Mother lived in a closet. People react strangely when I tell them that, but Mother was happy. Father and I were happy.
Some of my earliest memories are of creeping into that closet to play by Mother’s feet. She had a pair of pink fuzzy slippers and the tassels on them looked like little cats’ heads. I remember how I used to crawl about with her slippers on my hands meowing like a cat.
You have to understand, first of all, that this was no ordinary closet. It was a large walk-in closet underneath the staircase on the first floor. Mother had a small bed, a cot actually. It had squeaky springs and made a wonderful trampoline. There was a fluffy, white bedspread on it, and a bunch of little pillows that Mother embroidered with red, yellow and purple flowers. The space was a bit tight, but Father managed to squeeze in an old wooden rocking chair and a tall maple dresser. On top of the dresser, Mother kept a gold-framed photograph of herself as a small child standing with her parents next to a battered plane. Her father had been a petroleum engineer, and the family traveled throughout Venezuela and Central America. Both her parents died in an automobile crash when she was fifteen, and she was sent to live with her aunt in Ohio. At barely 18, she met and married Father and, as he always liked to say, “for the first time in her life, she knew what a real home was like”.
I remember, one year, when I was about four or five years old, Father planned a special surprise for her birthday. He had a small round window cut into the side of the closet so she could look out into the yard and watch me playing. When the workmen were finished, Father hoisted me up on his shoulders, and we stood there in the yard and sang happy birthday. I believe it was Mother’s happiest birthday ever.
When I was old enough to go to school, I’d rush home every afternoon eager to show Mother my gold stars and crayoned drawings. It wasn’t long before the walls of the closet were covered with my school work. After supper, when my homework was finished, and Father was snoring on the couch, Mother would tell me stories about growing up in villages with names that sounded like a litany of Spanish saints. She would tell me about the live chickens that hung in the markets in Nicaragua and about the street festivals in Guatemala and how, no matter where they lived, they always had a garden filled with flowers.
During my high school years, I played football and basketball and worked part-time in Father’s hardware store. Sometimes two or three days would go by without me stopping into see Mother, but she never complained. She was happy.
Time goes by so quickly. When you are a child, you think your childhood will last forever, then you look back and all you have left are your memories. I am thankful for mine. Without them, I don’t think I would have survived the past few months. My one regret is that I did not visit Mother more often. When I finished college, I took a sales job that required a great deal of travel. I know Mother appreciated the post cards that I sent because she had them tacked up in neat rows above her bed.
It was in January, that I received the call saying that Father had died. I knew that Mother would be devastated, and I flew home as soon as I could reschedule my appointments. By the time I reached her, however; it was too late. Mother had descended into a state of grief so profound — she was incapable of tears. She lay in bed with her parched eyes staring up at that little round window that Father had made for her. I sat down in the rocking chair next to her bed and tried to cheer her up by telling her about my recent trip to Mexico. But it was no use; she wasn’t listening. Poor Mother!
The funeral director was an old friend of Father’s from the Rotary, and he was kind enough to accommodate Father’s often repeated wish to be laid out at home. It took a bit of doing to get the casket into the living room. The old gray sofa had to be moved into the dining room, and Father’s leather recliner had to be moved out into the hallway. The casket was placed in front of the fireplace, and a floral wreath was placed at each end. One said “Beloved Husband” and the other said, “Loving Father”. I lit the candles on the mantelpiece and with the curtains drawn, the living room made a fitting chapel.
In the evening, Father’s sister, my elderly Aunt Louise, stopped to pay her respects. I know she meant well, but she repeated every tired cliche that one hears at funerals. She kept telling Mother over and over again how happy she should be that Father had not suffered. Mother winced each time she heard these words.
The following day, there was short service at the house. The minister did his best to console Mother. He put his arm comfortingly around her shoulder and told her that Father had been a true servant of God and that one day, she and Father would be united again in heaven. Mother pushed his arm away and sat staring mutely at the casket. The poor man was offended, but his words could not ease the pain in Mother’s heart.
It was bitter cold that day and snowing heavily, so I was the only one to go to the cemetery for the internment. I was reluctant to leave Mother alone, but she said she was tired; she would take a nap. I helped her into bed and remember pulling the spread up over her long white flannel gown.
The roads out by the cemetery had not been plowed, and it was several hours before I returned home. Much to my regret, I did not immediately look in on Mother. Instead, I made a pot of coffee and sat in the kitchen trying to figure out what to do about Mother. None of the solutions I came up with seemed practical, but I was leaving the next day, and I had to talk to her. I tapped on her door and peeked in. The winter’s twilight had darkened the room, and I did not immediately notice that something was wrong. When Mother didn’t answer, I assumed that she was asleep. I reached out my hand to give her a gentle shake and … well, it was just incomprehensible — she was not there! I was dumbfounded. I called out her name. Frantically I patted the bed all over. Then I threw back the covers, and there was her nightgown lying shriveled and empty on the sheet. I picked up that hallowed shroud and cradled it in my arms. I had never felt so utterly, so hopelessly alone.
How could I not have seen what this grief was doing to her?
She had never been strong and now, and now… she was gone.
In the space of a few short days, I had become an orphan. Death had taken Father, and now grief had taken Mother.
Through my tears I could see the sun setting through that small round window in the closet. As I gazed out that window one last time, I thought how odd it was to see footprints in the snow.
[written c. 1994]