We had become family, Joe and me. Three months of shared responsibility for Mom's care had made it so, and it was the natural thing to do when he stayed on with me after Mom died. The companionship of this kind and gentle man was a welcome antidote to the sudden vacuum in my days without the focus around whom all household activity had flowed for so long.
Now there were no dentures to clean, no diapers to change, no medical surprises to field. Even my job as research director for an NBC-TV daytime interview program, One of One with John Tesh, came to an abrupt end when the show was cancelled in the week following Mom’s death. There were new things to be done, but they did not have the urgency of round-the-clock caregiving and a full-time job.
It would be four weeks before The Neptune Society could provide a date for the ceremony of scattering Mom’s ashes at sea. In the interim, Joe and I busied ourselves arranging a memorial dinner for Mom’s friends and with clearing out Mom’s apartment.
It is a sad business sorting through a dead person’s belongings. The stuff of a life that when lived was filled with significance – treasures and mementos and furnishings carefully chosen over the years – now looks pathetically meager and ordinary. You want there to be more that means something. Instead, there are television sets; worn bathroom towels; underwear in a drawer; shoe boxes of snapshots that didn’t make the cut into the photo albums. An old chair that was especially comfortable to the owner in life is merely threadbare and tacky in death.
And yet, there is a reluctance to part with any of it. She looked so pretty in that dress. She loved that vase. She read those books many times. I had never noticed before, in all the years of my adulthood, that the desk in the corner of Mom’s bedroom was the childhood desk I had been given at about age eight.
Joe and I divvied up what we wanted. He took a television set and some personal things that had belonged to his Dad. I took family photos, some kitchen equipment and parceled out Mom’s jewelry among Barbara, my brother and me. The big stone patio table and benches went to another friend as did the car. The two three-story, unfinished dollhouses – my mother built elaborate, electrified dollhouses – went to two friends who admired her handcraft work. And I found a new home for the cat.
Mom was not a wealthy woman, but there were a few bonds and a small life insurance policy for my brother and me. As Mom had suggested, I gave Joe the gold coins and like she had done on the night I arrived, he and I played Old King Midas one day. Mom was right – it’s loads of fun to run your hands through solid gold.
I found an old newspaper clipping, tattered and yellow, in Mom’s wallet just in time to have it printed on cards for the guests at her memorial.
Do not stand by my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am a diamond glint on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awake to the morning hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft starshine at night
Do not stand by my grave and cry
I am not there, I did not die.
- Mary Frye, 1932
There were about 50 people for the dinner at Frasinetti’s, which had been Mom’s favorite restaurant. I have no memory of what I said that evening and it was overshadowed anyway by the speeches of her friends who knew Mom, from their more frequent times together, in ways I did not.
They talked about the crop of fat, luscious pot tomatoes she was famous for growing each year. And how much she loved to throw holiday parties - any obscure holiday was an excuse. It seems she was a better cook than I remembered too. More than one mentioned how much she loved the sun, the heat of summer and swimming several times a day. They liked how smart she was and how she never complained, ever.
Barbara told of how she and Mom had become special friends from the first day they met, 25 years earlier, when Mom began working in the office where Barbara was employed. And how a day had not passed, since their retirement, when they did not telephone at least once.
When one woman said Mom talked about me a lot, others joined in what came to sound like a chorus: She loved you so much. She was so proud of you. She told us everything about you, where you were working and where you traveled, who your latest boyfriend was. She showed us pictures of your cat and the apartment you bought in Greenwich Village. She read parts of your letters to us…
That explained why these men and women - who I had met briefly, if ever in some cases, on infrequent trips to Sacramento - treated me like they were my aunts and uncles, like they had known me for years. They actually had.
I was dismayed and abashed at what they said. Mom had hardly ever commented on my letters and when I telephoned with news about a new job or an interesting trip or an award, she was more likely to say she was grateful I had a paying gig than congratulate me for any achievement. When I had poured out my heart to her in a long letter after I left my husband years before, I was looking for a little TLC. I got a brochure, by return mail, on how to get a cheap divorce.
That Mom loved me I never doubted, but I had thought, until the night of her memorial dinner, that it was in a less motherly, more distant and formal manner than her friends were telling me. The mother I knew would never brag on her daughter. The mother I knew was too busy with her own life to bother with the details of mine. The mother I knew was too sophisticated to bore friends with photos of her kids.
Obviously, I was wrong and had misunderstood an important part of who she was.
At the end of May, my brother drove down from Portland, Oregon, with his girlfriend. They and Joe and Barbara, two other friends of Mom’s and I boarded The Neptune Society yacht in San Francisco Bay for the scattering at sea of Mom’s ashes.
It was a gloriously fresh, bright, cloudless day. The breeze was light and the bay was calm as the boat sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge to an area where we idled off the Marin County coast.
A burial, whether in the ground, a crypt or at sea, is for the living. It puts finis, or at least the beginning of finis, to formal grieving and begins the period of re-establishing daily equilibrium. I thought I had done most of my personal grieving in the month leading up to the burial, but I know now you should not trust such beliefs in times of high emotion.
On that perfect, crystal, blue-sky day, floating just beyond the Golden Gate with the sun glistening off the water, I was unexpectedly struck by one of those god-awful dark nights of the soul, sucker-punched out of nowhere with the horror and pure, naked fear of my unutterable aloneness in the infinite desolation of the cosmos.
At the same time my brother, who had just emptied the urn of Mom’s ashes into the bay, was saying something – a prayer? – and the bleakness retreated as abruptly as it had arrived a few seconds earlier.
Rose petals, marking the place where Mom’s ashes had joined with the sea, floated toward the Marin County beach I had not visited since high school. I couldn’t help recalling how I had hoped then that Mom didn’t know what my boyfriends and I were doing there at night and it came to me how safe, even in the wake of my parents’ recent divorce, I had felt in those days. And how since then, even though I hardly ever acknowledged a traditional mother/daughter connection between us, I had always known somewhere inside the comfort of Mom’s unconditional love.
There had never been anyone else I trusted as completely as Mom in that most fundamental way. There had never been anyone else who approved of me no matter what. And now I was on my own.
…to be continued…
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript