In the last couple of years I have written and received too many condolence letters. And I wonder about them, these artifacts of sorrow and grief, inscribed with a litany of words that do not say the things we mean to say, because there really are no words for those feelings, but instead we turn to the same words, over and over until they become a shell of what they were—words and sentences marching down the page, a reversion to ritual. We say the things we think we are expected to say, ghosts on a white paper page, like the people we are writing into our memories with each line.
What is it we want to say? What are we trying to capture in those moments with pen to paper, with heart and tears overflowing that it seems so impossible to express? As I write this essay, sitting in my sister’s house, surrounded by my family and waiting for morning when we will gather at my mother’s bedside to say goodbye, I am thinking about the words we use when the things we want to talk about are long summer evenings spent singing around a campfire, and road trips with too many people crammed into too small a car, or the heat of the oven when bread is removed just in time for an after school snack.
And this is what I want to say.
I look like my mother.
This is not something I was always happy with, when I was younger and found her features and opinions sharp and uncomfortable when what I wanted to be was soft and pretty and unnoticed. She was always moving, my mom, her short dark hair a halo around her face, always talking, always planning, always headed somewhere, when I have been content to be at home, to slow down, to wander slowly through a day, to focus my efforts inward instead of out.
She was the kind of mom who baked more than one loaf of bread at a time, and gave away the extras easily, to anyone who looked like they needed a bite or more, especially slathered with butter and homemade raspberry jam from the berries picked in our backyard, one at a time, until our fingers were stained red, until we had eaten more than we had picked and would without fail have ruined our appetite for dinner.
She played the piano and wanted us all to play as well, and tried to teach us note by note and line by line, long ago when our enthusiasm was endless and her patience was not and she was finally defeated by stubbornness and temper and our endless fascination with whatever was happening anywhere but on that piano bench. But we still learned to love music and to sing, and to play other instruments, and to listen for her to sit at the piano late into the night on special occasions like Christmas Eve when she would softly play us to sleep while we waited impatiently for morning.
She loved a well ordered garden. And when she didn’t have one, she would create one, even if it meant measuring off our tiny wilderness yard in the woods in Oregon, raking and hoeing and watering and planting grass from seed, while our neighbors watched perplexed, because they could not imagine a tidy green lawn in the middle of the woods, overshadowed by the giant pines that grew all around us, but she persisted until she had created something beautiful and tender and soft and growing, glowing under the dappled sunlight in a lush carpet of green.
She loved to crochet, and tried to teach my five sisters and me, and although many of them learned, I did not, but now I knit, and when I do I think of her hands, deft and dextrous, even after the first two strokes that robbed her of speech, but left her the skill to create out of yarn and time a memory to wrap yourself up in. And it was not enough to learn to crochet, but she had to learn to spin as well, and to buy the wool and card it and weave, creating with curiosity a warp and weft of knowledge that convinced her daughters that we could learn anything we wanted to—we just had to try hard enough.
She was at home in the kitchen—something else she passed on to her children, and when I cut an apple and am tempted to slather it with peanut butter, or when I make one of the many recipes she made for dinner over the years, I am transported back in time to a small house in the woods in Oregon, or a sunlit kitchen in California, or the white light of a snowy day in North Dakota as she made pies and casseroles and picnic cakes and bread, and we always knew there would be something interesting happening in the kitchen, or if we were not near a kitchen she would be preparing food on a picnic bench in the park, or on top of a cooler on a long road trip, or on rocks when we would camp—any flat surface could be used for a meal, ingredients arranged like the notes of a song I hadn’t quite learned yet.
She loved a good joke, even when the joke was on her (at least after the initial annoyance was over), and I remember one April Fool’s day when we convinced her the neighbor’s horse had gotten loose (which was believable because it was a regular houdini and had been known to show up near the yard where she would shoo him away before he could trample the grass), and then we convinced her that the horse was swimming in the above ground pool in the backyard—which I am convinced she knew was a lie, but some lies are good because they are so preposterous and we were small and delighted at the fact that we had managed a falsehood of such epic proportions.
She was not perfect, because people rarely are, and although when I was a teenager and young adult I focused on the flaws in the way only the young can do when they are absolutely sure of their own ability to avoid error and temper and fault, with every passing year I find myself echoing her, without even meaning to, teaching my children to garden, to cook, to enjoy music, to laugh, and to spend time in each others company.
It is fall, but a fall muted by a long and dry summer, with little to no rain, so this week when the mountain to the north of the small valley where I live started smoking it seemed to be almost normal, a natural outgrowth of the extreme heat and dryness that has enveloped us all season. But the air soon filled with smoke, and the valley glowed red in the night, and what was a small fire spread rapidly across the foothills, around the edge of the hills, and up the canyon walls. And as I stood on my front lawn in the morning I could see the smoldering line of the fire, in all its random, raw, blackened devastation, which looked the way I felt.
And although I have written and received so very many condolence letters over the past two years, for just a moment I failed to imagine a time when I could not pick up the phone and call to ask my mom for her coconut cream pie recipe, ‘just this one more time and I promise this time I will write it down’ even though I know I won’t. And as I drove to Southern Utah to be with my family I saw on other hillsides the old scars of even older fires and noticed through the scorched and blackened earth new green growth was springing.
And I thought, at least I look like my mom.