Tag Archives: memory

Last Thoughts Before Sleep

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 6.29.22 AMMy last thought before sleeping: we are all under the same roof, and when did that last happen?

When did my adult children, my husband and I last prepare for bed in synchrony: changing into bed clothes, brushing teeth, settling beneath sheets?

In the void beneath my eyelids I transport myself many miles north, to years long gone. I imagine my body spinning so that my head points south, as it did in the bed of my youth. Through grainy gray mist, my old room drifts into focus: the octagonal pillars of my great great great grandfather’s bed (how it creaked when I crawled into it); the oval mirror of my dresser on the opposite wall (the first thing I saw upon rising was myself); the lighted mirror on the dressing table (where I separated my tarantula-like lashes with a safety pin); the folding doors of my closet (always popping open, like sharp elbows); the switch plate painted olive (from my blue and green phase). My door connects to the basement recreation room, and beyond it, at the foot of the stairs, my brother’s room, where he sleeps.

Cool air touches my face — always cool, smelling subtly of loam and rain and salt. The heater announces itself with an explosive huff, indignant at being held back for so long, determined to set things right, to restore equilibrium, to defend its charges, to breathe warmth back into the chilling house. When it is satisfied, the duct tick-tick-ticks in satisfaction.

My father shifts in the bed above mine; his snoring a deep, stentorian rumbling; my mother’s, a higher pitched rant. Suddenly he is silent. He is awake, thinking, perhaps, that his children sleep under the same roof, and when had that last happened?

My children — old enough, now, to have children of their own — sleep on. My husband’s breath has relaxed into the soft, slow rhythm I know so well after almost 35 years of marriage. These three, who I love beyond measure (beyond life, beyond time) have given themselves to dreaming. This moment is my blanket, my pillow. Their rest is my rest. I am at peace. And when did that last happen?

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Turning My Mixed Feelings Over to Divine Love

My cousin Lynn's bark prayer boat, launched for my father

My cousin Lynn’s bark prayer boat, launched for my father

This is a strange birthday. Next year is one of those milestone birthdays, when I’ll put a “6” in front of the single digit, instead of “5.” But I’m not lamenting my age or the passage of time. I’m.. what?

In April I attended my friend and classmate Mimi Chiang’s memorial. In May I celebrated my beautiful cousin Lynn Fawcett Whiting’s life. Tomorrow I will join with friends to remember Jim Jennings, who illuminated my life ever since I met him in 1995 or so. This, while the horror of Orlando echoes.

Mimi, Lynn and Jim were — and are — inspirations to me. Mimi for her courage in life and on the page. Lynn, for the art and beauty of her soul. Jim, for his love and wisdom.

Beginning in 1999, when I confronted my mother’s terminal illness, Jim was the person I turned to when I experienced a crisis of faith, or simply quailed in the face of life. This blog is peppered with his advice to me. Search “my mentor Jim” and you’ll find him.

Maybe this is a good time to repost what he wrote me shortly before my father’s death in 2013. I worried about my father’s faith. I worried about my faith. I worried… I still worry… about a lot. I’m not very good about lifting those worries up. I wish I had that kind of easy faith, but I don’t.

What I have had, and do have, are messengers like Mimi, and Lynn, and Jim. People who glow with something unnameable.

  • God is with us, actually inside each of us even when we do not sense it, and remove enough of our own clutter and misgivings and pain to be fully conscious of divine love inside us.
  • God doesn’t have a dossier on each of us that reads how long we will live, how we will deteriorate, whether you get cancer or I get Alzheimers. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, and that experience is governed by the natural order which is haphazard, and evolutionary, and our individual biological destiny gene defined more than most anything else. But the soul was, is, and shall be.
  • It’s perfectly natural for us to wonder how a loving God could allow this or that, but fairness as we want it to be does not come with free will and nature.
  • I have asked for most of my life, “Why did you set it up this way God?” In my dotage I have come to accept that I will get an answer…I will see and understand only when my spirit is set free from my human experience.  Meanwhile, I have to trust, have faith in God’s unconditional love, and try to be a loving other in the world. And to be perfectly comfortable in having a fit from time to time about why it is this way — why my 34 year old father of three kids is dying of brain cancer, or my lady in the Alzheimer’s unit is so very lost. [Jim was a chaplain for hospice at this point.] Very hard to accept that we are not in control; that we have to ultimately turn it over to the embrace of the Divine.  Meanwhile we care for each other in the fullest sense we know how, offering love and our own broken heartedness with the words of the Christ  “Thy will be Done.”  You can even go so far as to say, “Well dammit, Thy will Be Done.”
  • I am sure you understand the chaplain was asking the question so he could get a sense of where your Dad is both spiritually and religiously so he can approach your Dad accordingly.  What the chaplain’s job in this team is, is to do anything he can to help your Dad have peace of heart and peace of mind. Sometimes this is expressed in religious language; often not.  Your Dad does not have to have all the answers to all the questions right now. He needs heart connection because that ultimately answers the unanswerable questions and ensures him peace of heart and peace of mind so he can release. Whether he connects in any way to a traditional notion of God, he sure does to your Mom and he wants to go and be with her.  So for him, there is a there there, and he has his heart set on arriving.  Leaving is generally harder than entering, for each of us.
  • Turn all your mixed feelings over to Divine Love.  Literally, write each one on pieces of paper; put them all into a bowl or pot.  Take a lighter and burn the scraps safely and as you do, tell the Divine to take care of this messy stuff so you can take care of your Dad and your self.  Each moment now, even the most gritty ones is precious. HUGS

Jim was always better with words than I am. … Even the most gritty moments are precious. The soul was, is, and shall be.

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Memory and Moment

What makes us remember one particular moment out of the millions that raced past? I should remember the moment I was told my father had a serious heart attack. I was five, and old enough to understand. But so many of my early memories are single images, unconnected to the moments that preceded them and those that followed: looking through the pink chiffon of my mother’s evening dress, sucking a sugary droplet from a honeysuckle blossom, watching the tall swells through a porthole on an ocean crossing.

Most of the moments I remember aren’t decisive instants, neither augur nor anchor. From them I imagine: I was a scaredy-cat; I was a whiner; I was a tomboy. I imagine my father, too. He’s been dead for over two years. When I write, I meet him again for the first time.

No one can confirm who my father was. The people who might have had better answers — his brothers, his friends, his Marine Corps brothers, my mother — are all dead. Even if they were alive and could return to the periods that escape me, I’m not sure their account would be closer to the truth. Not even my brothers can confirm or deny my account because their relationship was son to father. I’m the only one who knew my father as I did.

The images are pushpins that hold up my stories. The story of how I wanted to feel close to him. The story of how I did. They’re not much, but maybe they’re enough.

 

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The Sunset Years

Eileen reach for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

Reaching for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

A little heartbreaker on my way back from workout this morning. A familiar elfin woman strolled down the street, her hands clasped behind her back. Should I ask her? Until a few weeks ago, she’d always been with her husband. The two looked like the movie trope about the sunset years, in which the elderly couple walks hand in hand, smiling. And something about her reminded me of my mother. They were a neighborhood fixture, along with the woman who walks her two horses, the young parents with the double-wide stroller and two wiemaraners, and the walking-talking lawyer, always on a moving conference call. But the couple was my favorite. I imagined my mother and father into their shoes, living their last years together.

I decided to ask.

She shook her head and said, “He passed away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that I’d always enjoyed seeing them out together and had noticed his absence. I felt it now, and was sorry for her loss.

“He was brave to the end,” she said, with her faint German accent. Her smile was still there, politely friendly to this inquiring stranger. Her eyes watered.

I remembered sitting with my father on the couch in my parents’ living room the day after my mother died. My mother was everywhere and nowhere. The living room had been redecorated with the help of an interior designer, but the scheme was all her. She chose light gold for the walls, carpet and drapes to compensate for the days the clouds hid the mountains and the landscape turned gray. She hated the dark. Of course there were pops of red, her signature color: true-red cherry blossoms on the Japanese screen, pink-red cranberry glass on the window sill, wine-red velvet on my grandmother’s chair. Next to the couch were the leather-topped end tables for which she constantly admonished us to use a coaster; one had a cigarette burn. I couldn’t imagine her having caused it, even after a glass of wine. She gave up smoking a few times but never kicked the habit. In fourth grade, I conducted my first communications campaign, barraging her with block-lettered “ads” bearing the P.S., “I don’t want you to die!” In the end, smoking killed her, but dementia robbed us of her before that.

I didn’t know how my father would live without her. They were one until death split them asunder.

But in grief there was still memory. At least he still had her image, the moments bad and good. Toward the end, my father said he could no longer remember my mother’s face. That struck me as cruel on God’s part. How could she go missing?

The old couple, walking down the street, always holding hands, allowed me to construct an image of my parents together. A pretend game that gave them back to me, just for a minute. The couple never knew. I never said a word until today. When the woman turned to me, inside the protection of my car, her grief was naked. I hope I let her know that it mattered, that a stranger noticed her beautiful partner was missing. I hope his memory never will be.

Writer’s note: I’ve been silent while working hard on manuscripts for my Bennington College Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Graduation in June 2016, fingers crossed! Most of what I’m writing doesn’t quite fit the voice of “The Henry Chronicles” but periodically you’ll find me back here! It’s now been two-and-a-half years since my father died. Sometimes it seems longer ago, and sometimes like a few weeks ago. I continue to learn from him even now.

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A Little Moment

My brother's drawing

I remember sitting at our dining room table with an activity book of children’s rhymes when I was about six. On the right side of the page was a poem about a wee elf who seeks shelter from the rain under a toadstool, only to discover that a big dormouse already occupies it. The left side of the page was left blank for the picture that would come from a child’s imagination.

My coloring skills always failed to achieve what I hoped. When, on another page, I had tried to draw a woman in profile, she ended up looking like a cyclops. My brother came upon me with my crayon hovering in mid air as I willed the waxy instrument to conform to my ideal.

I see what happened next in snapshots. My brother Bruce came alongside, leaning over to examine the source of my consternation, his arm draped around my shoulder. I don’t know if I asked for his help or he offered, but he sat down and started drawing.

To watch him draw was to see magic in slow-motion: with pencil he outlined the toadstool, then the big dormouse slumped over in sleep, his paws folded over his chest, his legs hunched against his round tummy.  To the left he outlined the elf — a leprechaun to my way of thinking — with a top hat, jacket and and bow tie. Pointed ears protruded from the elf’s long hair and his finger wagged at the dormouse. Then Bruce traced his outline with crayons — he was careful to use the sharp ones — and lightly shaded the figures. Brown for the dormouse (of course), teal blue for the elf’s jacket and hat, red for the little bow. Bruce implied the grass with a zig-zaggy line of green (I would have scribbled it all in) and left the background alone. As he proceeded step-by-step, my brother gave a tutorial. He explained that I should always start with pencil; pencil can be erased. If I followed my initial lines with color and then shaded the interior, the product would be neater. His eyes met mine often while he demonstrated.The last touch: he penciled in tear-drops of rain. I treasured the drawing as if it were an oil painting of Jesus.

The masterpiece is less important than what it symbolized: that I was worth my brother’s time, his precious teenage time. At the point I am remembering, Bruce would have been sixteen. Older brothers couldn’t be expected to lower themselves to entertain little sisters. But Bruce was different. He smiled with encouragement from the pedestal I had erected for him.

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Egg Beater Drawers

 

egg beater drawers

There it was this morning, my mother’s voice. In my head, of course, since it’s been 15 years and counting since she passed away. But I heard it, clear as her prized Waterford crystal: “Dammit, Betsy, my drawer looks like you’ve gone through it with an egg beater!”

She was right. Her underwear drawer did look a mess after I got through with it. My mother wasn’t particularly neat — she considered piles a perfectly appropriate organizational system in the kitchen — but her drawers were another matter. That woman knew how to fold. And the neatest drawer of all was her underwear drawer. I know because I raided it every time I needed a half slip.

Her underwear was practical but silky with bits of lace on the bras and panties, camisoles and slips. All of it was folded into neat squares — the slips set toward the back, the underwear and bras toward the front. Bras were folded in half and stacked on top of one another, a miniature mountain in a landscape of lingerie.

Some people hear their mother’s voice critically — there she is again, bitching at me from the grave — but (thankfully) that’s not what I heard. She sounded exasperated, to be sure, but loving. As if wondering how she was going to survive my teenage hood while in her mid 50s. And just that phrase — her distinctive “dammit!” — was like having her back again, if only for a minute.

I never did master underwear folding, and my underwear drawer does look like it’s been mixed with an egg beater. But at least I stowed my stuff, Mom, so it doesn’t look like it’s been spread from “hell to breakfast.” And, by the way, Merry Christmas… and I miss you. Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

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With Gratitude: Seeing Red

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All summer and fall, I’ve been trying to write about my mother, who died in 1999. I thought I was at peace with her when she died. I had been one of her hospice caregivers during the months she struggled for breath, and I was with her at the moment of her passing. At one point, she even made a speech in which she said everything I ever hoped she would say to me. My mother and I had no unfinished business, or so I thought.

But every time I went to write about her, I remembered a particular instance in which she threw underhanded, called me a name, apologized later. It became my personal whack-a-mole. No matter what I was writing about — my childhood, my father, my husband, my own children up the incident popped. Yes, her comment was mean. But why skewer her? If she were alive, we could have a good fight about it, a fair fight. That one scene did not a relationship make. There were hundreds of other scenes — thousands — I could have brought to mind, but I was stuck. The words would not come.  Until I opened the box with the Chinese brocade.

I don’t know what possessed me to go spelunking in my attic last week, but I felt compelled to pull out some of the stuff I have squirreled away in nooks and crannies. I’ve inherited some stuff, and collected other bits when my father moved out of his house in 2003. On this particular day I went looking for the bins I stored among dusty luggage, abandoned briefcases and boxes of seldom-used holiday decorations. The last time I opened one, I think, was when one of my children mined it for show-and-tell. Both of my children are out of college now, so that had to be long ago, at least a dozen years back.

Through the translucent side of the top bin, the contents looked like layers, vanilla except for a ribbon of red. What could possibly be so unabashedly red? I removed the packing tape, so old it it cracked rather than peeled, to discover what was on top. Oh, it’s you, I thought, as I extracted the remnant of silk. Left over from the cheongsam my mother had made when we lived in Hawaii, I greeted it like a long lost friend. It’s red without the pop of orange, red without a calming hint of blue: red for blood, red for lust, red for love. It’s red as in red-white-and-blue for the nation’s birthday, which my mother conscripted into a celebration of her own every July 3rd.

When I touched the fabric, still as vibrant as it was 50 years ago, I could see my mother laughing, regaling the family with the story of how she had pointed to where the slit should end, mid-thigh, and how the seamstress kept gesturing to a spot a foot lower and shaking her head: “not Chinese lady.” I remembered my mother showing off the finished product, her curves straining against the thick brocade, her thigh peeking forth a full three inches above the knee. My mother had movie star legs and feet so lovely they landed her a college job modeling shoes at I. Magnin, the nicest store in Seattle. Did the shoe models parade down a runway curtained like a puppet stage, I used to wonder, so that only the calves and ankles showed? My grandfather, who knew more than he should have about a nicely turned leg, reportedly told my father upon meeting her, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.” She was never traditionally pretty — exotic, yes, with the olive skin of the Black Irish, cheekbones like Mt. Rushmore, pillowy lips and dark brown eyes that snapped beneath lids that almost lacked folds. An interesting face, a strong face, but not one that could precisely be called pretty.  Her hair, in the last ten years before her death, was more gray than brown but what she lamented was the increase in shoe size that followed the birth of five children. The beautiful shoes she’d received in exchange for modeling — the pumps and the sling backs and the snappy navy Spectators — all had to be given away.

I wrote, “Oh, it’s you,” because my mother felt more fully present than she had in years. Seeing the silk made me want to laugh and yell red, red, red, red, red! God, my mother loved red, and red loved her back. My father had a bouquet of Shakespearian sonnets he would offer up to her — or use to extol her after her death — but my favorite was Sonnet 130 with its dripping irony: “…I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks.” I can see him at the dining room table, looking at my mother, smiling a half smile as his baritone voice marked off the meter, ending with, “…I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”

Once I had touched the silk, she seemed to be woven into everything. Below the red silk was a pink bed jacket that had been my grandmother’s but it was my mother who told me about it. Now that I think about it, that brief exchange was just so my mother. I know she missed her mother, who lived with us for many years — she was a big help with the children — but I don’t think she kept the old lingerie for its utility. So far as I know, she never used it. I think she kept it for its sentimental value, for the same reason that I cannot purge it. I thought of her again when, at the bottom of the bin, I saw a little christening robe with an embroidered wooly kitten. I’m almost certain it was made for my sister.

My sister, Madeline Elizabeth, was born in 1950 and died on October 22, 1953, two days before my father’s birthday. They called her Midge. She was my parents’ third child, planned to be their last. At thirty-two, my mother had her daughter.

Sometime around Midge’s first birthday, my parents noticed that she was tired and listless, not the energetic little girl she’d been. My father’s brother, a doctor who specialized in blood cancers, came down from Boston to examine her. He took a sample of bone marrow from her hip and diagnosed leukemia. For almost three years, my uncle treated her with an experimental drug. During Midge’s last remission, the family vacationed on the Northeastern shore. In one picture, she held my father’s hand, looking shy. Even though she was not yet four, she wore size 6 clothing due to the weight gain that was a side effect of medication. It embarrassed her, my mother told me.

Then the remission ended. The leukemia advanced rapidly, and after she was taken to the hospital, my brothers never saw her again. They weren’t allowed to say goodbye, or attend her memorial service, or visit her grave; in 1953, that’s what experts recommended. Midge’s death must have brought my parents to their knees, but my mother muscled through it. She would have done well in ancient Sparta. She had two other children to care for, then six and ten, and she had recently learned that she was expecting. Again, the experts weighed in, advising an abortion since the stress might be too much for her or the baby. This time, my parents ignored the counsel. My brother Dean was born in April 1954. I followed three years later.

I remember seeing my mother cry only once. She was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes and looking at me, looking at me but not really seeing me. I asked her why she was sad and she told me she was thinking about my sister.

After my mother died, I found a book in my mother’s bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I stumbled across it again yesterday, in a cupboard, forgotten. The first thing that struck me, besides its red cover (now that she is on my mind, I see red everywhere) was her name written in pen. There is her name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. The book’s pages are a little water logged, as if she read it in the bathroom and accidentally dropped it in water. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” Here is my clue, perhaps, as to how my mother handled the losses in her life. She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”

Is this how she muscled through? By putting her faith in God? By practicing gratitude? Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.

Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she seemed to take far bigger challenges in stride. When my middle brother came home from his sophomore year of college to announce that his girlfriend was pregnant, there were no recriminations. My mother just rolled with it. In my brother moved with his new wife and baby. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her emotional lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that take their time to grow and then fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.

I inherited my mother’s ability to compartmentalize, although I’m a journeyman in comparison. I could use more of her joy, her appreciativeness, her unbridled passion. (I’m passionate, mind you, but more given to a more bridled variety.) I could do with more of her ability to forgive — obviously, if I had a hard time letting go of the one time that she threw a slur in my direction.

After she died, I typed out a list of words to describe her: proud, opinionated, funny, bold, independent, nurturing, dedicated, faithful, feminine but never frail, organized, a leader, passionate, fiery, loving.

There was nothing pastel about her.

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