Maybe because it was the Fourth of July.
“I want to take Mom on picnic,” I pleaded to my husband. “But I need help.”
I had stopped taking Mom out as frequently as I had promised myself. On a previous outing, our antics resembled an Abbott and Costello routine as I revolved her body into a seated position in the car. 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?”
Mark, our daughter, Shannon, and I drove Mom to nearby Champlain Park, a small community park. Thanks to my daughter, GPS guidance instructed us towards an entrance that would not require Mom to step across railroad tracks amidst mountains of gravel.
Mark and I tugged Mom up a cracked asphalt path towards a tired-looking picnic shelter. We were the only park guests for some time, other than the teenager clutching a picnic basket, waiting impatiently for a friend.
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 techniques. A gold-checked cloth was always spread across freshly-painted tables and Mom cooked enough to feed a team of twelve-year-olds. She topped off each meal with her angel food and Cool Whip American flag cake, complete with blueberries and strawberries honoring the stars and stripes.
My parent’s wedding anniversary fell on the Fourth of July. Legend has it the family’s shoe store was closed and the holiday made that date perfect for a marriage ceremony. As a youngster or teen, I never recognized 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 the viewing of Wimbledon matches, coupled with a few tennis matches with siblings.
Over the years, my parents celebrated in their own style, or just drove along the lake to buy an ice cream cone at Toft’s Dairy Ice Cream Parlor. My mother loved to view Lake Erie. Though afraid of immersing herself in the water because she couldn’t swim, Mom was soothed by the endless wave of blue.
Before we spread out our meager picnic, Shannon wiped the table with the only item 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 cookies, and Mom’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Mom singled out the peanut butter cookie and picked at whatever food item was deposited on my plate. I had strategically planned for her actions 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 an International Festival and Parade in my hometown. How my siblings and I ate pierogies, baklava, and stromboli, 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 drooped. She was bored. 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 my family tree.
Mom and I had been together for five years. Five years without Dad. In that timespan, she and I had grown together in the way a married couple grows together, except that I returned to the outside world and she remained in an inner one.
I finished her sentences by tone and not knowledge. For instance, if we were seated outside, within the vicinity of the bird feeder, and there were dozens of wings flapping around, Mom would point to the birds and her voice would rise. “Well, on there is something.” “Yes, Mom, there’s the cardinal, there’s one, two, three chickadees (she liked that word), and a yellow finch.”
When Mom relishes in the solitude, she strokes my arm. She embraces summer, not just for the rays, but because she can feel skin. She slides 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, Mom will reach push the sleeve of my sweater or sweatshirt up to my elbow, so she can touch skin to skin.
In five years’ time, I loved my parents differently. I carried Mom in my heart. Because she was alive, her life force still lived in me. 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 disengaged 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.
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 stayed in the car. I didn’t care. Mom and I had shuffled along too many miles together for me to rush our goodbye.
In that flash, I became a conduit for a presence I could not name, and the Fourth of July burst forth through and filled the moment with fireworks neither Mom nor I could see. But we felt them. Oh, yeah, we felt them.