Considering Mothers: Flowers Among All Others

A favorite activity for my spouse and me around Mother’s day is to visit the National Historic Site of Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, Washington. The farmhouse was owned by Hulda’s parents (Godfried and Wilhemina Thiel) until she took possession and lived there until her 1960 death. The 1880s Victorian farmhouse is a lovely example of the style. But it is the grounds bursting with lilacs, heavy on large bushes, that brings such pleasure. The fragrance is warm and sweet and it is very easy to get “lilac drunk!” We visited last week-end, a good time before they were spent.

Like hopefully most mothers, I find my 45 years of motherhood to be creatively inspiring, perplexing and fulfilling, tiring and joyous, spiritually deepening, intellectually intriguing, and just plain fun. And yes, I can well see us each as remarkably resilient, productive and gorgeous flowers among other all other flowers…Please enjoy these pictures–have a loving Mother’s Day!

Off for a Mosey

Mother's Day wk-end (Yachats) 2012 020

This time of year I like to head out and immerse myself in some fresh Spring-into-Summer experiences. It is Mother’s Day week-end, and my mother passed away during very close to Mother’s Day, so it seems appropriate. Not because I am yet burdened with grief–it has been thirteen years and she is still with me in countless ways–but because little could more excite her than getting out to meet new people, absorb  new sights, and return with more stories to share. It was like she carried a cache around with her into which she would nestle bits and pieces of many places and faces, whole conversations, moments of insight, detailed descriptions of all she felt and observed. A treasure chest is what she had within her, and she passed much on to me, to all who knew her.

Curiosity is one thing I got from her (and, of course, my father, if I need to be inclusive). She was usually aglow with something that happened on the way to the store or what she garnered when interacting with a stranger or friend or perhaps after reading something. She sometimes would stand at the kitchen window while cooking or wasjing dishes and gaze into the distance as though she was catching sight of something marvelous. It could be a songbird or sunlit leaf or shape of the clouds–or her own imaginative thoughts. And, I must note, her prayers for us all and many more.

I, too, have a very large appetite for learning, doing, rooting out the unusual or interesting if ordinary moments, people that render and reflect lives that are deep and complex. Life is noteworthy in its infinite varieties no matter where one goes in this world. Sometimes that is just down the street and around a corner. I want to see what is there, too, though I may be uncertain of the outcome. Or perhaps because of that.

But this time it is a bit farther afield in the jewel of the Pacific Northwest that is my home. So I will not be writing blog posts this coming week but shall return with a broader, refreshed viewpoint and my own smallish satchel of new stories and ideas. And quite simply, the pleasure of any travel is its own reward.

So, to those of you who are practicing mothers, have mothers you are not always thrilled with (are any of us, every single moment?) or deeply love your mothers or profoundly long for a mother…I send you good will and kindnesses. Remember to care for yourself, too–we are all our own mothers in the end.

Talk to you after next week!

Make Over

1178154_ida_07 Marlene’s daughter hadn’t yet made the appointment for Marlene’s haircut but she would. Tomorrow. Or she would just text her stylist, that might reach him faster. Greta was busy, a clear success by any decent standard a mother set. She brought work home at night, there were multiple flowers plus a new lemon tree on the wrought iron balcony that needed particular care, she had a nine year old son with urgent needs–Demian’s phone wasn’t working again, he had to buy knee pads for dodge ball, his painted turtle just passed away. Life was happening fast for Greta.

Not that Marlene thought her hair was a critical event that required immediate attention. She liked her hair; it had managed to retain some volume, the omnipresent grey was complementary to her pale blue eyes. But Greta had gotten the grand idea that her very expensive personal stylist could “do something” for her mother. Now that she was no longer working. Or married to her father.

“Spruce me up, you mean,” Marlene said with the least amount of sarcasm she could manage. “Maybe make me over. For what?”

Great put hands on hips as she did when a child. “Enhance your best features, those pretty eyes,” she enthused, “give that grey some oomph. Maybe mask it. Help the frizzy waves. Oh, and eyebrows…don’t be resistant, mom. I’ll pay.”

Oomph?” Marlene repeated, palms held up and looked at Demian. “Eyebrows? What next for this pitiful old lady?”

He shrugged, absorbed by the game on his phone. “I think Grandma looks fine.” His thumbs worked very fast. “You’re not too old, Grandma.”

Her grandson generally championed her. Marlene appreciated it. With a name like that (“He is the pivotal character in a perfect Hermann Hesse novel,” Marlene had told Greta, “so you must read it to know what you’re doing here!” but she did not), no telling what he’d do but he was smart, kind to all creatures, and had imagination as evidenced by the way he decorated his room. On his wall he had drawn an orange car with blue stripes on it. He liked to look at it as he fell asleep. Driving it was himself, of course, and in the passenger seat sat a small dog, a bit like a cocker spaniel, one his mother so far refused to get him. Its furry ears blew straight back in the wind, its long pinkish tongue dangled. Demian had signed and dated it. The only reason Greta had not thrown a fit was that Demian was a good artist. Truth was, gifted.

Names meant something in life, Marlene mused as she retired to her room. Demian might have been Peter, a name she favored for its crisp confidence, although Demian in the book had charisma, wisdom. She might have been a Renalda, a sensuous but proud name she’d read in another story, a trivial novel, but she had admired it ever since. Greta was named after Marvin’s great-grandmother. He’d said it would keep their daughter strong.

He was possibly right. Greta was like a commercial for endurance. Long hours at the ad agency, health withstanding gangs of viruses on trains and planes, a three-time marathon runner, and a single, loving mother. She never had married. She had chosen to have this child “without the interference of a life partner” was how she had put it. Marlene just shook her head. She had fought the good fight during feminism’s firebrand years, had worked all her life and had both fallen arches and piddling pension to show for it but when did having babies become another experiment in self reliance? But it was only a matter of time before Greta would be promoted and then move them all into a newer spacious apartment, so who could complain?

Marlene became a willing grandmother at age fifty-four. The child slept and ate well, exhibited intense focus from the start, and had a face like a Buddha, gently-shaped. She came to see him, if feasible, every other week-end for the first eight years but she hadn’t intended on living with him and his mother. That happened after Marvin decided he never was cut out for marriage and took early retirement, then moved up north to fish happily ever after. Marlene’s bank job had always been duller than boiled potatoes so she’d retired, too. Their modest house was sold, there was a little alimony and money from investments, yet funds were more tight than she’d expected. Greta could use assistance, she said, so moved her in. Temporarily, Marlene repeated often to them both.

“Okay, just your hair,” her daughter said again, standing in the doorway. “I’m thinking next week. Carlton is perfect for cut and color.”

“I have color. Two, in fact, brown and white mixed together making an interesting pale blondish-grey.”

Greta made a little moue with her plump mauve lips. “You agreed to leave this to me. My Mother’s Day gift to you. Please?”

Marlene turned on the retro lamps near the loveseat that took too much space. She slumped into the cushions and picked up a magazine. “I guess I’ll need to trust you.”

But Marlene just didn’t when it came right down to it, not as she’d have liked. The live-in offer was generous and the expedient thing to do–for the short term, until she got her feet under her. Or went back to her hometown. It didn’t really suit her, the schedules they had, the expensive, fussy food she was expected to eat and often shop for and prepare. The way Greta turned on the television every night. Marlene liked the radio so sought refuge in her cramped room (once a small office, now the dining room had to do for Greta’s work) unless Demian wanted to play cards or checkers or draw with her. The perpetual being on call for babysitting although being with her grandson was far more entertaining than anything else. She loved her daughter. But Greta had such a big life plan and Marlene, one that was vanishing a bit more each day.

Marlene felt at loose ends. No husband, house, job. Well, the subtraction of the job from the sum of her life was no loss. Yet who could blame her if there were mornings when the patch of sky she saw between faded curtains had an ominous cast? Or the narrow bed felt much too comforting? It got boring during the day. Watching people zoom by below their fourth story apartment building. Haunting the library until there was a distinct feeling of bloat from overindulgence in the printed word. Walking around the same blocks again. It was true that Demian was a wonder. But grandsons were not friends exactly. Marlene was used to meeting up with Jenny and Cath in a moment’s notice. Now they were an hour away.

There was a mirror above the oak dresser and Marlene stood before it, hands atop her head. Her hair looked…like her hair. It folded in at her shoulders, enough curl to keep it from hanging in a thready hank. In the duskiness of the room, it seemed a warmer color but the grey glowed like sterling in sunlight. Either way, it didn’t matter much. She recalled the bank years when she presented herself as the quintessential professional, the time and effort it took. How she loathed the pants suits and the dresses that required expensive shoes and nylons. She took frequent restroom breaks to reapply her lipstick or otherwise she felt undressed. Her real lips were faded, like rose petals that had lost vibrancy, appeal. She had gotten rid of the suits and twenty tubes of expensive lip color, keeping one for special occasions.

Marlene smiled at her reflection, then waved. Then she bobbed her head side to side as though she was deliriously happy. This sometimes worked.

“Grandma, what are you doing?”

Demian climbed onto her bed so he could place himself behind her image in the mirror. He stuck out his arms and she raised hers. They waved them wildly. It looked like she had four arms.

“Demian! Time for bed!” “Grandma and I are doing something!”

Greta entered the room with her phone in hand. “I already texted Carlton. He said next Saturday at three. I’ll take you. Demian can play with his buddy downstairs.”

Greta beamed at her, eyes lit up with anticipation. Marlene sighed. It came out a small whistle that made Demian giggle as he bounced off her bed.


It was sometime after five o’clock in the morning when Marlene awakened. Two cats were at it, whether fighting or loving she didn’t know, it all sounded the same to her. She sat up until the racket died down, then, wide awake, pushed the covers off and walked to the low window to fling open two little doors to let in the air. The day was starting off with drifting fog, then it’d clear, she bet. A day for a walk down by Pier Park, watch boats come in, barges go out. She’d have a croissant with honeyed butter or a poppy seed muffin and coffee, take her book along. It’d warm up; the spring sky would turn aquamarine like magic. Then it would be crawling with people. She wouldn’t be able to sit and muse over anything with the cigarette smokers and toddlers with their anxious, gabby mothers. She shuddered and yawned. Greta would be up by six, scurrying around.

Then the idea came to her. She stuffed her faded polar bear T-shirt into her shorts, then got her coat from the stand by the dresser. She went to the window and looked down at the fire escape. Marlene had once had to use one during a false fire alarm. She stepped up, steadied herself with hands against window frames, then stepped down, her thigh muscles complaining. The air was so still it seemed to hold its own secret sound. It soothed her. She watched a younger man and an older woman–it could be her a year ago–rushing for the train.

By the time she had climbed halfway down the she realized she had no shoes on. How must she look, a mad woman perched on the fire escape! She went back up the metal steps, climbed back in and put her tennis shoes on, then pulled on her old khakis. Then she scrawled a noted on the back of a bookmark and left it on her pillow: Gone to Pier Park for an early morning stroll and coffee. Don’t worry, back later.

Marlene started again, one foot on the window sill, excitement mounting.

“Where are you going, Grandma?” Demian’s voice sounded serious and it made her pause. She looked back, pointed to the book mark, then put a finger to her lips. Demian read the note.

“Can I come? Please?”

“Not this time, sweetie,” she whispered. “I’ll be back before long. See you after school.”

And then she stepped out the window.

“Grandma! Don’t let mom change you! Got it?”

Marlene looked at him and felt so much love that her body felt strong and mighty, her spirit felt light. She was momentarily concerned she might leap off those steps and fly just to show him how much she could and would do for him. But she let out a  chuckle, stepped out again and landed on the metal step with a thud. Demian leaned on the windowsill and watched her gingerly descend. When she looked back at him, he gave her two thumbs up. She waved and took off down the street, coattails flying in the fresh May breeze.

“The best!” he said, then tiptoed back to bed.

My Small View of Edna’s World

Home is whereI 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.


I Ran Away on Mother’s Day

I ran away to the Oregon coast on Mother’s Day week-end.

I am not so fond of this day that singles out and demands we pay attention to mothers. For one thing, I think when mothers are loved, they know it. There are a multitude of signs families provide all year long, their deep affection expressed in comments, a touch or a look, small gifts of time and random treasures offered. The day commercializes what should be a celebration any old day. I believe random acts of love are better than ones that happen on a calendar basis.

But the main reason is that this day is a time of melancholy reflection for me. A longing rises up and grabs hold of me hard. Tears soften my vision and I pause.

My mother died a few days before Mother’s Day in 2001. The funeral home viewing was held on the date meant to enjoy our living mothers. I remember most her hands from that day. In peculiar repose when I knew them so intimately as hands that created and worked every day, they were still lovely. She lived a robust, demanding life into her nineties and was possessed of a quick mind, a vivid imagination and a generous soul. Only when she could abide no more discomfort did she slip out of flesh and bones.

I still miss her, as daughters always do miss their mothers when fortunate enough to be loved by them. To have shared stories with them that last long after the leavetaking.

So off I went to the sea. Edna Kelly Guenther did not like water very much, at least not moving, spirited water. From a distance she admired its power; she could not swim and feared drowning. But I am drawn to it in every form and when the forest gathers around it, I am pulled even more. My husband and I have been staying in humble, old-fashioned cottages near Yachats, the emerald coast village, for twenty years. We were happy to return last week-end.

Every year I do things in memory of my mother’s dauntless curiosity and joie de vivre. She was fascinated by natural history, botany, entomology, and geology as well as the creative and domestic arts. As I roamed, observed, rested and hiked I felt her presence. It was a soul-satisfying time, even with bittersweet moments.

On childhood trips we stopped at wooden bridges often. This one was built in 1918, 9 yrs. after my mother was born. The wind in the trees and the river made gentle sounds.

Wild iris on one of the trails. Her favorite flower.

A strong athlete in her youth, she would have been as impressed as I by the wind surfers.

At Cape Perpetua, a look-out built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Depression. She loved the grandeur of nature.

She’d have found this visually interesting, and wondered over the great distances wood travels before adorning the sand.
I can see her place her index finger on her lips and gaze at the horizon: more presence of God, she would have thought. Like me.

We sang the old songs for you, mom, like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I love you.