It snowed the day we buried my mother. The weather had been spring-like all week, and the middle of February seemed more like the middle of May. Nature was confused, and green shoots from the bulbs edging my yard had already begun to emerge, crowning through the black loam. Their coming was way too soon, and I’d been spending a sunny Sunday raking leaves to cover what would surely freeze when my sister called with the news. Mom had slipped into a coma at the nursing home where she’d been for several months and bedridden the last few. She wasn’t expected to live more than a day or so, and she didn’t, dying the next morning, Valentine’s Day.
It wasn’t that long ago when she was still able to get around on her own. After my father’s passing, she’d insisted on staying on the ten secluded acres in eastern Pennsylvania where Pop and she had finally found peace. She continued to have a garden and to tend to the flowers and animals around the place. My siblings and I would visit when we could and phoned her frequently, something that I’d always done on Valentine’s Day. After my sister’s sad and inevitable call, I suddenly thought of the call I’d made to my mother this same day four or five years ago when the Philadelphia area was hit by a huge blizzard.
Sure enough, she was snowed in, all alone with the world turning white, piling up high as her windows. The phone rang a couple of dozen times before she answered but that wasn’t unusual: she was always losing the portable one we’d bought for her.
“Where was it this time?” I asked jokingly. “Did the cat carry it off again?”
“Now don’t get fresh with your forgetful mother,” she said. “I knew where it was all the time. Besides, I was busy, and you’ll never guess doing what,” which I certainly couldn’t, not in a thousand blizzards.
“Dying my hair, that’s what. To celebrate the day, of course: roses are red and so is my head. Bright as a valentine heart.” Then, laugh, laugh, laugh!
How she did laugh – probably as much at my jaw-dropped silence as at her new self in the mirror. I have no idea what I said, not that anything could have been, but I do remember the crazy images that flashed though my mind. My shrinking mother shuffling about the house with flaming locks, a crone turned harlot.
Later, a sister who lives nearby confirmed that Mom had indeed found some old dye and was now a fiery redhead. We knew then that other more serious things might happen to her and that it was time she lived a less isolated life.
The rest is history, but as I stood there in the May-like air of this century’s first February, numb with a rake in my hand, I started to laugh, not cry. I couldn’t get that image of my mother with her hot new “do” out of my mind. She was trying to melt the snow, that’s why she’d done it. She wasn’t as daffy as we thought. Nature was right on time – it wasn’t confused like today. Instead, this seasonal world that she loved was taking her, and she knew it. And now, in the sunlight, it had.
My daughter would take a few days from graduate school and go with me to the funeral, but for a number of reasons, my son could not. He lives out west and his small mountain town is hard to get in-and-out-of in the winter. Telling my kids that their grandmother had died was very hard. I hadn’t cried until then. Maybe I didn’t quite believe that she was gone and having to tell them made the faraway close and gave time a heartbeat.
Calling Brendan was especially difficult. He was her first grandchild, after all, and she had held him as an infant, though she wasn’t always eager to. After nine pregnancies and seven births, my mother was a little weary of kids. When she’d send mine a card or gift, she always signed it with a youthful “Geri,” short for Geraldine and even shorter than the “Gerry” she’d used for years: a nickname for a nickname but hardly the “grandmom” or “nana” a grandchild might expect. A good part of my sadness at telling my children of her death came from my recognizing my life in theirs. I realized how confusing my mother’s unpredictable feelings must have been to my kids because she was as unpredictable to her own.
Like plants left in the shade of too many others, the six of us craved her attention, all of us competing with our father who was as baffled by his wife’s arbitrariness as we were. But once in her light, you always remembered it. The week’s weather also took me back. Spring was always early in Norfolk, Virginia where both my children were born, and its scent was in the air this Valentine’s Day in central Illinois. The dampness, the sweet breath from the south, the frost’s release – suddenly I was lost among camellias, pink azaleas, and bursting peonies. Mother’s Day had come too early, and just on time.
Brendan wouldn’t be at the funeral for another reason, too. A young woman he knew was on her way to work a few days before when her car spun out of control on black ice. She collided with an oncoming car and was killed instantly. “Twenty-one, Dad. Julie was only twenty-one,” Brendan said, just twenty-eight himself but sounding much older. My mother was five days short of reaching eighty-one, and my son’s grief at her death and his friend’s was compounded by this immense confusion of time. “It’s not fair,” he said, back to being younger, as we all become at such moments.
Brendan would go to Julie’s services instead. They were to be held the same day as my mother’s. I can’t imagine her parents’ grief; it would be so different than ours. She was from Alabama, my son told me, and certainly not used to driving on snow and ice. She’d be buried back home, where the real spring had surely come. I checked the weather map: it was near eighty in Montgomery and the prospects for the eastern Rockies were lovely, too. There would be lots of sun to help remember this young woman’s life, but further east a low pressure system was developing off the Great Lakes and pushing south toward the Ohio Valley and central Pennsylvania. That, combined with a lingering cold front along the coast, meant snow: snow for my elderly mother, sun for a girl named Julie.
Somehow I always know when it’s been snowing. I can feel it in my blood, just as I did as a boy, hoping school would be cancelled. There was no need to look out the window, because I could already tell from the silence out there and from how I felt inside, lying in bed with that wonderful sense of enclosure. My daughter, who’s impossible to wake up at any time, was even tougher to move this particular Friday morning at the Holiday Inn.
“It’s snowing, isn’t it?” she asked groggily, and was it ever: the world had gone white with flakes coming down in wafers, a good three to four inches deep already. The area’s kids would be as happy as I used to be and an extra day would be part of the weekend for lots of sleepy people, but what happens to funerals in such weather, I wondered? Do they get cancelled like schools and meetings?
We could make it to the funeral home okay. It was only ten miles away, but getting to the gravesite, which was an hour and a half drive under normal conditions, was going to be tough, especially in that lightweight car we’d rented. And after, with airports closing, how would Megan and I get back to Illinois or my sister and her family to Texas? My brother to Denver? We’d gathered from all over, this family of different values and beliefs, this independent bunch of artists, doctors, and teachers. There hadn’t been a reunion like this since we’d come together to search for our father more than a decade before. Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he’d disappeared one lovely May day from a VA hospital and wandered away into the Pennsylvania countryside.
We never found Pop, and that nightmarish experience of the search had torn our already dysfunctional family further apart. Some hateful things had been said over the years by each of us, and none of us knew what to expect now. My father’s remains were reportedly found by some hikers several years after his disappearance, but some of us in the family never believed the report from the VA. My mother did not wish to contest the matter in court, and it was in the family’s interest to declare Pop dead, and so he was.
Shamefully, however, we had never met for a memorial service, perhaps because some had felt as I did, that our father never died. Wasn’t that a sales convention he was off to? Or deer hunting, up in Maine again with his friend, Joe? And for Mom, it must have seemed that he was still in the war. That’s why few in the family had been to Indian Town Gap National Cemetery where our mother would be laid to rest next to him, the wife of a veteran. And now, just as our parents would be reunited, maybe we would be too, if only by the communion of snow.
“How does Uncle Brian stay so young looking,” my daughter asked as we were hanging up our coats at the home and knocking the snow from our shoes. “How come he doesn’t have any white hair?”
And Megan is right, he doesn’t, but he’s the only one in the clan. I hardly recognized Carol, my older half-sister, whom I hadn’t seen since Pop’s disappearance more than a decade ago when we’d said some bitter words. But the snow helped break the ice between us, so to speak, as we joked about how much of it had seemingly clung to our hair over the last few years.
Because I see my own reflection everyday, it’s hard to notice the changes that my sisters and brother must have seen in me as I saw in them. Mostly, I could see our parents’ faces in them in a way I never could when we were younger. The ubiquitous family question about whom this child or that looks like was being answered for me as I wandered off in my mind as the service went on.
I remember almost nothing from the service except how much Marsha, four years younger than I, had come to look like Pop’s mother, someone she was too young to remember. And Dawn’s forehead, as she sat there tense and tearful, “that’s Mom,” I almost said aloud I was so startled. And Uncle Brian, as my daughter calls him, he’s Uncle Sheldon, our father’s oldest brother, who never ever seemed to age until one day, he died.
And who am I, I wondered, looking out into the snow, the steadily falling snow?
The song of love is a sad song, Hi-Lily, Hi-Lily, Hi-Lo— The song of love is a song of woe, Don’t ask me how I know—
I was drifting away and could see her again, my mother, her auburn hair loosely gathered with a scarf, staring out the kitchen window as if it were now. She was singing that song, that unhappy song that’s as much a part of my childhood as the smell of our house.
I sit by the window and watch the rain, Hi-Lily, Hi-Lily, Hi-Lo
“How come you’re so sad today, Mom,” I’d ask sometimes, snuggling up beside her, leaning my head on her hip, wanting so desperately to make her happy. I know now that no one ever could, but as a little boy, nothing was more important to me than making her laugh, which she could do as readily as she could withdraw into herself and sing.
The song of love is a sad song, For I have loved and it is so
Then into the hush of that silent day, off we quietly went, the muffled thump of car doors closing, the white hearse leading the way with snow nearly two feet deep and still coming down. My daughter and I were only three cars back, but even on the slow back roads the procession intentionally took, I kept losing sight of where she was out there in the swirling light, until I saw her again in a room so white I had to squint.
Propped up in the nursing home bed, she was staring at her hands, at how pale they’d become, how stiff.
“How did this happen? How did this ever happen?”
“What, Dad? What happened?
“Your grandmother, Megan. She had beautiful hands. She was so very proud.”
“How did this happen to me?”
“I don’t remember Geri’s hands that well, Dad. We didn’t see her that much, you know. But isn’t it weird how your hands look just like mine? It’s kind of creepy.”
My parents met on a train on the way to Boston from New York. She was a model in the city, and he was a soldier, soon to be sent to England and then, to the coast of France.
“Your father was the handsomest man I’d ever seen,” she told me a few weeks after he was officially declared dead.
I’d come out to help around the house and to deal with some financial issues. We were having coffee, and she suddenly started telling this story. Why then, I have no idea, except that maybe she needed to remember him as not just alive but as the “handsomest man” she’d ever seen.
“In uniform, besides, sitting there reading a paper in the crowded car. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him and when the train lurched, I was waiting and over I went, right into his lap. We sneaked off and got married in the Harvard Chapel not long after, but then the war came along and took him away.”
Little white lies. All around us were blowing little white lies, thousands and thousands of them, and not one the same. Little white lies, piling up, making the world look lovely but hiding what was underneath, like family secrets.
My mother’s first marriage, her brother’s mental illness, the death of Ann, my parents’ second child, born soon after me: these were like the furniture in my grandparents’ living room, covered in sheets. We lived in that darkened, formal home, the birthplace of my imagination, until my father came home from the war.
Even now I can walk through that entire house with my eyes closed, but it was the living room that haunted me most. My grandmother insisted on covering everything there, to keep it spotless, I assume, but as a little kid, I always wondered what was under those sheets, especially at night when the arms and backs of the furniture seemed to rise up under the white like a forbidden past and whisper questions I dared not ask:
“How come Carol’s got a different last name?”
“Why does Uncle Donald cry like that? He was laughing so hard just a minute ago.”
“Mom, I’m old enough now, don’t you think? Please tell me about Ann.”
We gathered under the overhang of the cemetery’s outdoor chapel. The wind that swirled through the hills on our drive had stopped, and the snow fell so quietly that it didn’t seem to be falling at all.
We had reached a kind of center, standing there shoulder-to-shoulder, in a semicircle around our mother’s oak casket. Far off somewhere, a blizzard was canceling schools and flights, but on our little stage a pantomime of bowed heads and held hands was being performed in front of an audience who understood the silence we were just learning: the soldiers and spouses out there before us under the deepening snow.
And then from nowhere a voice arose, a high, exquisite, sorrowful voice of a young priest grown wise from what he’d already seen – in Kosovo or Somalia perhaps, or maybe just here, in this place, this soldiers’ home. He stood before us in his black robe with the world turned white and started to sing with nothing to accompany him, not even the wind. His tenor voice, the words of the “Ave Maria,” that deep look in his eyes – he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, and when I heard that echo of my mother’s words about my father, I started to cry.
They were away together now, our parents, as they loved to be when they got older and had the chance – to some far northern place this time, the snow coming down and they arm-in-arm like the little plastic figures my mother had kept on her bureau from their wedding cake: the dashing fellow in his uniform, the lovely lady in her gown. But they didn’t seem the least bit cold because, just then, I could see some kind of bubble rise up and surround them like one of those souvenirs you bring home from a special place – one of those glass domes that, when you shake it, the rice we are throwing looks like snow, handfuls of it filling the air as they step from the Harvard Chapel into the light and all of us are there, cheering them on – Carol and Marsha, Brian and Dawn, Gail, my daughter and me – and happier than we were ever to be…
Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University where he taught Creative Writing and 19th Century American Literature for twenty-five years. He has also taught at William and Mary, Johns Hopkins, and Virginia Wesleyan where he was Poet in Residence for four years. He was awarded seven faculty excellence awards for teaching at Eastern Illinois, and in 1992-93, was selected as the State of Illinois Board of Governors’ “Professor of the Year,” the highest award in that state system. He has also been the recipient of two Senior Fulbright Lectureships in American Poetry to Portugal and to Greece and has twice sailed around the world as a faculty member with Semester at Sea.
His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The American Scholar, and many of the quarterlies and among his awards are fellowships in creative writing from the NEA, four from the Illinois Arts, and the NEA Residency Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. Five of his poems have been featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry.” He is a former editor of The Spoon River Poetry Review.
The author of thirteen collections of poetry, his most recent book is FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010 (Ecco Qua Press, 2012). He also recently edited Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching, a collection of class-tested exercises, written and used by some of the country’s best poet/teachers.