Mother And Son

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POPSIE BORE her death amazingly well. As a Swedenborgian he unquestioningly believed that he would be reunited with her in the spiritual world. But more than once he opened his wallet and showed me a snapshot I had taken at the farmhouse: Mother in bed, gaunt but smiling, and himself beaming on a chair beside her. Now he beamed again when I stooped to embrace him. My orphaned cousin Midge, sweet-tempered and affectionate, had come to take care of him.

Shortly after the funeral I went back to my usual life, with each of its weeks divided between countryside and metropolis; nothing had changed in the routine. It took me a long time to realize how much I had been shaken by Mother’s death. I began to think of her story since girlhood as a tragedy of frustrated hopes and misdirected vitality, but also of uncalculating affection. Her last years were heroic in their fashion, but all her life she had a large human potential on which she was unable to draw because of circumstances. In spite of our failures to understand each other, we were closer in many ways than I had recognized. She had passed on to me much of herself besides the Hutmacher nose. She had given me some of her unspoken standards, such as keeping ones word, paying one s debts, not being wasteful, and doing honest work even if it went unpaid. She had also given me a practical sense of what things were worth—though I didn’t hunt for bargains—and a feeling of guilt when I failed, as often happened, to meet her standards. I wish she had given me more of her nervous energy and more of her instinctive kindness to waifs and strangers. For years I found it hard to write anything that might have wounded her deeply if she had been there to read it. I had never gone to her for solace in defeat, although I had vaguely felt —even during those years of neglect —that the solace was there for the asking. If I received some little honor, I found myself thinking, “This would have pleased Mother.” Without her imagined pleasure, the honor had no meaning.

It was forty years after her funeral that I wrote a poem called “Prayer on All Saints’ Day.” It began:

Mother, lying there in the old Allegheny Cemetery, last in the family plot— I stood there on that overcast November day; I have never gone back. Graves played no part in our Swedenborgian family, with my father’s faith in celestial reunions and my oblivious selfishness. Now, after all these years, I go back in spirit, I kneel at the graveside, I offer my testimony: this I have done, Mother, with your gift; this I have failed to do.

I went on to boast a little, for her benefit, and indeed I had achieved several of the modest aims she set for me. Then I detailed at greater length some of my lapses in sympathy, for herself and others: “it is what I haven’t done that tortures me at night.” At the end of the poem I said:

There in the last grave in that unvisited family plot, smile up at me through the earth, Mother, be jubilant for what you achieved in me. Forgive my absences.