This morning, as I stoop to cut a tiny cluster of daffodils,
I am missing my “old” garden in North Portland.
this wee island cluster of yellow and green
that asserts itself in joyful confidence
against the cold and barren ground
makes me smile.
I sit cross-legged on the damp grass. It’s the first sun-drenched day after almost fifteen days of continuous, pelting rain. My back is to the sun. I’ve pulled off three layers of clothing and am down to the last—a black cotton tank top. Through it the sun curves its comforting hand from my bent neck down to the curved small of my back. It leans, pressing its fuzzy warmth against me like a giant therapeutic heating pad.
All is quiet, save the intermittent tweet tweets of little unseen birds.
Everything—the sky, the grass, the smell of the air, the trees—seems utterly new, fresh and clean. I remain still. My body senses the sun getting warmer. The sweating blades of youthful, green grass stand straight up and alert between my toes. Soon, I anticipate, the seductive sun and siren breeze will loosen my body, unlocking my limbs, relaxing the muscles in my head and neck, and I will limp backward into the soft grass beneath my newly-blossomed apple tree to lie in the peace and safety of these present moments. The moments that I know cannot last for long.
In these moments of solitude I’m overwhelmed by gratefulness for the simplicity of being—for nature that softens my day, but also hints of a time gone by. A wafting, delicate fragrance entreats my nose. My heart stumbles a bit. The soft, mingled scents ignite a thread of memory—the pansies, petunias and lavender I planted in the little garden in front of my house last spring, the spring of the death of my mother. On this such afternoon, sitting on the grass adjacent to my little garden of flowers in front of my tiny house—these simple things make me cry. Then, I remember. I’ve grown up now and I’m scared.
. . .
This day pulls me back to the beautiful sunny days I remember as a child sitting on the back cement porch of our home in Missoula, Montana. As a young girl, I often sat on these steps. Often alone.
I liked the simplicity of just sitting, seeing and feeling everything around me. I was especially fond of the lone umbrella tree in the white fenced back yard to the left of the porch. It was the same tree that was outside my bedroom window. Its branches sprouted hundreds of little branches that sprouted countless tiny oval-shaped leaves. I remember being hypnotized by the swoosh and sway of the umbrella tree’s branches teased by a sturdy breeze. I would gaze at those myriad leaves shimmering and dancing against the brilliant blue sky. These leaves I loved! They were soft and fuzzy and a sunny green, like the color of fresh summer-picked string beans. Somehow that certain green against that blue sky was so right, so perfect, and I would become entranced, lost in the perfection of that image. It was one of those times I recalled my mother’s desire to paint the kitchen in our family home blue and green. I was aghast at her choice of color combinations. I just couldn’t see how they went together and how she had thought that they would be a lovely choice. A little bubble of thought then floated into consciousness. I whispered, “She long ago knew the perfection of nature’s color palette!”
Our family did a lot of sitting on these back porch steps. As a youngster, my siblings and friends spent many hours making up games, watching coiled slinkies miraculously find there way down each step and playing jacks well into the sunset hours—our hands sticky from the popsicles and ice cream cones that had lost their cool in the heat of summer.
I made more time for porch sitting than other family members. During the summer mornings, as I got older, I looked forward to reading the newspaper or a book with my morning cup of coffee on our back porch. Before anyone was awake, I would quietly open the kitchen cupboard to retrieve my cup and paid due diligence to how I turned on the water faucet or handled utensils in preparing my brew. The back screen door posed the greatest threat to my solo escape to the porch, as like most screen doors, this one had its own characteristic creak. Since Dad was a light sleeper, I did not wish to wake him. If I did, he would have wanted to chat and ask uninteresting questions and utter uninteresting comments, and my plans to be alone with coffee, newspaper or book would have been thwarted.
. . .
I’m beginning to ache inside. The image of mother hanging clothes now appears. The umbrella tree is rustling. I hear mother climbing
up the stairs from the basement’s cool darkness. The screen door pops open, and then bangs shut behind her. In her arms is a large, old-fashioned wicker basket laden with cool wet sheets and towels. I love how the cold and wet-mixed-with detergent smell of the laundry mingles with the heat of the sun to then quickly evaporate as mother walks down the three back porch steps down the cement path then onto the grass under the clothesline to the right of the walkway. She sets down the wicker basket and begins cleaning each line with a wet rag. She will then go over the line with a dry rag to remove any rust that lingers on the line.
I found special contentment in watching Mom setting clothes out to dry on our outdoor clothesline. I would often help her. She had a particular way of doing things, which always made sense, and she had explanations on why she found a process or idea to work better than another. Regarding outside clothes hanging, she explained to me why she hung only the backsides or older towels on the furthest line that faced southwest. “The sun hits them longer here, and they fade,” she said. Brilliant colored or nicer clothes she never hung on this outside line. And from that day on, neither did I. I gained pleasure in hanging wet clothes out to dry on the clothesline. I ranked this task with mowing the lawn or raking the grass. There seemed to be some bodily dignity to them—something akin to taking care of and loving home and family. But, I also knew it was because I loved being outside and being in contact with nature that drew me to these jobs without having to be asked. That outdoor clothesline was one of the first things I noticed lacking—along with wide open spaces—when I moved to a cookie-cutter house in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood several years later. Now, the clothesline has become a magnified symbol of shared time in love and in the doing of the everyday—the most real and important things that don’t seem important precisely because they seem too simple or mundane.
If Emerson’s prose holds true that “to laugh often and love much” is a measure of life’s success, then, so my mother.
I see mother’s dark (almost black) hair, intermittently between the flapping sheets and towels she is hanging so carefully. I watch her reach upward, then down to pick up another towel, shake it and face its front away from the sun. She bends down then back up again. Her cheeks are flushed. She turns her head upward then and to the right facing the porch where I sit. Our eyes meet and we greet in smiles.
. . .
My heart bursts and silently wails within. I want to go back to summer on the back porch steps. I want to see mother and her warm, strong body bending and reaching amongst the flying white sheets anchored to the clothesline. I want to go back to summer on the back porch steps to search out the stars in the black heavens feeling the concrete steps still sun-warmed under my bottom and thighs. I want to go back to summer on the back porch steps to reverse time’s flight and to revere the grand and sacred within the simple. But I’ve grown up now. I’m scared. And I’m sometimes angry.
My mother is gone, struck down by the silent spread of cancer. How could cancer—the name itself denoting poison and death from some aberrant way of living—accost my mother? My mother, who never smoked nor drank, whose only weakness was desserts and chocolate.
How could cancer eat up somebody who smiled so big, laughed so heartily and loved so much? If Emerson’s prose holds true that “to laugh often and love much” is a measure of life’s success, then, so my mother; for she laughed often and loved much. And, as one who has lived through youth and on into middle age can now attest, to do this requires an unselfishness of grand proportion, the willingness to sacrifice for something greater. One can even, perhaps, glean certain innocence; but then this would diminish the depths of her understanding, her own personal battles to do the fair or right thing. I feel a collective pain for those neglected children who have not been looked at with delight or cuddled in the arms of such a mother’s love.
. . .
“Is it really true? Is she really not here?” the now aching dormant, persistent question again takes life. “Yes, but why? Why?” Could this disease, the eruption and invasive spread of cancer cells, been directly related to her worries and concerns for her children? I fall deeper into thought. Could this type of worry have triggered a physiological and emotional trauma within her womb, the bloodline of memory where child and mother begin their journey of creation and the bonds of love and attachment, this deep love and attachment not broken at the physical severing of the life-nourishing umbilical cord? Could this environment of life’s genesis where the seeds of her children were first nourished and infused in memory of a mother’s love have become a battlefield of worry, concern, hope and heartbreak for her children? Somewhere, deeply and intuitively, I sense a possible truth in this neither scientific nor medical explanation for the turning of the body against itself. I now hold this “idea” within because of the vacant, queried looks I notice during my clumsy attempts to articulate this visceral and intuitive bodily “truth”—that a physical birth from a mother’s womb never ultimately separates the spiritual, psychological, nor the feelings of heart. A mother is connected to her offspring through this mystery of the womb, the homing base where she feels and worries about the well being of her children.
. . .
Somehow it has all gone too fast—her life and mine. Why is it some of us take so long to grow up, to recognize what is cherishable and that from which we run is what we need? Why are there not road maps on how to live a life or why are they discovered for some too late? We struggle to survive, to find value in work, family, relationships and experiences. Often we miss the in-betweens, the everyday simplicities: in the smile of a passerby, the call of a friend, sharing a household task, doing a favor for a family member, the overlooked cookies or flowers left on a doorstep by a caring neighbor. We rush to get “somewhere” so that we can then relax. I wanted time—time for myself. I knew time was the real treasure —more than money—when I was a teenager. And here, decades later, I still haven’t reconciled how to balance my energy with work, friends, family, school and time for deep reflection and to not feel fragmented.
I wish I had told her everyday that I loved her and how I am grateful now because I understand more; but I didn’t know then. I would have no longer shied away in embarrassment in front of my friends at the kisses with which she sent me off to school. I didn’t know that what she did for me of her own natural self and motherly love was rare. It seems a cruel joke. I feel dumb and stupid in “not getting it” until so much later in life after I wanted to get away and prove I could be independent in butting up against not knowing what I didn’t know.
. . .
So, this spring day I unconsciously find myself drifting back wising to relive the springs and summers of my life back home with the knowledge I have today—to be present and aware of a mother’s love that gave me security, comfort and the gift to trust myself and venture out into the world.
At this moment, on this sun-drenched afternoon in May, the same month of my mother’s death, I feel and remember her love, the shared tears, her arms around me, her dark, curly hair setting off her beautiful smile, the upturned corners met by her flushed cheeks as she breaks into happy laughter. I see her arms reach upward clamping down the clothespin, her dark (almost black) hair against the flying white sheets, the tan wicker-handled basket at her feet. The picture is so vivid; a full screen image materializes in front of my eyes. I am now in the picture. I start to get up from the porch, but I’m sitting on the grass. A warm blur of tears tumbles down my cheeks.
These simple things make me cry.