A few days before my mother laid down in the hospital bed and didn’t get up again, I wheeled her out to the porch to sit in the warm March sun. Not yet spring, but still and fresh and bright, the Lenten roses were just beginning to open. Wrapped up in blankets, she was pale and frail. I held her hands. She closed her eyes and tilted her face into the light.
These days, I divide my time between the garden, the kitchen, walking trails, and my writing desk. It’s almost winter as I write this, not quite two years since her passing. I have felt her beside me, behind me, inside of me, her hand guiding mine all through the seasons, as I pull weeds, pick beans, deadhead the daisies, and move words around the page. Slicing cucumbers for pickles, breaking down tomatoes for sauce, peeling pears for a crisp, I stand solidly at the counter on her legs, keep her strong arms moving, pause to stretch the stiffening fingers she passed on to me. I listen for memories, connections, the next words, the image which wants to tell me its story.
I learned my love of poetry from my mother, who was a wonderful writer herself and a passionate lover of language. Her ‘publications’ consisted of the high school literary magazine, alumna newsletter, and the church bulletin. Most of her waking hours, she worked her tail off for our family, keeping the house and yard, raising four kids, volunteering at church and school, and feeding everybody three meals a day. Every now and then, she wrote poems when the spirit moved her. After her mother died, she sat me down next to her on a bench overlooking her vegetable garden and read proudly, with tears in her throat, a poem she had written: I can see you now, Mother, clearly, using those pinking shears to neaten the edges of the moon.
She sent warm, well-crafted letters to family and friends year after year, and she drafted clever sidebars in copious scrapbooks. She was a punster, a living database of song lyrics, a wiz at word and language games or puzzles. I will never forget poring over her anthology of the world’s greatest poetry, and reading aloud together from her Complete Works of William Shakespeare, one of her all-time favorite Christmas gifts from my dad. She had memorized so many lines, from Robert Burns “To a Mouse” to anything from Stevenson’s A Children’s Garden of Verses, to nonsense rhymes like ‘I never saw a purple cow.’ My ear was tuned by her voice.
Once, when I was in grad school a thousand miles away, I asked her to send me any memories she had about the many times she led my sisters and I on berry-picking adventures in the country hedgerows all around our rural neighborhood. I told her I was working on an essay about those experiences, and in true form, she sent me a lovely five-page reflection worthy of print. She had written the essay that I had aspired to pen.
I wrote my first complete poem in the second grade, and she pinned it above her work table in the basement and kept it there for twenty years. When we helped her clean out the homeplace before she down-sized to a small apartment, we found a neat row of my publications and manuscripts, which she insisted on keeping for her reduced collection of ‘literary favorites.’ Some time in my thirties, my writing slowed and slowed and finally came to a stop. I no longer sent work out, and I no longer sought opportunities to do readings or to lead writing workshops. I turned to other jobs. I needed a steady, reliable living, and the door to poetry closed almost shut inside of me.
When some great wave of emotion swept through me, as when I met and fell in love with my husband, a poem or two came bursting suddenly through the door. Time would pass, the door would swing closed again, and only my nearest and dearest—which of course, included my mother—saw or heard those few efforts.
On that late winter day, almost two years ago, as Mom and I admired the snow drops and soaked up the thin sunshine, I took a breath, looked into her eyes, and told her that, whenever she was ready, and it was time for her to go, that everything was going to be okay, that I would be okay. ‘We will always be together,’ I said. ‘Nothing will ever change that.”
That winter, just a month or so before, I wrote my first real poem in years, a poem about birds and about how the love between my husband and me had mellowed and softened over the years, had become more about steadiness and generosity than about passion or flash. Of course, I read it to my mother, and she encouraged me and praised me as she always had. She told me, now you are going to have more time to write.
Grief cracks us open, stretches our heart, tests our strength and endurance. At least, that is how it feels to me. The door eased open in the months after her passing, and now, I am writing again. I am writing often, sharing with poetic community, sending poems out. I am often writing of her, the generous, beautiful, funny, and charming being she was, my hero, my teacher, my friend. Thank you, Mama, for teaching me how to love words.
COOL GLASS OF WATER
A blizzard of fuchsia speckles all down my shirt and Mama’s apron,
rivulets of sweat down the left side of her face, and my legs stuck
to the cracked vinyl seat, the kitchen getting hotter by the minute,
but we’re grinning like damned fools over eight pint jars of wineberry jam,
made from the berries we picked together while ticks and poison ivy
inched up our trousers, and we sang she’s coming round the mountain
and who-knows-what-all at the top of our lungs, hoping to scare away
the snakes. I am ten, and I am spading up the last gobs from the kettle
with the wooden spoon, and I am in love with her, and if I could,
I would drink that memory like a cool glass of water every day of my life.