Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How my mother's grief helped me move forward

I don't remember my grandmother. I was 4 when she died, and all I have is a flash of dark hair, a yellow dress, some paper dolls and the smell of stale cigarettes. Going through my mom's house has given me a little glimpse here and there (my grandmother lived in the house for 25 years), but it also forces me to acknowledge that my kids won't remember my mother.

I remember the morning my grandmother died. It was Easter Sunday, April 3, 1983. I was in the dining room, hiding with my basket of chocolates when the phone rang and my mother answered. "Mom's not breathing," her brother informed her. We'd celebrated Evelyn's 63rd birthday earlier that week, and then she had not woken up that Sunday, the result of a massive heart attack in her sleep.

The funeral came. I caught chicken pox from my cousin Samantha. The sympathy cards rolled in for my mother. Most were stacked in a pile -- a pile I'm sure I'll find soon as I continue to clean out my my mother's house (she never threw out anything) -- but one, only one, my mom framed.

This was major because framing was a luxury we never really had. We had drawers and drawers and cardboard tubes full of thing she intended to frame, you know, someday when there was disposable income for that sort of thing. But she must have grabbed a cheap document frame from Woolworth's because I remember a single sheet of paper with a poem on it, written by their friend Glenn, whom we knew from such classy establishments such as the Zanzibar and Germantown Cafe:
I'm sorry. Sounds trite, doesn't it?If sugar cookies or balloons or a warm summer day could make your smile, I'd give them to you. Remember your daughter -- her laugh, her zest for life. That's your mother's legacy.
There were a few other lines in the middle, and I think I've invented the part about the "warm summer day," but I remember hiding in the dining room eating through the rest of my Easter basket and staring at this new framed artwork on the wall -- words only, and not even a card, just blank stationery and a ballpoint pen. I read that poem daily for many years and didn't understand much except that mom's friend wanted to bake her cookies (why hadn't he?), and I had something called "zest," which proved a really fun word to say but even the dictionary definition was confusing. And "legacy," was even more of a challenge for a four-year-old to comprehend.

I tried.

One day my mom took it down. I don't know why she did, and I don't know in which drawer the poem ended up, or whether it remains in a frame, replaced by a school photo or newspaper article.

Today my mom's ashes are in a beautiful sparkly urn in my dining room, surrounded by her keys (she loved her keys) and a Harry Potter Quidditch LEGO set, which she guards from baby brother fingers. I see the urn daily, and I think, "How weird, that she is there. Her body is burned, contained, but with us."

I'm not ready to let go, I like knowing she's with us for family dinners or when Graham destroys us in Monopoly. I like the boys to smile and wave to her. Every so often I put a framed photo of her next to the urn, and when I do that, I feel a lot worse. For some reason, the urn alone is okay, but the urn with the photo is too much. Then I put away the photo, but leave the urn. I wonder if my mom took away the poem for the same reason I put away Mom's photo.

Everyone has long said Graham is a miniature of David, but when I look at Graham now, I see the wide grin of my mother. Her smile is Graham's smile. I see a look of skepticism on his face, I see twinkle of mischief in his eyes, and I see a longing to be loved.

I don't need the photo. It reminds me of the past, of completion and of things that will never be. But I hear Graham's laugh, and I remember that poem, and I think I understand this zest for life and this legacy. I suddenly want sugar cookies, and I definitely want warm summer days. And I know they will come, and it will be okay.

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