My mother is back.
She’s been gone for 45 years. She died at the age of 50, leaving me a double strand of pearls and a diamond ring and a lifetime of unfinished business.
I am not a clairvoyant or a person who attends séances. I don’t have visions or hear ghostly music. But what I know of death is this: There are those who leave us and remain close, and there are those who go and stay gone. Old letters, photographs, a flash of memory cannot conjure them up, despite our best efforts.
My mother was one of these souls, departing with a door slammed abruptly behind her and the key turned firmly in the lock. She died young, suddenly and inevitably, a casualty of alcohol and a surfeit of sadness.
I was 23, already a mother myself, but young enough to feel abandoned. I needed more than the jewelry and the battered Dr. Spock she left on the kitchen shelf. Her work was done, a well-meaning aunt told me at the funeral. Not even close, I thought. She should be here.
When my mother was 23, she was a star reporter in wartime Washington, D.C. Sorting through her things, I found her press card, still pristine in a leather case. With it was a photograph, my mother in a tweed suit and an upswept 1940s hairdo, holding a reporter’s notebook and smiling her brilliant smile. My mother, covering the story.
It was a career full of promise that ended the way careers for women did in those days, with the birth of her first child. In the years that followed she bore four more children and buried one. She shone in all the acceptable ways, as a gifted hostess and class mother and volunteer.
It wasn’t enough. Bright and beautiful, she could sparkle for an audience. Without one, the light dimmed. The noontime glass of sherry slipped into long afternoons of remembrance and regret. By the time I left home, she was nearly gone.
Now, unaccountably, here she is. I see her across a room, raising her eyebrows in jokey complicity or shaking her head ever so slightly. Don’t, she’s telling me. Don’t say that, not now. I have a better idea.
She always had a better idea. The most intuitive person I have ever known, she was an unerring judge of character. As a teenager, I hesitated to present boyfriends for her inspection. Her smile never wavered, but her eyes said it all. The only employee my father ever had to fire was the one she had told him emphatically not to hire.
I wonder where she has been. It’s not that I haven’t tried to reach her, asked her to come closer. I have lit candles for her in a hundred churches, remembered her birthday and the day of her passing each year. I have struggled with the past, struggled with my own remembrance and regret.
Some months ago, I found another photograph. It’s my mother and me on a distant winter day. There’s snow on the ground and on the pine trees behind us. We’re together on a sled, and we’re both beaming. My hands, in woolen gloves, grip hers, ready for the ride ahead.
I framed the photo and put it on my desk. It is here, in this room where I sit for a spell of morning silence and to which I return in gratitude each evening, that my mother has come back to me. I don’t know why it has taken so long. I only know that I’m glad I waited.
So, it seems, is she.
Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.
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