My mother was a quiet country girl. Even in the suburbs, she used the exact same whistle that her mother used to call the chickens when she wanted us home for dinner.
She married a strict but loving patriarch and had two sons. The three males all believed they were the center of the universe. When she died almost 15 years ago, she left an unexpected void in her place.
The three men she left behind slowly came to recognize she had been our gravity. I don’t think I could have understood her while she was still alive. I think she knew that.
The year she died, she gave me a large steamer trunk, which she told me she had filled with the flotsam and jetsam of my very “learning disabled” childhood. She told me she had saved everything, beginning with kindergarten through when I passed the bar exam and she pronounced I was on my own, “because finally you will never have to take another test again.”
It had been our war, which we fought side by side, against a world eager to write me off, forget me, marginalize me and perhaps us. Because I did not wish to return to that nightmare, I was never ready to open that box.
My mother had no fear of time. She had endless patience.
Because we lived in a patriarchy, we knew all about our family name, with its politicians, governors, distinguished lawyers, and Maryland history. But my mother‘s family of farmers and merchants on the eastern shore of Maryland with its southern roots was rarely discussed.
The year before she died in her mid-90s, she asked me to drive her down to Church Hill, Maryland, where her family of Chapmans, Valiants, and Faithfuls were buried around a small church in an agrarian tidewater town. She said she wanted me to see where she had come from. She had already given me the box by then.
As I recuperated from surgery over the last few weeks, I kept looking at that box. Last Sunday, I opened it.
As I gently pulled back the wrapping paper, I was surprised to find more than I expected. There were pictures of her relatives and ancestors who I had never really known. On the back were the names and dates and a few sentences about who they were and how they connected to my mother and our family. As I put the pictures up on the table and found them staring back at me, her life slowly formed around her in a way that included me.
I noticed that I looked like them more than I looked like my father’s family.
Her father loved poetry and the arts. He had been a choral master and led singing groups and church choirs up and down the eastern shore. There was a beautiful hand-crocheted bed cover, and a white embroidered tablecloth made by her mother, and more pictures of her two older brothers whom I barely knew.
At the very bottom, piled in chronological order and bound by a rubber band that had long since broken, were all of my teachers’ reports. They started with kindergarten reports of a joyous, adventurous, somewhat shy little boy who the teachers found “amazing in his creativity and interest in the world,” until the alphabet and reading and spelling were introduced in first grade and then the failures compounded year after year, as that little boy fell further behind, repeating grades or advancing to the next grade only if he would go to summer school, then encouraged to leave and go to another school, and ultimately to be told he could not go to college.
My mother was patient. My mother had no fear of time. She got me to dictate stories to her as I thrashed on the bed in the vacant third-floor room. She got me to write poems.
Each day after school, she made it her business to read all of my homework assignments to me as we curled up in a window seat, the afternoon sun pouring in through the windows. It didn’t really help, but it was all she could do and she refused to give up on her disappointing son who was always falling behind.
My mother had no fear of time. She had endless patience.
We were all too self-centered to ever recognize who she really was. We all loved her, that was never an issue. But I am now convinced that when she went off to church alone on Sundays, that was something more than her quiet time.
After I spent better than a day with everything spread out on the dining room table, I finally closed the empty trunk. It had been a time bomb to be opened when I could finally understand it. It was an explosion.
Over the years, my father and my brother grew to realize that she had a unique relationship with each of us that was powerful and the source of the gravity that brought us all together. The trunk did not hold the history of my failure as I had thought it did. It held the history of our love as it had matured with faith and quiet determination, year after year, growing strong dispute life’s pressure.
My mother was patient. She had no fear of time.
She waited until I found a voice outside of failure, my family history. She trusted I would find that voice and make it my own. She waited until I found the arts in her family and in me. She waited until last Sunday to be more fully recognized.
There is a poet I love named Philip Larkin (1922-1985). He wrote a quiet poem that stopped me in my tracks when I first read him in college:
by Philip Larkin
On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead.
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins
Fathers brothers nicknames laughter
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun
Scarfed as in a heat-haze dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face–
plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed–
Gold as on a coin or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them
One showing the eggs unbroken.
There are times when it takes so long to understand the depth of one’s love you almost lose the chance to say thank you. If I shut my eyes, I can hear my grandmother and my mother calling the chickens home.