Happy Mother's Day!

with mom at the old saybrook train stationI miss my mom.  I think of her every day.  There are so many things I want to talk to her about.  She had a unique sense of humor and I'll catch myself laughing at sights or phrases or stories that I know she'd so enjoy.  So much of what I love in life came from her: gardening, swimming in the ocean, cooking, poems, English literature, art.  I didn't inherit her talent for drawing and painting (although both my sisters did,) but I do have her love of art galleries and museums.  So often I'll see an exhibit and think of her, and wish she were there to see the artist's work with me. She loved the beach, and I'm sure that's one reason I'm happiest with bare feet, walking along the tide line.  We would spend summer days building sandcastles, finding shells and sea glass, swimming to the raft, crabbing at the end of the beach.  Often she would sketch while my sisters and I played and swam; frequently we'd all be reading, covered with sunscreen, lost in our books.

When I grew up and moved to New York City, I'd take Amtrak to Old Saybrook CT nearly every weekend.  My mother would meet the train, no matter what time it was; Sundays came too soon, and I'd never want to leave.  The photo above (taken in 1988 or so) shows us at the train station, waiting for the train back to NY.  I read her expression and know she wasn't ready for me to leave.  The picture brings back that moment and many emotions.

She died way too young, after a long illness.  After her death I was filled with memories of nurses and hospitals and the great sadness of losing her slowly.  But time has passed, and you know what?  I rarely think of her illness anymore.  The gift of time has been that I remember my mother being young and healthy, painting nearly every day, writing every night.  I remember watching Julia Child on Saturday afternoons, then cooking dinner together--sitting around the table at Hubbard's Point, enjoying the meal with my sister and her family, laughing and talking and feeling that it would last forever, that our family would go on forever.

I wrote about her in an essay called "Midnight Typing."  It appears in the collection What My Mother Gave Me, edited by Elizabeth Benedict.  Please comment below for the chance to win a copy of the book as well as a canvas tote bag printed with the cover of The Lemon Orchard.  I'd love to know about your mother, hear your stories and memories.

[UPDATE 5/12: Congratulations to Leela FitzGerald, our Mother's Day winner!]

SJC

St. Joseph College, West Hartford CT I know for sure that Miss Laurette Laramie (my high school history teacher, mentor, and great friend,) had a LOT to do with my  receiving this amazing honor.  Laurette graduated from St. Joe's, as did my mother, Lucille Arrigan Rice.  My mother always said she could never have received a better education anywhere, and that St. Joe's gave her strength and belief in herself, and the knowledge that she could make of her life anything she wished.  She chose art, literature, motherhood, and teaching.

Laurette taught me history, but even more, she taught compassion--for ourselves and for everyone on the planet.  She encouraged awareness and consciousness, and a sense of our own abilities to make a difference.  In her class at St. Thomas Aquinas we read the daily New York Times, opening our world view; during the holidays we paid special attention to the Neediest Cases stories, entering the lives of families affected by hunger, poverty, illness, and in reading about them, care about them and find a way to help.

I know how Laurette feels about St. Joseph College--she loves it.  She is a vibrant scholar and activist--in this case her activism included so kindly and lovingly weaving, unknown to me, the scenario that makes possible this wonderful gift--an honorary degree from the college that shaped her life.

I'm grateful to St. Joseph College, President Pamela Trotman Reid, PhD. and Sister Patricia Rooney, as well as to Laurette Laramie, the late Kathleen Stingle, and my mother, wonderful St. Joe's grads who've influenced me so much.

I do have my own, private St. Joe's moment.  When I was little, my mother would take us on frequent visits to the campus, to visit her former professors, Sisters of Mercy.  I must have been about 5.  We were in the Grotto, an ivy-covered secret garden, and I found a blue button.  Remind me to tell you the story sometime.  It involves a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Lucille and Charles

When my mother came to Paris for her chemotherapy, it was her very first time on a plane.   The trip was full of meaning.  Lucille Arrigan Rice, my mother, was one of the greatest readers ever to live.  She had been born and raised in New England and never traveled beyond Washington DC to the south, Quebec City to the north, and New York City to the west.  Her reading had taken her everywhere in the world so perhaps she hadn't felt the need to visit places other than through literature.  The cost was also an issue; it wasn't so uncommon for teachers, typewriter men, and their children, to think flying was only for the Air Force and rich people.

I was living in Paris and couldn't bear not being with her during her treatment for a brain tumor, so I arranged for her to have chemo at the American Hospital in Neuilly.  She loved Paris immediately; she'd felt a bond with the city since, when pregnant with my youngest sister, she'd spent labor reading Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris goes to Paris, and eventually the baby grew up to marry a Frenchman (here is the baby and her husband, Maureen and Olivier Onorato, in Arcachon, France, where they lived their first year of marriage many moons ago.)  (Photo by Amelia Onorato,)  Anyway, the Gallico book is a magical reference tool in our family, so my sister's marriage, and now my mother's visit to Paris, all seemed quite blessed and cosmic, but that is another story.

My mother was enchanted by Paris but wanted to go to England.  Her grandmother, Gertrude Gibson Harwood Beaudry, was English, so we'd grown up with teatime, silver spoons commemorating Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and a habit i shared with my sisters of practicing English accents while walking on the golf course, pretending it  was the Yorkshire Moors.  I also invented an imaginary English family, wherein my father was the fabulously dashing Max Gardiner, I had nine brothers and no sisters, and my own bay thoroughbred, on whom I rode hunt seat jolly well.  But that too is another story.

Flying across the Channel, my mother was moved to remember my father's service during WWll, how his squadron had given air support to the troops landing on Normandy beaches on D-Day.  During our London stay we would visit places my father had stayed on leave from the base at North Pickenham, including a Catholic church hit by a buzz-bomb while my father was at Mass.

Upon landing in England, my mother's smile grew huge, as if she had finally come home.  We took a taxi to the Basil Street Hotel, where we had a tiny suite and our own butler.  My mother tired easily, so she had to drink bouillon in bed and sleep a while before we could set out to see London.

I had planned an itinerary that I thought she would enjoy, but it went out the window as soon as she woke up.  "I want to go straight to Doughty Street," she said.  "What's there?" I asked.  She looked disappointed in both herself and me, as if she'd failed me in my education and I'd failed myself by not enquiring further.  "Charles Dickens' house," she said.

We went straightaway.  Dickens had lived in the Georgian terraced house at 48 Doughty Street for two years: he and Catherine moved in right after their marriage in April 1837.  Home to the Dickenses and the three eldest of their ten children, two of their daughters were born there.  The family moved to larger houses as Dickens became more successful, but none of those other residences survive.

The interior was Victorian, and we wandered--my mother blissfully--through the morning room, drawing room, and brilliantly scholarly library.  The house contains the most comprehensive collection of all things Dickens, including first editions and a painting, Dicken's Dream, by R. W. Buss, the artist who'd illustrated The Pickwick Papers.

I was overjoyed to see early editions of Dombey and Son, a novel my sisters and I loved for its own merit but also because in Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger, it was the novel Zooey was reading at the kitchen table when Jesus appeared and asked him for a small glass of ginger ale.  A small glass, mind you.

My mother adored Dickens.  Not just as the literary giant he was, but also, simply as an avid reader, because he wrote such engaging, addictive stories.  My mother said, "He wrote such cliffhangers.  The books would be published in serials, and readers would be waiting at the loading dock to pick up the next installment."  It thrilled her to know that he had written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and part of Barnaby Rudge while in residence there.

After reluctantly leaving as the house/museum closed for the day, we went to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was both charming and incredibly touristy, because a woman in the museum had told my mother that Dickens had frequented the pub.  My mother couldn't eat, she was too sick, but she leaned back and soaked in the atmosphere, imagining Dickens at the next table--perhaps writing, perhaps thinking of his latest chapter.

Our next stop, the following day, would be at Samuel Johnson's house, as she was quite obsessed with Dr. Johnson and was, back in Connecticut, caring for a stray tiger cat she'd named Boswell after the diarist and author of The Life of Samuel Johnson.  But today, in this post, I savor that memory of my mother and our visit with Charles Dickens.  It is, after all, Dickens' birthday...  Lucille would be the first to bake him a cake.

Music of the Spheres

I am hearing the Music of the Spheres this week before Christmas.  On Tuesday there was a full moon, full lunar eclipse, and Winter Solstice, all at once.  How could such events, especially during the holidays, fail to turn each of us into a mystic? Musica universalis--Pythagoras said "There is geometry in the humming of the strings.  There is music in the spacing of the spheres."  It's a harmonic philosophy regarding celestial bodies, space among the sun, moon, and planets.

Maybe it's because my mother told us that if we were very still and quiet on Christmas Eve, we could hear angels singing--the only night of the year that was possible.  Of course that was a bold attempt to settle us down, wild with excitement for Christmas morning, but even as young children we felt the deeper meaning.

Everyone feels the holidays in their own way.  For me Christmas is inseparable from my mother; after a very long illness, when she was constantly dying, the time finally came.  Her final death started in mid-December.  The doctor and a priest charged me with telling her what was happening.  I remember sitting by my mother's bed at the nursing home, informing her that she was going to die.

She got really mad at me, and refused to speak to me for a week.  I'd go see her, and she'd turn her head to the wall.  I found a small tree and decorated it with lights and our family ornaments, irridescent balls decorated with twinkling snow, dating back to my grandmother's turn-of-the-century childhood.  I brought her Scottish Terrier, Gelsey, to visit her.  I introduced her to my new tiger kitten, Maggie.

No response.

Then, finally, one night I was sitting by her bed in the dark, with only the tree lights illuminating her small room.  I looked over at her, and saw her staring at me--intensely, as if she was trying to memorize me.  Her mouth moved--I read her lips: "I love you."

"I love you, too, Mom."

I held her hand, and we looked at each other for a long time.  She slipped in and out, but talked to me when she could.  The cold shoulder was forgotten.  Having fought so hard for so long, she really didn't want to let go.  It was a case of "blame the messenger," but that's okay.  I understand, and am all the more grateful for our last few days together.  She died soon afterwards, on January 2, 1995.

Music of the spheres.

Love the planet, love the moon, love the sky, love each other, love what is and not what you would have it to be, love music, love the beasts, love yourself.  Peace on earth.  Or as Peter Lehner of NRDC says, Peace With the Earth.

I have quoted this section from Shakespeare many times, on this site and in essays I have written--it speaks to me for so many reasons.  Today, I'm hearing the "heavenly music" line...

From the Tempest, Act V, Scene I:

I have bedimm'd The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds, And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up The pine and cedar: graves at my command Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth By my so potent art. But this rough magic I here abjure, and, when I have required Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end upon their senses that This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than did ever plummet sound I'll drown my book.

Solemn music