Thursday, April 30, 2015


In my yard is an old cedar wood swinging bench  that Mom and I put together several years ago. She had bought it online, from one of those websites that sells unfinished furniture. Back when we had first moved to Kentucky, our house had an ancient wooden swing sitting under a massive 60 year old Maple tree. One night during a storm, a branch came down and took the swing with it. It was smashed beyond any hope of repair so it had to be thrown away.

So this one was a belated replacement. It was more rustic looking than the old one had been. Even brand new, it looked old. We read the instructions and figured out where each peg and slat and joint went for it, and then we stained it a rich honey color. It was going to go under the same maple tree where the old one had been (keeping our fingers crossed for no more falling limbs), and as we stood in the garage looking at the bench we realized that we really should have put it together under the tree. Mom's yard was divided by a series of fences, with a 4' tall picket fence that served as a dog pen that extended from the back of the house, to the shed, and finally joining back up to the house at the corner of the laundry room. We would have to hoist the bench over that fence at the side and the back and then carry it over a ditch in order to get it to the tree.

Mom was a lot stronger back then, still determined and tough, and all her years of caring for her three acres of land had given her a wiry strength that was belied by her small stature. So between the two of us we managed to hoist the damned bench and its frame over the two sections of fence and the ditch until we finally had it under the tree. We set it up, victorious, and sat ourselves down to enjoy our hard-earned rest. It was a beautiful day, not yet unbearably hot and the wind made the maple leaves rustle and the wind chimes in the trees around her garden ring. I knew it meant a lot to Mom to be able to do these things more or less on her own. She and my father had finally separated, and she was determined that she could get by without needing his help. She needed my help with a lot of things, but the important part was that she didn't need him.

The swing sat unharmed by tree limbs for years. Even after a storm brought down a huge branch almost on top of it. Like Mom, it weathered everything that it was exposed to. Harsh winters and hail and howling storms that pulled so much around it apart left it untouched.

After Mom died, the bench was something I knew I needed to take with me. We won't be able to keep her house. There's too much debt left behind for us to do that. It was the only asset she had and so it will need to be sold to pay for the financial and legal mess that my father left her in after their divorce. So the creaky old bench needed to be re-homed, and my back yard was the best place for it.

Moving it here was easier. This time I had Adam to do the heavy lifting, and his pickup truck to transport it with. We set it up in front of one of my flower beds, across from the arbor we got married under. Mom was the one who gave me away at our wedding. She walked with me from my back porch steps to the arbor, where Adam was waiting for me. She kissed us both and told us that she loved us. She was as much a mother to Adam as she was to me in our years together, and she was happy to see us getting married.

The bench creaks now. It's no longer honey colored, but has gone dull and weathered. Lichen grows along the wood in a map of green and grey. Sitting here makes me think of that day, dragging the bench over the fences and through the ditch, both of us exhausted but proud of how we'd done it by ourselves despite her health problems and my increasingly bad knees. Everything she could do back then was a victory, a sign that she was still standing despite it all. Her still being alive for my wedding was a miracle. I regret that she will never know any children that Adam and I have, but one day I will sit with them on this bench and tell them about her. How much she meant to me and how much she would have loved them. At some point I'll have to scrape off the lichen and re-finish it so that it lasts long enough for that. The things that were hers are things I feel protective of now, as though through preserving them I can somehow preserve her memory a little better. I know they're just physical objects, that the memories I have in my head are worth far more, but they remind me of her and everything that she faced and overcame. Even something as simple as an old wooden bench holds so many reminders.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Giving a Fuck

When I was growing up, my mother never used swear words. I don't mean "she didn't use swear words in front of us", she really just never swore. It was terribly impolite and unladylike to swear, in her opinion, and so she simply never did. Her version of road rage was remarking "Nice driving, Ace!" if someone did something stupid in traffic.

When she was 40 and I was 13, she had a mammogram when she switched to a new doctor. She was too young for it, really, but her doctor was also young and fairly fresh out of med school and wanted to be as thorough as possible. She had no family history of breast cancer and hadn't felt any lumps in her breasts, so she wasn't overly concerned until the doctor's office called her a day later and said they'd found something. A biopsy followed and one sunny day in late summer she told me it was cancer. Tiny lumps smaller than a pea were so heavily scattered through her tissue that they had to do a mastectomy. By that point her autoimmune illness was advanced enough that they didn't want to even attempt chemo or any treatment beyond surgery, so we all just had to hope it would be enough.

As you can imagine, it was hard for her. She'd been battling her health problems for over a decade by that point. In addition to the existing health problems, she was dealing with my father having yet another affair. Throwing cancer in on top of everything else was a breaking point, for her. One day she came into the living room, looked at my sister and me and announced "I can say 'fuck' now". Unbeknownst to us she had been practicing swearing. When she'd turn on the water in the bathtub in the mornings, she would swear as the sound of the water hid anything she might be saying from our ears. She finally became comfortable enough with swearing to start doing it openly - and swear she did. It was like our quiet, ladylike mother had been replaced by a foul-mouthed sailor. Her battle with cancer opened a floodgate, and through that gate poured nearly every bad word in the book, rendered in an impeccable British accent. The only words she refused to use were "Motherfucker" and "Cunt", because she felt those were perhaps a bridge too far. Everything else was fair game, though, and her expanded vocabulary was something we eventually got used to.

She survived the cancer, miraculously. Against all odds it was one of the things in life that she actually managed to beat. By the time she passed away she had been cancer-free for 20 years. Her love of swearing stayed with her, though she used the words sparingly around most people. I still remember the first time she said "fuck" in front of my husband. He was shocked by it because my mother was always so careful with her language around him. She had to be comfortable with someone before she would drop an F bomb, and over the years she and my husband became very close. Her using that word around him was a sign that she didn't see him as any different from her own flesh and blood. "Your mother said 'fuck' in front of me today!" he told me, and then followed up with "it was so awesome.."

She was a unique person, my mother. She was gentle, loving, and unfailingly polite. But she was also sarcastic, sharp tongued, and fond of playing pranks. She was a force to be reckoned with despite being damaged, despite her difficult life, despite her insecurities. She was a delicately built British lady in a flowered dress who liked to say "fuck" a lot.

I miss her every day.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


After someone close to you dies, you look for things. Proof that they're OK. A sign from the beyond to let you know that they're at peace or still watching over you. "Watch your dreams" is what the nurse at Hospice told us, when we gathered in Mom's room after she passed. "She'll let you know that she's OK."

So ever since Mom died, I've searched for signs. The night that it happened, when I crawled into bed exhausted and empty and a little bit drunk I longed for a dream of her. I fell asleep with my great-grandfather's prayer beads in my hand, clutching them because Mom always asked for them whenever she had to go into hospital for a while. They brought her comfort over the years, and I needed to feel close to her. When your mother was the one who comforted you so many times over the years, who do you turn to when she's gone, and her passing is the reason you need to be comforted? I had my husband and my sister and my aunt, but it wasn't really the same, and they were grieving as well. The beads became my anchor, to the point that I often couldn't sleep unless I was holding them.

I didn't dream of her that night, or the night after that, or the one after that. I think it was weeks before I actually had a dream about her, but it wasn't anything significant. No clear assurance, no comforting moment playing out for me to let me know that everything would be fine.

I read a lot of websites about grief and the afterlife and signs in the months leading up to her death. I perused forums for caretakers of terminally ill parents. I sifted through story after story of people recounting their experiences, seeking proof that I'd be able to move on one day. Trying to figure out if what I was feeling was normal, trying to see what I should expect. Of course everyone is different. Every experience is unique, and how people handle things shapes the way they feel after someone they love has died. I read about people who felt emotionally devastated, whose grief ran so deep that even after a decade they still felt as though their lives were ruined. I read about people who felt so empty that they worried they were abnormal. I read about people who saw dragonflies or butterflies or birds in places they ordinarily wouldn't be, and just knew it was their loved one reaching out to them. People who felt a weight settle on the bed next to them, even when no one else was there.

I had none of those things. Just my alarm system going haywire after we brought her ashes home from the crematorium, but that was explained away by sensors going bad. My dreams remained normal. I saw no butterflies and felt no weight settle next to me. I swung from deep grief to numbness to normalcy to sudden tears, sometimes in the course of an hour. I watched my dreams in vain, because even when she appeared in them, it seemed to be nothing different from the dreams I had when she was still alive. I went to her house in hope of feeling some trace of her, but her house felt weirdly empty. It was like her body in the bed of the hospice room. It didn't contain her anymore. It was as though when she took her final breath, her soul had gone so far and so free from the world that she left no trace behind.  She had been so present in life, so vividly there that I expected she would leave an imprint behind, like the image of the sun dancing behind your eyelids on a bright day. I look for her and there isn't even an impression. It's as though she simply evaporated, burned away until there was nothing left at all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

And Columbine

Columbines have always been one of my favorite flowers. I thought they looked like something from a fairytale garden, with their graceful spurs and nodding blooms. The sheer variety of colors and bloom varieties makes them far too easy to plant far too many of. My Mom always used to laugh about my love for them, because I never met a Columbine I didn't want to take home and plant in my garden. Over the years since we bought our house I have planted several different varieties, and they've bred and cross-bred to the point that they're popping up all over the place and I find myself having to dig them out of inconvenient spots throughout my garden. The two pictured here have been the first to bloom so far.

I love reading as much as (if not more than) gardening. Like my columbines, I've amassed a lot of books through my life. They pile up all over the house. There are books in my car and books in the garage and books in the attic. They lurk in closets and desk drawers and on top of the refrigerator.

One of my favorite books is Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees. It's a charming and slightly unsettling fantasy story published in 1926. In that book, I first came across a version of a very old song from a book published in 1628, and it contains a reference to my beloved Columbine flowers. The story alters the original song a bit to refer to one of the characters, but I tracked down the original online. This song has stuck with me over the years, and every time I'm out tending my garden I find it circling through my head. 

"And can the physician make sick men well?
And can the magician a fortune divine?
Without lily, germander, and sops-in-wine?
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine.

Within and out, in and out round as a ball,
With hither and thither, as straight as a line,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine:
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine.

When Saturn did live, there lived no poor,
The king and the beggar with roots did dine,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine:
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine."

It's not much of a song, really. Just a handful of lines repeating. But I love it. It suits the magic of the Columbines nodding in my garden, often the first to bloom out of all the other flowers.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mommy Magic

When I was a kid and still in public school, we had a Halloween party. I think I was in kindergarten or first grade (my memory is of course a bit hazy). The teacher provided the most amazing cupcakes, decorated with inches of orange and black frosting and topped with tiny plastic skeletons. When I got home from school that day, I excitedly described the cupcakes and how delicious they were to Mom, who told me to draw a picture of them for her.

So with my budding artistic talent I drew as close a representation as I could in crayon of the wondrous cupcakes and gave the picture to my mom. "Watch" she said. "I'm going to do Mommy Magic!" and put the picture in the microwave, waving her hands over it. A few seconds later, she reached into the microwave and pulled out a tray of the exact same cupcakes that we'd had at school that day.

I was amazed. I was still young enough to believe in magic, and that my mother was capable of anything. Here she had worked a fantastic trick before my very eyes. I became a firm believer in Mommy Magic that day, and reverently told my friends at school about it.

Years later when I was old enough to realize that magic was not the actual thing at work that day, I asked Mom how she had done it. "I ran into your teacher at the grocery store while she was buying cupcakes for the party that day. I thought they looked good so I bought some as well, and when you came home talking about them it was too good an opportunity to let go."

I still remember the sheer excitement and awe I felt that day, fully believing that she could do magic. She used Mommy Magic for other situations as well (mainly to make us behave ourselves), but the cupcake trick is what I remember the most. It was better than Santa and the tooth fairy, that beautiful belief that Mom had turned a child's drawing into cupcakes through her own special powers. That was what she did for us. Made magic from bits of paper. Created memories that I can cherish now that she is gone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How Does Your Garden Grow

I've always enjoyed gardening. Growing up, my mother had flowers growing at every house we lived in. When we made the move from Florida to Kentucky she had a vegetable garden, and the fresh produce made the difficulty of planting and weeding and keeping pests away well worth it. 

I always had a little garden patch of my own during that time. I grew pumpkins one year, enormous things that needed a wheelbarrow to be moved. Flowers were my main love, though, and I grew Johnny Jump-Ups and Siberian Irises and any other flowering plant I could convince my mother to get for me. 

When my husband and I bought our first house together, it came with two very plain "builder's special" type beds in the front. Holly bushes and Liriope and a scraggly Juniper grew in them, and I was already planning on removing those plants and replacing them with something prettier.

It's been five years since we bought our house. Over the years I dug out the holly bushes (a massive undertaking that took hours every time I removed one bush), cut down the wasp-attracting Juniper, and laid waste to the Liriope. I replaced them with Rose bushes and Clematis and Phlox and as many different varieties of Columbine that I could find. 

Now I also have a vegetable garden in the back, and I have advanced to starting seedlings indoors with grow lights to make sure that the longer season plants actually have a chance to produce something before the frost sets in again. 

My Luffa squash experiment.

This year I have been particularly ambitious. I started far more seedlings than I usually do. I'm growing more herbs than I really have use for. It's a comfort thing, though. Gardening was a thing I did a lot with Mom. The past year or so both of our gardens suffered due to her failing health. I was too busy caring for her to really take care of my plants or hers. My routine became going to work, going to her house after work to look after her, going home with just enough time to maybe make dinner and then go to bed, and then getting up the next day to repeat it over again. Not having her to occupy my time has led to an unusual number of empty hours for me. I have to find ways to fill those hours, and focusing on an activity we loved and shared has helped with that. So I started a legion of peppers and tomatoes and squash. I bought pounds of Zinnia seeds for a cutting garden. Every pot in my yard is occupied by seedlings or by plants I dug from Mom's garden. We will have to sell her house and I wanted to preserve some of it for myself, so the flowers that she loved so much have been divided and relocated.

It will be hard, this first year without her. I'm hoping the seedlings will help. A little bit of life to help offset the grief of Mom not being here. Something I can tend in place of tending to her. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blades of Grass

One of the things Mom always took great pleasure in was mowing her yard. She had three acres of land that sloped uphill, riddled with ditches and bumps and holes, and for years she mowed it with an old Husqvarna riding mower that backfired and died more often than it worked. In addition to the ditches and holes her yard had a lot of very old maple trees,and their roots broke the surface of the earth, massive and gnarled and waiting to snag the blades of the mower. They also covered the lawn in an assortment of sticks in all sizes, and my job when I was growing up was to run outside and gather up all the fallen sticks and pile them up to be burned at a later time.

Eventually Mom grew tired of the jolting, jostling riding mower and bought herself one of those fancy John Deere zero turn radius lawn tractors, and she would ride up and down the slope of her yard, carefully turning circles around trees and nimbly avoiding the ditches and maple roots. She loved to listen to Maroon 5 as she mowed; she said they were the perfect band to mow to and would grumble "Doesn't Adam Levine know that I have grass to cut?" every spring when they hadn't released a new album yet.

She wouldn't let any of the dogs outside while she was mowing, except for Alfie, who knew not to run in front of her as she rode up and down the lawn. Alfie would trot along behind her as she made each pass, trailing her the whole way, frolicking and rolling in the clippings that flew like confetti, pouncing on any snake or other creature disturbed by the mower's wake.

As years passed and her illness progressed, she still climbed onto that mower at the start of the season even after her hands couldn't quite grip the handles anymore. I bought thick black lengths of foam that's used for insulating pipes and fitted those around the grips to give her something more substantial to grasp, but finally between her hands and her growing frailty she couldn't do it anymore. In 2014 she reluctantly gave up the task to my husband, which she hated doing, especially because Adam viewed the mower as something more akin to a go-cart. "He mows too fast! I swear I saw him catch air when he went over that one bump" she would complain to me. "He doesn't mow in the same pattern that I did. The grass doesn't look as nice." To me, I could see no real difference, but she fretted and complained about it every time he mowed for her. I think it was less the fact that he did it differently and more that she could no longer do it herself that bothered her. Giving up caring for her yard hurt her more than even giving up driving had. Despite all evidence pointing to the fact that she was only getting worse, she stubbornly held on to the belief that one day she might at least be able to mow the yard again. Of course, that never did happen.

Before she passed away, she made sure that Adam would inherit the lawn mower. It's too big for our yard, really. We have a relatively small lawn and using something like that to take care of it is overkill. But it sits in our garage, a hulking beast that has eliminated Adam's parking spot. "Are you actually going to use it?" I asked him, and he just shrugged. "Maybe. I've got a sentimental attachment to it." My husband is particular about his lawn, though. His grass is green and lush and he has his own patterns, using an old push mower that had also once belonged to my Mom. He worries about introducing weed seeds into his lawn and so the few times he has taken care of a neighbor's yard for them, he has used their mower rather than risk "contaminating" his. Since we've had buckets of rain recently, the grass has grown fast and thick and was in dire need of cutting already, so during the brief break between storms Adam mowed our lawn with the push mower. Next door to us is an empty house, a foreclosure with a yard choked by weeds that no one comes out to cut, so after he finished our yard he decided he'd break out Mom's mower and do that one as well.

In addition to inheriting Mom's lawn mower, we also inherited her dog, Alfie. He'd been unwanted by anyone else. I worked with rescues and foster groups and shelters and there simply was no room for an 11 year old terrier mix with ridiculously floppy ears. Adam had always insisted that we'd never have pets, but he broke that vow to take in Alfie when it became clear that the humane society would be the only other choice. In the house, Alfie had slept through the cutting of our grass, the sound of the weed whacker and the leaf blower. When Adam fired up Mom's mower and rolled out of the garage on it, Alfie started to go ballistic. He barked and howled and scratched at the door like mad. I couldn't figure out why until I realized it was the sound of the mower. Every spring and summer for 9 years he had trailed along behind that lawn mower, tracking back and forth with Mom and then later on with Adam. He didn't quiet down until I put his leash on him and took him outside, so he could watch as Adam zipped up and down the yard, spinning and weaving. I thought "Mom would absolutely kill Adam if she could see him driving it like that." But I bet it would also make her happy.