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The Cardinal is Singing

(Written long-hand in Maine on April 14, 2012)

The realization that life can be lived at different levels, including some that cannot be described in words, offers an entry into wonderful and mysterious perceptions.  Roderick MacIver, Heron Dance

The Cardinal is singing again as I sit on my friend Muriel’s deck in coastal Maine.  From his perch above me in a backyard tree, he’s singing his heart out on this warm April morning, singing with everything he has in a high-pitched fever of clear pure notes.  And I think of my mother who delighted in cardinals and their springtime songs.  I think of my mother often.

She comes to me in flashes of memory, often placed at the cottage where she was happiest, where she mothered us when we were kids and lived out the last thirty years of her body-life.  I think of her with a sunburned nose, dressed in shorts and that shell we all begged her to wear – shells, that’s what we called sleeveless shirts in the sixties.  This one had a cream-colored background and an overall floral design and two of the large mod flowers were perfectly-placed, one blossoming on each of her ample breasts, and it was a while before she or anyone else noticed, but, after that, she couldn’t wear it without all of us breaking out into glorious snort-filled laughter.  I think of her, sometimes as the old less mobile version of mother, how, in the past few years, on my many visits east, I would follow this hunched-over-her-walker mother into her bedroom each night, how I’d watch her as she lifted off her bathrobe, hung it over the bedpost, then plopped down on her mattress with an exhausted relieved sigh, how I’d tuck her in and turn off her light and wait by her door for the stretched-out song-filled, many-syllabled, “Good night!”

I think of my mother in these flashbacks that are detailed and matter-based, my earthbound, earthy mother, and I have enough of these memories to savor and write about until my last pen-scrawl across the page.  And I celebrate these memories, these versions of mother, and, as I sit here on my friend Muriel’s deck in Bath, a town filled with my childhood, a river of these memories comes flooding in.  And then, there it is again, the cardinal still singing in this moment, calling me back, to the sunshine, to the greening grass, to the leaves just beginning to burst, to the here and the now, the cardinal still singing as if he’s leading the Saturday morning bird choir of Bath.

When I was a girl, my mother was the choir of our small Swedenborgian congregation.  On Sunday mornings, we met at our Greek-revival-style church just a few blocks from here on Middle Street.  My mother perched above us in the balcony with her friend, Jane Stevens, who played the organ, and she belted out those hymns, unbridled, in her clear soprano trill and we in our pews below her followed along as best we could.  And many years later after my mother had the stroke, the big one in her late seventies, she lost it, her clear soprano notes, and although this was a loss for a mother who loved her music, it didn’t stop her from singing with her peep peep peep.

I haven’t felt the loss of my mother these past few months since her passing in early February – really I haven’t – because she hasn’t seemed lost to me.  I feel her presence all the time.  During the week in March of melting snow and temperatures that rose to mid-summer highs, each day, I drove twenty miles north of my home in Ishpeming to the elevated ground to seek out the last of the skiing, and as I was navigating the bumps on the gravel road one steaming hot afternoon, almost at my destination, I thought of my mother who loves an adventure and loves the drama of weather, how I would have called her if she was alive, right then and there, and given her a report.  And as I was thinking this, in that very moment, the exact moment, I noticed something on the road in front of me, something big, something moving.  And then as I drove closer, it spread its wide wings and lifted itself up.  Right there in front of me.  It was an eagle!  And as I parked the car, it flew into a white pine beside the road and waited.  It sat there and waited in that tree while I slipped into my boots.  It sat there as I watched it.  It sat there watching me as I opened the car door, until I snapped myself into my skis, and, then, it once again spread its wings and lifted off, circling and circling higher and higher until it disappeared into the blue.

I’m telling you, things like this happen all the time.  I feel my mother’s presence not just in memory, but also in the air I breathe, in the moment, in the here and the now, and the strange thing is – I don’t have the language to describe it.  I can’t say she’s wearing that funny floral shell from my childhood days or that berry-colored sweater that she draped over her shoulders this past autumn.  I can’t say she’s forty and my brother is an infant or that she’s fifty-nine and I’m about to get married or that she’s ninety-two and we’re sitting in the white plastic chairs on her deck.  I can’t say I’m listening to her breath or smelling her powdery musky mother smell.  Like my mother, the one that I used to know before her passing, I’m a girl of matter.  I love describing the world through my senses, and now it is with my sixth sense that I am present with my mother.

On Easter night, after Cam had fallen asleep, I noticed the sketch pad lying on my creativity room floor, an old pad of quality paper that had been my mother’s, one that I think she gave me when I was building Joy Center or maybe one that I took from the cottage before we sold it this past summer.  I can’t remember when I received it, but I’ve been saving it as a treasure.  She had pasteled irises on one page, sketched a coastal scene on the next.  And the rest of the book was blank, ready for me, her daughter, to fill it in.  On this particular evening, however, it was the cover, water-worn and faded, that called to me.  I had the urge to wrap it in a collage of images that I had been saving in a box.  First, I glued on a delicate-winged fairy, one that delighted me, and was surprised when it didn’t feel right.  I love that fairy, but instead my hand gravitated to watercolors I’d torn from a Heron Dance Journal, ones that my mother had loved, a hawk, a heron, a silhouette of two people in a canoe at dusk.  I wasn’t just pulled to images that my mother would have liked.  It was more visceral than that.  It was as though my mother was with me, right there, playing along, choosing images, placing and gluing them onto the page through my very hands.  It was exhilarating creating like this on Easter night with a mother who is very much not lost.  And I love the cover that we created together.

So I can’t describe what my mother is wearing anymore.  I can’t paint a picture of her in the concrete ways that come easy to me, but she’s here, very much present.  And this morning, this sunny April morning, she’s truly leading the congregation from some perch above me, singing out in a gloriously clear pre-stroke cardinal voice.

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