The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.
Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.
Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.” She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.
As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.
In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.
Often MayBelle doesn’t miss her deceased parents on those days you might consider made for mourning: death anniversaries, family birthdays, major holidays. Most likely she begins to cry, or is forced to her knees, at unpredictable times and in unexpected places.
Like this weekend, when she went to an estate sale, the kind where it’s obvious someone has left the house for good, as opposed to a garage sale intended to make room for more stuff. What’s left is what’s left behind, after the inhabitant has died or moved to a retirement community or skilled nursing facility, perhaps. For some reason, in her mother’s final days, MayBelle much preferred “skilled nursing facility” over “nursing home.” She was choosing her words deliberately, she surmises, so that she might survive the fact that her mother could no longer care for herself in a meaningful way.
MayBelle knows the territory because she’s been there, deciding what stays in the family, what gets donated or sold, what needs to be discarded. How to choose between a memory and a marble candlestick? Indeed.
As she made her way through the tidy townhouse, MayBelle looked for old postcards and photographs, small things she might use as writing prompts or for her art projects. Exiting a bedroom she glanced in the closet, where she noticed clothes like her mother wore in her later years: matching, machine washable, sturdy with a hint of style. MayBelle began to weep, seeing the same brands she and her sisters used to buy for their mother, clinging to any last gesture they might offer her when so much had been taken away. For a while there, MayBelle could tell any woman of a certain era where to get the best deals on Alfred Dunner and high-waisted cotton underwear.
MayBelle is what’s known as a “highly sensitive person”—yes, it’s a thing—and she can be moved to despair at warp speed. Bless her heart. She is also a person with an estate sale problem. Probably she should not spend so much time rummaging around in the pasts of strangers, as it often makes her sad and she does not need even one more tea towel. But this weekend it is where MayBelle found herself, wondering what had happened to the homeowner (was it a happy life?), forking over eleven dollars, and missing her mother.
Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.
It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.
We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.
The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.
Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.
Instead of regaling people with charming anecdotes about my childhood (dancing to “I’m a Little Teapot” in the living room) or relaying repetitive accolades (“Your mother was one of the most influential people in my life.”) about how precious my mother was—and she was dear—when giving her eulogy on February 23, I instead read three passages I dug out of one of my “memory boxes” while crying and packing my suitcase for Mississippi after my sister Ann phoned to say, “This is the call you never want to get.” Bits and pieces from a long life well lived that illustrate, better than a hundred family snapshots, what made Martha Lee Lyles Wilson (1922-2016) such a remarkable woman.
One was a quote she included in a birthday card she sent me; another was a passage she wrote on a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper; and the third was a quote she cut out from a magazine. In short, these snippets reveal how my mother made her way in the world, and how she inspired those around her to follow her lead as best we are able:
“Those people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who lived their lives like the stars of heaven and the lilies in the field, perfect, simply, and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold us.”—Oswald Chambers
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”—John Wesley
“But where do I start? The world is so vast; I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is very large; I better start with my town—but my town, too, is large. I had better start with my street. No, my family. Oh well, never mind. I shall start with myself.”—Elie Wiesel
I don’t know if the quotes she clung to are punctuated or even worded exactly as they appeared in print, and to me it doesn’t matter. The philosophies are clear, and they now have a permanent place in my heart, right alongside my mother.
I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.
My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.
Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.
St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.
“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.
“Thank you,” I said.
My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.
When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.
We buried my father’s body fourteen years ago this week. His spirit remains. I feel him in my heart, daily. And I sense him other times, too, like when I’m reading late into the night or eating smoked salmon, two preferences we shared. I miss him still, but not like those awful, slow, days of early grieving. Now I can think of him without bursting into tears, or wonder what he might say to me without breaking down. So on these final days of September, I remember him not so much with sadness, but ever-increasing gratitude.
Something in me, something big, wanted to speak at Daddy’s funeral. Maybe it’s because I knew he liked a personal approach, contrasted with a funeral we attended together in which the preacher made scant mention of the deceased. Maybe it’s because I thought I had something to say. Maybe it’s because it was the last thing I could do for him. Maybe I still needed his approval.
I started writing in my journal almost immediately after my sister called to tell me Daddy was in the hospital. Writing down my thoughts is what I do. The night after he died, I stayed up late, searching the Internet for a poem I had heard “somewhere,” which I thought might be perfect for the eulogy. I did not find the poem, so I simply started writing about what I knew: my love for my father.
“Are you sure you can do this?” my mother asked when she saw me hovered over the computer keyboard, crying. “You don’t have to do this. Your father would understand.”
“Yes,” I responded, between sobs. “I want to do it.” And even though I cried through each practice run in the living room, I was able to deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral without shedding a tear. Only at the bitter end, when I looked down at his coffin and said the final words did I choke.
After the soloist sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and one of the preachers read some Scripture, it was my turn. Here is my Eulogy for Earl.
“As a writer, I imagined myself weaving an eloquent, insightful, and evocative eulogy for my father, making reference to ‘crossing the bar’ and ‘not going gentle’ and such. As a daughter, though, it was tough.
“Then someone said this to me: ‘That Earl was a class act.’ Bingo, I thought. For even if I had had a month to prepare remarks for today, I could not have found the words to do my father justice, this brilliant and precious man who tended me for 39 years.
“If we could find the proper phrasing, my mother would speak of a husband who provided her with a ‘blessed union of souls,’ of a soulmate who said, ‘Just give me fifty years with you, Martha,’ and got fifty-two. I think Earl’s brother, Bob, would try to articulate how much Earl meant to him growing up, as they lost their father at a young age.
“My sister Ginny would thank Earl for tolerance during her Grateful Dead period, a time we’re all still trying to forget—and for inspiring her to be a caring person first and a productive lawyer second, which she and her husband, Harbour, will strive to continue being in Earl’s memory. Sister Ann would surely mention the friendship between Daddy and her husband, Henry, and the guidance Earl bestowed on his precious grandchildren, Wilson, Lyles, and Martha Grace.
“As for me, I can told you of a person who taught us the importance of standing our ground while finding our way; a man who surmised that orange was not my best color; an intellect who respected the art of soliciting varied opinions; a connoisseur who could choose dry white wines under twelve dollars. A pilgrim who exemplified the true meaning of the word ‘compassion.’
“Just last week a friend sent me this poem, which her son read at her father’s funeral: ‘When I come to the end of the day, and the sun has set for me, I want no rites in a gloom-filled room, why cry for a soul set free? Miss me a little, but not too long, and not with your head bowed low. Remember the love we once shared, miss me but let me go. For this was a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the Master’s plan, a step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart, go to the friends we know, and bury your sorrows in doing good deeds, miss me but let me go.’
“Earl had several requests for his funeral: he knew the preacher, he knew the songs and the soloist, and for some reason he requested, and I quote him here: ‘sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ I’m not sure what ‘gnashing’ means, really, but I’ve always been the obedient type, so I can assure you that the wailing has commenced.
“One friend and peer said this about Earl upon hearing of his death: ‘Earl Wilson’s life cast a long shadow. He personified visionary leadership combined with concern for his fellow man in everything he undertook. I was blessed to have known him as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a friend.’
“You think you were blessed, I thought. We got to be his girls.
“My family was comforted beyond measure today by your presence. Since the second this happened to us, we have been relying on the kindness of friends and the steadfastness of our God. And for those of us who are Christians, this cannot be viewed as a tragedy. My father was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life.
When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.
“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”
“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”
Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.
The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.
The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?
Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.
“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.
“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.
Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.
Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.
What the ornaments hanging on this wreath lack in finesse they make up for in memory, and tradition, and family. Like when my father was still alive, his arm wrapped around whichever of his three daughters happened to be within reach. When my mother didn’t have a diagnosis of dementia, and we painted wooden cutouts shaped like snowmen and Santas. When my sisters and I were young. These ornaments are as much a part of me as my green eyes and my tendency toward impatience. I pack them up with a heart made full by tenderness for what was, gratitude for this present moment, and acceptance of what will be.
This month I turn 50. As in, half a century. As in, at least half of my life is gone. It sounds depressing, and in some ways I guess it is. But for the most part, it feels like a gift.
Earlier this year, I vowed to become as healthy as I could before my momentous birthday. I increased my visits to the shrink, started getting acupuncture, hired a personal trainer, scheduled facials on a regular basis, tried to give up carbs, and took up yoga. I had hoped the big day would approach and find me 30 pounds lighter and boasting a low cholesterol number. Alas, those things did not happen. What I can celebrate, though, is feeling more like myself than ever.
“He looks like Grandmother Wilson,” I said, remembering my paternal grandmother, who died in the early 1980s.
“Yes,” said my mother. “He does.” She took a shallow breath and then, “Why did this happen?” Mother stared at Daddy and I patted him on the shoulder, which seemed to make me feel like I was doing something helpful.
“Would you like to go ahead and take his jewelry with you?” asked the nurse.
His wedding ring and class ring (University of Mississippi, Sigma Nu, 1948) came off fairly easily, but the watch was harder. His hands had always been big—something I inherited from him, along with his sensitive skin and his tendency toward impatience—and it seemed his hands and wrists had doubled in size since he’d been in the hospital. Watching the nurse struggle became too painful. “Greedy daughters take jewelry off dead father. Film at eleven.” In reality, we were simply clawing for any piece of Daddy that we might keep, anything that might outlast death.
“I’ll get that off for you later,” said the nurse.
Mother cradled his wedding band in her palm, and I slipped the class ring on the thumb of my right hand. It was too big, even for my pudgy fingers, but I wasn’t about to let go.
“Sometimes I like to pray with the family,” said the nurse. “Is that all right with you?”
Who knows how each of us prayed silently as the nurse spoke, her voice soft and clear and sure as she asked for the emotional healing of my family. Her short hair and wire-rimmed glasses gave off a certain air of efficiency, but it was not just about the job for this woman. It was about us, too, the ones left behind. The ones she could still help.
As for me, I thanked God for giving me such a fabulous father. And then I bawled like a baby.