Perhaps because, in some way, my brother and I tried coming to grips with our father’s death through writing poems, we both wrote about him before writing anything about our mother. Although she isn’t wild about poetry, she is a big fan of her children, so she had heard some of these poems when she came to our readings, the way other mothers go to soccer matches. When Dave asked her if she wanted to read his first full-length poetry manuscript, she noted that, as far as she knew, neither of us had written any poems with her in them. “Do I have to die before I can get into you boys’ poems?” She was laughing that infectious laugh that just bursts out of her, but I heard something else underneath. Since then, we’ve both written poems that include her. Here’s one of mine:
My Mother Cleans
More exacting than graceful,
she does a turn around my kitchen.
The satellite radio plays
“I’ll Never Smile Again,”
and she thinks of dancing,
the way he turned her,
the way he turned her head back then,
some sixty years and a death ago.
Between my stove and microwave,
she manages a neat slide,
leading a mop.
But now, I want to make a little time this Mother’s Day to think about her, in much the same way I thought about my father in my previous post.
To go by appearances, my parents lived a simpler life than most of us live now. They didn’t feel the need to interrogate everything, as I do, or if they did, they would tell you that they had too much to do, what with both of them working outside the home while rearing four children, to sit around gazing at their navels. It isn’t that they never asked the big questions. I remember the relief that came over me when, after attending the fundamentalist church of friends, they returned home talking about how God could possibly have created the world in six days. But even though they seemed willing to be perplexed by the way that question undermined what they’d been taught about God dictating the Bible word for word, they seemed equally willing to let it go after ten minutes in order to get dinner on.
I wonder if that kind of simplicity and practicality contributed to the sense of strength and resilience I saw (and still see) in my mother. Once every year or two, while we were all still living at home, she used to experience back pain severe enough that she simply couldn’t move for a day or two. But, ahead of most doctors of the time, who prescribed prolonged bed rest, she would force herself to get up and move around the minute the pain became bearable. “You just have to push through it,” she would say, “and, besides, I have too much to do; the house needs cleaned, the laundry needs done.”
For nearly thirty years after Dad died, Mom lived on her own—at first, moving back to the rural town where she grew up, then coming back down to the Philadelphia area to be nearer to her children and her newly-arriving grand-children. While up-state, she threw herself into community life, joining The Grange and going to square-dances. A couple of times, she even agreed to have dinner with some widower looking for companionship.
“Do you ever think of actively trying to find someone?” we kids would ask her. She said no, that maybe she was getting like Dave and me, living on her own long enough that she had gotten set in her ways and kind of liked the freedom it gave her. But then her mother, now also a widow, started to fail mentally and physically and, for a few years, lived with my mother who, more and more, had to look after her.
When my mom moved back to Philadelphia, she joined my sister’s church and, six years ago, married a great guy named Dave from her Sunday School class there. I can’t say that, during the thirty years that constituted her second go at single life, she seemed depressed. I can only say that, once she and Dave became a couple, I saw an old buoyancy, one I had forgotten, return. My sister Connie summed it up: “Now, when you talk to her on the phone, she tells you what she and Dave are planning instead of what chores she did that day and how much bananas cost.”
Although the broken road I’ve travelled, with a backpack full of complexity and interrogation, has led me to a wonderful, albeit not always simple, relationship with an amazing woman, my mother seems to have managed a second really good marriage by keeping things simple. Not that things haven’t sometimes been hard.
My stepfather, being my mother’s equal in pragmatism, convinced her a couple of years ago, that they should sell their house and move into a retirement community. You could hear the anguish in my mother’s voice as she talked about the irony of selling or having to give away most of the things “you work so hard to get.” I’d say it took her most of the first year in her new home to adjust to downsizing from a house to a one-bedroom apartment, but it’s like my sister said about the bananas. Yes, she will still talk about what dessert she’s making for their Bible Study group or how she needs to straighten up their place, but why shouldn’t she? She loves something about homemaking. It’s just that now, instead of fretting about getting the roof repaired, she’s talking about all the concerts they’re going to and how their shuffle-board team is doing. Between card games and shuffle-board tournaments and activities at their church, with a few doctor visits thrown in, it can challenge me to find a date when they’re free to get together.
As I write this, they’re in Nashville, visiting my sister Connie, who moved there with her family when her husband changed jobs. Mom and Dave drove there. They say that they may not continue to drive such long distances after this trip, but I love that they are 88 and still going strong. I don’t doubt that, while they’re there, Mom is pitching in with the laundry and they are both helping out at Nucci’s, the family restaurant Connie and Steve started.
I really like telling people the story of Mom and Dave. It seems to spark everyone’s hopefulness. I know from my friends who are significantly younger than I that seeing me live a rich, active life of curiosity and connection at 61 makes them feel much less bleak about aging. I can thank my mother, and now my stepfather, for doing what the poet Louis MacNeice, in his poem “Leaving Barra,” called “living like a fugue and moving.” MacNeice continues with these lines which seem made for the two of them:
“For few are able to keep moving,
They drag and flag in the traffic;
While you are alive beyond question.”
The dazzle on the sea, my darling,
Leads from the western channel
A carpet of brilliance taking
My leave for ever of the island.
I never shall visit that island
Again with its easy tempo‑‑
The seal sunbathing, the circuit
Of gulls on the wing for garbage.
I go to a different garbage
And scuffle for scraps of notice,
Pretend to ignore the stigma
That stains my life and my leisure.
For fretful even in leisure
I fidget for different values,
Restless as a gull and haunted
By a hankering after Atlantis.
I do not know that Atlantis
Unseen and uncomprehended,
Dimly divined but keenly
Felt with a phantom hunger.
If only I could crush the hunger
If only I could lay the phantom
Then I should no doubt be happy
Like a fool or a dog or a Buddha.
O the self-abnegation of Buddha
The belief that is disbelieving
The denial of chiaroscuro
Not giving a damn for existence!
But I would cherish existence
Loving the beast and the bubble
Loving the rain and the rainbow,
Considering philosophy alien.
For all the religions are alien
That allege that life is a fiction,
And when we agree in denial
The cock crows in the morning.
If only I could wake in the morning
And find I had learned the solution,
Wake with the knack of knowledge
Who as yet have only an inkling.
Though some facts foster the inkling–
The beauty of the moon and music,
The routine courage of the worker,
The gay endurance of women.
And you who to me among women
Stand for so much that I wish for,
I thank you, my dear, for the example
Of living like a fugue and moving.
For few are able to keep moving,
They drag and flag in the traffic;
While you are alive beyond question
Like the dazzle on the sea, my darling.