Before memory there was mother. Mom. The one person who knew me from my minute beginnings, who nurtured me from the moment of inception, of whose existence I owe for my own.
For 50 years I have gathered experiences and they are layered one upon the other like the growth rings of a tree. Each year the trunk grows thicker with memories. Going forward those new rings will be absent of my mother. Now in the days following her passing, my head is a jumble of images. They come out of order, blurred at the edges. Like looking at stars, they are easier to discern when glancing the eye just past them. Why are our powerful brains yet so feeble in recalling the most important moments, those small, deceptively inconsequential moments that truly make up the rich, varied and flawed fabric of our lives?
I tease these fragments from the depths:
- The weak yellow glow from a nightlight in the bathroom illuminates me – an ill child – and my mother hugging me despite my sickness.
- Standing next to my mother in the kitchen as she rolls out pie dough; watching with envy at her skilled and steady fingers crimping the dough in perfect, delicate crescents.
- My mother clasping her strand of pearls around my neck on my wedding day.
- Me placing a spoon in my mother’s hand – creped and wrinkled now and speckled with age spots – and gently moving that hand near a bowl of soup.
For months my mother resided in the prison of her mind and body. I don’t know how much she knew of what was going on around and inside her – but I know she knew enough to want to get out. And so there is some solace in her release. The small, personal tragedy of my mother’s death is absorbed into the millions of small, personal tragedies that preceded hers over the millennia and not one of us can avoid making our own deaths part of the manufacture of this relentless machine. Everything that once was my mother, her memories, feelings, thoughts, ambitions, fears, and hopes vanished in an instant. What remains now resides under the earth in a small cemetery in northeastern Ohio.
Despite the agnostic logic in which I find comfort in daily life, the same sweet thought tempts me as it did after my brother died: now my mom knows. All the mysteries – the greatest mystery – have been revealed to her. Does she now exist in some cool and impersonal astral landscape or one created and tailored from her own colorful dreams and desires? The pains and scars of mortality are shed; lovers reunite with those dearly loved to experience the remembered warmth of embrace, old friends greet long gone companions to resume unfinished conversations. If this is the case then my mother is happy for she is now with her first-born, her own parents, and friends who left the earth before her.
Despite my age, now past the midpoint of life; despite my unwanted status as motherless, in many ways I am still a child. I am her child and it will always be so. Though I have the solace of rich memories, I long for the real and living comfort of my mother.
Nancy Sheema Oliverio
December 28, 1933 – March 13, 2016