Two Novels, A Message + A Cardinal

I choose to believe nearly five years after her death, that my mother sends me gifts.IMG_2346

I have recovered from the soul-jarring break of her death. But my grief will never be over.

Like the general joy and contentment I face most days with, I also carry the grief of the loss of beautiful her with me in every breath, touch and big and little moment. I accept the joy so I must also accept and make friends with my grief. And I have.

Recently, my mom sent me two books.

They showed up suddenly near my front door, inside of my house.

I ignored them for a couple of days thinking someone – a friend or child or relative – would claim them soon enough. But no one did.

As the organizer and item resettler-in-chief, I eventually began asking about the books. “Whose are these? Where did they come from?” No one knew. Answers evaded. Finally, after several days, my dad stopped by.

“Did you bring me these books?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They must be yours.”

He said the second thing so definitively I stopped my already formulated protests.

“OK,” I relented.

I resettled the two seemingly frivolous novels to the top of a bookcase where they were mostly out of sight. There they stayed for a rest, as I silently wondered over the mystery of their appearance and took a decidedly dismissive stance.

“I was not,” I thought to myself in my most haughty internal tone, “reading frivolous chick lit fiction as of late. I was reading philosophy, business strategy, meaty non-fiction and neurological research. These two novels – apparently a series,” I’d have liked to spit out that word “– were not for me.”

Eventually, I begrudgingly moved the novels to my bedroom. Then to my bedside table stacks, which are considerable, where they were lost in the towers of titles.

Finally, one night when Mr. Bailey was away, bored and tired of the narcissism of nonfiction, I lie in bed and found myself staring directly at the binding of the first. I picked it up.

The first few chapters were entertaining, mildly engaging. But I read on.

It wasn’t until I sat on a long plane flight to a favorite destination that the heart of the story, which was really many stories knitted delicately together, unfolded something inside of me that made me realize the books were from my mom.

It was more than one story, more than one chapter, more than one character.

It was – above all else – the tone of the fiction, the spirit of the writing, the lilt of the prose. It was the delicate description of grinding grief, the honest portrayal of marriage, of love lost and wrenched away and found and chosen. It was the ache of trying to move on, to move out and to make magic. And, it was the stirred senses evoked in all of these things.

It was the sort of book my mother would have read and passed on to me. It was the sort of fiction she’d read in a night or two and then tucked into my purse as I bundled babies into car seats after we’d stopped by for dinner.

It was like one of the hundreds of books we read together in our short life-overlap and shared our thoughts about.

All of these precious pieces (the book, the memories of our life together, the fact that I had recently been traveling more, which was draining, thrilling and wearing) were a reminder to me from my mom – to suck the marrow out of life, to stop and see life’s bold and precise beauty, to bathe in it, to be sure to own and stir my own spirit, so my soul would be satiated, stilled and soothed. It was, I knew, my mom’s advice coming to me in her most treasured venue – a well-crafted book.

I wept, in my window seat, high above this earth. As I flew I felt the always and elusive near-far presence of my mother, in each damp-eyed blink.

When I arrived, I rushed to my accommodations, booked last minute and in haste, the novel’s scenes resting in the curve of my mind between my reading cove and my memory cubby. As I read the directions from my phone and opened the gate of my rented cottage, making my way through a wild, lush spring garden, a red cardinal perched on a branch ahead of me.

It hopped branch to branch and stayed, as I stared — a ruby reminder of my mother, and of her mother, and another precious gift to me.

 

 

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Reviled or reveled? My mom’s mushroom barley soup

My mother ate like a bird.

Her favorite lunch was cottage cheese and red pepper, with a side of Ryvita crackers.soup+pot

Her aviary-like diet was the subject of much gentle teasing by those who loved her.

While she had the ability to cook a five-course gourmet meal or an Italian feast for 20, when we were growing up, she would often opt for a huge vat of homemade soup or chili.

One of her favorite soups was mushroom barley.

Mushroom barley soup was a lightning rod in our house. Some of us hated it, some of us loved it, and some of us thought it didn’t much qualify as a meal. But my mother loved it.

Usually focused on pleasing the masses, when it came to this broth-based delicacy, she refused to eliminate it from her repertoire.

Despite the variant complaints and rabid discussions about what constituted a filling four squares (“Not mushroom barley soup!” my little brother roared) she routinely boiled and brewed up the hearty concoction.

I remember her vivaciously answering, her hazel green eyes glowing, “Mushroom barley soup!” when asked what was for dinner.

She reveled in eating it – and could stretch it out into several lunches and mid-afternoon snacks.

While I liked MBS at first, it lost some of its luster for me as her fervor for making it grew.

I was ambivalent about it at best, when its popularity finally began to plummet.

But.

Always a family with a culture focused around food (blame our Italian-American roots), when my mom stopped cooking due to her illness, an intangible significant something was lost. Some part of our family fiber was broken. After she died, I was nearly inconsolable until I had her recipe books in my possession.

Oddly, the recipe for mushroom barley soup was missing. She must have committed it cleanly to memory.

Like so many, my mother’s cooking holds a powerful place in my heart-mind-belly. I miss it like the salty broth of chicken noodle soup after your fever breaks and you think, “I may recover after all” and you’re finally, blessedly, ravenously hungry again.

But she sends little reminders my way.

Recently, during a day jam-packed with meetings and measurements, calls and conferences, I fled for food.

It wasn’t too cool out yet, and my throat was fine, but I longed for soup. And for a respite from the break-neck pace of the stop-start-stop pace of my life, which had lately been presenting me with tough choices, hard conversations and a requirement for a conscious commitment to optimism.

After making two phone calls on the way, and feeling my frazzled nerves buzz between the vertebrae of my back, I found my way into a local café that usually proffered a few different varieties of soup.

Hoping for a hearty vegetarian option, I looked at the menu board to behold, “Mushroom barley soup.”

Thanks, Mom.