The prompt this time involved generating two lists (for a detailed description of the list exercise, click here). At the top of one list, I asked everyone to write down this phrase: “I’m never going to be,” and at the top of the other, “I’m always going to be.” After that, everyone free writes any associations, images, or words that go with each list title. The list exercise always produces some surprising results. My list included, “a survivor of loss.” As much as I have a troubled relationship with that word, survivor, I also know it’s the truth. I am a survivor of loss. The greatest being (I’ll bet you can guess if you’ve ever read this blog): my mother.
Here she is, showing up again, having her say.
Mama shows up now whenever she feels like it: in my own stern voice at the head of the classroom; with my oldest nephew as I hug him good-bye before he moves away to start his new, young life; in the grocery store check-out line, when a young woman in front of me sparks up a conversation about salmon dinners and surly fellow shoppers.
She’s non-linear. Sometimes she’s young and crazy about dancing in front of the stage at a Frank Sinatra concert (they drove two hours each way to see him); sometimes she’s matriarchal and round, leaning back on her chaise on a screened-in-porch, the sound of crickets in the yard behind her. The next moment she’s that virgin on a train on her honeymoon, heading to New York City, asking my father, “Well? What are we waiting for?” And then she’s that woman in her late 40’s, painting her face with creamy concealer and black mascara, orange frosty lipstick. She’s the aging woman with silver roots planting red geraniums, and the little shrunken body in bed.
At the gift shop, I find a tiny purple bottle with a cork in it—$5.00—and her voice comes to me. “Perfect,” she says. “You know your sister loves purple.” My voice. Her voice. Sometimes they intertwine. A two-part harmony. The bottle is for the ashes—her ashes—bits of bone and grey powder that was once 112 pounds of creamy Italian, now waiting to be scattered in the ocean. “I just want a little bit of her,” my sister said one night, “to keep on my dresser.”
Mama is ashes now. No matter what’s saved or scattered, she’s gone. She’s a pile of black and white photos with scalloped edges; she’s a voice on a cassette tape. She’s a note in elegant script, written in my baby book. Chris is a delightful baby. Never shy, likes music and dancing. She’s two tiny diamond earrings, a few recipe cards, and an Ella Fitzgerald scat: “Do wah, do wah, do wah, do wah, do wah, do waaaah!”
She’s a voice, coming forth when I plunge the trowel into the damp earth. Root-bound violets and succulents with pink flowers. When I kiss the little dog on the nose, or hold the baby at my hip. She’s scotch on the rocks, and lilacs in April, and coffee in china cups, and a good friend who listens without interrupting. A voice disembodied, but present. She scrambles eggs and calls everyone to the table before they get cold. Our lives diverge, cross, align, separate. Now you hear her, now you don’t.
“It’s a beautiful beach,” she says when my sister and I lean over the thick rope and stare down the coastline. “Just perfect.”
Who knows what she’ll say the day we wade out into the ice-cold water on the first day of Autumn? She may be permissive; she may be silent, her voice and body there in our own, her face cloudy, or lit up like the sun. I don’t speak for her anymore. I let her do and say what she wants. When she has something to say, she’ll make herself known, she’ll make herself heard. She always has. She always did.