Monday, August 26, 2019

Mrs. Jones


Sunday marked the second anniversary of my poor Mom's passing.  My son and I went to visit the gravesite, to pay our respects.  I dread these visits; they are unbearably sad for me and I am reminded by the military footstone which marks my father's adjacent resting place of her lifelong uncomplaining 'curtsey' to his rigidity.  We walked over the grassy hillside where she had been laid to rest presumably for eternity, where she has already endured eight seasons' passing in the loneliness of the deceased.

The cemetery upstate is like a city of tombs; it reminds us how the dead far outnumber the living in this world.  On the day we visited it was late afternoon and quiet-- no funerals, no steam shovels, no cement-laying, stonecutters or even gardeners.  We brought a bluetooth speaker and played some Frank Sinatra for my poor old Mom who'd begged to be cremated, because she couldn't bear the thought of being in a box.  While I tried my best to fight for her final wish, I was overruled by petty family tyranny.  After Frank, we played Billy Paul's 'Me and Mrs. Jones'...

In 1972 my Mom was still elegant and beautiful.  I'd come home from college and she'd be baking a pie or pulling some magical concoction of cakey lightness from her old 1940's oven.  The gardeners and workmen would hang around hoping for a slice... they loved her, and she flirted in a tiny way with their reverence for her kitchen skills.  When she was alone upstairs she'd sing along to the radio-- 'we've got a thing going on'... the song seemed to be in extra-heavy rotation that summer-- and she'd blush when I caught her.  She even bought the sheet music and tried to play it on the piano.  My Dad was always darkly burdened and serious.  They didn't use the word depression lightly in those days, but he suffered and she never complained.  That summer she was still young enough to understand longing, and passion.  She was a wonderful wife-- an enabler and a team-player... but the Billy Paul song, and the daily workmen's coffee breaks were her little window onto some kind of womanly heaven.

For some reason the bluetooth got stuck and kept repeating the song over and over--- loud and resonant over the hills.  No one came out to scold... and after three or four plays even my son's mood lightened.  I buried a few small trinkets, as I do-- an old Egyptian scarab I bought as a child from the Smithsonian Museum, a button from my son's prep-school blazer-- things to comfort her.  'Is Grandma a skeleton?' my son asked, as though he were in grade school.  It made me shiver.  I'm not sure how they dressed her when she was buried; my sister had the purse and called the shots.  I wish I could have had the closure of spreading her ashes in the places she'd loved, and not the deep remorse of being unable to carry out her final private wish.   Such is life--  and the relentless tide of death which carries us all out to the darkest depths of some universal sea where we are all theoretically 'one'-- infinite grist for some cosmic mill.

I remember my mother assuring me as a young child: God takes care of things in your mouth.  I’d fallen and split my lip open… a few days later a teacher sent me to the nurse—it seemed my bottom teeth had poked through the gash… no, I did not blame God… but maybe that was the first broken promise.  What are promises anyway?  A marriage vow?  A prenup? Like my college honor code agreement-- a kind of contract which by its very existence assumes it will be challenged or violated?

This has obsessed me lately-- walking the streets,  relentless monologue in my head, the confessions and titles-- a hurdy-gurdy monkey cranking out lyrics, pulling on my ear... filling in the spaces.  Jesus-- give me structure--a blank-line stability-- a simple page.  On what can we rely? In my Mom's case not even her last request was honored-- or, more likely, she lacked the strength to demand such a thing in the context of her old-fashioned view of male-dominated decisions and one-way unconditional love.  I was her daughter; it was not filial love she really craved and I only wish I could have witnessed her in that cafe being indulged as Mrs. Jones. 

We are growing old now, my friends and I.  No one is going to kneel down and cup our face in their hands and reassure us that anything is going to be okay.  We ricochet from day to day, from narrow escape to close call-- entering medical offices to be handed a grim prognosis no matter how hard we have worked, how we have either abused or cared for our bodies.  My facebook friends post and celebrate-- and suddenly there is some ominous news or shock.  First it was our parents; now we ourselves.  A few have moved from the city-- retired, escaped, become sustainable farmers and nature-worshippers in some enviably remote agrarian paradise-- and suddenly they, too, are asking for help, for donations.  Nature  has no favorites; we are all at her mercy when she stretches her limbs or opens her global mouth and lets us have it.

The denouement is not nearly as interesting as the build-up; life gets thin and brittle as we age as do our longings and desire.  In the end it is 'missing' that so often replaces love.  I miss my young Mom-- the one who baked and sang and dreamed.  It is that version I choose to imagine buried with her passions and memories on that hill waiting patiently for her daily romantic rendezvous long after her great grandchildren are gone.

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