O Brightening Glance

One lesson I’ve learned from writing this blog is that when life gives you lemonade, enjoy it while it’s fresh. Cleaning out my father’s basement recently I found a long-lost newspaper article about my mother that altered the way I had intended to start this final post. The article was written in 1968 by our neighbor, the mother of teenage daughters infamous (to our wholesome Catholic family) for the fact that they regularly climbed out a bedroom window in warm weather to sunbathe nude on their garage roof. To my mother’s mind, the obvious explanation for such immodesty was that they were “from California.” Nevertheless, she consented to be interviewed for the neighbor’s column The Gourmet Corner, in the local weekly. In early March in the height of the Lenten season and approaching St. Patrick’s Day, the paper featured my mother’s Irish cooking, specifically her Irish spin on several meatless dishes.

One recipe was called Belfast and Warsaw Cabbage and Rice Casserole. From the ingredient list it appears to have earned its Irish moniker solely because of the requisite two tablespoons of “Irish parmesan cheese” sprinkled on top of the casserole before baking. I never remember my family having any kind of Irish cheese in the house, let alone parmesan (if Irish parmesan does in fact exist). “Ah, the Irish,” she is quoted as saying. “You know how we are about food. Come day, go day, God send Sunday—but it had better taste good!” I could almost hear the Irish accent as I read it.  But wait. Despite my mother being born a mere two weeks after her parents disembarked on U.S. soil, she was a tried-and-true American with a corresponding Yankee accent. The Irish accent in my head belonged to her mother, my grandmother. Was my mother playing up Irish for the reporter, given the topic of the article? Was the “quick Irish wit” that our neighbor attributed to her something my mother put on in the company of other adults? Or was it a slip of identity, a quick reversion to her own mother’s way of thinking? The Irish poet William B. Yeats famously asked, How can we know the dancer from the dance? Is the same true for mothers and daughters? Our mother’s identity can be so entwined with ours that we sometimes can’t perceive where one person’s mannerisms, habits, and dreams end and the other’s begin.  

This was definitely true for me, even after my mother died—especially after she died. Emotional ties can live on, in good and bad ways. For decades I felt a subtle sense of duty—commanded by no one— to live for her. Perhaps it was a type of survivor guilt to pay tribute to her loss by living out the life she didn’t get to have. Perhaps I felt compelled to go where she had gone and do what she had liked to do, almost as if performing a ritual to remain connected to her in adulthood. Whatever the impetus, it lasted for decades, until I was approaching the age of the neon number—the age my mother was when she died. One day I took a walk on a beloved stretch of beach on Cape Cod that I had played on as a child. The unusually greedy tide had devoured much of the shoreline leaving a scant foot of dry sand before the grassy-fringed dunes. I negotiated the narrow space between water and grass, feeling the bracing air against my skin, smelling the sand and the salt. Cape Cod author Joan Anderson celebrates the edge of the sea as a mechanism for the “change and erasure” that is integral to human existence.

I came to the end of the walk, where the beach opens out to the parking lot. Glancing back at the single set of footprints snaking through the sand, I immediately thought of the poem by Mary Stevenson about a woman reviewing scenes from her life. She sees two sets of footprints for many of the events and is aware that God walks besides her; during more difficult times she notices only one set. Feeling abandoned, she questions and learns that God was in fact carrying her during those difficult times.

Unlike the Stevenson poem, there was no doubt as to ownership of the Cape footprints: they were mine and mine alone. I felt no grand gesture of spirit, nor did its absence cause concern as my glance drank in the last expanse of sky and water. I continue heading toward my car, but the single track of prints along the water’s edge tugged my attention still. And then I got it: on the narrow strip of sand there was no more room for another set of prints. The second set that had hounded me was not God’s but my mother’s. With the neon number approaching I was no longer compelled to follow her path in lock step: as a way to honor her life; to somehow reconstitute her presence into my own life; and, yes, even as a journey to ill health. For worse and better I was released from the need to follow the same path. I was free to make my own way.

In his recent inauguration speech, President Biden said “to heal, we must remember.” Before beginning this blog I had forgotten much of who my mother was. Like the memory I wrote about in the first post—of sitting on church steps with her beside me but not visible—her presence had begun to recede into the periphery. In trying to remember, I could not go back to the consciousness of the young child because that reality was no longer available. It was as if my adult consciousness had surreptitiously begun not rewriting the past, but rearranging it, bringing details of present relevance into the foreground and sending to the background details of things gone. Writing the blog helped to redistribute some of the forgotten facts within my memory, although I’m the first to admit that the profile I’ve refashioned doesn’t represent the real person any more than the paper dolls I used to cut out of my mother’s McCalls magazine. It has changed the course of my healing, though. The act of writing takes time. It forces one to bear witness to the pain trapped beneath long-forgotten memories, to thaw out frozen emotions with gentle tears. Even while writing about other events in her story, my mind often returned to the last time I saw my mother alive. I’d imagine myself back at her hospital bed, the adult me comforting her in her final hours, providing the emotional strength, perspective, and maturity I didn’t possess as a child. Or I’d imagined my adult self holding the hand of my father, who was also present that last time, squeezing tight and promising him we’d get through the tough times together. Finally, I’d imagined my adult self holding the hand of the terrified, confused, and angry 13-year old scowling at the opposite side of the bed. I’d reassure my younger self that things would be ok, you’re not alone; in time you’ll heal and hope will again burn bright.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, by coincidence I was flooded with more lemonade: dozens of photos of my mother, color images we hadn’t seen in decades from christenings, holy communions, and graduations. In each, a younger version of my mother wears a different gloriously stylish outfit and beams with only slightly less pride than whatever child is being celebrated. Receipt of these images—a result of my brother Bill working to covert my father’s slide collection to prints—felt like nothing less than a crowd of well wishers cheering me on for the final mile of the marathon that writing this blog has been. The pictures are proof that my mother’s love—the glue that kept the family together back then—still exists. Like the dusty boxes of slides removed from the basement­—like my memories themselves— it may be slightly worse for wear, but it has resurfaced at precisely the right time. May we cherish its bright splendor for years to come.

Yellowing, wrinkled photo of my mother from the Gourmet Corner article. Life in our new home had just begun.

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