Maternal Memories

Mom

All of my siblings and I, along with many family members and friends, said a final farewell to the grand lady who brought us into the world today. Over the past several months, as her health began to decline, each of us stepped up the frequency of our visits, and dedicated our energies to bringing her as much comfort and joy as we were able to conjure for her. As difficult as this day felt for us all, our reflections and our wonderful memories which came to us during this time, provided a degree of comfort and joy to us in the process.

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As a young boy, many of my earliest memories were of days spent together with Mom. We grew up in the 1950’s, and like many American families of that time, Dad was the provider, and Mom stayed at home to raise the children. But to understand our true origins as a family, we have to go back before the courtship and marriage that led to this arrangement. Born into an emotionally reserved family of modest means, experiencing her own early childhood during the Great Depression, and her teen years during World War II, our Mother had a foundation in her formative years that would be difficult for those of us today to fully appreciate. We always listened attentively to Mom’s stories growing up, and the tales of having very few resources in her youth, of rationing during the war, and of the challenges our parents faced just to court each other and marry, and they all painted a picture of a very different world than the one we all know today. Raised with only one brother, it was her joyful and abundant summer visits to the home of her beloved aunt, who had a house full of children, that instilled in her the notion that she wanted a family just like it. Her devotion to her role as our mother, had its seeds in the experience of her youth.

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Mom was our champion, our protector, and our teacher, and she performed all these roles with equal skill and enthusiasm. Throughout my childhood, in spite of my tendency not to “look before I leaped,” my Mom never made me feel as though there was anything wrong with me. Her patience and loving tolerance for a whole variety of trials that I managed to present during my adolescence never resulted in anything more than perhaps a sigh, and an urging to try and give my actions a bit more thought the next time. Her gentle prodding and steady diligence to steer me in a better direction always felt like love, and the image above shows a degree of the good effect it had on me.

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Throughout my tender youth, my prevailing memories of my Mom were of her as the most beautiful and happy woman of any that I knew. As a youngster, I obviously had no idea that one of the main reasons for this perception was my emotional and psychological position as her beloved son, but even as I grew and matured, I never lost the sense of how beautiful she seemed in comparison to all the other Moms. Whatever youthful innocence was responsible for coming up with this idea, it never seemed to leave me in all my travels.

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When I joined the military at age 20, my Mom cried in the kitchen when I told her about my plans, and she began immediately to prepare a meal for me to eat. Since she already knew more about what it meant to be a soldier than I did, she felt the maternal urge to feed me, since my meals would very likely soon become nothing at all like home cooking. We talked for some time about what it would mean to our family dynamic and how the others would react, but she embraced me and smiled and seemed proud of me. I had no idea that my life was about to change drastically, but in her gentle wisdom, she knew that the time had come to start my own path, and she wished me well.

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Of all the many wonderful memories that come to mind as I reflect on a lifetime as her son, one of the most enduring is the memory of her “secret technique,” for making gravy. All of us would marvel at the process from a distance, and even though it seems unlikely to us now that there was any exotic “secret” behind the formula she would use, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, or whenever a family dinner required a “gravy boat,” we were kept at a distance during the “secret” phase of the operation, and even during a recent gathering while she was still able, I snapped this photo of her and nearly got a spoon over my head for disturbing the workings of her culinary method.

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In her final days, Mom was in her element. In spite of her weakened state, even with so many visitors coming and going during the day, she rose to each occasion, and frequently dazzled us with her ability to engage and respond to the banter being offered with a nimble wit. We spent many of our last hours with her laughing and dodging her admonitions when we would come up against her fiery will. In one particularly emotional moment on our last day together, as we sat close, Mom put her hands on either side of my face and whispered, “I have loved you since the day you were born.” It was classic Mom right up to the end. By the early evening on that day, it was clear that her body would not be able to sustain her spirit much longer, and as she slept in the wee hours of the morning, she crossed gently over the threshold into the next life.

It has been a mixture of wonderful memories and difficult moments these past few months as Mom began to slip away from us, but we recognized how fortunate we have been to have known such love with our Mom, to have enjoyed a lifetime of benefits as her children, and to be able to live the lives we are living now, in large part, as a result of having her as our Mom. The lasting legacy of our Mother lives inside of each one of us. It is composed of mutual love and respect for one another; a sense of purpose in being a parent ourselves; a devotion to those parts of our lives which matter most to us, and a deep abiding love for our own children. Now it’s up to us to pass it along.

The Fires of Autumn

wood stove doors

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

“There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireplace.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

For more than twenty years now, since we moved in to our home, I have tended to the fire in the wood-stove in the front entrance way, which had been added on to the original structure some years before we moved in. While we were searching for a home to buy, when we saw the “wood stove room” at the front of the house, we knew it was the one for us. The huge maple tree in the back yard was also a factor, but the wood stove was the clincher. In spite of never having used one before, it seemed just right at the time.

We spent nearly every nickel we had, and begged, borrowed, and stole in order to get a mortgage, but it was a home with a yard for us and our children, and it seemed like a miracle that it happened at all. It didn’t take long to discover that home ownership wasn’t necessarily going to be a smooth ride. Since there was nothing left after the sale, there were no funds remaining for fuel oil, so the whole first winter required us to maintain a constant fire in the wood stove, in order to stay warm. We moved in right at the beginning of December, so our first Christmas in the house came up quickly, and the fire rituals seemed wonderful and seasonally appropriate. After the holidays were over, the novelty of chopping the wood and tending to the fire wore off pretty quickly, and soon became a necessary part of every day life. When the milder weather finally showed up, it seemed like a great relief. In spite of the challenge it presented, we learned a great deal about what it took to maintain the wood stove, and prepared during the summer of that first year for the winter to come.

kids by fire

Having a fire in the fireplace at home during the cold weather months growing up was always a special occasion. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations were almost guaranteed to have a fire at some point, and Christmas in particular almost required a fire, so we could pop the popcorn and string it up on the mantle piece as a decoration. The photo above was taken in 1961, right after the birth of my youngest sister, and you can tell just by looking at us that we were feeling the joy of the season, even though it had only been a few months since we lost our younger brother to a sudden illness in October. The holidays wouldn’t ever be the same after that one, but we still wanted to have the fire when they returned each year.

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When we moved into the new home we were all a bit older, but we still wanted to continue the traditions with the fireplace. Like most big families, we slowly figured out our places when it came time for the group photos, but no matter what, Mom was in the middle. She was always the center of our universe anyway, and little has changed since those early days in that regard. When Dad passed away in 2002, we all rallied around our Mom, and as life settled down in the months that followed, her role became even more central to all of our family activities. In the years that followed, her role as matriarch at family events rose to nearly epic proportions, and every important occasion clearly required her presence in order to qualify as important.

When my life with my own children began to take shape in our new home, it felt very much the same as my life did growing up, and tending to the fire became even more meaningful to me. The mother of my children also held her place at the center of our universe, but unlike it was growing up with my parents, where only Dad was allowed to conduct the fire rituals, the Mom in our home was more inclined to get the fire started when the cold weather arrived.

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Now in the autumn, when the temperatures begin to seriously decline in degree, we generally tolerate the first few chilly nights without a fire, but before long, it seems like the warmer days are finally over, and we begin to light the fires of autumn. These first few fires are different than all the rest. They feel differently than the ones which become necessary to stay warm in the heart of the winter. It takes less time to warm the house up, and it seems more like the original fires which were only for special occasions. I seem to spend a lot more time gazing into the autumn fires, and the flames ignite a great deal more than the logs we place tenderly within the stove. The fires of autumn are the fires of love, of family, and of tradition. The warmth is welcoming without being absolutely necessary, and the memories of fires from days gone by all seem to float to the surface when I open those doors to add another log.

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As I tend to the fire tonight, we are holding an autumn vigil, as my mother’s life hangs precariously by the thinnest of threads. The woman who has been the center of our universe all these years may soon return to the source of all life, and when she does, the fires of autumn will quickly turn into the necessary ones. Once again, the memories of fires from days gone by will rise up to join us in our vigil, and although we know that there will be many new fires in the autumn and winter days to come, no fire will ever be the same again.

The Last Rose of Summer

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The day began well as mornings with no agenda normally do. I awoke slowly and lingered in bed for a while before finally heading out to the kitchen to greet the dawn and start the coffee. The sun was peeking through the kitchen window above the sink, and as I washed out the coffee pot, I noticed that the floor wasn’t as chilly as it was the day before. It had been unseasonably warm during the night and out of curiosity, I stepped over to open the back door where I encountered a warm breeze entering through the screen which I have been reluctant to change to the storm window for several weeks now. I grinned as I thought to myself how occasional procrastination isn’t always such a bad idea. I continued to prepare the coffee and threw together a few items for breakfast.

Sitting comfortably on the sofa with my breakfast on the tray, I watched the news for a bit, but remembered that I had some chores to attend to in my office upstairs, and so I brought my cup out to the kitchen, filling it again, and headed up the stairs to get the day started. I gathered a few of my reference books off the shelves to prepare a response to a recent query from a friend, turned on the stereo already prepped with a Mozart CD, and hadn’t even lifted the cover on the book on top of the pile when I heard voices calling me downstairs. I stopped the music and replied to the voices which now seemed a bit more frantic than I was expecting, and wondered what might be the cause. Our oldest daughter had arrived to visit and swore she heard water dripping below the living room floor. With all the storms we’ve been having I chalked it up to leftover runoff from the gutters, but she insisted there might be something wrong, and so I grabbed the flashlight and went under the house for a look. Sure enough, the water filter under the house had sprung a leak, and there was about a half inch of water in the crawl space.

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Clearly, it seemed the day had taken a nosedive at that point, since I realized that the only way to get to the leak was to crawl into this space and get to the other side of the house. “Oh, the joys of home ownership,” I thought to myself. After figuring out the repair strategy, and being joined under the house by my intrepid daughter, we managed to shut off the water, replace the filter housing and filter, and although sopping wet and filthy dirty, the repair was complete, and after turning the water back on we all clapped and cheered that at least it wasn’t worse.

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As I dragged my soggy self out from underneath the house, I took a moment to glance upwards and noticed that the sun had just gotten past the edge of the roof next door, illuminating the leaves and branches of the surrounding trees. There was water sloshing around in my shoes, my socks were soaked, and it felt like I weighed about twenty pounds more than normal with all the water weight I was carrying, but the job was complete and I took some solace in the fact that at least the sun was out, and the temperature was a mild 66 degrees Fahrenheit. All I could think about was getting in the shower and getting out of my waterlogged wardrobe.

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Climbing up the back steps, I looked down and noticed that a variety of different colored leaves had begun to accumulate on the deck. Every year, with so many trees around the perimeter of the backyard, it’s a constant struggle to keep up with falling leaves, although I generally enjoy having them all around while the milder weather permits us to sit out there. The accrual of the multicolored remains from the summer trees is a gift in my view, and it hardly seems like a problem to me at all.

After getting showered and changed, I was sitting on the bed putting dry shoes on, when I looked out the window and gasped at the sight of the rose, clinging to the rosebush out front. I could hardly believe it was there. I hadn’t noticed it in the weeks leading up to the leak, and it seemed to have appeared overnight. Again, I grinned. For years, my mother would always describe someone who did not appear to be well as looking like, “the last rose of summer left a bloomin’ on the vine.”

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It seems that the “last rose of summer,” at least in this case, was the harbinger of a rosy outcome for my plumbing dilemma, and brought my mother to mind in a most appealing way. We are all tending to our mother at present as she endures the weight of all of her eighty-six years in home hospice care, and when I see her next, I will tell her about this day, and this rose, and we will both enjoy how the story brought her so vividly to mind.