I like to run away for Mother’s Day. I take a trip, instead. I am this time, as well, so wasn’t going to write about it. Then gracious author Alice Hoffman invited folks to post pictures and stories about their mothers. On impulse I wrote a story for her site. She liked it which pleases me but, then, who wouldn’t like my mother? She is overall a breeze to write about. I decided to post it here, as well, if you will bear with me. I want to say a few words about my own mothering and then I’ll get on with it.
I tend to write little of what I experience being one. A mother, that is. Perhaps I should be more attentive to the topic; I could write reams. I oversee a history rich with five children, two of whom are not biological but feel like my own since I knew them before they knew me. Another tale entirely. I could extol their talents, characters, eccentricities and all, their challenges and trumpet-worthy triumphs. They each regularly take my breath away with their truth-seeking and passion for what they love. I am struck by the ways they live and grow within a dangerous albeit magnificent world. Mothers like to speak of such things; I am not above it. I will note they have had a few more steep hurdles to clear than perhaps most, for very different reasons. Thus, they are heroic to me. I respect their privacy so their stories are kept in some intercellular space. They radiate immense energy, have helped power my journey. Even now, at sixty-three. They each bring to me a particular happiness which is savored. One of the things that will remove my human armor is to speak of my children. But if you speak ill of them without a large dose of charity or wisdom, the armor is fitted again and I am readied for battle. Such is the way of the warrior mothers. I never expected to be one at twenty-three, and then I was and hallelujah, amen! I say that with reverence and a wry smile.
Excuse the side trip–I was not going to get started on how much I love them–all this talk of love and I am barely started!–but my mothering is derivative of my initial nurturance. So, then, about the mother who bore and raised me. Edna. Who is no longer using her time and space on this planet, or in not the same manner. I have written of her before for she is muse as well as mother. Let me introduce her to you if you have not met her.
Edna was a dreamer even as she was industriously engaged in life. She would stand at the kitchen window washing dishes and gaze, transfixed, past the maples of our back yard. She sewed in silence, focused on her creations, but I talked at her feet. She presided over meals, placing on the table two or three vegetables, a meat dish, colorful tossed salad, fruit of some sort and a side of bread and butter. Pie came later. She would pause as the rest of us sparred and chattered. She placed index finger to lips, eyes alert to the story about to cascade from her. We watched, enrapt. Nothing was boring to her, not a walk to the store, not a day teaching mediocre or ruffian students, not the two hundredth concert my father conducted or we played in, nor a bright scarf on the third woman from the left at church. To every experience she attached an unfolding tale. It was in the dramatic telling that she gave us who she was, as well. She had a critical mind that was smoothed by good intent and fascination. Generous, powered by curiosity, rooted in faith in God and resilient beyond expectation, Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman to reckon with.
Perhaps you think she sounds too good to be true. Oh, she had her foibles but they did not include a lack of ambition or self-possession. (I won’t waste time on bad habits today.) In another place and time she would have garnered a Masters’ degree, maybe taught geology or creative writing. I sometimes imagine her a film director with her dramatic flair. Still, in nineteen hundred twenty-eight, when barely nineteen years old, she was in the process of getting her teaching certificate. She taught all grades in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri and lived to share those tales as well. She might as well have become a business owner, a clothing designer, a public relations executive, or a newspaper writer although these skills were yet to blossom. But she and Lawrence were best friends who fell in love as teens, their paths well-aligned. His father was a public school system’s superintendent. She had survived the Depression, along with her large family, but it cost them their farm. She told me long stories at bedtime of her hay and cow days that riveted me. She left that life with no regrets, she assured me. She knew the aspiring musician and educator would carry her far beyond the country life. She was right.
She managed family obligations, including those of five children, with a stellar memory and stamina that required little sleep. She was social secretary, as well, she stated with a wink, and kept close tabs on us all. Over the years she was a milliner (how I adored those hats others got to wear), a fine seamstress and tailor (her own clothes drew others so she made a little money), an elementary school teacher, an indefatigable supporter of the talents and hopes of her children, a volunteer at church and in the community. And, of course, she was a loyal and proud wife. In love with Lawrence’s several gifts, she was as responsible for his public charismatic presence as he was oblivious to it. He stood taller and glowed under her direction.
A memory that remains vivid is watching her get dressed for a cultural event. She chose one of her own formal creations, beautifully fitted and made of perhaps a shimmering or partly-beaded fabric. She wore good high heels until her nineties that showed off high-arched feet. Her wavy hair was nearly white by the time I was born. On her it looked ravishing and people told her so. Her jewelry was not costly but it was tasteful and added radiance to the effect. She would chat while she dressed, catching up on things, and when my father called up the stairs, she would slick on rosy lipstick and a dusting of powder and be on her way. If we children were not attending a function, we watched my handsome father in his tux and mother in her gown as they departed. They were at times harried and late. But so good together.
She liked sports–in later years watched football on TV with my father–and once played a few games, herself. I could see her innate athleticism, although when I was ten and figure skating, she was fifty and no longer a basketball or tennis player. But she was strong and agile. She walked everywhere, children at hand, bags atop one arm. A devotee of nature, she camped in a pop-up camper with my father and grandkids into her seventies. She had a fascination with biology, insects, flora and fauna that encouraged us to explore and embrace nature’s mysteries. From her I learned about rock strata and types of soil. Her fear of water kept her on shore when we took to northern lakes in summer. She rooted for us as we dove from a floating diving platform, but worried about my father’s love of sailing, how the boat tipped and raced away from her.
I recently came across some of her travel journals and enjoyed the detailed, often amusing anecdotes. She was enamored of other places; my parents traveled extensively before they were elderly. She found the backstreets of Europe or our own nation equally of interest. How far from Blackwater, Missouri she had ranged.
But what I recall the most about my mother, is how purely she experienced life. She was not one to shrink from what was different, or hard. Although she did well to teach us how to “be civilized” with good manners and other appropriate behaviors, she did not make much effort to hide her feelings at home. If something tragic occurred (or she recalled the memory of it), she wept, tears running off her face and onto the lavender tablecloth. If something exquisite was seen, her descriptions were excited and meticulous. Her love for family and friends was unshakeable but if she did not love, her barriers were clear. Her anger could flash so hot it was surprising. Her laughter still rings in my ears, hearty, accompanied by tears if something was way past funny. And her great affection for my father was visible when he pulled her on his lap: well-seasoned with admiration and respect, a little fire was thrown in.
And did I forget angels? She had them gathered around her. I don’t wonder they spoke to her. She knew things; she was present, open, ready. Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman entirely alive. She was Irish, it’s true, but that was just the icing.
Is this the whole story of my mother? No. How can we really know our mothers? They’ve had lives both private and layered, just like ours. I often wondered what other stories she kept from us. I suspect if the whole truth came out I might be silenced by the depths and diversity of what she felt and experienced. And within my family history ran an underground vein of aching. We lived a few confounding times that we nonetheless survived. I sort them out as the years pass. It still just comes back to blood love.
She has been gone for twelve years. She crossed the mighty river between this world and the next near Mother’s Day and was buried the day after the Hallmark card holiday.
It was she who came to me one night on my balcony, under a star-bestowed night as I was rendered helpless by grief for her passing. How could she leave me, the youngest, bereft first of father on another May day, and now mother? But I heard her as she whispered in my ear: “You must write, Cynthia!” And so I do. Have done today. Thank you, my mother.