Thursday, January 26, 2012


ME, AGE 5,

Monday afternoon I drove to downtown L.A., just north of Cesar Chavez Avenue in Chinatown and got myself a $20 foot massage. I can’t adequately describe how foreign the notion a massage of any kind is to my Yankee, thrifty upbringing. My Calvinist impulse when in pain is to push harder, work more, soldier through. That’s what my father, a bricklayer did; that’s what my mother (to eight kids) did. Only lately have I allowed myself to realize my entire body is killing me; even then, I'd had to gradually, slowly work up to the idea of "treating" myself to a (low-end) foot massage.

To compensate for this unseemly pampering I’d parked a half mile away, even though it was raining: partly so as to avoid paying for parking, partly because I've come to like building a little penance into my pleasure. The fact is I enjoyed walking in the drizzle through the deserted streets of Chinatown: the pastry shops, the dim sum palaces, the noodles joints, the parking lot attendants sitting on soda shop stools surveying their realms, the workman squatting against a storefront on the sidewalk with a delicious-looking Styrofoam container of grease-slicked roast duck and rice, the skyscrapers of downtown looming in the mist...

Foot massage in L.A. is a term of art, an hour-long affair that includes a neck, back, shoulder and leg rub. The place was about what you’d expect for 20 bucks, no more, no less; dim lights, clean enough, tiny rooms, muslin, bamboo, sitar Musack. First I got to soak my feet in a tub of nice warm water while “Lisa” did my neck and back, and then I got to recline in a big old comfy towel-covered chair while she knelt and did my legs and then my feet. Almost as soon as she started on my calves, I began crying. When you are never touched, to have someone touch you, someone who doesn’t want anything and is coming from a basic place of warmth unleashes, for me anyway, a cascade of emotions. That you can walk through the anonymous streets of a city and through a particular door and someone will invite you to take off your shoes and socks and will then touch you, will not shame you, will not ask you to give an account of yourself, will not be--or at least not act--repulsed, is really, I have to say, kind of poignant.

We carry in our bodies a whole range of wounds, of hurt, of loneliness, of the continual daily onslaught of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we impose on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that that you are first in no-one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people and you are first in no-one’s heart…As you age, I’m finding, what also comes up is a primal fear of appearing to be debilitated, weak, in need of help; a deep primordial limbic terror of being cast out of the herd and left to die, alone…

I've somewhat come to terms with all that, though, and what I was really thinking of as Lisa worked over my deteriorating-in-various ways-at-the-moment feet was my mother. Mom’s in a home in Dover, New Hampshire with Alzheimer’s. She’s been in the same second-floor corner room for four years, quite proud that she can still navigate the stairs; insistently, even defiantly (that's my Mom!),  refusing to use a walker. But she’s been failing, as we do. Mom, the most fastidious person I know, has been having trouble cleaning herself. Mom, who put her whole life on hold to sit by the metaphorical telephone, to be on call in case someone needed her, can no longer hear the phone ringing, even though it's two feet away. “Well hello there,” she’ll say to my brother Geordie, who lives closest by and bears the brunt of visiting, accompanying to doctor’s visits, decision-making. “She knows I’m friend, not foe,” he’ll report, “but that’s about it. She greets me about the way she would the plumber”…

Mom took a little fall on the stairs recently, plus she’s started getting belligerent (also wildly out of character: Mom’s stubborn but she’s also extremely meek), and the short of it is that last week the people at the home made her move in downstairs, next to the nurse’s station, WITH A ROOMMATE (94-year-old Hannah, bless her heart). I can’t really describe how very much my mother 1) resists change and 2) is not a roommate person. We all thought she’d freak; instead, and this may be a measure of her diminishment: she didn’t blink an eye. Expressed initial surprise—“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”—and then went meekly, happily along. So far, so good, for which we are grateful.

Still—it’s my mother. I'm her firstborn and it's my mother. All week I’d been thinking of the passage, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you did not wish to go” [John 21:18].

And here in this dim massage room, with not a soul in the world except Lisa knowing where I was, I thought of a story someone had recently told me about when she’d been in rehab. She said her roommate had been a burn victim, a fellow alcoholic who’d tried to fry a hamburger one night when she was drunk and her dress had caught fire and she'd been too wasted to extinguish the flames or call 9-1-1 and had sustained third-degree burns over half her body. And this woman would lie there with a pillow over her mouth in rehab and scream and scream and scream. The pillow muffled it more or less but it was a terrible haunting wrenching sound. And finally this woman who was telling the story had said, “Is there something I can do? Are you all right?” And the burn victim woman said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m screaming now because I was afraid if I screamed in the hospital, they wouldn’t take care of me.”

I was afraid if I screamed, they wouldn’t take care of me. Isn’t that on some level the wound we all carry? I thought of my mother, raised on a Rhode Island chicken farm during the Depression with a mother who literally went days without saying a word, and a father who up and left one day when my mother was 13, never to return, only to surface years later with a new, second family. I felt how she was maybe afraid to scream all her life because, even remaining silent, they hadn’t taken care of her. I thought how when your whole psyche has been formed by neglect and abandonment, you are maybe subconsciously afraid that your own child will reject you--and how, in many ways, I had. I thought about all the people I have been hurt by in my life who couldn’t or wouldn’t get closer and how maybe they were exercising a superhuman amount of courage and heart to let themselves get as close as they did.

I thought of how like my mother, I am so not a roommate person and yet, a year and a half ago, and due to our current Depression, I’d gotten a roommate, too...

“She still reads a little,” Geordie had said. “I don’t know how much she absorbs, but she had The Wind in the Willows out the other day.” I thought of how, last year, I too, had re-read The Wind in the Willows (“Ratty, please, I want to row!), even going so far as to read a biography of author Kenneth Grahame—whose mother died when he was five, whose father was an alcoholic, who made an unhappy marriage, and whose only child, a son nicknamed Mouse, had been emotionally troubled all his life and committed suicide at the age of twenty by throwing himself under a train.

I thought of how Geordie had told me, “She has two books by her bed, the Bible and Parched”--my first memoir. Could any daughter, any writer, hope for a greater tribute? I thought “In the beginning was the Word” and of how, before I'd been able to find my way to an actual church, books were the closest thing to a church I had. I thought of how my mother had wanted to be a writer and how in a way I became one for her. I thought of all the time in my life I had spent thinking, If only my mother had hugged me, if only my mother had told me I was pretty, if only my mother had …and how, on the cusp of turning sixty, I had  finally come to realize that of all the mothers in the world, I got the perfect one, the only one, the best one. The one who had taught me to love books and silence and trees, whose secret sorrows and wounds I had absorbed through my DNA, who I been afraid to scream in front of all my life because I was afraid she wouldn’t take care of me but who had taken care of me, I saw now, had taken care of me and loved me and seen what was good in me and guided me toward what was important as no-one else could have.

I made no sound, though my face was wet with tears. I felt her--forever first in my heart, as our mothers somehow always are--in my bones and blood and aching muscles, I felt her across the miles and the years, I felt her--the person who had known me longer than anyone on earth, though she no longer recognized me--before I’d ever been born and after we both died.  I thought of how maybe the deepest cry of our hearts, no matter how old we are, if we are stripped right down to the bone, is “Mummy! Mummy!”…

“Do you want some hot tea?” Lisa asked afterward but that would have been too much intimacy, too much indulgence maybe, so I said no, but thank you so much, and got dressed, and left.

It was raining harder now and I pulled my coat around me a little tighter and put on my scarf. Homeless people were sleeping on the side of Cesar Chavez, huddled in damp sleeping bags, their belongings getting soaked. I walked in the rain over to Grand Street and up to the Colburn School of Music, where I’d attended a student recital the night before, to retrieve the copy of Charles Péguy's The Portal of the Mystery of Hope I'd inadvertently left behind. In the preface, French theologian Jean Bastaire notes: “[A]s it is expressed by the ‘puer eternus’ [eternal child] of the collective unconscious, there exists a connection between childhood and resurrection, and Hope brings the grace that we anticipate from Easter.”


  1. This is beautiful. Beautifully written, with such a wealth of depth and breadth contained in one incident! You so well articulate fragility and pain and also the deep happiness that comes from coming to terms with it all. This could almost be a short story, Heather, it is so well crafted. Your thoughts roam far and wide, yet you never lose the thread.

    Blessings and love to you and your whole family.

  2. It is already a good short story - don't even tinker with it.
    Steve Sparrow

  3. dear Heather --

    I have no words this morning. But I have a heart and it is going out to you.

    I might have more to say privately.

  4. Oh Heath, get out your hankie is right. I last saw dear Janet at my own mum's memorial service. She appeared softly before me in her pale pink wool coat and I was startled to see your face in hers. In fact, I exclaimed, "You look just like Heather!" She reminded me (duh) that you look just like her. We are DNA indeed as we are the eternal children. Much love to you all, Bon

  5. In tears... pain and strength in your words. How grace and healing work their ways through the twisted veins of our suffering never ceases to amaze me.

    Prayers of blessing for you and your family, Heather.

  6. Heather...Oscar Romero said; "God enters the the human heart by its own ways; He enters the wise through wisdom, He enters the simple through simplicity."
    I saw the reference to Peguy, connected some dots and made the following interesting connections;

    Vincent Robert Capodanno, known as "The Grunt Padre" was a Maryknoll missionary who requested a transfer and later became a Navy Chaplain in Viet Nam. Through several tours, he steadfastly refused to carry a weapon. He sacrificed his life to shield a Marine to whom he was administering the last rites on the battlefield and for this courage and other action, was awarded the Medal of Honor; Capodanno cited Jesuit Raul Plus's small book, "Radiating Jesus" as instrumental in forming his faith in his last years...and Plus in turn cites Peguy liberally in the small book.

    Sometimes the interconnectedness amazes me but even more so, the gap between sowing and reaping, just as Jesus said it would be. The axiom comes to mind that God doesn't call us to be succesful...just faithful.

    God Bless,

    Dave S from Tampa

  7. You made me cry and I am sending this to my own mom, who had a difficult relationship with her mother. It is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  8. One of the most profound and beautiful things I have ever read.

    I passed the link on to some of my friends.

    I'l be thinking about this all day.

    Jacque Buntin

  9. Wow, just wow. Wish my mother was alive so I could share it with her.

  10. Powerful and moving. God bless you and your mum

  11. truly beautiful, thank you for this

  12. Amazingly beautiful! I was most moved by the woman who was afraid to scream because they might not take care of her. Wow. Thank you for writing this.

  13. I wasn't going to cry, I really wasn't.....sniff, sniff. I love how you call her "mummy." That's what I call mine. She is English.Thanks for sharing such an intimate portrayl.

  14. your writing is as good as George Cloony in his best film : The Descendants, Beautiful and poignant.

  15. Mom is 83 next month and has ever last one of her marbles. We are best friends. I read and am grateful for both our stories.

    Reflecting on the Bible and Parched on your Mom's nightstand, no there is no more fitting tribute. I was thinking how we never really stop wanting to please our folks, period, regardless of, well of anything one wants to complete this thought with.

    As a part of three 20Somethings, I know the flip side is true. All I want is to know I have not failed them and that even with my failings (is that contradictory? too bad) I hope they know I love them whether they 'fail' or 'succeed.'

    And not on the central topic but I love the line, "... the parking lot attendants sitting on soda shop stools surveying their realms..."

  16. Beautiful piece, Heather.
    In doing some recent self-exploration on my mother-daughter issues, I came across Fr. Philip Scott's book and workshops on the Father Wound and his ministry's later work on the Mother Wound. I think he is very much in line with your thinking.

    Thanks for your ongoing courage in sharing so much of your blossoming soul.

  17. My Mom died eleven years ago but I still think about her every day.
    -Mike D.

  18. My father saw a lot of fighting in the war, saw many, many men die. And i asked him, in the moments, minutes or hours between when a man is hit and when he dies, what does he say? my father answered: "momma!"

  19. It took me two days to finish reading this post. It squeezed my heart and caused my eyes to leak making reading impossible. My mom is gone many years, but your post brought back so clearly the feel of her soft cheek against mine, the powdery smell of her and her no bull way of thinking. You write so well. Thanks. Hugs to you and you Ma.

  20. Andrew W., thank you so much! Tried several times to respond via e-mail, kept getting bounced back...please know your generosity is very much appreciated...

    Thanks, Chip Burkitt, for pointing out the St. Paul/John error..

    And thanks to everyone who commented here...I have to say this may be the best thing I ever wrote, not that it couldn't use improvement, but it did come together in a fairly, and uncharacteristically, quick way...and I did briefly think, Maybe I should try to sell this...

    I love when seemingly disparate snippets of thought cohere...I'd brought the Peguy book to the student recital the night before and had just finished the preface, struck by and making mental note of the quote about childhood and resurrection, when the pianist began...and of course managed to leave the book behind--whose purpose, I'm thinking, may turn out to have been that one line rather than Peguy's poem (which I still haven't read yet though)...The story of the girl in rehab who was afraid that if she screamed they wouldn't take care of her had also been haunting me for weeks...

    And then of course the photo of me on the front steps of the house where my mother was raised, which my brother Ross had unearthed from a box of old photos just a couple of years ago, that I'd never seen before, and that stopped me absolutely dead in my tracks when I did see it. The dereliction hadn't even registered on me as a child, and our house as well as my grandmother's was always clean and full of books, sewing, music, etc. but the emotional neglect, the neglect of self, the generations of isolation, of silence, of sorrow--it was all there; that was what I inherited just as we all inherit our parents' emotional/psychic baggage...and that my little shoulders were already squared, hands thrust in pockets (I actually had a coat in adulthood that I wore till it started to shred that looked VERY MUCH like the one in the picture (which my mother, I'm sure, had sewn for me)), feet lined up, smile in place, just slayed me.

    As I wrote to a friend yesterday, "It is just fascinating to be hitting sixty and realizing--Oh I finally get it. This is it! There are all kinds of things about us that are not GOING to change, that were 'written' into us, for better or worse, and if you are very lucky, you start to see that if you look at it in a certain light, it is ALL for the better...that we got to be born and walk this crazy earth at all"...

    Anyway, again, thanks for hanging in over this emotional roller-coaster of a week...tea in my friend Judy's garden today...I can use it...

  21. Really, really good, deep from the heart, where Jesus captures us and gives us our only authentic identity. Thank you!

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  22. thank you for articulating this deepest and wrenching relationship- the mother/daughter connection- so beautifully.

    i am in tears.

    so good.


  23. but couldn't you sell it, too? It is just sooooo good!

  24. I will pray for your Mom and for you and your family.

    Heather, you broke my heart-in a good way, with this blog. You cried, because sometime touched you and took care of you. I understand that. I really do.

    Peace to you and your family.
    I wish my Mom was still with me.
    I miss her everyday.

    Peace to you to Heather.

  25. New reader to your blog. I really like it and appreciate your entries. This was a beautiful one about your mother, but I was touched by something else as well, "If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that that you are first in no-one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people and you are first in no-one’s heart…"
    I am 46 and single, having never met anyone I wanted to marry. I always thought I would. I imagined a houseful of children and me in the role of loving mother/wife. But it was not to be, and I still find myself struggling to know who I am and what my purpose is when what I most wanted was not to be mine...

  26. Anonymous, glad to have you...and of course I hear you...Wed. I'm going to post a letter one of my brothers wrote me in response that reflects upon this very issue...

  27. My 88-yr. old mother was raised on a San Antonio poultry yard during the Depression. Her Dad married two women twice and named my mother for his "other" wife. Mother refuses to admit that. She never hugged me, kissed me or told me I was pretty. But she took me to church, saw that I was baptized and went to Sunday School, college educated me and turned me loose. She made me what I am and, though wounded, I am happy about that. She too is failing and I grieve this slow passing because now I must struggle to say "I love you," "You look so pretty" and give her kisses. I am challenged to be what she could not be and I don't seem to be faring much better. God help us.

  28. I've just re-read it. It is achingly beautiful.
    Steve Sparrow


I WELCOME your comments!!!