Remember

I have been writing this blog every week since April 11th.  That is three months and that is a record for me. I love to write, but I have always written in fits and starts.  I have hundreds of beautiful notebooks with 3, 5, or 20 pages written in them, but I have rarely filled a notebook up page by page.  I have files of stories written, but they sit for years collecting dust, get dusted off, and only to collect dust again.  So how and why did I change?  I changed because one person showed me she cared.  One person invited me to join her in writing.  That’s all it took.  One person.  Again, thank you Ruth Ayres for changing my writing life.

I now have begun taking an online writing course – the famous Writing Down the Bones with Natalie Goldberg.  In the first lesson, Natalie explained how to center yourself  with meditation before you write.  This could be done walking, sitting, or laying down. Then Natalie said something that both surprised and comforted me. She said that we will all go out of this life laying down and we will go out meditating or writing.  I just loved this image because like most everyone in the planet I’m afraid of dying – but if I could go out writing – yes that’s is the way I will choose to go.  I will be writing in my head till my last breath and I will be at peace.

These last few weeks, I have been remembering Catherine and Henry – those days, weeks, and months of taking care of him after Catherine’s death.  I had stored them all up for the last 36 years, keeping them safe for Henry so he would someday know of that time.  I wrote 33 pages in 5 days.  I just kept writing and more old memories came. I wish  I could remember more about Catherine, but what I remember the most was her kindness.  She always wanted to know what I was thinking, so ready to guide and comfort.  She never made me feel like my ideas were simple or ridiculous.  Catherine always encouraged me.

Remembering is painful and sweet – both are necessary to grow.  I think I was put here to remember and record – to witness life and to take it all in for myself and for others. The pain my father caused – those memories are part of my fabric.  I used to want to unravel those threads, but I came to know that the pain was part of the design.

And as I reflect on remembering, I am drawn to what I’ve forgotten.  I’ve forgotten what my mother’s faces looked like.  I need to look at photographs to really remember.  She died only six years ago but still my memory of her is fading. Why can’t I remember her exact looks?  All the images, all the expressions melt into one collage: my mother at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 91.  My mother at 91 was all soft folds and brown spots, curled over not taller than me anymore.  I think I remember my mother best at 50.  I was 16 then.  That is the mother I remember because that is the mother who took me shopping for fancy earrings when I was heartbroken about some boy whose name I’ve long forgotten.

Every once in a while lately, I can look in the mirror and get a glimpse of her. That used to horrify me, but now it makes me feel reassured.  I know where I came from.  Vivian is still with me, inside me. I remember.

My Mother’s Things

My mother’s things 

Sit upstairs in the little brick Cape

With the gray shutters

Somewhere in New Jersey.

Her things,

The things she left behind:

Old worn white bras,

Soft and comfortable – 

Pastel flannel nightgowns trimmed in lace,

The black and red snowflake sweater

I gave her one Christmas,

Lots of small boxes with cheap jewelry –

Little plastic treasures –

Shiny bits of memories.

 

My mother’s things

Folded and packed away:

Her address book scrawled with

Her eloquent handwriting,

A book of prayers,

A class photo – 1983 –

Her second grade class,

Mom in the middle – the doting teacher –

A moment of pure happiness.

My mother’s things taken away,

Taken by family, taken by strangers.

My mother’s things – 

All her self taken –

Gone, gone, gone.

 

One or two things –

My mother’s things

I squirrel away:

Her laugh, her smile,

The way she’d touch my arm,

The memories of her love

Kept safely, so carefully,

So gently, kept with me.

Her self remains with me

Until I’m gone.

 

 

 

A Pause for Celebration

“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James

 

After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration.  There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified.  It seems insurmountable.  This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.

Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday.  It is Henry’s 40th birthday.   Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years.  In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students.  His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.

Then something unbelievably senseless happened.  One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver.  I did not know how to process this loss.  The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did.  I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.

Henry and I had many adventures together.  We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys.  Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up.  Gradually, we lost touch with each other.  However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!”  I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.

Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing.  I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years.  And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother.  I was so overjoyed.  We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away.  Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story.  I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote.  I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered.  I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now.  That made me sad for him, but also happy.  I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died.  I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.

Remember Me

Three days after Catherine died,

I took her young son home from school.

I put her key into her door

As her son pushed ahead,

Running through the house, calling,

“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?

I made a picture for you!”

He was three and didn’t understand

The permanence of death.

I ran after him,

Took him by the hand,

“You remember, Henry, don’t you?

Mommy’s not here.”

He leaned into me,

His face hidden between

The folds of my skirt,

“I remember,” he whispered.

 

We went into Catherine’s kitchen,

Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,

Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,

Built castles out of wooden blocks,

“When’s my mommy coming?”

Henry asked again.

I looked into his eyes,

“Henry, I’m sorry –

Mommy’s not coming home.”

“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,

She’ll be lonely without me.”

I turned my tears away,

Looked out the back door

Trying to find the words

To make him understand.

 

I caught a glimpse –

Something bright from Catherine’s closet,

One of her dresses, the Marimekko

With the bright flowers,

The one she wore the first time I met her.

I took Henry’s hand,

Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses

And laid them on her bed.

I picked up each dress, one by one,

Held them in front of Henry.

He looked up at me and knew what to do:

He hugged each dress,

Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,

“Good-bye Mommy,

Have fun in heaven,

Remember me,” he whispered.