This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
I got the news back today, and it was good. Bloodwork was off so they needed more tests. The liver. I’ve had issues in the past with my liver. Not of an alcoholic nature; I’m not a drinker. But other things that can plague such an organ, they were plaguing mine. So, bloodwork.
And the result is that — while things need watching — all is well.
I shared the good report with a dear friend and said “That’s a load off.” She said she was relieved because she knew I was concerned. But the funny thing is, I never was really concerned. It just weighed heavy. It occurs to me that not many people have that experience. And even fewer people are aware of the difference.
The weight of things can bear down on the joyfilled. And I am one of those.
Through the years there were life experiences that had my spirit bent nearly double. Moments when I found it difficult to breathe; moments when my joyful self wanted to forget how. When I ached to be done with it; climb out the window of this life and in the window of the next. To be honest, there’ve been times when, due to health or surgery, I faced a decision: stay, or go; I chose, each time, to stay.
The redemption that lives in the small moments is what saved me, restored me, brought me back. That is always what keeps me here.
So the blood test, in the grand scheme of things, is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. A little window into one aspect of what’s going on with me. The rest finds its place somewhere in the personal, panoramic pages of my own ‘Lonesome Dove’ story.
I’ll live my life, in all its chaotic splendor, across my own prairie … until I don’t. But life, its own self, will go on. And that’s a weight I’m glad to carry.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I was thinking today about the Christmases in my life.
In my early childhood, they were silver tinsel, colored bulbs and an angel star on a tree that shined through the front window and made the world feel magic. They were chenille robes, and the smell of bacon and coffee on Christmas morning; hair left uncombed and presents torn into. They were oranges and nuts, hard candy and a treasure tucked deep in the toe of a stocking.
They were rides in the car to Nanny’s house, clutching my new doll. They were pickled eggs in a jar on Nanny’s buffet, and a pink Christmas tree that glowed with starry lights inside a cloud of angel hair.
When I was old enough−about seven−mother started taking me with her to Advent service on Tuesday nights. I sat between her and my grandmother, Mom, breathed deep the incense, threw back my head and sang the Advent hymns lustilly, as young girls do.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptists cry,
announces that the Lord is nigh
awake and harken for he brings
glad tidingsof the King of Kings.
By the time I was in my teenage Christmases there were five more children. The young ones were so precocious that, every year on Christmas Eve, Daddy prevented early peeks by sleeping on the floor at the entrance to the living room.
Our trees had gotten smaller; Daddy usually picked one up at the grocery store for free the night before Christmas. We were all excited, it was Christmas after all. But something had changed; I was too young to know what, or why. I just knew I felt a little lost. Advent services, and Advent songs, had started to define the season for me, and I turned to them for the comfort I needed then.
Looking at it from here I can see it was during those years my father lost his job; he was doing what he could to keep six children fed and a roof over us all. It’s clear that his was a hero’s journey, and my heart breaks a little for him when I think about it now.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
I became a mother when I’d just turned twenty one. And that changed everything. Christmas was more magical than ever. Being Santa to my babies was wonderful. I sewed, and baked, and made ornaments out of egg cartons. We strung popcorn and cranberries; every year we bought the annual Christmas album from the Firestone store.
I saved S&H Green Stamps all year long; I poured over the stamp catalog to see what gifts I could get with my books of stamps.
We made our Advent wreath, lit the candles, purple and pink; said the Advent prayers; went to church and sang the hymns. We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and every Christmas morning the children would run to see if the tiny statue of the Baby was in the manger, having been “born” during the night. The ultimate result, through the years, was Christmas seasons of love, and laughter, and plenty.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Then there’s the Christmas I was separated from my husband of twenty-five years, headed for divorce. I’d been holding my own through what was a very rough year. But it seemed like everywhere I went during my holiday shopping I ended up face to face with the perfect gift for him. It was like the stores conspired to show me what I would not be purchasing. Try getting through the holiday without buying him THIS. With each ‘gift confrontation’ came another crack in my heart.
It was exhausting. I clung to my Advent. Yes, it became mine. I wrapped myself in it; I sang the songs and prayed the prayers, sometimes silently other times screaming them at the top of my lungs. There were moments I lost track of what I was praying for, or who I even was; I just knew that Jesus was my lifeline, and I was calling 911.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more
I’ve grown into a lovely single life, my kids are beautiful adults, and I have five precious grandchildren. During these Christmas seasons I find that I’ve returned to the feelings of my childhood, but with a depth I couldn’t know then. The many times, and ways, in which my heart was broken have taught me this: in me dwells a personal and a tender yearning for new life; I ache for the beauty of the season; I am joyful at the redemption this Holy Baby brings. And I treasure the brokenhearted, hopeful Advent in us all.
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.*
*Words: Charles Coffin, 1736;
trans. John Chandler, 1837
When I was a child, I could see angels in the clouds. The day I ran away from school, after the woman at the gas station took me home, I laid on my bed and watched them out the window. That was the day my Daddy dropped me off at kindergarten late again. The day Sister Isabel said late comers would get in serious trouble.
I waited till my Daddy had driven his car out of the school parking lot; then, instead of pulling open the heavy door and going inside, I turned around and walked away.
I walked my five year old self across the busy intersection. Rush hour traffic. I walked as far as the culvert leading down to the river. The one the bridge crossed over, the one where my brother sat on the floor board in the back seat and squeezed his eyes closed every time daddy drove across. That one. I sat in the tall grass, and thought to myself: where should I go now? I’m stuck. A little thread of panic made my heart jump, and for a minute I thought I might cry.
I looked over my shoulder at the Phillips Sixty Six station on the corner. There were people there, so I got up and made my way toward them. My legs were itchy from the grass, and I was getting sweaty. I tried to unbutton my coat, but I couldn’t make my fingers work right.
I stepped onto the concrete and saw a lady with a little girl sitting in their car. The filling station guy was checking her oil. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but I thought a little girl’s Mama might be okay.
I wandered closer, stopped a little ways from the car, and stared. The woman was paying the gas station man when she saw me. She sat there for a minute, then she and her little girl got out of the car and came over to me. She said,
“Honey where’s your Mama?”
“At home,” I whispered.
“Do you know your address?”
“I don’t think that’s an address. Is that your phone number?” I was confused; I knew it was something, I just wasn’t sure what. I dropped my head, looked up at her under my eyelashes, and sucked my finger.
She must have decided she couldn’t leave me there, so she put me in the car with her little girl. I remember thinking she smelled like flowers. Her little girl had curly hair and dimples. Her bonnet matched her coat.
She gave us each a stick of Wrigleys Spearmint, and when we got to her house the lady called my mother at 22336. She wrote down my address, then she and her little girl carried me home.
When we got there my mother thanked the woman profusely, but once the door was closed behind them, she was furious. We were Catholics, and that woman was the wife of a Protestant preacher, how could I have embarrassed her like that? She frowned, held her hand under my chin, and made me spit my gum out.
It was Mama’s laundry day; she stripped off my clothes down to my undershirt, painties, and socks. She told me to go get on my bed and stay there. The sheets were being washed, so I laid down on the mattress pad and scooched over to look out the window. That’s when I saw them. The angels. I’d seen them before. But today, more than ever, I was glad they were there. And given the adventure I’d just been through, it seems pretty clear they’d been with me all along.