“I’m taking Mom on picnic.” I said to my husband, Mark, who wiped his eyes and blinked at the clock.
It was six a.m. on the Fourth of July.
“But I need your help,” I pleaded to him, plagued by a duty I couldn’t shirk.
Mark mumbled and rolled over until our fluffy dog whacked his tail around in his crate.
I had stopped escorting my mother out of her care home. On a previous escapade, our antics resembled an Abbott and Costello routine as I revolved Mom’s 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 stared at me with her watery eyes graying around the edges like the soft hair around her temples then fought back with her typical line of questioning. What car? This car? Why way? This way? Which way is this?
Now, with my husband, Mark, and our daughter, Shannon, I drove Mom from her care home to a nearby community park. Like a tugboat, Mark and I escorted Mom out of the car and along a cracked asphalt path toward a picnic shelter with a roof drooping along the shady side. We were the only park guests other than a teenager who clutched a bulky picnic basket waiting for a dining companion.
As we approached the lineup of picnic tables, I harkened back to my mother’s Fourth of July cookouts.
When my mother insisted on eating outside no matter the humidity, we groaned. Soon, Aunt Joan arrived with baked beans and my siblings and I groaned again. Mom would grill my father about his barbecuing techniques, which always resulted in an added charcoal flavor to the meats and additional wait time. The kids were excused from a table blanketed in gold-checked cloths and instructed to play until called.
Mom’s meals always populated an extra picnic table with a buffet large enough to feed a team of twelve-year-olds. She topped off the spread with traditional angel food cake, frosted with Cool Whip and dotted with blueberries and strawberries to honor the stars and stripes—and her marriage.
Yes, my parent’s wedding anniversary fell on the Fourth of July. Legend had it, my father’s family shoe store closed during the holiday which made the date perfect for a marriage ceremony. As a youngster, I never recognized the Fourth of July as a special day for my parents. Their anniversary was overshadowed by the country’s birthday, neighborhood bike parades, never-ending softball games, and Italian sausage with fennel seeds cooked to a crisp.
As they aged, my parents celebrated by driving the winding road along Lake Erie to buy an ice cream cone at Toft’s Parlor. My mother loved to park with the car’s nose pointed toward the lake. Though Mom couldn’t swim, she was soothed by the endless waves of blue.
Before we sat down to our meager picnic, Shannon wiped the morning dew off 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 chocolate chip cookies, and Mom’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Mom singled out the chocolate-chip cookie first, and by habit, picked at whatever food item I deposited on my plate.
I regaled Shannon and Mark with stories about my hometown’s International Festival and parade where my siblings and I ate pierogies, baklava, and stromboli, all in the course of an hour. One year, my older sister, Laura, was crowned Italian Princess, and soon after, Ms. Congeniality.
Mark chewed through his allotted cookie. “How come you didn’t enter?”
I narrowed my gaze. “Who wants to compete with Miss Congeniality?” Besides, I was as far from a princess as any DC Comic character.
Mom nodded along as she consumed her second cookie and crushed the last cherry in her mouth. Her chin, splotched with cherry stain, dropped near the edge of the table and her elbows slipped off the glossy wood paint.
It was time to go.
We reversed course and 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 pointed to the birds and her voice rose. “Well, on there is something.” I would confirm there was not one, but three cardinals, and noted the addition of a yellow finch.
Mom relished in the lack of activity and stroked my arm. She embraced the summer days not for the rays but because she could touch skin. She slid her fingers up and down my legs, an act which might appear odd to an outsider. But Mom was only admiring the brown skin of her youth.
In five years’ time, I had loved my parents differently. Mom was alive and her breath lived in me. But there was some inexplicable tie that had nothing to do with mothering or daughtering because neither of us had accomplished much in those roles our last five years together, though we hadn’t lacked in trying.
I disengaged my fingers from the ageless beauty in front of me. But Mom grasped my tan arms as if she could feel the warm kisses the sun once planted on 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 a while. I didn’t care. Mom and I had shuffled along too many corridors together for me to rush our goodbyes.
In a flash, I became a conduit for a presence I could not name. The Fourth of July burst through me and filled the moment with fireworks neither Mom nor I could see. But we felt them.
Yeah, we felt them.