Monthly Archives: May 2022

Mourning Moon

For the last week, I have anguished over the proper way to acknowledge a grief to which I have no actual entitlement.

I have walked this road before now.  When my mother-in-law died in 2013, I felt both bereft and grim, as though my desperate efforts to forestall her decline into dementia had so wholly failed that I caused her demise.  In my then-husband’s anguish at the loss of his mother, he snapped that I had no right to feel so bad.  I did not lash back at him; I understood that grief manifests as anger.

But I had to concede my once-removed status.  I retreated into a lonely shell.  I sat at my computer, raised my hands, and typed my sorrow onto the blank screen.  Joanna remained as real to me as before her death, as real as my short three years as Ruth to her Naomi allowed.  Though I had no strong claim to heartache, still, it haunted me.

Now I find myself in the throes of that strange feeling again.  A man has died, whose full name I cannot publicly acknowledge because my ethics prohibit that disclosure.  I became acquainted with him when the California law firm in whose back office I spend my work-a-day life helped him become conservator to his wife.  I sat in the conference room and explained the process to them; she with her lovely, vague smile, and he with his furrowed brow and the heavy burden of her declining state.  She reminded me of my mother-in-law.  My instinct to protect her prompted a strong diligence to which her husband responded.  He understood my need to bolster his effort to make his sweet lady’s life as quiet and orderly as possible.

A few months after we completed the case, the lady died.  Her husband sent an email to tell me what happened.  I studied the words and sensed the sadness entwined in them.  An urgent desire to give him something to which he could cling for comfort overcame me.  I logged into my personal account and sent him a link to the homage which I had written to my mother-in-law upon her death.  A few days later, he sent his thanks; and after that, for the next year, he began to follow my current blog.

He often commented.  He sent short emails in which he mentioned a particular turn of phrase which appealed to him.  In reply to one shamefully self-pitying passage, he wrote a lengthy message of thanks for my kindness to him and his wife.  I began to look forward to his communiques.  He seemed to appreciate my writing, to see something behind my simple stories, to catch the obliquely phrased messages and the quietly embedded double entendres.

Two months ago, he stopped.  His silence felt ominous; and ultimately, I learned of his death.  Now I find myself again immersed in secondhand grief.  I have no right to this bereavement, and yet, it weighs upon me.  I don’t even know his grown children.  I have no one with whom to share my sense of a terrible rending in life’s fragile fabric.

This morning, I went outside with my small camera and tried to get pictures of the soft glint of the rising sun on the surface of the setting moon.  I did not expect much to come of my effort, but the sight of the orb high in the southern sky tantalized me:  The delicacy of its curve; the promise of its distant shimmer; the crisp white against the vivid blue of the summer sky.  I had to try.

Not until I came inside and loaded the few feeble photographs onto my laptop did I realize that a bird had flown through the frame.   With my focus on the faraway moon, the blurry image of the bird could almost be a speck of dust on my lens.  I stared at the picture for a long time.  I suddenly thought about Tom, husband of Fran.  I closed my eyes for just a moment, and recalled the last time I saw him, standing in my office with a mask covering the lower half of his face.  He had held my gaze with bright, glistening eyes as he thanked me for being kind to them.    

I hope in death he did not suffer.  I hope he simply laid his head down and let his spirit soar towards the waiting form of his beloved. 

It’s the twenty-first day of the one-hundred and first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Clouds

No matter where you drive in the California Delta, Mt. Diablo watches over you.  I see her when I leave for work, steady and serene to the southwest.  As I cross the bridge at evening time, she spans the horizon to my right.  The circle on which I live changes my perspective of her; from near, to far; from dim to bold.  Her constant presence never flags, though the broad appearance of her countenance shimmers, shines, and shades in surreal relief as I drive through the twists and turns of life along the rivers.

This evening’s chill drifted through the open window as I turned on Jackson Slough, a rough sort of levee road between the highway and my own stretch of the San Joaquin.  From habit I checked across the wide expanse towards Brentwood, a town across the Antioch Bridge but closer as the red-tailed hawk flies.  There she rose, dark and serene, our eternal protectress, Mt. Diablo.  I paused alongside an entryway to a vineyard, watching the skim of rain above the peak.  Where I stood no rain had yet begun; but I could see it there, on the mountaintop, billowing clouds and a misty veil.  I watched for a long minute.  I lowered the window, raised the only camera at hand, my cell phone, and took four frames.

Later I studied the photographs, one blurry, two dark, and the last halfway decent for such a rudimentary eye.  As darkness fell, and the air grew downright cold, I watched the skies for signs of a storm.  The winds held quiet.  Only the slight ripple of a whispered breeze fluttered the leaves of the overhead oak.  I waited, listening to the call of a settling dove and the skitter of a small creature underfoot.  After a few minutes, I drew the door closed, and went inside where a warm woolen shawl and a steaming cup of tea awaited me.

It’s the tenth day of the one-hundred and first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”, 1970

The Tears of a Motherless Daughter

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley first gave birth on 27 June 1947 and last on 25 December 1959.  In the intervening 12 years, the shape of her life morphed in painful spasms.  Through nearly thirty-nine years of married life until her death 1985, my mother cradled sons with broken limbs; endured fractures at her husband’s hands; agonized over piles of unpaid bills; and waited outside of hospital rooms and courtrooms for news which could send her world into a tailspin.  She stood beside one grandchild’s grave.  She buried her mother.  With her sister, she made the agonizing decision to put their once-leonine father in a nursing home.   She stood with her lawyer brother-in-law despairing over the ruination of her household and the sad reality of a legal separation which could bring at least temporary calm.

I first understood the depth of the complexity of my mother’s life on her wedding anniversary when I was about five years old.  My oldest sister spent the evening making a cake with which to surprise our parents.  They had gone out to a rare meal away from their eight children, probably with my aunt and uncle.  My siblings must excuse my description of this memory; I know how painful it might be.  As evening drew to a close, my sister heard the sound of my father’s car in the driveway.  She pushed us all into the sunroom at the back of the house, closed the French doors behind the giggling group of us, and turned out the lights.  The lopsided cake stood on the breakfast room table just feet from where we hid, waiting to spring out and cry, “Happy Anniversary!”

My father had consumed far too much alcohol as usual.  I do not know what angered him, but he entered screaming.  In a mad and terrifying moment, he threw my mother across the table.  Her body shattered the glass doors.  The shards showered over her children.

My sister Ann responded quickly, running to my mother, throwing the light switch.  One of the older boys must have darted past my father and run next door to a neighbor who called the police.   My father went to jail and my mother to the hospital.  My clearest memory of that night is sitting on a step with a policeman, who asked me, What did your Daddy do to your Mommy, honey?  The chinstrap of his hat fascinated me.  I kept my eyes on the bobbing fabric as I answered.  My words have faded but I still recall the warmth of his responding hug.

But the dark times and the frightening hours find counterbalance in the warmth of my mother’s laugh and the cleverness of the plans she laid for us when times allowed.  She worked at a nearby shopping center in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  On Friday nights, she would walk home with a gallon of vanilla ice cream and a jar of Gold Brick.  At some point, our paternal grandmother gave us her black-and-white television.  Friday became TV night in our household.  We ate ice cream and gathered at my mother’s feet, watching the flickering screen, growing drowsy as the night waned.  I’d often fall asleep with one arm around my mother’s legs and my head resting against her knee.  

I can’t hide the fact of our tumultuous childhood.  After one particularly difficult episode — and by difficult, I mean, terrifying and chaotic — my mother left the house.  I don’t know where she went but she did not come home for many hours.  One of my sisters convinced us that we should clean the house to make our mother want to return.  We scrambled to comply.  I remember waxing the top of a dresser, laying out a lace doily, and arranging little vases on top of it.  I put clover flowers and dandelions in those tiny ceramic vessels.  I must have been seven or eight.

My mother learned to drive at forty-two.  She died at fifty-eight.  When I do the math, my mind boggles:  She only legally operated a mother vehicle for sixteen years.  She reminisced once about a driving lesson early in her marriage, either by her husband or her father.  She claimed to have ploughed the car into the fence of the Gillespie, Illinois cemetery.  I will never know the truth of the story, but when we visited her parents and walked down the cemetery street, I imagined my mother sitting in that car, squeezing her eyes shut and murmuring I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  

My mother taught me to drive.  I took a class at the public high school to get the insurance discount, but learned from my mother’s tutelage.  I’m not a good driver, but my failings reflect years of sloppiness, not the result of my mother’s poor instruction.  She also taught me to crochet, knit, embroider, and iron.  She tried to teach me to sew but I never quite succeeded in mastering that art.  Anything decent that I can undertake came from my mother, from making Schmarren to singing lullabies.  Like my mother, I consider myself hilarious and often tell the same stories.  I laugh on my own punchlines.   I’ve often been told that I’m not as funny as I think but I amuse myself, like my mother before me.

A dozen times a day, still, thirty-six years later, I wish I could call my mother.  I realized this morning that I have lived more than half of my life as a motherless daughter.  I want to know what she would think of my tiny house; whether she would advise me to put doors on my new cabinet; how she would handle life’s thornier problems which besiege me. I long to show her the test results which keep landing in my inbox and talk about their scarier portent.  I need her to sit on my newly refurbished deck and admire the gardenia bush that I’m cultivating in her honor.  I yearn for the touch of the long brown fingers of her Lebanese hand and the feeling of her arms on my trembling, weary body.

Yet I had my mother for thirty years longer than many have theirs.  I take those thirty years and wrap them around me as I sit listening to the wind howling across the meadow.  Yesterday I dusted the Melmac dishes which came from my mother’s house and the Fire King fruit cups which my mother and I found at a junk store fifty years ago.  I touched the edge of one bowl, running my finger along a little chipped spot.  My mother held this, I marveled.  Maybe some speck of her still lingers here.  I studied the delicate bowl for a long minute, then reached to put it on the shelf beside the little yellow Oven-Ware dish that she also gave me.  Outside my window, the sun shone and the breeze lifted.  For reasons I could not comprehend, my heart suddenly felt lighter.

It’s the eighth day of the one-hundred and first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Flying

The first time I crossed the San Mateo Bridge headed west, my car’s blue tooth automatically answered the phone just as I reached the peak of the expanse.  My hands gripped the wheel.  I willed my eyes forward.  The voice of a man with whom I had had a short and undefined relationship broke the steely silence.  

How much will you pay to ship these items you want, he demanded to know.  

I can’t talk right now, I gasped.  I’m flying. 

I hit the red button on the dash to cut the call and wrenched the wheel back to the middle of the lane just as a semi blared its horn to pass.  Beyond the cables, a wide ripple of the water skimmed away, towards the City, towards the Golden Gate and then, ever westward to the sea.

Today I crossed that bridge again.  As I passed the unstaffed toll gate and ticked the electronic tally, I spied a big ship making its way from some dock towards the underside of the bridge.  The freighters look massive churning down the San Joaquin; here the waters dwarf their girth.  At home, from the levee road, I can snap a cell phone shot or a few minutes of video as the heavy vessels chug by our marina.  Their massive decks fill my viewfinder.  From the San Mateo Bridge, the boats look like a child’s bath toy.

At the pinnacle of the expanse, I glanced to my right.  The great stretch of water kept its silent counsel.  Then my descent began, and without warning I found myself safely slowing to exit on the other side.  The steady thrum of northbound traffic on the 101 rose into the evening air to my left.  The urban sprawl spanned out across the peninsula to my right.  I guided my car into the orderly flow of rush hour’s steady stream as though my normal commute includes all these swiftly moving vehicles instead of complacently grazing sheep on a levee embankment.

Much has changed in the four years between my first trip across that bridge and this evening’s hotel stay before tomorrow’s appointment with a neuro-surgeon.  I’ve gained twenty pounds, for starters.  My grey hair curls more tightly and protests the barrage of chemicals with which I strive to turn back time.  I travel more lightly these days, with an Italian leather backpack, my laptop, one wool shift, and a pair of cotton leggings.  This trip could probably have been done by video if I had insisted.  But this surgeon and I share a name with only one letter’s difference, a fact she called to my attention at our first virtual meeting.  That seems enough justification to accept her invitation for a personal conference.

So I will try to  sleep despite the unfamiliar sounds of nightlife outside my window and the patter of feet above me.  In the morning, I will do some stretches and load my muscles with too much over-the-counter Naprosyn.  I’ll grouse around the complementary continental breakfast, then make my way down El Camino Boulevard to Palo Alto, don a regulation mask, and sign myself into the Neuro-Science waiting room.  By and by, a cheerful patient tech will come to take my vitals, and I will assure him, her, or them of my continued existence.  They will smile but nonetheless demand proof of life, which I will obligingly provide.

It’s the fourth day of the one-hundred and first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The San Mateo – Hayward Bridge