Thursday, March 16, 2006

you are my sunshine

My youngest son thought it strange to see his mother stopped in her tracks outside the produce section of the local market, near the bananas, staring at little stuffed bears and unicorns and dogs and rabbits, pressing the stuffed animals' stomachs, listening to the tiny digital music. "Go now, let's go," he said, tugging me towards the checkstand.

"Your grandma used to sing that," I said. But Gabe could care less, and even if he'd liked the song, or had some emotional connection to it, he has better musical taste.

We went to the checkstand, detouring for a chocolate bar and a bunch of roses--cream colored roses with pink and coral edges. No, they weren't in the budget, but I was still enthralled by my mother's song, and remembering one of her frequent homilies: Always Leave Room In Your Life For Beautiful Unexpected Things.

Yes, thanks mom.

My mother was born on the same day, in the same year, as Marilyn Monroe. Like Marilyn she was ravishing, and given to pleasing those she loved. The youngest child and only daughter in her family, she was coddled and loved and admired. I grew up with stories of her mother, whom I never met, the daring and talented and lovely woman who'd come on her own from Finland to the States, who died not long before my conception, who never met my father.

My conception hurried the marriage. And possibly my mother's grief hurried the conception; I don't know. I do know my mother dressed in black for most of my childhood, a stylish black that set off her pale hair and brilliant eyes and red, red lips very well. She smelled of Tigress perfume, cigarettes, and sweet cosmetics. And at night, on good nights, she'd come to tuck me in and sing to me: you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...

For years I thought she'd made the song up herself, my beautiful mother who could do anything. It is amongst my earliest memories, those memories that predate the birth of my first brother when I was 3.

I learned a great deal from my mother about persistance and flexibility. We moved constantly, since my father was in the military, but wherever we went it was my mother's flair that made the temporary housing of the moment into a home. She planted and left dozens and dozens of gardens, made and left dozens of friends.

When I was ten she was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to her brain and told she had six months to live. I remember her crying and poring out her fears before her first operation. I remember most of all how helpless I felt, how incapable of keeping a household together, of caring for my brothers--by now there was another, almost two years old. It was then I had some of the more intense hallucinatory experiences of my life--perhaps my frightened spirit making up magic for comforting; perhaps, who knows, a gift of the universe.

I took it as a gift, this reassuring and splendid figure, crowned with roses, smiling so beautifully as I prayed and waited for my dad to return from the hospital.

My mother taught me stubbornness. She surprised her doctors, and survived. They told her her lovely face would be paralyzed. She sought out physical therapy and proved them wrong.

Over the years she'd survive three bouts of cancer, finally being defeated by the fourth, fighting till the end. My brothers were with her in that distant hospital. My flight got me there well after her death--but not too late; in fact I was just in time. Having been with my father through his dying, this six months later it was good that my brothers--who had felt shut out then--had their time. My heart was with my mother always; there was nothing to settle, nothing we needed to tell each other in last whispers as the machines shut down.

In one of our last conversations I spoke to her about her grandchildren, about various political and community efforts. It was hard for her to talk then, physically difficult. But she rallied enough over the phone to sternly say "Your children are fine, but for you the important thing is that you are a poet. Don't ever forget that."

From my mother, who in our turbulent times, my teen years, had shouted "I gave up my art for you kids and what thanks do I get?" (to which I had meanly replied "I didn't ask to be born, you know") it was a characteristic reminder. It made me smile. I found many of my poems carefully tucked in one of her drawers, and a draft of a letter to a friend in which she crowed over a prize I'd won one year.

Oh, and the naked polaroid photos! I quickly hid those from my dear born-again Christian brothers. They would never have understood mother's wild side.

I think it was that wildness I loved best in her, and which I continue to cherish. But that song, that sense of a world that was right, everything tucked in.

It's a sad song, you know: the other night dear/as I lay sleeping/I dreamt I held you /in my arms...but then I woke, dear/I was mistaken...

please don't take your sunshine away.

To my three year old mind it was a song of great peace. For some reason I called it the bird song--"please, sing the bird song again". It hasn't a bird in it, except in my memories, in which there is a fountain, and sunlight, and lovely birds flying round in a peaceful world.

12 Comments:

Blogger marlyat2 said...

That was lovely--it reminded me of Eliot's Dorothea:

"Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done...

"For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventional life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

"Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

And I like how the song, somehow, has a bird of peace hidden inside. Stories often have something additional in them--something extra that crept in, or else is a shadow of something excised.

Your visionary side is very interesting. Is this the Rosa Mundi? Mary in flowers?

2:13 PM, March 17, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

I would not have made the connection to Dorothea, but it is an apt one.

I was a sternly schooled Lutheran child at the time of my rose crowned, beautiful woman. My Sunday school teacher hated Catholics and warned us that the Papists worshipped a woman.
To me this was an interesting and dazzling clue--I read my encycopedia with care, searching for rose-related saints, and for versions of Mary--but could never quite decide. I simply accepted the comfort, and the beauty, with gratitude.

3:35 PM, March 17, 2006  
Blogger Kimia said...

Dear Jarvenpa,
It is so sad to lose a parent but I wanted to say that they are those who are always with us. We carry pieces of their characteristics; their words are in our ears; their songs are unforgetable. I touched your story; I have kind of the same feeling for my grand mother.
I wish you a healthy life hundred years with your children :)

4:56 PM, March 17, 2006  
Blogger ardvisura said...

J'aime lire ton blog.C'est toujours avec plaisir.merci.

8:58 PM, March 18, 2006  
Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

You paint your mother in such a beautiful light; wild, loving, and determined. It sounds as if just as much of her beauty came from within as from her outer self. I am certain that your mother was, and still is, very proud of you. After all, I do seem to see a few similarities... And I do hope the roses brought you great joy.

1:16 PM, March 19, 2006  
Blogger joy said...

Love it jarvenpa: I'm collecting excerpts of beautiful stories and stories of beauty, wherever in the world I can find them and I put the beginning part of your story on my blog with links back to your blog. If you object to this, I'll remove them. But, I found it compelling as there's just not enough beauty in our world. Thanks for considering it. Sincerely, FrenchIndian

6:36 AM, March 20, 2006  
Blogger Nyx said...

oh Jarvenpa, I loved this one. Made me think of my mother who never really is present, even though very much alive.

2:04 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger David said...

It sounds like your mother was an extraordinary woman! I think that there is much of her in you. :)

10:26 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Kimia, thank you dear. and ardvisura, merci beaucoup; livewire, the roses are just now fading--yes, the wildness is to be cherished/ frenchindian--sure, you can link and copy to your heart's delight. I like your website--like a gathering of flowers
nyx--I am reading more about your Persian new year celebrations and am amazed at how similar they are to our Easter. May your mother live long.
David (okay, come on, new post David!!)--I hope I got some of my mother's spirit; my daughter has always reminded me a lot of her (they were instantly bonded, but grandkids/grandmothers are like that)

3:04 PM, March 24, 2006  
Blogger jac said...

You had a lovely Mom and that piece about her is the best gift you can give to her.

Congrats.

11:58 AM, April 13, 2006  
Blogger a dracul said...

must eat meat soon.

reminds me of Catullus, young people who read him like him because he speaks from his heart about passion, and old people who read him say but he is sophisticated well read classical poet and everything he writes is built from foundation to rooftop on literary allusions

your response to the Dorothea, was that George Eliot, overegged the historical allusions and that's impressive before Google, and you say oh that's a new and one word apt

you are my sunshine i have always felt to be a tacky song, schmalzy, saccharine, sickly. But it really depends what you do with it.

it's not the song it's you, you are a vitki surrounded by literary magicians, ordinarily i'd find that a bore, no doubt my own foible, but you don't hide behind the magick, you don't need to. i do hope there is more you are beginning to sound interesting (yeah i stole that line too end of Under of the Frog)

the leading expert on the madonna in art is Gesa Thiessen think she is based in KMI Dublin, she is a Lutheran minister, i am a little bit in love with her so maybe it's not relevant.

5:45 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger a dracul said...

not sure if i made any sense but don't mind me i am lurking loudly

5:46 AM, April 14, 2006  

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