She died just as I’d started to get to know who she really was, instead of who I’d thought she was. She died before I knew even half of the questions I wish I’d asked. I was 36. Old enough to have asked the questions. Not old enough for my mother to die. Maybe no one ever is.
When Mark, our toddler, Jack, and I moved from Columbia to Greenville, the housing market was terrible. Our home hadn’t sold, but a friend offered us his childhood home as a temporary solution. His mother’s memory was failing; they’d just moved her to The Woodlands at Furman. The house breathed Mrs. Lynn’s presence. Five decades of family photos, tchotchkes and shifting décor decisions. It became our wacky, grandma-house for three years.
My favorite place was the back porch. It was fall, and the pecan leaves looked a little yellow around the edges, like individual leaf halos. And so many squirrels! I could hear them chewing. They flung themselves through the air and scampered around the trunks, furry tree loofahs, exfoliating all that dead outer skin.
The first year, especially, was a period of intense loneliness. Cooped up with an active three-year-old while Mark was busy figuring out his new job, I moved from being well-connected and competent with close friends and a career to a whiny, bitter mess. Clutter was like noise in my head; I coped by organizing a house that was not mine.
Mrs. Lynn called an average of eight times a day. I never answered; she never left messages. I liked to pretend she was checking on me, to see how I was getting along. Wondering what I thought of her porcelain pillbox with the rose design. Wanting to tell me the story of the large glass fruit centerpiece or that double-globed green lamp.
If Jack would nap, I’d sit on the back porch, charting the seasons by the changing pecan trees, and writing letters I never sent to Mrs. Lynn.
I wrote, “Maybe you don’t remember not remembering. And maybe that’s a blessing. My remembering what I’ve lost is part of my loneliness.”
I asked her all the questions I wished I could ask Mama. About parenting. About marriage. About duty and loyalty and what part of myself I was allowed to keep for myself. I found myself listening for the phone.
I was reading Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. The material— Jews who had escaped the Holocaust— was horrible. The language spare and lovely, like this: “Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful.” It became my mantra.
I’d learned from experience, here in the town of my adolescence, that reinventing myself only went so far. It had been a struggle to be happy while trying to be the person Mama wanted me to be.
But mothering is humbling and being an adult lends perspective. This time in Greenville I wanted to figure out how to be happy being myself. I like to think that, given another chance, Mama and I would’ve enjoyed each other a great deal.
When my mother died, I coped with the grief by organizing. First task was to sort her clothes: keep for myself, give to family or donate to Nearly New Shop. I constantly found handkerchiefs tucked into pockets. Mama had told me (as generations of mothers had told her): “A lady always carries a handkerchief.” By this they meant a clean, pressed, linen square, not the wadded-up bandana I would come to shove into diaper bags.
My mother was young, just 69, when she died of ovarian cancer. She was one of the first in her circles of friends to die, and those friends were grieving deeply. I thought they might like a handkerchief. It took two solid days and the help of my two best friends to give away 30 clean, pressed handkerchiefs. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever managed to do, to give beauty in the midst of loss.
Months slid by as I wandered through Mrs. Lynn’s life: her choices and tastes, increasingly her limitations and failings. The phone rang a little less often. I explored my own family’s life: conflicting needs and offerings, finding life full and lavishly mundane.
On the back porch I could hear the spring crop of squirrels chewing. The pecans glowed yellow-green and dangled pollen worms. I was 42 and pregnant again. Another unexpected gift. Another bewildering chance to make necessity beautiful.
Mama had done this so brilliantly. I thought that, just maybe, I could learn to do it, too.
I began by ironing some handkerchiefs.
Julia Sibley-Jones is an essayist and author of the monthly blog, This Uncharted Now.