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The Puzzle of the Angel

Every year when I decorate for the holidays, I stop to ponder a ceramic angel that I made in fourth grade. This year was no exception. Lots of my ornaments have memories associated with them: the yarn angel that my mother bought to represent my sister, Midge, who died before I was born; the Japanese silk thread ball that reminded me of our brief sojourn in Hawaii; the little German ornaments that my mother collected. The meaning of each is unambiguous. Only the little blonde ceramic angel has confounded me.

When I was nine or ten, my mother decided to take up a new hobby. We had recently moved to a suburb of Everett, Washington. Compared to our neighborhood in Seattle, a few miles from the University of Washington and an easy drive to the Opera House and downtown, suburban Eastmont didn’t have a lot to offer. For me, there was the attraction of “the gully” (an undeveloped gulch), a hilltop school ground that was perfect for kite flying, and quiet roads where I could safely ride my Stingray bike.

My Mom decided to try making ceramics, and she let me go with her. On a rural road, a small cottage with faded paint had been converted into a studio. Inside, in what might have been the living room, were shelves of casting molds. On the right side of the room was a counter where patrons poured tan or white clay slip into molds, forming a thin layer before being poured, leaving behind damp greenware. In the center were tables where crafters prepared their creations for firing, and once their pieces were hardened by the kiln, painted on details or covered them with an viscous blue liquid that would magically transform into a glistening clear polish. Animals and gnomes were frequent subjects, as were useful household items such as ashtrays. One of my first projects was a large ashtray with raised astrological symbols finished with a mottled brown and black glaze, which my mother proudly displayed.

If we were really lucky, Mom and I would arrive at the ceramics studio on a day when a new mold had just been placed on the shelves. New molds were sparkling white, but more importantly, unworn from constant use. The greenware from these molds, when ejected without mishap, had sharp, clean edges and smooth, unmarred curves.

Starting a new piece always made me hold my breath. At each step, I anticipated the problems that had spoiled my efforts so many times before. Would I drain the excess slip too soon, leaving the piece too fragile to maintain its shape? Would I fumble as I freed the greenware and dent it? Would I nick it when I scraped away the nearly-invisible seam where the two halves of the mold joined, or paint a line too thick, or glaze it unevenly?

In late summer, people had started in on Christmas decorations. I had my eye on a kneeling angel mold. Her feathered wings extended above her head, her long dress puddled gracefully around her legs, and her thick, wavy hair flowed down her back. Her hands were clasped in prayer below her smooth, serene face. I cast two, planning to make one a brunette, like me, and the other, a delicate blonde. The brunette was a disappointment. The dark brown underglaze contrasted too sharply with her porcelain skin. Rather than the brown mane I imagined, her hair looked like what it was: brown paint.

But the blonde was the angel of my dreams. I painted her dress blue, put a touch of color on her lips and carefully added fine blonde eyebrows to match her hair. When she emerged from the kiln, the yellow glaze had hints of darker hue, perhaps a residual from the brown paint I had used on her sister. She was pale, delicate and beautiful.

I placed the two angels on the bookcase on my room. Every time I looked at the blonde angel, I felt proud. Then school started up, and I forgot about her.

About that time, I had become friends with a girl across the street. Occasionally, we played at my house, but most of the time, we played dolls in her bedroom. Each day, however, we would have to interrupt while Dawn completed her chores. My primary chores were making my bed, cleaning my cat’s litter box and setting the table. Dawn was responsible for dusting, cleaning the glass coffee table with a foaming spray, and vacuuming. I never saw much of Dawn’s mother. When she was around, she didn’t greet me warmly as my mother welcomed my friends. I had the feeling I was underfoot.

One day, I noticed that the blonde angel was gone. I hadn’t thought about her in a while and I didn’t know how long she’d been missing. I looked all over my room, then around the living room and even the recreation room downstairs. The brown-haired angel was in her place but not her twin.

About two weeks later, Dawn and I were playing in her room. On her little dressing table was the blonde angel. I blurted out, “That’s my angel!” Dawn said that it wasn’t, that she had purchased it for her mother for Christmas. Our discussion turned into an argument, with me insisting that it had to be my angel. See how the paint on her eyebrows has a touch of brown? I painted that! Dawn held her ground. Finally, I played my trump card.

“My initials are carved in the bottom! I always carve my initials on the bottom of my pieces!”

Dawn turned the angel over. “It’s not yours,” she said. “See? It has felt on the bottom!”

An uneven green felt square was indeed on the bottom. Around it, frosted white nail polish glistened. It seemed obvious to me that Dawn had covered up my initials by using her mother’s nail polish to afix it to the base.

I knew it was mine, but she looked me squarely in the eyes and lied about it.

I wrote her a note. I told her that if it was so important to her to give the angel to her mother, she could have it. I was giving it to her. I didn’t want to lose her friendship over it.

After a few days, Dawn rang the doorbell. In her hand was the angel. She told me that she loved it so much she wanted to have it. So she had stolen and lied.

I’ve thought about Dawn every time I’ve put the angel on display. It’s always seemed like an important story to me but one without an ending. What did it mean?

Yesterday morning, my church pastor, Rev. Mary Hudak, told a story about her first grade classmate, Tina, who had stolen her pencil. When Mary told the teacher on Tina, Mary’s favorite teacher, Miss Haney, told Mary she knew. But Mary, she said, had two pencils, and Tina didn’t have any. Tina didn’t have lots of things that other children had. Miss Haney knew that Mary would not make fun of Tina for not having what the other kids had.

“I learned something about myself that day,” Rev. Mary said. She learned that her teacher knew Mary’s heart was big enough to sacrifice for her classmate. She learned something about herself.

My story had a different moral, but an important one.

It was about mothers. I couldn’t understand how Dawn wanted her mother’s love and approval so much that she would steal something her friend had made and loved.

My mother loved me enough to display what must have been the world’s ugliest ashtray. I didn’t have to do anything to prove my love for her. I was secure in her love, and she in mine.

I went to church expecting to hear a parable from Bible times. I came away understanding my own.

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Summoning Angels

Perhaps the worst losses are the ones that we don’t expect: the children who die before their parents, the young mothers or fathers whose lives laid ahead of them, the mothers we expected to be in our lives for so much longer.

With these premature deaths, we wail with no less intensity than the mourners of ancient Rome, albeit through all the ways that we communicate now. Whether poured out in text messages, or emails, on Facebook or by telephone, it is awful to behold, and worse to feel.

With the loss of my “other mother” in October, I find myself compelled to unpack some Christmas decorations that I haven’t displayed in years: my mother’s angels. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother collected small angel figurines that she displayed on a bed of “angel hair” (spun fiberglass) that glowed from the string of tiny white lights beneath. Each was lovely, but one in particular stood out: a small girl angel, clad in pink, rosy cheeked, curly haired, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer.

Angels weren’t just a symbol of Christ’s birth to my mother; she had her own little angel in heaven. Before I was born, my sister, Midge, died of leukemia at the age of four. I don’t remember seeing obvious signs of grief in my mother or father during my childhood. But much later, after my mother died in 1999, Dad poured out his heart to me. He repeatedly slapped his palm against his forehead as he described her calling out to him from her oxygen tent in the hospital, “Daddy, help me.” “I couldn’t do anything,” he said, “I went out of the room and pounded on the wall. I couldn’t do anything.”

In the past few weeks, I have borne witness to and experienced that stabbing kind of pain that comes with unexpected loss: the continuing fallout from the death of a young mother to alcoholism, the sudden loss of a joyous and loving young father, and my “other mother,” Miss Ann.

My other mother’s family gathered to make her favorite foods and set the table just as she would have, harvest colored candles arrayed on her heavy brass serving tray. My friend who lost her childhood buddy to addiction wrote a eulogy filled with beautiful stories of her wit and strength. My friend who lost her brother, the young father, raises beers to him to re-enact the fun times when they met at the Whole Foods Bier Garten. These moments were nothing like scenes from a TV drama in which survivors look beautiful while they delicately weep in their time of grief; they were – and are – red-eyed, snot-riddled affairs where people try to do something, anything, to make a terrible reality less terrible.

In reliving traditions – even privately – we summon the people we have lost, the people we feel we should not have lost. Are we hoping that their ghosts will be with us as we go through our rituals? Do we imagine that they will be near as angels, hovering over our lives? I think my mother imagined Midge as an angel, captured in the likeness of the little pink-clad figurine.

Caroline Kennedy, who knows a few things about grief, devoted a chapter to death and grief in her lovely collection of poetry, She Walks in Beauty (Hyperion, 2011). Among the poems was this excerpt from “To W.P.,” by George Santayana:

With you a part of me hath passed away;

For in the peopled forest of my mind

A tree made leafless by this wintry wind

Shall never don again its green array.

Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,

Have something of their friendliness resigned;

Another, if I would, I could not find,

And I am grown much older in a day.

But yet I treasure in my memory

Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,

And the dear honor of your amity;

For these once mine, my life is rich with these.

And I scarce know which part may greater be —

What I keep of you, or you rob from me.

Those who lose someone too soon know what it means to grow older in a day, and to feel robbed by the loss of someone who died before we were ready. As I pull out my mother’s angels, one by one, I call her: “Mom – whether you are angel or ghost – be with me.”

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