Archives for category: family

​​A few weeks ago I was minding my own business, driving home from grocery shopping. I was almost home, when a song I’d never heard came on the radio. I was spellbound to the point that when it ended I kept repeating the artist’s name, in hope that I’d remember it long enough to look it up, which I did the minute I stopped the car in the driveway.

Lewis Capaldi was pretty easy to remember, actually, being so similar to Peter Capaldi, the actor who is my favorite Doctor Who.  I’d also loved him in The Hour. 

So as soon as my groceries were put away, I bought Lewis Capaldi’s debut album on Amazon. It even has a great title:  Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent.

Instead of starting to give it a full listen right away, I Googled around some more and ended up on YouTube. That’s where I discovered the very special Someone You Loved video that promotes awareness for heart transplants. It made me cry. It’s like a tiny movie, with Peter Capaldi playing a man with a dying wife who donates her heart. He meets the family who receives new life through that donation. The little girl missing her two front teeth, but still having her Mummy, will melt your heart. So will Peter Capaldi’s extremely expressive features. We watch him love, grieve, and finally find a measure of peace. His ever present ear buds are a lifeline to the not quite lost second heartbeat of his life. This is one of the most touching and poignant music videos I’ve ever seen.

That song has become something I listen to almost as much as he listens to his wife’s heart. It’s my understanding that Lewis Capaldi conceived it as a song about lost love, but as the video so beautifully illustrates, it can also be the soundtrack to a loss from death. July 15th was the third anniversary of my mom’s death, and Someone You Loved captures what she meant to me so personally. The theme of how it feels when the one person who can get you through such a profound loss is the person you’ve lost tells its own story. What do you do with that kind of pain? You learn how to stand alone and bear it. Sometimes, if you’re in the right moment at the right time, you find a song that makes it a little easier, if only in its reminder that deep pain from staggering loss is a universal experience. One that unites us with unseen strangers we’ll never meet and gives us all comfort from invisibly linked unknown friends.

I listen to the entire album every day still. Not just for that one special song, but for the remarkable combination of songwriting and unique singing that is Lewis Capaldi. I love that his Scottish accent comes through so clearly…to the point that I don’t always understand every word. Doesn’t matter, since I understand every song.

 Lewis Capaldi – Someone You Loved

Time heals all wounds.

A platitude.

They make us feel better and we cling to them in difficult times. The truth, though, is that that’s all they are. They aren’t pronouncements that foretell the future or promises that pain will cease to exist. They give us enough comfort to get us through, so that when the realization comes that pain is a steed we ride through time, we’re strong enough to keep our seat.

Today is the three year anniversary of my mother’s death. Time has actually done enough to make her loss easier for me. I still think of her every day. Many times. Her favorite foods remind me. TV shows she loved. Songs. I look at pictures a lot. I remember her hugs, as if I can still feel her arms around me. I look at images of her hands and think of how comforting their warmth against my hair and forehead always was when I was sick. So much of daily life carries her with it. 

But no matter how much time passes, it won’t heal the hole she’s left in my life. It gapes there, behind every moment, a rending wound. The rending pain fades, but the hole does not close. I think that when we love someone so much for our entire lives they leave an indelible mark. And that’s good. In her final years, her own mother was with her every day still, decades after she was lost to her. Alzheimer’s actually enhanced that. It brought her hallucinations that gave her mother back to her when she needed her most. So that she went from talking to me about her to talking to her. I’m glad all the time that passed wasn’t able to take that connection to her precious mother away from her. Some people are meant to transcend loss and time. The best mothers are our mothers forever.

So time serves the purpose of softening the hard, jagged edges of grief. It gives us a measure of peace. And once the grief is no longer so sharp, it opens the door to remembrance and grace. A measure of healing lies in that place, it’s just that the healing is a lifelong process, borne in the arms of love.

My mother was a beautiful young woman. These photos are evidence of that. She looked like a super model, before there were super models. I think these were taken when she was in her late teens and/or early twenties.

I recently came across this one. I kept looking at it, not entirely sure it was really her, in spite of the fact that she’d written her name and 40s on the back. Most of the hundreds of pictures she left for me to enjoy showed her beauty staying with her throughout her nearly century of life. I think this may be the worst of them all.

I just couldn’t understand how she could look so bad. Almost like a walking cadaver. Skin stretched across prominent facial bones, hollow eyes, accompanied by a haunted gaze. She looked as if she’d walked through hell.

Eventually I realized she had. The 1940s. That was the answer. She was living through World War II. This must be several years after the lovely, carefree images. She’s standing in Aunt Pearl’s yard, which means it was likely when she lived with Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick, while the sisters worked at a nearby arsenal, making bombs. Risking their lives every day. A bus came to get them for the ride to what might have been the last day of their lives. One accident is all it would take. Living with that alone, though with such strength and courage, was enough to take a toll.

Even if it was before she worked at the arsenal, the general wartime was nightmarish. She told me that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were terrified that the Japanese would bomb even so far inland. So she was already accustomed to living in a state of high fear. 

Add the deprivation of food scarcity. Meat, butter, and sugar were rationed. They had to adjust to the butter substitute margarine, adding the yellow coloring that came with it to make it resemble real butter better than it did without it. They learned to make butterless, sugarless, eggless cakes and “apple” pies out of crackers, sacrificing every way they could think of to help the war effort. That would explain her newfound gaunt look. She didn’t eat a lot anyway, so paring down her natural diet would have been drastic.

Even her vibrant smile was different. The phrase “Carrying the weight of the world.” comes to mind. It’s said that the people who lived through World War II are a remarkable generation. They were. A few remain and still are. They always will be, preserved forever, I hope, in the amber of historical memory and generational family stories.

I’m happy to say that with her innate resillience she was regaining her natural beauty, by the time my parents were married several years after the war. This picture captured them in a solemn moment, perhaps trying to portray the importance of the occasion. They look strong and healthy, with a new layer of maturity brought to them by surviving such hardship, as they embark on their new life together 

​My mom’s only surviving sister was 10 years older than she was. Charming and fun loving to the point of being goofy at times, Aunt Pearl was also beautiful.

She had long, coal black hair that she coaxed into ringlets with a curling iron. Unlike our modern day ease of curling irons that plug into any convenient outlet to heat with electricity, Aunt Pearl’s curling iron was heated by putting it down the chimney of a coal oil lamp! This feat could be iffy, as it involved metal, a flammable substance, and uncontrolled heat…not to mention lighting those lamps was essentially setting a small piece of fabric (the wick) on fire, then the light was constantly fed by the flame that burned until it was put out. There was also the fun prospect of singed hair and soot getting in the hair as well. In that instance Aunt Pearl was fortunate that since her hair was already as black as it could be, it hid the worst of any damage that was the price of wanting nice curls. Later on she set it into marcel waves that looked wonderful. Eventually, she wore it in a Roaring Twenties super short bob. Add the drop-waisted dresses that were all the rage, topped by a cloche hat, and she looked as if she’d stepped straight out of a talkie, the newfangled motion pictures that took the flapper set by storm.

During this era my mom was a small child, who adored her big sister. Aunt Pearl was wonderful with children, as I discovered for myself. People back then, early in the twentieth century, had more family members than beds, and sisters often shared a big four poster, piled high with a feather bed and several hand made quilts. The quilts were composed of fabric pieces salvaged from worn out dresses and blouses, so that a pointing finger could trace the story of each piece through remembered occasions from  the time before its original form was worn out. 

Aunt Pearl liked to tell stories, particularly of the ghost variety. When I was little and she’d come to visit, I would sleep with her and be deliciously thrilled by whatever story she wanted to tell me in the wee small hours of the night. One in particular that I’ve never forgotten was about two elderly sisters, who shared a bed as girls. Every night there would be terrifying knocking sounds, eerily seeming very near to them, though there was nobody else in the room. It was only when they were old and any day could be their last that one sister finally confessed to the other that she had been the mysterious knocker who kept the hoax going on for so very long, and utterly convincingly. It turned out that she had double jointed toes that she would carefully crack against the wooden footboard to make the terrible knocking sounds. Aunt Pearl had read about it in a magazine or book and did a very effective retelling in the dark.

My mom and her beloved sister were as close as a child and young woman could be.  There came a time when my mom started to notice whispered conversations and furtive activities between Aunt Pearl and their mother. Eventually, when she saw Aunt Pearl packing up her things, my mom asked Grandmother what was happening. They had dreaded that moment and Grandmother so hated to cause pain to her little daughter that she pursed her lips for as long as she could bear her own silence and then reluctantly answered the question “Where’s Pearl going?” with the puzzling “She’s going to M.” A bit of explanation followed, and my mom finally understood that her near constant companion and always game playmate was getting married. It must have been heart rending to watch the wonderful presence she took for granted as being hers always leave their home for a new one of her own. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick got married by a Justice of the Peace, while seated in their buggy. That seems to have been a thing at the time, though I think not overly common. I imagine it was quite the ice breaker at parties and such. 

My mom and Aunt Pearl remained very close the rest of their lives. They relied on each other in times of trouble and celebrated together during every eventful moment. They took care of each other in bad health, cooked together for holiday celebrations, and were sources of joy for each other just by spending time together. The only time I can remember ever seeing them argue was the moment the check arrived when we were eating out. They would snatch it out of each other’s hands, the bit of paper like a flat, rectangular shuttlecock in a never ending match of restaurant bill badminton. Aunt Pearl usually persisted until she emerged the victor, since she didn’t drive and wanted to repay my parents any way she could for their unending willingness to take her wherever she needed or wanted to go. I’m not sure how she managed it, since I was usually elbow deep in a banana split by the time the check came. All I know is that while she was getting out money to pay, a couple of dollars or a fistful of change would find its way into my pocket, along with a wink and a smile from the person who was to me the same wonderful, beloved companion and always willing playmate that my mom had known in her own childhood.

As she grew old in that remarkable way indomitable spirits have of never quite really seeming to reach true old age, even poor health couldn’t suppress her twinkle or the smile that lit up so many hearts she touched throughout her life. Aunt Pearl was one of those people you never forget. One of a kind. Her memory is indelible. As is the legacy she left me of joy in telling stories. Her dream of being a published author was never realized. That mine has been is in part thanks to her. Dreams can be contagious. Their enthusiasm. Their hope. And their twinkle that burns like a pilot light for my muse. Quite the legacy from a woman who never had children of her own.

Before we stray too far from the holidays, here’s an article about Dickens and food. Not just the Cratchit Christmas table, Oliver asking for more, or how Magwich’s hunger may have influenced his temperament, but also bits about the life of the author after his father was sent to debtor’s prison when Charles Dickens was only twelve years old. No wonder his writings about poverty were so authentic feeling. He was an ultimate example of the words that have long urged writers to write what we know. Though that idea is debated as much as it’s​ adhered to, Dickens is an alarming example of where such practice may lead. 

His type of experiences were common in harder times even in our own century, and even still in the small dark corners of modern day poverty. When my grandfather was killed in a car crash in a time when cars themselves were in their adolescence, my father had to leave school at twelve years old and shoulder responsibility for his mother, sister, and young niece. His sacrifice made it possible for his family to carry on much as they had before. Without a father to run the farm, but left with a man grown up out of time to provide for them. Hardship​ was and is common in the rural south, though lacking in one thing that made Victorian England stand out as a stark example of poverty​ and injustice…the class system.

While there will always be harsh instances of have and have not, the Victorians across the pond made a life’s work of it. Many of the very wealthy would have stepped over a starving child lying in the gutter…if they ever stepped close to a gutter in their entire life. Even in their own insulated world of high society, they lived lives of pampered excess. To the starving guttersnipe the clean, beautifully dressed people who lived physically nearby would have been as alien to them as if they’d landed from Mars. 

Food was a vivid demarcation line between classes. This wonderful Guardian article gives intriguing examples, the very reading of which leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those fortunate to be only reading about such a harsh way of life.

Today would have been my mom’s 98th birthday. To commemorate the occasion I have one of her stories that makes me smile.

One day when she’s a little girl, she follows her mother around the house, helping with chores as much as she can. They hear a clatter from outside, and Grandmother sighs wearily. A peek around the curtains reveals the last thing a tired housewife wants to see. Honest John, a traveling salesman with a route that brings him to Miss Georgie’s door more often than she’d like. With a house full of children and a tight budget, temptation can be a curse. Even in the form of a walking store.

In no mood to be forced into roles as both hostess and reluctant shopper, this always (almost) sweet and welcoming housewife turns to her little daughter, bends low so as not to be misunderstood, and whispers into the small ear. “It’s Honest John! C’mon, Sarah. Let’s hide!”

A little shocked and a lot thrilled, by the unexpected game, Sarah takes her mother’s outstretched hand and creeps quietly with her across the big stretches of floor, until they reach the kitchen. They carefully pull out chairs and sit at the big wooden table where the family shares meals, celebrations and, apparently, sudden impromptu clandestine adventures.

The thing about impromptu clandestine adventures is that, not being well thought out, they they tend to fail. 

Not for lack of trying. 

Miss Georgie holds a finger to her lips, Little Sarah suppresses a stray giggle, and they relax, certain their unwanted visitor will soon leave. 

A knock at the front door.

Silence.

A second, more insistent knock.

“Miss Georgie?”

Breath-holding quiet blankets the house.

The conspirators share a smile. Surely, he’s halfway down the road, now that he’s given up….

“Good afternoon, Miss Georgie!”

Miss Georgie and Little Sarah nearly jump out of their chairs.

There stands Honest John, at the kitchen window, grinning at them through the screen. 

Of course, he is graciously invited in and most likely soon clutches a welcome glass of iced tea. He carries his wares on his circuit in a large case, which he opens and begins his well practiced presentation. 

Miss Georgie, of course, must buy something, as she knew would be the case, so Honest John’s persistence is rewarded with quenched thirst and the sale of a thimble.

Little Sarah is rewarded with a charming memory, complete with a suppressed giggle, that still carries a smile after almost a century has passed.

(An aside: My mom was a very mischievous child. Her older sister wanted to take a nice picture of just her mother, but my mom was determined to be in it too and kept sneaking in. No matter how many times she was chased away. She eventually achieved perfect timing, which resulted in my favorite picture of them together.)