“Did I have a husband?” my mother, Lena Holohan, asked. She was looking around the room, and, I suppose, wondering where she was. She just came out and said it, and I felt an empty space open inside me.
“You did have a husband,” I said. “He was a good man.” I went and got the photos of their wedding and showed them to her. She looked at them for a good long time. “He’s very handsome,” she said. I nodded and smiled. “Who is he?” she asked. So I told her about him and the others in the photos, her brothers and sisters. She shook her head and smiled. “I don’t know these people.”
“I’ll remember for you, “I said.
I published my first book in 1991 and Marianne and I hired my father and mother to ship them to our customers, mainly because my father was retired and needed something to do. He was driving my mother crazy. So each morning, they would go to breakfast, sit in the same booth, and order the same food. Then, they would drive to the public-storage warehouse, where we kept the books. They’d bring the books back to their kitchen table and my father would pack them, as my mother applied the shipping labels. She would call me on the phone and say, “There’s a book going to
In those days, I would ask my mother a question and my father would usually answer for her. I didn’t think much of it at the time because that was my father’s way. He was a good Irish talker, but he was covering for her.
He was packing books at their kitchen table on my birthday in 1997 when his first and only heart attack arrived. We buried him later that week.
A while later, my mother wanted to know if she could still work for us, and I told her that it would be so helpful if she could look over our mailing list and see if there were any duplicates. “Just circle the names you see more than once,” I said, “and there’s no rush at all. Just take your time. And think about all the places where these people live. It will be fun, and we’ll pay you. Just circle the duplicates.”
Two weeks later, she called to tell me she was finished. I went to see her and she handed me the stack of papers, as if it were a proud term paper. “All done!” I looked at the first page and saw that she had circled every name on the list. She had done the same on the second page. I flipped through the stack. Every single name was circled.
“Did I do it right?” she asked.
“You did a great job, Mom!” I said, hugging her to me.
“I took my time with it!” she said. “I was careful.”
“I know,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
My mother was becoming a child again, and that was the day that I realized that cruel truth.
A few years ago, I wrote a magazine story about the White family of Taco. I wrote about how they chose to build onto their factory in crowded
I had gone to Taco’s grand opening in
I drove home that day and wrote the story in my head along the way. It was the easiest story I have ever written. This wonderful mother they called “Happy” had written it for me. I was just telling it.
Afterwards, Johnny White told me that his Mom liked the story a lot, and that she kept a copy of the magazine next to her chair at home. He said that she had painted a watercolor for me, and wondered if I would come for tea. So Marianne and I drove to
She was so frail and she had a tough time hearing and seeing, but her voice was like tiny wind chimes, and her mind ranged back over the years. We sat in a sunroom and there were flowers blooming outside the windows. I asked her about her life and she told me about when she was young and strong, and how she had helped her father, who was a famous muralist, paint a mural at the 1939 Worlds Fair in
“So what did he do?” I asked.
“He joined the union!” she said in that tiny voice and she smiled back through the years at the memory, and I thought of my own mother, who now has no past and no future; she has only today. And this made me listen all the harder to Happy’s stories because each moment is fragile and fleeting, and mothers are precious.
Happy gave me a small watercolor of a tomato, a peach, and a lemon that day. It was her way of thanking me for the story I had written about her family. She signed it, “Happy.” I knew that she could barely see, and that she had painted this watercolor from memory, and that again made me think of my mother. I’m looking at that watercolor now as I tell you about that day. It’s lovely.
We talked for more than an hour, and sipped tea and the light flowed into the room through the tall trees, new in bloom, and shifted the shadows. I’d ask a question and Happy would tell a story in that tiny voice of hers, and when she was done, the quiet would settle in again, like a soft quilt on sweet, precious memory.
After a while, I could see she was tiring, so we stood and I asked her if I could kiss her goodbye, and she said, “Oh yes, please do.” So I kissed her lightly on the cheek and held her hands, and Happy smiled at me. “Thank you for the story,” she said. “Thank you for the painting,” I said. And Marianne, Johnny, and I left.
Yesterday, on another day in early spring, I drove to
Later today, I’m going to visit my mother in the nursing home. She no longer knows who I am, but she smiles at me. My mother has only today, but she is safe and warm, and never hungry. And I am here to remember all the rest for her.
Call your mother.