Go Collect Yourself

IMG_1875The 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.IMG_2684

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.

Estate Sale Blues {On What’s Left Behind}

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Seen at yet another estate sale. MayBelle’s mother used to wear Ferragamos, before she got so old, she’d say, that she had to trade fashion for function.

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.

Missing Martha {On Mother’s Day}

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Martha Lee Lyles Wilson, 1922-2016

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.

 

A Eulogy for My Mother

ALW-Mother-Eulogy-BlogInstead 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.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Obituary for Martha Lee Lyles Wilson

 

Mother Knows Best

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A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

“Her Name Is Martha” {A Prayer for My Mother}

MarthaI type these words as I email my prayer request to some folks at church, people who might be aware my mother is still living but who don’t necessarily know her name. They might even have a vague recollection that she’s in Mississippi, but they can’t know that we used to dance together in the living room to “I’m a little teapot,” or about the memorable conversation we had while riding the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, or how she used to sign her letters “Love, Me.”

“My mother has been hospitalized with pneumonia,” I write. “She is 93 and has dementia. I worry that she’s afraid. Her name is Martha.”

We hate this for her, my sisters and me, her body being subjected to multiple injections and further indignities. She’s had breast and colon cancer; blood clots in her lungs; gallbladder surgery; Crohn’s disease. Hasn’t she suffered enough? I pray for her not to linger, and wonder if I am trying to outmaneuver God.

“Do not be afraid.”

This is what I would whisper to my mother at her bedside, but my sisters tell me not to drive the 400 miles south toward the town of our births.

“She’s stable,” they say. “We’ll keep you posted.”

We’ve been at the brink a couple of times, so close that my sisters and I once gathered in the hospital lobby to go over our notes about what Mother said she wanted at her funeral and draft her obituary. We sometimes pretend we are prepared.

Several days after penning that prayer request, my mother was released from the hospital. She does not remember what was done to her, or why. And maybe that is for the best.

So we continue on, grateful for today, and trying not to borrow trouble for tomorrow.

“Do not be afraid.”