Maybe because it was the Fourth of July. Tears streamed down my face as I attempted to disengage from the ageless beauty in front of me. But Mom grasped my tan arms, as if she could feel the warmth that once emanated from off my skin.
Five days earlier, I had stopped to visit Mom, nagging her until she rose to walk outside and sit in the courtyard on a billowy summer day. I queued up all her music, cut and filed her nails and plucked a few chin hairs, at least the ones she would allow me to pluck, until she swatted my hands away. And, I watched the clock.
My husband and I were traveling to Chicago to see Hamilton and attend a friend’s daughter’s wedding. The list of to-do’s back home couldn’t wait. I needed to finish the laundry before heading off to the FC Cincinnati vs. MLS Chicago Fire match that night. I didn’t want to be soaping and spinning past midnight.
So, I did the one thing I abhorred. I left Mom in a hurry, as if everything else in my life were more important than that moment.
Fast-forward to the Fourth of July.
“I want to take Mom on picnic,” I said to Mark. “But I need help.”
I had stopped taking her out as frequently as promised or used to when she was more lucid but would forget, but was as least lucid enough to understand. On a previous outing, our antics resembled an Abbott and Costello routine as I tried to revolve her body into a seated position once again. Our arms tangled as I held her at the waist while simultaneously lifting her leg into the seat well. “What car? This car? Why way? This way? Which way is this?” Valid point. Score one for Mom.
Mark, our daughter, Shannon, and I drove Mom out to nearby Champlain Park, a small Deer Park community park. Thanks to Shannon’s GPS guidance, she instructed us towards a separate entrance that would not require Mom to step over railroad tracks amidst mountains of gravel.
Mark and I tugged Mom up a cracked asphalt path to where we could sit beneath the picnic shelter. We were the only park guests for some time, other than the teenager holding a picnic basket, waiting impatiently for a girlfriend finally dropped off by a parent.
Approaching the long lines of picnic tables, I harkened back to my mother’s Fourth of July cookouts, where we lamented the presence of Aunt Joan’s baked beans, my mother’s insistence of eating outside no matter the humidity and her constant inquisition into my father’s grilling, uh, techniques. Mom had always spread the gold-checked cloth across freshly-painted tables and cooked enough to feed a team of twelve-year-olds. She had topped off the meal with her angel food cake and Cool Whip American flag, complete with blueberries and strawberries honoring the stars and stripes.
Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary fell on the Fourth of July. Legend has it the shoe store was closed and the holiday made the fourth the perfect day for a marriage ceremony. As a youngster or teen, I had difficult recognizing the Fourth of July as a special holiday for them. Their anniversary was overshadowed by the country’s birthday, by neighborhood bike parades, long ball games and burnt Italian sausage, and by viewing of the Wimbledon matches, coupled with a few tennis matches with siblings.
Over the years, they celebrated in their own style, or probably just drove along the lake to get an ice cream cone at Toft’s Dairy Ice Cream Parlor. My mother loved to look at the lake. Though always afraid of immersing herself in the water because she couldn’t swim, she was certainly soothed by endless wave of blue.
Shannon wiped the table with the only tool at our disposal, disposable wipes from Mom’s supplies. The air was now scented with baby powder and not fresh-cut grass. We unpacked slices of cucumbers, bags of Bing cherries and Mom’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was only one sandwich because I had run out of jam.
Mom successfully ate a peanut butter cookie first and picked at whatever food item was on my plate, which I had strategically planned for by pitting cherries in advance, splitting them in half and placing them on the side of my plate closest to Mom’s fingers.
I regaled Shannon and Mark with stories about Lorain’s International Festival and Parade. How we used to eat pierogies, baklava, stromboli, all in the course of an hour. One year, my oldest sister, Laura, had been named an Italian princess as part of the festival, and soon after, Ms. Congeniality.
“How come you didn’t enter?” Mark asked.
“Who wants to compete with Miss Congeniality?” Besides, I was as far from a princess as any DC Comic character.
After consuming her second cookie and the last cherry, Mom’s head began to droop. She was bored. She nearly feel asleep on the picnic table as her chin dropped close to the edge and her elbows slipped off the glossy wood paint.
It was time to return Mom to her nest.
Settling her into an armchair with a tufted cushion in a cozy corner in the sunroom, I tried to leave but the tears kept me rooted as if they were essential to watering that family tree.
Mom and I had been together for five years. Five years without Dad. In that timespan, Mom and I had grown together in the way a married couple grew together, except that I returned to the outside world and she was left with her inner one.
I finished her sentences by tone and not knowledge. For instance, if we are seated outside, within the vicinity of the bird feeder, and there are dozens of wings flapping around, Mom indicates the bird in the feeder and her voice rises. “Well, on there is something.” “Yes, Mom, there’s the cardinal, there’s one, two, three chickadees (she likes that word), and a yellow finch.”
When Mom wants to sit in solitude, she strokes my arm. She embraces summer, not just for the rays, but because she can feel skin. She runs her fingers up and down my legs, which yes, it’s rather strange, until you know Mom is admiring the brown skin of her youth. We hug, and our cheeks rub up against one another and, after her shower and a few swaths of Oil of Olay, her skin is more supple than mine. Some days, she will reach for my arm and push the sleeve of a sweater or sweatshirt up to my elbow, so she can touch skin to skin.
In five year’s time, I was no more patient now than I had been then, but I was wiser. I took my cues from her. Oh how hard that was for a Januzzi woman to take her cue from another Januzzi woman.
While I had been in Chicago for the long weekend, I missed Mom terribly. It was odd the ways in which I loved my parents differently, and how I carried Mom in my heart. Because she was still alive, her life force still lived in me.
Dare I say, I felt something akin to marriage to this woman. But it was something more, some inexplicable tie that had nothing to do with relationships or mothering or daughtering. To be honest, neither of us had accomplished much in those roles our last five years, though we hadn’t lacked in trying.
I straightened up and cradled Mom’s head as she leaned into my soft tank dress and wove her fingers through mine. My husband waited behind me, my daughter in the car. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to ruin this goodbye. We had shuffled along too many miles together for me to rush this time.
In that flash, I became a conduit for a presence I could only attribute to Dad, and the Fourth of July burst forth through me, filled with fireworks neither Mom nor I could see. But we felt them. Oh, yeah, we felt them.