“If you can come back in some way and let us know you are there, promise you will,” I said to my mother, about three days before she died.
She smiled. She nodded. She squeezed my hand; it was still so strong. “Of course I will, my honey, but I don’t think there’s anything after. Just dark, underground” she whispered, weakened at that point.
“Well, there’s that way of looking at the afterlife,” and I squeezed her hand. “But promise anyway.” She nodded.
I smiled at the steady, pragmatic woman, who never asked that we call “when we got there.” “If something happens to you I’ll hear,” she’d say. And when I asked, terrified and teary, just before I moved, alone at age 23, to Los Angeles “what if I hate it?” she squeezed my hand in the same way, and replied “then you’ll move back.”
Maybe she was right. Maybe it’s all just darkness. I don’t believe in heaven, per se. Don’t believe that she’s floating, gossamer and satin-clad in a cloud somewhere. But I know from high school science that matter is neither created nor destroyed. Her bones may be in Fairfield, Connecticut, but she is everywhere.
I visited my friend Liz at her place on Martha’s Vineyard. My mother was there awaiting me. Swans were her avian talismans. A couple (they mate for life, unlike I) would return to the lake in front of my parent’s cabin on Highland Lakes, New Jersey, every season to birth and nurture their cygnets. They brought my mother great joy, and she surrounded herself with images of swans. I still have an intricately carved wooden basket, its handle formed by the long necks, beaks joined in a kiss.
I saw swans and their offspring everywhere in MV. No, that is not unusual. But one in particular made me reconsider if she were really swathed in eternal darkness as she predicted, or if she were, instead, watching over me. A lone female sat on her nest, alert and observant, across the pond from the two-mile path Liz and I would walk to the beach each morning. There she sat, awaiting her babes. She watched me with the eyes of a portrait that follow you throughout a room, until we crested the dune and walked out onto the sand. On our return, she again eyed me until we were out of sight. Liz says she hasn’t seen her since.
When I’d ask what I could bring her from a trip or get her for her birthday, she’d say, like many moms, “nothing at all. All I want is for you to be happy,” and the Jewish mother addendum of: “and a call or visit now and then.” But there was one thing she asked for: Rocks. She collected them from all her travels – Argentina, Russia, China – and always asked that I bring her one from mine. I hadn’t thought about this for a while, but as I walked the shore at Menemsha beach in anticipation of a stunning sunset, I felt compelled to pick up the smooth sea and sand worn stones at my feet. As if I were about to prepare stone soup for supper. While I studied their surfaces I thought of how much she’d love each one. Especially the heart-shaped ones she put in my path. And I thought about how much she loved me, too. I brought two heart stones home for my boys.
My mother was an early advocate of the power of positive thinking. She took a class called “Silva Mind Control” when I was a little girl. It sounds sort of cultish now, but it was the forerunner of The Secret, and The Power of Now. She believed that her studies and focus imbued her with a special powers, that she called “hodging.” For positive outcomes. She accepted big challenges, like good health and college acceptances, but one of her specialties was parking spots. If you gave her enough advance notice, she could guarantee one anywhere. My father appreciated this, especially in New York, where they were hard to find and he was too cheap to pull into a garage.
“Barbara,” he’d say, “we are going into the Museum of the City of New York tomorrow. Can you work on a spot?”
And without fail, one would appear where we needed it, when we needed it. If he asked on the way in, she’d say, “You know I need more time,” although if she concentrated really hard we’d find one.
In the summer, Martha’s Vineyard is overrun with people. And their cars. Way too many for the spots in the crowded towns. But all weekend long, much to Liz’s amazement, people consistently pulled out of prime “(I call them “birthday spots”) parking real estate as we pulled up in need of it. I’d explained my mother’s gift to her early in the trip, and in Edgartown, Aquinnah, and Oak Bluffs, she saw proof of it. Liz asked if I could lodge a standing request for spots the rest of the summer.
These are all just signs. Just symbols. That we can choose to make something of, or not. That we can interpret, as we will. She may not be anywhere. Her bones may be in the ground in Fairfield, Connecticut. But for me, she’s everywhere.