Mother’s Day Redux

Yesterday I wrote about my Aunt Mary and wished her a Happy Mother’s Day. She is someone I miss dearly. I barely mentioned my Mother except to say we had a difficult relationship. I thought I had made peace with that. I know I forgave her years ago for all the hurt. But I guess there is still stuff there. I don’t think of her much. And when I do, I basically feel nothing. I think, perhaps, that’s a way to protect myself. It’s better to feel nothing then to feel the pain of having a Mother that didn’t have my back.

She wasn’t a horrible person but she was unhappy. She was someone who felt life had cheated her. And sometimes, she took that out on me. She was a brilliant woman who always thought she deserved better than she got. But she was also a woman who never took a chance. She took the path of least resistance.

She knew where all my soft parts were and she had unerring aim when she went for them. She was my toughest critic but didn’t offset that by being my biggest supporter. I still struggle with confidence issues and I’m in my sixth decade.

But I realize now that for much of her life, she was afraid. And she did try to give me whatever she could. Having experienced widowhood, I can begin to understand how terrifying it must have been to be left alone with a nine year old child to raise. I remember her loosing her job when the doctor she worked for retired. She began studying shorthand in the hopes of finding different employment. When you are a kid, you don’t get the pressure of wondering where you are going to get the money to pay the bills.

When my first husband died, a friend gave me the gift of a session with a psychic to try to resolve some of the lingering issues I had with him. But the psychic only wanted to talk about my mother. I never mentioned my mother, let alone the fact that she had died the year before my husband. She told me my mother was in a place where she was learning about all the choices she had made in her life. She told me that my mother wanted me to know that she was sorry. That she realized now that she had always been jealous of me and that is why she shot me down even though she loved me. That was when I knew I could forgive her for the pain she caused.

And I did. But I never dealt with the pain. I forgave and then just put it aside. I’m beginning to realize that I have to let that little girl cry because she didn’t have the kind of mother who would tell her she was wonderful. And I need to remember that, no matter what, she never neglected me. I had food, a roof over my head, new clothes, toys a good education and mostly anything I asked for. I’m sure, in her mind, that made her a good mother.

I think I just figured out that by withholding any good memories of her, I am trying in my own way, to get back at her. if I wasn’t a good enough daughter for her, well then, by God, she wasn’t ever going to be a good enough Mother for me. So if I am ever going to let go of the sadness and pain of my barbwired past, I have to acknowledge that my mother was a flawed person who navigated the troubled waters of her life as best as she could. It wasn’t so much about hurting me as protecting her own fragil ego.

I know I still have a lot to do to heal, But I will take a small step and thank my Mother for what she did do for me. I need to stop focusing on the bad and balance it with the good memories. I will not diminish the the deep cuts and scars I still carry, but I don’t want to keep making them the main narrative anymore. Perhaps my Mother wasn’t the mother I would have hoped for, but she did what she was capable of. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Maybe we can still work this out.

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Aunt Mary’s Garden

Tomorrow is Mothers Day. I did not have a good relationship with my mother. I was going to write about that but decided to write about the woman who was my more my real mother.
The summer I turned seven, we moved from Hoboken to North Arlington. It was quite a big deal for us, moving from the city to the “country”. Well at least it seemed like the country to us. My mother and her family grew up in a cold-water flat with a hall bathroom shared with the neighbors. It wasn’t till all the siblings went to work that they graduated to a seven room apartment with their own private bathroom complete with tub. All I knew was apartment life. I can remember driving out to western New Jersey to visit my Great Aunt Viola and passing dairy farms. I thought the cows were wild animals. So when my Mother and Uncle bought a two-family house in the suburbs it seemed like country living to us. Even though the only thing that separated us from the neighbor’s house was a driveway, and there was only a small front lawn and the grass yard in the back was smaller still, wedged between the back of the house and the garage wall, it still seemed like a country estate.

I remember thinking how big it was, our new house. Now looking at it with adult eyes, I can see how small it really was. My Aunt Mary had the little bedroom in the back on the second floor. My Grandmother and my Aunt Rita shared the larger bedroom next to it. My Uncle Marty, who was a priest and only came home on his day off, had an even tinier room in the front next to the hall stairs. My parents and I lived on the first floor. I had the room directly below my Aunt Mary. At the time, I had never slept by myself. My Mother always had to lay down with me until I was fast asleep. And if I woke up in the night, I would call out and she would come back and lie down again. It was my Aunt Mary that convinced me that sleeping alone in my own room would be an adventure. She told me she would lower down notes on a string out side my window. We could share secrets that way. It worked too. I slept alone until my father died when I was nine and this time, my Mother asked me to sleep in her room. I stayed with her until I was twelve and wanted to assert my independence.

That first year we were there, it was September when we moved in. We only had a short period of time to enjoy our little patch of grass out back. I remember our first weekend, Aunt Mary took a kitchen chair downstairs and sat in the middle of that postage stamp of a yard and tried to get a tan. I can still see her in her plaid Bermuda shorts and sleeveless shirt, sitting in that straight-backed wooden chair, her head tilted back, holding a glass of iced tea in a frosty, aluminum glass. She made it look like she was at an exclusive spa instead of a jankity old backyard.

Because it was past much of the growing season that year, we didn’t know much of what would grow in that tiny backyard the next season. So it as a real surprise, when the next spring, Lily of th Valley popped-up alongside the house. My Aunt Mary was thrilled. Her birthday was in May and Lily of the Valley was her flower. Every week, she cut the blossoms and put them in vases for herself and my mother. I remember how strong the scent of the blossoms was. She was always trying to make life beautiful for everyone.

In the last years of her life, she neglected her Lillies. She didn’t cut the blossoms and the patch was overgrown and spindly. When my husband and I got the family home ready for sale this past fall, I had a tough time parting with so much in the home. He got tired of me saying, “I can’t get rid of this. Not now.” I know that so much of what we saved we will eventually get rid of, but I just wasn’t ready. So when I told him I wanted to dig up the Lily of the Vally in the back, his response was, “Are you serious? They porbably won’t survive.” But I couldn’t leave them. They were Aunt Mary’s flowers. We dug them up and carried they home in a bucket. We replanted them on the side of our barn. I put the statue of the Blessed Mother that my Aunt asked that I buy where I planted her flowers and I hoped. There was a 50-50 chance that they would survive.

So it was a very happy thing to see how well they took. And it looks like since we broke them up that they will flower better than ever. So when they bloom, I will cut them and bring them into the house and remember. Happy Mothers Day, Aunt Mary.
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Dreaming Flowers

Today is Valentine’s Day. Tonight when I get home, my dear husband will greet me with a cocktail and a kiss. The dogs will mug me, push against me and beat me with wagging tails. We’ll have a simple dinner of homemade chili and corn bread and talk about our day. It will be sweet and romantic and filled with a quiet love; a wonderful way to celebrate. But although I couldn’t ask for a more loving and loved partner to share the day with, I’ll be missing another special Valentine.

The past few weeks, I’ve had emails from Pro Flowers and 1-800-Flowers telling me that Valentine’s Day was coming, reminding me that I might want to send flowers to Aunt Mary. That was our special thing, sending flowers to each other. She would send flowers to my office for my birthday. (“Nobody sees them if I send them to your house. This way, they see what a big shot you are.”). I would send her flowers for her birthday, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Sometimes I’d add candy or a balloon or a stuffed animal. She always acted like she had just won the lottery. (“ Did you see what my niece sent me? Mary Ann sent these. Aren’t they beautiful?”)

My Aunt Mary and I always had a close relationship. She was my Mother’s younger sister and lived upstairs from us with my Grandmother. We were partners in crime. She encouraged me to draw and make projects. We made snowmen out of Cheer detergent and Christmas ornaments out of walnut shells. She took me to Central Park Zoo and the circus and the rodeo. If there was something fun to do or someplace interesting to go, she took me. In my teen years, we were like girlfriends, talking fashion and make-up and hair styles. As an adult, we were companions, often traveling together. She never married or had children. I guess I filled those needs for her.

When my mother died almost twenty years ago, I felt grief that was compounded by the death of my husband eighteen months later. My relationship with both of them had been stormy and the grief was complicated and entangled. I have friends who talk about how much they miss their dead mothers but I never felt that. My grief was about things left unresolved and how I felt I’d never been enough for her.

My Aunt was different. She always had my back. She was the only one in my family who ever stood up for me against my late husband. That was why it was so difficult for me the last two years of her life. As she slid into dementia, she became aggressive and combative with me. I didn’t understand at the time what was happening to her and the pain caused by her anger and rejection was crushing. At some point though, as she slipped deeper into that twilight space, her true fun-loving personality came back. The bitterness and anger were replaced with a joyful excitement about everything again. There were times though, when she wouldn’t recognize me. I’d hold her hand and she’d say, “ My niece Mary Ann is coming. Is she here yet. You have to meet her. She is so wonderful, so good to me.” “Aunt Mary,” I’d say, “It’s me. It’s Mary Ann.” “Oh that’s my niece’s name too. She’s a good girl. You’ll like her.” That’s a bittersweet way to hear how much someone loves you.

And now I understand my friends who miss their mothers. That’s how I miss my Aunt. If you were here with me Aunt Mary, I’d have flowers for you and chocolates and a bottle of champagne and we’d dance together in the kitchen. Happy Valentine’s Day Aunt Mary. I miss you and until we meet again, I’ll dream you flowers and dance with you in my heart.

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It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

A creative group I belong to suggested that we use the prompt “It was a dark and stormy night” to come up with something for Halloween.  As a child, I always loved “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.  The stories were always eerie and a bit off-center.  In homage to those wonderful shows, I give you “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night”.  Happy Halloween.

 

It was a dark and stormy night , the perfect atmostphere for Halloween thought Susan as she pulled into her garage. She was exhausted. The drive home had been difficult, lots of branches down and power outages. The fact that the garage door had gone up was a good sign. It meant they still had power. She gathered her things from the car and climbed the steps to the kitchen door. The dogs were barking furiously in the basement. The storm must have spooked them. “Alright, alright. I’m coming. Calm down.”
She opened the kitchen door and reached over to switch on the overhead light. Nothing. “Shit,” she thought, “that stupid light over the island must have gone out.” She’d noticed it flickering over the weekend and asked her husband to check it but he must have forgot. She used the flashlight app on her phone to find her way over to the under cabinet light by the sink and flipped it on. It was little more than a night light but gave enough light to keep her from bumping into things. She dropped her purse and tote on the island and headed to the basement door to let the dogs up.

Something on the kitchen table caught her eye. “What the hell”, she thought. It looked like a huge, flat snake. Kevin. Her husband. The practical joker. He’d left for his business trip after her this morning. He must have thought this stupid thing would scare her. As she got closer, she noticed something strange about it. It was transparent and papery. It looked like a snake skin. She’d seen lots of them out in the garden before. But this one was big, very big. It was the whole length of the farm table, at least six feet. And it was completely in tact. She could even see where the eyes had been. It was beautiful and kind of creepy at the same time. She had to find out where Kevin had found this thing. She pulled her phone out of her back pocket and texted him.

”Hey, it didn’t work, you didn’t scare me. But I’ve got to know, where did you it?”
She continued to examine the strange thing while she waited and in a minute her phone pinged.
”What are you talking about? I didn’t try to scare you. What thing do you mean?”
”The snake skin. The giant snake skin on the kitchen table. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
”I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Susan snapped a photo and sent it to him.
”This. It was on the kitchen table when I got home.”
”I didn’t put it there. I swear.”

It was then that it registered with Susan that the dogs had gone silent. She stood still, listening intently. Then she heard it, a sound like rustling leaves or sandpaper on stone. It seemed to come from behind her near the garage door. She turned slowly to look but that part of the kitchen was still in darkness.

”Kevin,” she texted, “I think there is something in the house.”
”Where are the dogs? Let them out of the basement.”
”No. If something is here, they could get hurt.”
”Can you get out of the house?”
”No. The light in the kitchen is out. I think it might be by the garage door. I’m afraid to move.”
”OK. Stay still. I’ll call 911.”

Susan stood frozen, listening with every cell in her body. One of the dogs began to whimper and scratch at the basement door. When her phone pinged again, she let out a muffled scream.
”I reached the state trooper. He’ll be there in ten minutes. He told me that the fire they had last week on Waverly Road, where the barn burned down and the man died. He was keeping illegal reptiles. All sorts of dangerous and venomous snakes. Most of them were killed in the fire but the found a number of empty enclosures. They have no idea how many or what kind may have escaped. They have been quietly looking because they didn’t want to cause a panic. He told me that a snake that is shedding tends to be lethargic but can be aggressive if frightened. It may also be very hungry. So you should be as quite and still as possible.”

”OK. I will. I’ll text you when he gets here. I love you.”
”I love you too.”

The dogs had gone quite again. Susan took a deep breath and tried to slow the beating of her heart. She slowly looked around the room. In the pocket of darkness near the garage door, she was sure she saw an area that was blacker still. And in the middle she could barely make out something shining like two, cold, black eyes. She pressed the button on her phone to light it up. Eight more minutes. She tried to slow her breathing. She was afraid she would pass out. It was still raining outside, hard. She tried to think of song lyrics, nursery rhymes, anything to make the time go by faster. There was a crack of thunder and a sudden flash of light and this time, the power went out.

Susan stood in complete darkness. She pressed the button on her phone. The battery was almost dead. Six more minutes.

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Is It A Vanity

There is a doe who lives in the woods behind our barn.  In the summer, we often see her and her new fawn make their way down through the ferns to cross the road at the bottom of our hill.  Sometimes, she leaves the fawn behind, nestled at the base of a shadowed pine, waiting in utter stillness for her return at dusk. In the evenings, when I return from work, I drive slowly up the hill, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in the fading light.

A few weeks ago, as my car crept quietly up the drive, I spotted her silhouette among the trees.  I stopped when I was even with her and rolled down the window hoping to get a better view.  She stood, not moving, staring back at me.  Then to the right, I saw  the fawn partially hidden in the brush.  He moved closer to the doe and  I saw that there was a second fawn behind him.  Twins!  I was thrilled to see them both.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  But then something else caught my eye; there was yet a third fawn trailing further back.  Three of them, three fawns.  How could that be?  I sat there for I don’t know how long, just looking, none of us moving.  I quietly took my phone from my bag, hoping to get a photo but the light was quickly fading and the foliage was thick where they stood.  I snapped a few, knowing that I wasn’t going to get much and would have to just hold the image in my mind.  Then, with the window  open and my eyes still on this little miracle, I inched the car reluctantly away.

The next day, I tried to write down how I felt about what I had experienced the night before.  I was able to get almost all of it on paper but then found myself stuck at the end.  I put it away, frustrated that I couldn’t find the words to finish my thoughts.  This morning, during meditation, I heard the last two lines in my mind.  As soon as I could, I took out my IPad and finished the poem.

 

Is It A Vanity

There she is.
See her, down in the hollow?                                                                                                                The white of her rump and tail                                                                                                                Glowing in the dusky light.
Sshhh. Be quite or she’s gone.

See the little spotted one behind her?
And look, there’s another.
So still, looking back and waiting.
But oh my, another!
Three?
How can that be?
Surely, this is a sacred thing.

Is it a vanity
For me to believe
That Heaven
Has placed this mystical quartet
Here at this place,
In this moment,
Solely to squeeze my heart
With their grace and beauty?
To knead and soften
The hardened scars
That keep it closed tight?

But these purposeful gifts are everywhere.
Left for those whose hearts are ripe to receive them.
So it is not a conceit to think
This gentle offering
Was meant for me alone.
For I am made of Heavenly stuff
And worthy of the Universe.

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Tonic

I’m sitting outside at the teak table, finishing my coffee, taking a break between errand runs. It’s overcast and chilly for July. I could use a sweater. But the slight chill feels good in an odd way. I’m watching the birds at the bird feeder: goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, downy woodpeckers. They’re here in abundance this year. I hear the tiny chirp of the cardinal hidden in the branches nearby. It’s a strange call for such a beautiful bird. You would expect it to be as melodious as the feathers are colorful. There’s a nesting pair in the trees up on the bank. I look for the female. I prefer her delicate coloring to the bright plumage of her mate. The loud cawing of a crow startles the mourning doves out of their hiding place in the bushes. Their wings whistle as they dash to better cover in the dogwood tree.

The dogs are with me. Daisy lays at my feet, now and then giving out with that soft, Golden sigh as if she were a Shakeperean damsel saying “Ah me”. Maggie prowls the bank searching for chipmunks. I can spot the flash of her white fur in between the jungle of ferns. In awhile, she will tire of this futile pursuit and come lay beside me as well. But her head will stay up and her ears cocked for the slightest rustle of tiny feet. Then she’ll be up like a shot, disappearing into the dark greenery hoping this time, maybe this time.

I’ve left the TV on in the kitchen. Over my shoulder I can hear the muffled voices of the commentators as they narrate the movements of the Tour de France cyclists. It’s comforting in a way; reminding me of falling asleep as a child while the adults watched grown-up programs in the next room.

I need to get moving. I still have much to do today. But I need this right now, this gentle tonic for the spirit. Life seems particularly difficult lately. The world is full of stress, and anger and horror. It becomes so easy to believe that we are going down a path of darkness from which there is no return. The antidote is to stop, be quite and look with your heart at the glorious abundance of life and goodness that abides with us through it all. There is strenght and sustenance and renewal there. It is rooted in Love and cannot be destroyed. The angry and frightened of this world can bury it for a time; cover it in hate and blood and gore. But like the ferns I see before me that will shrivel and turn to dust as the days grow cold, yet return in season more full and lush then ever, this eternal Love will always triumph.

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Bring The Dory Home

I’ve always been a night owl.  When I was in high school, I would wait until my mother had gone to bed, then shut the louver doors to my bedroom and flip on the light.  I’d sit up and read with the radio turned on very low.  Mostly I’d listen to Alison Steele, The Nightbird (a generational icon),  but other times I’d listen to a station that I can only believe was public radio based on what they played.  It’s where I first heard Monty Python’s “Mary Queen of Scotts” and the genius Firesign Theater.  They also played odd music from around the world, traditional American folk music and blues and Celtic songs, ancient and new.

On night, after I’d closed my book and lay there with radio on, listening until I felt drowsy, the announcer introduced a live recording by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy called “Peter Kagan and The Wind”.  It is a story-song that tells of the seal people, a legend widely known among the seafaring folk of Ireland, Scotland and the north east coast of America, and Peter Kagan, a fisherman from Maine who marries one of them.  It is a beautiful ballad of love and sacrifice and the unforgiving wind and sea.

I lay there in the dim glow of the radio, hearing this song for the first time yet feeling it in a deep part of my heart; knowing it in my bones, the harsh beauty of the sea and a life on the rocky coast.  Other than the Hoboken Ferry, I had never been on a boat but I understood how the dory rolled and bucked on the mounting waves.  I smelled the briney green of the water and felt the sting of the salted wind.  I heard the snap and rip of the straining sail. Tears dripped on my pillow as the sad banshee refrain called “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home.  Wind and sea will follow thee and all the ledges calling thee”.  And at the end of the song, when Kagan is found lying asleep in the dory wrapped in the sail with a snow covered seal blanketing him with her body, it is not just a lyric in a song, it is a real, hard, cold memory for me.  I see it in my mind.  I remember it; the fear as everyone rushes to the beached boat.  I know the relief at finding him alive and the chorus of “What the feck” at the sight of the seal curled up with him. The smell of fish and wet wood and canvas.  This is not a tale I’ve heard.  I was there.  I was there.

I never heard that song again.  There was no You Tube, no Internet, no way to Google it.  You went to a record store to buy music and the chances of finding an Irish Folk Music album at the mall were very slim.  But I never forgot it.  Now and then, I’d find myself humming “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home.”

Recently though, it’s been coming to mind a lot. And I’ve been thinking about the Seal People. As a child, my aunt would take me to the Central Park Zoo and all I ever wanted to see was the seals. And I’ve always been draw to the rocky coast of New England and the commercial fishing towns.  I even have a large painting of rusty trawlers on my living room wall.  Something about it says home to me.  So this morning, on the train ride to work,  I Googled “Peter Kagan and The Wind” and listened to it again for the first time in over forty years.  I was back in that dory on the roiling sea, trying to steer a course to the gong bouy as the wind froze the spray on my skin and hair. The tears came streaming and I felt a terrible sadness as the concertina played the melody and Tommy and Liam sang “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan”.

Maybe it’s just that Makem and Clancy were wonderful story tellers; they were.  Or maybe I have a vivid imagination; I do.  But I believe there was I time I lived by the sea. A time I knew the ways of wind and sail and how to steer for home in the fog.  When the fish jumped in my boat and the sea birds sang in time to the hauling of my nets.  When life was hard but all the more sweet for the sheer hardness of it.  I knew the Seal People. Or perhaps married one or was one myself.  I feel it in my bones.

There was a time when I would not have trusted my own memories that are not of this lifetime. I would bury them thinking they were just dreams or stories I made up.  With age comes wisdom, so they say.  I’ve learned that not everything follows the rational, scientific rules we have imprisoned ourselves with. Because there are things that are always with you, things you remember from another time and place, things that have no logical explanation but are there nonetheless.  Like the smell of salt air on a Manhattan bound commuter train.

 

Be sure to watch both.

 

 

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