FUNERAL CLOTHES

Mom and Dad, around 1952

Mom and Dad, around 1952

When the cancer had eaten its fill,
Little was left of Dad.
He was diminished
Figuratively
Literally
And oh, he had been handsome
Just ask Mom
She recalled wistfully his dark hair
And fine looks vaguely reminiscent of Elvis
A real catch
To me, he was ruddy and practical
Middle aged paunch and square glasses
But the disease made us both liars
He was shrunken
Sallow
Hollow

I was fourteen, the years in my life
Equal to the months in his death
I was fourteen, primed for my moment
In the spotlight of adolescence
But really of little use or effect
In our current circumstance
Which was dire
My brothers were older
Practically men
I couldn’t drive to hospital visits
Or take on part time work
Fourteen was a nuisance who still needed tending
Who couldn’t be trusted
Or leaned upon
Trivial
Futile

When the end could not be postponed
There arose the matter of clothes
My brothers were excused
Because they could drive
Because they could work
Practically men
So this was my job
After all, what fourteen-year-old girl
Doesn’t like to shop
For clothes?
We spoke in a secret language:
Easter is coming, said Mom
And Dad needs a new suit
She knew the code
The clerk knew
I knew

I sat on a stool in the corner
Watching the arrayal
Knowing the casket was ready
Masculine
Oaken
A drape of ivory satin
A touch of dogwood carving
Our clerk was equal to the task
Offered up tweeds, checks, herringbones
Double breasted and single
How do I look? asked Dad
So I pictured him dressed and
Resting against that satin pillow
Forever after
In charcoal
Or navy

When the suit had been procured
Wine-colored and plaid
It was the 1970’s
Discord
Disco
Just ask anyone
We turned our attention to dresses
From the only posh shop in our rural town
A real treat
This time there was no secret code
After all, what would be the point?
We’d grown tired of pretending
And asked for something funereal
The sales girl was honored
Dignified
Earnest

You might wear this outfit again
She suggested helpfully
And oh, I scoffed
Doubtful
Incredulous
What woman would wear again a dress
That had seen her husband sent to the life beyond?
We would burn them
Mom’s sedate black and white-jacketed ensemble
With mine of light blue and green
Burn and bury the memories
Salt the earth afterward
But of course we didn’t
There would be no fire
No liturgy
No rite

When those days had passed into the past
Little was left to say
We were exhausted
Wasted
Weary
And needed to move ahead
As survivors must
The funeral clothes occupied awkward space
Between artifact and awful reminder
My brothers, who had simply called on existing garments
Lost their leisure suits to merciful obsolescence|
Mom’s widow costume reverently wrapped in white tissue
Put away, neither seen nor forgotten
My blue and green frock donated to charity
But there is plaid
In Heaven

~lisa
6/10/2013

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HEART SHAPED STONE

All you need is love. . .

When he was young, my son loved to go on walks, using his keen little-boy eyes to scout for treasures.  What parent hasn’t experienced the excitement (and apprehension)  of unloading a little fellow’s pockets on laundry day?  After a particularly fortuitous walk, he presented me with a stone.  He didn’t really say anything; the message was the stone itself:  it was shaped like a heart.

 The heart-shaped stone has sat on my kitchen windowsill ever since, a reminder of feelings that are apparent even when not spoken.  Love lives in this house.  Over the years, the heart-shaped stone has shared its space on the windowsill with other serindipitous objects: heart-shaped jelly beans, toy hearts, flower petals. . .while peeling a butternut squash for Thanksgiving dinner, we discovered the cross-sectioned interior resembled a heart, and briefly flirted with the idea of displaying it alongside the stone.  But my soup recipe was calling, and stones don’t draw fruit-flies.

I picked up the heart-shaped stone today while clearing away some other kitchen clutter.  I held it in my hand and smiled.  Once evident of a little boy’s love for mommy, it continues to remind me to look for the love that’s all around; to look for love in unexpected places.  The heart-shaped stone will always reside on my windowsill.  And when I’m gone, I want it to be passed along so its message abides.

~ All you need is love.

~ And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

~ Brief is life, but love is long.

~ For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten son.

~ And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

LIVING JUST TO FIND EMOTION

This story begins with the ending.  Traveling home from a long Labor Day weekend visit, I asked our guest if he’d had a good time.  There was no hesitation whatsoever in his answer:  “Oh, yeah!  Your family’s lots of fun.”

“That’s right,” I wisecracked, “we’re dysfunctional, but in a totally loveable way.”   I was only joking, but my daughter’s response was heartfelt:

“But Mom, we’re not dysfunctional at all.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Just 48 hours earlier, twenty of us gathered around a table laid out with a seafood feast so vast and sumptuous it made our mouths water, our wallets weep, the Atlantic gasp, and the neighborhood crickets quiver in fear that we would run out of things to dip in drawn butter and come after them.  I could almost hear their crickety little admonitions:  “Dammit, Carl, keep your legs quiet—they’re down to their last dozen snow crabs!”

My family builds its calendar around beloved traditions, and the Labor Day get-together crowns our entire year.  Though it’s not a religious holiday, eveyone’s higher power is thanked freely.  And though the atmosphere is party-like, the only gifts exchanged are the gifts of each other’s company.   Gazing from face to face,I tried to define, tried to qualify this group of people each of whom occupies a special room in my heart.  Parent, child, cousin, niece, nephew, brother, sister, boyfriend, domestic partner, fiance, lifelong friend. . .every title an honor and a term of endearment.

By the numbers, we look like this:

2, 564:  the greatest distance in miles traveled to be there
650:  a conservative estimate of the dollars spent on seafood
148:  the combined years of marriage among the spouses
100:  average amount spent per family to make personalized t-shirts for the occasion
28:  the number of cell phones, iPads, and laptops running concurrently
18:  how many years we’ve gathered together for Labor Day
14:  various musical instruments played by attendees
13:  college degrees currently held by the group
12:  number of handmade trophies prepared to be awarded after games
11 – 79:  our range in ages
9 and 11:  the numbers of females vs. males
8:  hours held out until someone proclaimed Firefly to be the greatest TV show ever cancelled
5:  pots of coffee brewed each morning
3:  hours until someone compared our family to the one in the movie While You Were Sleeping; also the number of dogs vying for food slipped under the table
2:  hours until it was noted that the Orioles and the Pirates have lost a combined total of 162 games so far this season
1:  Irish Car Bomb consumed by me to the chagrin of my kids and the delight of my nephews

Demographically, we represent the following groups:
Christian
agnostic
Republican
Democrat
widowed
divorced
married
single
engaged
underemployed
upwardly mobile
recovering alcoholic
liberal
conservative
senior citizen
middle-aged
young adult
straight
gay
athletic
artistic
 

Around the same table each morning we laid out a banquet of a different kind:  tinctures and pharmaceuticals designed to manage hypertension, hypothyroidism, glaucoma, fertility, heart function, depression, anxiety, asthma, allergies, hormone replacement, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain—all of this because life is messy, and we live life.  We go out into the world and take what it has to offer, then bring it all back.  Triumphs and tragedies walk among us like poltergeists until they see that we are humans, whole and actual, because of—and sometimes in spite of—-their presence.  We absorb these experiences and emotions; they become part of our collective history, and then we move on to make even more memories and even more mistakes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Later in the car, I contemplated my daughter’s firm proclamation, “But Mom, we aren’t dysfunctional at all.”  And here is my conclusion:

Taken as a group, we probably shouldn’t work.  We probably shouldn’t get along as well as we do.  And yet, year after year we seek each other out for company, for recreation, for playful hijinks, for advice, for lively debate, and perhaps most importantly, for emotional support.  In each other’s presence, we are unafraid to be imperfect, we are open to encouragement, and we are guaranteed to feel love—-the kind of love that is apparent even when we don’t like each other very much at the moment.

Every family has emotional baggage, and ours is no different.  We are just devoted to each other,  and through simple acts like cooking and eating together, playing card games, watching movies, making family t-shirts, giving out homemade awards, and somehow managing to keep track of seven rambling conversations at once, we help each other carry that emotional baggage.  Life is a big, old, emotional mess.  And we live life.

So now I amend my earlier comment:  We might be bat shit crazy at times, but we function like a well-oiled and time-worn machine.  As it is now, so shall it ever be. . .

TWO PRINCES

There once was a princess.  Although she had no golden crown for her head, she knew she was a princess because her daddy told her so.  “Goodbye, my princess,” he’d say every day as he went off to slay dragons and make the kingdom safe for his devoted queen, his two princes, and of course, for his daughter, the princess.

The princess was a happy child.  Her parents, the king and queen, provided for her every need, while her brothers, the princes, doted on their little sister.  The first prince was charming, outgoing, and athletic, with dark, curly hair and playful, blue eyes.  He brought the princess little gifts, taught her to dance, and always waved at her from the jousting field.  The second prince was tall, clever, and artistic.  His eyes were the deepest brown— like her own—and with him she discussed music, literature, and art. 

When the princess was only 13, the king became very sick.  One long year later he went to live in Heaven, leaving behind his deeply grieving queen, his two princes, and his princess—who by then was so preoccupied with becoming a young woman that she couldn’t understand the depth of his loss.  The queen took over slaying dragons and keeping the kingdom safe—in fact, she became the heroine of her own story, which is to be told at another time.   As for the princes, they struggled to find their rightful places out in the world while keeping a watchful eye on the princess

The first prince arranged for her to visit him at university and encouraged her studies.  The second prince recognized her creativity, and took her to concerts and the theater.  But the princess had become stubborn and headstrong, declaring to the princes and to the great, wide, world: “I am 14!  I can take care of myself!”  And she stomped her foot.  So the princes gave her some freedom so that she might find her own way, but they remained steadfast.  The first prince had become a young man of great faith, and he prayed daily for her safe passage onward.  When the second prince discovered the princess kissing a village rogue in the schoolyard, he stepped in with such uncharacteristic forcefulness that the princess dared not question his word, and the rogue was banished from her life forever.

The princess found triumph and failure and mischief and love and heartbreak—always with the two princes near enough to cheer her on or to cushion her fall. 

“Whatever will I do?” the princess cried one day when she could see no way out of her troubles.  The second prince laid a hand on her shoulder and told her plainly, “You will walk through the fire and come out the other side, as we all must from time to time.”  The first prince sent her daily messages of love, and shared with her his favorite verse from the Book of Hebrews:  I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.

So it went, year after year.  And in time, the princess learned a valuable lesson.  She learned that she was just a girl, after all.  But the two princes?  They really, truly, were princes.

NOTES ON MY DAUGHTER’S BIRTHDAY

The story of how our daughter came into the world is the stuff of family legend—mainly because I didn’t know I was having a baby until she was halfway here.  And there you have it.

 Now, I’d never thought of myself as an especially clueless woman.  And it’s not like I was a naïve teenager; I was approaching 27 on the day I discovered my condition, and my husband was closing in on 34.  We’d been married for nearly five years.  In my defense, my early symptoms were quite mild and a previous professional diagnosis had indicated I might have trouble getting pregnant without medical intervention.  Ironically, I’d gone to the doctor that April afternoon to discuss the possibility of fertility treatments, and it took about five minutes for him to determine there’d be no need.

 My mother describes the moment we told her our big news as something out of an episode of I Love Lucy—me with big, surprised eyes and Scott talking in quick, confused, broken English.

 Four short months later, I sat on my sofa listening intently to the clues my body was giving me:  Was that a contraction?  Was today the day?  I’d misinterpreted the signs once before; I’d be damned if I’d also be one of those women who went to the ER complaining of food poisoning only to watch a baby come shooting out.  Nope.  I just knew my doctor had written somewhere on my chart too stupid to be a parent, and if I messed this part up they’d never let me take the baby home from the hospital.

 But there was a happy ending; the actual birth was smooth and uncomplicated, they did let me bring my adorable, big-eyed, baby girl home from the hospital, we raised her to young womanhood and sent her out into the world.

 I like to think there are two births to celebrate on August 8th—a beautiful child was born, and so was a mother.  I was transformed on that day.

 Prior to my daughter’s birth, I thought of motherhood mostly in terms of the warm, fuzzy moments:  lullabies sung and stories read and boo boos kissed all better.  Those were the moments that made me feel like a mommy.  What left me breathless was the intensity of motherhood, the absolute ferocity of my feelings regarding the child.  Such depth of commitment, such intense worry, such absolute joy!  Nothing else I’d felt before then came close.  How many days since then have my first thoughts upon rising and my last thoughts before bed gone out to my offspring?

 Motherhood filled the gaps in my relationship with my own mother.  Suddenly I understood so many things that once I’d disregarded glibly!  It also entered me into immediate sisterhood with other moms.  It’s a sorority that spans not only the races, but the species as well.  We know.

 Moreover, becoming a mother made me want to be a better person!  With little eyes on me and little ears nearby, there were bad habits to break and questionable behaviors to reform.  I cleaned up my mouth, thought more carefully before expressing my opinions, gave consideration to the kind of environment to which this little person would be exposed.  Motherhood affected my commitment to marriage, my approach to teaching, my cooking, my attention to the law, my community spirit, and my world view.  It taught me to put the needs of others before my own, to empathize, to sympathize, and to think outwardly rather than inwardly.  In other words, motherhood is molecular.  Ask any mom.

 Twenty-four years have passed.  A son was born 21 years ago and reaffirmed all that I’d learned from having a daughter.  And I’m still learning from motherhood.  Even though we bring children into the world with the goal of one day launching them out into it, when the time comes it’s harder than might be expected.  The hands-off-and-mouth-shut stage of motherhood is no easier than the stages that came before.  But it’s every bit as joyful!  Again, ask any mom.

 My daughter and my motherhood turn 24 today.  And I’m happy to say we’re both just fine.