As I write today, my window overlooks a windswept parking lot between two hotels in St. Ann, Missouri. A nudge to the north sits Lambert-St. Louis Airport. A few miles to the east of that, my childhood home squats amid a rusty rubble of cars waiting to be repaired, presumably by the current owner. Another notch towards the river takes me to the cemetery where my mother lies.
I have not set foot in that green-space since 21 June 1997, when we buried my brother Stephen's cremains in their brass box adorned with a Grateful Dead skull and roses sticker. I intend to try to find their resting place today.
The stories of my mother that I most long to tell would frighten the casual reader. They give me the greatest sense of her character, though. Her resilience, her creativity, her compassion, her courage: these shine through the accounts of how she dealt with the terror of her husband's alcoholic rages. Those times made me what I am: If I am tough, my toughness comes from hers; if I am timid, the need to hide comes from curling myself into a ball to escape the screams. But many times my mother brought us together in laughter -- just as on many nights she sheltered us in her protective arms.
My mother laughed with her entire body, from her face to her belly to her toes. My brothers pranced around the living room singing and making wild gestures while she giggled until she raced to the bathroom, only to find that a co-conspirator had slipped inside and locked the door. Outside we would howl with laughter while my mother rapped on the wood and the child inside would run the water, shouting, I'll be out in a minute as my mother jiggled with her legs crossed.
Mom never let a good thing go. She found a pattern for a wrap-around skirt and made it in a plethora of colors and fabrics. She wore those skirts with T-shirts and sweaters, rotating tops and skirts to make a myriad of outfits. She sewed a simple handbag and that, too, she fabricated in assorted materials, scraps from the skirts -- corduroy, denim, and heavy cotton. Mother pre-dated Vera Bradley and could have given her a run for her money.
I have some of my mother's features: Her hair, the shape of her eyebrows, her small bosom, her slender calves. My paleness flows from my father's heritage, as do my blue-grey eyes. But my personality is pure Lucille, though whether by nature or nurture, I could not say. I never surrender, even in the face of certain doom. I poke around the dirt and nip the dead buds on a begonia, something I watched her do a thousand times. I'm happy with dirt under my fingernails and a clean face without adornment. From my mother, I got my inventive parenting style -- part teacher, part soldier, part cheerleader, part confessor.
In my sharpest memory, my mother stands at the kitchen counter with her hands in bread dough. She wears an apron over church clothes -- a flowered dress, stockings, a pair of black pumps. Her hair curls in the waves that wire rollers held with plastic stick pins produce overnight beneath a tied kerchief. She wears lipstick and powder. She raises her eyes as I pass through on the way to setting the breakfast room table. She smiles. In that smile, I see that she accepts me; she loves me; and she forgives me. I have no other needs.
I have tried to be my mother's kind of woman. She held her own views. She believed that everyone should have a chance in life. She defended her children, stuck by her husband, and pushed her own desires to the background so that we could excel. She endured abuse, rose above adversity, and saw the flicker of color on a bird's wing in the thorniest overgrown bramble. My mother cherished the broken, the bent, and the battered. She threw nothing and no one away. I have tried to be like that -- to be the kind of person that accepted life's travails without lament, while seeing beauty in the quiet around me.
By no means did my mother hold her tongue in every situation. She picketed the convent when one of the nuns punished my brother for having long hair. She stuck her tongue out at a lady in church who scolded me for asking my mother a question about the sermon. She dashed down a sidewalk to chase away boys who had followed me home from school imitating my wobbly walk.
My mother never failed me. She held me when I bled away my first pregnancy on her bathroom tile, soothing me with her gentle voice, singing to me as she had done when my legs hurt so much I could not sleep, all those years before that terrible afternoon. By the same token, she did not cut me too much slack. When I had trouble with my first "real" job, she sat me at the table and ordered me to make a list of ways that I had failed, and a second list of how I could change the situation. I get my problem-solving strategies from her. Make a list of chores; tick each item off as you complete it. When the list is done, you can rest and enjoy the holiday.
From my mother, too, I learned to love without reservation; to be loyal in the face of betrayal; and to keep expecting that the cloud will part and reveal the silver lining -- even if the earth has already split open beneath my feet and the heavens have unleashed a deluge on my head.
My mother wanted to name me "Mary Kathleen". My father chose "Bridget Corinne". They compromised, at first, on "Bridget Kathleen" and planned to call me "Bridget Kay". As my father told the story, he and some friends wrote the various permutations of the four names on a cocktail napkin at the bar where he drank. They decided that "Mary Corinne" looked best with "Corley", and he went to the hospital and named me that. My father swore that my mother did not know for several weeks after my birth. It made a good story. He would tell it and my mother would sit knitting, raising her eyebrows, letting him have his moment.
She did that for all of us: Let us take the limelight, pushed forward by the deft application of her guiding hand.
My mother died from uterine cancer which metastisized due, in large part, from the incompetence of her doctors. Her OB-GYN diagnosed her symptoms as "female trouble", and gave her Premarin, a known aggravant of uterine cancer. It spread before my mother could consult another doctor, which she did only at the urging of the cardiologist who headed the EKG department in which she worked. The surgeon cut her urethra when he biopsied to check for cancer in her intestines during the hysterectomy, and her radiation had to be delayed. By the time the wound healed, the cancer had spread beyond hope. She died a few months later, just two weeks before her 59th birthday.
I am older than my mother ever got to be. I feel the fullness of that statement. In some ways, I feel as though I am living the old-age that she did not get to enjoy. I do not look much like her, but I hear her voice in my words. I carry the best of her in my heart. I try to honor the best of her. I have no other gift to offer in her memory. I hold that out in my trembling hands, hoping it will be enough.