Saturday, February 19, 2011

HILLS OF GRAY: MY ÜBER VISIT WITH MOM

THE WENTWORTH HOME
(FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE WENTWORTH HOME FOR THE AGED)
DOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE
MOM'S ROOM IS ON THE SECOND FLOOR, RIGHT FRONT CORNER
It's February but when I woke this morning and parted the drapes in my darling room at the Motel 6 on Gosling Road in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (for I am visiting my childhood from L.A.), I thought of one of the old man's favorite poems: "Snowbound," by John Greenleaf Whittier. Every time a winter squall threatened, he'd be in the kitchen around 5:30 a.m. cooking pancakes, a small sleepy child clinging to either pants leg, starting us off for the day by theatrically intoning:

"The sun that bleak December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray"...

Dad was a bricklayer with eight kids, deep financial anxiety, and possibly the keenest and blackest sense of humor of anyone I've ever known, which is saying something (Looking the poem up just now, apparently, the word in the first line is actually "brief," not "bleak," but Dad always said bleak).

As for my mother, plain-spoken, hard-working, here's a paragraph from my memoir Parched

"Mom was as faithful and true as they come, but one thing you were in no danger of getting on her watch was a big head. The one time I dared to ask if I was pretty, she stole a line from Thornton Wilder's Our Town and replied with an enigmatic little smile, "Pretty enough for all practical purposes." Another afternoon I came home and announced I’d scored across-the-board 99’s on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a standardized exam that, according to the teacher, was administered to children ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. “That’s nice,” Mom replied blandly. “Time to set the table." When I won the school spelling bee in fifth grade, beating out kids who were three years ahead of me, I thought a small congratulations might at last be in order. Instead Mom, who had loyally--or so I thought--come to watch, insisted I'd missed the winning word, got on the horn, and tried to badger the principal into holding a rematch."


Anyway, I am loving being in New Hampshire: the ground blanketed with snow, the leafless birches and maples veiled ever-so-faintly with the pale yellows and deep reds that herald spring, the Isles of Shoals shimmering mirage-like, as they always have, ten miles off the coast. To me, "home" always means hours of introspective pondering over my past, present, and future: mulling over my history, discovering new clues to my psyche. 

Apropos of which yesterday afternoon, I went to visit Mom at the Wentworth Home, the assisted living facility in Dover where she lives, and we had a classic conversation. Not having seen her in a year and a half; and in light of the fact that, what with her Alzheimer's, I wasn't sure she'd know who I was; and more to the point because I am simply a terrible, terrible sap, I was a bit teary-eyed walking into her room.

She was sitting quietly in a chair."Mom, it's me! It's Heather. Your oldest child!"
Pause. "Oh?"

Talking to Mom these days is like talking to someone who was in a blackout the night before and doesn't want to be caught out, so her responses tend to be extremely broad. "What did you have for lunch, Mom?" "Food." "Who's picking you up for Thanksgiving dinner, Mom?" "Uh...yeah."  I'd called her from L.A. several times to tell her I was coming, but L.A. doesn't mean much, and though she has a vague idea of how many children she has, she's far past remembering our names.

Her room is really pretty lovely and has two large windows, one with a view of the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital to the south and one that faces Central Avenue to the west and through which she can watch the sun set. And what ensued, I realized later, was the exact same conversation we've been having our whole lives, or rather the conversation we've never--in spite of my best efforts--ever had. We talked about my trip, the weather, our plans the next day for lunch. And then I launched in--to really, the only question that truly interests me about anyone. 

"What do you think about, Mom?" I asked eagerly. "What goes through your head when you look out the window?"

"I don't know," she replied modestly. "I suppose they keep us so busy (Doing what? I wanted to ask, but whatever) I don't have much time to think." 

Tremulously: "Do you think about Daddy?"

"Oh yes, from time to time. You never forget."

Suddenly I was overcome by a huge rush of emotion: the pent-up emotion, in a way, of a lifetime. Everything I had ever thought about, felt, longed for with all my heart myself...my desire to "know" my mother, and to have her know, see, understand me...my deepest concerns from my earliest memories: the passion to belong, to connect, to bring our own family and the whole human family around one huge banquet table and be happy as we (or more accurately, I) had never had been in real life. 

"Mom," I blurted, "do you think after we die that we're reunited with the people we love? Do you think afterward we're all together?"

"No," she replied shortly. "I think when you go you just go. I think we have what we have and then that's it. I just try to enjoy each day as it comes." 

My mind raced. Mom was Protestant, Mom believed in God: what about the Resurrection?  What about the seed falling to the ground and dying and bearing much fruit? What about Jesus appearing to the disciples after the third day?

"Really?" I said. "You don't think there's anything afterward at all?"

"You don't have to worry about that," she waved me off. "That will take care of itself. Let someone else worry for a change."

"I'm not worried, I'm just wondering." 

"We all go someday," she said firmly, as if I'd disputed the fact. 

From there, I segued into a somewhat overwrought diatribe about how grateful I was for all she had given me. "Your love of nature, you're kind of inward, Mom, quiet, you always loved to read...you gave me all that! Your mother was inward, too, and I inherited that! And then, that was so great that you and Daddy gave us all music lessons, even though you didn't have much money. I didn't know then how much music would sustain and comfort me, what a joy it would be as I grew older. I still have a piano, Mom, out in L.A. I still play my Mozart sonatas..."

"Oh," she said. "I guess I never thought about it much like that. You just saw to it that your kids had music lessons. That was what you did."

All right, then. We talked some more about her days, interests, and life, and then she asked politely: "So what do you do?" 

"Well, I'm a writer, Mom!" (again, on the verge of tears). "You remember how I always loved to read, and getting there took me a long time, and lots of wrong turns, but now I get to write, Mom! The only thing I ever wanted to do. The only thing, really, I'm fit to do..." I clasped my hands over my heart. "I just feel so lucky, so mysteriously blessed...."

"That's wonderful," she said matter-of-factly. "That desk you're leaning on, boy, is that handy. I put the...the stuff on the outside..."
"The finish?" I supplied.
"Yes, I finished it myself." 

"Beautiful, Mom. Nice job."  I opened the drawers, one by one, and looked at the pencils, the envelopes, the magnifying glass, the rubber bands, all neatly, orderly arranged, and, also in a rush, I saw how my whole life I have seen the world through this lens of thinking everybody is like me but just won't or can't admit it. They're withholding, or they're unable or unwilling to get in touch with their deepest selves and my job is to draw them out. My own drawers at home are a pleasant jumble and I suddenly, finally saw My mother is a completely different person than me. She does not see like me, feel like me, experience the world like me--and she doesn't have to.  Most people, I do understand, come to this realization at about the age of 5 but really, better late than never. 

I looked across at that dear, simple, intelligent, common-sense face, and felt a deep, deep sense of peace, and more gratitude and love than ever. I must have driven her crazy with my head always halfway in the clouds. My way of being must have been just as foreign to her as hers had always been to me. One wasn't better or worse than the other: they were just different. She was right about so much: Enjoy each day as it comes. Let someone else worry for a change. Everything was all right the way it has. Everything had always been all right. 

We made plans for lunch today and I took my leave. But driving the back roads home, through the salt marshes, the old farms, the setting sun, a single child-like image rose stubbornly to mind. No-one, not even Mom, can convince me we're not going to all be together, at least for a minute--the old man reciting "Snowbound" and making pancakes--after we die. 

SALT MARSH, RYE BEACH

7 comments:

  1. My cousin's wife's father died on Monday morning after 13 years of Alzheimer's. "He is finally able to run and laugh...all the things he couldn't do for so long," she wrote me with the usual certainty. Though I'm not as certain, I long for it to be true, and also wish I could just let it take care of itself. God bless your mother.

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  2. re your mom's being different from you: George Eliot said it too, in Middlemarch, when Dorothea realizes that for her hubby the "lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference."
    Nice post, as always, Heather.

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  3. When I read your post this two quotes came into my head.
    "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing."
    Meister Eckhart
    and this one attributed to Jung that I have as a plaque on my wall in the garden. In Latin, "Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit" which translates as
    "Invited or uninvited,or some like to translate it as "Called or Uncalled, God is always present."
    Blessings to you and your Mum.

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  4. Well, this is just it: we can't be certain, and yet the longing itself, so deep, so persistent, is some kind of certainty...I am thinking of my priest friend who says that what we do is stand at the foot of the cross with all those we love and all those who suffer...and really, thank God the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference...otherwise we would all look and be alike!

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  5. Yes. Old Yiddish proverb: "If everyone leaned in the same direction, the whole world would keel over."

    ReplyDelete
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