The Setting of the Sun
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The opening pages of The Setting of the Sun (a published, copyrighted novella) –
It came to her as she sat on the edge of the bed. A poem. She would write him a poem.
It was Tuesday, the day Anne changed the bed linens. She tightly tucked the corner of a top sheet, after meticulously folding the cotton to make it secure. This was the fifth and final bed that needed her attention. With the two older boys off at college, she found that this weekly chore was now completed in less time, allowing her a more leisurely pace and more time to think.
It was early June. The day was warm and dry. Anne had opened the windows throughout the house, and the songs of the springtime birds drifted on soft breezes through each sunny room.
But the melody of the birds was not what Anne was hearing. In her mind, she was involved in a conversation she and her husband Tom had had the night before. They had talked about their twentieth anniversary, which was in just a few weeks. They had decided that they could not afford to buy each other gifts. With the boys’ tuitions, and the parochial school expenses of their four other children – little Maggie included this year for the first time – there was no extra money.
Anne found herself sitting on the side of the bed she’d just made – their bed – thinking that she still wanted to give Tom a gift. She thought of all Tom meant to her. Theirs was a rare love. Her very essence was wrapped up in the love between them. If anything happened to Tom, if he died, she could not imagine living. She felt that he was so much a part of her, that her existence – for her to be – depended on him.
Anne began to contemplate the verb “to be” – the tiny verb that defines the enormous meaning of our being. After a little time, Anne’s mind started to gather words and phrases, and to arrange them in rhythms and rhymes. She realized that she was piecing together the start of a poem, and this would be her gift to Tom.
There were times in Anne’s life when her thoughts and emotions were so entwined that writing a poem was the only way she could unravel the intricacies and express herself. Rambling prose could not convey the intensity of her thoughts and feelings.
She hurried to her desk and took out a pencil and her poetry notebook. She quickly opened to a blank page and scribbled across the top of it, “The Setting of the Sun”. Before it could leave her mind, Anne wrote the opening line – “To be, for me, is to be with you at the setting of the sun” – of a poem that would stay in her heart until the day she died.
“Why is my blue dress hanging on the closet door? Where are we going?” Anne asked as she opened her eyes to a new day.
“Mama, remember? Today’s Pa’s funeral,” Maggie replied softly as she paused at the end of her mother’s bed before crossing the room to put up a shade and let in the morning light.
Anne said vaguely, “Oh, yes,” though she didn’t quite comprehend her daughter’s answer.
Waking had become a bewildering event for the old woman. Her morning awareness did not necessarily connect to the day before. Each day was now a fragmented piece of time.
Before opening her eyes to this day, she’d lay still, in dreamy consciousness, basking in the scent of coffee. She’d remembered that Maggie was at her home, so it must be Maggie who had made the coffee. But she couldn’t explain Maggie’s presence. Then, as if on cue, her daughter had knocked softly on her bedroom door.
“Are you awake, Mama?” Maggie had said as she entered the room. And seeing her mother, not much more than a wrinkle in the blankets, her heart went tender. It was then that her mother had asked why her blue dress was hanging on the closet and where they were going, and Maggie had felt her heart break a little more while helping her mother remember that this day was when she would part forever from her one and only love, Maggie’s father, Tom.
Now, as Anne’s eyes adjusted to the open shade, the phone rang and Maggie said, “Give me a minute to get this call, Mama. Take your time getting up. It’s just seven.”
As she left the room, Maggie called over her shoulder, “We won’t leave till quarter of ten. I’ll be back to help you shower and dress.”
The old woman sat up slowly. Leaning her back against the headboard, she paused and gazed around the room she’d awakened in for seventy-five years. She did not focus on distinct things – like the double row of framed photographs of her children when they were infants, or the wooden crucifix that held a dried palm frond against the wall. Nothing on her bureau caught her attention. All that her eyes saw was a palette of familiarity.
But the presence of her blue dress hanging on the outside of the closet door continued to convey meaning to her. It told her that this day would be something out of her normal routine.
After a minute, she pushed the sheet and blanket from her legs and paused again. Easing her legs over the edge of the bed, she sat and rested, just as she’d been taught by a visiting nurse. At the moment, she couldn’t recall why she did this. But it was a habit she repeated each day.
She slid her feet into her waiting slippers and said to no one, “I’ll just sit another minute.”
She looked at the large knuckles and pattern of veins on the hands in her lap and didn’t recognize them as her own. In time, her right hand trembling, she reached for her cane. With her left hand, she pushed herself from the bed and stood. Again she paused, waiting until she felt steady, and then she began her walk to the bathroom.
This path was the only one she still tread with some confidence. Leaning gently on her cane, she slowly made her way, using her other hand to keep her balance by holding onto her bureau and then pressing the side of her hand against the stretch of wall that had a strip of wainscoting.
As often happened, the muscles of her bladder gave way before she reached the bathroom door. She stood motionless for a moment, discouraged. Despite the regularity of this event, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. But if it had to be, she thought to herself, thank God for the invention of underwear that absorbed. When she wore them, they rustled a bit with each step. But Maggie assured her no one could hear the sound.
Once in the bathroom, moving as if in a world without gravity, her frail arms and hands slowly and deliberately brushed her teeth. Then she arranged her things for her shower. She put her towel and face cloth over the edge of the tub, and draped her underwear, slip, and stockings on the towel rack.
When Maggie returned, she helped her mother into her shower chair. While she shampooed Anne’s thinning white hair, in her mind Maggie saw the faded photo of her mother, the one that always made her mother laugh and comment, “I was called ‘the raven beauty’!” As Maggie softly washed her mother’s fragile skin she saw not just her own future, but the past – as she gently bathed the arms that had cradled her as a baby, the breasts that had nursed her, and the once strong back of a woman who had weathered more heartbreak than should burden one person. The legs that powered her mother as she swam in the lake of long-ago summers, gliding effortlessly with one or two children clinging to her with glee, now had the look of malnourishment. Age had claimed her. Maggie saw in her mother her own approaching fate.
“Tell me again where we are going,” her mother said as Maggie toweled her dry.
“To Pa’s funeral, Mama,” Maggie said calmly.
Maggie’s patience with the endless repetition of questions from her mother was grounded in love. She treated every moment with her as a gift, and an occasion to give back the love that had been given by Anne to her and to so many others.
As her daughter helped her put on her clothes, finishing with the blue dress, Anne watched in the mirror. Through the frayed fringes of her old mind, her thoughts slipped into a moment lost in time, a moment scattered and dispersed, though her memory could reassemble it as if it were still real.
She saw herself as she was at fifteen – hopping up and down, the fabric of her blue dress ballooning and swaying in the breeze. She held both hands with her best friend, Annie, who likewise jumped up and down, as the two girls laughed with unrestrained delight. Oblivious to everything but their joy, they were making their way home along the street that led to their houses. Though they were not yet halfway there, the twenty-minute walk had already lasted twice that long as, with each step, they paused as they reviewed every minute of their afternoon spent with the two boys they most fancied.
The old woman smiled and said out loud to Maggie, “I loved your father from the day I first met him…”
“…on a Sunday afternoon, at the church spring picnic,” Maggie gently added. The story was one she knew by heart – not just the story of that afternoon, but the family history that led to it.
Her mother, and her mother’s best friend, Annie, had grown up in houses side-by-side in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a mill city on the Merrimack River, not far from where the river poured into the Atlantic Ocean.
It was 1913 when the two girls spent that Sunday afternoon with their future husbands at the picnic. Each girl was third-generation American, of Irish descent – their ancestors having arrived in the first wave of immigrants who came to Lawrence in the 1840s.
Lawrence was a planned city – each commercial building, each street, and all the housing had been carefully thought out. But the city planners could not have foreseen the flood of immigrants who would crowd into Lawrence – and there was simply not enough housing.
Anne and Annie’s grandparents and great-grandparents had endured the growing pains of Lawrence. Anne had told her children stories about those early days. They’d heard of the shantytowns scattered within and outside the street grid of Lawrence, where houses were primitive structures – cold, damp, and drafty with dirt or packed sawdust floors.
Living in these conditions, Anne and Annie’s earliest American relatives had survived the epidemics that claimed many lives. They rode out the turmoil of politics and the violence that came with the ethnic strife and bigotry that plagued Lawrence for the first decades of its existence.
Anne wanted her children to know that their ancestors had proven their value in the hierarchy of labor, rising in importance as each new wave of foreigners – the Canadians, the Germans, and the English – arrived in the city through the remainder of the 1800s.
The turn-of-the-century world in which the girls were raised was far different than the harsh lives of their earlier relatives. The life into which these girls had been born was wealthier and healthier, and included fair hope that life could be happy.
Born in the second-to-last year of the nineteenth century, these girls enjoyed homes that were filled with beautiful furniture and drapes, fine mirrors, oriental rugs, polished sterling accessories and fine bone china place-settings. Young immigrant women assisted the girls’ mothers with the care of their homes and the preparation of meals.
Along the stretch of Haverhill Street where the girls lived, and within the walls of their homes, they experienced a life that they knew was more privileged than the lives of many other children in the city. They saw this daily in their classrooms in grammar school, where all nationalities and economic classes were represented. And the bigotry against Catholics that plagued Lawrence for decades played out often enough as Anne and Annie walked home from school and heard the taunts, sometimes successful, to lure the Catholic Irish boys into a fight.
Now, nearly a century later, Anne sat at the breakfast table, lost in thought.
She asked Maggie, “Do you remember Annie?”
Maggie knew that the question was literal though somewhere in her mother’s mind was the knowledge that Annie had died years before Maggie was born.
Still Maggie answered, “Yes, I do.”
It was not a lie, as Maggie had heard about Annie all her life and felt she had known her.
After several quiet moments, she heard her mother muse, “I hope she’ll be there today.”
And here Maggie found herself in that frequent dilemma that had to be worked out in seconds – should she play along with her mother’s confusion or correct it? The former was easier, but done repeatedly it banished her mother to a world not connected to reality, where Anne still had the ability to reside.
So, Maggie said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Mama, Annie died long ago. She won’t be there today.”
Her mother stared at her, looking through her to the past, trying to recall the truth, while trusting that Maggie would not lie to her.
“Hmmm,” was all she said. She finished her breakfast silently.
Though she sat in silence, her mind was actively revisiting a string of memories of her friend. She loved to think of the first moment she was aware of Annie. It was their first day of first grade. Annie sat at a desk to her right, quietly sobbing. Noticing that the top button of Annie’s dress was unbuttoned at the nape of her neck, and assuming, in her five-year-old mind, that this was why the girl was crying, Anne whispered to her, “Your button is unbuttoned. I’ll fix it.”
Anne had expected that this would soothe the girl, and that Annie would stop crying. But instead, Annie lowered her head to her desk and howled out loud. Anne’s eyes went wide as she sat paralyzed by what she had caused. But the well-trained teacher came to Annie’s aid, and achieved what Anne had not been able to – to assure Annie that her baby dolls would be fine until she returned home at the end of the school day and Annie could finish the story she had been telling them before she had left for school.
As the teacher attended to Annie, she spoke kindly to both girls and said, “I need help with something. You each have the name Anne. How will you know which one I am speaking to when I call on one of you?”
The girls looked blankly at the teacher and then at each other. Helping them along, the teacher asked, “What are your middle names?”
Simultaneously, the girls said, “Elizabeth,” and then looked in astonishment at each other.
“Well, that’s a lovely coincidence, but it doesn’t help us,” the teacher said, smiling. Then she asked, “What are you called at home?”
Annie, whose eyes were now drying, said with excitement, “My brothers call me ‘Annie!’”
At this point in the story, Anne always thought of the envy she felt in that moment – Annie had brothers, while she had not one brother or sister. Then their teacher asked Annie if it would be alright if she were called Annie at school. And Annie had replied, “Oh, yes!” So, from then on, she was Annie. And from then on, for all intents and purposes, Anne had a sister.
Annie’s dark eyes were large and lively. Her face was oval and she had straight auburn hair that behaved, however she wore it. It the sunlight it looked more red than brown. Anne wished her own black hair, with its humid-weather-sensitive curl, had just a bit of Annie’s care-free attributes. Annie, for her part, envied Anne’s statuesque height and posture, and her natural athletic way. The girls’ ivory-tone cheeks easily flushed. Anne’s blue eyes could be both softly feminine and strong-willed. Her personality was kind and honest, but always forthright – and this was reflected in her eyes.
When the girls were in third grade and soon after her father had a promotion at work, Annie’s family moved into the house next door to Anne’s on a section of Haverhill Street that housed the families of men who had management positions in the mills. Anne’s father was paymaster at a mill – overseeing the disbursement of weekly wages. Annie’s father worked for the Essex Company, the city’s founding company, as an engineer who monitored the daily fluctuations in the river’s water flow as it passed through canals near the mills.
Lovely Victorian homes stretched along this area of Haverhill Street. Trees lined the sidewalk and nearly every house had a wrought-iron fence and a gate that opened to a walk leading to double front doors. The large homes were similar, although each family’s decorative taste gave the individual homes a distinctive look. The houses sat close together, all with a small patch of lawn in front. Some had a large porch and gardens in the back. At night, the warm glow of gaslight fixtures, which hung on the interior walls, softly illuminated the lace-dressed windows.
Annie was one of three children. Her parents put her in the bedroom that had a window facing Anne’s (an arrangement the girls had begged their parents for in the weeks before the move), while her older brothers shared a room on the back side of the house. With their windows facing one another, the girls’ creative minds used the space between them in clever ways that enchanted their childhood.
As Anne sat at the table finishing her breakfast this day, she thought of the sign language the two girls had invented in the first years they lived next door to each other. They’d exchange extravagant gestures from window to window, acting out their messages to one another.
Anne remembered drawing hearts and fish and birds in the winter frost on each of the panes, or a message in letters written on each pane. She could now hear in her mind the sound of their voices whispering to one another through the warm heavy air of dark summer nights.
One year, with the help of Annie’s brothers, the girls put up a connecting rope with pulleys. They sent notes to each other and shared hair combs and dolls, delivering them in sacks tied to the rope.
The girls learned of Morse code in the spring of fifth grade. The following summer they practiced and perfected it together in the cool of the public library. They used it throughout their adolescence, tapping on their window sills messages too private for anyone else to hear or to find written in a note.
When the girls were twelve, it was in Morse code that they had admitted to each other their notice of the Murphy brothers. Fortunately, they each preferred a different brother. Anne liked the older brother, Tom, while Annie liked the younger brother, Charlie.
Tom had dark hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. He was already nearly six feet tall when he and Anne met. His manner was reserved, but he exuded reliability and confidence.
Charlie was shorter and heftier than his brother. His eyes were brown and his hair red. In the summer, his skin freckled. He was outgoing. When the brothers were together, Charlie was a whirlwind of action and humor, while Tom was a quiet though amused sidekick.
The two young couples had a wide circle of friends with whom they socialized – for dances or card games. But often it was just the four of them spending an afternoon canoeing on the Merrimack or picking berries in the meadows beyond the city.
The day of the blue dress and the church picnic was the first time the boys had paid attention to the girls. By the time the girls were twenty, and the boys were twenty and twenty-one, each couple was married.
“Mama?” Maggie’s voice brought Anne out of her daydream of the past. “We’ll need to leave in 20 minutes. Let me clear your dishes. Do you want to sit in the parlor till we go?”
“Alright,” Anne heard herself answer, though she had not returned fully from her thoughts of Annie. Once she was sitting comfortably in her chair, she allowed herself to see and feel the rest of the story.
The new young wives settled into their roles of making homes. They each gave birth to boys during the second year of their marriages. With no thought of tragedy before them, the young mother’s awaited the arrival of their second children during their fifth years of marriage.
Anne’s delivery came in the spring. The birth of her daughter went smoothly. But during the summer, Annie’s delivery of her daughter proved to be more than her body could manage. A day after the birth, Annie died.
Anne became enveloped in profound sorrow. For months, she hardly spoke as she nursed the two newborns and began to raise Annie’s children alongside her own as Charlie declined into despair. Once he returned to work, he would spend the evening with his brother’s family and his own children. But he was as quiet as Anne. And he drank. Many nights he’d sleep in the chair where he’d poured his last drink. Some nights he’d stagger to his home and its devastating loneliness.
Anne’s daughter was named Elizabeth Anne. Annie’s baby was christened Katherine Anne, and she was called by her full name all her life, though Elizabeth became “Lizzy”. The girls’ earliest months of life were a blur to Anne. While her parents and Annie’s parents cared for the boys, Thomas and Charles, who were named for their fathers, she and the nanny spent night and day caring for the infant girls. Anne, worrying that her sadness was a threat to it, willed her milk to not dry up.
As Anne now sat lost in these thoughts, tears dropped to her lap, just as they had fallen on Katherine Anne all those years ago. In those days, when her tears fell, she’d pray to Annie to bless them, and in her mind her tears were as holy as the water in the fonts at the church.
Charlie lost his job when his drinking began to interfere with his work. He moved in with Anne and Tom. When he could find no steady work, he did odd jobs to help the neighbors and he maintained Tom and Anne’s house while Tom worked in the advertising office of the city’s most popular newspaper, The Lawrence Evening Tribune. Out of work and with no routine, Charlie drank more and more. Before he turned thirty-two, Charlie died of a broken heart and a body wracked by the effects of alcohol. Anne and Tom were left with full responsibility for the children.
Anne found it difficult to accept the loss of Annie and Charlie. She never spoke of their deaths, though she always spoke of them, especially Annie, as if they lived on alongside her own life. The children grew up with Annie’s presence as sure as every living person around them. Annie was like a guardian angel to them all. If one of the children had a nightmare, Anne would soothe them with, “Don’t be afraid, Annie is watching over you. No harm can come.”
All the children knew who their birth parents were, but each called Anne and Tom “Mama” and “Pa.” Yet it was as natural as can be to hear Anne say to young Charlie or Katherine Anne, “Your Mama is so proud of you,” or “Your Mama is full of love for you,” or “Your Papa’s strong arms are giving you a big hug.” They knew she was referring to their parents in heaven.
Tom never spoke of his brother or Annie. Each morning he got up and by rote he made his way, day by day, through those early years. He was as reliable as a clock. And when he came home from his workday, he greeted the children with equal affection and love.
Still, there were times when Anne would come into their bedroom at the end of the day to find Tom wiping tears from his face. His heart had been shattered by the loss of his brother and the friendship the couples had shared. Those nights, in silence, Anne would hold him and comfort him. But it was six years before their family grew – with the arrival of Jack. Three years later, Maggie was born.
Through the years, Anne never heard one expression of doubt or a complaint from Tom – though she knew that, especially through the Depression years, he lived in fear every day. It was not just the number of children relying on him. It was an awareness that two special souls lived in their midst, the two children who carried the spirit of his brother and his brother’s wife, who was Anne’s best friend. That was the only difference the parents felt about the children – and it made them feel that they could not fail Annie and Charlie.
Throughout their marriage, Anne and Tom had come to view one another as the half that completed a whole. They each knew that neither could manage caring for the children alone. When Anne saw Tom come up the front walk after his workday, she drank in the sight of him as if satisfying a thirst she’d held through the day. They would greet with a hug and would feel their bodies melt into each other, relieved that they were near each other again.
“We need to leave now, Mama.”
Maggie was kneeling by Anne’s side, holding her hand, when Anne opened her eyes. Anne was still lost between the past and the present, between memory and reality. So the purpose of Maggie’s interruption was not clear to her. But she always trusted Maggie. So she stood up from her chair and, taking her daughter’s arm, Anne walked out the door in her blue dress to wherever Maggie was leading her.
As they drove to the funeral parlor, Anne reviewed each house and building they passed. She’d lived all ninety-five of her years in this city. She knew every street and structure. The city had gone through several periods of change in her time. Though many of the houses were now sided in vinyl or aluminum, some retained the original flourish of detail that characterized the era in which they had been built. These homes were painted in colors that reflected their original palette – multi-colored and bright by current decorative taste.
They drove a few blocks and stopped at a red light where Anne looked across the wide lawn of the city’s common. In her memory she saw children climbing the trees as red, white, and blue streamers and American flags fluttered in a breeze while people assembled as close as they could to the bandstand at one end of the common. A smile came to Anne’s face and she asked Maggie, “Do you remember when Dorothy Lamour came here?” Maggie didn’t remember the event but she knew of it and so she said, “I remember that she came here selling war bonds,” her own mind again dancing the dance with her mother’s mind.
The old woman continued in a soft, tremulous voice, “It was 1943 and we were all excited that a Hollywood star was coming to our city. The common was decorated with red, white, and blue everywhere,” she said as she smiled and turned toward Maggie.
Then she continued, “They made the grandstand larger to accommodate all the city officials,” and here Anne laughed, adding, “…every man from one side of town to the other tried to find his way to a seat near her!”
Anne paused briefly, then said, “As it turned out, she sat beside the mayor’s wife and spent most of her time talking with her.”
She turned again to gaze into the scene that brightly decorated the city’s common in her mind.
Thinking for a moment, she added, “Everyone was playing a part. We were proud to. We were proud of our city’s contribution. We made the fabric for the boys’ uniforms; some of us grew Victory gardens. Do you remember ours?”
Not really expecting a reply, Anne continued, “Some women worked in the hospitals – after some training. They were needed. The hospitals didn’t have enough nurses. They were at the war.” She paused. “Our war wasn’t like any of yours. We were all in it together. No one ever said, ‘What are we doing?’ Our sons were fighting. Boys from the neighborhoods were off to the European front or to the Pacific Islands. Imagine, boys who’d never before been farther than Lake Winnipesaukee.”
Silence hung between them. Maggie saw her mother’s eyes turn away from the window and gaze toward her hands resting in her lap. With her right hand, Anne fingered her engagement ring and wedding band, an absentminded gesture familiar to Maggie.
Maggie thought of the little cache of memories she had of the boy who grew up twelve years ahead of her in their family, one of the boys sacrificed in that war.
“Annie will forgive you,” Maggie whispered, knowing the question that always visited her mother’s mind when she thought of young Charlie.
“He was such a good boy,” was all her mother could ever manage to say.
Some minutes passed and, looking out the window once more, Anne recalled the families who had occupied the homes she watched flash by. She knew the events that had brought joy and sorrow to the households. When she saw the rusted chain-link fence bordering an empty lot with tufts of grass growing through cracked pavement, she thought of the corner market that had stood in that place when she was a young girl. She’d walked to it often, buying meat pies to bring home for a Saturday night supper.
The stream of images and fragments of stories passing through her mind were interrupted when Maggie said, “Mama, the plan for the day is that we’ll be at the funeral home for an hour for any callers, then Father Casey will lead us in prayer. Then the casket will be closed.”
Maggie paused to give her mother time to understand the meaning of the moments she’d described. She saw her mother give a slight nod, and Maggie listened as Anne said softly, “There’s no one left to come. All our friends are gone now.”
After a minute Maggie said, “You can decide if you want to stay in the room when the casket is closed. Just let me know. Alright?”
“Yes,” was all her mother said in reply.
Maggie continued, “Then we’ll get into the limousines and go to the church. It won’t be a High Mass, Mama. We’re doing just what Pa asked, a simple funeral Mass.”
“Yes, I know,” said Anne.
Each of the women was now quiet, unable to speak, their sadness at the loss of husband and father halting their thoughts and stifling their voices.
In a minute Maggie continued, “After the Mass we’ll go to the cemetery. It will be a short walk for you from the car to the graveside and chairs will be set out so you can sit during the service there.”
Anne heard Maggie but made no reply.
“Then we’re all going to Gracie and Eric’s.”
Here, Anne turned to Maggie and smiled a hesitant smile that her daughter had come to understand as an expression of sweet, questioning confusion. Maggie had gone a thought too far or to a detail not immediately familiar, and her mother needed more explanation.
Never wanting to make her mother feel self-conscious because of her bewilderment, Maggie spoke more slowly, and expanded and rephrased the last bits of information.
“When Father Casey finishes the prayers at the graveside, we’ll get back into the limousines and go back to the funeral parlor. Then we’ll get into our own cars and drive to Gracie and Eric’s. You know Eric is Tom’s youngest,” she trailed off, giving her mother time to put the meaning in order.
Then she continued, “It’ll be a bit chaotic with everyone there, especially the children. We’ll have something to eat and then I’ll take you home and get you settled in. Mama, remember – I’ll be staying with you till you’re ready to come and live with me,” Maggie added patiently.
Anne replied, “I love to be with the little ones.”
Maggie knew her mother’s thoughts had stopped at the description of the gathering at Gracie’s. Though she no longer could keep track of whose children they were, Anne’s greatest joy came from being near the youngest of her offspring.
Anne said, “All day, I’ll just follow you.” And she smiled at Maggie, who smiled in return and reached across the car seat to hold her mother’s hand.
Maggie was quiet as they drove the final blocks. Caring for her mother was a distraction from her own sadness over her father’s death. At the same time, caring for her mother had a sorrow all its own. Maggie found herself thinking of fireflies – those miraculous bugs that fill a summer night, randomly illuminating bits of space with a brilliance that thrills any who see them. She found herself wondering what happened to the bugs. Did they fade out? Or did they die in an instant, taking their full light in that final moment? She decided that her mother was like a fading firefly, her illumination dimming with the passing of each year and each month, and recently faintly flickering off and on as if approaching the end. With this thought, Maggie’s sorrow doubled as if in this day she were losing both parents.
Maggie slowed the car as she approached the parking lot to the funeral home. She could see her young grandchildren, three of the boys, running through the lot, heedless of their surroundings – not aware yet of the decorum of mourning, nor conscious of the danger of playing in a parking lot.
Anne said with simple pleasure, “Oh, look at the boys running!”
Once the car was parked and the women had gotten out, the three boys ran to their grandmother, simultaneously giving her hugs. Then, one by one, they turned to their great-grandmother and showed the instinct, the awareness, young children have to be gentle with the elderly. Their faces red from their game of chase, their little-boy ties askew, they stood perfectly still just a few feet from the old woman, each taking a turn saying softly, “Hi, Nana,” and the two older boys following up with, “Sorry about Pa,” as Maggie had instructed them to do.
With her trembling hand, Anne stroked their cheeks while smiling at them. As each boy felt the softness of her touch, he received the grace imparted by the family elder. Though they would hardly remember her one day, they would never forget the tenderness of her hand on their faces and the quiet, halting words that let them feel the love she had for them.
“Are you boys having fun?” she asked.
“Yes,” they answered together.
“You are fast runners,” she added.
The two older boys said, “Thanks,” as the youngest smiled in reply to his great-grandmother.
Then the youngest, wanting so much to share with her, said tentatively, “I cut my finger today.”
Her natural mothering rose up as she answered, “Oh, show me.”
And he held up his small hand, dirty from play, so she could see the new cut on his finger.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“Not now, but I cried,” he said, his eyes nervously looking quickly to his two cousins as he suddenly became conscious that this admission diminished his standing with them. But they did not dare tease him in front of her.
Knowing these things, she said to him, “Well, you are a brave boy.”
While Anne could not distinguish one boy from another, nor could she properly attach them to their families, her mothering love came through. And Maggie, witnessing the illumination, felt assured and comforted by her mother’s presence.
Holding Maggie’s arm, Anne walked into the funeral parlor. A hush went through the room as her family turned to her. Each responded with a helping hand, or a hug, or tears brought on by a swelling in the heart, which left them unable to step forward at all.
None of them could tell which of them the old woman remembered with certainty, though that was less important to them than her warm greeting. Each had the sense of being her favorite, so fixed was her gaze when she spoke with them and so genuinely warm her touch. Seeing her feebleness, everyone was aware of how special it was that she was still with them. In this setting, on this day, they all wondered when they would return here to honor her passing.
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