When I was little and living with my mother and my twin sister in a small house with a big garden in Napa, California, we used to buy groceries at Lyerla’s Market. You pronounced it “LIE-er-lahs,” with the accent on the first syllable. It had a wooden floor of long, narrow boards, always very clean. The man who most often checked out our groceries was nicknamed “Shorty.” My mother liked to say he’d scold her if she spent too much. I don’t know why she liked to tell that story: her extravagance, his caution. What would she be buying that cost too much? Ice cream, or preserved fruits for baking, or beef steak?
Once, waiting in line at Lyerla’s, I stole a single, cellophane-wrapped jawbreaker, the kind of thick, hard, red ball of candy that lasted forever in the corner of your cheek and stained your tongue red. I don’t know why I took it. I think I was surprised, a few seconds later, to discover myself still holding it in my hand. Nobody seemed to notice; not my mother, fishing for money in one of her smooth, dark blue or brown handbags; not my sister; not Shorty. In the car going home, I sat on the edge of the front seat of our scratchily-upholstered green Chevy and tried to suck the candy without being seen.
“Have you got something in your mouth?” my mother asked, sharply, taking her eyes off the road to glance at me as though through the clearer bottom half of bifocals.
“Uh-uh,” I said, somewhat thickly.
For some reason, she decided to let it go.
A few years later — I must have been eight — the Food Fair opened at the edge of town, out past the intersection where Imola Highway turned towards the state hospital. Food Fair was a modern market. When you went in through the glass doors, the first thing you saw was a yellow painted wooden bench filled with comic books. Donald Duck, Archie and his high school friends (I couldn’t stand Betty and Veronica), Little Lucy.
At home we were not allow comics, so these had me mesmerized, or would have if it weren’t for the drama of the rest of the place. There were pink lights over the meat packages, and wide white aisles floored in linoleum as clean and hard as bars of soap. The mirrors over the produce cases were tilted at odd angles. Grapefruit, tangerines, cantaloupe, Boston lettuce, bunches of radishes stretched away into forever. And the canned soups! My mother always made her own soups from scratch. Deep pots of chopped kale with ham, or chicken soup with all the vegetables mitered at their corners. Slightly watery pea soup you had to tolerate because we were of Swedish background and the recipe apparently came with the family. With all that, you can’t imagine how exotic those rows of red and white cans of Campbell soup appeared.
“Marsha’s mother gave us mushroom soup by Camp-Bell,” we told our mother one afternoon, coming home from lunch at a friend’s house. In our excitement, we pronounced the “p.”
“Oh,” said my mother, not as impressed. “From a can?”
But when a convenience store opened on a corner leading out of our development, my mother would walk with us down the street in the dry winds of California summer to buy Eskimo Pies after supper. There was a certain variation that came on a stick like an ordinary ice cream bar and had a thick glob of chocolate candy in the middle. We would walk home looking at the sunset in the wide sky, eating the chocolate coating off the bottom of the bar to control the drips, hearing the chain pull tight on our dog’s collar as she strained after cats, coming to the last bit of intense sweetness as we reached the steep driveway to our house.
Today when we met for lunch, you talked about how it is important for you in your life as a minister to be willing to be with people as they are dying. For some reason, when you said that I had a deep feeling of grief. Tears came in my eyes a little and I had to will them to be still.
Over the last few years, I have come to believe so much in the poignancy of everyday life. There is something about the awkwardness of unshed tears at lunch at the Gaslighter that is very valuable to me. Ice cream bars, comic books, jawbreakers, the small details of unsentimental reflection, flashes of conversation, embarrassment, longing, these are the things that seem to matter when I think about dying.
When I was a child in Napa, shortly before we left there, my mother began taking us to meetings of a Unitarian fellowship. There was a group reading of Archibald MacLeish’s play on the story of Job, “J.B.,” held at some fellowship member’s home. My mother read the part of Job’s wife. It was evening. I remember something about the living room, assorted stuffed chairs in a rough circle and standing lamps with dark pleated ivory shades and pull chains. I sat on the arm of my mother’s chair — I must have been ten or eleven then — and I remember the light falling on my arms, making the fine hairs on my skin look alternately dark and light.
My mother spoke. I think I must have been reading over her shoulder, or else I read the play afterwards by myself, because I can remember seeing the blocks of words down the page and knowing when it would be her turn to read them. There must be a part of the play where the voices speak of sorrow down and down, on and on, one after another, those words coming out into the empty light of the air the way they came laid out in spaces of black type on the lighted page. When my mother spoke the part of Job’s wife, the sorrow in her voice was so deep, so old, so large and so peculiarly slanted towards my life that I found myself weeping. It’s that rolling motion: there’s a certain form of grief in which you aren’t sobbing, your breathing is undisturbed, but the water rolls over the round sides of your cheeks like a warm and distant ocean. It’s so far away from you that you have a distinct surprise in being where you are. You remember what you have just been doing; you have a muffled worry about what the others in the room must think of you; you wipe the tears off with your hand; but at the same time you are relaxed a little, and they keep coming.
I hesitate these days to read “J.B.,” but sometime I would like to. Remembering my mother speaking that evening, I am sure she was doing that thing we call invocation, calling upon the things that are deep and touch us all. When my mother is speaking, in that memory I have of her, I believe she is speaking of her own dying, and mine. I believe she is saying, in the words she reads aloud in the circle next to the standing lamp, something that she can never say in real life. She has an ease in her grieving as she reads that never happens when we are together. In her reading, she is mourning, but she is also moving on.
Editor’s note: I wrote this letter to the minister of my church on April 9, 1986, which is 27 years ago this week.