Archives for February 2013

for March 3

(I wrote this on September 3, 2010, exactly six months after my mom died. It is still the only time I’ve visited her  gravesite.)

So I came. I called John from the road. He told me to go and to be sure and call Jenny Kay, which I’ve done. We’ll have lunch when I’m ready.

I’m not ready.

I’m in the car with my laptop. It’s raining. 71 degrees. North wind at 10 mph. It’s fall, Mom. You love fall.

I arrive at 9:52 a.m. It would have been sooner, except for the rain. But it’s the perfect rain — so light you hardly get wet, especially in a place like this, where there are trees everywhere.

I walk right to the spot in this outdoor columbarium, remembering walking there with her that Monday, February 22nd. She could hardly walk the paths. My dad had to help her up the steps. But she was so proud of where she would be buried. “Isn’t it pretty?” she said.

You should see it now, Mom.

I reach her stone and just sob. I thought I’d just be wistful or a bit teary, but this is real honest loud ugly crying. My hair is wet. My clothes are wet. My eyes are wet. I bend down and touch her name, carved into the limestone. I kiss my fingers and press them into the wetness puddling in “Mar. 3, 2010.”

I walk around and cry. I enter her grave from every pathway, so that I can see her stone from every angle. No matter how you look at it, her name is bigger than anyone else’s: Merry Nell Van Fleet Drummond. It fills the whole stone, which is shaped like the United States of America.

I tell her I’ll be back. I want to walk around this place she so carefully picked out.

And then I see that some kind, generous soul has left roses on a grave. And I burst into tears again. “Damn,” I think. “Mom would have remembered to bring flowers.”

And now, I’m a wreck. Because she always remembered to bring flowers, and I never remember to bring flowers.

I go back to her gravestone to apologize. But before I can, I notice a brown leaf on her grave. It’s not much. But I think she would like it.

I have an idea.

I walk around the area where she is buried, and I see the exact same type of bush that is planted by my kitchen window. I wish to heaven and earth I knew what it’s called, but I don’t. I do know it’s a NICE (Native Instead of Common Exotic). I bought two in September 2008, when she was beginning to get super sick. I wanted something that bloomed in the fall, her favorite season. This bush has purple berry clusters. I planted two, and by golly, those suckers are still alive. They are the first — the first — things I have ever planted in my entire life that lived.

And they’re all around her gravesite. They’re taller than I am.

I pick one small blossom. I place it between the “Van Fleet” and the “Drummond.”

“When you see this, think of me,” I say.

And I think of my dad because his name is on this stone, too. Waiting. Right now, only his birthday is carved into the rock. He is fly fishing in Colorado (possibly Wyoming) at this exact moment. He and Mom should be there together. They leave every Labor Day weekend. Today is Friday of Labor Day weekend. What would Dad want me to put on her grave?

I look up. There is a small oak tree right above her grave that is jam-pack covered with acorns. Some squirrel needs to find this place and get to work. I pull one acorn and its tiny branch and set it beside my father’s name.

“I miss you,” I say on his behalf.

I think that if Mom were with him, they’d be in Creede by now, and the aspens would already be turning gold. And if there is one thing she needs on her grave, by God, it’s an aspen leaf.

But I’m in Austin, Texas. It was 100 degrees a few days ago. There is no friggin’ way I’m going to find an aspen leaf.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Mom.

I start walking around the cemetery. “I’m not asking for a miracle, Lord,” I say. “I know I’m not going to find an aspen leaf. But can you please help me find something that’s close? Can I at least find a leaf that’s golden? We can pretend it’s an aspen.”

And you know, God is good, because it wasn’t a few minutes later that I found a golden leaf. It’s about the same shape as an aspen. I pick up the leaf and look around just a little more, to confirm that I picked up the right miracle leaf, but I’m pretty sure.

I go back to her grave and set it above her “Merry Nell,” kind of halfway to my dad’s name.

“Wait a minute,” I tell her. “I need to get a picture.”

I quickly walk back to the car and get my cell phone. As I walk there and back, I think about how Mom was always driving me crazy by taking pictures, and here I am, doing the same thing. But she would want me to. If she had picked a berry cluster and an acorn and a miracle aspen leaf, she would want me to take a picture.

So I snap my photo in the rain, but it comes out clear.

“’Bye, Mom. I love you,” I say. I kiss the stone with my lips.

Back in the car, as I type this, I look at the photo. I can see now what I couldn’t see then — green ferns surrounding the stone, which is set in rich, black soil.

Happy fall, Mom.

I get back into my car. It starts to thunder and pour down rain.

She said goodbye.

Prose poem, inspired by Sandra Heska King

“And Mom tied herself to a tree so she didn’t tumble into the water while she planted flowers on the bank.”—Sandra Heska King, “The Heart Work of Eviction,” February 6, 2013, The High Calling

OUR LADY, UNTIER OF KNOTS

She walks outside to plant purple right on the bank, beneath the shade of the cypress tree. If she can get them in today, they’ll always flower. They will come back year after year, strew themselves wildly, cover her own grave. She’s waited for weeks, started the seeds indoors, ensured just the right amount of darkness. But for three nights in a row, it’s been warm enough. It’s time.

This will not work. This spot with the perfect morning sun is too steep. She inches at it with care. Slips. Scared, she stands up. She will find a way. Is planting flowers supposed to be this hard?

Into the garage, where he throws his tools. She digs to find that rope he uses to haul stuff. Fumbles with the itchy old cotton cord, making a bow. Every childhood Sunday before church, her mother said she tied her bows upside down. What if she gets stuck, like when they played with jump rope at recess back in kindergarten and she couldn’t get untied from the tree and worked the knot for forever until she finally got undone? Never mind. If these flowers don’t get in the ground soon, there will be no purple!

She wraps the rope around the thick trunk. Double-knots it, ties the only bow she knows. She braces one foot against the thirsty tree. She might fall in the dirt but she will not fall in the cold creek. She will not drown. She ties herself up. Works fast. The bank will be beautiful — lilac, violet, pink, rose, white, maybe even peach. She sits back, pulls at the bow …

Stuck. She sits down in the dirt, starts in on the loops with her fingernails. She is exceptional at untying knots.

The soon-to-be flowers wait for this woman to get out of their way. Eventually she frees herself.

She reties the rope in an upside-down bow, walks home. She knows how to attend to things that seek to sever their own roots. When she is old, she will look on these flowers through her bedroom window, see how the groundcover spread so naturally, like all things mildly invasive.

Booked: Great Expectations

“Not everyone appreciates the magic of Great Expectations, but that’s the thing about magic: it doesn’t work on everyone.”  —Karen Swallow Prior, “Booked”

I started Prior’s “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” and took a detour to read “Great Expectations.” I’d always been scared of it (although the “South Park” version did loosen me up a little), but I finally tackled it. In the spirit of “Booked,” I’m not going to go all English major on you, but I want to talk about how this book affected me, how it worked its magic.

(In case you’re wondering when the magic began to take effect, it was probably this line of Joe’s: “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.”)

Throughout the first, oh, three quarters of the story, until the Big Mystery is revealed, I was frustrated with Pip. Why was he so mean to dear old Joe and Biddy? Why on earth was he falling for Estella? What possessed him to keep going back to the wretched Miss Havisham? And why did he act so horrid once he had money? I didn’t like him at all. Just stop being so weird, Pip!

And then. After the Big Mystery was revealed, things were not what they seemed (and any Dickens fan would’ve seen it coming).

That’s when I realized that I am Pip.

I am this way to this person and that way to that person. I think I am completely consistent, and instead I am leaving a trail of squashed souls. And like Pip, I don’t evaluate people rightly. I think the bad ones are good and the good ones are bad. Really, I expected better of myself after reading the entire “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques, in which befriending an enemy or showing an enemy a kindness often ends up saving your life at just the right moment. But the lesson didn’t take.

Pip has to go through all sorts of suffering—much of it avoidable—before he comes to his senses. He has to lose people and come close to death himself before he develops what Provis always had: patience. Provis is described as “playing a complicated kind of Patience with a ragged pack of cards of his own,–a game that I never saw before or since.” That’s it. I’m buying a deck of cards.

Pip says to Miss Havisham, “You made your own snares. I never made them,” but she could just as easily have said it to him. There’s no reason either of them had to create further problems for themselves and others, yet they both did. And that’s what I’ve been finding—land mines I’ve strewn everywhere. People are stepping on them. Dear God, I thought they were just rocks.

I had no idea what I was doing, who I was becoming and yet, there it is, right in the book: “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it.”

The same sentiment is expressed in the song “Some Nights”: “Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh, What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know anymore” and in the next verse, “She stops my bones from wondering just who I am, who I am, who I am, oh, who am I?”  Yeah. I’m sure Pip would totally have been into the band Fun.

Near the end of the book, Pip says, “I felt that I was not nearly thankful enough,–that I was too weak yet to be even that,–” Ann Voskamp has tried to teach me to be thankful, and although I’m on my second list of 1,000 gifts, I’m still not where she is. Maybe I needed Pip sooner. Pip recognizes that he’s too weak to be thankful. I’m pretty weakened, too. It may take a little longer to get my gratitude on.

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

That’s what happened in my case—evidence showed up. Evidence of my own wrongdoing and that of others as well. It forced me to re-evaluate everything. Of course, it’s not all bad stuff; there’s good evidence, too.

“The June weather was delicious. The sky was blue, the larks were soaring high over the green corn, I thought all that countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever known it to be yet.”

It’s not June, but the weather we’re having now won’t come around in many parts of the country until then. The sky, the birds, the vineyards (no corn around here), the wildflowers that will soon cover the countryside—those are evidence, too. There is beauty and peace I did not have eyes to see.

Thanks, Karen. And thank you, too, Pip.

3F

Earlier this week I had lunch with my dad at our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant: Tres Amigos. My sister-in-law nicknamed it 3F (for Three Friends). Tres Amigos has had who knows how many owners over the 30 years we’ve been eating there and who knows how many different menus. My dad can’t order his favorite dish anymore–chilaquiles. But he found something else that was good.

Here where I live, my husband and I had a similar favorite restaurant called Kelly’s. It was our go-to place for lunch, for birthdays, for guests. Once, we even ate lunch there on Christmas Eve while a light snow fell. But Kelly’s closed a few months ago. Now when we want to eat out, we can’t decide where to go. Sometimes we stay home.

Of course, staying home doesn’t mean that I cook because I no longer cook for my family. OK, fine. Put me down for Bad Mom. My teens get in who-knows-when most nights, and as soon as the time changes, my husband will be riding his bike in the evenings. Plus, the food that I like, no one else likes. I’m not vegan, but I enjoy trying vegan recipies. I love fish and fruit. I can’t live without nuts and sweetened, dried cranberries on a daily basis.

The only time all four of us eat together is when we’re at a family event, like we’ll be at this weekend, when the hordes descend for my grandmother’s 99th birthday. There will be beef stew on Friday, mimosas and tea on Saturday (as well as food, but I don’t know what kind), BBQ on Sunday. We’ll sit around, eating and talking, going back for an extra slice of cake.

I’m afraid my kids won’t reminisce about “Mom’s weird salads” the way I reminisce about my dad’s $89 Stew, my mom’s wild rice dressing, my uncle’s ability to transform anything he just shot or caught into something delicious. But they might remember the food from this weekend, along with a lot more than three people celebrating. Because these people are more than family—they’re friends, too.

If Wishes Were Fishes

If wishes were fishes, the sea would be full.

                   (a misquotation of an English nursery rhyme)
 

And I would divert all those fishes

into the mouth of the Rio Grande near Creede, Colorado.
 

(Any fish that couldn’t survive the transition

from saltwater to freshwater

really

isn’t worth my time.)
 

I would not tell you these fishes were wishes.

I’d just give you some basic fly-fishing equipment.

You must cast your own arc, set your own hook,

catch your own wish.
 

Skin it. Filet it. Pan fry it in butter

with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of white wine.

Adorn it with a sprig of rosemary. Lift

your fork to your mouth

chew

swallow
 

You are full.

Word Candy from James Cummins