Mourners and Other People

My mother, Betty Jean Gregory, died twelve years ago this week.

When my mother passed away, my Dad, following wishes that she had stated many times, requested contributions to their favorite charity rather than flowers. Nevertheless, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, several people chose to send flowers instead.

Dad collected the cards from the senders to give me, since both of us knew that I would be the one writing the thank-you notes (because, after all, the donors needed to be able to actually read the notes, something that wouldn’t have happened if Dad, with his execrable penmanship, had been the one writing them!) But one card puzzled him. “Who could this be?” he asked, handing me the card.

“Betty was a remarkable woman” had been written on it, with only a first name below that sentence. But I recognized the name immediately as that of a woman with whom I’d been fast friends during high school. I explained the connection to my father, who had only the haziest memory of the friend of my youth, but conceded that Mom must have made a strong impression for her to have sent flowers to a funeral decades later, when we were both in our late 50s.

Yet there was another card from someone on whom Mom had made a strong impression, and that one I’m still relieved my father never saw. This was a purported condolence card which arrived in Dad’s mailbox fairly late after Mom’s passing and which he, not recognizing the return address and not wanting any more to deal with, just handed over, unopened, to me.

Thank heaven for that. Because this was not an expression of sympathy, whatever flowery sentiment might have been written on the stylized card. Included was a note from one of Mom’s coworkers of many years prior. The note expressed this woman’s complete elation that Betty Jean Gregory was finally dead. It vilified Mom with ugly names and shamed her with spiteful observations on her character, morals, and behavior.

I read the note with mild shock but little surprise. Mom’s mental illness and addictions had sundered nearly every good relationship she’d ever had, and earned her many enemies. It was sadly true that almost everyone who had attended her funeral had done so for Dad’s sake, or for my own; Mom died friendless.

I put the spiteful letter aside to deal with later and got on with the sad business of trying to find ways to help my father take an interest in life again.

Much later, I finally began to compose a response to the poison pen note. First, I explained that I was relieved beyond measure that my Dad had not opened the card and read her hurtful words; he, as an 81-year-old widower, did not need the anguish her spitefulness would have provoked. I remarked that I supposed taking vengeance upon a dead woman by saying these things to grieving survivors made the writer feel both powerful and vindicated.

And then I admitted, underlining the words, that I could not actually refute a single charge the writer had laid at my mother’s door. I was sure that Mom had treated her badly–worse than badly. Betty, I acknowledged, had been severely mentally ill. She displayed all the unpredictability, instability and cruelty of an alcoholic and addict. She’d probably wounded the letter writer to her very soul. I said that I was truly sorry that my mother had hurt her so much.

Finally, though, I took my own, perhaps cruel, definitely petty, revenge on the heartless writer, for I pointed out to her, “I’m sure that what you experienced with my mother was difficult. But you were an adult, a grown woman. If you think what you went through was bad, try growing up as a vulnerable small child under Betty’s authority. Consider what it was like being in her charge, helpless. That’s the person you tried (and failed) to injure with your malicious little diatribe—her already-wounded daughter. You didn’t harm Betty or her memory or reputation one bit. All you did was reduce yourself to her level.”

I slid my response into an envelope and mailed it. I never heard from Mom’s former coworker again.

Now, twelve years later, I must say in complete honesty that I did not actually mourn my mother. She, in her sickness, caused me too much harm; shamed me too much, hurt me too often. I felt mostly relief at her passing, coupled with a deep, aching regret that nothing between us could now ever be put right.

But I’ve thought many times about those two funeral cards, and the intense depth of feeling that each of them displayed: one full of unresolved fury, seeking reprisal for old injuries; the other honoring and memorializing.

And I’m glad, very, very glad, that my mother had at least one true mourner at her passing.

None of us are two-dimensional beings! I hope that you will read about my alternate, appreciative perspective of my complex mother in next week’s publication of this blog.

Letters to the Future

Shortly before the baby shower for my pregnant daughter, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a young girl on her 16th birthday, opening letters that had been written to her by family and friends—some now passed on—at her birth.

I loved that idea, and shared it with my daughter; she was enthusiastic. And so it was that at her own baby shower we passed out paper and pens and asked that those present write a Letter to the Future to be saved for Morrigan Lynn and opened on her  16th birthday.  Laughing, I told the participants, “You can’t tell her that boys suck; she’ll figure that one out on her own!  But give her your best advice, or a blessing–not Maleficent-style, please!–or tell her the most important thing you’ve ever learned in your own lifetime.”

We gathered together the finished letters, carefully sealed into their envelopes, and placed them into two special wooden boxes, painted gold and decorated with dragons and mermaids.

But when it came time for me to write my own letter to this as-yet-unborn granddaughter, I found myself at a loss. For two months, I struggled with what I should say to her.  And then, finally, I simply sat down and started writing, and I found that the words flowed easily.

My dearest granddaughter,

As I write those words above, I wonder…will you be my dearest granddaughter? Will you be someone whom I love, of whom I am proud—an amazing young woman on the brink of life, right at the starting line, preparing to run the good race?

Even more, though, I wonder what you will think of me. Will I be a woman you admire?  Will you dislike me?  Be totally bored by me? Think I’m a fool?

Will I even still be on this side of the Veil when you read this letter?

There are no guarantees in life. Any or all of the above may be true 16 years from now.  But none of that really matters, because the purpose of this letter is so that I may share with you whatever I’ve learned in my 64 weary years of walking this planet.  So here are the bits of wisdom I have assembled in my life.  And though they all seem to be very different, they all essentially amount to the same thing: living your life with courage and kindness.

 The truest thing I’ve learned is that my entire attitude is up to me. No one can “make” me feel anything—anything at all. No one else can “make” me angry; I allow myself to get angry. No one can “make” me feel small or insignificant; only I can take ownership of the belittling behavior some people express, and decide within myself that they are right. I, and I alone, can make myself happy, sad, depressed, exalted, fearful, resentful, joyous. I decide every minute of every day what my response will be to every event and every person I encounter.

 There are truly only two emotions: Love and Fear. All other emotions are merely subsets of those two. Make your own decision about which one you want to act from.

 Read poetry. Remember it. Poetry is wonderful material to think with. Read Kahlil Gibran. Read “The Desiderata”. More than read it: try to live it.

 Be thoughtful. Remember people’s special days. Run an errand for someone who is busy. Go to see someone who is sick. Hold the door open for the person whose hands are laden with packages.

 Always says to yourself, “How would I feel if…” Then behave in the way you would want to be treated.

 Do nice things for people for no reason at all—yes, even for the people you don’t like very well. Especially for the people you don’t like very well.

 Dance with the ugly or geeky guy who has no partner. And then smile at him and thank him for dancing with you.

 Stand up for the person who is being bullied or mocked.

 Remember that, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 Say please and thank you. Especially, say thank you.

 Give to charity—not just your money, but your time.

 Stand up for what you believe in.

 No matter how angry you are, calm down before you speak. And remember that it matters less what you say, then how you say it. There are a thousand ways to say even hurtful things in a kindly manner.

 Be slow to anger. Learn to keep your temper.

 Remember that there is no failure. There are only lessons to be learned.

 Be grateful even for the bad times. You cannot appreciate the light if you’ve never seen the darkness.

 Keep an open mind, but keep it like a window: put up a screen for the bugs!

 Remember that resentment is like taking poison while hoping the other person will die.

 Go ahead and cry; it truly does help, and there is no shame in weeping.

There is never enough kindness in the world. Be sure that, at the end of your own life, you will be remembered as the person who was kind.

 And, finally, always forgive. You don’t have to forgive the wrong done to you, but always forgive the person.

All my love to you, my dearest granddaughter,

Mimsey

Welcome to the World
Morrigan Lynn
“Great Queen of the Water”
Mermaid Queen with the Heart of a Dragon
August 23, 2018