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The phone started ringing at about the same time the floorboards caught fire. There was smoke and voices, and I was walking into the bedroom and suddenly someone was telling me that my mother was dead. I’m not really sure what happened after that: Presumably, the plumber put out the fire he’d started while working on our pipes in the crawlspace. Presumably, I said some things, like, “When did it happen?” and “How can I help?” I do recall thinking that ordinarily, I would not have picked up a call at that hour. Any other week, I would have been on the phone with my friend in Chicago, chatting as we do every Friday. But I was sick, and my throat was sore, so I’d cancelled the call.

But of course, the hour didn’t matter. My mom had died in the morning, hours earlier, and whatever it was I should have felt at that moment — a sudden rushing of light and sound out of the world, a seismic shift in my soul — I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know. I should have known.

Since then, I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with the death of loved ones, and in every one, the main character reacts sharply and immediately. She screams or falls to the floor. Something fragile is often dropped precipitously. For me, it’s like reading about other people visiting a country to which I have never been. They might talk about the scenery, the contours of the sand dunes, the bustling marketplace, and all I can think is: None of this relates to me. It is not at all like my own experience with grief. They are in Lichtenstein or Lebanon, someplace with a flag I would never recognize, and I am in my home, only something very subtle has changed. Were the sheets always that color? Didn’t we use to have curtains there?

Grief has been like stumbling through a fog. I’ll see something on TV and think, “I should tell Mom about that” at exactly the same moment I also think, “There is no Mom to tell.” I start crying at church, my nose running into my mask. I keep expecting something to happen (just as I did when my father died) — that she will come to me in my dreams with a message or appear to me in the form of a faun outside my window. But nothing like that happens. She’s just gone.

People say a lot of comforting things when they find out your mother has died. But my father-in-law said the best thing: “The hardest part of growing older is the loss of those you love.” That felt real to me. I want to believe (do, in fact, believe) the comforting phrases about where my mother is right now and how she is at peace, but it’s hard when the only empirical evidence I have is a void. Empty space. Trinkets: her patent leather purse, her jet earrings, a sweater that does not fit. Like me, my mother hated taking photos, so I only have a few. Not nearly enough.

I have her letters, written to me throughout my life, though I can’t bear to read them. Some day I will. But when I try to imagine the woman who will do this, she does not look anything like me. She looks like my mom. And that’s someone I’ll never be, or I wouldn’t miss her half so much.

The other day, my husband asked me if I knew how late the local barbeque joint was open. I did. Their catchy jingle (telling me not to be late because they close at eight) leapt from my mouth like saliva from one of Pavlov’s pooches. Today I’ve got an online shopping site’s theme song rattling around in my brain. With all the pressing business of my day, I’m stuck jauntily rhyming about home goods. That’s productive. But at least it isn’t the maudlin ‘70s classic “Please Come to Boston” which ran on an endless, depressing loop last night at the aforementioned barbeque joint. They say the only way to replace an earworm is with another. Hey, Brain, job well done!

It’s funny how responsive we are to sensory triggers. There is a certain dusty, fake fir smell that will always say “Christmas” to me, no matter how old I get. Just as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” will always take me back to the auditorium at St. Joseph grade school, to the 8th grade dances that were supposed to teach us kids how to socialize.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have those same sensory experiences of God? To be able to call to mind that most intense of relationships through smell or hearing or touch or taste? Our relationship with God is so cerebral, so very out of body. That’s why it was so important that God sent Jesus to us: God’s word made flesh, because flesh, as the great Catholic novelist Mary Gordon reminds us, is lovable. It’s why we hug people we haven’t seen in a long time. There is something priceless about memories forged through the senses.

So why can’t there be an earworm for God? Why can’t I get something pure, something holy, stuck in my brain instead of a second-rate advertisement? Because pure and holy things aren’t blasted at us with the same regularity as second-rate advertisements, that’s why. If only the smell of cinnamon said, “Let go and let God” to me! If only the sight of a bare tree in winter brought Mary’s Magnificat to my lips! How much better would my life be if only I could get in touch with God as readily as I can get in touch with the operating hours of the local barbeque joint?

I did a lot of memorization in Catholic school: the Holy Days of Obligation, the Stations of the Cross. But I still can’t rattle those things off with the same rapidity at which I can recite the lyrics to every single ABBA song ever written. Why is this? Why don’t things of God stick in my mind when so many worthless things do? What’s more, how can I fix this?

Maybe I can’t. Maybe God will always be harder to reach than the jingle for a local business. And maybe that’s the point, the challenge. I need to tune out the earworms to hear God. It will take effort. It will mean disengaging from the sensory triggers all around me, going to a deeper place, a quieter place.

Fortunately, God is worth it. And He never closes at eight.

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Have a Mary Little Christmas

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