By CAROLE VASTA FOLLEY
As Mother’s Day approaches, I look, once again, in two directions. In front of me, I see my grown daughter, while easily conjuring her as a child with an impish smile, wispy hair and a vocabulary that kept me on my toes. Looking behind, in my mind’s eye, I see my mom. Fifteen years since her death and every one of them has brought me closer to her in an evolving appreciation. Chalk it up to the aging gift of wisdom, you know the consolation prize for wrinkles. Sometimes I want to trade that prize in for what’s behind door number two. You never know, it could be a trip around the world. On the other hand, it could be a donkey. Thank goodness, I’ve got the wisdom not to bet on it.
Her name was Eileen. The Irish say it means light, which is incongruous as her experience was none such. But I’ll stay with that descriptor because in French, it means hazelnut. More importantly, light is indicative of her true essence. I now see how much she wasn’t able to be her own person. She helped us navigate a tricky existence in the kingdom of my dad. who ruled with intimidation. And that was one of his finer qualities. My mom never rescued us, but she stayed and endured with us. Perhaps that is something, because eventually she taught a truism for all: we must rescue ourselves.
In my youth, I only saw an ineffectual woman who happened to be my mother. But here’s the thing about that, she still put meals on the table and sewed our clothes, no small feat for a family of nine. If you were lucky, you had some one-on-one time. My favorite was when my mother helped make my seventh-grade science project. The assignment? Make a model of anything, showing how it works. So, together, we crafted a refrigerator out of cardboard. It was a freezer-on-top model, fashionably painted avocado green. I was so proud of this faux appliance, which ultimately failed in the classroom when the teacher inspected its backside, exclaiming, “Where’s the compressor and evaporator coils?” I couldn’t begin to answer and instead proudly displayed the nifty egg compartment. That grade didn’t matter, I earned something greater.
At my mother’s funeral, I shared, “Without mom, there would be no ‘Bells of Saint Mary’ or late-night cups of tea.” I sang a shaky version of “Danny Boy,” losing the words as they got tangled in my sorrow. Thus, followed the mandatory church reception with the worst sandwiches on the planet surrounded by the loveliest of people who came to pay their respects. Such an odd concept to “pay” respect. Maybe it’d be good if we all proffered it frequently as a commodity worthy of daily disbursement.
We ended at the cemetery, a bitter November day. A prayer was spoken, then it was over; everyone turned and left. I looked back to see two men, strangers, about to place the urn in the ground. What my husband did next still stands as one of the finest moments of our three decades. He said, “Do you want to do it?” It was a “yes” from the bottom of my toes, which look just like my mother’s. He explained to the men and there the four of us stood. One handed me my mom. I knelt on the frosted earth and kissed her one last time as I placed her into the ground. I guess it was my way to pay respect. A measure of understanding, compassion and recognition of the light in her which flows out through me. A light I see in my daughter.
Carole Vasta Folley is an award-winning Vermont playwright and columnist. Contact her at carolevf.com.