Dear Mother Lisette,
May you awaken in Paradise.
It has been two years and 46 days since your death. This morning I am eating old-fashioned, steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast. Do you remember making Quaker Oats for us when Katherine and I were little? I didn’t like oatmeal then, though I thought that butter improved it. Once I took my bowl into the back yard and hid it in a little red polka-dot suitcase. When you found it later there was a thick trail of ants lining up for a taste.
I am sorry that I was not there with you when you took your last breath. As you know if you have been looking down on me from heaven, Steve and I were in Libertyville, IL the day you died, getting ready to go to the funeral home to set up the flowers and photographs for his mother’s wake. It’s odd that you and Gladys passed away exactly a week apart, though we knew you were both near the end. She was 96 and you were just a day away from turning 102.
“To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
If I could go back to see you one last time at your nursing home in Concord, MA, I would sing you that folksong by Pete Seeger. We sing it in church every once in a while, music to acknowledge great political travail or steep, private passages from one stage of life to another.
If I could see you again, I would apologize for stealing that red jawbreaker from Lyerla’s Market when I was five years old. I wonder if you noticed me sucking it as we drove home in our bottle-green Chevy with the prickly upholstery. I remember grunting in answer to some question from you, not willing to risk your hearing my voice as I rolled the candy on my tongue and surreptitiously swallowed my saliva. Perhaps you did notice but were too tired from the demands of parenting twins to say so.
Last November I canvassed voters in New Hampshire for the presidential election. At one house on a winding dirt road we were greeted by a young woman with a baby in her arms, her face softened with sleep. It reminded me of the utter exhaustion of new parents, the bliss of falling asleep with the baby and waking up, an hour or so later, even minimally refreshed.
“I can’t understand people who don’t call their mother,” a woman confided to me this week in the therapist’s waiting room. “I call mine every day. ‘Hi, Ma, I made it to another day,’ I tell her. Well, of course, she made it to another day, too.”
One of the worst things about witnessing your long journey into Alzheimer’s disease is that I never got a chance to repair the rents in the fabric of our relationship. I bet there are lots of people in this situation, facing the grim truth that it’s way too late to ask for forgiveness, or to give it.
I’m thinking about the day I married John, my first husband. I was 22, standing at the kitchen sink in your Chicago apartment and squeezing fresh oranges for the champagne punch. You and I were arguing, about what I don’t remember, when suddenly things escalated.
“Well!” you said. “There hasn’t been a day since you girls were born that I haven’t thought of suicide.”
I imagine it’s true, given what I understand about your depression. Today, I hear in your statement a depth of loss that brings tears to my eyes. It must have been so hard to be a single mother of twins in the California of 1949. It must have made you feel so bad that your father forbade your mother from traveling out West to be there with you for the birth.
Dear Mother, I forgive you for those harsh words and I ask in turn for your forgiveness. There are so many things that I was not able to say to you in your lifetime. I think it is OK to say them now, just in case you can hear them. May you awaken in Paradise. May you take the dogs for a walk and bake Swedish limpa bread and coddle the roses in your garden. May you read aloud after dinner, the way you used to do when we were children:
It’s a very odd thing –
As odd can be –
That whatever Miss T eats
Turns into Miss T.;
Porridge and apples,
Mince, muffins and mutton,
Jam, junket, jumbles –
Not a rap, not a button
It matters; the moment
They’re out of her plate,
Though shared by Miss Butcher
And sour Mr. Bate;
Tiny and cheerful,
And neat as can be,
Whatever Miss T. eats
Turns into Miss T.