Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent, Loss, and Childhood Utopia

This Advent is a significant time of darkness for me because of my mother's sickening decline. Alex Haley noted that "every death is like the burning of a library," and it is absolutely true in the case of my once beautiful and vibrant mother, whom I have always, in my heart of hearts, somewhat superstitiously believed knew everything.

She still knows everything, but I can't ask her, and she can't tell me, because, though her fearsome intellectual capacity is undiminished, she is quickly losing her ability to speak.

I have found myself waxing painfully nostalgic for my 1970s childhood, which seems so much more idyllic to me than it really was in the desperate retrospect of impending loss.  In the past few months, I have compulsively begun collecting the now-out-of-print books my mother used to teach us and do arts and crafts with us: this, for example, and this, and this.  When I linger on the simple line drawings and black-and-white photographs in these books, a whole world comes rushing back to me: not just the world of my childhood, but the world of my mother's young adulthood -- a hopeful world, in which both children and their parents really believed that we could call down upon earth the New Jerusalem, and that we could do it through our quotidian work. When I think back to that childhood, why does it seem as if the sun was always shining?

I wish I could ask my mother how to do it now -- how to do life. How did she teach me, my brothers, and my sister -- as she did -- to love beauty, and then set us free to go and spend our lives striving to create it, to reveal it? (I am calling it a "setting free," but others might think of it as a wildly impractical neglect to help us out with a Plan B.) How did she accept the deprioritizing, the putting second or third or last, of her own impressive powers of creativity?  I continue to struggle with my tangled-up vocation, and I wish my mother could help me. I go to see her every month, but I have not been good with phone calls, because it's virtually impossible to talk with her on the phone; I'm told I'm the only one who can understand her on the phone, but I think my abilities have been exaggerated.  And yet I have heard it said over and over again that you have to talk to your parents while they're still alive, or rue it later.

17 comments:

JMB said...

You are lucky to have such a mother! I lost my dad (suddenly) a few years ago and not a day goes by that I don't think about him and wish I could hear his voice again.

Pentimento said...

I have been lucky. I wish I could really hear her voice again too. Almost nothing is left of it now, but she had a very beautiful, low-pitched, highly-cadenced way of speaking.

Radical Catholic Mom said...

Prayers for your mother, Pentimento and for you as well.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, RCM.

maria horvath said...

You are blessed with such beautiful memories.

I shall include both of you in my daily prayers.

Maria

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Maria.

Anne-Marie said...

I have been blog-reading little and commenting less lately, but you and your mother continue in my prayers.

Both my grandmothers lost their speech at the end of their lives, but they always seemed happy when we visited and talked to them. Indeed, they were both rather sweeter-tempered than when they'd been speaking. I hope you and your mother will enjoy many happy times together even without words.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Anne-Marie.

Really Rosie said...

This made me think of you:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/21/dining/20111221-holiday.html?hp

Pentimento said...

That is awesome, Rosie.

Really Rosie said...

I meant the gingersnaps recipe. But the eggplant macaroni ALSO reminded me of you.

Pentimento said...

I read all and KNEW you meant the gingersnaps. : )

Mac said...

"every death is like the burning of a library"

Indeed. I've been really conscious of that lately because I've been digitizing a cassette tape full of singing and reminiscing by my wife's grandmother. The tape was made ca. 1995 when she was 90, a couple of years before she died. So she was born around 1905, in rural Mississippi, and seriously poor. The world she grew up in was dramatically different from anything younger people have ever known, and now it's passed from living memory altogether.

Pentimento said...

What an amazing document, Mac. I would especially love to hear her singing.

Mac said...

Unfortunately I sort of doubt that you would enjoy her singing--she has a harsh and untuneful voice. I may post a bit of it on my blog next week sometime and if you hear it you'll see what I mean. Really the whole thing is not exactly warm. Her early life was *very* hard, emotionally and materially, and most of it is not fondly recalled. The way she breaks into hymns has an almost desperate quality.

Tertium Quid said...

My mother is praying for you and your mother. With St. Therese she sends flowers. Kindnesses to you!

Pentimento said...

TQ, thank you. That means more to me than I can say.

A merry Christmas to you and your family.