Sunday, May 14, 2006
There's a sign leaning up against a tree near my mother's grave that reads:
"If tears could build a stairway, and memories could build a lane, I would walk all the way to heaven. And bring you home again."
I see it every time I go to the cemetery and every time I cry.
The logical side of me says it's just some mawkish bit of poetry, but the emotional side, which calls the shots in my psyche, doesn't want to hear it, because that's exactly how I feel.
I saw that sign again today when my sister and I went to the cemetery to pay our respects on Mother's Day, and again I cried.
I've got an ocean full of tears and a stack of memories 100 stories high, but I haven't quite figured out how to make that trip to Heaven.
I Remember When Rock Was Young
This is the fourth Mother's Day that we've gone out to Resurrection Cememtery, way at the end of Staten Island. It's a long trip and since my brother wasn't in town to give us a ride, we had to take car service. My dad, who has problems of his own, was too tired to make the trip so we went in his place.
I'll be honest: I didn't want to go. I don't believe standing over a plot of earth honors the dead, not when can keep that person in your heart, call up the fond memories any time you choose.
And I think I'm also a little angry, because when my mother was first buried there, both my father and my sister told me that got a sense of peace standing by my mother's headstone.
I went there expecting too much, I guess, because I felt nothing but loss. Nothing like a grave to underscore the fact that someone is gone forever.
My sister was determined to go, however, and I was determined not to let her go alone. The day before we celebrated her birthday by going to see "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and having dinner at a nearby French restaurant.
Today we got together to make the trip over the bridge, our Arab driver--pretty much all the car service drivers in our neighborhood are Arab--took us to the wrong cemetery, so my sister had to guide him in like a pilot flying through a thick fog.
Our driver had an Elton John tape going on the stereo, so on the way to the cemetery and back we were regaled with such gems as "Crocodile Rock," "Levon," and "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting." Whoever said silence is golden was really on to something.
I think one of the things I miss most about my mother is her singing. It seemed that's she started her day, creating a family soundtrack. It was all old tunes, like "Ship ahoy, ship ahoy, who wants to marry a sailor boy."
One time while making breakfast, she broke into "The Music Goes Round and Round," tapping her foot and doing a few steps while she moved around the kitchen.
"You push the first valve down, the music goes round and a-round, and it comes out here..."
Often, she would start a song, forget the lyrics and then just start singing, "la, la, la" to fill in the spaces. When I was a kid I got it into my head that whatever came out of the TV was brand new, never been seen or heard before.
So I was pretty surprised one night while I was watching a singer on Ed Sullivan or one of the other variety shows, going through his act and my mother, who was at the kitchen sink doing the dishes started singing along with him.
I thought my mother must have been psychic. How else could she know what the words to the song were?
And then there was her famous rendition of "Animal Crackers" where she would puff up her cheeks like Shirley Temple.
It was such cruel irony that my mother suffered from lung disease and eventually had to have a tube inserted in her throat to stay alive. For the last years of her life, she never sang a note.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
While we were there, we met Mr. Kelly, an elderly man whose wife is buried right next to my mother. Over the years we've gotten to know him and his family.
I remember a few years ago when his daughter visited the grave on the first Mother's Day after her mom die, and she went to pieces, gripping the headstone and wailing, "Ma, Ma!"
The various first anniversaries after a loved one's death are always the worst: the first Christmas, their first birthday, your first birthday. These days come rolling around even though the one you love is gone. You get used to eventually, or at least you try to, but those first couple of dates, boy, they are painful.
Mr. Kelly is a very nice man and I'm glad his wife is close to my mom. He's in kind of widower's club at the cemetery, where men in his age group, most of whom come to the cemetary every single day, come together to talk and support each other.
"It's a strange life," he said of this lonely time.
When he asked about our father we had to tell him the truth, that my father had Alzheimer's and could no longer drive. He shrugged, not terribly surprised, and asked us to say hello for him.
My family has moved out of one community--those who celebrate with their living mothers--into the one that goes to the cemetery on Mother's Day, who celebrate with memories.
I wish I could have put my membership off a lot longer, but so many of my friends lost their moms when they were in the 20's that I feel like I have no right to complain.
I was going through my file of Mother's Day memories, recalling how as kids, we used to make our mother's homemade greeting cards in school; we'd draw roses in crayone and pour on the glitter.
In the Cub Scouts we'd make this awful "creations" used dried macaroni sprayed painted gold. My mother was always happy to get these things no matter how ridiculous they looked.
I recall one year, I think I was in kindergarten, when I was so excited about the Mother's Day gift I was making that I couldn't wait. I said--quite seriously now--that I would tell what the gift was going to be, but she had to promise to instantly forget and be surprised on Mother's Day.
She agreed to it and kept up her end of the bargain. Years later I told her that story and we laughed about it.
"What a nutty kid," she said.
I moved to Pennsylvania in 1988 and it just worked out that I had to go up there on Mother's Day. I was so frightened and so nervous as I made the trip up to Stroudsburg.
My parents and my sister came with me and we had dinner together at the Beaver House on West Main Street. So instead of being about my mother, the day was all about me and my new job. I felt so guilty.
I stopped by the Pocono Record to introduce myself to my new boss and I found out I would be working an evening shift, starting at 2 p.m. and going to 10 p.m.
Wish You Were Here
For some reason I was devasted, having assumed I'd be working a 9-5'er. When I related this information to my loved ones, my mother gave me a great piece of advice:
"Deal with it," she said.
When my parents left me at the Deer Head Inn in Deleware Water Gap where I was staying, I was so miserable and lonely I wanted to run back to
I think on our last Mother's Day together, my sister and I were visiting my mom at the Saint Elizabeth Ann's rehab center. She was very weak, but we talking to her about coming home some day.
I remember looking out the door of her room as we talked and thinking anybody walking by hearing us would have said these people are delusional; there's no way that woman will ever be able to come. But we couldn't let go of that hope.
Sometimes I recall the fights I had with my mother and I feel so awful; I wish I could go back in time and erase those terrible fights, take back the hurtful things I said.
I probably should just sew my lips shut and listen, really listen to her advice and words of wisdom. It's look late for that now, so all I can do is ask for her forgiveness.
I was talking to my aunt, my mom's sister, the other day about my mother's obsession with our health. I told how every time we watched the movie "Singin' in the Rain," and it came to Gene Kelly's famous dance in the downpour, my mother would shake her head and say, "he's going to catch his death of cold." My aunt got a big laugh out of that story and it felt good to share it.
I'm glad I made the trip out to the cemetery today. Just because something is difficult or inconvenient doesn't mean you can walk away from it. If I just sat around on my butt all day today, I know I'd feel guilty about it.
Yes, now I'm in the memory club. No more homemade cards, now more macaroni models. I try not to look at the rows of Mother's Day cards whenever I go into the stores at this time of the year.
I have memories, I have my tears, but still way of getting her back from Heaven. But I can bring her back any time I want, any time I feel the need just by opening up my heart. It's not the same as having her here, but it's the best I, or anyone else in our club can do.