Saturday, June 15, 2019

TODAY WE (BELATEDLY) BURIED MY MOTHER

Today we buried my mother's ashes.

They had been sitting in a closet for over five years.  Every once in a while, I would be rummaging through the closet and would come across the black velveteen bag containing the box containing her ashes.  I was always surprised.  Dang.  Mom's ashes.  I would quickly shove the box to the back of the closet and shut the door.

What was I supposed to do with her ashes?   What was I supposed to do with her?  I asked my brothers.  They had no ideas.  

Those of you who follow this blog (thank you) know that my relationship with my mother was fraught, and that my feelings about her have softened since her death.   See:  https://woacanotes.blogspot.com/2017/12/today-i-missed-my-mother.html  Now that she is gone, I am no longer holding my breath or biting my tongue.  I have released my longing for a mother with whom I could talk, with whom I could feel ease.  I know that she did the best that she could.  And so did I.

Still, there was the issue of the ashes.  

Even if the relationship hadn't been fraught, what do you do with the ashes of a person who has lived in three countries on two continents?  A few months back, I tried to write about it:

For five years
your ashes
have lain in their box
nested in a velvet bag.

For five years
I have passed 
With unseeing eyes
The closet where they rest.

But recently, occasionally,
I have felt their restlessness,
their desire to be set free
from the smothering clothes
that hang above.

Where do they belong, these remnants
of you that are not you at all?
In Scotland where you began?
The place you ever turned your face
with eyes of longing.

In Canada where you spent your
days as a young mother?
In New Jersey where you birthed
a second son and raised us all?

In Florida where you warmed your
Jersey-chilled bones?
Or here
in the Pacific Northwest
where you spent your final years?

Where were you happy?
Were you ever truly happy
once you education was cut short
so that you might enter the world of work?
Are you free now of
the losses and resentments
that haunted you?

Will you be happy with your 
ashes in a local stream ?
Will anywhere do? 
Or must I travel
to the land of your origin,
the place of your happy girlhood,
to set things right for you?

In the end, I decided that a local stream would have to do.  I needed to get her out of the closet.  So, I made a plan with my daughters and their father (who was kindness itself to my mother) and my husband.  We would go to a local forest and spread the ashes in or near a stream.  We chose a date and a rendezvous place.

And then, last night, on the eve of the planned ash spreading, I knew that this plan wasn’t right. The place would be too public.  It had nothing to do with my mother.  I was thinking about the fact that my cousin Judy had recently buried my Aunt Pat’s ashes in my aunt’s garden.  A lovely idea, but my mother had resided in an assisted living facility for the 12 years before her death.  She didn't have a garden.  

It was coming on toward 9 p.m.  Too late to change the plan.  I was tired and trying to finish defrosting the freezer by whacking at the ice with a hammer – seven hours is long enough to wait – right?   As I banged away, the idea wouldn’t leave me. We didn’t need to go to a public place; we could bury the ashes in my garden. 


And so, I called the others and changed the plan. This morning, my husband arose early and dug a hole.  I, at the suggestion of Anne, my eldest, made a quick trip to a nursery to buy a plant. I came home with a spirea and (of course) a couple of heather starts.

It was a cloudy and unseasonably chilly morning.  We gathered next to the place where Bill had dug, and took turns pouring ashes into the hole.  (I kept back a small portion of the ashes to take to Scotland in September.)  Roger, my ex—father of my mother’s granddaughters, offered us each a “wee dram” of scotch from the cap of the whiskey bottle he had brought with him.  Mara, my youngest, placed the plants.  

I read Rabbie Burns’ My Heart’s in the Highlands, and it all felt just right.

We dispersed – Anne and Mara going off with their dad for a Father’s Day lunch, Bill and I heading out for lunch ourselves. It wasn’t quite time to resume the day’s activities.

I felt and feel at peace now that my mother’s ashes are out of the closet and in the ground.  

I hope that you are at peace, as well, Mom.  I pray that your soul is flying free over the highlands.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

GENES ACROSS AN OCEAN


     (for Margaret Patience Shepherd Speirs MacLeod    May 27, 1919 - September 9, 2018)

     My Aunt Pat, my father's little sister, would have turned 100 this week.  After her passage last September into the great mystery that we call death, there were no family members left of my parents' generation.  She took with her her memories of a world war and its aftermath and all of the secrets and lessons of a 99-year life.  Following my Uncle Syd's death in 2000, Aunt Pat had lived alone in her semi-detached house outside of Glasgow until just over a year ago, when my cousin Judy (her only child) felt she had no choice but to move her into a care facility.

     I felt surprisingly emotional when Judy emailed me from her home in Scotland to tell me that her mother had died, and I have been pondering that emotion ever since.  Certainly, the death was not unexpected -- Aunt Pat had been failing for a while, and it's not as though I had spent a great deal of time with her.  She, like my other Scottish relatives, lived thousands of miles from me, my family's immigration (while I was in utero) from Glasgow to Quebec Provence, and a couple of years later to New Jersey, having left me bereft of close relatives as I grew up, and my further move to the Pacific Northwest as an adult, having widened the distance..

     Still, Aunt Pat was important to me.  In my childhood, she was one of the shadowy relatives with whom my mother exchanged air letters, those bits of light-blue, tissue-thin folded paper through  which people kept in touch with geographically distant family before the advent of email, texts, Skype, and relatively inexpensive phone calls.  (There were never phone calls to Scotland when I was a child, not even when my maternal grandparents died one year apart - it would have been unthinkable to my parents or their far-off kin to spend that kind of money.  The news of these deaths came via telegram.)  The steady flow of mail, together with my mother's stories, kept me aware of my distant family.  (Most effective in this regard were the occasional cards with a pound note or two enclosed--very exotic.)

     It wasn't until 1971 that I met Aunt Pat in person.  In the summer of that year, I traveled to Scotland and spent the better part of three months with Aunt Pat, Uncle Syd, and Judy at their home outside of Glasgow.  It did not take long for me to recognize my aunt as not only kin, but kindred.  I confess that I often felt alienated from my father during my growing-up years, yet I felt a near-immediate connection to his sister.  I recognized myself in her; I could relax in her company.

      I was fortunate enough to spend more time in Aunt Pat's company during her infrequent visits to the U.S. In the years that followed and on a couple of visits to Scotland during the past ten years.  I think she was about 94 the last time I saw her in person (there were a few Skype visits after that), and she remained delightful throughout all of those years.

     Aunt Pat was a gardener; I wasn't one in 1971 when I noted the pleasure she took in toiling among her vegetables and flowers, but it wasn't long after that I started rooting around in the dirt, and I have not stopped in the decades since.  I am thinking about her today as I prepare to leave my home to visit relatives in the midwest, and to tear myself away from my garden, which is springing into full bloom even as I prepare to get on an airplane.

     Here is something I wrote back in the '90s about that long-ago trip to Scotland:

               I am sure I admired my aunt's garden, but I could not understand her
               devotion.  I remember clearly my puzzlement over her statement that
               she hated to travel in the summer because it was so hard to leave her
               garden.

               How could a small patch of growing things possibly compare with
               the adventure of traveling?  The idea didn't bear further contemplation.

               Now, 20 years later, I understand.  I understand how a patch of green
               and living things can capture the imagination and soothe the soul.
               I understand how--after patiently waiting out the winter--one could
               be reluctant to leave a garden at the moment when it is at once most
               in need of attention and most worthy of admiration.*

     And now, a couple of decades on, as travel seems less of an adventure and more of a wrench, I continue to share Aunt Pat's desire to stay close to home during gardening season.  By the time I return from my trip, many of the spring blossoms will have fallen and weeds will be running riot.
I hope the neighbors enjoy looking at my flowers while I'm gone and kindly overlook the weeds.

    And I hope I will, like my aunt, be fit enough to garden well into old age.

    May it be so.

     *Back in the '90s I wrote a weekly garden column for The Columbian (Vancouver, Washington's daily paper).  I didn't ask permission to quote these few paragraphs, so mum's the word.  

   With Aunt Pat in 2013

   

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

CAN WE TALK? AN OPEN LETTER TO WOMEN OF COLOR

       

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

                                                                   - Maya Angelou


         Reading the paper or spending time on social media in recent months, it would be hard to miss the fact that many black women are angry.  Of course black women, in particular, and people of color in general, have many reasons to be angry.  What I want to talk about here is the anger directed at white women such as me.   Where have you been?, they ask.  Why did/do you march for women’s rights and not for the rights of people of color? 

         Fair questions.  

         I do not write here to defend myself.  I write to try to figure out how women of color and women of European ancestry can join together in moving forward to further the rights of people of color, and in so doing, to recognize each other’s humanity.

         I will start by trying to answer the question, Where were you when we needed you?  I will begin by telling you my story – as briefly as possible, because I know this is ultimately about you, not me, and in the hope that you will tell me yours.

         I was raised by Scottish-immigrant parents in a very-white New Jersey town. There were plenty of Italians and Jews (many first or second generation) in my part of Jersey, but the African Americans (or “Negroes” as they were called during my childhood) were largely confined to places such as Newark and Camden.  (I did begin elementary school at an inner-city school, where I played with African American children, but my family moved to the suburbs when I was only 7, so my memories of this time are shadowy at best.)
           
          By the time I was finished with elementary school (1960-ish), I knew that slavery had been awful and that Lincoln had freed the slaves.  That was about it for Black History.  I did not know about Jim Crow or the KKK or lynchings or separate water fountains.  I did not know about these things because no one had ever told me about them. (Remember, this was long before the internet.)  

         I did know that some people did not like people of color and said ugly things about them.  I decided at a very young age that it was wrong to treat people differently based on their color, a conclusion based almost entirely on the following lyrics from a song that we sang in Sunday School: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.  If Jesus loved everyone regardless of their color, so would I.  This approach would remain largely theoretical while I went through my growing-up years in my white town.  

         In the early 1960s, I became aware of the Civil Rights Movement, although I was too young to do anything about it. I learned about lynchings and lunch counters. I watched my television in horror as police turned dogs and fire hoses on those seeking equal treatment under the law.  I was too young for the March on Washington, but I knew that it was a big deal.  

         Following the legal gains of the Civil Rights movement, hope was in the air--black pride was on display, and I moved through my teen years believing our country was on the path to racial equality.  

         All was not well, of course.  I was devastated by the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was 18.  A very-young 18.  (It was possible to be young/naive in those pre-digital days in a way I do not think is possible now.)  I was clueless about what I could do in the face of what I believed to be pockets of hatred left behind after the undoing of Jim Crow.  I wrung my hands and turned back to my life.

         I went to college.  I marched against the Vietnam war.  I became a passionate feminist.  I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I passed African Americans on the street, but did not know any personally.  I moved to SW Washington state, where there are fewer African Americans than in Portland.  

         I continued not to know any people of color.

         During these years, I knew that black kids often went to crappy schools.  I knew that, despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, black people still faced many challenges.  I gave money to charities and to groups working for social justice. I had my kids set aside money to do the same.  I talked a good talk, but did not do anything active to work for racial justice.

         Meanwhile, I worked and raised my daughters, then worked and cared for my aging mother.  I went back to school.  I was busy. 

         And then things began to change.  I began to change.

         Some black women have said that white women did not care about threats to black lives until our own security was threatened by our current president. My awakening regarding the threats to people of color in this country predated the current administration -- not by a lot, but by several years. 

         Here’s what happened.  My mother died.  I retired. I had time to look up and around from my own life.  And there was the internet and the smart phone. People were being shot in front of my eyes.  In cold blood.  From behind. Suddenly the problems of people of color were staring me in the face.  I could not look away.  

         I joined the NAACP.  I went to events for white allies.  I read and read and read.  I am sorry that I did not wake up sooner.  I cannot change the past, but I am here now.  I have time and I have passion.  

          I know that many women of color are too angry and too busy trying to keep their families safe to talk to white women or to tell us about their lives and needs.  I am trying to hold space for this anger without flinching.

         I have also recently met several women of color who have been willing to speak to me, who feel it is important to have white allies or accomplices, so that systemic racism may finally be dismantled.  

         I thank them.

         I spoke with one such woman about the dilemma of hearing black women say they have been let down by, left out by, white women, and hearing these same women say, You’re on your own.  We’re not going to tell you what to do.  We’re done with you. This woman looked at me and said, “A conversation between black and white women is long overdue.  Maybe you are the one to start it.”

         Me?  I’m too scared.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  Not me. No way.  

         But the idea that women need to talk with women won’t go away.
        
         So, here I am a few months later walking through my fear because, really, what is my fear of putting myself forward, of saying the wrong thing, of upsetting people, compared with the fear of women of color every time a son walks out the front door?  What is my fear compared with the fear of every man of color when he is pulled over for a broken tail light?

         I believe that women of all colors have much in common.  We have all felt the sting of sexism.  Of course, women of color feel this sting coupled with the sting of racism. I do not pretend to know what this would feel like, but I do know what it feels like to be treated as lesser, to not be taken seriously, because I am female.  I did, after all grow up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Maybe this is a start to understanding what it would feel like to be treated as other, as less-than, because of skin color.  

         Women of color, I would love to talk with you if you are willing.  I would love to hear your stories.  I would like to stand in solidarity with you.  And there is an army of like-minded older white women with time and energy to take up your cause.  

         Despite whatever ways we may have failed you in the past, may we be of service going forward?