To Know A Mother

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My mother with her youngest grandchild, who happens to be my youngest son, in 2010.

Now that our nest has emptied, I have more time to think, especially during the unfamiliar quiet of morning. Gone are the frantic searches for blazers and ties on dress-up days, gone the burned toaster waffles and spilt milk, gone the forgotten permission slips. So I sit with my coffee and watch the sky brighten outside the window. I check the weather in all the places where my scattered children live. I read the news (too much news, and immediately regret it). I scan social media, pour another cup, play a few words on WWF, maybe do the Times Mini Crossword. I mean to write more, every day (you’ve got all this time now, finish that damn novel!), but thus far, the muse remains fickle and slow.

Today I woke determined. My nerves sparking with caffeine, I trained my index finger over to the Poetry app I installed, oh three years ago, thinking to read a poem a day for inspiration. (Total number read to date = five) Clinging to the idea that it’s never too late, I chose a theme, “Passion and Nature,” and waited to see what the Poetry algorithm would find. Never mind that by “passion” I meant fevered devotion to a craft, the app figured romance (…er eroticism). Still, a piece called “The Garden by Moonlight” caught my eye. Ignoring the sexual undertones, I lapped up Amy Lowell’s lyric imagery and the cadence of her simple sentences: A black cat among roses … Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon … The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock … Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush …

I thought of my mother, and the cut flower bouquets she had such a knack for, the postcards she used to send from gardens around the world, the places she took me as a child: Kew, the conservatory at Golden Gate Park, Monet’s gardens at Giverny (I know, lucky me). I read on to Lowell’s final quatrain in which–what a wonder!–the narrator speaks of her own mother: Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?/They knew my mother/But who belonging to me will they know/When I am gone?

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My father and I, circa 1976, somewhere in a British garden.

A ping and there’s an email from my sister, reaching out to my brothers and me on the anniversary of Mom’s death. Yep, it’s October 19. My mother has been gone three years exactly. Next Wednesday marks the day my father, whose birthday we remembered October 9th, died fourteen years ago. As I’ve written here before, October has become a month of emotional contradiction for our family, and 2017 has not disappointed. While I was dashing between a big birthday bash for a dear friend and my niece’s wedding in Philadelphia (which morphed happily into something of a family reunion), our second son’s longtime girlfriend, a young woman our family cherishes as one of our own, lost her mother. She was hardly into her fifties, as brave in standing up to the terminal brain cancer she lived with for eight years as she was determined to be present for her children as long as she could.

So mother-loss has been on my mind for lots of reasons. Of course, losing a mother at fifty-four as I did hardly seems worth mentioning compared with losing a mother at twenty-five. And yet what the heart registers, what we share no matter when such a loss comes, is a sort of sorrowful disorientation. How do we step forward without the person who so often, for better or worse, has blazed the path we follow?

The thing is, the beating hearts our mothers gave us are built for more than sorrow. Much more. Along with conflicting feelings, they hoard images, words, memory after memory of the people who move in and out of our lives. Maybe what the poet Lowell implies with her black cat and her moonlit poppies then is something simple, something I know but have to keep re-learning: As long as we take time to share these heart-borne images and memories, to repeat them and pass them along, whether through the written word or music or painting or just plain storytelling over a good meal, we give new life to those we’ve lost.

A few years ago, my daughter and I visited Giverny together. Not unlike Lowell’s lilies, the cascading wisteria, the rows and rows of forsythia and zinnias bursting gold and red against the Monet-blue sky, they knew my mother, who made sure they know me. And now, they know my daughter, too.

 

Namaste, Bro

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Ed and I and apparently, an early edition Twizzler, Summer 1967
Somehow, we’ve been slung around the sun yet again and here it is, May 3rd. Earlier this week, I decided NOT to write about my big brother Ed, who died on an Atlanta May 3rd very like this one–bright, breezy, warm but still spring fresh, the air just a touch heavier, loamier than a week ago, way back in April. I mean, enough already! I’ve written about Ed before. The Attic faithful know all about his misadventures as a Marine in Vietnam, his “punny” way with words, his painful yet contemplative death (see Brother, Brother in the side bar!). What’s more, my MacBook is in hospital (wine spill and the drunken slash symbol now dances mercilessly across the screen), and writing (never mind, creating) on this effing PC borrowed from my husband’s office is proving the adage that you can’t teach an old hack new tricks. (How the heck do I UNDO an action? Moments ago, I hit something in the vicinity of the “numlk” key and deleted this entire post and had to start over. And don’t get me started on the backwards scroll bar …)

 So I reckoned I’d bow out of this one, skip the ten-year mark in this age when no one with a shred of social media self-respect would miss the chance to celebrate an anniversary so post-worthy. I stayed strong through my second cup, especially after my initial efforts to navigate Google Chrome on this blasted machine left me in knots. I took a good Ujjayi breath and headed off to Wednesday yoga in search of some balance. A few Warriors, a couple twisting Chair poses, way too many Vinyasas, and it happened. As the class contorted with a collective grunt into pigeon (pidgen?), the music (which I’d hardly noticed before, as any good yogi wouldn’t) transitioned to a breathy version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I jerked up my head, made awkward eye contact with my neighbor, snuggled back over my Gumby hip. A chart-topper for years in the UK and Europe, the 1967 Procul Harum original made it only to number five in the States. You don’t hear it much these days, but it was Ed’s Numero Uno. He played it as vinyl, eight track, cassette and CD. He sang it A Capella (and out of tune) ALL THE TIME.

Maybe it was magical thinking, maybe a fleeting moment of Nirvana, but of a sudden, Ed was right there on the mat beside me, slinking his long limbs into their own Twister trick (a game he excelled at, as he did most games). I closed my eyes and smiled, relaxed into the lyrics as they came in his deep playful voice–We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor …

How could I take this as anything less than a cosmic nudge? Just like that, I determined to come home to do what I’d vowed not to, write about Ed (though for me, in brief, wouldn’t you say?). I don’t know, maybe big brother wants (certainly deserves) at least a nod on this day when so many across the country are thinking of him, missing him, laughing to themselves to remember his jokes and his ironic grin. There’s his widow and daughter and grandchildren in Oregon, our brother in San Francisco and sister in Pennsylvania, his many loving in-laws in New Orleans, his nieces and nephews and friends all over, and of course, those of us still in the city he loved–two more brothers, a son, the youngest daughter and their families and of course, moi, the kid sister (whose children adored their Crazy Uncle Ed). 

This morning, many of us shared the usual email thread, a few photos, to reminisce. And just now, my niece reminded me that ten years ago, as we let fly Ed’s ashes over the chilly mountain waterfall where as children we used to swim and dive and scare our mother’s hair straight, Procul Harem played on a boom box balanced on a strong and solid Carolina rock.  

Which leads me to believe maybe a few other folks heard Ed today, too, … as the ceiling fell away … and he wandered through his playing cards, calling out for more …

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Ed, who had a way with kids and babies, holding my daughter, Emma, a few hours after her birth.

House of Spirits

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The House that Sara Built, two weeks before it was sold

I’ve been rummaging again, though not in that drafty mildewed Attic that had me pushing Kleenex up my nose while I worked. Funny the way I miss it now it’s no longer mine to sneeze in. And yet, I avoid the drive-by. My husband chuckles at this. He likes peering down at my parents’ old house to see what changes the new owners have made. Sacrilege! All of it! Stone gargoyles now flank the front door … gargoyles? To accent its Early American design? Worse, the Attic has sprouted dormer windows. Yep, right across the once-so-elegant roofline (see photo exhibit A), three holes have been gouged out of the wood shingles my father paid so dearly for. One quick glance and it’s like I’m looking into Mom’s sad blue eyes on a rainy afternoon. My mother is a house, you could say, not to get too Faulknerian about it. She is gone but her beloved home, a little baffled by the sawing and hammering of late, remains. I understand now why houses are sometimes handed down like a Bible or a gold locket. If you could hug a house, I would. I’d drive by every day and press that brave Deerfield facade right up against my heart.

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The doorway, copied exactly from the historic Ashley House in Deerfield, Mass. My father loved to elaborate on its unique design to unsuspecting guests.

Let me start again. I’ve been in the virtual Attic, sorting letters and photos and pondering the family legends they bring to mind. Surely every family has them, those tall tales that get batted about the generations. Remember how Mama, a flower in her hair, met Daddy hitchhiking to Woodstock? Then there’s sweet sister Sue, who broke the school bully’s nose, and how could we forget the night the police picked up Uncle Pete for swiping a television from the Ramada Inn? These stories are not my own, but they ring true (okay, the stolen TV bit might be from the Mattingly archives. Only the names have been changed …) . 

The youngest, I was all ears. Our legends helped me knit myself into a family tapestry that was all but sewn up before I was born. In Mom’s Attic I find the finishing stitches. See this yellowed newspaper clipping, and that tattered telegram? Proof! The stories are true! Or mostly true. Odd discrepancies have arisen. My mother, neé SARA Elizabeth Lee, loved that her parents dropped the “h” in her name. Is this reason to brag? To her, yes. A late convert to Catholicism, Mom disliked being associated with the Biblical SaraH. Never mind this SaraH was known for her beauty, strength, nobility–heck, she was a princess! Did Mom OD on the Bible stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing? Was it because SaraH was oft celebrated as the long-barren wife who gave birth at age ninety? (Yes, 9-0!) How distasteful, my mother would have thought. She didn’t believe in getting old. And she took great pride in being fertile as a salmon. Delivered Baby #1 at twenty-four and barely came up for air until I came along at forty-one.

So SaRA my mother was, H-less and thoroughly modern. A bratty little spelling whiz, I used to playground boast about the special spelling, and oh, how I protested when mail arrived addressed to “Sarah Mattingly.” Mommy, they messed up again! Her bizarre H snobbery lived on. But then … my mother’s birth certificate, a document I now own, reads “SARAH Elizabeth Lee.” Hmmm. A transcriptionist’s error? Or was Mom pulling our leg? Did she, reluctant Sunday School attendee she was, dislike ol’ Abraham’s Sarah enough to drop the H? Apparently. Now where is that marriage license …

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A rare photo of my father’s family, early 1930s. Known then as “E.H.,” he stands at left beside his father BENEDICT, step-mother, Stella, and half-sister, Anne. Older brother Ben and sister Marie complete the group.

Ironically, my father’s father, Benjamin Spalding Mattingly, was a name-tinkerer too. He christened his first-born Benjamin Lee, and my older brother is John Benjamin. No surprises there. But after Grandfather Ben died, my father unearthed his birth certificate. Ix-nay on the enjamin-Bay! Officially, he was BENEDICT. A Pope’s name! Why the cover-up? Did it smack of that traitorous American, Mr. Arnold? Another conundrum taken to the grave.

My Grandfather Ben(edict) died when I was not quite four. I know him only second-hand, through the handful of grainy sepia-toned photographs my mother squirreled away in plastic shirt bags. There are other stories, too, sad, even haunting stories. I’ve alluded in these pages (at least twice, begging your pardon) to my father’s difficult childhood. Chapter One: December, 1918. My grandmother, Frances, catches Spanish flu. Her entire family–my father, his siblings, my grandfather–are also ill. Days later, Frances, four months pregnant, dies in the hospital. A few doors down, Grandfather Ben is so bad off that my great aunts decide to keep secret the news of his wife’s death. As Ben gradually regains strength, my grandmother is anointed, mourned, buried. Before anyone works up the gumption to tell him, Ben begins working his way through the stack of newspapers some unwitting orderly has been dropping off in hopes of his recovery. Death is on everyone’s mind. The first World War just over, this flu is on its way to taking 675,000 American lives, far more than the war claimed and the majority of the victims in their prime. My grandfather turns to the obituaries and there, in the December 8th edition of The Atlanta Constitution, is my grandmother’s tribute. Ben’s wife, the child she carried, have vanished.

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A dubious Attic treasure. From the Atlanta Constitution, December 8th, 1918.

A chilling story, one not to be believed, yet it must be true. The papers say so. “Husband So Sick He Is Not Told of Wife’s Death.” I suppose Grandfather Ben read that one, too. Like my father and uncle and aunt, he beat the flu … or did he? A traveling shoe salesman, he went on to fail spectacularly. He drank, a lot. He disappointed, as my great aunts might say. Some stories paint him as a Dr. Jekyll–sweet when sober, when drunk, prone to rage. In hushed tones, my mother used to tell us how he chased my father and uncle around the house with a butcher’s knife. No wonder the boys were shipped off to a south Georgia orphanage.

And yet, consider this letter my father sent home: “Dear Daddy … I hope you are well. I love you very much. I am having lots of fun with my bean bag and the games you sent me. I pray for you every day and often think of you … Daddy, will you please send me a couple of tops with plenty of string? Then of course Ben Lee will want a couple, too … Your darling boy, E.H.”

My one memory: I hold Grandaddy Ben’s hand. He is tall, with big leather shoes, crinkly skin, a firm grip. It’s a warm Atlanta day and we walk up the street toward the friendly white house with the fancy doorway where I have my own room and a pink gingham bedspread. I have no trouble keeping up because he’s old, tired. He coughs a lot. He smells of sweet vinegar. I skip and chatter and now and then, Grandaddy Ben smiles and nods and squeezes my hand.

He leads me home. I am not disappointed.