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May 11, 2008
Mom: The Joy Of Her Life, The Grace Of Her Days
A green wind sweeps across the field out back, playing a gentle song on the harp of the trees in the neighboring woods while a red-tailed hawk soars skyward, circling benediction from on high, ever upwards towards heaven where my Mom now resides. During recent years, coming back to the house from walks through that field, I would often hear my favorite bird, the Carolina Wren. It seemed that as soon as I entered the back yard, the wren would start singing. Mom would say, “Of course, it knows you’re there and it’s talking to you.”
That Nature offers us its seasonal glories is a blessing and I’ve always enjoyed walking through those seasons. For many years those walks were with Mom. Through the neighborhood we strolled, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always appreciating the special sights, sounds and smells of spring, summer, fall and winter. Mom especially loved watching clouds, delighting in their infinite varieties and shapes. Now that Mom is gone I savor and hold dear the memories of those walks. Now on this first Mother’s Day without her I realize how truly blessed I was to have shared those days, months and years with her, and I watch clouds roll by with tears in my smile.
So many memories, not only of those walks but of the childhood years and maturing years, thinking of all those meals, all those hours Mom spent caring for and loving her six kids – her smile, her warmth, her tenderness. She had a gentleness could be powerful, sometimes resonating in our consciences, prompting the inner voice to insist “you can do better than that.” How I looked forward to and treasured Mom’s letters when I was in Vietnam, not to mention the cookies and cakes. I know that her prayers for me back then kept me safe. She was a beautiful woman in every way. In her comforting presence many a person found solace. Her spirit, her soul, her essence were all beautiful. Devout Catholic that she was, God truly smiled upon her and gave her strength. Lord knows she needed it dealing with all those kids. Mom loved her husband, her family, her friends, and all of them and all of us loved her. We, her grown children now know just how much she was the heart of our hearts, the love of our lives. Mom loved socializing, she loved dancing and music and movies and reading and shopping and bowling and crossword puzzles. She loved watching Notre Dame and awards shows and the Boston Pops 4th of July concert and Wheel of Fortune on TV. She loved books by Jan Karon, “The Gadfly” by Shostakovich and talking on the phone with friends and neighbors. She loved Easter and Christmas and Midnight Mass, as many lights as possible on the Christmas tree, visits with her grandkids, wildflowers in her favorite vase and playing the lotto. Mom loved life and taught us all to enjoy it to the full. From her childhood on she embraced it. I have an indelible image of her, from a story she told us, of leaving her house near the river on weekday mornings and running to the levee, following it to the bridge that took her downtown to school. It is a perfect image of Mom running towards and welcoming that day and all the days to come. Mom’s father once wrote a wonderful bit of verse about her, how she was a tomboy who liked doing the Charleston and could tell you all about her favorite movie stars, how “Playing with children is her heaven / Life for her is full of ecstasy / her age is just past eleven.”
I remember a hot, sunny day in July when Mom and I and my brother Steve were at the Dayton International Air Show. We had driven out especially to watch the Air Force Thunderbirds. We stood around the car and waited for the aerial acrobatics to commence. The roar, the ascent into the wild blue yonder were thrilling as always. Midway through the performance Steve and I heard a voice speaking up – it was Mom. Right then and there, with perfect timing, she began reciting the beautiful verses from “High Flight” by Pilot Officer John Gillespie loudly enough for us to hear. Its first and last lines are “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…put out my hand and touched the face of God.” And now, Mom can do that. My father, who when courting Mom used to sing to her in his mellow light baritone, wrote a poem to his dear wife on her 41st birthday whose last lines were: “And may we calmly onward wend our way / Through life, with only peace & joy & greater love / Attending each experience & recurring birthday / Until we part to meet again above.” Now they are met for eternity.
Recently, I found another poem, one written by my namesake, Jesuit priest Father Barry Dwyer, dedicated to his Mom:
My Mother's Days
Mother dear, one day for you?
Nay, every hour is set apart.
A memory day to your calm smile,
A shrine to your full heart.
One day for her, who all my life
Has guided, cheered my steps?
Who held my folded hands and taught
My soul to speak with Christ?
Who gave me armor for the strife?
Who shared in each bright joy?
Who, when heart was sad, has sought
To find the hurt, and heal?
O mother dear, one day for you?
Nay, every hour is set apart,
A memory day to your calm smile,
A shrine to your full heart.
It was my good fortune to have lived with Mom for many years in this house. In the last months, in the final season of her life, I was blessed to be able to care for her, to see the living embodiment of God’s eternal love. During that period I read to her. I happened to find an English lit book of my father’s when he was a college freshman. In it, he’d marked certain poems as “Ex” for excellent. Hey, I can take hint and I read them to Mom. It was summer time and we sat on a bench on the porch. Mom wore a broad-brimmed straw hat that looked as if it had been specially made for her. Beneath it, her soft white hair framed a face shining with beatitudes of grace. For the first reading I recited Shelley’s To A Skylark: “Higher still and higher / From the earth thou springest, / Like a cloud of fire; / The deep blue thou wingest, / And singing still dost soar, and soaring / ever singest. In the golden lightning / Of the sunken sun…” I didn’t think I was doing such a great job of it. Mom, reassuring as ever, said I was doing just fine. How blessed I was to have been vouchsafed those precious days of her 89th year.
Now, when I take my walks; now when the Carolina Wren sings its endearing song, which it does every day around here, I remember what Mom said and in the lilting notes I hear her voice talking to me, and I smile, remembering the joy of her life, the grace of her days, and say “I love you, Mom, forever.”