[Note: First written in 2007 and still, for the most part, true. So far.]
Her earliest memory is being held on the shoulders of her father, watching the men who lived through the First World War parade down the main street of Fargo, North Dakota in 1918. She would have been just four years old then. When she was 90 years old she came to her birthday party wearing a chic black and white silk dress, shiny black shoes with three-inch heels, and a six-foot-long purple boa. She’s threatened to sing Kurt Weill’s ‘The Saga of Jenny” and dance on the table one more time.
She’ll sing the Kurt Weill song, but we draw the line at her dancing on the table this year. Other than that, it is pretty much her night, and she gets to call the shots. Which is what you get when you reach 90 97 and are still managing to make it out to the tennis courts three to four times a week. “If it wasn’t for my knees I’d still have a good backcourt game, but now I pretty much like to play up at the net.” [Note: Alas she had to give up tennis at 95 back when her knees finally gave up. She didn’t. Water walking twice a week. She gave all a scare a couple of years ago but came roaring back after major surgery and is more or less back to the regular schedule.]
She plays Bridge once or twice a week, winning often, and has been known to have a cocktail or two on occasion. After her operation, she gave up driving much to the relief of my brother who fretted over it for several decades.
She keeps a small two-bedroom apartment in a complex favored by young families and college students from Chico State and, invariably, has a host of fans during any given semester. She’s thought about moving to the “senior apartments” out by the mall, but as she says, “I’m just not sure I could downsize that much and everyone there is so old.”
She was born deep in the heartland at the beginning of the Great War, the youngest of five children. She grew up and into the Roaring 20s, through the Great Depression, taught school at a one-room schoolhouse at Lake of the Woods Minnesota, roamed west out to California in the Second World War and met the man she married.
They stayed married until he died some 30 years ago. Together they raised three boys, and none of them came to any more grief than most and a lot more happiness than many.
After her husband died at the end of a protracted illness, she was never really interested in another man and filled her life with family, close friends (some stretching back to childhood), and was, for 15 years, a housemother to college girls. She recently retired from her day job where she worked three mornings a week as a teacher and companion to young children at a local day-care and elementary school.
She has always been a small and lovely woman — some would say beautiful. I know I would. An Episcopalian, she’s been known to go to church but isn’t devoted to the practice, missing more Sundays than she attends. She’s given to finding the best in people and letting the rest pass but has been known to let fools pass at high speed.
Born towards the beginning of the 20th century, she now lives fully in the 21st. Nearly 15 years ago we gave her a 90th birthday party. It was attended by over 200 people from 2 to 97, many of whom told tales about her, some taller than others.
We didn’t believe the man who told about the time in her early seventies that she danced on his bar. He brought the pictures of the bar with her high-heel marks in it to prove the point.
Other stories are told, some serious, some funny, all loving. But they all can only go back so far since she has only been living in Chico, California for 30 years. I can go back further, and so, without planning to, I took my turn and told my story about her. It went something like this.
“Because I’m the oldest son, I can go back further in time. I can go back before Clinton, before Reagan, before Nixon, before Kennedy, before Eisenhower. We’ll go back to the time of Truman.
“It must be the summer of 1949 and she’s taking my brother and I back home to her family in Fargo for the first time. I would be almost four and he’d be two and a half. The war’s been over for some time and everyone is now back home and settled in. My father’s family lost a son, but — except for some wounds — everyone else came out all right.
“We’re living in Los Angeles and her home is Fargo, North Dakota, half a continent away. So we do what you did then. We took the train. Starting in Los Angeles we went north to San Francisco where we boarded the newest form of luxury land transportation available that year, the California Zephyr.
“Out from the bay and up over the Sierras and down across the wastes until we wove our way up the spine of the Rockies and down again to the vast land sea that stretched out east in a swath of corn and wheat that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains. On the Zephyr you sat in a plush chair among others in a long transparent dome at the top of the car and it seemed all Earth from horizon to the zenith flowed past you.
“There was the smell of bread and cooking in the Pullman cars that I can still capture in my mind, and the lulling rhythm of the wheels over the rails that I can still hear singing me down into sleep.
“At some point, we changed trains to go north into the Fargo Station and, as we pulled into Fargo in mid-morning, my mother’s family met us with their usual humble dignity — they brought a full brass band that worked its way down through the John Philip Sousa set list with severe dedication. They also brought me more family members than there were people living on our entire block in Los Angeles. There may also have been a couple of Barbershop Quartets to serenade us during the band breaks, but I’m not sure about that.
“My mother and brother and I were swept away in the maelstrom of aunts, uncles, cousins by the dozens, and assorted folks from the neighborhood on 8th Avenue South.
“The day rolled into a huge lunch at a vast dining room table where my grandmother ruled with an iron ladle. Then, after a suitable post-prandial stupor, my entire family rose as one and headed out to the nearby park for their favorite activity — trying to crush each other in tennis. When this family hit the courts, it was like a tournament had come to town. Other would-be players just took one look and headed for another set of courts elsewhere.
“I was still too young to play, although my mother would have a racquet custom-made for me within the year, so instead I would have been exhausting myself at some playground or in one of the sandboxes under the eyes of my older cousins. Then, at dusk, I made my way back to the courts.
“In the Fargo summers, the twilights linger long and fade slowly. And as they fade the lights on the courts come up illuminating them in the gathering dark. And I sat, not quite four, as the night grew dark around me and my mother and her family played on below.
“Now it is all more than sixty years gone but still, in my earliest memories, they all play on in that endless twilight. I see them sweeping back and forth in the fading light. Taunting and laughing together. Calling balls out that are clearly in. Arguing and laughing and playing on forever long after the last light of day has fled across the horizon and the stars spread out high above the lights.
“Service. Return. Lob. Forehand. Volley. Backhand. Volley. Love All.”
At 104. Before.
In My Mother’s Small House Are the Mansions of Memory
[Note: NOVEMBER 2018 Burned out of Paradise I have moved in with my mother in Chico. Yes, I have become that “72-year-old man who lives with his mother.” It’s not so bad. Not so bad at all to live with an active and sharp and sardonic and sweet mother as she enters her 104th year. ]
In her 104th year, this happenstance kitchen collage of my mother’s life is growing both richer and deeper. The image above is of what once was a bulletin board. It is kept in my mother’s kitchen in her apartment to the rear of an unassuming but decent collection of apartments in the small city of Chico, California.
It’s too bad the image of it is so small here on the page. But no matter how much I might enlarge the image of it, it could never be as big as what it represents. Although small in scale it is larger than the lives it chronicles. It is the sum of all love.
You’d miss that. If I could show it to you in real time and at its actual size, you’d still miss it. It would remain much as you see it here — just a jumble of clips, slogans, photos, handicrafts, and images. Aside from its complexity, it wouldn’t mean all that much to you. These icons of other people’s private lives never do.
And yet, if you have anything that even resembles a functioning family, there’s a bulletin board like this somewhere in the various dwellings of your family. If you’re lucky, there’s more than one. You don’t know what this one means, but you know what yours means. You know it all — for better and for worse.
Still, to know the worst of the stories that lie behind these images you not only need to know the lives these commonplace icons chronicle, you have to be looking hard for the worse and, in the end, dragging it out of your own memory. If you work at finding the worst in people, you can always locate it.
But if those who keep these family altars are like my own mother in their dedication to them, you won’t see them displayed. There will be no shadows there that you do not supply yourself.
My mother only adds the things of love to this board, never the things of disappointment, failure, heartbreak or betrayal. To do so would be a betrayal of the trust that keeping this board brings with it, and, to my mother at least, a waste of life.
My mother does not waste life.
In my mother’s home not a scrap of love — however faint or distant now — is ever discarded. Everything that does not meet her measure is tossed away without pause or regret. If something comes her way that she deems special — be it an out-of-focus photograph, a clipping from a far-away newspaper, a small note of thanks, or a pipe-cleaner figure made by one of the second graders she acts as a teacher’s aide for — it gets promoted to the bulletin board. Once there, as you can see, it stays. If something comes to her that’s a downer, out it goes.
That’s why my mother has two piles of scrap in the kitchen: one for recycling and one for the shredder. She gets a warm feeling by recycling, but she gets a real kick out of running things through the shredder.
At age 104 she’s tiny but sharp. Strong in will but delicate as a bird. Quick to empathize and quicker still to laugh. Playing tennis several times a week kept her on her game — until 95.5 when her knees quit — in more ways than one. So does bridge and working as a teacher’s aide with small children. She’s wise that way but without pretense. If you ever told her she was wise, she’d shrug and ask you if you’d like another German pancake, this time with lemon juice and powdered sugar. She hasn’t missed breakfast for nearly a century, which shows you, if you had any doubt, just how wise she is.
Years ago, after she sold her rooming house for college girls and moved into her apartment, she decided that the kitchen wall was perfect for a bulletin board that she could use to keep track of her busy schedule. Somewhere under everything else on the board we think there are things that pertain to schedules in the late 1980s, but it would take an archeological team to excavate them. Instead, one photo got put up, and then another, and then a clip of this and a note of that and, over time, it became the raucous riot of bits and pieces you can see here.
Babies and friends, present and past wives, can all be found. Girlfriends long let slide still peek out. Birthday parties and christenings, weddings, vacations, and graduations…. all the private triumphs and moments of personal happiness glisten and shine, one fit atop, against, behind, or aside the other as life rushed on and curved away, ebbed and then surged back again, brighter and larger than before.
If you knew all the pieces here as I do, you could review them and see the tokens of a life that begins before the end of the First World War and rolls along right up until today. It’s a very big life to be contained on such a small board in such a small apartment, but my mother’s genius when it comes to this collage is that, no matter how full it gets, she always finds room to add one more moment.
We don’t know how she does it. It’s a gift.
[Republished from 2007/2010 because…. well… because I like it.]
It was just cold enough to be refreshing while the sun was bright enough to be warm on her face when not in the shadows of the courtyard. It was getting on towards the end of a bad year that could have been worse. She was working hard, very hard, at getting her strength and balance back so she could leave this place and go back to her home. He’d come to see her every day and when it was warm enough they’d bundle up and go out into the fresh air for coffee.
On that day she happened to glance down towards the somewhat abandoned plantings that were waiting for Spring to be refreshed. “Oh, look at that,” she said. “Flowers. Flowers still.”
He looked down and saw what had to be the world’s smallest daisies peeking out from a plant low to the ground, almost hidden under a mound of leaves. He picked one and placed in her hands. she held it and looked at it for along moment and then placed it carefully on her lap.
They finished their coffee and then her therapist found them in the courtyard. “It’s time to do some more walking,” he said. “We need to get your balance back.”
On the way back inside he saw her pick up the miniature daisy from her lap and place it in the pocket of her robe. She did this deliberately. She wanted to be sure it would not be crushed.
Later he saw it on the table in her room. It was in a small cup and had been carefully watered. It was still there and still fresh when the first day of the New Year came around.
On Sunday, we said farewell to my mother at St. John’s Church on Floral Avenue. It was not a sad event but one in the spirit of a woman who, over decades of tennis, won many trophies but was always proudest of winning “Best Partyer” seven times. Hundreds attended along with more members of my immediate family than I’d seen since her hundredth birthday and whom I know I shall not see together again in this life. My mother was the last of the World War I generation and the last with enough spirit to draw us all into the same town. Her ashes were there with us beneath a cloth at the altar.
At the reception, stories were told and memories shared as is the way of such things. At one moment I stood back from it all and, looking on, thought of Christopher Wren’s epitaph in the middle of the great St. Paul’s cathedral that he had built in London:
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (“If you seek a monument, look around you”)
And there we all were; not for the first but certainly for the last time. And after a bit, we all dispersed, friends and family alike, back to our separate lives as is the way of such things.
Last week while helping my family sort, box, and clear out her apartment I’d opened a locked panel in the desk that was by her right hand whenever she rested in her chair. Inside was a small clear container of coarse ash. On top was a nameplate with my father’s name on it. He’d died over 40 years before but was never replaced in her heart or her life and was, as I had just learned, never very far away from her.
* * * * *
On Monday it was a fine and cool morning in Chico and Tom and Jeff and I went to a place in Bidwell Park where she used to love to picnic with us and with my father. There we blended the ashes of our parents and, taking turns, spread them onto the grass and under the oaks and upon the stream.
And then we were orphans. But not, we know, for long.
I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you. — Whitman
When my father died I took his ashes to a place in Paradise where I put them into a stream higher up in the same canyon system…
The place we have come to is where the pines lean out
from the rounded boulders lodged above the stream;
where what the stream saves builds up in the backwater,
making in the mounds of matter an inventory of the year:
Rusted tins slumped under the fallen sighs of weeds,
diminishing echoes of the blackbird’s gliding wings,
laughs buoyed in the hollow belly of stunted trees,
gears, tires, the bones of birds, brilliant pebbles,
the rasping whoosh of leaf fall crushed to dust,
the thunk of bone on bark, the thud of earth on wood,
the silence of soft ash scattered on chill waters.
Is this life all that is and, once life lost,
the end of all that was, with nothing
left to be, with no pine wind to taste,
nor sun to dapple mind with dream?
Is all that is but ash dissolving,
our lives mere rain in circles falling?
Or are we still the center of such circles,
our fall a rise above the shawl of night,
where all shall shine contained within
that single soul, that heart of stars;
that interface where souls and suns
and Earth’s far scattered waters meet?
Meet in that one hand whose palm
still remains held out forever,
held out and for forever holding us
even in the coldest light of day. — For My Father
So long for now. See you both a little further down the road.
On A Redwood
When my mother moved into her small apartment in Chico forty years ago she chose well. Most of the apartments in the complex overlooked only asphalt parking lots. A few were built so that the apartments faced each other from across a swath of lawn and trees. My mother took one of these on the ground floor.
Just beyond her patio, the builders had left a dawn redwood standing. Thus, for forty years that redwood grew beside her as she lived her life of friends, family, tennis. She lived her life very, very well; teaching all who knew her how to live and how to age and how to die. The redwood grew and witnessed all the moments of all her years. Today, through a quirk of fate — call it destiny — the same redwood grows beside and shelters my terrace across the way. The sun sets behind it every day silhouetting it against the oranges and pinks of the western sky. Absent the wrecking hand of man, the redwood will survive the apartments and the town and the nation itself. Like mother’s memory, it stands indifferent to time and fire. It abides.