Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton



How To Grieve With Challah Bread by Ellabell Risbridger

“How to Grieve with Challah Bread” struck me as a perfect expression of the complexities of family life. Grief and loss. Rituals and remembrances. New loaves braided and baked and broken at the table. All these are emblems and occasions of belonging to the tribes of our birth. — MAB

Eating With My Fingers

My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.

In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?

dough challah

He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which…

View original post 1,738 more words

Safe Space Radio

Guilt When a Parent Dies

Editor’s note: How does a single voice manage to share such rich and heart-grained stories? Listen here, dear readers, to two plainspoken men as they talk about guilt when a parent dies with Dr. Anne Hallward of the Maine radio program, Safe Space Radio. — MAB

We continue our series on hidden feelings this week with two stories about guilt, the kind we feel when we believe we didn’t do enough at the end of a parent’s life.  We’ll hear from people who were troubled by the way they failed to show up for their parents, and discuss the process of finding relief from that guilt. — Dr. Anne Hallward, Safe Space Radio

Copyright © 2015 Safe Space Radio, All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the author.

Remembering Gladys, Remembering Lisette: Three Years On

Dear Readers,

These are moments from my notebook. Remembering Gladys, my husband’s mother. Remembering Lisette, my mother. Remembering three years ago.

January 7, 2011. Gladys Wiseman Ruzich.

A Friday morning. I heard my husband Steve say something on the phone to his sister Pat — some reference to death or dying, but I forget what it was — and I realized that this phone call was the phone call. The one you get from your sister when your 96-year-old mother dies.

I thought, “Oh, ok, what happens next?” I felt calm and pragmatic. I thought, “I have to go over and touch Steve to comfort him.” I went over to the table and questioned him with a lift of my eyebrows.

“Mom passed away at 7 o’clock,” he whispered, and went on listening to Pat. I put my hand on his shoulder and slid my arm around him, kissed his head.

Releasing Steve, I felt something in my arms and shoulders, some physical sensation that I can’t describe, but which released me from my earlier life. I knew that life was very big, very real, and now I was a grownup. One of the mothers had died, and in leaving the world behind she had left her place for me.

Why did I know that Gladys left me her place in the world? I don’t know. What I thought was something like, “Oh, my God, she really died. I have to shape up. I may really be needed.”

Then I drove to my appointment in Medford. I was late so I drove fast, trying to remember where to turn right off the Mystic Valley Parkway so I could take the little jog that gets you to the community health center without going right through downtown Medford’s busiest crossroads.

January 14, 2011. Lisette Berglund Hyde.

Another Friday morning. Steve and his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Jon-Michael and I are at Gladys’s home in Libertyville, IL, getting ready to go to the funeral home to prepare for her calling hours. Liz and Jon are arranging photographs on illustration board: Gladys young, old, alone, with family. I wish there were some way to display her life’s work, which was teaching young children to read, to count, to love silliness and rhymes, to look with wonder at the dinosaurs in the natural history museum.

My cellphone rings. It’s the director of nursing at Walden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Massachusetts. My mother, Lisette, has died the day before her 102nd birthday.

“Oh,” I said out loud, “it’s my mother. She died.” I felt awed. She had been living with Alzheimer’s disease, on hospice care for the last two years. I’d begun to imagine this day would never come.  And then again, I wasn’t there. Surely she wouldn’t die without me.

Arriving at McMurrough Funeral Chapel that afternoon, I went right up to Gladys in her coffin. I put my hand on hers, patting her, murmuring. I know people often say that when they see their loved ones after they have died, they are struck by absence. The person is no longer there. But for some reason, I’m not like that. To me, perhaps because I’ve taken care of people in their homes and hospitals who are not able to interact, the person is always there, no matter how inert.

January 17, 2011. Phaneuf Funeral Chapel.

A Monday morning. At the Phaneuf Funeral Chapel on Hanover Street in Manchester, NH, we meet Marie, who is more or less 35 years old. She wears a black-and-white check suit and a slightly formal manner. Steve, bless him, has taken the day off work and driven me up to see my mother for the last time. Marie says that my mother is in the small viewing room off the chapel.

“She is resting in the container in which she will be cremated,” Marie tells us. “You will see cardboard sides of the container, though there are wood pieces for reinforcement. She has a pillow under her head. She’s on a cart that we use for moving people around the facility. Her hair is as it was in the nursing home when we picked her up. It’s kind of arranged, tucked in around her head. She’s wearing the johnny she was wearing. There hasn’t been any cosmetic work or washing of the body.”

Marie opens the small door — no, I open it — and I step down three steps to stand beside my mother’s container, looking at her head and face. A quilt is draped over the box just above the level of her clavicle. Her mouth is a bit open and her upper lip is slightly raised on the right side. You can see that her lips are pale, almost waxy. I remember that when a client of mind died I saw her lips go from flushed with blood to drained, white, a little stiff as if molded on the edges.

My mother’s forehead seems smoothed free of wrinkles. I see her high hairline, the fine, white hair tucked around her skull. Prominent cheekbones. Her nose is slightly turned to the right at the tip.

I fold the quilt back, gently, and reach down, raising my mother’s right hand and putting it on her breast. Her johnny is the white-with-tiny-blue-flowers kind that you see in the hospital. Her hand is cold. I put my hand on it, feel the skin move under my fingers. I remember touching Gladys’s hand, just three days ago. I put one hand on my mother’s forehead, the other on her hand. I make commiserating noises. I turn and put my arms around Steve. He’s warm. The room is very small.

February 2, 2014. Here at home.

As I write this, I realize that I don’t know how you will feel, reading it. I hope it’s not too much.  For me, the important thing about these moments from my notebook is the love, and the reality of loss. In the kitchen tonight, Steve is playing a CD, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, in a minor key that is all too appropriate for the sadness of my memories.

Ginsberg the cat jumps up on my lap as I sit at the computer.

“How does she do it?” I ask Steve, jokingly, as I rub our cat lovingly under her chin. “How did this cat get to be so cute?”

“It’s in the job description,” he replies.

Here at home, in love and sadness, the music plays on.

Thank you for listening,

Mary Ann

“Weeping in Public Places” by Donna Thomson

Editor’s note: Today’s post is a poignant story from Donna Thomson, who is an active blogger about issues relating to caregiving on her website “The Caregivers’ Living Room” ( She is the author of a remarkable family story, The Four Walls of My Freedom (McArthur and Co., 2010). 

Descent from the Cross [detail, women left] by Rogier van der Weyden,

Descent from the Cross [detail] by Rogier van der Weyden

Forgive me, I have been crying. Today I wept while driving, when I saw an old couple hug on the sidewalk. I wiped my cheeks as I watched the post office clerk weigh my letter and add up the international postage for my letter of condolence to an old and dear friend. Tears come easily and publicly these days, and that is not like me.
I hardly ever weep for my family. I don’t mean to imply that I have never shed tears for those I love, of course I have. But for the most part, after all these years, I do not generally weep for members of my own family. When problems arise on the home front, I tend to make lists and phone calls; my husband reminds not to grind my teeth.
Last week I received terrible news. The 19 year old son of a very old and dear friend passed away in his sleep. This was a healthy young athlete who had just finished his first year of pre-med university studies. As my sister said, there are some deaths that affect you more than others.  I have known my friend since we were babies in playpens on the beach at the cottage. Our parents and grandparents were friends. The loss of this vibrant, sweet young man has made me so, so sad.
A couple of nights later, I had dinner with two women friends. One of them apologised as she set her cell phone beside her table mat. “My mother is dying. She became bed-ridden with Alzheimer’s about ten years ago and now, well, it’s the end.”  The phone didn’t ring during dinner, but we departed after dinner without delay. Two days later, I received a message that my friend’s mother had passed away.
I have been thinking about loss, specifically the loss of someone who is dearly loved. How can the loss of a child ever be borne? I have thought a great deal about that question the many times that we nearly lost our Nicholas. But each time he bounces back, I lose my grasp on dealing with the reality of losing him. There have been a couple of times over the past year when I thought about my mother’s demise. I thought, “Well, it’s time.  She’s had a good life.” But then I remember it’s my Mom I’m talking about. What would I do without her? I know from my Dad’s death that we need our parents to hold us in their arms the most during the moments and days after we bury them.
I know that the shock of our friend’s young life lost will ease and I be able to observe a white haired mother embrace her son or daughter in the street without catching my breath and feeling tears on my cheeks. Of course, grief is the proper response to loss of life. But I know that each grief is individual and provides no practice at all for the next one. Today, I visited my Nick in his care home and I hugged him. I phoned my Mom and left a message. “I love you, Mom,” I said. It’s the best I can do.

Image credit: “Descent from the Cross [detail women (left)],” by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Oil on panel.


How to Write a Condolence Note

New England Woman (Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards), painting, Cecilia Beaux, 1895, Smithsonian Institution

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman, 1895. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

Yesterday after church I stood in line for coffee and then threaded my way through the crowd in the parlor to the note-writing table. Our pastoral care volunteers set up the table each Sunday, complete with cards, envelopes, and the names and addresses of people who have suffered losses and would like to receive notes. Two parishioners had lost family members this week, so I chose two handmade cards and sat down to write.

“Dear X, I am writing to you after the 11 o’clock service at First Parish, to send my condolences on the death of your family member. Today a breeze is coming in through the open door in the parlor, reminding me of the blessings of the natural world. May you and your family find comfort in the beauties of spring and the love of this community.”

It felt good to sit there in the church parlor, writing about the breeze coming in through the door. After awhile, someone else came along and joined me. It’s a large congregation, and I didn’t know the people I was writing to, but I’ve found that people are happy to get these notes even if they don’t know you.

Today I Googled “how to write a condolence letter” on my computer, a search that took 0.47 seconds and yielded about 170,00 results. Tops on the list is an article on Writing a Condolence Letter by Angela Morrow, RN.

Write the Letter in Your Own Voice

“Write the letter in your own voice, meaning the way you would normally speak to the person,” advises Morrow. “There is no reason to get too fancy and try to come up with a poem or verse.”

“Write in your own voice.” I think this is great advice. I believe that a handwritten message of sympathy is precious, no matter what the words say. But when my note includes some details of real life, I’m giving the recipient a chance to feel more connected at a time when connection matters deeply. That’s why I like to start sympathy letters by saying something about where I am as I write.

  • “I’m writing you from my kitchen table,” I’ll say. “It’s late at night, but I couldn’t go to bed without reaching out to you.”
  • “I’m thinking about you and wishing you were here in my living room so we could share a cup of coffee.”
  • “Yesterday I started writing to you in my head on the way home. Here are my thoughts.”

Tell a Story About the Person Who Is Gone

If you knew the person who has passed away, you might include a sentence or two about your memories of them in your note. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Mention their positive qualities: “Your mother welcomed me so warmly when I visited.”
  • Refer to their favorite activity: “I’ll never forget that your dad cooked the best ribs in the neighborhood.”
  • Remember how you last saw them: “When I stopped by last week, I was touched to see her wearing that sweater you gave her.”
  • Tell how you expect to remember them: “I know that when Thanksgiving comes around again, I’ll remember him sitting at the big table with all of us.”

On the other hand, if you didn’t know the person, you might mention something your correspondent has told you about them. “You’ve told me how you used to call him on Sunday afternoons.” Alternatively, you could share someone else’s story: “Gabriela has told me how Nana used to make soup for you even in her nineties.”

End on a Positive Note

Writing a condolence letter is an exercise in acceptance and hope. In writing to a person who has lost a loved one, we accept and acknowledge not only their loss but also our own vulnerability as human beings who too, one day, will reach the end of life. Yet through this act of acceptance we also nurture hope: the hope of connection, and the deeper intimacy of a shared sorrow. With this in mind, we can end a condolence letter on a positive note that conveys our ongoing good wishes. It’s appropriate to end with a spiritual message, though I am careful to reserve more specific religious language for people whom I know share my beliefs. I try to find words that suggest moments of comfort or relief, like the following:

  • “I am sending you light and love.”
  • “You are in my warmest thoughts and prayers.”
  • “May you find moments of comfort in your memories.”
  • “I will call you tomorrow, and in the meantime I am sending you hugs.”

May you be well, and may the letters you write bring comfort to your readers.

I welcome your comments, as well as your tips for writing condolence notes.

Breakwater of San Sebastian by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.

Expressing Hope, Saying Goodbye

I think you know how this goes. Someone you care about loses someone they love. You write a note, send a card.

“I’m so sorry he died last night,” you write, trying to make your penmanship more tender and legible than usual. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you are comforted by good memories and the love of your family and friends.”

I’m so sorry. I hope you are comforted. May you not suffer. Thank you for the privilege of honoring your loved one, of helping you say goodbye.

Image credit: Breakwater of San Sebastian by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Spanish, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.