Monday, April 27, 2009

A Mother's Day Story

The essence of this story is absolutely true; it's just the finer details that have faded. I suppose I could ask my brother, Grant. He would know for sure as he was intimately involved, but he, like the rest of us, would embroider or diminish certain details, depending on whim, memory, and what he wished were true. And so, family legends are created, and this is one of ours.

My mother had a difficult time conceiving, enduring several miscarriages until I came along, then my sister, Janet, a couple of years later, (with two other miscarriages in between) and then three brothers in two years.

When I was five, my sister died. She was only three years old. Equine encephalitis, the doctors pronounced; a virus carried by a mosquito, probably from an infected horse. I've wondered, in the entire world, how did that one mosquito choose my sister, traveling however far, to infect her, and kill her.

Months later, baby Gene was born. He died at six months of age, from an adverse reaction to the polio vaccine, said my mother (another family legend, I am lead to believe). His death certificate said pneumonia. My mother said no, it was an adverse reaction to the polio vaccine. She knew in her heart, and we didn't question her knowledge. The three of us who remained did not finish the series of shots and we survived. That was her proof.

The family was in a long period of mourning, losing two children so close together. My father handled crisis the way he always did; he drank until he ran out of money. My mother, in retrospect, was, understandably, depressed, emotionally unreachable, somnolent, wordless.

It was my grandmother who bought the matching headstones for the babies. Two white lambs, in repose, fluffy white fleece carved into white stone. She said they were Lambs of Jesus. They had sweet faces, with soulful eyes, watchful and waiting. Little brass plates were embedded into their chests, the names of the babies they safeguarded and the dates of their too short lives engraved in simple print.

So years passed, and each year, my mother and grandmother would go to uptown to Woolworth's to buy plastic flowers to lay on their graves for Memorial Day. More years passed; my mother moved out of state and mailed money to my brother so he could do it for her as she was no longer able to make the long drive north.

As sometimes happens, good intentions and heartfelt promises are not kept, and plastic wreaths with bright grosgrain ribbons never found their way to the babies' graves.

One day, a neighbor knocked at my brother's door. "Hey, Grant, I've got something to tell you. I was up to the cemetery and I saw that those two lambs that belong to your family aren't there. You know how you can't miss them, they're being right as you come in and all. Practically the first thing that you see, and they're so unusual that you kind of look for them if you been to the cemetery before. Did you take them to get them cleaned or repaired or something?"

Stunned, murderous outrage swelled in his chest. "Are you sure? They should be right there! They've been there for nearly thirty years; nobody in the family has moved them! Maybe the groundskeeper moved them for mowing." The smoke spun off his tires as he sped down the road to investigate for himself.

He drove up the grassy lane, pulled up beside the family plot. Where two lambs should have been were two deep rectangular imprints in the earth. He called the groundskeeper; no he didn't move them. Noticed they were missing and figured maybe Grant had taken them for repairs. He calls me next, fury choking his every word, tinged with guilt for not having visited the graves. I share his guilt and wrath; we commiserate and rale. We vow vengeance.

We made a pact: Don't tell Mom. She had endured a lifetime of sadness and loss; we would protect her. We would replace the stones quietly and harbor our bitter fury. Days pass, there is no way to determine when the stones were taken or who would've done such a thing. Everyone he speaks with says the same thing, they remember the lambs, noticed they had been missing for a while, thought maybe they were being repaired, never thought to mention it.

Grant was driving home on his little country road and a force drew his gaze to his next door neighbor's flower garden. Nestled deep in the flowers were two white lambs in repose, serenely waiting and watchful. He punched the brake with his foot; his tires bit deep into the dirt road as the car stopped. In almost a seamless move, he put the car into reverse, backed into their driveway, and strode over to the lambs.

There was no mistaking them. The brass plates had been removed but these were the babies' lambs. He knocked furiously on the door. No answer.

He called me from home, and his fire fanned my own flames. He wanted to do bodily harm, but in a moment of reason, I convince him to call the local constable. Justice will be served without either one of us going to jail, I assure him. It would not come fast or severe enough for us we agreed.

Yes, the constable was very familiar with the lambs (didn't everyone?) He would make his own trip to the cemetery to verify they are missing. The waiting is interminable. He returns, grim, to make an official visit next door, but does not go alone. Grant is there, like hot granite; heat waves emanating from him. He does not feel as neighborly.

The neighbor is surprised, dismayed, horrified, devastated.

Several months ago, he had bought the two lambs at a yard sale some 30 miles away, someplace in Aetna, he thought. He had seen an ad in the paper for a yard sale, couldn't remember the address. The guy had a bunch of stuff, but when he saw the lambs he had to have them. He thought they were lawn ornaments.

Yes, he had seen the indentations where the name plaques would've been, couldn't figure out what the indentations were for, and didn't think anything further about it. He just knew they'd look nice in his flower garden at the front of his house.

Grant found the grace to concede that the lambs did look nice among all the flowers but they belonged somewhere else. The neighbor, now edgy with the thought of headstones in his flower garden, could not return them fast enough.

So Grant took them home, had new brass name plates attached, cemented the stones on a foundation. And they lay in sweet repose over their babies, watchful and waiting for Jesus.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning. He called me to say that he had just returned the stones and they looked better than ever because he had them cleaned' the white fleece was whiter and the brass plates were shiny new.

We were silent for a moment, reflecting on the journey those lambs had taken and how they were miraculously returned to us.

"Hey," I said, "Guess what. Today's Mother's Day."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Inch By Inch

Back in the day, I worked in a regional billing office for a national insurance company. There were six of us on the phone, each of us taking in about 200 phone calls a day from clients who had questions regarding their bills. I don't think I need to tell you, but I'm going to say it anyway, they weren't calling us to give thanks for sending them a bill or a cancellation notice. We had to develop a thick skin to deflect all the threats and verbal abuse and still deliver civil service.

We heard all the excuses: my dog ate the bill (probably the same dog that ate their kid's homework), they moved, they divorced and their ex-spouse is throwing away all their mail, the garbage disposal ate it (for those folks who couldn't have a dog), the mailman doesn't like them and refuses to deliver. And the winning excuse was the woman who said she was in Boston, nightclubbing, when she was accosted, beaten, and raped, her handbag stolen, which had her bill in it. Now the women in the office rallied for her and gave her an extension on her bill, and just as the phone was being hung up, she was heard laughing to her coworkers about what an actress she was. She was immediately called back. Can you say canceled?

We became hardened and cynical and, shamefully, vainglorious. We'd swap stories about the calls we received and laugh and coach each other on how to handle the tough customers.

But they weren't all tough.

One morning, a woman called, cancellation of her auto insurance to be effective in 28 days. She was a Boston resident, and her annual premiums were probably three times greater than her suburban peers. But hey, that's the price for living In Town, right? You choose to live there, you choose to pay the price. That's was the rhetoric we were taught to speak.

She was soft-spoken; fatigue weighed down her words. She wasn't calling to dump blame on us; she wasn't looking for sympathy; she was calling us to find a solution. She needed her car, she needed to work because she needed to eat and a place to live. But the minimum amount required would take an entire paycheck. Could I do take less and let her keep her insurance.

By this time we, collectively, had taken a hard line about accepting less than the minimum and giving extensions. I explained company policy. She sighed, defeated.

A moment of inspiration stuck me. "You could pay week by week, though, if you wanted. Just take the $300 and divide it into four equal payments. As long as we get the full amount before the due date, you'll be all set."

"Really? I can do that?" Her voice lilted. "I can do that! That's like what my mama taught me: inch by inch, it's a cinch. yard by yard, it's hard. I'll see you money every week"

I don't remember that lady's name. I don't remember if she made her weekly payments and kept her policy in force. I do remember the bit of wisdom that she left me with and have applied it to my life.

Just this week, I decided to do some yard work. It's become a big project but I am determined. I'm older and my body rebels. The arthritis acts up and my back aches; I move slower. I have become my mother. Aspirin is my bedside companion. Ole Sweetie-Pi watched me haul out the rake and the brush clippers and the shovel. "Whatcha going to do?" he asks.

"Yard work," I say, as if it weren't obvious to him.

"Too much for you to do. We should hire someone."

"I'm going to work half an hour a day on it," I say.

"That won't amount to much, half an hour. You'll be wasting your time. Let's hire someone to do it."

I agree with him. "Okay, good idea. Let's hire someone." In the meantime, while Ole Sweetie-Pi is researching to find the ideal worker, I plug away in the yard 30 minutes a day. Today, the sun was hot and I was sweaty. My arms and back were screaming in discomfort. I stood up as straight as I could and admired the difference my collective efforts has made.

Inch by inch.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Biddy Bea Finds a Patch of Sun

Our female tabby, Biddy Bea, finds a patch of sun midst last autumn's overgrown grass and fallen golden rods.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Parting Thoughts

My youngest brother dated a young woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I never had the privilege to meet her, (and I do not even recall her name) but my brother was quite smitten with her and wanted to continue their relationship even after she discovered her illness.

For reasons of her own, however, she chose to end the relationship (I believe it was to spare my brother the pain of watching her die and then the pain of her death). Also, she still had hopes and dreams and things to do and she was determined to set about doing them. She said she had spoken to her grandmother and asked her what wisdom she could give her that she might use. And her grandmother said, "Make wonderful memories. When you are alone and tired, you will find happiness in remembering the memories you've made. In the end, that is all there is...the memories."

I used to date a man named Conrad. His life-long best friend was Gerry. Gerry was an odd little man, small, gaunt, wizened. He liked to smoke; he smoked a lot. He liked to drink; he drank a lot. He had never married, (never had a girlfriend to my knowledge). He ate pizza and submarine sandwiches ordered from the same shop virtually every day of his life. Conrad intervened in his friend's behalf, got Gerry into a rehab center, got him dried out. So Gerry got sober, stayed sober, but he still smoked.

Conrad and I had gone our separate ways; I hadn't seen him in about two years when I received an unexpected call about Gerry. Gerry had lung cancer and it had metastasized to his brain. Death was imminent. Could I please come and see Gerry (as Gerry had no friends outside of Conrad, and very little family). Of course, I would.

Once we arrived at the nursing home, Conrad was called away by medical staff, leaving me and Gerry alone. Gerry's eyes were sunken deep into his skull, but he still managed a grateful smile when he recognized me. He flipped his hand towards me and I reached over and held it.

"I'm afraid of dying," he whispered. "Don't tell Connie. It would upset him." I nodded. "He's been the best friend a person could ever have. We've been friends since we were little kids. Our mothers used to bath us in the sink together." He smiled, laughed at the memory, coughed. Again I nodded, tears swelling to the rim of my eyes. "Did you know I used to drink a lot?" Again the nod. "Connie got me sobered up. Took me to New Haven, came to see me every day, took care of everything. He even got me a second job, you know, so that I'd have something to do at night." His blue eyes, fogged with pain, looked into mine, suddenly looked sharp and bright. "Know what I think?" I shook my head, no. "I think I should've stayed drunk."