Published May 06, 2011
A few days after my mother died, several years ago, a strange thing happened. I opened an old jewelry box and found a bracelet with her name – Judy – engraved on it. It was one of those tinny keepsakes you win at county fairs; I had never seen it before, and had no idea how it came to be in my possession.
I am not especially spiritual, but it was crystal clear to me that my mother had sent a message. She wanted me to know that she was still close by. I have heard that such occurrences are not unusual. At the time I called a friend who is an Episcopal priest and extremely level-headed. She told me that she frequently hears from people about odd occurrences following the death of a loved one. She agreed that it might be a sort of communication, and also said that such messages often lapse after a few weeks.
I haven’t had any further such incidents, but I’m not surprised. I know Judy is near by; I hear her all the time. It isn’t her voice, though it’s mine. We just sound alike. As I talk to my kids, especially, she suddenly pops up, like a freckle.
She used to stand at the foot of the stairs on dark winter mornings, yelling “Rise and Shine,” trying to rouse my brother and me in time for school. I don’t know if that annoyingly cheerful message grated because it meant quitting our warm nests, or because it invariably ushered in our two large Boxers tearing noisily up the stairs, pausing at the threshold and then vaulting several feet onto our beds. It was a rude, muddy and often snowy, awakening. I swore I would never utter those words, but as I race through the apartment, frantic to get to work, I improbably shout “Rise and Shine!”
At my wits’ end, I borrow those hateful words: “Because I said so” and “Go ask your father.” When I tell my children to pull the hair out of their eyes, to stand up straight, to stop rocking in their chairs, to stop reading in the dark, to replace cokes they take from the fridge, Judy is at my shoulder. Or maybe that’s just the product of Mom, Inc., the source of universal coping skills. I don’t know, but it sounds awfully familiar.
My mother was always up before the rest of us, and always the last to go to bed. Busy, busy – always moving the family forward. As I sometimes linger in the kitchen late at night, cherishing the peacefulness of a sleeping household, I’ve thought that she, too, much have relished those few minutes she had to herself at the end of a long day.
I remember long, still days in August, when we kids were limp with heat and boredom. She would patiently offer up one possible entertainment after another; finally, in exasperation, she would drive us out of the house with some nonsensical chore. Turns out that’s a pretty useful technique.
In pure grit, my mother set the bar above my head. Every year we drove south to Florida, where my father spent the winter writing New Yorker pieces about the Ringling Brothers circus people. He would go on ahead, escaping the cold weather and the tedium of a long car trip.
We would start out in great excitement, with a laundry bag stuffed full of comic books and toys. That cache of entertainments was normally exhausted by the time we hit the George Washington Bridge, about two hours from home; we had three days to go. Those trips must have been exhausting. Not only did my mom do all the packing and make all the arrangements – she also of course did all the driving. We usually traveled with our dogs and cats, and occasionally with birds, skunks, turtles and other creatures not normally welcome at roadside motels.
One day, we got up early and hit the road – I think it was Georgia. The morning was misty with dew and the warm air you finally hit driving south. We had traveled about two hours when my brother scoured the station wagon and asked “Where’s Molly?” In the general confusion, we had left one of our Boxers at the motel. I can only imagine how desperately she must have wanted to drive on and leave the damn dog.
It was, finally, dealing with the menagerie that elevates my mother out of my league. She somehow managed an impossible assortment of needy animals that routinely knocked over her furniture, annoyed the neighbors, mixed it up with porcupines, sullied her wardrobe, stole dinner, wandered into oncoming traffic, chewed through important books (and one of my father’s manuscripts – that was NOT a good day) but ultimately provided much of the emotional tapestry that was our chaotic home. Having struggled to care for one small Bijan with a slightly leaky bladder, I have no idea how she coped.
My mother spoke French, quoted Keats, played tennis, made short ribs and identified flowers. I’m behind on most of those skills, and not even close on cooking short ribs. However, I think I’m keeping up on what was best about her. At all times, and in every way, no matter how small the hurt or improbable the grievance, she had my back. I absolutely knew I could count on her support and love. As I today counsel wounded egos and bruised hearts, I hope that my kids feel the same. I wonder if someday, my girls, too, will think they have become me.