Just An Ordinary Day, Sweetie-pie…

Some days, I just want to talk to my mother.

Not for any particular reason, but like before she was gone when we would just chat about everything and everyone and the real meaning, irony, truth, and humor that was under the surface of small talk, would just work its way out like the soreness out of a tired, overused muscle. Missing her is normal, I know. I’m not sad or angry, feeling needy or anything out of the ordinary. I guess that’s the point. My ordinary self, misses the ordinary conversations with my ordinary mom, in an extraordinary way, particularly today.

We develop all kinds of bonds in the course of a life time, some dramatic enough for a page-turning novel, some secret enough to speak of only in whispers and dreams, some drab enough to almost go unnoticed, and some angry enough to never utter a final goodbye or word of forgiveness. But the bond I had with my mother is irreplaceable, and I can only rely on memories of what she used to say, how she used to leave me questioning, inspired, and laughing. She always left me with just enough gumption to move me passed the moment and more able to carry on. I think that’s it. The same woman that could make me cry like a baby, piss and moan like a rolling-eyed teenager, and fire me up like a warrior against injustice, could also make me laugh ‘till I peed my pants. We had more and more of the latter in the last years of her life, both the peeing and laughter.

There is no remedy for the loss of a mother. It’s sort of like the loss of elasticity in the skin. You can replenish the collagen, well sort of, with a multitude of expensive creams and wonder-products, or go all the way to the point of surgically stretching those sags and wrinkles into a plastic duck face, but nothing really replaces the skin of youth. It’s gone.

When mother is gone, so is the one person that knew everything about you, things you didn’t even remember about yourself. That may not be the case with everyone, but that is the truth of my relationship with my mother. She held my secrets, hopes, desires, sadness and failures, joys and moments of triumph in her unconditional mother’s love and understanding; my complete, complicated history went with her to the grave. Where does a daughter go from there?

My husband has been up since early this morning doing his (well-trained since his 1960s youth) Saturday morning cleaning. Humming, banging things, running the vacuum cleaner, scrubbing sinks like a perky bride in her newly won home. Christ! I just want to smack him upside the head! After a long week of averaging twelve hours of work a day, I can hardly get my tired legs to carry me up the stairs, and he wants to play Ozzie and Harriet! His energy level is draining the last drop of life out of my fading spirit.

My mother would say to give him a piece of my mind; that he should be quiet and let me sleep, but of course she’d say that in a much more sarcastic and sharp-edged tongue. She was ‘a clever wife,’ something she told me I lacked. If I say anything, in my ‘could-you-please-consider-my-feelings-right-now-dear, kind of way,’ I’d have an angry man on my hands, who’d throw in the towel (so to speak), and pout and grumble obscenities and curses at me in the yard as he stares at the back fence wondering what he did wrong to deserve such a wife! She’d say; he doesn’t deserve me, but again in words that would cut his throat. He seemed to like that about her. In fact, they seemed to be made of the same cloth, and I realized years ago that I married my mother. Not sure I really wanted to do that because, well, he’s not my mother, nor is my daughter, my son, or my best friend. No one other than one’s ‘mother’ can make-up that unique, intimate relationship that started at the taking of one’s first breath, and lasted through the gentle years, agonized through the rough years, hoped through the leaving years, and rekindled in the final years. It’s a long stretch of life that only one’s mother understands and can endure with a constant, unwavering love.

Just talking to my mom this morning would have let my steam out, got me laughing, stirred up my energy and maybe even given me a bit of old-fashion ‘Saturday morning cleaning’ zest! She certainly had her share of that and would have reminded me of it.

But the mother void is deep and hollow; there is no healing waters left for dipping. ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child….” In fact, I am.

I just don’t like it. Of which she would reply, “Well, that’s just too damn bad, kiddo. Go do a load of laundry. The smell of the fresh clean clothes will make you feel better. And give your ‘little old bride’ a long grocery list and send him to the store. Then grab a nap.” Simple, ordinary advice on an ordinary topic, something I might even say to my own daughter.

But, I’d like to hear it from my mother in her own ordinary voice, with the added, “I love you, sweetie-pie. Everything will be okay.”

cupcakes croppedThe last time my mother visited my home we were readying for my son’s graduation party. She was getting on my last nerve, asking for a dust cloth to dust my shelves, “Why do you keep so many books?” …looking for the broom, begging at every turn for something to do to help. I finally gave her something to do which, I admit with regret, at the time I really didn’t care about. I just wanted to keep her busy and out of my way. I asked her to put some candies, a mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup and a small square of a Hershey’s bar, together to make a graduation cap that was to be perched on top of the cupcakes. It was something I had decided not to do in the last minutes, but since she wouldn’t leave me alone to attend to my all-important, party flair work, I sat her down with that task.

I can still see her now, her frail bend body with a mess of gray hair gone wildly past the days of her prim, put-together style, intensely, carefully putting those little caps together, like it was the most important part of my party statement. Many times she asked for confirmation, “Am I doing this right? Do they look okay?” I’d swing by with a pat and a casual, “Yes, mother, they’re fine. You’re doing great!” And she did do a great job, making something that initially meant so little into something precious and permanently etched in my now ‘mother-less’ mind.

Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.

I would do anything to have her back in my kitchen again, nagging or fussy, talking or laughing or anything; it wouldn’t matter what. But, I would stop and BE with her, recognizing that she was just trying to be a part of my life no matter what I was doing, and be wise enough to know that those would be fleeting moments not to be recaptured and relived.

Such things we take for granted when we have them and suffer without a cure when they are gone. But, wemom at tay graduation move forward in the busyness of life …with maybe a little less gumption and a messier house, and as the years pass by only a faint hint of a mother’s voice reminding us that we are ‘sweetie-pies’ and that “everything will be okay.”

And, of course, it will be…on this and every ordinary day, because of my extraordinary mother who left me with just enough of her spunky-self to carry on without her. Maybe by the time I’m sat down to make little useless candy decorations, I’ll finally be ‘the clever wife’ she hoped I would eventually become.

Meanwhile, Harriet is back from the grocery store, “So much for that nap, mom. I’ll call you later, Love you, bye… forever.”

For Sophia: Upon the Sudden Loss of a Friend….

The ancient live oak on our campus, of which we shared a love for...a sense of shared places...a tree under which our children found their footing and grew under our watchful care.

The ancient live oak on our campus, of which we shared a love for…a sense of shared places…a tree under which our children found their footing and grew under our watchful care.

The mysteries of life continue to be just that, unexplainable. As humans we like answers, proof, reasons, and order. When we are met with situations that seem unfair, illogical, seemingly punishing and heartless, some people cry, some shut down, some pray, some talk, some go inward, some reach, and some just get angry. Some of us feel all those things, and we carry on slowly trying to sort out this cloudy soup of emotions so we can swallow what fits into our beliefs and personal experiences. Are there words? Are there reasons? Does it matter?

What IS remarkable, though, is how these mysteries unite us. We are all subject to the human condition. Poets, artists, religious leaders, and philosophers have continued down through the ages to try to ‘make sense’ of the human condition, and yet…so often it all seems senseless. Perhaps, though, in its mystery and senselessness, its purpose is to unite us in our humanness. Can we turn the cruel dark of mystery into a light that shines into our own human lives and grow from the unanswered questions? Perhaps in time; Time the great healer and thief of our precious lives.

I have unexpectedly lost a friend. Her heart stopped in the prime of her life. I can hear what she would say about all of this. It would probably be sarcastic, yet, because of who she was, it would be steeped in wisdom. She was one of kind; able to be humorous and serious, personal and cavalier, pissed off and calm…all at the same time. She had a way about her that made everyone who knew her, feel like they were her closest friend and confidante. In the fifteen years that we have worked together, she watched my child grow from a skinny little five year-old, to an awkward fumbling boy into a promising young man. There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t tell me how much she loved my son. I, in turn, celebrated at the birth of both of her babies and served as their teacher by the time they reached the fourth grade. Just the fears and frustrations we shared about motherhood alone, are too numerous and personal to retell. She was passionate and dedicated in every aspect of her life, but especially about her children.

She was a woman’s woman, not interested in competing and demoralizing other women; only supportive of our mutual challenges. She and I have shared almost every issue in life from the challenges of marriage, to watching our kids, stumble, fall, a get back up again. We’ve respectively argued about teaching methodologies in our working world, and then stopped to share the agonies and defeat of finding a supportive, yet sexy bra. We’ve shared beers together; miseries, triumphs, personal losses, childhood stories, and complications, but we’ve never shared this. THIS was the only fear that both of us mothers only knew that the other always carried with her, but tried not to speak of. It is one of those mysteries that have no answers.

Often, in our quote-ridden social networks we are bombarded by philosophies and altruistic ideas which suggest that if one keeps giving….there will be a return. This woman gave and gave, like so many dedicated teachers. After 15 years of working with the most difficult, complicated students, including countless hours of paper work and problem solving for each special case, she gave up her personal time, dinners with her family, vacations that may have revived her spirit and given her a little rest. She wasn’t a saint. She was human, and so complained, but she carried on with a kind of quiet dedication that is seldom loud enough to be celebrated with awards and shining moments in the sun. She wasn’t a showy, boastful teacher. She was a teacher whose primary interest was not accolades for herself, but the growth of each of her students. She just kept giving. And now that her heart has stopped, her brain unresponsive, her children motherless, at a tender age of development that requires the guidance of a mother, and her organs about to be shared so another can have a second chance at life, what has that ‘ceaseless giving’ ….given her in return?

In our humanness, surely some of us are asking ourselves these questions. Where is the rhyme and the reason? Why should a giver, and those she loved, lose everything? What light from this darkness can serve to guide us all forward?

Perhaps, again, there are no answers except to apply the questions to our own lives and find own place of peace. It is not for ‘one’ to suggest the answers for all of us. It is only for us humans, united as one, to remember this precious woman and what she brought to our individual lives, and to hold tight to our renewed awareness that we are all vulnerable, all just a step away from incomprehensible mysteries, all capable of carrying on with new purpose and awareness, even without her, and certainly because of her.

Sophia, I know we have said it to each other before. Giggling about something naughty, happily throwing kisses after a brief laugh in the hall, embraced in a moment of sorrow, and sending each other off to our blessed summers with a hug and “I love you, girl!” So, again, I’m sending you off for a blessed eternal summer…to rest…to hover over your own children without others tugging at you…with a hug and an ‘I love you, girl!” But I liked to add, thank you for being a significant part of my life. I didn’t know you were that important to me until you stepped away. But, for me, that’s the light that this mystery of your sudden departure has shed on my life, and perhaps that of all of us who work and struggle together. It’s united us in our humanness and moved us to a higher, spiritual place…together. I think we will all look and listen and appreciate each other a little more now.

And Sophia would say, “OMG, Currie, you’re so right! Isn’t life amazing?.…I mean messed up, but still amazing!”
And I’d say, “No, Sophia, life is a complicated, twisted mystery, but YOU, my dear friend, YOU were amazing.”

She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.