By Her Hand

We saved precious little of my mother’s writing. To the best of my knowledge, neither notes nor letters nor even a grocery list remains. We have my father’s correspondence to her in the last stages of World War II, when he left New Jersey for Army Basic Training and then shipped to the Philippines for several years. My mother preserved these letters in a tidy bundle stored in the lower right-hand drawer of her dresser, but her replies are lost. Other documents were thrown away several years after her death, at around the time we gave away her clothing in an effort to help my father move on. My sister Ellen kept one birthday card signed with my mother’s uniquely spelled “Mommie,” but that ‘s all we have.

In the absence of letters I have saved other hand-wrought substitutes over the decades. One was a flowered design stamped onto a square needlepoint canvas that she had never started. In adulthood I carried it from move to move, cherishing it as some kind of holy relic until finally having the sense to release it to Goodwill. In a box in my basement I recently found another of her unfinished needlework projects—one she had actually worked on—a simple muslin pillowcase bordered in neatly executed red cross-stitch thread. I gently pushed aside one of the stitches to reveal the pale blue X pattern I knew would be stamped on the fabric, remembered from my own cross-stitch projects of that era. My mother didn’t live to see the counted cross-stitch method of patterning that has since replaced it. Her embroidery project had included another pillowcase and bedspread, neither of which survived the removal of her belongings. Her plan had been to stitch a new bedding set for the four-poster bed she shared with my father. She had only gotten as far as completing the one pillowcase before her illness cut the project short.

You can imagine my surprise at discovering on Ancestry.com her signed membership card for the United States Cadet Nurse Corps, dated 1944. The Corps was a government-sponsored nurse’s training program created to address the nursing shortage during World War II. As a student enrolled in an accredited nursing school, she automatically qualified for membership. I was not aware she had been part of the program, but Ellen, who followed her footsteps into the nursing field, remembered her mentioning it on a few occasions. On the thumbnail image accompanying the Ancestry entry I could just make out the translucent strokes of a fountain-pen signature. I clicked to enlarge the form and immediately recognized my mother’s measured Palmer-penmanship signature, with an extra flourish in the capital C of her maiden name “Conlon.” I knew it well. Halfway through my eighth grade year I had practiced to perfection the married-name version (a variation of my own) so I wouldn’t have to bother my mother to sign various school papers. That was in late winter 1976, and she was now mostly bedridden. The long shadow of her untreatable cancer touched all of our lives. Our waking hours consisted of greater parts care-giving than care-receiving, a trend that would only continue. Learning my mother’s signature was a consequence of that shift, my self-initiated solution to her diminishing parental presence. We all managed it in different ways.

My brother Bill’s method was to record his thoughts. He kept a diary all throughout his college years and recently shared an entry from early 1976, in which he wrote down messages our mother had wanted him to pass on to each of us in the event of her death. The conversations happened during the tail end of his winter break from college. While the rest of us went back to school, he acted as her principal caregiver. The diary entry is dated February 8th 1976, about three weeks after he had returned to college for the spring term. Even with this slight delay it is a priceless record, being the closest approximation of our mother’s thoughts of the time. Another document describing particular pieces of furniture from the house she wanted each child to receive and why—supposedly dictated to her sister— has never surfaced.

Here’s how Bill’s diary entry starts:

“Over vacation I spent a lot of time with my mother. She told me some very personal things that I’m proud of. She made me cry several times. She told me to tell Dad that her life started the day they were married and that day was the happiest day in her entire life.”

In the years after her death I had traced the origins of that happiness to the wartime correspondence, which I avidly read and reread. While my father was still at work I would tiptoe into their room, a habit acquired in earlier years when my younger siblings and I would sneak in to watch forbidden TV shows with the volume turned way down. I would retrieve the bundle of wartime correspondence from my mother’s dresser drawer, sit on their four-poster, and read. The letters had secured their marriage—quite literally—or at least that’s how I read it. My parents had met as teenagers, working at the same drug store, Whalen’s, in West New York, NJ, a thriving community of immigrants and their first-generation American children. According to family lore my mother had had other suitors in the pre-War era, but my father eventually won her over with his wartime prose. His letters contained lively descriptions of mundane army duties, and his wry sense of humor and genuine affection for her were evident. One letter in particular seemed to signal a turning point, in what my father wrote as well as my mother’s unwritten reaction. He had written the letter after having a few beers with his army buddies. The booze, the friends, or both caused him to loosen his usually proper demeanor. In the letter he speculated hazily about what he would like to do together if he and my mother were not separated by thousands of miles. A G-rated proposition by today’s standards, yet the paper it’s written on is wrinkled throughout, as if someone—presumably the recipient—had crumpled it with both hands. Perhaps she had even gone so far as throwing it away. But the letter had been smoothed out again, folded carefully, and placed back into its delicate airmail envelope. Whatever offense my mother might have initially perceived must have been reconsidered in a different light. Whenever I reached that letter in my clandestine reading sprees I would trace my fingers over the crinkles, trying to read the decades-past outrage she had let go of, trying to decipher the wisdom behind her change of heart. In any case, the die was cast. When my father returned from the Service they had gotten engaged.

Bill’s entry goes on:

“She told me what to do and what to tell each member of my family when she dies.”

My eyes leapt along the page. I couldn’t wait to find out what message my mother had left me. Surely she would reveal some deep insight into my soul that only a mother could perceive. What sage advice might have steered me across the troubled waters of the decades following her death, had I known it in time? I held my breath.

Here’s what the entry said:

“Maryjane should stop trying to be the typical American Teen-age [sic] girl and think a little more of others.”

My heart sank in utter disappointment. With my teenage years long gone, there was nothing of use I could glean from her sentiments, except to observe a kind of symmetry to my own frozen impressions. Her view of me was as fixed in that present as, years later, my own recollections of her would be in this one. For whatever reason she couldn’t extrapolate her sense of me beyond the present moment; decades later, I, too, would struggle to update my own teenage impressions of her.

Perhaps she had reason to be worried about me back then. The truth was, my mother didn’t know the half of my teenage ways. Her increased bedroom confinement meant that my childish impulses just one door away were left unchecked for the first time ever, and continued unabated for greater and greater lengths of time. On the one hand, her growing absence was like a wrecking ball hollowing out the inner chambers of my heart. On the other hand it presented a freedom I had never experienced. The resulting void had to be filled with something. Each of us children employed different filling methods. Mine was to cultivate a growing obsession for a “boy band” first glimpsed on an afternoon TV talk show: the Bay City Rollers from Scotland. I can still recall the gushy charm I experienced upon hearing the story of the origin of their name: “We stuck a pin in a map of America, and it landed on a place called Bay City in Michigan,” pronouncing the hard t in “city” and inserting another hard “t” into the first syllable so that it was pronounced “mitch.” They had squirrely hair and wore short bellbottoms with plaid trimming, the fly of which was always mysteriously unbuttoned. I was hooked. As the weeks passed and my mother became weaker, as she steadily drifted off the path of motherhood that we all had assumed was our birthright, as her presence upon the Earth acquired a frighteningly translucent quality that would have given Franz Kafka pause, I responded in kind by slipping the mortal bonds of reality whenever I could and floating to the magical land of teen fandom.

What started as a quirky fascination became a kind of compulsion. In my free time I would ride my bike with a friend through back roads of town to the Bradlees department store a few miles away and spend my allowance on teen magazines like Tiger Beat. Once back home I would lovingly crop images of Ian, Alan, Leslie, Derek, Woody, and my particular favorite, Eric, from the pages and tape them onto the walls of the bedroom shared with my younger sister. Weekend after weekend, I purchased fresh stock to tape onto the walls.

My guess is that my mother’s entreaty for me to think more of “others” referred to my habitual disregard of my younger sister, whose only recourse from the burgeoning eyesore in our bedroom was to draw the thin curtain my mother had sewn from two bed sheets and installed on a ceiling track across the width of the room. With the parental guardrails otherwise removed, my teenage impulses continued to bloomed wildly, until every inch of the walls on my side of the bedroom was covered. Poor Sue could only watch helplessly.

It would take my Aunt Irene, visiting our house that spring shortly after my mother died, to stem the tide. Walking past our bedroom door en route to pick out the outfit my mother would be buried in, her eyes caught sight of the garish assemblage of tartan and exposed flesh. She stopped short, poked her head into the room, scanned the walls from ceiling to floor, and asked, dubiously, “What would your mother think of all this?”

My mother and all that she stood for—her sensible approach, understated taste, and down-to-earth manner—suddenly rushed into sharp focus, bursting through the translucent shell that had encased her since the winter. That’s all it took; a subtle reminder of who she had been coupled with her sister’s hint of what my mother would have thought. Without a word I began dismantling the entire wretched configuration. It was as if she had rejoined my side in the silent space, reaching up in tandem to remove each picture, her right hand mirroring my left hand, until we had returned the walls to a blank state. My younger sister remembers being stunned at the sight of it.

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