|June 6, 2006|
The Long Journey and the Stick of Gum
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
We interrupt the latest news of the world's fresh disasters to talk about my mother. This just in:
The death of a loved one, the Torah tells us, is a time, "when the heart mourns for what it has lost, but the soul rejoices for what it has found." At the risk of incurring heavenly wrath by rewriting scripture, I'd add that it's also the time when memory recalls and celebrates what it has known.
Had my mother, Amanda Frances Forrester Winship, not been swept away to frigid upstate New York from the sun, heat and farmland of Taylors Valley, Texas, things might have been very different. I suspect that within this full-time mother and wife, and -- after my father died -- school secretary and assistant librarian, there lurked not only the heart of a cowgirl but a professional, criminal art forger.
She had a gift. She could draw with enormous panache and copy perfectly just about anything, whether it was an oil portrait of Lincoln or a Snoopy cartoon. Many a school book report and class project were enhanced by her fancy brushwork.
Her imagination was in particular blossom at holiday time. She was the exact opposite of the story of the parent who goes outside on Christmas Eve, fires off a shotgun and tells the kids that Santa Claus committed suicide. One year, when we kids seemed dubious of Santa's existence, early Christmas morning, sooty bootprints appeared on our fireplace hearth. Proof positive. And when, in standard upstate fashion, a foot and a half of snow fell on Easter, enormous bunny footprints popped up in the drifts, right to our back door.
Another year, on the first day of spring, she knew our anticipation of sudden sunshine and birdsong would be disappointed by the gray slush and frigid temperatures of a typical western New York March 21st. So, when we arrived at the breakfast table, we discovered that bright, construction paper spring flowers had blossomed at the base of all the kitchen windows.
Needless to say, Halloweens were big in her repertoire, too. Her Speedy Alka Seltzer was a triumph of costume design. But her creativity was not limited to the visual arts. Last week, while going through the drawers and cabinets of our house, we found letters and notes that demonstrated her knack for the skewed written word, a flair that was cultivated by a love of books and theater first inculcated by her Aunt Pat in Texas.
Pat took Mom to the theater in Dallas, where she saw the Lunts, Helen Hayes and various other American drama legends. One summer, we kids sat with Mom around the dining room table and read aloud some of the great comedies she had seen on stage -- "Private Lives" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner," among others.
Thus, even as she approached death, I think she would have seen the humor of the line that irreverently popped into my head from Oscar Wilde's play "The Importance of Being Earnest," when Lady Bracknell admonishes Jack Worthing: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." At 84, leaving her adult and quite self-sufficient children official orphans, she died almost exactly 35 years after our father; 35 years in which she pulled herself from the series of tragedies that led to his death and, with determination and practicality, built a whole new life.
In the same play, Oscar Wilde famously opines, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." Off-base, at least as far as Amanda Frances was concerned. For she passed on to her daughter and three sons the best of her creativity, her wit, sense of fun, and yes, the sarcasm that sometimes cuts a bit too close to the bone.
She passed on her love of words and capable scribes. As she laid in her hospital bed these last few weeks, I thought of another Irish man of letters, William Butler Yeats, and his poem, "Upon a Dying Lady." He wrote, "She would not have us sad because she is lying there, and when she meets our gaze her eyes are laughter-lit, her speech a wicked tale that we may vie with her, matching our broken-hearted wit against her wit..."
Her wit was fading fast, but it was there. If prompted, she could fill in the blanks of old songs and doggerel that used to make the family laugh. And when my sister told her at the end of each visit, "I love you," she replied, on one occasion, "Thank God for that," but on another, "You'd better!"
In her final days, I think the beloved Texas from which she came was much on her mind, too. "I could go back to Texas," she once wrote. "But when they hear I've been in New York, they ask me to break dance."
The last time I saw her, my sister Patricia and I accidentally startled her from her sleep. She said she had dreamed she was on a long journey. Then she said she was afraid and Tricia and I said it was okay; we were there. And then she asked, "Have you got any gum?"
It seemed to me the perfect Amanda Frances blend of metaphor and the down to earth; the long journey and the stick of gum. I thought of a play and movie the Texas writer Horton Foote created, called "The Trip to Bountiful." It's the story of an aging lady, Mrs. Carrie Watts, living with her son and daughter-in-law in Houston.
All Mrs. Watts wants to do before she dies is return one more time to the little Texas town in which she grew up, a place called Bountiful, very much like Taylors Valley and Belton, Texas, where our mother grew up. One day, Mrs. Watts runs away with her government pension check and tries to take the train back to Bountiful. But the railroad doesn't go there anymore and the bus only goes as far as one town over. Nevertheless, through the kindness of strangers, she completes her journey, although Bountiful's now a ghost town. Her son arrives and they sit on the edge of the porch of her abandoned childhood home.
"Pretty soon, all this will be gone," she says. "Twenty years, ten, this house, me, you... But the river will still be here. The fields, the trees. I always got my strength from that. Not from houses, not from people. It's so quiet. So eternally quiet. I'd forgotten the peace and quiet. Do you remember how my papa always had that field over there planted in cotton? You see, it's all woods now. But I expect someday people will come and cut down the trees and plant the cotton and maybe even wear out the land again and then their children will sell it and move to the cities and trees will come up again. We're part of all that. We left it, but we can never lose what it's given us."
Our mother left but never lost what her Texas childhood gave her, much of which, thank God, she shared and passed on to her children and grandchildren, her family and friends. Now she has returned, the long journey at an end. Yellow Rose, flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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