There’s a bird’s nest inside this birdhouse outside my window.
Today I sit and watch as two little wrens go in and out. They fly away, return, then leave again. There are chicks in that nest, I think.
I marvel at the energy and devotion of the two parents, for both of them are involved in the feeding of these babies. Their search for food on endless flights seems to occupy every single moment of the day. Hard workers, are these little birds. And demanding are the babies.
One day, and I likely won’t see it happen, the babies will leave the nest to fly away, as will the parents. The nest will sit empty inside the birdhouse for weeks, months, nearly a year I suppose, until the next breeding season.
What will those hard-working parents do? How will they spend their time now? Do they realize it is but a reprieve until next season, next year, when they will be back at this hard work again? Or perhaps, with a limited view of time cycles and the future, do they fly away with a song, set free at last?
In either case, I suspect they rest, and play, if birds can play. Maybe they soak in the sun on their backs, ruffle their feathers in a soft breeze, and drink in the fresh and cool summer rains.
Our children have left this nest, but we have not. We are still here. But the nest feels empty now with the cessation of incessant needs, and the purpose that energized our flights back and forth dissipated.
The past few days I have been on a cabin-fever mission to clean out files. I have a lot of files. Today, contained in a file I labeled “bits and pieces” which I recall creating to store future writing ideas, I found a manila envelope with “Christine Writings” written on it in my mother’s handwriting.
I wasn’t surprised. I knew my mother, who rarely saved anything sentimental, had saved some of the things I wrote when I was younger. There is a three-page handwritten essay on “Childcare and Babysitting.” I was probably in junior high.
“When a girl gets to a certain age she needs more money of her own and needs more responsibility. Babysitting gives you both. It also gives you in a roundabout way lessons for homemaking and childcare. Although you have to know some basics and important facts before you start, each time in some way, a new experience occurs.
The age that I find easiest to handle is around seven to ten . . .”
In it, I spelled “allowed” as “aloud.”
There is a sheet torn from a school newsletter we put together in 8th grade. The type is a script and is purple. Remember the smell of mimeograph copies and how they were a little damp at first? I wrote a poem about the snowflakes.
“. . .They drift on sometimes furiously, sometimes serenely, but always beautifully, ever journeying on to the end where they finally rest on even the smallest twig. And the twig is proud.”
I remember sitting in science class beside the window, watching the snow fall and composing this poem in my head. I did a lot of day-dreaming in grade school. I probably should have been paying attention.
My mom kept an essay I wrote in freshman English class, period 6 entitled “My Favorite Place” about the beach. My teacher wrote on the top, in red pencil, “Check some spots for awkward structure. Watch modifiers.” But he gave me a 4.5 out of 5.0 anyway. I got a 5.0 on “The Typical Mixed-Up Teenage Girl.”
“Carefree is her name and rule to live by; or often she wishes it were so. Actually insouciance (insouciance? Where did I come up with that word?) is one virtue she lacks. It would be so easy for my friend if she didn’t take things to heart so hard.”
I have a feeling I was writing about myself here.
Then there is the short story, “The Power of Giving” that I wrote in December of 1971. I think I might have been a better fiction writer then than I am now. I knew how to write a hook in the first sentence.
“The memory of it all is still as fresh in my mind as it was the first few days after the accident, and probably always will be.”
It’s a sentimental story, written in first person (I guess I liked first person even back then). A young girl gets in a car wreck right before Christmas and ends up in the hospital. She’s self-centered, and feels sorry for herself that she won’t be home for Christmas and throws a tantrum of major proportions. Later a little old lady named Auntie May visits her. They strike up a friendship and spend a lot of time talking. The girl knits Auntie May a scarf for Christmas. Auntie May has no home to go to and is headed to a nursing home. The narrator gives her the gift she made. “That was the first real Christmas I ever had,” the narrator says, “For that was the year I discovered the power of giving.” The teacher liked it. He asked me to read it out loud to the class and I couldn’t get through it without crying. That’s still true of some of my writing.
My mom kept a poem I wrote in 1975 about our neighbor who was from Germany. I illustrated it with a drawing I made of the little old man with his cane, walking down a sidewalk under a big branching tree with bare limbs. Convincing me yet again, lest there be any doubt, to stick to writing and not drawing.
“. . .
While walking down the street
He yearns to be
Where he is not
Out of place;
Lonely for his home,
A place to understand,
His name was Mr. Gronauer and he did not speak English well. My dad used to go over and visit him from time to time to talk about Germany. One day my two sisters and I went over, maybe to give him and his wife Christmas cookies or something. They used to give us those gigantic Hershey’s chocolate bars. I’m not sure Hershey’s makes them anymore. On this particular occasion, they invited us in to have a seat on the sofa and they poured each of us a little glass, maybe about a shot, of liqueur. It might have been brandy. I took one sip and wondered how I was ever going to be able to drink it all. My oldest sister didn’t seem to be having any difficulty with it. I think Carol and I surreptitiously pawned ours off on her. I might still be sitting there today otherwise.
Yes. My mom believed in me. When I’m doubting myself and wondering what to do next, my mom’s belief, in the form of a manila envelope, calls me forward, still.
Three years ago today, I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. This is the post I wrote the day after. Today I am remembering a moment towards the end of her days when she was at Hospice. I never had a lot of time to have the heart-to-heart conversation with her that I yearned for. Things were moving too fast; I was too busy with Dad, and Mom was too sick. But on this afternoon, for the minutes she was awake, I leaned over her bed and said, “I’m going to have to find a way to talk to you.” She said, “Yes, you will.” Then I cried the tears I tried so hard to hide from her. She reached up with both of her arms and cupped my face between her two hands, giving me a lifetime of gratitude and love, a million words of goodbye, in one moment I will cherish forever.
On Thursday night I heard my mother stir and I rose from my bed on the floor in the corner of her room and hurried to her side.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as she roused from the deep sleep she had been in all day.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”
“Someone’s crying,” she said.
In my mom’s 78 years on this planet, I imagine she heard and answered a lot of someones crying. In the 1950s through the 1970s she was raising five children who had been born within six years, including my sister Annie who was extremely disabled. I suspect there were a lot of times someone was crying.
Even as we grew older we were sometimes crying: me coming home from college carrying a basket of laundry when a relationship ended; a long-distance phone call to speak of a loved one who died; a conversation about one thing or the…
I attended the public school when I was young even though I was Catholic. When it came time to make my first confession, which was a scary enough proposition in itself, I had to go to the local church. I was in the second grade.
My mother didn’t drive, and was largely confined to the house because of my disabled sister Annie. Mom had arranged for me to walk to church with a couple of older girls who lived about three blocks away and attended the Catholic school. I had met them, but I didn’t know them well. Shellenbergers. It’s interesting the things we remember.
Things were different in those days. It wasn’t out of the ordinary that I would walk somewhere at a young age. We walked to school and back every day, but I had never walked to church.
On the morning of my first confession, I walked the three blocks, then up the steep steps to the Shellenbergers’ house. I crossed the covered porch and knocked. After what seemed like an eternity the mother answered the door. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They already left. If you hurry you might be able to catch up to them.”
Hurry I did. I was terrified. I didn’t know how to get where I was going. I ran down the steps and turned the corner to Roosevelt Street where I could just barely make out the other girls in the distance. I did what I usually did when I was scared, upset, or sad. I started crying.
I followed the girls from a distance. I couldn’t catch up and stumbled along behind. I was now crying profusely.
From my vantage point I saw where they turned a corner. I followed and made it to my destination. The nun who met me at the church door took one look at my red blotchy face and wanted to know what was wrong. She led me through a door and down a quiet hall to a room where I could regain my composure. My first confession was anti-climatic after that. Facing a priest behind a screen in a small darkened room and telling him all the sins I had committed was nothing compared to the trauma I had experienced getting there.
To this day I don’t know why I became as upset as I did following those girls to the church. Although I tried to deny it to myself, in part I felt that my mother had let me down. I was alone; I didn’t know where I was going; and she was supposed to be taking care of me. Like other thoughts I’d had before and would have through the following years, that led immediately to guilt. Mom had to stay home to take care of Annie. She shouldn’t have to worry about me.
Maybe I felt sad that those people Mom trusted to help me let her down as well. Maybe I was just sad that I had been forgotten.
I dress more for comfort than style, you might say. Unless you are my daughter, and then you might say that I never dress for style. But I maintain I do have a style, and it is called, comfort.
One of the things I like about my particular style, is that it requires little to no ironing. Wash, dry, fold or hang-up and my clothes are ready to wear. There are one or two exceptions for special occasions, like Christmas.
I wanted to wear a light-weight wool sweater today for the family party we are hosting. It is a rich cranberry color and mostly I save it for the holidays. I washed it, dried it flat, and it is not ready to wear. Iron on a warm setting, the tag informs me.
So I pull my rickety ironing board out of the closet, unwrap the iron’s cord from the handy shelf/bracket I installed in my closet five years ago expressly for that purpose, and plug my iron in.
My mother taught me how to iron.
In fact, when I was young, I loved to iron. My mom would save my father’s hankies, and all the pillowcases for me to iron. In those days she didn’t have a steam iron. She dampened the things that needed to be ironed, which I suspect were most things in those days before the miracle of permanent press happened.
Mom had a shaker bottle that she filled with water. She would lay the clothing or household article flat on the table or ironing board, and sprinkle it with water. Then she rolled it up and placed it on its end in the laundry basket to wait its turn. I can remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday.
I would unroll the damp pillowcases and go to work on them with the iron, transforming the wrinkled and damp to dry and smooth. I folded the pillowcases as I worked. I folded each one into thirds lengthwise, making a long narrow, neat column that I would fold in half and again into fourths, pressing each section as I went and ending with a nice neat little square that stacked perfectly in the linen closet.
I can’t remember the last time I ironed a pillowcase.
I liked doing my dad’s hankies even more. They were quick and sweet and made a nice little square when folded in half eight times.
I still have one of my dad’s hankies. I stuck it in my pocket when we cleaned out his room in the nursing home the night he died. I took it with me to the cemetery at his funeral where I dampened it with my own tears and pressed it between my fingers.
Maybe I’d still enjoy ironing pillowcases and hankies today if I took the time to do it.
It started with photography and a conversation over lunch. “I back up all my photos to an external hard drive and also to the cloud,” a fellow amateur photographer said. “That way if my house goes up in a fire, or a burglar comes and snatches all my computer equipment, including external hard drives, I won’t lose my photos.”
I got home and took a good hard look at my 15 x 10 x 1/2 in metal case with a keyboard that contains most of my life’s work. If I had a catastrophic digital failure of some kind, I would lose my genealogy, videos of my grand kids, photographs, and all my writing. My life’s work contained in this slim piece of metal.
Sure I back it up to an external hard drive. But is that really enough to protect against the devastation that the loss of what is stored inside would cause?
That led to yet another diversion from writing my dad’s book, as my daughter so nicely pointed out in a phone conversation. “Maybe you are trying to avoid something,” she said.
That may be true. But I still need to formulate and execute a better back-up plan. And I need to sort through my files, consolidate, and edit them down. Another motivation that drives me forward is the thought that my husband or kids would have to deal with my computer if something were to happen to me. How can I expect them to deal with all the photos, videos, and documents I have loaded it up with? I don’t want to deal with it myself.
So I started sorting through my old recorded videos and came across one that I took at my sister’s house for a celebration of Mom’s birthday in May of 2009. We had just gotten Arthur and he was playing with my sister’s new puppy. I spent over 13 minutes that day recording Arthur. On the video, like an unobtrusive soundtrack running in the background, my parents are talking all the while.
I hear my mom say my name, but the rest of what she says fades out. I hear her laugh. “My brother had a dog,” my dad says, “and he named him Blue.”
And I wonder, why didn’t I, even once, turn the camera around?
I wrote the post below a couple of months ago now. It has been patiently sitting in my post folder as a draft. I decided to go ahead and post it today even though it is dated. The eighteen-month anniversary of the passing of my parents has passed. And although I didn’t feel so just a few short weeks ago, I’ve begun to feel as if I have turned a corner. I feel like the fog is lifting and I am recognizing myself again, caring about things again, having more self-direction. I can’t promise this feeling will stick, but I am hopeful that the intense grief has passed and I am becoming accustomed to life without Mom and Dad.
That being said, I woke up crying one day last week from a vivid memory of Mom. When I was attending college in my hometown, I lived on campus. My long-time, four-year boyfriend and I broke up and I was pretty torn up about it. I gathered my dirty laundry in the morning after a sleepless night. And as soon as I deemed it late enough to arrive, I drove over to my parents. My roommate had called my mom without my knowledge. When I got there, Mom was standing at the door, in her robe, waiting for me. This makes me cry again today just thinking about it.
But what I realize today is that I may always have moments of tears about Mom and Dad. That’s okay. I suffered a loss. And the truth of the matter is that life will never be the same. It’s a new world.
June 29th, 2014
In a couple of weeks it will be the 18-month anniversary of my mother’s death. A year and a half. And the reason I’ve paid attention to that is that somewhere earlier out I Googled how long we grieve for a parent and I read somewhere that it’s different for everyone, but somewhere from 9 to 18 months is typical.
I’m approaching the 18 month mark for my mom’s death. And two weeks after that, it will be 18 months since my father died. So I wonder again whether I grieve for them simultaneously or consecutively which would mean I get three years to grieve.
Eighteen months. Is that all the time it’s been? it seems like forever.
Most days I think I am doing quite well, but every now and then I have a bad day where I find my self sobbing, with a deep gut-wrenching pain that reminds me how much I miss her, him, them, and how I’ll never see them again.
Am I getting through this okay? I wonder.
My sisters are my reality check.
My sister C. will call and say, “I had a really bad day the other day about Mom and Dad.”
“Me too. I’m not sure why, but I found myself crying again,” I say.
Then I’ll talk to my other sister. “I had a bad day earlier this week.”
“I did too,” K. answers. “I don’t know why. I have trouble at night before I fall asleep. I just think about everything that Mom went through, and I feel so bad for her. We really went through a traumatic experience.”
“Sometimes I cry for Mom and what she suffered and went through in the last years of her life,” I say. “And sometimes I cry because I want to talk to her, or because she doesn’t know I had a hysterectomy a few weeks ago.”
“Sometimes I feel really bad about what Dad had to go through,” K. will say. “I really hope I don’t have to depend upon other people to take care of me.”
Life does go on, but for me life will never be the same. Some things become less important, like finding the right window treatment for the dining room. And some things become more important like my personal relationships. I try harder to stop parenting in what can only be received as a judgmental way. And when I’m not able to hold my tongue, I find myself explaining my perspective and apologizing more. I try to nurture the sometimes fragile relationships I have with my siblings. And I make an effort to find ways to enrich my husband’s life. How I will be remembered is much more important to me. Being in control, having things my way, and being right don’t matter so much.
I still continue to feel like an unmoored ship, directionless, no one behind the wheel.
When I visited Jeff Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class to talk about Dancing in Heaven on May 1st, one of the adult or non-traditional students said, “My daughter’s friend has a sister who is disabled and in a wheel chair. I always felt a little sorry that my daughter’s friend wasn’t able to share the mother-daughter experiences that my daughter and I were able to share. Her mother was always too busy taking care of the disabled sister.” She made the comment to point out that Dancing in Heaven showed her another side, a different side, of having a disabled sibling or daughter.
I smiled, but made no comment in reply, because she hit a very sensitive and very deep nail on the head. And I think that is one of the things I’ve grieved for with the loss of my mother the most—the hope I had, the possibility I had, of having some of those special moments with my mother. That’s one of the things I realized recently. And perhaps the word “realized” isn’t the best choice. I always knew that Mom wasn’t able to do the some of the things with me that my friends’ parents were able to do, or that I had wished she were able to do. “Faced my denial” might be more accurate.
I remember only three shopping trips with my mother. One was to help her buy a dress to wear to my grandmother’s funeral in 1984. Another was to the drug store in 2012 so she could buy all the over-the-counter rememdies for her stomach pain that we all attributed to stress but was actually cancer. And a time when I was a young teenager that she wanted to walk to the grocery store, not thinking in advance that we’d have to bring all the groceries we bought back home. We weren’t able to carry them all between the two of us, so we decided to push the grocery cart filled with bags home. We hadn’t crossed the first street when Mom tipped the grocery cart over as she bumped it down the curb. The groceries spilled out into the street. I laughed so hard I was afraid I was going to wet my pants.
I have often gone shopping with my daughter Anna. It is one of my favorite things to do.
I went out to lunch with my mother once, I think, although I can’t really remember it well. Then my sister and I took her out to lunch for her last birthday in May of 2012. I remember that one a lot better.
I have taken all my sons and my daughter out to lunch.
You might say I even have a passion for creating those mother-daughter and even mother-son experiences.
But while doing all this self-revelation recently, I can’t help but remember all the things my mother taught me. Or the things she made for me. Or how she patiently ripped out and fixed badly sewn or completely wrong seams in my fashion creations. Or the late-night conversations at her kitchen table on the overnight visits. Or how she was always there when I really needed her the most, if not in person, then certainly across the telephone wire. The time when she and Dad came to my dorm room with a computer when mine died the night before a test. Or when she and Dad came to my hospital room the day I had neck surgery, or the day I had Michael. Or the way she hand-wrung out the wet baby clothes in a washer full of water that wouldn’t drain when she came to help me at home.
Some people have mothers who are alcoholics, or drug addicts, or too self-interested to bother. Some people have mothers who die young. Some have mothers who leave.
No. My mother didn’t have a lot of time for lunches and shopping with me. But in every way that she could be, she was a mother to me. She was a very good mother to me.
And I miss her so.
If your mother is still with you, I hope you are able to enjoy her each and every day. If not, I hope you can remember her kindly for what she was able to give you under whatever circumstances or challenges she faced. And if you are a mother, I wish you a very Happy Mother’s Day.
Mark and I helped Anna move to Chicago at the beginning of March. Her new company gave her relocation money that included paying for the movers, so we didn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting as we have so many times in the past with her and our sons’ many moves over the years.
We drove to Chicago the day before the moving van was scheduled to arrive, Anna’s car packed with necessary and fragile items.
After arriving at her new apartment and lugging our survival supplies up three flights of stairs,
we headed out and walked a few blocks to Clark Street where amongst the shops, bakeries, and bars, we found Calo’s, a restaurant that served excellent Chicago-style pizza.
Well-armed with paper products, leftover pizza in the ‘frig, and our electronic devices,
we settled in for the evening to wait the arrival of the moving van in the morning.
The weather forecasters were calling for snow. No big surprise this year. You can barely see that the snow had started by morning.
These rear windows to Anna’s apartment tell the story. And the early morning arrival of the moving van became a hopeful wish,
and then a disappointment, as the day dragged on and Anna continued to ask, “Where’s my stuff?”
We passed the time and entertained ourselves with our iPhones in the comfort of collapsible lawn chairs.
Alas, the stuff arrives. It’s packed in boxes.
It’s on the bed,
in the bathroom,
and on every available surface area. But it is here. We spend the rest of the day helping Anna unpack with the goal in mind of emptying and then removing empty knocked-down-flat boxes so she wouldn’t be suffocated by stacks of disarrayed boxes in her cozy apartment. Then we tried out another local restaurant for dinner. In the morning Mark and I head south for home and our plane to Arizona in the morning. (The tickets for the Red’s spring training in Goodyear, AZ purchased before any of Anna’s job-search and relocation were more than a passing gleam in her eye.)
We drove away, leaving Chicago, and Anna who was happily settling into her new home, behind–the yet-to-be-explored possibilities making it all worthwhile.
I broke one of my cardinal rules today and played Christmas music before Thanksgiving. But I needed the music because I was going to decorate a Christmas tree. My mom’s little Christmas tree to be exact. The little tree traveled with us to Mom’s assisted living apartment, and then later I packed it up and moved it home with me where it has remained boxed up in the basement until today. I look forward to the year I can put it up without tears again. This post is copied from my one last year about Mom’s Christmas tree.
I spent most of the day at my parents’ yesterday. Holidays are so hard for people who are suffering in some way. I woke up thinking that I needed to hang the strand of blinking red bell lights along Mom’s living room mantle. My sister Annie loved watching the red blinking lights, and because of that my mother loved them too. Or because Mom loved them, Annie did. We never were quite sure which way that actually went. We hung the bells up the first two Christmases after Annie was gone, but I think it was too much trouble for Mom to do last year.
Armed with blank Christmas cards and a package of peppermints, I left for my parents house mid-morning. Life has been so hard for Mom over the past months, years really, that she is worn out and doesn’t want to do one thing extra. I suspected if I asked her if she wanted me to get out her Christmas decorations she would say “No.” So I didn’t ask. I went for the bells.
I went down the hall and into Annie’s room where Mom keeps the Christmas decorations in the large closet.
While I was looking for the bells, I found a wreath. I took it out and hung it on the front door.
“I usually put the wreath my sister gave me on the front door,” Mom said from her chair near the far corner of the living room where she sat and ate her toast and drank her tea. “It’s on the glass porch.” I moved the wreath I’d hung to the back door and went out on the porch for the wreath my aunt had made.
I decided we needed Christmas music so I sorted through their collection of vinyl albums for the Christmas ones and selected one I remembered from my youth, the album cover completely torn through on one side.
“I don’t want to get the tree out today,” Mom said as I worked.
In one box I found a Santa and Mrs. Claus that a good friend of hers had made years ago. I set them together on top of the china cabinet.
Back and forth to Annie’s room I went bringing out decorations one or two at a time.
I put the snowman and woman on the window sill beside the card table, Dad’s “office,” where he sits and “works” or plays ball with a family member or a home health aide.
I found a centerpiece for Mom’s coffee table, four miniature nutcrackers for the kitchen window sill, and a snow globe that I think Dad might enjoy.
At the bottom of a big box, in a bag, I found the red bells that Annie loved.
I hung them along the mantle, securing them with tape. Then I cleared the nick nacks off the mantle and set out the manger scene that used to be my grandmother’s.
Christmas carols playing in the background, I stood still for a minute and looked around the room. Mom used to put a small tree on a table in front of the picture window in the living room, but Dad sits there now and the table is full of pencils, blocks of wood, books, cups of coins, and other things we use to try to entertain or occupy him.
“You know, you could put the little tree on that table beside you, Mom,” I said. “It wouldn’t have to be in front of the window.”
“I could put it on that table,” Mom said and pointed across the room to the end table beside the lift recliner that we got for Dad, but that he rarely sits in anymore. It is simply too hard to get him in it, and he slides out of position if he sits there too long.
I shifted the recliner away from the sofa and moved the small table between the two so that it would be closer to the electrical outlet. Then I got the little white tree from a box on the shelf in Annie’s closet, and I set it up on the table.
“I don’t want to do the ornaments today,” Mom said.
I went back into Annie’s old bedroom and found a crocheted tree skirt.
“My sister made that for me, too” Mom said.
I arranged the skirt around the bottom and plugged the tree in. It’s tiny colored lights added a warm glow to the room.
Annie’s blinking bells strung along the mantle lent a cheerful twinkle to the room.
I left the ornaments in the three small boxes on the bed in Annie’s room.