My mom passed away ten years ago this October. Sometimes I've posted her photo on Facebook. When I do, it seems a way of bringing her into the present, almost as if it's a shared experience. But then that post itself becomes part of the past.
My mom loved Omar Khayyam. She knew a lot of it by heart. As a kid, I remember sitting next to her on the living room couch as she recited this stanza:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Following are excerpts from old diaries and letters.
Mom and I were shopping at a desert outlet mall and wandered into one of the more expensive shoe stores. The place was empty, except for a salesman who coalesced out of the darkness. He didn't acknowledge us, and we didn't acknowledge him, but he seemed caught in our orbit as we moved from shoe to shoe down the right wall. We took a step; he took a step. We hurried our pace, and silently he hurried his pace. By the time we rounded the back corners, Mom and I were almost running. But he was right behind us, reaching out and tapping the odd display shoe as if it were some effeminate sport.
It was such a relief to get back out into the sunshine.
"Shall we go home now?" Mom asked. I nodded. It was the first we had spoken since entering the store.
"I didn't really like that store, did you?"
She shook her head. "Not at all."
We got off the ferry and started walking back to the apartment. Dad was in front. Someone told him to look back at little Graham, and he turned around and promptly backed into a garbage can, almost falling in. It was like slow motion as we grabbed at him to keep him upright. He cut himself quite badly.
As we expressed loud sympathy, he said, "Oh, don't worry. It's just God's way of telling me where I belong."
I told Mom last night that California is heaven.
She said, "I don't know if I really want to live somewhere like heaven. It'll just remind me that I'm going to be in heaven shortly."
Although I know her sense of humour, I was too shocked to say anything.
"Silent, are you? So you agree?"
When I asked them where they were moving, Mom said they had bought a little van with a shower, and were just going to hit the road. Dad said they would do a Hitchcock, but go south by southwest. She really had me on the van, until I kept pressing them about the other amenities it provided besides a shower.
I never did find out where they were moving.
Dad's reading 'A Thread Across the Ocean' about the transatlantic cable. Mom came up and said, "Your father's got a noble face."
I said, "You both look regal. Aristocratic."
"No, I don't, but your dad does. I can see his effigy."
Dad kept on reading throughout this conversation. Mom said, "I keep trying to get a rise out of him, but it doesn't work."
"Greg, who discovered penicillin?" I asked.
"No, no, the guy had to have been British."
"This is when one needs the Internet."
I said I knew a faster way to get the answer, and called my parents. vMy dad was out of breath when he answered the phone: "You know that Chinese wall we have. vWell, we've been putting together a box for it. It's getting big enough that by the time we finish, it'll be just the right size for a double coffin for your mother and myself."
He chuckled, and I could hear my mom laughing in the background.
(When I related this to Greg, he shook his head and said, "Your family has a really black sense of humour.")
"Dad, I actually called with a specific question. Who discovered penicillin?"
"Fleming. In 1928. He was sitting at his desk when the spores floated in through the window and landed on a bacterial culture. He noticed that all the bacteria died, and wrote it up and published. But he didn't do anything about it. Ten years later, at the start of the war, the government got hold of it and that's when penicillin first became available."
I looked smugly at Greg, as he had called me a loser for not using the Internet. vBut, I swear, my dad knows everything. And, he has a back-up anecdote for everything. And what he doesn't know, my mom does, though she always doubts herself at the end and will ask him for verification. Dad seemed quite interested that the spore-producing pub still exists.
Mother called. She's worried about the sale and the moving, and said she had been angry with Dad, but that they had a good talk at Starbucks. She recounted it:
Dad said, "We can move to Niagara-on-the-Lake, you know. I like it there, too."
"But it wouldn't be good for your work."
"I want to be with you."
Mom told me, "That was so sweet of him to say, I about melted."
"I used to go to the Georgetown Inn. You remember the Georgetown, don't you, Graham?"
"Yes, but I only saw it from the outside."
"I used to go there with this guy, and Dirkson, a famous senator, and McGee. It was a nightclub, with a piano bar. It was an expensive place. Admiral...what was his name, Graham?"
"I can't remember."
"He rented an office from us. He was on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he had a Cadillac and was driving down the avenue with his wife and it broke down and he was furious and he called GM -- he knew someone there and they wanted to give him a new car and he refused to take it. Because of his principles. Or did he accept it? Now I can't remember which.
"Radford...he was in the corner office. He was against the Vietnam War, but if we were going to do it, he said we should use everything we had, including nuclear.
"We had another attorney in our office who was friends with Jack and Jacqlyn Kennedy. He had all these pictures of them in his office. I hated him, though...he was always....
"Oh, and another client the attorneys had was the Shah of Iran's sister and husband. But the thing that ran around the office was that she or they wanted these poodles, so the firm...he arranged to get them shipped over. The thing of it is they were quite expensive, and there wasn't just one, and of course they never paid the bill, and it went on and on and the other partners were furious."
When Mom lived in Baltimore, she'd see H. L. Mencken sitting on a park bench as she passed by in a bus.
From letters I wrote at age 16:
Have you ever heard the word shlump? My parents are calling each other shlumps at this very moment.
My mom kept telling me about these worms who invade people’s brains and eyes. And of course, I immediately started rubbing my eyes and got a head-ache.
I can draw now. Suddenly, I picked up a pencil, and I DREW a face. Yes, it was a living, breathing face. Then I did another one, and another one, until now I have about twenty faces. Today I started on bodies. My mom was a commercial artist so I guess I get it from her.
The painting on my bedroom ceiling is a Chagall. My mom did it beautifully! There is a white border, then a pale grey, and then a border of stencilled leaves. She's painted what looks like the rising sun in grey above my windows. Now they look like they are arched, and it is very pretty. She's thinking about painting the cheap panelling in our family room grey. Then she might paint the sky on the ceiling along with window panes, so that it looks like one big window. We want Mom to go into decorating, but she says no one in DeKalb could appreciate what she does, and that's probably true. She also had landscaped our lawn beautifully. When we moved here, there were no trees to speak of. Now there are sloping mounds covered with flowers and bushes, and lots of trees. My mom used to be an artist, but then she had us.
And now, part of an email my mother sent me in October of 2001 (I had just moved to London):
Surprise, I received an e-mail -- from you, which cheered me up considerably. Everything seems to be going well for you. And I am so glad that that is so, since a better person could not be found to enjoy such a condition. A toast to you -- that Kellas should be happy always. I enjoyed your walk along the river, after leaving the tube, and felt I could see it myself and the surroundings. The sunshine would be welcome here -- it's cold with a brisk wind bringing a reminder of winter soon to come.
Well, my dearest girl, it's time --
love now and forever, Mother.