My mother rarely revealed emotion, particularly grief. Anger could be presumed from the sharpening of her eyes or the tightness of her mouth. Joy, from her husky, smoke-filled, lungs. But tears, none at all that I recall, except for once, after the long winter break of my freshman year.
On that January day, I pulled out of the driveway, waving, as she stood on the lawn, a weeping toddler in each hand, and I was certain, almost certain, in the absence of my own, that tears were running down her cheeks too.
Had my departure–the beginning of the long-drawn-out end to her vocation as mother (to which she, with 8 children, and dying young, never arrived)—punctured at long last the defenses around her heart?
If so, I set in motion, a series of reckless acts toward freeing it, that began in the back seat of the mini-van with someone the age of her marriage which was about to implode as my father opened the door and found them together.
He, unlike his soon to be ex-wife, was very expressive, stingy with patience and encouragement, which she had in steady supply, but copious in his offering of disappointment and anger, enthusiasm and expectation, super-sized by gender, birth order, occupation, and societal status.
Such a public ending to his marriage seemed to free him somehow too, not his heart which he’s since guarded with barbed wire and land mines, but his inner toddler, his right to be/do/feel whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, however he wanted.
“Emotional procrastination,” is my youngest son’s latest assessment, likening his grandfather’s developmental delays to his own avoidance of schoolwork, describing it as catch-22 of overwhelm, resistance and accumulation.
I don’t know what gave rise to my parents’ emotional complexities. Theirs was not a time when childhood wounds were tended and restored and shared as I have done with mine. What little I know is that my mother gave up a child in the year before she conceived me while my father dealt with intense emotional swings even in college.
I can’t say they did their best, but they did okay. We’re a great bunch, my younger sisters and I, kind and exceedingly helpful and ladened with our own heartbreak and chemical complexities with which if not our best, we do okay.
As to my parents first born, neither eever worried much about her, something my father has been known to say out loud, “We never had to worry about Kelly.”
When they let go of their love for each other and what came of it—the six of us girls–I took on the worrying for them.
To be fair there were times when my mother expressed concern on my behalf, and this was never shrugged off like it is by many a child or grown child, but treasured as a jewel because it meant that I was visible.
“How is Kelly?” I heard her say to my father, on the afternoon he flew up in the little plane to retrieve me from summer camp unexpectedly. She had actually rushed toward the door when we arrived at my grandmother’s home but I was swept up onto the sofa in the arms of my grandfather.
“How is Kelly?”
I had never much belonged to my mother, absorbed as I was into my father’s family as the first grandchild, aligning myself in heart and mind to her mother-in-law, who was taller and richer and educated and glamorous and expressive and strong.
“How is Kelly?”
That single moment of consideration at 14 and a half in the den of my grandmother’s house combined with my mother’s tears on the lawn as I pulled out of the same driveway 3 years later, might be considered scraps of visibility by some, but of these tiny seeds, whole forests have grown.
This week I find myself becoming edgier and edgier with my baby before he graduates and leaves, and so I stop and ask myself:
“How is Kelly?”
I’m not much one to cry. In fact, after the accident that took my grandmother’s life, I didn’t cry again until the day we lost her home to my parents’ divorce. Menopause helped shift that some as has yoga and meditation and lots and lots and lots of therapy.
“How is Kelly?”
Beneath the angst with my 18 year old, I find grief and fear and confusion around how such an encompassing day-to-day way of being—mother and child–could come so finally to an end.
He came to me in the weeks before my mother died, delivered of a body forced to cry, nursed with milk and tears, and so it’s no surprise that his favorite flower as a boy was the Bleeding Heart and hasn’t he always worn his on his sleeve.
As a gift for turning to face the overwhelm of school work, we took him to the garden store to finally consummate his desire for his own rose plant.
He spent an entire day last weekend applying his engineering skills to the large boulder that he found in the bed into which he would place it. And this morning, as I write, he motions for me to come outside, not only because the baby foxes have reappeared on the rock outcropping beyond my writing door, but because his rose has bloomed.
We went to at least three garden stores, and looked at every plant, until he settled on one, a two-toned blossom with a heart-pink center and creamy petals.
The garden bed itself was built by his older brother on his visits home from school, and on his last stay he put in a new plant that he bought for his love.
And so it is that out my writing window I see roses and bleeding hearts and baby foxes soon to leave the den and isn’t it so.
“I’m sorry I neglected to tell you about its fundamental flaw,” my son says after reading this piece and okaying it for posting. “The reader will have no idea what it’s about.”
(June 7, 2019)