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Tag Archives: grieving

Physics, Metaphysics, and a Florentine Journal

ImageMaybe a week ago, I was taking books out of what had been my mother’s home office. There’s a period after a death when it seems wrong to erase the person by removing all of their possessions as if they had never sat in that chair knitting, or used the rosemary mint conditioner in that shower. Then (and it’s hard to see this coming because it comes with such breathtaking stealth), there is a time when it seems wrong to leave everything in place as if the person was going to pop in and ask for her green sweater vest. It gets a little creepy, like on episodes of CSI in which the family has preserved the bedroom of the murdered teenager exactly as it was the day he was abducted from the crack house in a bad part of town.

Anyway, it was time. So I assembled a bag of children’s’ books to distribute among deserving young friends, and noticed in the process that one book seemed to have another wedged into its printed heart. The interloper proved to be a slim, Florentine blank book. I was sure she’d bought it when we were actually in Florence, in the summer of 1977.

Let me back up a bit. Let me say that, although I haven’t been writing about it (or anything else) much lately, I am still pretty epically sad. That day, the day I found the book, I was literally talking to myself out loud as I assessed the task ahead of me. “It’s okay, bunny,” I said (for some reason I call myself “bunny” in my head when I’m trying to be comforting) “you can do this. Just take little bits at a time.” And I’d be okay, and then not okay, efficient gatherer of books and then sobbing and pathetic floor kneeler. So given all that, when I opened the little book and found that my mother had started writing in it on December 31, 1985, when she was about 6 months younger than I am now, less than two years after the death of her own mother, I decided it was a sign.

Although I did not take Physics in high school, I am told that the amount of energy in the universe is finite, that it all sticks around, and that it turns into other stuff upon its release from a given situation. (That is not a scientific explanation. I’m pretty sure that the word “situation” is rarely used by those searching for the Higgs boson particle to describe any state of matter, energy or anything else).

Maybe, possibly, the book is some of my mother’s energy in tangible form. I can’t, quite believe that she is shimmering around in a column of white light, and I’m not ready to admit that she’s mostly in the air somewhere, or in the Red Cedar River, or in the lilac bush in the yard. I can believe that she radiates from the elegant, fleur delise’d pages of this book. So I saved it for today, December 31 of the most terrible year I could have imagined, hoping for a little hit of her incredibly fine and sophisticated energy.

As it turns out, the book mostly contains quotes that she liked, copied in her perfect cursive over a decade. Many are of a spiritual nature; she copied out Psalm 139, a passage written by Cardinal Newman, and another from Thomas Moore. The words are beautiful, and I try to let them permeate me, making a sort of mom infusion in my soul. Then, there is this, from Jane Eyre:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I respect myself.

And this, from Aeschylus:

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

My mother, who was not alone or friendless any more than I am now, was grieving in the little book. She was grieving the loss of her own mother, a loss about which she was neither mellow nor philosophical. In the midst of a loving family and a sea of friends, she felt alone without her mother, making her own way in the world like Jane Eyre, growing stronger through the pain that persisted “against her will” for so many months. In my universe, as I read, the atoms spun crazily from wherever she left them and moved into my own body, joining with all that is my present incarnation.

A yellowing newspaper clipping fell from the back of the book; “For Bernice” is written in the upper left corner. Bernice was my mother’s mother. It’s a poem entitled “A Prayer for Every Day” by Mary Carolyn Davies, and my mother has copied it out as the last entry in her book. At the top of the page she wrote “For Bernice (found in a box of my mother’s belongings.” It’s kind of corny, the poem, and it probably seemed corny to my Yeats-reading mother, but she kept it, loved it, copied it out because it was a part of her mother. A transference of energy, if you will.

And so today, as the world goes into overdrive with lists and retrospectives and hats and noisemakers, I will sit quietly in the house I grew up, listening to my father sleeping the deep sleep of recovery, keeping the little Florentine book nearby as talisman. I will not be sad to see this year end, but I am certain, in some totally unscientific way, that I’ll move forward relying on the strength of my mother, and her mother.

(And your own strength, bunny).

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Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.