Mugs and Memory

I don’t know when it started, but maybe it started after my husband and I had collected seventy-two stuffed animals, and we realized that they were taking up valuable real estate. We needed to stop buying stuffed animals for each other for birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. I think that’s when we turned to coffee mugs. We now have far more than seventy-two mugs. I periodically have to cull the chipped and cracked ones. It is hard to do. It’s like saying good-bye to an old friend.

To keep them safe in my memory, I thought I would photograph them and write about their lineage. They are nothing flashy, just some cups that caught my eye or were given to me. Their power is in the memories they hold: who gave them to me, why I gave them, where did they come from? They are creating a timeline of my life and help me to reflect on the past. They are artifacts of my time here: my time sitting down with a steaming cup of coffee, tea, cider, or cocoa, my time meditating, inhaling the cup’s contents and feeling at peace, at least for a little while.

A Mother’s Perfect Love

My mother, Vivian,  would have been 100 years old this past Friday.  She has been gone almost nine years, almost a decade.  How can that be?  It seems like yesterday.  Her name means “alive” in Latin, and I have worked to keep  her alive every day: saying her name, talking to her, remembering when we laughed and cried together, eating her favorite foods, listening to her favorite songs – anything Sinatra.  All the sweet memories we have, my mother consciously constructed. She knew life is short and that in the end all we have are memories to keep us company.

I can see her smile, hear her laughter, feel her warm embrace.  She was not a perfect person but she loved me perfectly, and I am grateful. She gave me so many of her gifts: the love of the ocean, the love of art and musicals, the love of children, and the deep love of story.  These things live in me today, and they were hers, and she gave them freely.  I look at her handwriting, and even my cursive resembles hers.  Now, when I look in the mirror quickly and see her face, I don’t frown.  I smile and am comforted. There she is.  She is not gone.  She is right there on my face, in the ocean waves, in the painting of the sunrise, and in the little girl trying to read.  Vivian’s right there beside me shining like a jewel, leading the way.

Jewel

My mother,
Smiling at sixteen,
Long, tan legs,
Slim swimsuit,
Jewel of the Atlantic. 

My mother,
Dark hair, dark eyes -
Cinched waist, little black dress,
Bright red lipstick,
Jewel of the Jersey nights.

My mother,
Snipping with silver scissors,
Cutting through fabric,
Stitching with confidence,
Jewel of a dressmaker.

My mother,
Sitting in the middle,
Posing with her students,
Doting on each and every one,
Jewel of a teacher.

My mother,
Velvet February’s gift,
Thoughtful and steadfast,
Never complaining,
Jewel of a mother.

Shining forever
In our hearts.

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.