but what if mom is, well, dead?


How do you celebrate Mother’s Day when the guest of honor is conspicuously absent? What if she’s been gone from the scene or the seen, for a full 30 years?

What exactly is the right way to get your arms around such a Mom?

That was the question my sisters and I posed as we marked both Mother’s Day and the 30th anniversary of Blanche’s transition from a pixie in jeans and gray hair, to the woman who appears in our dreams.

That’s a long time, no see – a long time to be absolutely, completely, undeniably absent.  

But was she?

“Mom, are you there?” teased my sister Shara. “Come on Mom, give us a sign, you can do it.”

As we leafed through her papers while huddled in my living room in the rain, surrounded by a ring of candles, wrapped in blankets and sipping hot tea -- this, above all, was what we wanted to know.

Was she watching over us while we were wondering about her?

We listened for something, anything.  Nothing.

We proceeded with the next best thing -- scanning her photos on a day devoted to the one responsible for the likes of us: Caryl the oldest, Shara the youngest, me sandwiched in the middle.

We were having a Mom-fest.

There she was -- Mom eating cantaloupe in a pink bathrobe, her cheeks as ripe as the fruit. Mom in a pale blue bathing suit, winking. Mom in a purple striped shirt, hugging Shara and me on either side. Mom, Dad, Caryl and me at the Jersey shore, acting silly. Mom skinny, Mom chubby, Mom as a baby, Mom first married, Mom right before she died of heart disease at 57.  

“Look how cute you still were,” exclaimed Caryl, to the Mom who wasn’t there.   

We recalled Mom darning socks by the TV, Mom making steak sandwiches heavy with fried onions, Mom drawing paper dolls that had strangely square hands and feet, Mom refinishing old wood furniture, way before distressed was in.

We sat around the big coffee table Mom sanded and stained decades ago.   

 “Mom?” I said, peering upward. “Remember the time I was sick and far away and you, above anyone else, figured out what was wrong way before the Internet could make it easy? “

“And remember Mom the time I surprised you, knocking on your door when you hadn’t seen me for nearly a year. You acted like you’d won the lottery. I felt sainted, immortal.”

“And remember Mom how you pulled the hair back off my face because you wanted to see as much of me as you possibly could?”

“Can you hear me Mom?” I implored. We opened our eyes and ears for a sign.

The flicker of a candle, a clap of thunder, a bird singing, a dog’s bark, a plate falling off the table.

The heater revved up. “That’s it,” screamed Shara. “Mom’s starting the heater.”

We would take anything.

We opened her handwritten will after so many years and skimmed the details -- who gets the painting of the half-naked senorita, who gets her self-portrait in plaster now staring from my bookshelf, where the bank accounts were, how she would be cremated.

“Come on Mom,” Caryl pleaded, “You can do it.”

She had given us signs before. Like after she died, when a cat showed up at our shiva house, a cat no one had seen before or after. Like when a bird, we swore, materialized from the ashes we tossed over the Schuylkill River. Both were gray, both adorned with Mom hair. 

We read again, for the first time in three decades, these words in her flowing hand, “I have to leave you with one last bit of guilt . . . “

She went on: “My most important and final wish and hope is that the three of you continue to maintain contact and concern for each other no matter how many miles or lifestyles separate you. If you don’t keep a sense of family among you then most of my time on earth will be wasted.”

“See you are here,” I laughed, knowing Moms everywhere give their kids this guilt, but not every Mom gets her wish.

We looked at each other. We couldn’t deny that parts of Mom -- no flicker, no thunder -- were perched at her coffee table, staring at her self-portrait, sitting right there.     

The three of us were together. We were the sign.

May 11, 2014

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