My sister recently sent me a box which included this photo, and numerous things that I had given my mom over the years: photos of my kids, notes, a Mary Cassatt print titled “Young Mother Sewing”, an anthology of plays that includes one of mine. My sister has been slowly dispersing my mom's things since she died last summer. I sat on my living room floor looking at all those artifacts thinking how much they don’t matter, and yet how much they mattered once. There was also a big clump of bubble wrap with something inside. I started to tear at it and I knew. My sister had told she would be sending this along . . . a portion of my mom’s ashes in a Tupperware container.
I had never seen this photo before, it’s Christmas morning, 1963, the wrapping paper confirms. That is me holding up the doll. My mom’s face, obscured, turns toward me. My sister Cheryl is busy to the right. My sister Michele is smiling up at us. The landscape painting, barely visible on the left, was hung prominently in every house my mom lived in. All the living rooms flash through my memory now. My mom’s robe is chenille, common back then, but now harder to find. Shockingly, though she doesn’t look it, my mother is pregnant and will give birth to my brother in three months. I still wrestle with that cowlick on the back of my head. My father is the seer, behind the camera. I don’t remember this moment, of course, far too young, but I still feel the same. It’s extraordinary -- Mom, see, let me show you -- and now she is gone. It’s absolutely surreal and a fact.
Time has taken on such strange and profound meaning this past year. Like a lot of us I vacillate between frustrated inertia and frantic activity toward some unknown purposeful feeling. Time is so precious. There’s so little left, but just let me sit here a little longer and stare. I struggle to move my body onto the next thing. I watch birds a lot.
I was thinking last night about the other photographs I have of my mom, not many, not many were taken, and she was also shy, often standing to the side or in the background in photos. She watched, more than she participated. She worried. She considered before she acted. She held back. To her I know I seemed like a doer, she would say so, always busy, always doing many things at once, school, work, theater, busy, not stopping. I like/liked it that way. But I so often worry and stand back and consider. More than she knew.
Lately I feel as though I’m watching life, waiting, not sure how to step in or move on. Is it the state of the world, losing my mother, getting older, struggling to write, be creative, and finish projects . . . all of the above? I could feel my mom’s reticence throughout her whole life in my bones last night as I stared at this photo looking for something, examining my own reticence. My whole being is trying to make contact with her these days. I wish I could see her face in the photo and how she was seeing me, but it somehow follows that I can only get a glimpse.
I don’t know what I’ll do with her ashes. It was a kind gesture of my sister to hold some back for me since I couldn’t be at the funeral, but now I’m overwhelmed with the responsibility, the permanence of whatever decision I make.
Before my father died 27 years ago (he was ill and knew it was coming), I asked him to tell me something, anything about what he wanted. He was reluctant, but finally pointed me toward the cemetery near where he lived in California and said he wanted to be under a magnolia tree. Shortly after that talk he died, and my brother and I found ourselves walking around the cemetery with a salesperson. We told the man about the magnolia tree so he took us to various spots that had one. My brother and I would stand on the spot and look around and try to decide if it was the right place . . . for eternity. It was such an absurd ritual. We both knew it at the time and kept giving each other looks and laughing to get ourselves through it. Now the magnolia trees are blooming all around the Bronx and all I think of is my dad and wish I could stand in the spot where he is buried, and somehow feel I am with him.
What would my mom think about a part of her being in New York forever? It wasn’t a place she loved. Perhaps the ocean is best, or under the rose bush in the garden at the end of our street, or beside a magnolia tree. The Tupperware container is a room away on the shelf while I write this.