Eau du vie

I’d hurry up if I had to go in after she did

Try to hold my breath

Didn’t want to smell Gran’s scent

Coudn’t put my finger on it

Something musky, something stale

I didn’t know then what it was

But it made me feel scared

She’s long since gone

But I smelled it today

I know what is is now

The perfume of age

Daily prompt: perfume

# perfume #dailyprompt #aging

 

Holiday Panoply

This week’s blog is a few days early. I wrote this in response to a word prompt via Daily Prompt: Panoply.

My mother was one for panoplies. Not as in the historical definition of “panoply:” a complete set of arms or suit of armor. But as in “a group or collection that is impressive because it is so big or because it includes so many different kinds of people or things.”

She was quite mad for decorating for holidays. From my earliest recollections, she put time and effort into decorating our house for each holiday.

It began with a small Manzanita branch which she spray-painted white. From its branches she would hang little ornaments and such. Perhaps she had seen something like it in one of those women’s magazines of the 1960’s with articles of how to be a good mother, wife and hostess. Those same magazines provided the recipes for many of the staples that she came to cook for us, too. Lots of recipes utilizing canned goods, as I recall. Things like Spam casserole and meat dishes with sauces made from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.

My mother had grown up in a rather eccentric household. Somehow, she and her twin sister never learned how to cook. My Grandma, their mother, did not cook. Their father, an active alcoholic, did the cooking, sometimes. I am not, to this day, sure how they all managed to feed themselves. But once my mother was married, she underwent a self-education of things such as housekeeping and cooking. With knowledge gleaned from the resources at her disposal then – women’s magazines, popular cookbooks and recipes from newly forming friendships – my young mother forged her way through the early years of starting a family.

At first, the Manzanita branch was decorated for the major holidays: Valentines Day, July Fourth, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But soon this expanded beyond just the basics to the other less widely decorated holidays as well: President’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Graduation Days, even Veteran’s Day.

We all teased her about it. My friends through the years would always comment upon seeing the tree and its adornments become more and more elaborate. But even in the midst of our jaded perspective on it all, there was also a sense of amazement, too.

The Manzanita branch holiday tree became a central figure of whatever house we lived in. From the first little house in the Sharpstown neighborhood of Houston, TX, to the house in Dallas, TX where we lived for a year until my Dad’s business venture failed and we moved back to Houston. To the Briargrove neighborhood house where my Dad started a new company and went back to night school. To another house a few blocks away in Briargrove as his business grew and thrived. And finally to the really nice house my parents bought after I was off to college in the higher-end neighborhood of Memorial.

How it made all of those moves intact is a mystery to me. Those branches are fairly delicate things. But somehow, it survived, and was always a symbol of something constant amidst the changing environments of our family’s life.

Once in that really  beautiful and much larger home, the home that was to be my parent’s last house, my mother’s decorating could really take flight. The Manzanita tree took a much less central role, bowing down alongside the growing collections of decorations. It would still be decorated, but it sat on the kitchen island, a more ordinary display in comparison to the dining and living rooms, which were transformed into holiday wonderlands that could have competed with any department store displays.

I came home for holidays and though I am sure on some level I appreciated it, I never stopped to think about the effort she put into it. (And I never once thanked her for doing it, which I feel regret over to this day.)

I didn’t reflect on any of this until after she and my father died, when my husband and brother and sister-in-love were going through that big, beautiful house, processing our parents’ lives and deaths by going through all of the things they had amassed in their lives together.

The hours she must have spent collecting each item. Putting them all out. Then taking them down and packing them all away again.

The love she must have had for us and for the doing of it. It takes true love to accumulate a Santa collection that literally has its own room. Closets for each season…with shelves and drawers filled with bunnies, Lincolns and Washingtons, hearts, witches, black cats, pumpkins, ceramic figures of patriotic people, stars of congratulations, new baby banners…

It was so hard to let go of those collections. I did not have the room in our small New York City apartment to store or even use all of those beloved objects. But I could feel her in them, as we sorted through and discovered her hiding places for even more of her collections.  I imagine my father must have tried now and then to get her to promise to stop buying things. It was clear that she hadn’t. The joy she must have had in finding each one. The love she must have felt for us as she imagined creating each holiday wonderland for our enjoyment.

I chose to take one object from each of the major holidays. I cherish them today. We found the Manzanita, and thankfully, my sister-in-love (who is much like my wonderful mother in her ways and in her heart) expressed a desire to keep it. She and my brother have a larger home in Houston. I know that my mom would be so happy for them to be using it.

My sister-in-love also chose to keep many of my mom’s holiday panoplies. I now get to enjoy them on our holidays together visiting their home in Houston. I walk amidst the Santas, beautifully displayed and lovingly put up now by my amazing sister-in-love. I take time with each one, appreciating them, remembering my Mom, and her love.

The Manzanita branch is there, now stripped down to its natural color. It is still a symbol of something constant amidst the ever-changing world and our family in it.

#holidaydecorations #manzanitabranch

 Panoply

 

 

 

 

Looking for the Light

I had another blog planned for today, but in light of last week, this just seemed to most adequately satisfy what I want to say.

In honor of poet, singer, songwriter, painter, musician Leonard Cohen‘s passing, I want to share the full lyrics of his song “Anthem.” Several lines excerpted from it have been offered in the many tributes to him since he passed away last Monday.

I share the entire song here because it is beautiful, it makes me think, and, as have so many of his songs, it has taught and continues to teach me to look for the beauty, for the hope, for the light, in everything. If you click on the title below you will go to a YouTube video of him singing it in 2008. Thank you, Mr. Leonard Cohen.

Anthem, by Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I seem to hear them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
And the signs were sent:
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every single government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
Ah but they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
On your little broken drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

Girl with a Pearl Necklace

My niece just graduated from high school and turned 18 on the very same day.

She is very special to me, as is her brother, who is a few years younger. They are my remaining older brother’s children, and our little family of my husband and I and my brother and his family have become more and more important to me with each passing year.

More so I think since the deaths of my mother, father and other brother several years ago. Losses sharpen and intensify the remaining connections. It is one of the sweet gifts such losses contain.

I decided to continue a family tradition and take my niece on a trip in honor of her graduation. My Grandma FitzGerald (who I was named after) began the tradition when my oldest brother (the one who remains) and our cousin (my mom’s twin sister’s eldest daughter who was my eldest brother’s age) graduated from high school. She took them on a two week trip to Europe. She did the same when my middle brother and our only other cousin (my mom’s twin sister’s other child who was John’s age) graduated from high school.

When my high school graduation came, Grandma and I went alone as there was no cousin there to join me. (That trip is a whole other blog post. Being a namesake can be complicated. I was also a bit wild. Gran was a bit of a force to be reckoned with. We were an interesting combo on a trip to Ireland, England and Scotland at the height of “the Struggles” in Ireland and when, politically, Europe was not too keen on Americans. Gran eschewed social norms and loved to talk politics and religion upon meeting strangers. At seventeen, I found this incredibly embarrassing, and a lot of eye-rolling and running off with the only other young person on the tour to sneak beers in pubs to meet boys ensued.)

Back to my niece and our trip.

I had come up with the idea to carry on this tradition: I knew that if my mom were alive, she would have done for my niece what her own mother had done for her children. So now I will do this for her, for all of us who remain. I cannot wait for our trip this summer, to have that time together and to perhaps tell stories about my memories of my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother.

But I wanted my niece to have something to open on her birthday, and after racking my brain and scouring the internet for all the usual grad gift ideas, I still felt at a loss. Then an idea occurred to me. I have a beautiful, sweet pearl necklace that my mother gave me when I graduated from high school. What if I passed it on to my niece?

When she gave it to me, my Mom had told me that her grandmother had given it to her when she graduated from high school. I think I remember feeling special when she gave it to me. I know I loved wearing it.

I had the great luck to have actually known my Great Grandma Burns. She had been a world traveller, and incredibly sophisticated. She had beautiful taste, and a style that was quite European-seeming that she had passed along to my Grandma. Originally from Kansas City, the daughter of a fairly well-to-do flour miller, Great Grandma Burns had been all over the world and had an elegance that she had imparted to Gran Fitz that was way bigger than Texas, where our family had eventually relocated as a result of my Grandma’s marriage to a traveling salesman.

Great Grandma Burns had bright, sparkly eyes and though she was intimidating, she was warm and funny, and I loved her. My mom, my Grandma FitzGerald and Grandma Burns and I would go to have luncheons in department store tea rooms together, four generations of women. She and my Gran Fitz would dress to the nines, as did women in those days, replete with a hat, pumps, a skirt suit and matching bag and gloves. I, being the youngest, would run to open doors for them. “Age before beauty,” they would say, if I ever made a face at this task.

I remember liking the necklace, but at 18 I doubt I really thought all that much about it then, being much more concerned with parties and boys and my friends.

As I grew older, the meaning of the necklace deepened and changed. We lived through both my Great Grandma Burns and my Gran FitzGerald’s decent into dementia, and eventual death. Life began to shape and change me, as She does to us all.

Later, when my own mother moved through her two cancers, and after her death, that pearl necklace remained, a symbol of her love of me, and of the love of the women who came before me. Whose hearts and dreams brought me into creation. I am the living embodiment of their imaginations and wishes and hopes and desires.

It has brought me such joy throughout my life. I truly treasure it. As I treasure my niece.

I was so excited when the idea of giving it to her came to me. It felt like divine inspiration.

So it surprises me that now that I am actually giving to her, I feel sadness around it for some reason. A strange mix of emotions have taken me completely by surprise. Sadness, fear, anxiety…I do not want to give it from this space. So I have to unravel what is going on.

Is this sadness because I do not have a daughter to give it to? Hmmm, I don’t think that’s it. I’m ok with that, at least for today. (More on being child-free another time. That too is at least a whole other blog post.)

Is it that I am letting it go? Ahhhh, yes, that’s it…I am sad to let it go…as if it somehow holds the actual love my mother had for me and by giving it away I will lose touch with it or something. That is the odd fear-panic I am feeling. Attachment is deep y’all. Damn.

And what if she doesn’t treasure it as I have? What if she hocks it for beer money someday (ok, this is probably projection and totally revelatory of my own wild youth — I did do that once but it was a bracelet an ex-boyfriend had given me, not a family heirloom, and she is very level-headed and not at all like me at her age, so that’s definitely a reach.) If I give it, I have to really let it go, and that means giving it without expectation or any strings attached to the receiver. She is free to feel about it and do what she wishes with it. I have to be willing to actually let it go to her.

I have loved that necklace so much. Cherished it. But I don’t actually wear it much. Isn’t it better is it is given to possibly be worn by someone my mother and I both adore?

I wonder if my mom felt pangs of sadness when she gave it to me? Don’t get me wrong, the overriding feeling I have is one of joy and love in thinking of giving it to my niece. I am just examining the other complicated things that it has brought up.

There’s something in here too, I think, about the passage of time…maybe the necklace, without me realizing it, has been a symbol of my own youth? A rite of passage, anointing the next young woman of my family…and giving it to her hits home that I am no longer that girl at the cusp of the start of her adult life. I am deep in the middle of mine, heading towards the transition to the later years. Yep, that definitely rings some bells.

Realizing these layers inside, I can be more clear and clean around this. And so I give it to her without expectation, but with some hope. I hope she appreciates it and loves it as I have, but that is all literally out of my hands.

As for it being a symbol of my mom’s love, I have beautiful memories that do not require a physical object to live.

No matter where the necklace ends up, may it resonate love and dreams and family and new life. May it bring whomever wears it in its remaining lifetime great joy in the wearing.

 

 

All About Joan, Epilogue

Nine years ago almost to the day, I finished the second show of our two-show Saturday, and headed home to the actors’ house. I was feeling really unsettled and irritable.

As I walked out to my car, I ran through my day and night, trying to find some logical reason for my mood. It had been a perfectly normal day. Another great show. Nothing to explain the deep dread I was feeling in my gut. The unsettled sense in my bones.

I found myself driving aimlessly through the fairly quiet streets of the city, crossing over the river bridges again and again. This city in Illinois was unique in that you can literally drive across a bridge and be in another city, and then drive over another and be not just in another city, but another state. Without intending to, I was going back and forth, back and forth, from one city to the next, over and over again.

Something about the way the dark water was moving under the bridges in the light of the cloudy-mooned sky seemed to reflect something dark moving through me. At a certain point, I was literally overcome with emotion and had to pull over on the roadside. I felt so utterly sad, so desperately powerless, so…lone.

When I finally hit exhaustion, I drove back to the actors’ house to try to sleep. Just one more show to do, tomorrow afternoon, then I could make the trip down to see my Mom.

The next week was our last week of the show. It was bittersweet. I was sad for the closing, but relieved, too. I was looking forward to being able to just visit Mom for a long visit before heading back to NYC. The traveling back and forth on my days off had built up an accumulated tiredness that lurked just under the surface of my passion for the play and for my mother. My emotional and physical resources were being stretched thin.

Back to the actors’ house. The new cast for the next show had just moved in. We’d been a cast of four, swimming in the abundant space of the big many-bedroomed, two-story house. The cast for the new show was huge, and the peaceful house was now filled to the brim with with people, pep and parties.

My room was right off the common room, and as I made my way through it to my room that night, I did not bother to interact with anyone. Normally, the people-pleaser in me would have mustered up an insincere smile as I passed. This night, not only did the lively chatter and the blaring TV not suit my mood, it grated on my nerves.

I tried to sleep but was restless. Around 1:30 AM, desperate for some escape into sleep, I stuck my head out the door, asking that they have some respect for the rest of the house and take the party elsewhere, upstairs, anywhere, so that I could get some sleep. I’m sure I seemed like the biggest wet blanket ever, but God, did I feel awful. I finally fell into a fitful sleep.

The next morning, I started awake to find a voicemail from my father. I knew when I saw the message that something was up. I will never forget that feeling in my gut, looking at my phone, seeing his name. And before I actually heard his voice saying the words, my body already knew what had happened. From somewhere deep inside, it gave a kind of primal groan – half silent, half aloud. I threw on clothes and grabbed my purse and keys.

I stumbled out into the common room and started lurching in a daze out towards my car. I passed some girl who had awoken early — I don’t know what she must have thought was going on – I am pretty sure I was white as a ghost, and I may have been crying. I waited until I was out on the street before calling my Dad back. It was if the house did not deserve to be the place where I would hear the words that she was gone.

He answered quickly, and we spoke as I wandered in the middle of the street. My father and I decided that since I already had a flight to go home the next day, I’d just keep it…no need to miss the show to get back that night. The funeral home would not be open…Monday morning made the most sense. I’d have a day and a half with him to sort things out, and then I’d fly back to Illinois to finish my contract out that week and drive my things back to NYC after the last show that next Saturday. Then I’d return to Texas.

I hung up with him, faced with getting through the rest of the day and night. I knew I would do the show that afternoon…that my mother would want me to…that I wanted to. That is what you do, as an artist, as an actor. You bring your life to the stage. Your truth. No matter what. But what to do with myself until I had to be at the theatre?

I knew one thing. I did not want to be around the actors’ house with those chatty, happy people who didn’t know me from Adam and had no reason to care about my loss.

While in Illinois, I had met a local woman, who, it turned out, was in town caring for her parents. She’d given me her number for some reason. Midwestern kindness. “If you need anything while you are here…” I barely knew her, but she was my next call.

That woman met me at Appleby’s and sat with me until it was call time. A total stranger, yet she sat with me and got me through those awful first six hours of shock. I hope to be there for someone some day in the way that she was for me. At a moment’s notice, she dropped her day’s plans to sit with a total stranger. I do not remember a thing we talked about, but what an Angel she was.

It’s funny. You can know someone is going to die, but it doesn’t prepare you for anything. The actual death still rocks your world. It’s just as shocking. I’ve since lived through sudden loss and additional prolonged deaths, and there isn’t much difference when you actually get the news in terms of the affect of the actual grief and the loss.

When it was finally time, I went and did the show, which was actually a grace. Having something in my life such as acting — it is an anchor, it grounds me to the world and to my core. It was a blessing to have a show that day. I figured I could either be heartbroken outside the world of the play or take my heartbreak and transform it within the world of the play. You bet I picked the latter. My cast mates and the production team were incredibly kind and supportive. I will never forget their loving kindness.

Afterwards, I quickly went to gather some things, and then I treated myself to a hotel out by the airport so that I could have some quiet and not be in that house! The next morning I boarded a plane and flew down to be with my father and begin to make all the necessary arrangements.

I later found out that my mother had begun to feel distressed that last Saturday evening just around the time I left the theatre. While I was driving across those bridges, over the river over and over, so distressed, she was experiencing great physical distress and fear. And that hour I was tossing and turning? That was around the time when my Mother actually died. It’s strange, but I believe that some part of me knew what was happening with her. They say energy can travel across time and space. I know it did that night.

I miss my beautiful mother every day. But I also feel her in my bones, hear her melodious voice in my mind. Her presence is strong in my heart. Her words come back to me as the years pass. All those talks we had at the end are stored in a bank in the back of my mind. She gave me so much to draw from. I see her in my reflection in the mirror more and more as I get older. And I do not mind at all.

Her death changed my life.

She was the heart of our family. All families have one. The person who is the love center. That was my mother. Our family has had to reconfigure. We’ve had to try to find a new balance. But the truth is, the heart center can never be replaced. You go on as a family, and love as before, of course. But you always feel the absence of that missing heart.

People came out of the woodwork to offer condolences. Baggers at the local supermarket sent flowers to our house. It turned out that she knew all their names, and their kids names, and their stories. Friends from my childhood that I had long since lost contact with came to her memorial because they had felt seen and heard by my mom. She had so many friends from high school and college and beyond…I’m talking real friends, not just acquaintances.

If I can live my life even one tenth of the way she lived hers, I will have lived a life of great value. I am so grateful for all she has given to me. For all she continues to give me.

My priorities shifted as a direct result of losing my mother. She left me with a legacy of living and loving better. Of having true curiosity about life and of others. I saw that all that remains when someone dies is how they made you feel. It made me wonder what I would leave people with when I die. It made me want to be more like her. To make people more at ease. To take more time to really see and be with others. To listen more. To make them feel seen and heard.

Her death made me see people, the world, differently. I grew up buying what was sold to me on TV — MTV was born in my youth, after all. I believed what I was surrounded by in all forms of pop culture: that celebrities and stars were the people of the greatest value. The beautiful people – the movie stars, the models and the rockstars – were the ones to admire and aspire to. It shaped my whole value system.

But after my mom died, that changed. I know now the beauty and honor in the quiet, ordinary heroes, the ones who live lives that maybe no one ever notices or reports on. The ones who love and listen and give for no acclaim. Who give their attention to others with no expectation or need to be adored back. Those people are the real rockstars of this world. I admire them and aspire to be more like them today.

More like my mom, who was one of those. A true star.