I am 60 years old but I still hear a voice inside my head saying, “Don’t go out in the cold with wet hair,” and, “Look people in the eye when you talk to them.”
My mother was not a woman of nuance. Her social calculus held that the difference between opinion and advice was the difference between flower bed and flower. Why dig a garden if you don’t intend to plant? What good is voice not raised? Lacking visible means of escape — trapped beside her in a restaurant booth, for example — the more likely you became her congregation of one. As if the voice weren’t enough, she punctuated the important stuff by repeatedly jabbing her elbow into your side.
You didn’t have to agree with my mom, but you had to listen. Especially when she walked in the door after attending a funeral service.
“All those nice things people say about you when you die,” she said, with an elbow jab for emphasis. “Hell’s bells, they ought to say those things while you’re still alive.”
My mom said “hell’s bells” a lot. I have no idea what it means or why there would be bells in hell. Maybe God uses ringing bells to remind us to say nice things about the living. Or maybe he uses elbow jabs to the rib cage.
Just to be safe, I’ve begun jotting notes. Here’s a peek at what I plan to say on the day we lay my mother to rest. Subject to change without notice.
They say my mother is gone but that’s not true.
I can see her whenever I want. I close my eyes and there she is. She’s tossing her head back and laughing louder than everyone else in the room. She’s on the phone callling my aunts and uncles with the news that I came in second place in the St. Ann’s Catholic School Seventh Grade Spellling Bee. “He lost on — oh, what is that darned word? Marma — mamma … MARMALADE! Hell’s bells, who can spell a word like that? Can you? I can’t. It has three ‘a’ letters, did you know that?”
My mother was like the Midwest weather. She blew hot and cold, one extreme to another. When she was happy, she was hysterically happy. In second grade I wrote a poem called “I Think Mice Are Nice.” That evening mom was in telephone alert mode, contacting eveyrone in our zip code. She was still telling this story at my 40th birthday party. “He was a writer even back then. I just knew it.”
When she was sad, she was inconsolable. I can still see her kneeling next to the bed the night my younger brother died at 22. She knelt there all evening, crying and praying at the top of her voice. I was as dumbstruck then at the vastness of her grief as I am now, as a parent, at the boundlessness of her faith. God had taken her child and God would heal her. When she lost another son years later, Chris Chartrand was back on her knees. I think she was so good at praying that God shared things with her that he only shares withy special people. Like the true meaning of “hell’s bells” or “heavens to Betsy” (don’t even ask).
God may have soothed my mother’s heart but he was less merciful with her aging body. She cursed the bones and joints that made it painful to garden and cook. Her arthritic back and fingers were naughty children who disobeyed and ignored her. You had to live in our house to understand that my mother could tolerate anything except being ignored.
There is a hole in my life now where my mother used to be. Sometimes I fill it by leafing through the leather-bound family photo albums that she maintained as meticulously and lovingly as the geraniums in clay pots that lined our cement patio. Squeezing the pages between my fingers I am overcome by the sense that I am stirring the embers of her life, feeling the warmth of her spirit one more time. In every photo she is smiling and radiantly beautiful, just as I remember her.
Much of me is traced to my father, a methodical and practical man. Dad used a string level and tape measure to hang pictures. This drove Mom crazy. The rest of me is my mother. I weep too easily and repeat myself a lot. I can’t help it; I was born this way.
There’s more I could tell you about my mother, stories that would make you laugh until we both cried — which is precisely the problem. It’s hard to write stuff like this when you can hardly see the keyboard.
All of the above is true but you needn’t accept my word. Visit my mother next time you are in Kansas City and have six or seven hours to kill. Mom loves conversaton. For crying out loud, however, don’t mention that you read her obituary in the paper. She’s 89 and very much alive. I have elbow bruises to prove it.
David Chartrand is a graduate teaching assistant in mass communications. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.