I was not expecting to feel the way I do. Relieved. Guilty. Annoyed. Two weeks later and I’m just realizing now that I no longer have any reason to avoid calling my mother. I’m realizing, too, that unless I plan on learning I won’t be knitting any blankets and don’t need to keep her collection of needles.
I’m keeping them anyway.
I’m keeping pieces of paper with her perfect Palmer penmanship. A piece of cardboard with a list of passwords she created each time she forgot the last password. When we first reconciled a decade or so ago I sent the money for a laptop. I told her if she had a laptop we could send letters (she insisted on called emails ‘letters’) every day. In the end though, she really only used it to find out what was on television and to check the obituaries in Allentown’s Call Chronicle.
Friends tell me this is normal. To be reminded of all that has been lost while doing the simplest things. While walking through the freezer section at Mollie Stone’s and hearing the chorus of a song she sang. She loved music. When we first moved to Lynnport she and my step-dad formed a country and western band called Johnny and the Texas Tophands. Local bars from Topton to Hamburg booked them for gigs most weekends. Once they played before a NASCAR race at the Pocono Speedway. John rented a tour bus to take the band and all their equipment up to the mountains. I think my sister was old enough for the two of us to stay home alone that weekend.
I suppose what my friends tell me is true. That this is normal. That no matter the gulf between mother and daughter, losing a parent changes a child’s life. Even if that child was born when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.
There’s a space in my life that wasn’t there before and I’m not yet certain how it should be filled.
Did you know it’s possible to ship human remains – or in this case cremains – from one side of the country to the other? I did not.
My mother’s cremains were shipped to me on January 8 along with three copies of her death certificate and the necklace she was wearing when she took her last breath. I was told that after a few days of fighting the inevitable her passing last Friday was peaceful.
I need the certificates to close her phone, cable and bank accounts. Holding her necklace in my hands will bring resonant clarity to the last six months. But the ashes? What am I supposed to do with a box full of ashes?
I suppose, given how rare it was to see her without a cigarette in her hands, it’s appropriate that my mother ended her life on earth going up in smoke. But the truth is the box that arrives on my doorstep will not be filled with ashes. Cremains are, in fact, pulverized bone. So what should I do with five pounds of pulverized bone?
A quick internet search offers choices: I could have them compressed into a synthetic diamond or have them set into a piece of sterling silver jewelry. I could use them to plant a tree, which is a nice idea, or I could scatter them to the wind. What I won’t do is put them in a fancy urn to let them gather dust on a bookshelf until someone decides I should be turned into five pounds of pulverized bone.
When people die we like to imagine them with loved ones who have passed. With my mom, that’s tricky. I can’t imagine her with her abusive first husband (my father), or with the mother she fought with or my sister Margaret, from whom she was estranged. It would be nice if she was hanging around with her one true love, Tom, whom she met when she was fifty and was with for almost twenty-five years, but I never met him and so that’s difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye.
Maybe she’s nowhere. I don’t really believe that, but some people do. I believe that my mother’s energetic vibration is looking for a place to settle. In Buddhism this is a bardo state – a liminal state between death and rebirth. Given the story of her life, the drama and the anger, is it my responsibility to help her move from her bardo state? Or is finding a place for her cremains an act that will only bring comfort to me?
My mother loved to tell the story of being stationed in San Francisco when she was a young girl in the Army and her visits to Top of the Mark. I think that would be a nice place to leave a little bit of her energy. Later in life, she spent nights at the Fogelsville Bar, perched like the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Maybe I can leave just a little bit of my mom on one of the barstools.
What I think she might like most of all is a good view. So if you’re hiking the cliff side in Half Moon Bay and catch the scent of garlic, coffee and Pall Malls – say ‘hello’ to Bobbie.
As I come to understand that my mother is going to die soon I find it difficult to remain present. My mind wanders to past injustices real or imagined and to future hurdles. I was not the best daughter. I stew in the guilt of our 28-year estrangement and then in the next moment choke it down where it sits like a lump in my belly.
Watching my mother’s dementia worsen is like watching a life disappear. And as I empty her trailer of books and furniture and clothing and photos it’s clear to me that my actions, too, are part of the process of disappearing.
What do I do with the things that hold resonance for me? Like the oak bookshelves, or the cookie jar and the 4-string guitar? They’re stacked and covered in blankets in a storage locker 2500 miles away. Will they stay there forever? Would it have been better to sell or give them away? In a year will I have regret for the books I saw thrown away or the trinkets I decided to keep?
And what about the things too big to hide in a storage locker? Like her trailer? It won’t sell and I can’t pay the $800 lot rent. Do I abandon my mother’s home for the past forty years? Her neighbor is afraid that if I close the PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light) account the water pipes will freeze and burst, causing havoc and despair for everyone in her Green Acres Mobile Home Park circle.
I didn’t expect to be doing this alone. I didn’t expect to be doing it at all. When I ran away from my mother and my sister I had no plans to return. But there was a moment when I thought ‘an old woman deserves peace’ and I reached out. I told myself that I didn’t need to love her. I didn’t even need to like her. But I needed to be with her and to do my best to care for her. To be kind to her.
And I was.
She and my sister had stopped speaking to one another years earlier. For that reason I kept Margaret shut off from my life. Something I regret. A few years after the reunion with my mother Margaret died.
And now here I am, finding it difficult to remain present.
When I was in Pennsylvania in October I began each day with a walk and a photograph. It was grounding and brought a sense of calm presence to me that stayed with me for much of the day. But when I returned to Allentown last week I forgot that practice. Until I took half a day to visit my favorite place – Hawk Mountain.
The photographs are nothing fancy – simply shot with my iPhone 7. But each time I hold up that little miracle of a computer I am in the moment. There is nothing but my beating heart and the leaf or flower or mountain I’m looking at. For that little moment there is no past, no future. There is only now.
I came home last Friday and have decided to continue the practice of taking one photograph each day. And in that moment all things fall away and I am here.
We moved into the Lynnport Schoolhouse in the fall of 1966, when I was 8 years old. Built early in the 19th century – I think in 1814 – the two-room structure served students until the 1950’s, when it was converted to a home and a barber shop. By the time we moved in the original brick had long been covered with white stucco, the bell tower had been taken down (the original bell now resides in New Tripoli’s history museum), the fireplaces boarded and replaced by a hissing monster of a coal-fired furnace in the dank basement. That same furnace belched carbon monoxide our first winter there, and only through the quick thinking of Marge Merkle did my mother, my sister and I survive. Sadly, our parakeet didn’t.
When we moved in there were still a few remnants of the school’s former life: a portion of the original blackboard in what became my little ‘play room’, the chalk trough that extended along one wall of my bedroom, a tired schoolroom bench with cast iron details that my mom salvaged with a few coats of paint and, in the attic, three empty quart sized Sanford ink bottles. My mother carefully cleaned the bottles and kept them displayed on the built-in pine hutch that covered almost the entire length of one living room wall.
My mother sold the schoolhouse in 1977 when I was in my first year of college. I was told of her decision long after the deed was done. She had, in fact, already moved into Green Acres Mobile Home Park. I don’t know why but her decision broke my heart. Up until then, no matter how dysfunctional our family dynamics were, it was the home I remembered. But now a price had been paid for my memories and no more would I sit on my wide windowsill watching muskrats swim up the creek that ran below my bedroom window. The room would never be filled with the scent of lilac and spring willow. My refuge from the chaos around me now belonged to someone else.
The trailer my mother moved into was small and dark but she was happy to leave the big school house. It meant she was closer to Shankweiler’s, where she worked as a waitress. I visited her in the trailer once or twice in the 1980’s and then, for many many reasons, we became estranged. When I finally returned to the trailer in 2006 a few things had changed. It was darker than I remembered and sticky with layers of nicotine. But she now had the oak barrister’s bookcase that once belonged to my grandfather and, on one of the shelves, were the three Sanford ink bottles from the attic of the Lynnport Schoolhouse.
Since 2005 my mother’s health has declined. Her friends describe the behavioral changes and memory lapses of what is now diagnosed dementia. Over the past two years she’s fallen several times and remains in severe pain almost certainly due to fractures in her ribs and spine that were ignored by doctors after her first tumble. The remodeled bone – evidence of her injuries – was discovered just last week by physicians in the hospital she was admitted to after having the fall that finally broke her hip.
I was in Pennsylvania when she broke her hip, there to tell her that the nursing home in which she had been admitted would now be her home. My mother needed 24-hour care and I was, in fact, already in the process of parsing out her possessions – deconstructing an 86-year-long story. I knew that as I packed up my mother’s long and troubled life that I was packing up a piece of my own existence and it was unclear to me if the choices I made were correct. What should I keep? What should I pass on? They were, after all, only possessions. Yet they were imprinted with my family’s ghosts. Filled with uncertainty and guilt, I finally moved the items I thought should stay with me to one room and told my mother’s two friends they could have the rest.
In between searching for the papers needed for her Medicaid application and surviving the overpowering stench from forty-three years of cigarette smoke that infused every inch of every item in the trailer with an acrid, choking perfume, I made the twenty-minute drive down Route 143 to Lynnport.
I’d made this journey each time I’ve come to Pennsylvania to visit my mom. Each time I told myself that this would be the time I knocked on the door. And each time I lost my nerve. On this visit, however, when I drove past the house I saw a woman standing not far from where the rose bushes used to grow. I pulled my rented silver Hyundai Sonata toward the side of the road where the long-gone forsythia bushes bloomed bright yellow and walked to the gate held closed by a bungee cord.
“I used to live in this house.”
“What?” The woman couldn’t hear me over the barking of her black boxer. She walked over to me.
“I used to live in this house.”
She opened the gate and introduced me to her partner. She gave me a tour of the garden that changed so much since I’d last seen it. She told me she bought the house because she loved the history of the schoolhouse – a truth that created an instant connection. It was always the story of the schoolhouse that made me love living there. She brought me inside. My playroom, my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom were gone. The interior was a great open space. My mother’s bedroom was an office and the room we used for storage – the old barber shop once lined with mirrors – was now the bedroom it always should have been. Yet even with all the many changes, remnants remained – the energy of the schoolhouse was still there. So was the blackboard from my play room – preserved and hung with love in a wooden frame.
The dark attic where my mother discovered the Sanford Ink bottles was now a light filled loft. Exposed beams revealed decades old graffiti from students and teachers. The house I lived in until I was sixteen had been transformed into something beautiful. It had become a real home. It was then I knew what I had to do.
I brought two of the bottles full circle and returned them to the Lynnport Schoolhouse – the place where they belonged. The third bottle is filled with ghosts from my childhood and will stay with me.
As the year’s go by memories of my decade in the old Lynnport Schoolhouse become blurry. But like the bottle says, Sanford’s Premium ink never fades.
True confession. I ate an entire pint of fig, balsamic and mascarpone ice cream for dinner a few Sundays ago.
Ten minutes earlier I placed a reasonably sized portion in a small bowl and sat down to stream a few episodes of The Good Place. But on my way to Netflix I made the mistake of stopping by CNN. There was, of course, breaking news.
I know it was only two weeks ago but right now we’re living in the Upside Down and it’s difficult to keep track of the drama and the tragedies. To the best of my recollection either North Korea had launched a second test of short range missiles, the man living in the people’s house had said something ill-advised, offensive and untrue or someone decided to take a semi-automatic rifle and mow down a group of beautiful humans.
Whatever CNN’s bright red, all caps banner headline was screaming at me on that particular Sunday I remember reading it, mumbling something slightly stronger than ‘screw it’, and then grabbing the pint of ice cream from the freezer and a spoon of sufficient size with which to freeze my emotions.
Yoga is not about building a better butt, or meeting friends, or having a reason to purchase flashy overpriced leggings. All those things might happen if you attend asana classes regularly, but it’s not why we practice. When we practice Yoga we are building a strong foundation of self-regulation from which we can observe our actions and reactions.
But sometimes foundations crack. My self-regulation is crumbling and eating a pint of ice cream for dinner is not my only summer sin.
I’ve taken to screaming at bicyclists who mistake sidewalks for bike paths and then rush past me from behind with nary a warning. Even worse are the ones who speed down the pedestrian tunnel near the train station by my apartment with no thought for the safety of the shuffling, elderly woman wrapped in a coat on a warm August morning pushing her cart full of groceries.
But the salty invectives I hurl are not intended for the two-wheeled speed racers any more than eating a full pint of mascarpone ice cream is about hunger.
They’re simply misplaced reactions to events happening not only in the world but in my personal life. Both my B and I have endured a summer of parental ill health, sudden emergencies and painful loss. At some point in life we all take this journey and I’m grateful to be moving through it with B. Still, while we are each other’s support system the journey is still an intensely personal one and for me it’s one filled with conflict, guilt, lost opportunities and misplaced memories.
And to cope with that internal storm (and because I don’t want to weigh 400 pounds) I yell at bicyclists. I call my sudden rash behavior a ‘stress fart’. Yes, it’s enough to make a yoga teacher blush but so far no one has yelled back and while it doesn’t feel good at the time it feels wonderful after.
That being said, I’m pretty certain there are better methods of self-care during times of extreme stress…hmmm…like a restorative or yin asana practice, a few extra minutes of meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, a long soak in the bathtub…
I landed in Ireland around the same time that peace and reconciliation was breaking out. It was a wonderful time. It coincided with the Celtic Tiger – that period of great economic growth – and people were happy. There seemed to be more space in everyone’s lives. Yoga classes and wellness centers were popping up like the thorny yellow gorse on the Donegal hills in springtime. It seemed everyone was in training to become a massage therapist or reflexologist, myself included. All of this happened in part because the air was temporarily cleared of anger and hate. It was a little easier for hearts to love and for hands to reach out.
Peace and reconciliation can be a far reaching movement that builds communities, as it was in Ireland twenty years ago. It can also be something that we struggle with on our own.
My mother is an elderly woman with whom I did not speak during my entire decade in Donegal. From 1994 until 2010 we were completely and, I was certain, irrevocably estranged. This is something of which I am not proud. As someone who has worked most of her adult life to walk a yogic path, this shames me.
When I did, finally, reach out it was because I believed I was strong enough to be a good child. But despite my dutiful phone calls and yearly visits, the pain I still feel from the real and imagined wounds of my youth prevent me from being the woman I want to be – the daughter all mothers hope for.
Maybe the peace and reconciliation I need in order to shape a compassionate relationship with my mother is, like yoga, a practice. What holds my heart back from giving her the love she craves is this: My mother is a racist who glues herself to Fox news. She does not seem capable of finding the good in people. The good in the world. She is also an elderly woman who lives alone and depends upon social assistance to keep her in the crusty single-wide trailer she has lived in since I left for college over forty years ago.
Two days ago the rent she pays for the land on which her trailer rests was increased by twenty-eight dollars and she is terrified of losing her home.
I will, of course, help her. I will help her because I do believe that people are good. I believe there is good in the world. And I’ll help her because I know that there is no peace without reconciliation.