many forms of mother

"I am mother," a painting of my mom's
“I am mother,” a painting of my mom’s

My mother died this past December. I say “died” because “passed away” is too gentle. Too sweet. She was snatched out of life; she was ripped from us; she was stolen. There was nothing passive about it.

Since then, I’ve had my first Christmas without her. My first New Year’s without her. Her 57th birthday. Without her. And I’ve managed to survive each one.

But May . . . May may just be what does me in.

I open my email each morning and every subject line is “Tell Mom You Love Her,” “Perfect Gifts for Mother’s Day,” “Don’t Forget about Your Mom.” The in-store signs are equally dangerous. And the greeting card aisle? I’d rather be back in the hospital with her than trying to walk down it right now. I can’t even peruse the latest issue of Real Simple because mom is everywhere.

Everywhere, except here.

Needless to say, this Mother’s Day is going to be different for me. And so I’ve decided to do exactly what my mother would want: to stop grieving, stop aching, stop breaking, and to celebrate the many forms of mother.

Like my sweet sister, who strives to find mom-like things to say. Who let’s me call her when I’m hysterical and patiently calms me down. Who talks to me on my drive home so I don’t get lonely. Who buys me plane tickets to visit her and my own bottle of Design perfume. Who draws “Corkscrew.” Who tells me to write more poetry.

Like Grandmom, my mom’s mom, who asks how I’m doing and really means it. Who calls and emails and Facebooks–whatever it takes to touch base. Who offers love like only the mother of my mother could know how to do.

Like my best friend Amy, who knows everything I need before I ever say it. And would do anything for me without ever thinking twice. And makes me believe I’m the best person in the whole world.

Like my dad’s wife Rana, who made a point to send extra flowers to the funeral because she knew there could never be too many flowers. And offered to buy us even more Christmas presents. And hung my mom’s paintings in her home.

Like David’s mom, who welcomes me into her family unquestioningly. Who offers empathy without ever becoming overbearing. Who, even though David and I are 27 years old, sent an Easter card with money. Just like my mom would.

Like my friends from childhood and adolescence and college, Robyn, Tiffany, Leiko, Taylor, Brittany, who held my hand before the funeral, sent me the best care package I’ve ever received, kept me company on New Years Day, and made sure I knew they will always be there when I need them.

Like my Charleston friends, Madeline, Sarah, Joni, Kimberly, Stephanie, Amy who were waiting with hugs when I came back. Who are always ready to listen when I’m ready to talk. Who surprise me with capes and scarves and mustard blouses and good advice. Who buy me brunch with more biscuits than is humanly possible to eat.

Like my supervisors at work, Heather and Amy, who could not have been more human when I missed so much time. Who sent text messages full of hope and strength every day I was away. Who provide such a sense of comfort just by being the incredible women they are.

Like my aunts, Sandra, Sarah, Susan, who made the worst week of my life a little better by being extensions of mom. Who held me when I needed it, made sure I had something to eat and somewhere to sleep, and did all the things that mothers always do.

Like my extended family, Melanie, Gayle, Phyllis, Candace, Celeste, who remind me how lucky I am to be a McCollough-Shelnutt. And always know what to say to lift my spirits.

These women are proof that there are many forms of mother. And my mother would be the first to say so.

So to all the email blasts and commercials and radio spots and banner ads reminding me not to forget about mom, let me be clear: there will never be a Mother’s Day for the rest of my life that I forget about my mom.

But this year, this May, this Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate these women.

And say thanks.

Thank you for being a new form of mother in my life. Thank you for filling a gap in my heart. Thank you for weaving the seamless network of love and support and kindness that has kept me afloat for five tough months.

You are precious to me. Happy Mother’s Day.

semifiction

poloroid camera by a stack of books

It was sophomore year of high school, Ms. Hager’s American literature class, when I learned one of my favorite words: semisubnebulous.

It was used in a short story, but I can’t remember which one. Probably something by Faulkner. Maybe Chopin. What I do remember is a footnote at the bottom of the page provided the definition.  

It means walking around in dreamlike state. Half asleep. Half awake. It’s basically sleepwalking, but it sounds so much cooler than that.

Or at least that’s what it means to me. Because to this day, I have yet to see it defined anywhere else. It’s a ghost of a word, but I love it just the same.

There are plenty of non-ghost words that start with semi. Semiannual. Semicolon. Semisweet. Semitruck. Semicircle . . . But semifiction isn’t one of them. There’s just no such thing.

That’s because writing is not some two-lane road paved thick in black asphalt with reflective yellow lines that clearly divide the fact from the fantasy. Or if it is, we’re weaving in and out of our lanes like drunk drivers fleeing the scene of a bar fight.

The truth is even our most imagined tales are steeped far too long in boiling kettles of reality and history. And our most honest stories are fuzzied by slanted perspectives, by blurry Polaroids thumbtacked along the walls of our minds.  

It’s unavoidable. And poor James Frey had to learn the hard way. But to this girl, there’s no difference between a million little truths and a million little lies.

It’s all in what we remember. In how we remember. In how we write what we remember.

It’s the emotions that seep out of our pores. It’s the words we make up during our high school English classes. It’s the scenes we try to capture–in fiction and in memoir–each one rooted in fading recollections, sepia-toned facts, and yes, even semisubnebulous memories.

So go on. Write your heart out, storytellers. Let all the semitruths spill from your veins.

The world will probably only believe half of them anyway.

Photo credit: ForgottenCharm on Etsy

 

infinitesitale – two

Mema was just 22 when her dad died. The two were close; quite possibly, she was the favorite of his four children.

As my granddad, who we call Pepa, drove her home from the funeral, he warned, “You know, everything you see is going to make you think of him.” To which Mema responded, “You’re right; it will. And everything will be a beautiful memory.”

That’s the story as Pepa retold it to my sister and me 60 years later, as we drove him home from a new funeral. Now he was the one left with all the beautiful memories.

 

 

Infinitesitale: An extremely small story. 100 words or less. This was a second attempt.

the lost and the found

St. Anthony of Padua
St. Anthony of Padua

 

Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please look all around.
Something is missing that needs to be found.

Those are the words my mother would recite every time something was lost in our household. Except she’d replace the “something” with the name of the misplaced item: my homework, a favorite pair of shoes, or most often, the car keys. She’d finish off the request with a triumphant “Thank you, Saint Anthony,” always confident in her faithful patron saint of lost things.

Saint Anthony usually pulled through for her, too. With the exception of her engagement ring – and I’m sure he did his best with that one – I can’t remember a single time the requested item wasn’t found. And believe me when I tell you, we kept the poor guy busy.

Maybe it’s because my mom was such a spiritually keen woman. She was on a first-name basis with many saints and angels. Or maybe she just had that mother’s instinct, the sixth sense of knowing where something was without ever having seen it.

“That’s what mothers are for!” she would have sung at me upon finding something I’d lost. I’d just shake my head in disbelief, dumbfounded by her mom-magic.

The trouble is that not all lost things are meant to be found. And the thing I’ve lost now is my mother. Despite my prayers, all the patron saints and angels in heaven cannot help me.

When I was younger, mom once asked that if something was ever to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a rainbow? Perhaps even a budding rose? A question to which I’m pretty sure I responded that coming back from the dead in any form was going to scare the shit out of me, and she should probably just rest in peace.

So I guess you’d call it ironic that just four months after her death, I find myself constantly concentrating on the night sky, hoping to spot even the faintest star taking a dive.

Thus far, I haven’t seen one. Some nights I can’t see any stars at all.

But there are other times when I sense her presence without the help of stars and rainbows and fresh blooms. Like when I walk into a cafe that’s playing Paul Simon’s Graceland on repeat. Or when I find an old photo of her that’s fallen down the side of the fridge. Or even last night, when I grabbed a novel from my bedside table, hoping to finish it off before falling asleep, and in the final pages, it quotes the prayer to Saint Anthony.

And in those moments, I’m flooded with memories of her. Memories I’d completely forgotten. Memories worth more than shoes and homework and engagement rings and everything she and I have ever lost combined.

I have to believe it’s because of her. That somewhere not-so-far away, my mom is still calling on her old friend to find the things I’ve lost.

So thank you, Saint Anthony, for bringing her back to me.

 

 

hope blooms

My dad called me as I left work today to keep me company on my drive home. He’s buying a property in the hills of North Georgia. Ten acres of sunshine to build a cabin on, a place to watch for shooting stars.

He drove there this past weekend – to walk the property lines. It was his first time seeing it all done up for spring time. There’s a long row of daffodils, he said. Then a long row of iris. Then a long row of hyacinth. There are blueberry bushes. And there’s more still left to bloom.

You would have thought he found an oil well, the way his voice lit up as he described the budding scene to me.

But that’s the kind of man he is. The kind who identifies all the birds as they arrive at the feeder – gold finch, indigo bunting, mourning dove, chickadee. The kind who counts his deer encounters as he winds through the trails at Cheatham Hill Park. The kind who ad-libs songs on my voicemail on Friday mornings.

The kind who sees the hope in the jonquils. And calls just to make sure I see it too.

two young girls picking jonquils
Me and my sister, picking jonquils.


brooklyn, brooklyn take me in

new york from the brooklyn river pier
new york from the brooklyn river pier

I visited my sister in Brooklyn this past weekend. Instead of touring the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building or Central Park, we explored her favorite bakeries and adorably cramped cafes. We shopped at local fish markets and butcheries and grocers. We sampled fresh-baked croissants and sipped on mulled wine. We dined on fish ‘n chips and roast beef sandwiches.

And despite the skyscrapers and honking taxi cabs and smog-covered snow and foreign languages and beautiful diversity, there was something about the city that felt quaint, as if Brooklyn was just any other small American town. Like shop owners beaming with pride as they hand you a bagel or a baguette. Or two neighbors sharing a hug when they run into each other on the street. And even the little sign hanging on the window of the shoe repair on the corner, handwritten in black permanent marker, “Out for a moment. Back in 5 minutes.”

It could have been anywhere. And it could only be Brooklyn.

 

prayer of the mourning child

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

But still I lie, eyes wide awake,

And feel my hands begin to shake.

For in dreams that wait to strike my mind,

Your heart beats on; we still have time.

I feel your laughter, hear your song.

I hold your hand and hum along.

I have no troubles; all is fair,

And I don’t dread what’s after prayers.

For momma’s love still holds me tight,

And keeps me safe till morning light.

But dreams are wishes of the soul;

They cannot make the broken whole.

And so my mind runs unaware,

Of lips that whisper children’s prayers.

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord your soul to keep.

If I shall die before I wake,

Please wait for me at heaven’s gate.”

this is the story of how we begin to remember

You probably didn’t know, when you forced me out of you, when you squeezed and contracted and pushed…You probably didn’t know that screaming ball of hot pink flesh, who grew in your womb for nine months and two insufferable weeks…You probably didn’t know that little hungry, demanding child would grow into a woman who wanted to be nothing more than a reflection of your energy, who longed to sway beneath the shadows of you and breathe you in.

You probably didn’t know, when I was two and hooked up to tubes and monitors in a hospital emergency room…When one of my organs wasn’t formed quite perfectly and the surgeons offered no promises what the next moment would bring…And you held my tiny, soft hands and stood by my bed and whispered gentle lullabies in my ear…You probably didn’t know that I would return the favor 25 and a half years later…And stand guard alongside your hospital bed…And sing you songs and tell you jokes and pray, and pray that you would stay a little while longer.

You probably didn’t know, when you brushed my hair and pulled it into a taught, perfectly smooth ponytail, when you pinned a giant bow to the very top – one with glitter or buttons or polka dots…When you tied my shoelaces and smoothed my ruffled skirt hems and wiped the dirt off my elbows and told me I was brilliant and beautiful and could be whatever I wanted to be…You probably didn’t know that I believed every single word…And never let doubt or fear settle anywhere near my dreams.

You probably didn’t know, when you tucked me in at night, and we read A Wrinkle in Time or Mr. Popper’s Penguins…When we said prayers out loud in that intimate space, when you kissed my forehead and pushed play on the cassette tape so I could fall asleep…You probably didn’t know how hard it was not to follow at your heels when you turned to go. How I longed for you to come back to me before you even left the room.

You probably didn’t know, when you planned my elaborate birthday parties – with goodie bags and piñatas and birthday cakes thick with sweet cream frosting…When I inhaled until my lungs felt as light as the balloons tied to the back of my chair and blew forcefully at the candles, trying to extinguish those melting time bombs before the wax collided with the cake below…You probably didn’t know every wish I made was for us to be healthy and happy and together forever…Every flame held the promise of a long life…Or so I believed as watched their reflection flicker in your endless brown eyes.

And I guess I didn’t know, when I talked to you 10 days before Christmas, and heard your hoarse voice on the other end of the phone telling me it sounded worse than it really was…And I told you to rest and carried on buying coffee mugs and goat’s milk soap and chocolate covered cashews for your stocking…I guess I didn’t know that would be my last, “I love you.” And there was so much more to say.

And I guess I didn’t know, when we sang the hymns and hugged and wept, when we called it a celebration even though we all knew it was a funeral…When we sat on the rows marked “reserved,” the rows that no one ever wants to be waiting for them…I guess I didn’t know how broken my heart would be.

And how much we all need our mothers. And how I would still need you.

angel painting
One of my mom’s angel paintings.