into the west: a eulogy for mom

 

I write this way, throw words at the paper, or the virtual computer screen paper, then edit. Usually I find more rather than less to say.

Last Wednesday a friend and I went on a quest of sorts to the Chesapeake Bay beaches we love, the waters I kayak, the great inland sea, America’s largest estuary.

We found nesting ospreys, soaring eagles and vultures, blackbirds singing from the marshes, a black snake racing across the road into the refuge, a northern water snake Loch Nessing at the edge of the beach.

And sea glass. And photos of mermaids riding seahorses and Moana doing the hula inn a zen garden I raked into the beach.

And one sunset. An unusual one.

 

I had received from an aunt, a donated bag of clothes from someone with money. Nice stuff. One thing was a turquoise top/skirt with glittery stuff on it. I normally don’t do clothes with glittery stuff but…

…these were dragonflies.

My two cousins and I became the bug sisters (one is an entomologist and one a vet tech) with their butterfly pin and bee shoes and my drgonflies.

I opened my story with a bit about the dress, the dragonflies, how I’d seen so many on rivers and lakes and marshes kayaking, and watched them emerge…

 

” They begin their lives underwater, in a world of no air, no color, no gravity, no fire. One day they climb up a plant stem to the surface. Their old skin splits and they cast it off. A bright thing, the color of new leaves climbs out, wearing a tiny backpack. The rumpled pack wrinkles and tatters and unfolds…stretches… unfurls… hardens into gossamer sails. She waits a moment, then spreads her wings and flies into a new world of light.”

Mom was born Dec 3rd, 1924, a Sagittarius.

I am a Leo.

Two fire signs. Two strong willed women.

Yep.

Pretty sure you could see the nuclear mushroom cloud from space.

She was the oldest of seven kids, two boys, five girls, and by default, the other mother, the caretaker, the One With Massive Responsibility. Our family is Pennsylvania German, which means pragmatic, hard working and OMG THERE’S A DUST MOTE KILL IT NOW!!!

The family had a farm, worked with a horse (or more borrowed from neighbors). Indoor plumbing and electric came a lot later… a LOT later, like I remember the outhouse and the water pumps (here I make frantic pumping motions with arm…).

They survived the Great Depression, growing their own food and sharing with relatives and neighbors. They survived WWII, they were the Greatest Generation. Dad fought in Europe, Mom worked on the home front. Neither talked much about it. She said something once about painting parts for planes or something in a factory…

Once in awhile, driving down a back road to nowhere, she’d say something about having walked there to

school or to get water, a glimpse of a time when things did not appear at the push of a button.

She was a strong minded woman in a time when women were expected to fill certain roles, to take a back seat, to be polite and keep quiet. Her house was always neat, despite my propensity for sneaking in cats and tracking in mud. She pushed the Woman’s Role on me, with pink girly things and Barbies and baby dolls and 4-H sewing and cooking…all of which I loathed.

It was Dad who supported my horse habit and the 4-H horse club I defected to.

But it was Mom who brought me books.

I have a sharp memory of sitting with her reading a little Golden Book about Huckleberry Hound, a little blue dog, long before Blue’s Clues and Clifford the Big Red Dog. I was three or four.

And I knew when to turn the pages. She read to me constantly, and when I got to school, I kept reading.

Once or twice a month Scholastic Book Services would send a flyer with paperback books you could order. I’d go through the new list like a pirate with a treasure chest, picking out every horse story, animal story, the odd faerie tale or science fiction story and my favorite of all time in grade school: the Jungle Book.

This was the original Kipling version, Disney hadn’t mangled it yet (though I do like the Disney film, it’s just not the Real Story… and let me tell you how much I’m still mad at them for making Kaa a villain!!!). Here was the kid raised in the jungle by wolves, his teachers and guardians an old wizard of a bear, a thirty foot python, and a black panther who made Batman look wimpy.

You have no idea how much I wanted to take a thirty foot python to school so the Mean Kids would stop harassing me.

School was twelve years of pure unmitigated hell. I was a great student, but now I see that the teaching style of the time did not even begin to take into account my learning style, my brainstyle. And as an awkward misfit, I was the kid everyone picked on.

I did have books. Mom took me to the library with its huge fountain (I wanted to dive into it), and, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, I could wander the endless shelves, looking for new portals into faraway places and times.

Books saved my life.

And now, I’m writing some of my own.

I don’t think I turned out quite the way my mom expected. I prefer long braids to short dos, kayaks to cooking kettles, animals of any sort to babies. I detest the color pink.

I am wearing, not black, but turquoise. Not black because I do not mourn the passing of this strong woman of the Greatest Generation… I celebrate her life, and the gifts she was able to give me.

Art lessons and art school. Books. Yep, it’s all your fault Mom, all those books, films and other stories, even the ones I’m writing myself.

And maybe the ability to stand up and say, “no, I do not want to do it that way, but this way.”

 

My all time favorite book is JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, about an unlikely Fellowship on a quest to save the world from a dark power. My favorite literary character of all time is from that book, Legolas, the Elven archer of the Fellowship, the one who can talk to trees and ride horses without saddle or rein. When he leaves the tale, he walks away singing a song, perhaps my favorite bit of poetry ever… Tolkien believed in applicability, not allegory, so he let the reader read the tale and apply it to their own experiences and lives…

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling…

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Turquoise has washed into my life in the last few years like a wave. It is the color of kayaks and ocean waves, the sea that we originated in, the sea our ancestors crossed to a new land, the sea that connects our whole world.

A few months ago I asked Mom if she wanted to go see a certain movie. I don’t think she’d been to a theater since I was a kid. I had already seen the film and almost desperately wanted to share it, maybe as a way to explain something about me. I had also thought about sharing some of my other favorite stories, like the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, thought about reading them to her, but she passed on before I could.

We did get to see Moana.

For those of you who have not seen this fabulous Disney film, it is the tale of a “princess” (here I do air quotes) who goes on a quest to save her people from a spreading darkness and ‘inescapable death’. Moana enlists the reluctant aid of a superhero named Maui, learns new skills, overcomes obstacles and (spoiler alert!) saves her people, their island, and the world connected by that turquoise sea that forms the backdrop of most of the film. There is no romance, and Maui only assists for part of the journey. It is Moana and her persistence and faith…and her connection to her family and ancestors… that ultimately save the day.

In the books I loved so much as a kid, it was almost always boys who had adventures like that. Now, finally, we have some girls who are the masters of their fate.

“So, what did you think?” I asked Mom when we came out of the theater.

In her usual understated way she said “It was all right.”

(here I throw my hands in the air and do internal screaming)

Oh well. We went, we saw, I got to share a beloved story with her.

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One of my favorite songs from that film tells how the Polynesian navigators found their way across the vast Pacific ocean thousands of years ago, with no compasses, only stone age technology… reading natural signs like the stars and the shape of the sea and the flight of birds. Part of the song goes…

Aue, aue,
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way

Aue, aue,
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain
Aue, aue,

we’re not afraid of the horizon line

we know where we come from
We know the way

I think she can see the island…

I think she knows the way.

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One more thing…

Years ago, one of my crazed Siberian huskies began slowing down. She was from the SPCA, found trying to pirate someone’s goats, no one came looking for her. She was my pirate chick, kicking butt until that year. Then she was gone.

It was early spring, with snow melting into ice and mud.

A day or so after she passed I walked out the door and looked down… there in the mud was a remnant of icy snow…

…in the shape of a heart.

Picture

I took a picture and you can see it on my “I Heart Nature” page on my website, swordwhale.com. There are dozens more; hearts found in the shape of a beach pebble, a deer’s tracks, the space under the roots of a tree growing on a sandy bluff, a dry spot in an otherwise wet basement floor, spots on macadam parking lots, leaves, beach wrack.

A few days ago a friend and I went down to the sea, to the Chesapeake Bay beaches, an epic quest for some serenity… and wildlife and photos and sea glass. We found ospreys nesting, ducks migrating, redwing blackbirds singing in the marsh, gulls wailing in the distance. A black snake racing across the road into the wildlife refuge, a northern water snake swimming at the edge of the beach like a tiny Loch Ness Monster.

At the end of the day we sifted the last bits of sea glass out of the sand at Rock Hall and watched the sun vanish behind a bank of blue grey clouds.

“So much for my usual photos of fabulous Rock Hall sunsets.” I said.

I took a few photos of my Moana doll doing the hula in a zen garden I raked onto the beach.

The sun broke through the bottom layer of clouds, pinking up the sky behind Moana.

I got some shots of the sunset and packed up.

The sun sank into the bay, pink, then red, then orange and blinding bright.

At one moment the clouds fractured the shape of the round sun…

…for just a moment, too short a moment to catch with the camera…

…it looked like a heart.

 

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