fine.”
An Essay: I Feel It in My Bones
I always said, “I want to go out lying on a huge bed withhundreds of pug dogs over me, as I feebly say, ‘Put the lastone on that space over my nose above my lips.’” So under asnuff and snort, I’d end my days. Strange is this getting older.This is going to be an essay. I feel it in my bones. Tonight,my words slough off this day of sitting next to Liz, tryingto get hourly liquids into her.
I sit in her kitchen at the computer which makes its “Urr urr”noises, like a new baby. It’s quiet in the kitchen as I reflecton our life as twins. Now, we are beyond the personalitiesof our twin selves. We are finally down to what reallymatters. Like Liz, I am waiting to return home, except it’s notmy time, and I’m still on earth duty, in dirt city, on PlanetEarth. I want to go home to Pasadena.
“What Day Do I Run To?”
Today someone in the writing group posted a question,“What day do I run to?” What does that mean? Then Ithought, this is one of my middle-of-the-night questions whenI get up and think, when does it end? I, always the frailertwin, have survived heart surgeries and other stuff.It helps at night to sit in her kitchen at the computer andplay with writing prompts from our CHPerc site for writers.The basic question is, “Where do I run?” “When do I run out?”
Did I tread the mystical path on practical feet? Did I hoof hard? Was I a solace? Now, it’s just enough to realize, parts of me are like a big old watch. On what day will I stop ticking?Will it be 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 at night? Where will theworld be then? Meanwhile, I’m on watch, and I’m writing.Here in Liz’s kitchen on a quiet Idaho night, I think of us,Liz and me. We were the survivors. We’ve always had eachother—like book ends. My brother John has been missing foryears, and my older sister (Meb, for Mary Ellen Bradley) diedat fifty. Liz and I were it.
A Dvorak Dissonance
Meb was a Girls Latin Scholar and later an unwed mother. “Go tell Dad, he’ll understand” backfired, and she was sentaway. She had the baby by herself in Quincy Hospital, butthen, as she turned eighteen, she took her baby out of fostercare. She married her young love and had three more kids.Her husband left her, so she became a pianist in cocktaillounges. She drank too many drinks offered by grateful customersstanding by her piano in a club lounge. Life unraveled,and she ended up on the streets, in housing tenements, dyingin a hospital, the same Quincy Hospital where she gave birth. She was alone, poor, alcoholic, and had emphysema.When my twin and I were seventeen, our mom died. Iremember Liz and I taking the trolley into downtown Bostonand answering the sales lady’s query, “Why do you have tohave black dresses?”
My twin is the essence of “don’t tell,” and she never discussesfeelings about family. She would tell me during lastyear’s radiation treatments. When she was ten, standing inour long, graveled driveway, she said to herself, “I’m on myown now. I have to take care of myself.” My mother’s alcoholismhad burst out. The Twelve Steps programs were newlyemerging, and the doctors would send our mother to a privatesanatorium, give her shock treatment. And what about us, Lizand me? She was the sturdy one, good at sports, tree climberpar excellence, devotee of “Bobby and the B-Bar Ranch” radioshow and “Sgt. Preston” and his dog King. And me—softy,wimp, reader, reader, reader, pathfinder of all the childhooddiseases—feeling my mother’s pain. Our early lives had aDvorak dissonance, later transiting to the spiritual sound of“Coming Home.”
It’s a Symphony, This Life
As I await my twin’s death, I want to tell you it’s a symphony, this life. First, the sacred wounds inflicted upon the soul, and time and twists and colors and sounds, cymbals, drums, some bells and whistles of the funky kind. And the colors—fuchsia, black, gray, stripes of every hue and finally the color blue, a Mediterranean blue—an embracing veil ofsilken color, obliterating memories of my twin’s despair of mybelieving in more than Jesus. Also fading are the memories ofcriticism’s early work. I hope when it comes my time topass—come to a reckoning, a passage into a final exam, a leapof gladness, the warrior path almost finished—that I be worthyto meet my Creator. I think before I go, I’ll give a finalglance at a world back from tilt and furor, and I’ll catch faintsounds of a new symphony, an oratorio, celebrating unity andsplendor for the human race.
For thought and action: What day do you run to? Where is your solace? Esther and Gerry would love to have your comments here!