The Porch

The house stood at the dead end of Grand Avenue. “For Sale,” It said. I didn’t want the house necessarily. I wanted the memories of the childhood more than the malformed nuances of adulthood. Ignorance was bliss and that bliss faded into the backdrop of life away from home. My driveling reminiscence stood hoping for a sensory flashback. Scuffed Red Ball Jets shoes and ham-burg gravy I suppose.

My daughters climbed the stairs with me and we became momentary voyeurs of the place where I learned to walk, ride, and drive. We cased it like burglars. We peered over the window sills. We walked its perimeter. I started pouring out stories like a coffee pot.

I told them how I used to ride and ride my stingray around the house until the roots of the maple trees rose like varicose veins. The path allowed only the hardiest dandelions to survive. Now there was actually green grass circling this “used to be” home. How my mother would have liked to have something to mow back then.

I got on a knee to peer under the wooden overlay of the cement stoop in front. It was under there, crumbling still. Instead of five smooth stones there were five rough steps with bookend brick walls. Those walls held, for a while, the stories of our lives.

In the spring ten children fell out of our winter barracks and sat at ease on those steps. The porch was the place to hang out and watch the world go by…even on a dead end street. It was never dead; more like a holding yard for the neighborhood kids.

My sister Mary sat on the wall and wander around guitar chords. I remember her playing the intro to the Beatle’s Blackbird. Now I hear my son playing it and his fingers pick and point me back to front porch days…

Back when it was a safe zone for tag or home base for hide and seek. Back when my mom blew the police whistle from that porch to call us home for dinner or baths or a head count. Back, when in early August, it was an excellent place to watch lightning bugs and listen to the cicadas sing. Back when neighborhood kids showed up for senseless banter and storytelling from its podium. Back when cigarette butts were flicked into the sidewalk cracks. Back when the porch served as a barricade from water balloons and squirt gun fire and pitches of the little pearly berries from the shrubs out back. Back when it was the backdrop for graduation pictures. Back when tears of sadness, frustration, anger, and happiness had freckled its grainy mortar. Back where hellos and goodbyes were handed out.

It reminded me of my mom. Actually, it was for her I wrote these words down. That porch was like the house’s lap. We crawled up on it to relax and be ourselves. There was a comfort of simply sitting there. Sit and be. Let the wind blow our hair back like she did when she checked for fevers. First the back of her hand against our cheek, then a cool palm on our forehead, then the brushing back of our hair and her pursed lips just above our eyebrows.

Then to climb up on her lap…the best easy chair ever there was. It supported our weighty little bodies. We sat and waited for her strength to be transferred to us. A short visit there lent us security. I know now that her strength and security was often waning. Only God and she knew how many times her cup was empty and yet a little drop of love managed to fall on us… and that was all we needed.

Now that porch is laminated in painted wood, make-up that covers its inner beauty and foundational strength. I feel like I need to go back in cover of darkness to pry up the cover up. Then I could sit on the pitted remembrance of who I was becoming. I imagined all my siblings stuffed on that porch sharing the steps and the one lap we all had in common.

Advertisements

Pink Teddy Bear

She had flushed pink cheeks and her eyebrows wouldn’t sit still. Emily’s eyes, fixed on mine, wore anxiety and a shade of sad. Their teddy bear was dead, the one that connected my dying mother to my living six year old child. She couldn’t look at it. The bear she had covered with some of my work uniforms in our walk-in-closet. Emily’s guilt and grief were bound tight. Emily had forgotten to put the bear back up on her bed and Charlie our dog mangled it. Another loss.

The bear had been in the care of my mother until she passed away last year. The shaggy pink bear was looked after quite nicely by my mother. She made sure to send messages through me to Emily about how the bear was behaving. I told my mother how Emily was behaving.

IMG_0005

There is an album on my desk filled with written thoughts and poems and stories about my mother. On the cover is my mother holding the bear. It is one of my favorite photos of her. Emily sees the photo whenever she passes my desk. I reassured Emily that it was going to be okay. Her sadness awakened in me a sleeping grief. We shared it for a while.

I sat on the edge of our bed as Barbara spoke tenderly to Emily.

“I’m sorry you are so sad. It hurts doesn’t it? You know what? Grandma is babysitting the bear now. They are together.” Barbara, mother, kept speaking comfort and assurance to a little fractured heart. Mine.

Her words came from a mother place. Emily was comforted and I was too.

*

A year has passed since my mother died. It was early on a Monday morning. The all night vigil had taken its toll and I had fallen asleep. My head rested on the edge of the bed next to her womb. I woke to find her birthed into a greater light. One day I will awake and see her again, but not yet.

A Christmas Card From Above: In Cursive

She Scotch-taped them as they arrived.

The threshold couldn’t hold them all.

Between the living room and kitchen

the Christmas cards hung open like parted lips.

 

Postal employees carried double heavy loads then.

Stamps were less than a dime

and tongues licked each one.

They arrived all through December.

 

To me it was like any collectors dream.

I used to collect beer and pop bottle caps

and keep them in an old Maxwell house coffee tin.

On occasion they fell out and stood in ordered battalions.

 

The cards lined up too and I thought

my mother was a curator of sorts.

She put them up for display

and passersby would thumb them open.

 

Beyond the Currier and Ives images,

beyond the glittered Santa beards,

beyond the bright star over the Savior

were cursive words at the bottom inside.

 

Greetings from around town and around the country,

hand written in indelible ink from indelible friends.

Aunts and uncles too, grandma’s and grandpa’s

shaken scrawl etched in the lower corner.

 

She sent them out too,

Her cursive swirled inside like flurries.

Her words beautiful, quiet,

and ending always in ‘Love comma.’

 

This Christmas eve I pray for snow.

I pray that the God of ‘Nothing is Impossible’

would send me snowflakes in the wind

like my mother’s handwriting.

IMG_0005

To Infinity and Beyond! I know, I keep using that phrase…Thank you Buzz Lightyear

Eternity is not infinity.

It is not a long time.

It does not begin at the end of time.

It does not run parallel to time.

In its entirety it always was.

In its entirety it will always be.

It is entirely present always.

Wendall Berry

p. 47 Leavings, Poems

We have a six-year-old sassafras. Her name is Emily. Whenever my wife or I tell her we love her she one-ups us. The other night when I tucked her in I said I loved her she fired back “I love you more!”  How can a little tart exude such power over my heart? She also responded “I love you to the moon and back!” many times. But the reverberation that catches my mind and heart is:

“I love you infinity!”

Followed by

“I love you infinity, infinity, infinity!”

Really? Wow! This little pip-squeak set in time, my time, to blow my mind and detonate my heart. In my estimation that equals a thousand of Ann Voskamp’s gifts. I am grateful.

Buzz Lightyear, from the Pixar movie Toy Story, embossed my frontal cortex a while ago with his intellectually suicidal statement:

“To infinity…and beyond!”

I was talking to a friend recently about the infinitesimal real estate us humans can inhabit. Think about it. Only 29% of the earth is land. Humans can merely ascend so high before running out of oxygen. We can only dive so deep before the pressure wrings us like a rag. We are walled in. We are essentially tucked in a linen closet of the universe. Why?

Dear God,

I don’t want to be unthankful, but why are we so fenced in? Is it because we couldn’t handle a little gardening? Is it because we are in time out?

Sincerely, Jerry

Dear Jerry,

My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts. Do you want me to start the “where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid” speech? Listen, the uninhabitable vast spaces are there to keep you wondering about Me, like you are presently. Simply look at these areas as room to grow acreage. Seriously, I didn’t hem in the universe so you would consider that there is always room to grow. I put bright and colorful creatures in the deepest, darkest places of the ocean so you would ponder my intention. So you might ask Me why I splash shadows with frivolous bright colors for no human to see. You will never be satisfied on earth just like that C. S. Lewis thought that has wrinkled your brain. You are ultimately made for another world. Although the world is busted up, I have given you the sense to take in what I have revealed thus far with awe and gratitude. There are gifts, way more than a thousand, but you can start counting and thanking. I like that.

About that little tart of yours, I dare you to love her back…infinity, infinity, infinity.

I love you…infinity,

God

Under The Sycamore. A Place of Grateful Rememberance

It is tall

and stretches to the heavens.

It is solitary and strong.

 

The leaves unfurl late

and wither early

with fashion and grace.

 

They dangle around

the solstice

like light green earrings.

 

Its bark breaks

at the hips

and peels

to reveal a smooth

decoupage of earthy pastels.

Tan and light brown on ivory

are the shades of color

I long to climb.

Those branches are beyond reach

and slippery as silk.

I will look up through the freckled limbs though,

and see clouds passing

like time,

and sky, blue, unending

like a patch of eternity.

 

What remains of my mother will be placed deep

into the humus to compost

with shards of fallen bark.

Death on death will serve nutrients into the roots.

I am thankful for place,

this place.

I will visit

and till memories into the soil

and grow up

again and again.

Remains of a Day. Part Three of Three.

After a prayer, it was time to set the cloth bag into the earth. Margie reached over and down as far as she could and released. The sound of air being displaced was like when someone fogs their eyeglasses to clean them. Then there was a thud followed by tubular bass echoes. Marge put her hand to her mouth and we all looked at one another in surprise. “Sorry Mom,” said Marge. Then laughter erupted and poured into the hole right on top of our mother. It was the most beautiful sacrilege.

I bent over in hysterics and felt jettisoned back to the dinner table when we were all a little silly. We sat on unmatched chairs and the window sill around a fully leafed table. Mom’s spot was always on the western end of the food deck.  We always sang the Johnny Appleseed song like the national anthem and some of us must have heard “Plaayyeeee Ballll!” Things would happen. Things always happened. We reached for and spilled the whole milk. We retched up and spewed the whole milk. Someone often would end up on the floor curled like a baby and wishing he or she had worn a diaper. My mother, like an umpire behind the plate, would make the calls with authority:

“Sit still!”

“Oh, straighten up!”

“Oh honestly!”

“Someone sop it up!”

Then we would sit still and straight and wait. We sat with elbows on the table, like Judas in the ceramic “Last Supper” that hung off kilter above us. Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” would hush our immaturity, for a moment. We looked at our plates. We held cottage cheese on a spoon in front of pursed lips. We smirked at each other as our peripheral vision looked on the west end of the food deck. There she was, bless her, mouth open to receive a shovel full of gruel, and…she swung and missed yet again and a blob would roll down her front. Then ten umpires would resist the urge to yell with authority…”Strike!” She would mumble a disappointment and we would relax, smirk, wink, and sign to each other that another traditional meal is in the books.

One hundred years from now sounds of laughter will still work its way out of this piece of earth.

We all picked up a shard of sycamore bark and tossed our piece into the hole like a rose. We took turns shoveling the moist earth in and on her ashes. Then Mike, my brother in law, served again as grave-master. He came back from the shed with a tamper. A tool with a long handle and on the end was a square foot of iron which was flat on the bottom. It was heavy and compressed the orange soil. We laughed again as the symbolism of a son-in-law interacting with a mother-in-law was displayed in a vignette of a two-handed pound down.

More dirt was layered, more tamped down, and more tampered with holy, happy moments of goodbyes. My mother’s “Sentimental Journey” had taken on a transcendent ambiance and all her children were thankful.

In a message threaded to all of us siblings my sister Marge said it aptly;

I would like to add we had a good, sharing time, and placed Mom “carefully” into her resting place. You were all there in spirit with us, and now we must move on and make Mom proud of her children.

Yes, and a hundred years from now we will be with her.

Remains of a Day. Part Two of Three

Throughout the day, April 27th 2012, my mother’s 83th birthday, a thread wove through an e-mail my brother Pete sent to his siblings. He attached some thoughtful words of a scene from the past. In it he recalls an interaction with our mother. In essence, he wrote that he basically wanted a “do over”. Many siblings chimed in with similar regrets, and I thought of many personal scenes I wish I could change as well. But Peter’s piece didn’t end in regret; in fact he spelled out what most of us realized as we stepped into parenthood and beyond. Our mother endured so much yet love kept coming on strong.

My sister Mary added a thread to his;

And with each passing event, it’s only natural for us feel the effects of what happens, sometimes to the very deepest core of our being. And each time, it changes us. It’s the process. God and His wisdom created it to be so. And for that, I (we) are thankful.
Mom’s ashes will be in a perfect spot. At that tree that all of us have seen, commented on. Ashes to nurture life, just like all those millions and millions of events that nurtured our souls.

Then more threads were added throughout the day:

 To know that she was always right there to pick up our pieces of heartache, when her heart was breaking too, was truly a blessing. Sister Pat.

 So many memories …Sister Ellen

One of the most impacting things to me is the times I would visit her and we would sit in silence and I always felt bad.  I felt like we should be talking it up!!  She would always say to me “it’s enough just being together”. Sister Carol

Rick and I had a Manhattan last night and made a toast to mom. Wish we could have been there in person. Sister Barb

I want to say I missed all of my siblings last night…I got called into work early, and so as I reflected on life, I was feeding the ungrateful and impatient masses. I miss Mom more than words can express, and I am very weary of losses and illness. Brother John

She wept when I wept and she smiled when I smiled.  Brother Peter

Yes, Happy Birthday Mom. And as you watch today from the Heavens, kiss each of our tears. We love you.  Sister Mary.

All my mother’s children are grown with grown children of their own. Generations now with her DNA tucked in their physiology walk around in space and time putting dents in the world around them. My parents started it all sixty some years ago and the photographer at the reunions has to stand farther and farther back to fit us into the frame. As my oldest brother Rob and I stood under the sycamore he put his arm around my shoulder and the weight of reunion rested there; it was like a paper weight of sorts, keeping us from blowing too far away from the shelter of family.

One hundred years from now when my parent’s genes have thinned out a bit there will be slices of all of us scattered putting dents in space and time.

Remains of a Day. Part One of Three.

My mother’s ashes were carefully poured into several small popcorn paper bags. The bags were evenly divided into two mom-made Christmas stockings. One with the name “Mom” and a small jingle bell dangling and the other with the name “Russ” with a small jingle bell dangling. Russ was her second husband who preceded her in death. The two stockings were placed inside a cloth bag with giraffe skin material and a print of a giraffe on one side. My niece mentioned that mom would have done the same thing. Mom would triple bag the fragile stuff when she worked as a cashier.

One hundred years from now someone might dig up two jingle bells.

Right underneath the sycamore tree that my mother loved sat a three to four foot hole sixteen inches in diameter. My brother-in-law Mike prepared it earlier in the day and next to it was piled moist orange earth. The bonfire was a couple of yards away and the wind lightly sprinkled ash on us with a scent of carbon dated air. We gathered around and Margie held the weighted sack. There were eleven people circled, but I felt a much larger crowd, like when we took the “Big Picture” at family reunions.

One hundred years from now a reunion might take place around a celestial mountain lake.

I read a poem about the tree that stood over us. The sycamore stood over one hundred feet tall. My mother would often ask my sister Marge to take pictures of it. Mom requested to be placed under its shadow and embraced by its roots. I had come earlier in the day to sit under it, walk around it, and look at it from a distance. Its grandeur and uniqueness was breathtaking. Maybe in an odd sense it took my mother’s breath away. At its base there were ridges, grooves, and gray/black terrain that gives way to smooth ivory skin as it reached to the sky. My wife said to me that my mother’s skin was beautiful, even after her death.

One hundred years from now many branches will have fallen and maybe this monument of God’s artistry will be gone. Maybe this memorial will fall away from all memory.

I Picked Up My Mom. The last time was a month ago.

She was in a thick Tupperware like container.  Black.  The black box.  I thought of the NTSB.  Was this the size of the unit found after an accident?  If I were to plug it in would it give the reasons surrounding her death?

I reached to pull her out of the funeral home gift bag.  There was no crinkly paper sticking out of the top.   How heavy are ashes?  The box was heavier than I imagined. The thought must have been the influence of too many movies.  I remember scenes where ashes were dusted on gardens, into oceans, and over cliffs where particles spread in the breeze.  It took both my hands to lift her.

In the end a full hug embrace helped her stand.  I felt bones under her skin.  Now she was contained.  Were these the remnants of the skeletal frame which was once upon in time?

Marge asked me how I was “doing.”

The black box sat between us like a punctuation mark.

I asked Marge how she was “doing.”

She showed me the giraffe material.  It was the spotty skin of a giraffe like the spots I counted on my mother’s arm.  Her ashes would be poured into cloth skin.  No Tupperware.

I thought of all the tears.  It was a small room that couldn’t contain them.  Now, a month later, I regret not sealing those drops in Tupperware. They have since evaporated.  Oh, to pour them in over top of my mother’s remains.  All our salt water sprinkled to help preserve her memory a bit longer.

 

“You have seen me tossing and turning through the night.  You have collected all my tears and preserved them in your bottle! You have recorded every one in your book.”  Psalm 56:8  The Living Bible.

“Sorrow, like the river, must be given vent lest it erode its bank.”  Earl A. Grollman

 

“I Picked up Mom Today”

That is all I saw in the message from my sister Marge.  For a millisecond the recent events were suspended above me.  My hypothalamus wrinkled.  Beads of sweat started stringing together in the crease around my neck.  My hormones told each other it was a false alarm before my brain kicked in.  Mom is dead.

The full message read:  “I picked up Mom today at Langeland Funeral Home and she is safely nestled in the living room pending her burial.”  “She is” was what Marge wrote.  Her remains were in an urn nestled in a “living” room.  Had Marge lost it?  Did she forget that mom went bye-bye to the sweet bye and bye?  We all had sent my mother off with respect and honor and tears and mourning.   Did she not know that my mother was not contained in a little box?  Mom was outside of it.  “Margie, get a grip.”

Seriously, not one of my siblings questioned her sanity.  Neither did I.  We all entered in to what appeared to be a delusional conversation.  It was not weird, because we had a grief clause.  Grief is lawless and is no respecter of persons.  So my mother’s ashes were her to us.  If anyone would tell us differently we would pull out our grief clause.  We would either wave it in their face of insensitivity or hand it gently to their sincere concern.   Those who have been under this lawless dominion would never question our break from reality.  Contrary wise, they would enter in with grace and comfort.  They certainly did.

If ashes had DNA, my mom’s were in a box in Marge’s living room, nestled.  What an appropriate word.  Nestled.  It is a transitive and intransitive verb.

Transitive:  comfortable position; to settle into a position that feels comfortable, warm, and safe, or to lay a part of the body in such a position.

Intransitive:  be secluded; be in a sheltered or secluded place.

Thank God her ashes were not in a tray.  Presumably, they were nestled near the sofa.  I wondered how it would go if I had been the one to pick her up and nestle her?  She would not last long.  Buford the bloodhound would knock her clean off the coffee table with his bull whip tail.  The kids might mistake the urn for a fish food container and feed the guppies.  Someone might lift her up to dust underneath and her ashes to ashes would all fall down.

Mom and Marge, I mean neither of you any disrespect.  I beg you in urn-est to forgive my adolescent imagination.  Did I just write that?  Sheesh!

Now I feel terrible.  Terrible because I know one recent morning my sister walked past the living room to make some coffee and stopped short.  She saw my mom sitting there and emotions gushed from her ducts.  She thought she could keep mom in a box.  Mom’s ashes might as well have been rubbed on her forehead on a Wednesday.  Our Lenten grief pasted on her until Easter morning.  Resurrection then is her one hope of reunion.  He is risen.  Marge will rise.