Once or twice a month I drive by the serene, landscaped curve of concrete in which my mother’s ashes are stored. I slow down, and sometimes I get out and say a prayer.
Cars race past us on the interstate 20 yards away, but I feel alone, private with her memory. I try to clear my head, not just thinking of myself, of the next mark I need to hit, the next deadline.
Did I do enough for her? Did I make her happy? Was she happy?
I know she loved me and gave me everything. She gave so freely to her loved ones, her children and grandchildren. It’s what mothers do. It’s certainly what she did.
The day her ashes were sealed in the white wall was windy and overcast. I worried then if she was cold. What was she thinking about? Did she wish she were someplace else?
On a warm spring day, the burial wall is welcoming, like a park. Birds are singing, plants are blooming and a dogwood tree I planted 25 years ago looks robust and strong. My mother has several new neighbors since I was there last. She loved a party.
And then as if for the first time I look beyond her memorial in the wall. There stands a preschool, windows full of drawings, paintings and life-affirming projects. She would have loved all the high voices at recess, the song snippets that children sing when they are happy. After all, she was once a nursery school teacher.
I don’t know if it was planned by a church grounds architect or committee, but the juxtaposition of a memorial wall, a preschool, a parking lot and paved drop-off lane was perfect.
All squeezed together, like our jumbled lives, the unique, functional plots of earth were as one, blacktop, concrete, brick and dirt. It’s just how things are, and my mother would have appreciated and loved it. She didn’t want to be left out, wanted to hear all the sounds of daily life.
My father lives a few miles down the road. Our visits always include a few stories about the times he and my mother shared. He was very loyal to her later in her life when she became ill. He liked taking care of her, talking about their shared Jersey shore getaways or birthday trips to New York City for Broadway shows.
He enjoyed getting her coffee, making sure she had a blanket, and he especially enjoyed reading and singing to her, even after he thought she was asleep.
My favorite story he tells is of a time when she was in the hospital, on a bed in a hallway. There was no room available. He pulled out the murder mystery he was reading to her at the time, a page here and there.
My parents were very devout, always went to church, and said prayers each evening. But they loved murder mysteries with authentic dialogue, and my father loved acting out the pivotal confrontations. He gestured with an innate thespian flair for his favorite audience. Elmore Leonard and Peter Robinson provided great scenes for my mother and father.
So there they were, a sweet, elderly couple making the best of it in a hospital hallway with nurses, doctors, sick patients in wheelchairs, all in motion, most wanting to be somewhere else. Then, all of a sudden, a voice was raised, acting out an argument in an alley, complete with obscenities, gunshots and denials. They quickly found a room, with a door, for my parents.
My mother was an endless supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Jell-O, mashed potatoes with lots of butter, tuna casserole with a Saltine cracker crust, cranberry bread, corned beef hash and canned mushroom soup, her go-to favorite ingredient. She was “Count your blessings” and “Good things come in small packages” and in dire teaching moments, “Offer it up to God.”
Her secret weapon? In every house we lived in, she stored her most valuable tools, parts of tools, parts of anything less than 3 inches long really, in a magnificent, cluttered kitchen drawer. For a child, that drawer held the keys to the universe. She would have loved finding the big box aisle with the rainbow colors of duct tape.
I once gave her several rolls of cloth address labels to sew into all the knitted sweaters, hats and mittens she made each winter for each of us. It gives me such a thrill each time I find one saved in a drawer and comfort to hold them in my hands.