Thoughts on Sunday 

I awoke late at night to a crescendo of crickets and a surge of fever. Mussed bedding trapped my limbs. Pain entangled my dreams. I heard a whimper and wondered who was crying. A shadowed presence appeared at my bedside, palmed hair from my forehead, freed my legs from sodden sheets, soothed until I slept.

My mother’s touch that fevered night formed my earliest memory. Later, when I was thirteen, Mom shaped the direction of my life.

We were the featured speakers during a Dear to My Heart night for mothers and daughters of our church. I don’t remember what I said in my tribute to Mom, but I do remember fussing endlessly with my bangs, gluing them in place with Brylcreem and hair spray, more concerned with my appearance than my words.

But I have a hand-written copy of Mom’s speech. She began with startling news: “Janet, from the moment I first held your warm, perfect body in my arms and gloated over your dark, curly ducktails — I actually had a baby with hair! — you’ve been a source of joy and delight to the entire family.”

The entire family? Even Bob?? Did they vote?

Later, another surprise: “I enjoy leaving your younger sister and brothers in your care. Even if the dishes are sketchily done and the furniture pushed awry, I know the little ones will be well cared for and also have fun with the games and stories you create for them. You’d be a good teacher, Janet.”

With those words, she directed me toward my future.

Mom made my heart soar that night; then, driving home, she returned me to reality. “Janet, we have to do something about those shaggy bangs stuck to your nose. When we get home, I’m cutting them. You look like a greasy Shetland pony.” Amused at the accuracy of her description, she giggled, and, despite myself, I chuckled with her.

When Mom was seventy-seven, I spent a week with her in Wyoming. Most of the time we talked. But other times I sat with a book in my lap and watched her sleep in a recliner; her hands unusually idle in the middle of the day. Soft window light bathed her lined face, and her breath seemed slow and faint.

Not wanting to bother her children, she admitted to heart problems, but told us her medicine and pacemaker helped. As I sat near her, watching her drift in and out of sleep, I refused to recognize the truth.

She died seven months later. With time, I recovered from the emotional turmoil of her death, funeral and burial — a poignant week I walked through with my father and siblings, united by our grief and love.

Then began the long-term ache of her absence.

Over a year later, in Carson City, Nevada, I absentmindedly drove a street of golden leaves let fall by tired trees. My neck tight with stress, I worried personal choices, professional puzzles, a life littered with busyness. Then I saw a woman who reminded me of myself: face beginning to age, flowing skirt and heels working-woman high. Her head inclined, she walked slowly toward a nursing home, tenderly holding the frail arm of a stooped, white-haired woman. Their smiles were identical.

As I watched, they paused and commented above a bed of purple asters. Without warning, my heart collapsed like a butterfly caught in a net, and I mourned: I never walked my mother through her decline; I lived far away, thought I’d have time; others were there. And she died so quickly.

I grieved that I hadn’t taken the time for more memory-making moments with her.

Sunday, I experienced the same regret.

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The Important Things

Happy Mother's day card with colorful tulips

I remember coming home from church on Mothers’ Day, looking forward to dinner and Mom’s surprise when she opened her presents — a cookie sheet, a three-pack of Dentyne chewing gum, and a boxed set of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs — gifts my siblings and I had purchased despite Mom’s claim that all she wanted was a day without fighting, screaming, tattling, or crying.

As Dad maneuvered the car along our potholed lane, I admired Mom’s bouquet: tissue-paper flowers we’d made in Sunday school, sprayed with Lily of the Valley perfume, and attached to pipe-cleaner stems. During general services, after selected classmates expressed appreciation for their mothers, the rest of us distributed the scented blossoms. “Your flowers are pretty, Mom. Hard to make, too. Did you like the speeches?”

“I did, but I hope if one of you is asked to speak on Mothers’ Day, you’ll mention things you appreciate other than the way I cook your meals, clean the house, and do your laundry. Surely there are things mothers do for their children more important than maid service.”

Unfortunately, I was never selected as a Mothers’ Day speaker and so never told Mom how grateful I am for the more important things she did for me.

My mother shaped me: She gave me her generous lips, sparse eyelashes, enjoyment of school, and belief that a day without dessert was a sad day indeed. Both of us could carry a tune, though no one in our songbird family expressed interest in hearing us do so. Public speaking, teaching, and napping came naturally to us, but a cheerful attitude before breakfast did not.

More importantly, Mom noticed and appreciated the detailed world around her. One of my earliest memories is of her teaching me to be in the moment: to swish my fingers through the cool pond where we gathered watercress, sniff the plant’s pungent aroma, and then sample a peppery leaf.

When we moved to Lander, Wyoming, I heard her marvel at the tilted red cliffs, rushing river, and towering pines of our new home and so paid closer attention than I would have if left to my self-centered teenage ways.

She once showed me a spoon she selected when she and her siblings were choosing keepsakes after their mother died. “Of all the things I chose, I treasure this the most,” she said, holding out a large silver spoon for my examination. “This was your grandmother’s stirring spoon for as long as I can remember. See how the curved edge on one side is worn flat from constant use? When I hold this spoon, it’s like I’m connected to her.”

My mother also taught me empathy. My sister and I both fled to her at different times when marriages we thought were forever crumbled. We arrived wounded, angry, frightened, and left with a sense of peace and resolution. Neither of us can remember Mom’s words, but we remember the gifts she gave us: our favorite foods, her undivided attention when we wanted to talk, and her tears when we cried.

Though my mother didn’t speak the words “I love you” easily, I never questioned her love for me. My siblings and I learned from her, enjoyed her, and appreciated her. Her home was where our hearts were.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You did the important things.