Death’s Mementos

Mom woke me up late one night by rubbing my shoulder and whispering: “Whit, get up. There’s a full moon. Come into the living room.”

She and Dad had quietly pulled the box holding my telescope out from under my bed and set it up. I had become interested in the stars and moon around age seven, so my parents bought me books about them and a telescope. Dad was adjusting the eyepiece when I walked in.

“Take a look,” he said.

The moonlight poured through the six large picture windows making shadows of their frames on the carpet. I gazed through the telescope, surprised at how much larger the moon was through the lens compared to the hole punch sized moon I usually saw. I could see the craters.

“Can you see the man in the moon?” Mom asked.

I looked at the shadows on the moon’s surface, trying to see a human figure. I shook my head “No.”

She looked through the telescope and adjusted it slightly. “Look now.”

As I peered through the lens, she explained that the two dark circular craters look like eyes and a more significant dark area is considered to be the mouth.

“I see him now.” I realized the man in the moon was a face, not a physical man.

On clear nights, he now illuminates a path for me to sneak a small moment with Mom.

“Holes in the Floor of Heaven” sung by Steve Wariner was released in March 1998, two months after my mother’s death. In it, the lyrics depict absences felt after the deaths of the narrator’s grandma and wife and the comforting idea that rain is the teardrops of those loved ones in heaven. Grandma Banick heard the song first, and when my sisters and I visited for a weekend, we listened carefully to the radio to listen to the song. We later purchased cassette tapes with the track which became a commemorative song for my family to play on the anniversary of Mom’s death.

When my fiancé, Ben, and I filled out planning forms for our wedding DJ last year, we requested that the song played in remembrance of my mother during our reception dance. The last third of the song focuses on the daughter’s wedding and her mother’s absent presence during rituals of that day.

Although I was 27 and there was no rice, my dad’s comment after the song ended at the dance, “Maybe that’s why it rained all day today” grounded me on a day I spent high on joy.

As I try to create a home, I desperately wish to sit down with Mom and sift through her recipes, ask which ones were her favorite, which ones had she tried, and how she decided what to cook each night for supper. My mom’s engraved wooden recipe box is just under a foot long, with two rows of recipes clipped from magazines and 3×5 index cards or random pieces of paper. Grandma Walters’s banana nut bread recipe is written in pen on the back of a mailed envelope, with the ingredients in my grandmother’s handwriting, and additional notes in my mother’s. My mom wrote a recipe for Idaho potatoes in pencil on construction paper.

After my dad remarried when I was ten, we sent many of Mom’s belongings to Grandma and Grandpa Banick’s house to be stored. Among the items sent to Grandma and Grandpa Banick’s was Mom’s recipe box.

Although I wasn’t ready to begin trying recipes on my own when I was around thirteen, I asked Grandma if she could find the box so I could look at it. When we pulled it out of the closet, we lost our grip on the box, and it fell to the ground, recipes scattering on the floor. I started crying. No longer were the recipes in the order Mom had placed them in. No longer could I look for patterns she had formed. A balloon inside of me had caught on a nail and popped.

We gathered the recipes and put them in the box, not placing them into categories or looking at the details. Even now, fifteen years later, the recipes remain in the mixed, backward and forward order we put them in on the night they spilled out. If I take one out, I mark its place and put it back where it was to avoid losing all of Mom.

“Are you ready to go up?” my dad asked.

We were standing on the stairs in the church waiting for the wedding ceremony to start.

“Let’s wait for the wedding party to go down the aisle.”

The church was unusual in set up—rather than having the altar, lectern, and pulpit at a short end of the nave; instead, they were located on a long side of the nave. Given the situation, the pastor had recommended making people wait for us, to make our entrance more impressive.

As the last pair in the wedding party walked down the aisle, we walked up the final stairs to stand just around a corner from where we’d proceed down the aisle. To calm my nerves, I clasped my dad’s left hand with my right and adjusted my left’s hold on my bouquet. The music for the wedding party ended, and our music began—“Canon in D” by Pachelbel.

As we let the music play for a minute, my dad remarked, “Your mom walked down the aisle to this song.”

I swallowed hard, bit my lip, and held my breath as we rounded the corner.

Though I no longer remember the sound of Mom’s voice, when I read one of the yearly Christmas letters she wrote, I can see the shape of her voice and how she spoke. They are her words; her joy at depicting what the family has done in the past year, her love in describing how my sisters and I have grown, and her pleasure in sharing the family’s accomplishments. For a moment, I am home. The Christmas letters are solid proof that for eight years Mom was proud of me and loved me. For the rest of my life, I will continually wonder what Mom thinks of who I am and the decisions I make. If only there were Christmas letters from Heaven.

The day before the wedding was a hectic progression of activity. In the morning, three bridesmaids, my attendant, step-mom, mother-in-law-to-be, maternal grandma and grandpa, and I arranged bouquets, vases, corsages, and boutonnieres at my grandparents’ house in Rochester, Minnesota. After lunch, I dropped off Zelda, Ben, and my one-year-old Labrador retriever, at a boarding kennel before driving an hour to Red Wing where the wedding and reception would take place. Once there, I grabbed my travel bag, checked into my room, and got ready for the ceremony rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. When those had concluded, we went back to the hotel, where the reception would take place, changed, and unloaded decorations and flowers from the truck.

Decorating the reception room was an overwhelming swirl of activity. Family and wedding party members placed vases of flowers, small rocks from Lake Superior, candles, candy bags, entertainment for kids, tree saplings, guest place cards, lights, tulle, pictures, the card basket, signs, and the cake stand on tabletops around the room. As the final touches were completed, my parents caught my attention. My step-mom gave me the headpiece she had worn during her and my dad’s wedding as my “something old” to wear the next day. She also handed me an unexpected envelope. Inside was a card with a shiny sixpence dated with the year of Mom’s birth.

My breath caught and my eyes watered. On the day of her wedding, Mom’s grandpa placed a penny dated with the current year, 1986, in her shoe.

“Thank you” was all I could articulate.

The next day the photographer photographed my dad placing the sixpence in my shoe.

Ben and I were visiting my paternal grandpa with the added hope of shooting some pigeons in the outbuildings for Ben to use to train our puppy, Zelda, to hunt that spring. We had driven to the farm on a Friday afternoon, and Grandpa Walters took us out to eat for dinner at a local café. When we arrived back at the farm, we talked a bit before Grandpa asked if we wanted to watch some of his many home videos.

Throughout my childhood, Grandpa videotaped holidays, unusual happenings on the farm (such as eagles sitting in the pines behind the house), and visits to his grandchildren. Those videotapes, along with movies and shows recorded on blank tapes, filled a floor-to-ceiling bookcase and storage areas in my grandparents’ entertainment center. Each tape’s cover has a number written on it in thick permanent marker, and each tape’s label has a description of what is on the ribbon. Grandpa indexed the same information in a notebook allowing him to find a video with specific content quickly.

That night, he recommended a few videotapes for me to pull out. As we popped each one into the VCR, he fast-forwarded or rewound the tape as needed to get to a particular portion to watch. There I was, a toddler, sitting in my pink foam chair, being coaxed to stand up and walk toward my parents in my first home. There was Mom, her back to the camera, holding a layered pearl necklace just out of reach of my fingertips, enticing me forward. As I watched the tape, I wished to shift the focus away from me and onto Mom, to be there in the moment and shift position to see Mom’s obscured face, instead of my familiar one.

When I went into the salon for my wedding hair and make-up trial run, my stylist was finishing up with another customer. I contentedly moseyed around the waiting area, taking in the industrial theme of the salon.

After ringing up the previous customer, she warmly greeted me, saying “Oh, I was so hoping you were my bride! You have beautiful hair!”

I thanked her, inwardly thinking my shoulder-blade-length curly hair was somewhat frizzy that day per her request to come in with my hair clean, dry, and not styled.

After generally getting to know each other and then sharing my vision for my wedding day hair and make-up, we settled into easy conversation.

“So, what’s your dress look like?”

Without thinking, I closed my eyes and inhaled, smiling.

“Oh—you know it’s good when you have to take a deep breath before sharing!” she exclaimed before I could say a word.

I laughed before joyfully describing the knee-length, antique-style cotton lace bodice, soft tulle skirt and train, sweetheart neckline, and buttons going down the spine.

“Do you ever get bored styling hair for weddings?” I asked.

She surprised me by answering “Each session is unique and important to me because my work will be in pictures that will be saved for a lifetime. I take my work seriously because I influence how well a wedding day begins.”

There has been a picture of Mom getting ready on her wedding day framed on a dresser in my house for years.


Photo Credit: Emery Co Photo Flickr via Compfight cc

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