Shadows

Writing pompts have not typically been a great motivator for me. I’m nervous about writing extemporaneously and then comparing clips when we read aloud after the timer goes off. But today I met with a writer friend and she gave us a prompt.

“Shadows,” she said.

I had just gotten off the phone with my brother. We are trying to organize the burying of mom’s ashes. And this is what I wrote as the result of the prompt.

The shadows of my past, all the events of our childhood, continue to hang over my brother and me.  As we arrange to bury our mother’s ashes I sense a familiar resistance remarkable in its tenacity.

The shadow of our father’s death creeps unspoken into each conversation, carrying the pain of acknowledgment that we are going to bury the four-pound box of what remains of our mother next to the dust of my father’s bones buried nearly 65 years ago. It has taken us 11 months to get to this juncture.

They are pernicious and clinging, these shadows, a screen against which I push like a moth searching for escape. They are always present, following me like a ghost in a scary movie, causing me to periodically check behind me to see what  is dogging my attempts for closure, reconciliation and healing.

Rather than, “yes, let’s get this resolved,” it’s “I’ll talk to you when I can.” The pushing away, the shadow side, that piece of him that observes me as a hindrance, as insistent, as the little girl who needed him to be there for her, and he couldn’t because we had been overtaken by the shadow.

I’m still taking care of mom, the drama of her life still claims me. How do I step aside to allow the shadow to pass?

I understand how hard this is for my brother. I understand the resistance. I understand. We were not allowed to visit my dad’s gravesite as children. The first time I ever saw my father’s grave was 14 years ago when I traveled to Los Angeles with my son, then a 15-year-old. With my aunt, now 96, we drove from her home in Camarillo, an hour north of Glendale, to visit the grave of the man I knew for such a brief time. We cleaned off the marker and placed flowers on the grave.

Ironically, Forest Lawn is where Michael Jackson is buried, an indication of how Forest Lawn’s policies have changed since 1947 when mom buried our dad and reserved a place for herself. One paragraph on her deed says, The use of the property in which rights of interment are hereby conveyed is and at all times shall be limited and restricted to the interment of the remains, or the cremated remains, of a person or person of the White and/or Caucasian race. Holy Crap! If mom was a body in a grave, she would turn over.  Burial in America at its worst.

We’ve finally come up with a tentative date — “some time the end of April”  husband and I will travel to Los Angeles. My brother and wife and possibly my nephew and wife and mom’s six-year-old great-granddaughter, will travel from San Diego to Los Angeles. We may try to pick up my aunt. Then we will meet a stranger who will go to the gravesite with us and place mom’s remains there, in the ground, next to my father’s grave, with no service, no formalities, because a simple service would cost another $500, over and above the $1,700 we are paying to bury her ashes. If it’s a Saturday it’s another $500. My brother says he will check to see if a pastor would come for $100, but I’m not sure the mortuary would allow it.

I’d still like to take the ashes to Gold Beach, Oregon and scatter them in the sea. I experience a lightness when I think about it.  But my brother feels strongly about placing them next to our father and I appreciate that sentiment. I want her there too, but I re-read her parting letter to us that tells us not to worry about where she is buried.

“Do what is easiest,” she says. “If it would make you more comfortable and be any easier you can have my ashes put next to Don’s grave in Forest Lawn. It really doesn’t matter where our earthly remains are.” I wish it were easy, mom. But what is important is what is important. So we will pay the money and make the pilgrimage to Forest Lawn and watch them put her ashes in the grave, “completing the circle,” my brother says.

We also have to decide what to put on the tablet marking her grave. She has three married names. We have determined to leave off the name of the stepfather, even though he’s the one who provided for her in her old age. We cannot agree whether to add her third husband’s name, the name she carried for more than 35 years, the name of the man who divorced his wife of 40 years to marry his first love when he was 68 years old. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I wish I had asked mom to put more instructions in her parting letter.

Shadows.

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“To Stan, My Fan, April 28, 1998”

My brother had come to visit for my mother’s 89th birthday. It was a dry early spring because I had the sprinklers on in the front yard outside my office window.

I was sitting at my computer and he prompted me to write something. I’ve never been great at “writer’s prompts.” A friend and I used to camp with our children and her mother, who at the time was in the early stages of dementia but would come up with beautiful pieces of whimsy at the prompts.

Recently I sat in a coffee shop with another writer friend and we wrote 900 words each about, “You are at a motel.” That prompt triggered some thoughts, let me tell you.

This piece of my own whimsy expresses the writer’s woe and is also a great example of why I never write poetry. It rhymes, sort of. But mostly it gives perspective on where my journey has taken me since that time as a writer.

 

“Here I sit at my computer

Listening to the sound of the sprinkler,

It’s sameness much like my life,

Back and forth, right to left, left to right.

Does it vary or change?

Or will it always be the same.

 

I long to express my thoughts

But it seems to come to naught

My brother says I can write

But here I sit, examining my plight.

 

Listening to the sprinkler

Shesh, shesh, shesh, shesh,

Right to left , left to right.

 

His prompting led to the “Poems” genre,

Leading me to a place of nausea

My brother tells me that I can write

I wonder if he can read.

 

I know I’m not supposed to share this

But I think I will let him see this

So he can begin to reexamine his

Eyesight, in the face of such as this.

 

He said to just let it fly

But what I want to do is cry

What the heck do I think I’m doing

Who do I think I am fooling.

 

When I get through this negative crap

Maybe I will cause a flap

With a bit of ingenuous writing

That will cause my brother to smile.”

It did.

Tear Triggers

Just when I think there are no more tears. Just when I think I’m finally free, I walk down the tea aisle at the grocery store and begin to cry. I don’t know what it was about the tea aisle, but husband found me there. “Something triggered you?” he asks, while handing me his blue handkerchief. He waits and then puts his arms around me and hugs me to him.

“I’m not even sure what it was,” I say, bewildered.

Later that evening, I was sitting at my computer making cards and writing emails and husband turned to a movie called Hanging Up. He said, “Diane Keaton and Meg Ryan. Maybe you’ll like this.”  He went back to his computer and I looked up a review. It was rated 4 on a scale of 10, but I left it on half listening.

During one segment I paid enough attention to understand the plot. I went to sit on the sofa. Meg Ryan was the primary caretaker (as in the person who takes care of everything versus the caregiver who provides physical care) for her aging father, played by Walter Matthau. The mother had left the family and Ryan’s character had taken over everything while her older sister, played by Keaton, published a women’s magazine and jetsetted around the country. The younger sister, played by Lisa Kudrow, was an aspiring actress. Both were too busy to help take care of all their father’s needs. Ryan’s character was lonely.

A side note: Why do these characters, who represent a huge percentage of the population, always have to be rich and successful and live in plush Hollywood homes? I’m just saying’. It isn’t real! But somehow it was.

I watched a part of my life, the one where I took care of mom without much family help, flash before me. It wasn’t my brother’s fault. We had moved away, mom and I. It was expensive for my brother to travel. I don’t blame anyone. But it was lonely. It is lonely. As I try to make arrangements to bury mom’s ashes in California I realize I’ve always been lonely in my family.

Ryan’s character finally learns how to say no to being the martyr (is there a lesson there for me?). She yells at her sisters after Keaton’s character gives a speech and claims credit and emotional investment in her father’s caretaking. The sisters yell and argue and then, at their father’s deathbed, they make up. Walter dies, the nurse takes his pulse and the wavy line on the heart monitor flattens. The three sisters cry and embrace. At Thanksgiving a few months later they cook a turkey together and throw flour all over each other’s black dresses. I coveted people with sisters and cried.

Then yesterday while leaving the same grocery store where I cried in the tea aisle (where I’ve shopped for years for myself and for mom), I was behind a tiny elderly lady. Usually I walk quickly, but I saw no polite way to pass her. Out the door we toddled, moving at a snail’s pace. As she walked out the main doors, she turned her face slightly. There was something in her countenance, her methodical walk, her determination and her right to be there on that walkway, holding up a line of traffic, that was reminiscent of mom. As the woman walked down the ramp into the parking lot, I saw the momentary skip in her step as the basket began to go faster than she was prepared to go. I was watchful, out of habit, waiting for the fall, the trip, the stumble.

I got into the car and … you guessed it… I cried. Twenty minutes later I walked in our door, my face streaked with tears. Husband took one look and without saying a word I heard his silent, “uh oh.”

He sat with me. It wasn’t just about mom, I said. I wish I had been willing to lie low, to wait it out, to write and to think and to read and recover and to figure things out and to get my bearings before diving into so many things that I’m doing now, I said. Deciding what will feed my spirit and my life and then setting myself upon that path has been more difficult than I ever could have imagined.

Today I talked to my son. I told him I was trying to decide when to bury mom’s ashes. I said it’s like herding cats. He, who lives in Seattle, said to make arrangements because it was important to get it done and to let him know the date and he would see if it worked for him to be there. But I already know the answer. I understood. But I still got off the phone and cried.

Elevations

I haven’t been to Salt Lake City since 1970 when my first husband and I moved to Park City to be ski bums. When we arrived after a 13 hour drive in our orange VW, we stayed in a motel on the outskirts of town.

We ate canned Campbell’s soup and sandwiches and I made greeting cards to send home. I drew an outline of the layers of the Wasatch mountain range to the east,  the blues and browns and greens in each layer in the distance.

We were on a grand adventure to ski for six months. I had worked for five years as a secretary, chafing at my desk in my nylons while my husband got his bachelor’s degree. I was supposed to get my degree after his (I did, but not until 30 years later). Our agreement was that he would get his first, but then we went skiing.

I was glad to break away from our urban lifestyle and family dynamics to go skiing. But what started as a trip became a new lifestyle. We didn’t go home at the end of the six months. He with his degree became a cook in a steak house (much to his mother’s dismay) and I became a waitress, a job I hated even more than being a secretary. I never could get the orders right, but I would fall back on waitressing for the next few years.

We worked at night and skied all day. I was in heaven. Spring arrived and for the first summer in six years I didn’t have to work. He got a job running tractor on the ski slopes preparing for the next season and I grew my first organic garden. I gardened and hiked and played tennis and made granola and became a vegetarian for a while and grew my hair long and blond.

When summer turned to fall I experienced my first fall. The seasons really do change in San Diego, but only slightly in comparison to the Utah mountains. The aspens turned gold and I hiked with my dog and lay in the grass under the trees and gazed through the quivering gold into azure blue skies.

Winter arrived again and I began to study to become a ski instructor. He became a ski patrolman.

Our life in Park City only lasted a few years, but friendships were forged that have lasted a lifetime. We were the vanguard, those who gathered together to ski the Wasatch Range before Park City and Alta were completely on the map.

We moved to a valley nearby and within a year we divorced. Since then my life has gone in many directions from that vivid time nearly 40 years ago.

Wednesday I returned to Salt Lake City by air. Instead of a small motel, we are staying at the downtown Marriott where across the windows leading into the dining room is the word, “Elevations,” with a profile of a mountain range. Across the street at the Salt Palace, we are attending a SendOut Cards Conference, hearing dynamic speakers, and learning about the business of sending out cards. Just like I did 40 years ago, I’m still sending out cards.

Reset

I think that’s what the beginning of a new year is all about. A reset. Some frivolity is in order, of course. Or for some, quieter and more reflective activities. I do both.

I could easily stay at home on New Year’s Eve, but among a certain circle of friends I see infrequently the rest of the year, it’s almost an unwritten rule that we must attend a friend’s tacky party and reflect upon the delicious food, the ridiculous white elephant gifts, and outrageous costumery. It’s always worth it.

On New Year’s Day I watch football and reflect on who is going to win the Super Bowl. Football is a tradition passed to me from my mother and I have a solemn duty to uphold it…nevermind that I really like football and feel zero shame.

I do have my reflective moments as the new year begins. This year I have some New Year affirmations, starting with I love and approve of myself. It’s a biggy, actually. I wouldn’t call myself a recluse, but I am certainly not the life of the party. At the new year’s party, for example, every time I started to say to myself, my get-up is stupid, or I don’t fit in with this crowd, or whatever message was traveling through my brain at the time–the way those negative messages do–I simply said, (to myself) I love and approve of myself.

It’s a subtle reset, a mini-new year, if you will. I relaxed. I not only had fun, I was fun.

When someone chided me for drinking tea at 11:30, instead of alcohol, I laughed and said to myself, I love and approve of myself. It doesn’t matter if my friends think tea drinking on New Year’s Eve is silly (a benign example in a world of possible disapprovals we might receive from our friends and family and society). Approving of ourselves is a powerful antidote for insecurity of all kinds.

A second and equally powerful affirmation is, It is okay for me to tell my truth in relationship.

Over breakfast on New Year’s day I told a friend and my husband that I have no trouble telling my truth to them. I do notice a reoccurring theme, however. I have difficulty speaking my truth in more difficult situations (bosses, ex-husbands, powerful people).

My friend refers to it in more graphic terms. “It’s having balls,” she says. “Even us women need to have balls.”

So, I’m all about having balls this coming year. It doesn’t mean blasting people with the truth. Truth is mostly about perspective. It is about recognizing my inner truth and being able to speak it appropriately. It’s about being authentic, which doesn’t mean telling all, but telling what is necessary. I admire my friends who know what to say in the moment simply because they recognize in the moment that something needs to be said. I resolve to get better at that.

Having a voice is also about being able to recognize boundaries and to know when they are violated, speaking in the moment and not waiting and leaving myself and others in an awkward, what-the-hell just happened sort of limbo.

I’ve also reflected on my blog, and where to proceed. If I’m writing about having balls, having voice, I may write more this year about my experiences as a midwife, if no other reason than to talk about why I became a midwife. You guessed it–to give women a voice and a choice.

Grief and grieving may be a reoccurring topic. I want it to be a safe subject and this a safe space to consider grief, to remind others and myself, that it’s all okay. We are a sad bunch at times, and if we could just give each other the compassion to live in those moments without fear and condemnation, we’d all be a lot better off.

As for other topics, I’ll wait for them to unfold.

And now to more typical resolutions: I want to touch others with my writing, help my husband grow his business, and tone my abs. Doesn’t everyone decide to do that on New Year’s. I don’t have to lose weight, (you can throw the tomatoes now), but even skinny people have flabby abs. I don’t have to quit smoking, but I think I’m allergic to wine and might have to stop eating so much chocolate and really should lower my cholesterol, but wow is that a pain in my flat behind.

Happy New Year. May you love and approve of yourself and speak your truth (in kindness), and tone your abs, if that is what you want. But if it isn’t, don’t waste your time. Enjoy that chocolate.

Thank you all for reading this past year. It’s a gift you give to me.