I wake to my mother’s black and white image every day. Her photo hangs over my dresser and she stares directly at me. Its one of those photos where the eyes follow you. My husband has never objected to the location of the photo or that her gaze is focused on our bed. Perhaps its because she is very beautiful and serene.
Judging from the hairstyle and clothes, the photo was probably taken around 1940. She looks like a big city gal which belies her rural Midwest roots. I wonder if it was taken while she lived in Chicago where she finally settled down after years trailing her Dad in the Dirty Thirties as he looked for work.
Propped in my bed with the dog snoring beside me, cozy in a nest of pillows and books, we loll in soft grey light. A squirrel skitters across the roof and I tense, hoping he doesn’t fall down the chimney as happened to one of his brethren on Boxing Day. As I hold my breath, I hear my mother’s voice.
“Leave her be, Mother.”
My Grandmother, who lived with us on and off through my adolescence, thought I was lazy and said so often, though seldom to my face.
“Why isn’t she up yet? She should be doing SOMETHING,” I heard her say through my bedroom door.
I don’t know what Grandma wanted me to do. Darn socks? Make applesauce? Pluck a chicken? Iron sheets? Peel potatoes? I hear her voice, rigid Methodist, clearer than my mother’s. Funny how the negative sticks but the positive fades in my memory.
My mother would be 101 if she were still alive. Maybe confined to a bed. Maybe I’d crawl under the covers with her and read from one of her favourite books – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. She might say “How do you like being old?” I’d laugh and reply “How do you like being super-old?” Maybe her answer would be different than it was thirty years ago.
In my mid-thirties, when she was in her early 70’s, she said to me “You won’t like getting old.” She’s right – I don’t, but its better than the alternative. I tell her photo “On the positive side, I didn’t start writing until I was 53, and if it weren’t for age I doubt I ever would have tried.
A knot of anxiety frequently wakes me up at 4:00 a.m. Until yesterday, I refused to name it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed to tell you because it is pathetically mundane, but here’s the truth: I fear dying. I fear my life has been wasted. I’m ashamed of some awful things I’ve done in my 61 years of life. In the words of Paul Simon –
I want a shot at redemption.
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
in a cartoon graveyard.*
I take a good look at my Mother who is taking a good look at me. With my notebook propped on a pillow, I scribble madly as she watches. I race the clock which, like my Grandma, urges me to get out of bed and do SOMETHING. Outside the wind picks up and the maple tree branches scrape the side of the house. My stomach rumbles. The dog needs his walk, there’s a chicken to pluck and time is running out.
“Relax,” Mom says. “Daydream. You can make applesauce anytime.”
*From You Can Call Me Al, music and lyrics by Paul Simon
The ghost in the picture