Memorials and Milestones

We had a memorial gathering last Saturday with some close friends and family. My mom’s gravestone was in place and I took that opportunity to gather at the cemetery and spend some time reflecting on my mother’s triumphs and celebrating her life. She was the perfect example of a person who never stopped learning. As she grew older, she read more books, many about American history. In her last year of life she learned how to text. When I realized that she had never heard of the Salem Witch Trials, I got a book on her Kindle and she devoured it.

Despite everything some people around her did to keep her down or “in her place,” she always found a way to find her own voice and be her own person. One thing she frequently said was, “Don’t tell me I can not do it. Because I will do it.”

The gathering was also a milestone in that it was the first time we had a group of people over since her death. It was the first “party” without her at the center. Her absence was deafening. But at the same time, her presence was keenly felt in the surroundings—the grapes coming in, the clutter of tools in the garage, and so on.

Anyone who has known me for more than 15 years knows that my relationship with my mom had some difficulties in my younger years. I struggled to chart my own path, to break from the traditional “old world” expectations, to unravel what felt like the oppression of her neediness. My move out of the house to go to college was nothing short of a crisis for us both, and the tension lasted until I was 30.

Around that time, new neighbors moved in—a young Portuguese family, the woman my own age. They visited with her often and the woman became a surrogate daughter. Instead of feeling threatened, I felt relief that my mom had someone nearby on whom she could shower her abundance of love and affection. When this woman had a daughter, it transformed my mom into “grandma,” a role she relished to her dying days. Even when they moved back to the Azores (my mom was devastated) they spoke on the phone every week, and the grand daughter sent her emails, photos, cards and drawings. My mom, I think, finally understood my point about family being more than blood relations (something my father apparently said frequently).

At the same time, my mother’s sense of those blood family obligations were eased with her mother and sister’s deaths. She traveled more. She had more time to herself to read and have lunch with friends. And as she explored other parts of herself and her life expanded beyond me and family, we grew closer. She had held on so tightly to me that it was suffocating. But when she started letting go, going on months-long trips, developing other friendships, she realized that I was here and interested in being a friend.

And so in the last 15 years of her life we became very close friends. We cooked together. We hosted parties together. We traveled together. We emailed, called, and sent texts. We laughed and told irreverent jokes. We shared books. She was a woman transformed.

In recognition of this, and the ability of someone to learn and change even later in life, this is the poem I shared with those who gathered with me:

After a while you learn the subtle difference

Between holding a hand

And chaining a soul.

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning

And company doesn’t mean security.

And you being to learn

That kisses aren’t compromises

And presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept your defeats

With your head up and your eyes ahead

With the grace of a woman

Not the grief of a child.

And you learn to build all your loads on today

Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans

And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if

you ask too much.

So you plan your own garden

And decorate your own soul

Instead of waiting for someone to buy you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure

That you really are strong.

And you really do have worth.

And you learn. And you learn.

With every failure you learn.

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