I read somewhere that it was important to name everyone you love—to keep them real. I tried it. I started by naming my children and my parents, added my best friends and my relatives and then everyone one by one that I knew and loved, people with problems. People who needed help and prayers. It became a ritual, and felt important to me.
Saying the names of everyone I wanted to keep real., however, took up more and more of my day, so regretfully, I gave it up. Almost. But I still sometimes find myself saying the names of the people I want to stay real. I wake up in the night and find myself saying their names in my dreams.
Yesterday, my mother gave me a piece of cherry pie that her friend Helen had given her. She didn't want the pie wasted, but she couldn't eat it. It wasn't a real piece of pie carefully hand made by a person, or even a bakery pie, but a little fake pie full of preservatives. She had been trying to give it to me for a week. Finally, to appease her, I took it.
"I can't eat it," she told me, for the twentieth time, plaintively. "There's something about the cherries. They don't agree with me."
"I remember about the cherries," I tell her, "and I can tell you the story. I don't know how old you were, but it was a long time ago. You were eating cherries, and you bit one in half. There was a worm inside, so you tossed it away and bit another in half. That one had a worm, too. You cut the rest of the cherries and half and every one had a worm inside. You felt sick, because you had already eaten a number of those cherries. You were never able to eat cherries after that."
"Yes," my mother said, "I remember now. There were worms in all the cherries."
"Extra protein," I say. Sometimes, she really remembers, but today, I'm not sure. I sit there, holding her hand, remembering another retelling.
My father was moved from the room in the nursing home he shared with another man. After too much pain, he was finally put on morphine. We had all gone to see him, my mother, my daughters, and me. We held each of his hands and each of his feet. He moaned. I said, "Remember the time we skied at Mount Snow, swam in the heated pool and watched the steam rise against the snow?" And I told him the story.
And my mother said, "Remember Margareto's Lodge, how I always had a warm meal ready for you when you came home from your adventures?" And she told that story. We went around the bed, each of us telling a story. Then we went around again. We were retelling his life, his life and ours. We did not know yet that at the end of the retelling he would die. He did not live through the night.
I turn to my mother. "Remember," I say, "how you loved to roller skate down the sidewalks to your Grandmother's house? You kept the key to the metal skates on a ribbon around your neck."
She nods. "Is the house on Ellsworth Ave still in the family? Are my parents still alive?"
"No, I tell her, "your parents died almost sixty years ago." I never know if I should tell her this. She looks sad. "The house is sold. Remember the fire you had in the house, when someone dropped a match in the wastebasket?" I tell her the story again.
"Remember when you married Pa, and you didn't tell anyone at American Locomotive Company, where you both worked? It was April Fool's Day. You were so pleased to have such a wonderful secret. It was 1944, and you had quit college to work on the war effort, remember?"
"Remember," I ask, "when you had three babies and sat and watched the trains go by in your back yard? And rode in the old black Ford with the rumble seat?"
She nods. "Remember," I ask, "when you chopped your fingers off in the lawnmower, packed them in ice, and drove yourself to the hospital? They reattached all your fingers. You can't even tell." She holds up her hands and studies the thin gnarled fingers in amazement.
"I don't remember that," she says. I will have to tell her again and again, how brave she was, how smart. "You were so brave, so smart."
Then we say the names: M and W T, her parents, J and W T, her brothers. J, her husband, my father. A, her friend and sister-in-law. We are deep in the retelling, saying the names and making them real. Mary, Robert, Tom, her children. S, E. T, J, R. R, C. Her grandchildren. M, T, J. Her great grandchildren. Piano Boy, my new son, Biker Buddy, my fiancé. I have taped all their pictures around the room. We say their real names, their whole names.
"Margaret," I say, "Mom, don't forget yourself. Remember," I add, "when people called you Maggie?"
"Yes," she says, "and some called me Margie. My friends. Marjorie Sheffer, Ruth Grenoble, Ruth DeVries. I remember my friends. I remember them now." And the light in her eyes has changed--this time, she really remembers.
Mary Stebbins (Taitt)
April 3, 2005
I found this in my email. I may have already posted it, but if so, here it is again. My mother died almost a year ago. In two weeks, it will be a year since she died. My heart fills with sadness and my eyes with tears.
I still say my mother's name, Margaret, every day, sometimes several times a day, along with the names of everyone I want to keep real. My mother may have died, but she is real in my heart.