A Short Spring
Six days after my father’s funeral, my mother came to live with me. It was not something we had planned, not something either of us would have predicted or perhaps even chosen, but the circumstances were overwhelming. My father had died suddenly. My mother had cancer and at that point was confined to a wheelchair. She could either live out what we now knew would be a shortened life in a nursing home in New Jersey, with no one nearby to be with her, or she could come to live with me in New Hampshire. I wanted, very much, to welcome my mother into my home. I had no way of knowing how brief our time together would be – only the short spring – but it was a time that built to a crescendo of need and a time that accomplished what none of our years together had been able to.
Often, throughout my 45 years, we had been at odds. As I was growing up, we were often at war, my mother and I. Nothing I did could please her – nothing she said made sense to me. After I grew up, there had been long periods when we had not spoken. There had been a lot of hurt between us that confounded everyone who knew us.
My mother was small, a diminutive woman who never seemed to believe that she had grown up. She wore her fawn-colored hair short, turned up at the ends with bangs to shade her blue eyes. She dressed like a schoolgirl, in plaid kilts and blouses with Peter Pan collars. In the winter she wore a beret, a camel’s hair coat, and woolen scarves. A lot of people thought this was cute, but when I was growing up, it embarrassed me. I wanted my mother to be more sophisticated, more like my friends’ mothers.
She was small and I was big, almost from the moment I was born. I grew fast. By the time I was eight, I was taller than my older sister and I looked much older. Soon I was taller than my mother, who barely reached five feet. This seemed to enrage her, who despaired of my growing up, perhaps in the same way she despaired of it in herself. I think of that now, but then it seemed simply perplexing. The result was that the battle lines were drawn around food. Perhaps she felt that if I ate less, I wouldn’t grow up so fast. In the mornings when I got up, she would summon me to her room and weigh me on a baby blue bathroom scale that she kept beside her bed. She recorded my weight on a chart that she had made herself, drawing the lines on it with a wooden ruler. Even a gain of half a pound provoked a scuffle. Similarly, she prevailed over my food. She apportioned me tiny bits of food, which left me starving half the time. To satisfy my hunger, I stole food and squirreled it away under my bed or behind the bureau, anywhere I thought she would not look. She would sometimes find this stash and fly into a rage. There were days of silence between us and then days of reconciliation.
Mealtimes were agony for all of us. My father, who was quiet and reserved, stayed clear of the battlefield. If he had an opinion, I’ll never know what it was. The only thing he insisted on was that I show my mother respect, which I found hard to do. When I left home for college, I never returned except for brief visits. I am sure this hurt her very much.
I came to live in New Hampshire for many reasons, but certainly one of them was to put distance between my mother and me. My mother could not fathom my reasons for moving here, which I did in 1973, and for the first five years we rarely visited. We kept in touch, mostly through letters, but saw very little of each other. Holidays were always spent elsewhere. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we spent Christmas together. I think it must have been when I was a teenager.
Yet she kept pictures of me, most of them taken before I turned 18, throughout her house. She was (embarrassingly) proud of anything I’d written and made a fuss whenever a story was published. She was, in fact, my number-one fan. But we couldn’t be together for very long before words grew sharp and tempers short. It was as if we needed the distance of photographs and words on paper. Physical presence was almost impossible.
I might have, but my mother never gave up. She found ways to communicate her profound love for me – mostly through phone calls and letters. If we argued, she would put it aside and let it blow away. When I got older, it began to dawn on me that my mother had a lot to teach me about forgiveness. As I made preparations for her arrival, I vowed to make up for my part in this storm-tossed relationship.
In my house in New Hampshire, I don’t have a bedroom on the first floor, but my living room has doors on it, enough to make it into a private room. The night before she arrived, friends helped me move furniture out of the living room. We moved in a borrowed hospital bed, a commode, and a wheelchair. I kept the couch in the corner for I suspected the time might come when she would need me close at hand all night long. On the walls I hung her favorite pictures, and outside the windows I suspended a bird feeder from the low limbs of the blue spruce tree. I called my friend David, a sheep farmer who lives nearby, and asked if he might pasture his sheep in my field while my mother was here, and he said that he would.
On the day of her arrival, I made beef stew and set it on the back of the stove to simmer. I whipped up a custard, using her mother’s recipe, and put it in a slow oven. In the past year she and my father, neither of whom ever carried an ounce of excess weight at any time in their lives, had become alarmingly thin and frail. To see them walk, side by side, I sometimes thought they were like two leaves, to be carried off in the next strong breeze. I think meals were too much trouble for them. At mealtime, they would both agree that they weren’t hungry and let it go at that, or sometimes they might eat at a nearby fast-food restaurant. By the time she came to live with me, my mother weighed only 85 pounds. I was hoping that if I could do anything for her, I could maybe build up her strength. I could at least give her something good to eat.
In the wake of my father’s sudden, and to her, inexplicable death, my mother began to walk again, which the doctors were not able to explain. Tumors in her brain had left her paralyzed as if by a stroke, unable to get out of bed by herself, unable to walk, unable to write her name. On the news of Daddy’s death, she began, one step at a time, to walk, determined to go to his funeral on her own steam. In those brief three days, she did not quite accomplish this. On the day of his funeral, my sister and I dressed her in black velvet, wrapped her in black furs, pulled black gloves onto her trembling hands, and wheeled her to the front of the church. Friends and family smothered her with hugs and kisses. I returned home after the funeral to prepare my house for her while my sister, who had flown in from Seattle, stayed behind to drive Mom to New Hampshire in a special van. I stood in the driveway to welcome them, and when she saw me, Mom lifted her hands in delight. She took my hand to help herself down from her seat in the van, but then waved me away. “Look,” she said, “Watch me!” and she carefully walked into my house – no cane, no walker, no wheelchair, not even a guiding hand to steady her. Her incredible recovery didn’t last long, but this was my mother: determined, stubborn, impish, and mysterious.
Hospice volunteers came to talk with me before my mother arrived, and in an effort to introduce her to them, I took her picture down from the wall. It is my favorite picture of her, taken in 1944, while she was in the marines. “The marines?” everyone responded, incredulous. “Your mother was a marine?” It is hard to believe, even for me. I took a second look at the picture: a beautiful, tiny woman with a radiant smile and the stripes of a corporal on her sleeve. It was the first thing everyone wanted to know about when she arrived – Tell me about the marines, they would ask. And she would.
There was nothing my mother loved more than telling a story. When I was growing up, I couldn’t listen to all these stories – I wished she would be silent. But I make my living now listening to people’s stories, and I never tire of it. I am constantly amazed at peoples’ lives, how the most ordinary people come alive with the most unusual stories. Now my mother sat in her new bed in the front room of my house and told stories I had not heard in years and years. I listened with new ears. I realized how hungry I was for these stories. She told about the officers, all men, who barked in her face and sent fear into her heart. She told about her 99 female roommates and how they all wore pajamas – she alone had arrived with a suitcase full of lacy nightgowns. She told about marching in formation, getting the giggles when the woman in front of her (with the unseemly name of May Moon) continued to march valiantly as her stockings slowly inched down her legs.
I found Mom’s Camp Lejeune boot camp yearbook among her papers and brought it out. The book had not been opened in decades, but within the weeks that followed, it became dog-eared. There was a tiny picture of her in a line of other women in uniform. I could recognize her only from her height, so short compared with the other women. In the back many of her friends had inscribed their sentiments. One of them read: “To Dee, a whole lot of fun and a great little leatherneck.” We read this out loud and cried with laughter. My tiny, aging mother with her schoolgirl hairdo, sitting in bed with her pink lace-edged flannel nightgown, didn’t look much like a leatherneck.
She had another story about the war. She spent the summer of 1939 in Scotland, visiting a friend. Just as she was about to depart for home, war was declared. Passenger ships were halted or commandeered for troops. With U-boats lurking everywhere, there was the possibility that she would be stranded there throughout the war. A frantic search was made for passage home, and finally she found a cargo ship in Glasgow, headed to New York. Along with 200 others in similar circumstances, she boarded the ship, carrying her luggage, plus a blanket, a pillow, a book, and a box of chocolates. To escape notice of German warships, the boat, which had room for 10,000 tons of cargo but few accommodations for passengers, could use no lights and could not tell anyone, crew or passengers, when they would leave the harbor. So they sat aboard this ship, sitting on mattresses in the cargo hold, for days while the ship coyly played the new game of war. At near to midnight in a heavy fog, without a word or a light or a sound, they moved away from the dock and headed down the River Clyde toward the Atlantic.
My mother’s mattress was in a hallway next to the engine room. For the next 12 days, as they stealthily crossed the Atlantic, this was her world. To pass the time, she read, smoked cigarettes, and played cards. On the sixth day the weather turned nasty, and within hours they were in the grip of a hurricane. Forty-foot waves battered the boat and blew them to within three degrees of the Arctic Circle. Seasickness was the least of the ailments as passengers went into shock or hysteria. Several were badly injured from the force of the storm, and most waited to hear the bell to signal them to get into the lifeboats – because it was a cargo ship, there were only enough lifeboats for a fraction of those aboard. My mother told of spotting the Statue of Liberty in a way that could bring tears to your eyes. After her safe arrival home, she signed up to serve in the Marine Corps, one of the first women to serve in that branch of the military. All these years and I had never given much thought to her service in the marines. Now I realized what it must have meant when she stepped up to the recruiting desk, a petite woman of means who wasn’t afraid to go to war. I was hooked on her stories.
In truth, though, my mother and I had had a preamble to all this. A few years ago I traveled to Poland on an excursion. When I told my mother my plans, her voice lifted over the telephone lines. “Do you think you could find Sophie?” she said, in tones that defied refusal. Sophie had been my mother’s nurse from the time she was born until she was eight years old. Sophie had come to the United States from Poland at the age of 17, and her father had tricked her into returning to Poland in 1923. Seventy years had passed. The letters between Sophie and my mother had never stopped. Every Christmas my mother gathered up a collection of gifts to send to Sophie – sweet-smelling soaps, candies, instant soups, paper goods, and aspirin (for her arthritis), and my father would carefully wrap the package for its journey to Poland. This had been a ritual for as long as I could remember. My mother said that she loved Sophie more than her own mother, and there remained a great longing in my mother’s heart for this faraway woman.
When I left for Poland, my mother pressed a small envelope into my palm. For my dear Sophie, she had written on it in wavering letters. Inside was a hundred-dollar bill. So even though my destination in Poland was not very near to where Sophie lived and even though at that point we did not even know if Sophie was still alive (after all, she was 96 and my mother had not heard from her in several months), I sought her out just the same, and to my mother’s everlasting delight, I found her. Sophie opened her door to me, covered her face with her hands, and wept. She, like my mother, was an elf of a woman, tiny and frail. “Seventy years!” she cried.
After I returned home, Sophie wrote to my mother, an excited jumble of words about our reunion. “Edie’s visit was as the sunrise on our dark days,” she concluded at the end.
I wrote a story about finding Sophie. It was published by the international edition of the Reader’s Digest – in 27 different countries and almost that many languages, including Sophie’s. In her parlor in Tarnov, Sophie read the story and wrote to say how much she loved it. These foreign editions piled up on my mother’s table. She was so proud of this that she practically stopped strangers on the street to tell them about it. “Imagine! They are reading about Sophie in India! They are reading about Sophie in China!” she said, over and over. “You’ve made us all famous – you’ve made Sophie famous!”
It was through that journey and through that story about Sophie that I began to realize who my mother was, just how interesting her life had been, and how loved she was by others.
When she first arrived at my house, Mom spent the days sitting at the table by the window, writing letters to friends. She was delighted to be able to write again, and we called it her “miracle.” This kept her busy during the day. New medication had steadied her hand, and her handwriting was better than it had been in years.
We also went for rides. It was our favorite venture together. She’d bundle up in her wool coat, her gloves and beret, and I’d help her into the car. She liked the back roads that lead to farms and orchards. She especially liked views of Mount Monadnock, and so we’d set forth, a different direction each time. I drove at a snail’s pace, pulling over to let impatient drivers pass us by. Mom sat happily in the passenger seat, a woolen blanket on her lap, watching the scenery pass by the window. “Look,” she’d say, pointing to a cluster of blooming yellow daffodils by the side of the road. The delight in her eyes was childlike and innocent. Sometimes we’d pull over beside the lake and watch the sunset reflect up in the water.
We were both widows. It is something we shared, an odd joining of circumstances that gave us common ground. She wondered how I had stood it, being alone all this time, and she said she worried about me, how I’d make out by myself. She grieved for Daddy, her lifelong companion. They had known each other since childhood and had rarely been apart except during the war. Something would come up about Daddy, and her face would contort and tears would squeeze from under her lids. “I miss Daddy,” she would wail, and I listened while she tried to make sense of his absence. But her grief was sporadic, like squalls, dark storm clouds racing across her horizon – they came and they went rapidly. Perhaps the change in scene had distracted her. In my house, there were only a few reminders of Daddy. And many new faces to absorb. Most of the time she spent with me, she seemed content, even happy. It was often reported to me by hospice volunteers or family members that, when I was not there, she would lean over and in a conspiratorial whisper say, “I think Edie likes having me here.” And I did.
A lot of our time together, we spent alone. There were many, many people who came to help and spend time, including her sister and brother-in-law and her niece, but our time together was more, much more. I came home at five to relieve whoever had been with her in the afternoon. The house quiet and the driveway empty, I’d pour us each a glass of sherry. I’d make hers light, a small glass full of ice, a splash of sherry. She’d hold her glass aloft and make a toast. “To us,” she’d say, and we’d clink our glasses. Together, while we sipped, we watched the evening news, a grim report from which she would solemnly conclude, “The world is coming to an end, dear. I’m sorry to have to tell you that,” which would make us both laugh. At the commercials, I’d tend to supper. We had made a list when she first came and all of her favorites – chicken and dumplings or liver and onions or corned beef hash – emerged from my kitchen during those last weeks of her life.
Her mobility did not last long. She began to fall, and gradually she made the transition to the wheelchair and finally to bed. Once again, her hands lost strength, and she once again could no longer write or even hold a fork. Each phase, she bridged gracefully. When she finally began to spend each day in bed, she continued to get up and come to the table in her wheelchair for meals, but even that fell by the wayside quickly and without despair. “I’d like to eat in here,” she said one day, matter-of-factly, sitting up in her bed. So I made a tray and took it in to her. I’d tie a bib around her neck and settle onto the stool beside her bed and feed her. “We’ve gone full circle,” she said, smiling, the first time I fed her custard.
The spring opened in front of her outside the window. Daffodils bloomed and maple trees went from red to green. David brought the sheep, a big flock of burly black and tan ewes and rams, butting and stomping with spring fever. Her hospital bed was on wheels, so sometimes I’d position it so she could see them grazing outside the window. We were no longer able to take drives, but I could take her out in her wheelchair, which I did, lifting her gingerly out of bed. To do this, I had to reach my arms around her in a bear hug and she would put her arms around my neck. That way I could brace my knees and lift her without hurting either of us. (When I bent to life her, she would purse her lips and make smooching sounds, an endearing greeting that harked back to goodnights of many, many years ago when I was very little and she would stand in the door of my room at home, and as she shut the door, she’d mouth these airborne kisses.) Once she was settled into the chair, I tucked blankets about her, Indian style. All wrapped like that, I’d trundle her out across the lawn to the garden. We could sit there, in the sun, until she grew chilled and I’d wheel her back inside. It was never a long stretch, a half hour at the most, but she would sink back into her bed and fall asleep, exhausted but happy from the excursion.
Several nights of each week, a woman named Karnaki came to watch my mother. Mom had become increasingly restless at night. Many nights she was up all night, calling for me, asking for water, or asking me to lift her onto the commode. Or just calling. It was exhausting me, especially since I needed to be up at six to give her the first medication of the day. Karnaki was a member of a meditative sect and lived at a retreat in a nearby town. She came first to meet me and talk about the job. I opened the door to find Karnaki dressed all in white – white sweatpants, white sweatshirt, and a ring in her nose. She smelled vaguely of incense. Oh, no, I thought, Mom will never go for this. But she did. Her first night, Karnaki came at ten in the evening and sat in the chair beside Mom and stitched silk envelopes for what she called “angel cards.” She talked quietly with Mom in soothing tones that lulled her to sleep. In the small hours of the night, Karnaki lit a long-burning votive candle in a tall glass tube and left it on the table like a night-light. My mother began to call her the “night angel.”
Over the time my mother spent with me, I tried to muster the courage to tell her how sorry I was that our lives had been so disconnected. At last, one Sunday afternoon, we were watching a golf tournament on television. She was an avid golf fan and had begun to educate me about all the players. She had an opinion about all of them. Greg Norman was striding up to the green. “Australian,” she said. “Don’t you think he’s handsome?” I laughed and said I did. I waited for him to take his shot, a birdie that put him in the lead. It seemed as good a time as any. I turned to her. “Mom,” I said, “I’m sorry we have had so many difficult times.”
She reached over and took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’re having a good time now, dear. That’s all that matters.”
I carried such sorrow in my heart throughout those brief days she spent with me, as I observed her from afar with new eyes. In her I saw not only the mirthful, somewhat eccentric woman who was my mother, but also a sweet and gentle lady who truly cared for others and thought constantly, in her last days, of those whom she loved so very much. That list happened to be very long. When she could no longer speak but only whisper, she turned to me one evening and whispered, “June was so very special!” speaking then of her childhood friend who had come to visit just a few weeks before. Another time, my friend Sandy came to visit her, just two days before she died. Mom was semicomatose by that time, but when she saw Sandy, she perked up. “Sandy,” she said and raised her head slightly, studying her with deep eyes. Finally she said, “You have such beautiful hair.”
I was deeply touched by her ability to reach out, at that late hour in her life. In a way, I fell in love with her, with that invincible charm and beauty that had always served her like a double-edged sword. Did this newness negate all of my experiences with her? Did it make a liar of me, who had always been so angry with her for her need to control everything about me, most especially my shape? I don’t think so.
Maybe we are destined to walk through some paces before we learn what we need to learn. I thought it deeply ironic that during my mother’s last days we became once again locked into the issue of food. Though throughout her life, Mom’s appetite had been remarkable absent, she ate robustly and without restraint while she was with me. She enjoyed everything that I prepared for her, whatever it was, and I loved cooking for her. Toward the end, everything had to be pureed or creamed because she had trouble swallowing. The last thing I made for her was a cauliflower cheese soup. “Oh,” she said, “delicious! The best soup I ever had.”
It was this soup, which looked for all the world like cream of wheat, that she choked on the Saturday before she died. I was feeding her, teeny bits on the end of her spoon. She had already passed the point where she could swallow water. I hadn’t really comprehended what that meant. What it meant was that her throat no longer had the strength to channel water into the stomach rather than the lungs. We stopped giving her water, but thick liquids were OK, which was why I made the soup. It was lunchtime, a rainy day. I had the Messiah, her favorite piece of music, playing on the stereo beside her bed. The tray was in front of her and she reached from under her blankets and grasped the spoon, much more than I would have given her, but I didn’t resist her attempt to feed herself. I should have. She took it in in one mouthful and began to choke. Her face reddened and then tears streamed down her soft cheeks. Tears streamed down my cheeks as well. I had been coached by the hospice nurses: If she chokes, you must not call for help. If you call emergency, they will do a tracheotomy and put her in the hospital with feeding tubes, which is what we were working to avoid. We wanted her to die at home. “O death, where is they sting!” the wonderful duet swelled forth from the speaker. I leaned her forward in the bed and patted her back. She went on, wheezing and gasping for breath, her hands grabbing at air, at me.
At last, she settled back against the pillows, breathing normally. I sat beside her and held her hand. I told her how much that had scared me. She nodded her head. I didn’t know what to do if this happened again. Was I supposed to watch her choke to death? Or starve to death? Later I called hospice and voiced my concerns. It was a cry in the dark. I knew that. I knew that what they were telling me was the only answer. Yet I kept asking, as if I didn’t hear the answer. She can no longer be given food or water. This is what they kept telling me. “But she is starving,” I told my mother’s hospice nurse. “She wants a hot fudge sundae.”
“No, no, she is not starving.” She said the word as if I had it wrong, as if we were talking about a dieter who feels hunger but is in fact robust. I heard it again: She is not starving. I couldn’t get it through my head. She weighed maybe 75 pounds by that time, as small as a child, just a slight rise between the sheets.
I think not being able to feed her was much harder than the moment that she died. There was real hunger then, and thirst. It was heartbreaking to have to turn from her and give her nothing. At that point, I called my sister, Chris, on the West Coast, and my aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle to come to stay. We sat beside Mom, holding her hand, stroking her forehead. Using a small sponge on the end of a stick, we dipped this in water, wrung it dry and brought moisture to her lips. Sometimes she would bring her tongue out to greet the little sponge. Other times, she would shake her head, no, no.
Karnaki suggested we set up a small altar for Mom, and I liked that idea. It was meant to be something for Mom to focus on, a collection of treasures to represent her life. I found a linen cloth that had belonged to my grandmother and covered a small table with that. On the cloth I arranged the framed photographs of my father and of my husband Paul, who had also died at home and who was Mom’s pioneer in this journey. In the center I put the curled, aging snapshot of the young girl, Sophie, that my mother had cherished all these years. Mom’s morning nurse brought white orchids, a single stem with multiple blooms in a narrow vase. From the bottom of her jewelry box, I brought out Mom’s dog tags from the marines. Karnaki added her Bible, and we put Mom’s prayer book on top of that.
For six days, we sat in vigil. Aunt Peg and Uncle Jamie, Chris and I, taking turns sitting with her, holding her hand and stroking her hair. After four days, Karnaki’s candle burned out, and we lit a second one, transferring the fire.
The day that Mom died, I sat with her. It was dusk, suppertime, and there was activity in the kitchen. Chris was folding laundry from the dryer. Aunt Peg was mending a nightgown of Mom’s. As each of the six days passed, Mom drew further from us. She spoke only our names when we entered the room and then she only blew us tiny kisses and then she only watched, her eyes large and reddened. At last, her eyes closed and her breathing, rapid and shallow and rhythmic, was our only clue. I kept all her favorite music playing, the Messiah, Mozart’s Mass in C, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For a while, sitting beside her, I meditated on the image of a bird in a wooden cage being released into blue sky over a field filled with wildflowers. She was turned toward me, her eyes tight shut, and I leaned close to her and told her that I was going to be all right, that she did not have to worry about me. “Fly free, Mom, fly free,” I whispered to her. “Everything is going to be all right. Daddy’s waiting.” Her breathing geared down, slower and slower. She gave two tiny yawns, like the yawns of a newborn infant. Her breathing slowed even further. There was a gap. A few breaths. Another gap. Her eyelids moved and seemed to be opening. I said, “Her eyes are opening!” Everyone heard and came into the room. Gradually as if coming out of a deep sleep, her eyes opened and she looked into mine, a burning gaze. They were very blue, the pupils sharp black points. She murmured something, but none of us could understand what she said. After perhaps a minute, she closed her eyes. Like a clock winding down, she stopped.
It was still light outside, the sun gradually setting behind the trees at the edge of my pasture. The sky grew dark, and the candlelight grew brighter. This light and the light from the streetlight outside the widow shone on my mother’s face. She looked almost iridescent.
We brought chairs into the room and sat in a crescent at the end of Mom’s bed. I was amazed at how peaceful she looked, as if napping. We sat together and held hands. We sat in prayer. We sat and cried into our hands. We sat in stupefied disbelief at what was before us. Mother, this slight, tiny, child-like person, lying on her bed in New Hampshire, far from home, far from Daddy, far at last from her disease, looking at peace at last.
The mysteries of my mother will most likely escape me until the day that I die. I have no way of understanding why she was the way she was when I was growing up, why we clashed so tragically. I think now about the events of her life and believe she was a brave, kindhearted, and unusual woman. Because I have never borne children, the idea of a mother’s love has only one dimension for me. And I must say that it confuses me. Neither do I have any way of understanding why the lives of my mother and me conjoined for that brief time at the end of her life. I can only voice that I am grateful that they did. My mother did indeed have a great deal to teach me about forgiveness. I believe that we only ever get glimpses of the truth, and I did get the briefest flash of this just as the sun was setting, just as she was leaving me, on that evening in May of 1994.