Alexandria, Va., 2008/2009
In the year following my mother’s passing, it felt as if her ghost draped afterimages heavy as a shearling coat over me. My body took on her limitations. I developed sciatica. I struggled to rise from my desk, my hips stiff as I lurched to the kitchen for water, favoring my bad leg, remembering how my mother had leaned her bulk on the sideboard in my sister’s dining room, then the breakfast bar, so that she could finally get to the kitchen counter and place her coffee cup in the sink to soak.
She’d refused to use a cane, claimed a walker “wouldn’t slide right” on the floor. Only occasionally would she permit the regular use of a wheelchair in public places like restaurants or malls. Through it all, she insisted on carrying a purse laden with heavy and mostly unnecessary things—who knows what they were? The purse always sat unopened on the bench of the booth at the restaurant, on the floor of the car, on the rug next to the rocking chair in her bedroom.
That channeling, that stuckness, should not have been happening. I’d done what I could to stay supple and strong. I practiced yoga. Yet what had formerly been pleasurable began to cause pain: the outstretched arms of child’s pose, the hip and leg extensions of a forward fold. My body was becoming as much a mystery to me as my mother’s life: what she thought about, why she made no friends, how she got through days punctuated only by meal and coffee breaks, mostly solitary after her my father died.
In the yoga studio one night the instructor had asked us to make our fullest extension of five-pointed star, and then to move from star into triangle. I pulled my left foot toward center, angle my right foot out.
“Lift the heart up to the heavens, let the breath move you and look up at your hand. Watch the sensations,” the instructor says.
I followed her directions as best I could. I remembered to pull my right hip forward, the left hip back, to keep the arm and my body from caving in on itself.
Caving in—to tears, to grief—was what I had refused when my mother died. I had come to tears many times in those days, weeks, months following her death. But I’d willed them to stop. My mother and I lacked the relationship that seemed to merit mourning. My mother was dead, and I was glad. I didn’t have to worry about her crashing to the floor when she lost her balance, or crashing into another depression and having to deal with the aftermath. And yet I’d felt a nostalgia for her face, her attempt to make conversation by telling the same stories over and over again, her innocence tied up with her manipulations and stubbornness, the brown eyes, the sparse lashes open wide in something resembling surprise and incomprehension, the Maybellined eyebrows a dark brunette half-circle beneath the rim of her eyeglass frame.
All my life I had waited for her to die. All my life I had waited for the lung cancer to reveal its shadow. I’d known it would claim my father; I’d waited for it to claim his wife. But no, her end was different, its tenor forecast in the trip we’d made with her to Williamsburg on the back roads of Virginia, past the B&Bs and the colored leaves lying in fields that had once grown peanuts and cotton and tobacco.
On that gold-dappled day she’d traveled from her Ohio home to join me and my then-husband on a road trip. She sat in the back seat. Her every breath was labored. I tried to make conversation; now and then my husband read aloud the titles of the roadside markers that told what happened so many years ago, the stories people don’t want to forget.
Some things you know all your life, and the memories comfort. Others, like my mother’s labored breath that would escape from her chest ten years later and waft three states to the east ’til I felt it in the wind that rattled the trees as I drove home to her funeral, I’d forgotten—until my sister told me the story of how she asked for a sign that Mom was all right, and that the sign be air, free-flowing. The forgetting and remembering were easy—the making sense was hard.
I didn’t mourn so much as long for the mother I’d never had, one who would smile when I ran into the room holding dandelions in my sticky palm. And though I did not understand it, I longed for the one who in fact was mine, the one bent over the kitchen table, burying her head in her arms, weeping, pushing me and the dandelions away.
She was sick, we’d always said. I’d grown to think sick was a euphemism for all the things my mother was and did that made her unavailable to us. The truth was we never realized how truly accurate that word “sick” was. She was ill. All those years later and after all the effort I’d poured into studying clinical depression, I still did not understand how to understand her.
At times I thought I would plan a trip to Slovenia, to seek out relatives, ancestors. To find women who looked like me—the broad Slavic cheekbones, the ears and nose a touch too large in proportion to the rest of my face. To experience a sense of belonging to the tribe of women with hair pulled into buns, earlobes pierced at birth with gold hoop earrings, earrings as small as a fingernail, as small as a sliver of new moon. To find solace in the heritage I had been given, the customs I had known and practiced all my life.
It is a superstitious heritage. Stir the pot in only one direction so the food stays tender; eat bread crusts so your hair stays curly. It is also a heritage full of charms and invocations to induce healing or influence certain natural processes, a longing to bridge two worlds—the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. A paper I’d read said that in Slovenia, faith in the supernatural to solve difficulties was still alive, especially in the rural regions. Today, though, positive magic, the one used to heal, prevailed.
I wanted this healing. I wanted my body back, to walk free of the constant reminders of my mother’s and my own limitations. But was my going to Slovenia a true impulse, or a diversion? “All elsewheres are here, all elsewheres [and answers] are inside us,” I’d once heard an Irish priest say. “We just need a bit of space and stillness.”
Why couldn’t I grieve like everyone else, instead of having my body break under the weight of all those remembrances? Why couldn’t I, like everyone else, feel satisfied with collecting the artifacts of the dead one’s life and creating a shrine to memory?
But I’d returned from my mother’s funeral empty-handed. My sisters, my nieces, and I had taken a day to sort and organize my mother’s tangle of acrylic necklaces, bracelets, and button earrings, some still on their cards. We separated the good things that would go to family members—a gold key necklace from Greece, a silver-keeper jewelry box, high-end costume broaches, trinkets she hadn’t bought for herself—from the others that would go to charity, to a house sale, to eBay. It became a full day’s work. We’d left the closet and the cedar chest and the rest of the dresser drawers for another time.
I wished my mother had followed the ancient Hebrew tradition and left behind an ethical will, not just a will that divided her assets and this tangle of clothes and jewelry. I would have liked to know what she valued, what she wanted to tell each of us, what was in her mind during the moments, the hours, the days she sat and smoked and drank her coffee in the dark silent kitchen. What did she want her life to mean, how did she want to be remembered, what did she want to leave to each of us, a talisman against feeling orphaned, of feeling no more buffers between us and eternity?
That kind of peace escaped me. I could not settle my mind, though I’d begun attending yoga twice a week, having twice as much savasana. As I lay on my mat in corpse pose, my mind emptied and filled with images: the summer trips to Round Up Lake, my father watering the garden, my mother canning peaches in the old house in the old neighborhood. Every now and then a tear leaked from my eyelids, rolled down the side of my face, puddled in my ear. I let it go. No one was looking. One time, the air had seemed charged and I’d felt my father’s presence. Again my eyes began to sting, and tears rolled down my face. It had been 19 years since his death. How long would I have to wait to feel my mother’s presence and not just the ghost of her absence in the aches and pains that yoga and even physical therapy could not take from my muscles?
“Maybe they’re in guard mode,” the physical therapist had told me. “But why, and what are they guarding?”
If there was an answer, I could not find it.
In the year following my mother’s death, I dreamt I was in a house, sun so bright I had to squint, the sound of someone shouting my name. It was my mother. She lay down in the double bed next to me, like when we used to doze in the open air on hot summer afternoons when I was six or seven or eight, lying on my father’s wool Army blanket while the babies napped in their cribs upstairs in our second-floor railroad apartment. We’d stretch ourselves out on the blanket, my mother on her back, me perpendicular and using her stomach as a pillow, and stare at the sky, name the shapes the clouds were making.
“Do you want to make amends?” she said in the dream.
I was only slightly puzzled by her question. I started to answer. But instead I asked her how she was, and what it was like where she was now.
“It’s a waiting around kind of place,” she says, “but I know some others here.” This news surprised me. In a vision I’d had when she was in fact dying, she’d seemed so clear about moving beyond her life on earth and into whatever was next. I touched her shoulder. She looked older than I remembered, but free, free of the arthritis and the oxygen tanks, her constant tethers to the world of living and suffering.
In the dream I was convinced that she should apologize for not being a good mother. In the dream I was hoping that finally, finally, she would be the mother I’d wanted. And in the dream I remembered my neglect of her, my lack of connection, my move from her home as soon as I was able.
In another, later dream, we were in a large hotel-like space with many people milling around. She was larger than I remembered. Then the scene changed and I lost her. Helpers came from another dimension. One was a large bearded man who sat with me at a table and gave me instructions. But I failed at putting them in place and my mother was lost to me once again.
When my mother was alive, I’d never given much thought to losing her. She was already lost to me. It was easy to keep the distance, the silences. After all, we lived three states apart. The centrifugal and centripetal forces between us had quieted. Only later did I learn that centrifugal force is fictitious. It arises only with motion in rotation—it does not exist in inertia. I’d always believed she pushed me away. But I’d never before realized my own complicity in how we’d related to each other. I was the one who left. I’d left her, I’d left my family to deal with her. I’d deliberately put myself in the background. Though I interviewed sources all the time for the freelance articles I wrote, I could never articulate the questions that would open up my own mother and yield the answers I craved. Who are you? Who am I because of you? What do I do with this legacy you left all of us?
I wanted certainty, I wanted what people told me to be true, that there was only one question and answer for the experience of staying stuck in the mystery of my mother’s life, that it was about letting go.
But there is more, I think. There is letting go of both the need to hold on—and the need to let go. Maybe this is why I am drawn to yoga, for what it has to teach about union in opposites. Maybe this is the thing I have been learning all my life, the thing I still continue to learn, how to exist in the in-between, the place of not knowing.
In the second dream about my mother, she’d worn turquoise, the color of healing, the color of being able to see. We walked and talked. She was happy, smiling. And I unearthed a memory. A Sunday in June, hot as the day we buried my mother’s body. I was nine. My parents had decided to spend the day at the lake, but first we’d stop at Gaylord’s hardware to buy charcoal for the grill.
My father parked, head out, against the orange wall of the building. We waited in the car while my parents shopped. At last they exited the building, my father carrying the bag of charcoal, my mother following, purse in one hand, brown bag in the other.
After they were settled back in the car and we’d pulled away, my mother rummaged through the bag. She took out a sailor hat for my sister, plastic rafts and swim rings for my brother. I thought the bag was empty and there was nothing left for me. Then my mother pushed her hand to the bottom of the bag and pulled out a box the size of a sunglass case.
“Here’s something for you, Jo,” she said, and showed me how to open it so the top and the bottom pulled apart from each other. A flash of silver—thin, barrel-shaped. It was a PaperMate, a grown-up pen, the one that caught the attention of the first friend I made in the new Catholic school we attended after my parents moved us out of the city. I picked it up and held it, clicked the top up and down. The pen felt sure and certain in my nine-year-old hand.
“Don’t lose it now,” she said.
Remembering was a revelation: my mother had found my talisman for me that long-ago Sunday in June, before I knew its power. How had she recognized the meaning a pen would later hold for me, how the words that flowed from its barrel were the very thing to save me, the very thing that gives me one small corner of peace?
A therapist I’d interviewed years ago had said it was important not to blame but to seek understanding. I’d written thousands of words to try and understand my mother—and discovered I was trying to understand myself. And now I am not convinced that understanding is possible, or that even if it is, that insight is enough to change what exists, or what might evolve. For that, you have to act. But maybe there are ways of piecing together a past that shed light instead of darkness.
My mother’s gift—that sliver of a PaperMate—gave me an opening, even though she herself could not find her way to me, nor I to her. I believe that beneath the shell of the mother I knew, there was a girl whose voice went missing and was never recovered. I believe that despite the encouragement her high school teacher gave her, despite the book knowledge I hoped would cure her and keep us safe from becoming her, she truly could not speak past the rocks in her throat. It is a struggle I know all too well, even though I also know that secrets are the first inkling of voice, because they push. against. everything. you protect them from, they leak of their own volition. They insist on being seen. I wish my mother had taken up photography when the teacher gave her that Brownie camera for graduation. She might have found, if not a voice, at least a vision, to tunnel toward when the darkness began to drape itself over her.
In the yoga studio, once again in savasana, the bones and muscles, tissues and fascia of my body yield to gravity; earth rises up and counters with support. The lights have dimmed—a rainstorm is pummeling the skylights, water cascading down the spout outside the window, thunder crashing as it did the day my mother passed. Softly, slowly, a Ram chant wafts over us, a chant that for thousands of years has promised release from problems and difficulties. Stillness tucks around me like a blanket. My ears hear a lullaby, my heart waits for the promise of making peace with the unknown. My eyes open, my voice joins with the others. In unison we chant shanti, shanti Om.
Joanne M. Lozar Glenn is an independent writer, editor, and educator based in Alexandria, Va. She writes and edits content for clients in healthcare, education, and business, and leads “destination” writing retreats (wtwpwn.com). Her essays and poems appeared in Amaranth Review, Peregrine, Under the Gum Tree, Ayris, The Northern Virginia Review, and other print and online journals. “My Mother’s Ghost” is excerpted from her forthcoming memoir, Stories Without Endings.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Raffaele De Matola