A portrait of Momma, painted in 1960 by Shirley Heysinger.
When I was a child, Momma used to sing to me. As sunset petaled the evening sky, she’d gather me in her arms and rock me in my small bedroom with its dormer window and sing Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low” before tucking me into bed. Nestled close to her heart, I loved to feel her calmly inhale before she’d croon the familiar words:
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one sleeps.
Music and poetry were my nighttime coverlet, and my gentle mother filled my waking hours with beauty. When I was small, she’d recite for me the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Eugene Field – all the magical poems of childhood. She showered me with words, and my budding heart absorbed them.
From a tender age, I understood that poetry was a powerful vehicle that could spirit my beautiful mother away to a mysterious, tangent plane. As she spoke the words she loved and knew by heart, I’d watch her eyes soften, then fix on a point somewhere beyond my sight. She was with me, yes. But she was also in a faintly wistful, ineffable elsewhere. Not fully comprehending it, I was witnessing her poetic otherness. I called it her “faraway look” or her “faraway place,” and often wondered to myself about it.
Momma was, and will ever be, my muse. She instilled in me a love for all things beautiful – language, music, art, and the whole of creation. An accomplished poet in her own right, she taught me by example: the transcendent words she chose, the exquisite, handmade things she created, the ideals she cherished showed me that poetry is everywhere, in absolutely everything. The name of my blog – My Path with Stars Bestrewn – is a line drawn from one of her lovely poems. Because of her, I go always in search of the beautiful – not to bring her back, because she lives now in all things, but to be with her in her faraway place, a place of beauty, a place where my soul feels at home.
Momma, on the left, sits with her sister in my grandmother’s lap.
A dreamy, thoughtful child with large, blue-grey eyes and dark, baby fine hair, Momma grew up in Denver, Colorado during the Depression. She had a deep attachment to the mountains, which were visible from her doorstep. She confided to me that she felt most at home wandering the alpine meadow near her family’s summer cabin in the Rockies, where she’d pick wildflower bouquets and make little hideaways for herself among the nodding, sky blue columbines. Even now, when cumulus clouds billow like dreams on the midwestern horizon and form magnificent mountain kingdoms, I envision her, a child once more, traversing an enchanted heaven, clambering up sunlit slopes lighter than air, wandering endless, starry meadows.
Momma remains so vivid, so indelible, so completely alive to me. It doesn’t seem possible that today – February 10th, 2014 – marks the tenth anniversary of her death.
In the first days after Momma died, I’d walk to the mailbox to search the day’s mail with an insistent sense that I should be hearing from her. In all my forty-five years, I had never gone so long without communicating with her. I half expected to find a postcard addressed to me in her elegant hand, detailing her whereabouts, what she had seen thus far, telling me how much she loves me.
Momma was a wise, loving, gifted artist whose creativity touched every facet of her life. Highly attuned to the wonders of the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it, she had a special love for birds.
Her favorite way to begin the day was to slip outdoors at sunrise to hear the chickadees chant their morning praises. Beneath her kitchen window, which looked out over a wooded hill, she supplied a sumptuous, year-round banquet for the birds: black oil sunflower seeds and millet, ears of dried corn and peanuts in the shell, suet cages and stockings filled with thistle. She took delight in watching her feathered throng flutter in throughout the day to feast at her table and sing in her trees.
One December, Momma was seized with an urge to reinvent her Christmas tree. Ornaments from previous Christmases were banished to the basement while she adorned her tree with, as she termed it, “only things that sing, or fly.” From that year on, her tree was an object of delicate beauty. Spare and elegant, its boughs were a shimmer of white lights, an artful scattering of lovely birds, a butterfly or two, and a gorgeous renaissance angel with airy wings and flowing robes.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a special date with providence one April Saturday in 2003, less than a year before Momma died. I went to a local garden show and was inexorably drawn to a set of plush Audubon birds created in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each realistic bird featured a mechanical button that played a recording of its authentic song. Cardinals, robins, bluebirds, and woodpeckers heaped the bin. Intrigued, I sorted through the various birds, testing the song of this one and that, until I unearthed a house finch, whose wild, sweet call embodies the very soul of spring. I purchased the little house finch and brought it home to give to Momma as a simple Easter gift.
One balmy afternoon just before Easter, Momma phoned. “Amy,” she said, “if you’re not busy, will you come over and help me with something? There’s a bird singing in the woods, and I don’t know who it is.” Momma’s home was nearby, and her wish was ever my command. I jumped in my car and drove over.
I found her out on her back deck, gripping her cane, quivering from the effort of moving her frail body through space. Her neck was craned upward, her face filled with joy. “There,” she said, and pointed to the outstretched arms of a budding oak. “Listen! Who is singing?”
I listened for a moment, and then, sure enough, sweet and clear, the ethereal song of a house finch wafted down from a lacework of greening branches. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and secretly rejoiced. She was going to love the little gift I’d just bought for her. We stood there together, Momma and I, listening to the house finch’s ravishing song. Like liquid sunlight, the sublime melody cascaded over us.
The secret underpinning of Momma’s beautiful life, I have come to realize, was that she viewed the world through a rare lens of innocence. Her tender, blue-grey eyes were the eyes of a child. She retained an open-hearted, childlike soul without ever being a childish person. And, oh – how much the child in her adored that little plush house finch I brought to her on Easter, tucked in a nest-like basket.
Patient, brave, and uncomplaining, Momma accepted the illnesses that leached life and mobility from her – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, painful osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis. Discouraged by the ways her world was shrinking and worn from pain, Momma would cry at night. I was helping her with her housework at that time, and, finding wadded tissues scattered around her bed, I’d say to myself, “Momma, don’t cry, don’t cry.” As I straightened her blankets and smoothed her embroidered, lace-edged sheets, the tears I never allowed her to see would drip from my cheeks.
During Momma’s long, wakeful nights, the little house finch kept her company. When I’d come over, I’d find it in her bed, resting among her pillows. She told me she loved to hold it close and press its little button, just to hear it sing the wild, free song she so loved. She played it night after night and month after month until it stopped playing altogether. During Momma’s last days, it sat on her bedside table beside her prayer books. I bless the day I happened upon that little bird – the small house finch that tempered her nights with the beauty of its song.
Which brings me back to those first, tear-spattered days after Momma died. Ten days after she was buried, I was in my bedroom, dressing after a shower. As I sat down on the bed to pull on a pair of socks, I dropped my hands in my lap and felt adrift on a bleak, unknown sea. Silence and emptiness washed over me, and I was capsized by a sudden wave of unreality and disbelief. Surely, this must be some kind of bad dream. I wanted to wake up, to shake away the loneliness. Submerged beneath leagues of loss and sorrow, I felt this heaviness might just crush me. I said aloud to her, as I have always firmly believed that those who no longer live can, somehow, hear us, “Oh, Momma, is this real?”
At the precise moment these words left my lips, something wonderful happened: an unexpected postcard arrived after all. Directly outside my window, sweet and clear, like sunlight refracting through raindrops, a house finch began to sing. I couldn’t believe it. What were the odds? A million to one? I had never heard a house finch’s song from our bedroom before, nor have I since. Nor had I ever heard a house finch sing in winter, in deeply frozen February. In that moment of heaven-sent synchronicity, I understood that while she cannot be with me temporally, Momma is with me spiritually, somewhere just outside of time, yet, somehow, closer than the beating of my heart. No need to search for her a moment longer. She is here with me – always.
In birdsong, in blossoms, in the patter of the rain and the sigh of the wind, in sunlight and in moonbeams, in the changing seasons, in the things she loved, and in love itself, bright and eternal, she lives on.
A valentine heart Momma designed, cross-stitched and crocheted for me in 1979 hangs in the branches of the magnolia tree in front of her home.