Love and Mother on a Soft-Focus Day

She likes to go to Loehmann’s where she rips through the Back Room racks like a bride at a Filene’s gown sale, hanging designer by designer from her walker (or from me).

I’ve had a long-standing Thursday night chess date with 85 year-old MJ for close to two years now that has evolved into nights at the symphony, birthdays, brunches at Lily’s, and shopping excursions. She likes to go to Loehmann’s where she rips through the Back Room racks like a bride at a Filene’s gown sale, hanging designer by designer from her walker (or from me). The last time we went, I was so buried in dresses that I had to ask someone’s stray little boy to open the bathroom door for her. He was all ‘yes ma’am’ and waited patiently while MJ inched her way in. Earlier this month we talked on the phone before I made the Thursday-night trip and I could immediately tell she was not feeling well. Her voice was thin on the air waves, whispery and disconnected. I was quick to say another time, any day that you want.

“Would you like to be a daughter?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure I heard her, because…would I like what?
“Come for Mother’s Day,” she continued.
My own mom passed in 2005. MJ lost her only daughter more than 30 years ago. This, I get.

AARP, Feed the Children, Benny Hinn, India Ministries – I get mail addressed to my mother from these and many other organizations which benefited from either her subscription or philanthropy. The mailbox was a source of heartache for me the first couple of years after she passed. What would I find to press at the giant sinkhole in my chest, to remind me that she was gone? It hurts less with the passage of time, a ping in the heart over her name on an envelope in my hands, a wave of shame-on-you at the National Reply Centers that still have her on their mailing list so many years later. I’ve learned to brush it off by getting even with them by dumping their unopened mail into an outside trash bin. Earlier this week one of them stooped a little low:

DEATH BENEFIT – OFFICIAL DOCUMENT ENCLOSED – URGENT
Something legal. And urgent. After all this time? I fell for it.
Unbelievably, it was some nameless bottom-dweller selling life insurance. To a dead person! “Senior Final Expense Life Insurance which will pay for all of your funeral expenses not covered by Social Security! Up to $20,000, if you qualify! Receive this My Final Death Wish for Loved Ones Booklet FREE, just for responding! You will not be charged for this information!”

Maybe it was because Mother’s Day was looming, followed closely by my mother’s birthday on the 17th, but I did not take this well. How insensitive! How greedy! I decided Mom would respond this time. So I filled out their stupid little information requested as follows:

Name: Sylvia McCollum*
DOB: May 17th, 1935
Address: Field of wildflowers in Denver, Colorado
PS. I have been dead for five years.

I hope it makes someone feel like crap. But I doubt it. They’ll probably send her/me the stupid booklet with a note saying she qualifies.

There are odd mementos of my mother all around my house, bizarre stuff I find comforting: a package of home-made turnip greens remains in the freezer, because I know her hands washed the leaves, tore them up, stirred then in a big steaming pot; an envelope she used to blot her lipstick; a permanently retired large plastic bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid (lemon) under the sink where it will never become empty, transferred from her kitchen to mine.

Like most everyone who has lost a loved one, I’ve felt anguish and regret over both big and petty slights I lobbed her way over the years. Like when I was 17 and made her cry because I yelled at her for eating carrots so loud while we were watching TV together. This might have been after she tried but failed to stifle her laughter at me for slicing a butt cheek while shaving my legs. I have wondered, many times, if I could have been a better daughter.

There is her box of every single soppy Hallmark card (her favorite) I ever gave her for Easter, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, Christmas. For Mother’s Day alone there are 31. I still can't believe she saved them, this collection of poinsettias and soft focus roses that remind me she felt loved.

Above all, I cherish her final word, delivered via a single piece of magnetic poetry that fell out of the huge bag of her papers I was systematically shredding just weeks after her death, my darkest time. It landed on the floor, between my feet. I stared at it for a long time. It raised hair on the back of my neck and goose bumps on my arms. Now it’s a one-word poem attached to the side of my refrigerator, at eye level, where I see it every day. It says: “With.”

It would be an understatement to say I miss my mother, who can never be replaced. Yet life continues all around me every day, and it’s a shame to waste it on longing for a different outcome to an event over which I had no control. Better to deliberately choose, with time, to repair my heart until it is less a sinkhole and more a freshwater well slowly filled with all the things I have to be grateful for. Maybe it’s a freshwater well with extendable flame-throwing robot arms that incinerate insensitive junk mail mailed to your mom. It's my well, after all.

That Sunday, MJ sat in her lounge beneath an enormous painting of her and her daughter. A gifted artist, MJ painted this herself. I sat across the chess table with a piece of magnetic poetry in my pocket. I gave her something I will never regret: a temporary daughter on a soft-focus rose day. She basked in the feeling of mothering, and having given me the opportunity. We're filling wells.

*changed

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