Are you familiar with the book, “Everyone Poops?” We read it to our children, who listened with scatological glee. We’d occasionally quote the book, a jovial reference to what we’d each do, hopefully, every day. We’d pass a plop of dog poop on the sidewalk, “everyone poops, even dogs.”
On this tender gray day, Catherine is home from school with a raft load of laundry, inverted socks and her blanket, sheets, jackets, jeanjeanjeans and t-shirts, waiting for the wash/rinse cycle. I get to decide how much of this mountain I will fold. I get to decide, now that she is big and making her own decisions, aligning the inseams of her own leggings, picking, hopefully, the flecks of a tissue left in a pocket, wet little Rice Krispy’s all over a fleece pullover. I get to decide.
What we give to the earth, gives back.
Monday is the anniversary of my mother’s passing, now, six years ago on a brilliant clear day in Escanaba. The leaves remind me, Janet reminds me, the garlic patch ready for planting reminds me, the ripening quince remind me, that it is time to mark the anniversary of her death. I do that by getting on my knees in, as Pete Seeger sings, this old brown earth.
I swung a pitchfork of compost over the fresh vegetable scraps I put on the pile this morning and thought about how we all die. Everyone dies, I heard. Everyone dies. Amy Oscar writes about an ongoing conversation with her mother, who is in the act of dying, slowly, of how important it is to talk about dying, not let it be hidden and thus feared, held at further-than-arm’s-length in hopes of keeping it away. We all die. And the fall season is such a visceral reminder of that.
“It’s reassuring for the dying to know that they will not be forgotten. That we are willing to continue to be in relationship with them. It’s important, also, for them to know that we will be okay – and that they have our blessing when they’re ready to go.”
– Amy Oscar
I wonder if the way I remember my mother is the way my daughter will remember me, when it comes to my turn to die. Will Janet text her a love note? Will Catherine fold her wash leaning on the dryer; hummed into a quiet pause by the whirr of the washer, her basement dry, I hope, a good place to think?
I don’t forget my mother at all. She is here with me in every gesture. I try my best not to nudge my glasses up my nose like she did, or clear my throat with a similar sound. I avoid her annoying habit of using miles of paper towels in her dotage after a lifetime of vigilant cloth dishtowel use, thus no paper waste. I aim to hold in me what I hold dear of her, laughter, voracious reading, and long strides on many walks. I aim to hold her pleasure of being outside, sitting out in the evening, arranging her pots of geraniums, and always offering a hand in greeting to whomever she met. Her oft quoted maxim, “If someone is without a smile, give them one of yours” runs in our family blood. We are a social lot.
The gray zone of her memories, the places she refused to go in discussion, the way she harbored sorrow-all truly unfathomable to me as her daughter, but recognizable as her way of coping with the burdens she shouldered. These habits I work daily to live beyond. I sat at the table last night with Catherine and a guest, talking about a topic I would never ever have spoken of with my mother and felt new ground expanding before me. Going further than my mother ever went with me.
Isn’t that what we each do, generation upon generation? Our elders set forth a set of limits within which they excel. We see those as the near reach of what we hope to surpass?
I miss my mother daily. She is with me in every hug and kiss I plant on the people I love, living through me, going further than she ever went in real life. She is in my skin, of my skin, and of the skin of my children, there, smiling with them.
It is the ache of relationship. This morning, JNB came home from his weekly swim club with news that one of the older guys in the group had a stroke and won’t be returning to the pool. The inevitable risk of falling in love with life by being in relationship, even with a weekly date at the pool or with your parent-the one who zipped your soft neck skin in to your snowsuit by mistake or taught you how to handle the delicate load, is that one day, one of you will die. And we are left with the responsibility of memory, noticing how we carry them forward.
Pete Seeger composed This Old Brown Earth in honor of the death of a friend in 1958. He requested that it be sung at his funeral. I love his wavering voice. There is lots of room for memory in his song, lots of room to shed a few tears, and a tune that I can carry outside in to the yard, where I will dig holes in the ground, drop in single cloves of garlic and whisper gratitude to the brown earth for my mother who got me here and for all I know who, like Amy’s mother, quaver at the threshold between here and there.
Talk to your loved ones.
Talk to them, and listen to what they say, in words and gesture.
Take from them what you will.
For more words on death, if that is what you ache for, head over to Modern Loss, where Janet has written some good reading.
“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
— Alice Walker
via Lisa Sonora this week.