Maybe because it was the Fourth of July and the holiday reminded me of my parents.
“I’m taking Mom on picnic.” I had said to my husband, Mark, who wiped his eyes and blinked at the clock.
It was six a.m. on the Fourth of July. I wasn’t envisioning red-checked cloths or fireworks. Instead, I was plagued by a feeling I couldn’t name.
“I need your help. But I’m not thinking red-checkered cloths or fireworks.” Instead, I was plagued by a feeling I couldn’t name.
Mark mumbled something and rolled over until the fluffy dog whacked his tail around in his crate.
I had stopped taking my mother out of her care home. On a previous escapade, our antics resembled an Abbott and Costello routine as I revolved her body into a seated position in the car. Our arms in a tangle, I held her at the waist while lifting her leg into the seat well.
Mom fought back. “What car? This car? Why way? This way? Which way is this?” She looked at me with watery eyes graying around the edges like her temples.
Now, with my husband, Mark, and our daughter, Shannon, I drove Mom to a nearby community park. GPS guidance instructed me how to access an entrance that would not require Mom to straddle across railroad tracks amidst mountains of gravel.
Mark and I tugged Mom along a cracked asphalt path toward a picnic shelter with a roof drooping on the shady side and morning dew creeping down poles closest to the sun. We were the only park guests other than a teenager clutching a bulky picnic basket waiting for a dining companion.
We approached the long lines of picnic tables and I harkened back to my mother’s Fourth of July cookouts. When Aunt Joan arrived with baked beans, my siblings and I groaned. When my mother insisted on eating outside no matter the humidity, we groaned again. When Mom questioned my father’s grilling techniques, we excused ourselves from the table blanketed in gold-checked cloth and waited to be called later. Her meals populated an entire extra picnic table with a spread large enough to feed a team of twelve-year-olds. She topped off the meal with traditional angel food, frosted with Cool Whip and dotted with blueberries and strawberries to honor the stars and stripes, and her marriage.
My parent’s wedding anniversary fell on the Fourth of July. Legend had it, the family’s shoe store closed during the holiday which made the date perfect for a marriage ceremony. As a youngster or teen, I never recognized the Fourth of July as a special holiday for my parents. Their anniversary was overshadowed by the country’s birthday, by neighborhood bike parades, never-ending softball games, and Italian sausage with crisp fennel seeds stuck in between teeth.
Over the years, my parents celebrated by driving the winding road along the lake to buy an ice cream cone at Toft’s Dairy Ice Cream Parlor. My mother loved to observed Lake Erie. Though Mom couldn’t swim, she was soothed by the endless waves of blue.
Before we sat down for our meager picnic, Shannon wiped the table with 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 cookies, and Mom’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Mom singled out the peanut butter cookie and, by habit, picked at whatever food item was deposited on my plate.
I regaled Shannon and Mark with stories about Lorain’s International Festival and Parade. My siblings and I ate pierogies, baklava, and stromboli, in the course of an hour. One year, my older sister, Laura, was crowned an Italian princess, and soon after, Ms. Congeniality.
“How come you didn’t enter?” Mark chewed through his allotted cookie.
I shrugged. “Who wants to compete with Miss Congeniality?” Besides, I was as far from a princess as any DC Comic character.
Mom consumed her second cookie and the last cherry. Her chin dropped close to the edge and her elbows slipped off the glossy wood paint.
We returned Mom to her nest.
Settling her into an armchair with a tufted cushion in a warm corner in the sunroom, I tried to leave. But tears kept me rooted as if they were essential to watering my family tree.
Mom and I had been conjoined for five years. Five years without Dad. She and I had grown together in the way a married couple grew together except I returned to the outside world and she remained in her inner one.
I could finish Mom’s sentences by tone and not knowledge. If we were seated outside within the vicinity of the bird feeder, and dozens of wings flapped around us, Mom would point to the birds. Her voice would rise. “Well, on there is something.” I would confirm there was not one, but three cardinals and note the added yellow finch.
Mom relished in the solitude and stroked my arm. She embraced summer not for the rays but because she could feel skin. She slid her fingers up and down my legs, which was rather strange. But Mom admired the brown skin of her youth. We hugged. Our cheeks rubbed up against one another. I sniffed at her scent and detected Oil of Olay. Her skin was still more supple than mine.
In five years’ time, I had loved my parents differently. Mom was alive and her life force lived in me. But it was more, some inexplicable tie that had nothing to do with relationships or mothering or daughtering because neither of us had accomplished much in those roles our last five years, though we hadn’t lacked in trying.
I disengaged my fingers from the ageless and authentic 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.
I straightened up and cradled Mom’s head as she leaned into my soft tank dress and again wove her fingers through mine. My husband and daughter stood behind me and waited. I didn’t care. Mom and I had shuffled along too many corridors together for me to rush our goodbye.
In a flash, I became a conduit for a presence I could not name. The Fourth of July burst through and filled the moment with fireworks neither Mom nor I could see. But we felt them. Yeah, we felt them.