A while back, I wrote about my mother’s elaborately designed garden as one avenue where she could express her creativity. Doing that has brought her back to mind. Because she died fifty-four years ago and because we had a seriously tangled relationship, I have spent a lot of time not thinking about her at all. I would try at times, like on Mother’s Day, but memories usually were negative, so I became reluctant to return to painful or angry times. But recently I heard a fascinating program on National Public Radio about what constitutes a memory. The researcher being interviewed said we are constantly revising what began as an original memory; that each time we remember the same event or person, whatever really happened is removed a little bit more. He concluded that the only stable “memory” would be one that happened once and only once. He even posited that people who can no longer remember their past may well have the purest memories of that past.
I began thinking about writing this blog because I wanted to recount a clear memory I have of my mother’s Christmas decorations in our house in Fairfield, Alabama. I was going to argue that, like her work in her elaborate garden, her transformations of our living room and front porch afforded her another arena for her creativity. Then I remembered that I had already written about this phenomenon in my first memoir, I Dwell in Possibility, published in 1992. So I dug out my copy and read the relevant chapter entitled “My Mother, My Muse.” After describing what she actually did, I concluded that her insisting on doing exactly what she had always done for the holidays in 1955 was remarkable. I want now to return to that time and see how my memory may have changed.
My father and her husband died on New Year’s Day in 1954. For reasons best known to her, she made it clear to my older sister and me that we were never to mention his name in her presence because doing so threw her into a vortex of despair. So, as I tried to cope with all those devastating “firsts” experienced by anyone suffering severe loss of a loved one, Mamie (what most people called my mother) acted as if they did not exist. So during the first week in December, she set up our rickety step ladder in front of the majestic pier mirror over our living room fireplace. She had already gone into our basement and located several boxes of silver balls of various sizes. She’d also found the sturdy tree branch she’d painted brilliant white several years before. So the process began that resulted in a magical decoration. First she climbed up onto the last safe step on the ladder and lodged the white tree branch between the top of the mirror and the ceiling. Then she suspended all the silver balls on razor thin wires that were barely visible from the floor. The whole creation was, of course, reflected in the mirror, adding to the magic. Every time we had a fire in the fireplace, the heat caused the balls to move ever so slightly. The whole thing was simply beautiful. My problem was it made me incredibly sad to look at it because Daddy was not sitting in “his” chair by the radio where he listened to “Amos and Andy” or some one singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
The decorations were still up on January 4th, the day of my father’s funeral. Because there was no church service even though my mother was a pillar of our little Episcopal church, the pastor came to our living room to perform some kind of memorial. Mamie’s two brothers were there as were some cousins from other cities in Alabama and at one point someone wanted to take a picture of her. As I said in the 1992 memoir, “She is as carefully dressed as ever and her hair and make-up are in place. But her face reveals a woman in deep grief.” Since my father’s death and the silence surrounding it were devastating to me as a seventeen year old, I assumed we would never again have those joyous and elaborate decorations. I was wrong. Mamie climbed back up on her ladder and reproduced her magical mobile into the future.
So the memory I carry now, sixty odd years later, is of someone who found solace rather than pain in making her surroundings beautiful. If the man on public radio is correct, I am adjusting what had once seemed some kind of stubborn stoicism or strangely conceived heroism. My memory now draws me closer to Mamie because I know a lot more about grief and loss than I did in 1954. And I recognize unabashedly that, like her, I rely on repetition and ritual to get me through my roughest moments. So I will hold on to this version of the memory because it serves us both quite well.