Last year, a few weeks before Mother’s Day, we laid mom to rest next to the love of her life. Rarely separated in life, we were surprised that mom lasted twenty-two months before joining dad in death. They’re fine now; the rest of us are getting through it a step at a time.
Truth be told, I’ve avoided memory as much as possible in recent months. But today I’m determined to look it square in the eye. Today I’m remembering….
Roses. When I close my eyes I see crimson and pink roses – climbing, tumbling, covering the entire backyard fence, bushes crammed tight, fighting for breath. I see you bending over them in a light cotton dress with big pockets, garden shears in hand. I thought these beauties simply grew wild for my personal enjoyment, but now I know better.
Then there was the vegetable garden. The loamy smell of fresh carrots, tomatoes, potatoes sprouting in rich soil. Again, I see you bent over, this time on your knees, wearing a red and white gingham shirt. The rhubarb you grew was my favorite, especially when baked into a pie and covered with warm english custard.
On wintry school mornings, I usually found hot oatmeal simmering on the stove-top as I stumbled sleepily into the small kitchen. You rose at an ungodly hour to prepare it before heading out to work at your back-breaking job sewing canvas yacht covers.
You and dad both worked multiple jobs when we first arrived in this country. (Since Irish immigrants weren’t readily accepted back then, dad got into plenty of scrapes). You continued to work in later years to save money for trips home to see family. I don’t remember if I ever thanked you for that – for those trans-atlantic crossings by boat and BOAC and the never-long-enough visits with family in a country I dearly loved. (Those memories are too many to recount here). Somehow you still raised me and three wild boys, cleaned house, cooked dinner, grocery shopped and did the laundry – on a 1950’s wringer washer.
I remember the time my skinny arm got smashed in that wringer as I tried to rescue my favorite cotton handkerchief – the one with the yellow embroidered flowers. You had warned me, of course, but hey, I was five. I saw those fragile flowers being sucked into the jaws of Maytag and rushed to action with nary a thought. After you set me free, I reveled in your sympathetic coddling, making it almost worth the blood-curdling screams and squished arm. Apparently, embroidered flowers don’t mind a good wringing out because they weathered it better than I did.
I remember crisp Easter dresses in beautiful colors, white hats with satin streamers that fell to my waist – and lacy gloves that made me feel like a princess. In the summer you dressed me in checkered two-piece bathing suits, striped pedal pushers and jaunty cotton shirts that made me feel like Annette Funicello.
But then there was my hair – and the countless evenings spent twisting my stubborn, stick-straight mop into little pink spoolies that looked like flying saucers. In the morning, I looked like Shirley Temple. We oohed and awed and primped until my stupid hair succumbed to gravity and genetics thirty minutes later. Eventually, this led to the home perm from hell and the ever-popular Richard Simmons look, only fuzzier. Of course, that stayed in for months.
Then, there were countless sleepless nights as you nursed me through strep, measles, chicken pox, strep, ear infections, strep, strep and more strep. I remember soft chunks of butter covered in sugar, cold ginger ale sucked through a straw, cool hands on my fevered head and sour lemon drops. I’m still trying to forget the doctor who made urgent late-night trips to my bedside, lancing infected ears and giving shots with a needle as big as a clarinet. But I forgive you for that. It was, after all, the 50’s.
When I was a young teen, you took me to a movie theater to see West Side Story. I’ll never forget it. You didn’t mock or scold me as I cried uncontrollably at the injustice unfolding before my eyes – in technicolor. You may not have understood what was waking in me, but you gave me space and you listened to me.
When you were in your last months of life, I showed up at your door at 4:00 am carrying bagels, ready to snuggle up and watch the royal wedding unfold on your 42″ screen.
I can still see you opening the door that morning – in your rose-covered nightgown, eyes bright, excited to watch the spectacle, so happy for the company and ready for your first cup of tea. Admittedly, I didn’t share your interest or enthusiasm, but your child-like joy was enough for me.
Now that I’ve started remembering, I can’t stop. I don’t want to. My heart is aching – but with gratitude, not sadness; with fullness, not emptiness.
Happy Mother’s Day, mum. Hug dad for me – and I’ll see you soon.