This may seem disjointed; that’s simply the way things are.
My friend Harriet, the Harriet who is very much alive, is a quilter. She sews the most beautiful quilts (and other things, too) and has the best sewing adventures to tell, stories I would share except that they are hers and not mine.
I mention this Harriet, the living one, because she has been on my mind in a particular way since the funeral for my other Harriet, the one who is dead. Also, I thought it would be a good time to make clear that I do have living, breathing friends since it seems in the past year that I’ve been writing a great deal about the ones who are gone.
At one point in his eulogy for my dearly departed Harriet, the young rabbi (this is what Harriet called Micah Greenstein) looked out at the assembled family and friends and talked about Harriet’s life’s quilt, how she patched and stitched and sewed every person she loved right into her world. He went on to remind us that Harriet’s soul was released in death, and that we would now carry her forward. The parts of us that Harriet loved would always be parts of Harriet, within us, the fabric of our own quilts.
When I next saw Micah at a bar mitzvah several weeks later, I said this: “When it comes to grief and mourning, I think the Jews have it most right.” He gave a funny look, by which I mean a frown. So I went on to explain how the things he said at Harriet’s funeral service had stayed with me, how the image of her life’s quilt and the idea that she lived on in each of us, had brought great comfort and joy in a time of sadness.
“Then,” I continued, “there’s the whole shiva thing, the acknowledgment that grief is a long process, instead of singing ‘For All the Saints,’ and then going to Aunt Sally’s house for a glass of wine and piece of ham, and then pretending to be all happy-happy that dearly departed Uncle Joe is now in heaven watching over us. The end. That’s never really worked for me.” And Micah looked at me kindly and said something the effect of “now you understand how the Jews celebrate life,” (which actually is exactly, verbatim what he said). And then we walked over to lunch.
It is easy to see now, in retrospect, that it took eight years for me to finish grieving my mother’s 2005 death, though I didn’t recognize any of it as grief until it was over. One day in 2013 I woke up with a story about my mother in my head. I had sudden, perfect clarity about her place in my life and the parts of her that would always be within me. So I wrote about it, and then I kept on writing – first about my mother and mothering, and then about other things, including what Harriet my neighbor, while she was alive, taught me about living.
Once I was able to put a part of my past to rest, I realized I was finished with one part of my life and ready to begin a different one. Before that point , there had been something missing, a void I kept trying to fill with things that seemed like the right kinds of filling. Afterward I felt complete – if still imperfectly assembled. Perhaps this all would have come about faster with therapy, but our Larkey clan comes from suck-it-up-and-soldier-on Belfast stock. It’s our best and worst characteristic.
Anyway, as I mentioned, when I was first writing on a regular basis, I wrote quite often about my mother. More recently, still trying to write on a regular basis, I realize I’ve been writing quite often about death: Susan, Lulu, Hud, June, Big Don, Harriet, and others whose stories are still private. Writing about them helps anchor their places within me. It is, I think, my way of carrying them all forward.
In addition to their stories, I also have mementos from each of them, physical signs, collected over the years, of their otherwise intangible presence. The tea set Susan gave me as a housewarming present is behind the glass door of a kitchen cabinet, in front of which hangs Lulu’s collar, draped on a piece of sculpture. Elsewhere, sprinkled atop hand-me-down furniture from my mother, are Hud’s Christmas cards, and the dinosaur piggy bank Harriet gave my son, and the picture of Bernard and Big Don on the tractor, and my handwritten copy of June’s prayers, which I’m working to turn into a book for Mama June, if no one else.
All of these things sit side-by-side with other remembrances from people I love who are very much still here, people who have given me art and candles and coffee mugs and books (so many books). One of these remembrances is a small red bird, a Christmas ornament that has never made it to the Christmas tree because the bird, a gift from the living Harriet, sits in one of my writing places, which is where this particular wandering stream of thought began.
Harriet, you see, is my writing conscience. It is she who, upon learning I might spend a Saturday cleaning my messy house, threatens to come steal my vacuum cleaner so I’ll sit down and put pen to paper instead wasting precious time sucking up dog hair. It is one thing to tape “butt in chair, shitty first drafts (Anne Lamott)” by my computer; it’s an entirely different thing to have the real voice of my real friend urging things forward.
So I look at that little red bird and I hear Harriet’s voice and I keep writing, this time about both of my Harriets, and the soft scraps being stitched together into our invisible quilts, one marvelous, disjointed piece at a time, from both the living and the dead.
Food | Week of November 7, 2016
Pink Adobe Green Chile Stew | Corn Tortillas
Cheese Plate (here’s a good primer) | Big Green Salad (here’s one kids can make)
Parmesan Chicken |Baguette
Root Vegetable Tarte Tatin | Bitter Green Salad
This gives me hope, as I sift through the ashes of my former life, that some day, perhaps maybe far off that I can find a way to rise from my loss. Make good use of what had been laid waste as a tool of faith. I met with a friend for coffee last week. I told her that Hud had changed me and I did not ever want to go back to being the person that I was. I just had to figure out who this new person is. The one changed by him. And the one who has to figure out how to carry on without him.
You will find you; I believe it.
“butt in chair”, may we all. (I’m always so glad you do. Even if I’m slow to catch up on reading it.) xo
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Dear Jenny… loved this post! Spoke volumes to me and I can so relate. It is hard not to think about mortality when those around us are dying. I have had 3 losses this week (they always seem to come in 3s) The first one was my age. A friend from high school group who I hung out with.. awesome guy, well loved and will be wholly missed. The second one was the mother of a friend. This person has not be kind in the last 20 years. She was mean and treated his wife with disrespect (undeserved) wife is awesome… mom had Alzheimer’s which of course removes all filters. Her passing was a relief to him. I believe he began mourning her loss several years ago so his attitude is pragmatic. His father passed about this time last year so he has been in the process for a long time I think. The third one happened this morning, in fact only about 5 hours ago. He was my husband’s uncle (dad’s brother) and unexpected. I am very close to his daughter so this was two-fold. I’m sad. There is a whole long drama with my mother (who is still alive) but I have no relationship with her. Have I started mourning already? I’m not sure…. maybe I will when she is gone (know for sure that is) but she will probably live another 20 years what do I do in the meantime?
As always, I am glad you have “butt in chair” also. 🙂 ❤
My Catholic mother said she thought she’d make a good Jew. She had many Jewish friends and valued their commitment to religion, the way the celebrated death and their one day of atonement. I’ve been writing about death, too – my mother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, a close family friend. I guess that’s what happens when you reach a certain age. And I too have mementos from them around the house. They comfort me. In fact, I named my new car Dolores after one of my mother’s dearest friends whom I adored. She died on the day I picked up the car and I decided the car would be my loyal and trusted companion.
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Yes, I suppose that with a certain age comes the privilege of celebrating life and dealing loss. I love that you named your car Delores. May she keep you safe and well comforted. ❤️
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Little red birds keep me going.
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[…] of all, but other things, too: regrets, promises, expectations, disappointments. My mother. Sara. Harriet. […]
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