October 31, 1914-May 1, 2007
When my brothers and sisters moved my mother out of the Santa Rosa house where she and my father had lived for ten years to an apartment, shortly after he died, they found a large box of slides unopened since the move from our old house in Oroville. My mother probably would have favored dumping them; she was trying to shed possessions. But she was thrilled when my brother Dan found a slide projector and started dragging the show to family get-togethers.
It was often a difficult performance. The slide projector would stick, leaving us straining towards the screen, willing the next scratchy image to appear. Or sometimes we'd hit a tray or two of slides in which no one--not even my mother--recognized who was in them. People and places so far at the periphery of family memory that they had dropped off. Who were they to us once, that we slotted them in plastic trays and tucked them in a frayed cardboard box and moved them from house to house? No one knows.
Dan decided finally to pick through the thousands of slides and convert the best to digital images. After our mother died last week--no, it's already two weeks, exactly-- we sat for about an hour and looked at them.
There are many wonderful old photos--generally, from the late 1930s through the mid 1960s--and they give the flavor not only of our family's eras but of the country's. Slides from the fifties of a sweetly garish Las Vegas; of a Waikiki Beach that was mostly sand and waves, not hotels; of the Fun House (is that what it was called?) in San Francisco, many years gone, where my mother actually made my brothers wear little gray suits to have their fun.
I was stunned by this particular picture. I had never seen my mother in a bathing suit-- not once, even though our family spent many hours in and around the Feather River, Bucks Lake, and finally Lake Tahoe. I think she was too self-conscious of her skinniness, her freckles, and--by the time I was born, when she was nearly 38--her varicose veins. I can't help thinking that I would have known her differently had I seen this picture before. She looked so pretty, so soft and dreamy. I never thought of her this way.
I keep reaching for the phone to call her. "Who was taking that picture? Who were you looking at in that way?" I would ask. I keep feeling guilty that I didn't call her on Mother's Day, or after I got back to Cleveland last night.
She was fine up until a few days before she died-- fine, that is, for a 92-year-old with a weak heart and failing liver and kidneys. She enjoyed a dinner of fresh crab on the night before she fell and was found to be feverish and was taken to the hospital. At some point, she closed her eyes. My brothers and sister and their spouses and children gathered around her, in various combinations, and petted her head and talked to her and put flecks of ice on her tongue when she opened her mouth.
I called when they were all there and almost asked them to put the phone to her ear, even though she wasn't responding and seemed not to know anyone. I wanted to try out a call and response that we both enjoyed from my pre-verbal past. When I was a toddler, I repeatedly posed an obscure question to the gown-ups, then provided an equally obscure answer when no one knew what to say. They finally caught on, and my mother liked to open our phone calls with the first part of the routine. "Fa sa, sista witcha?" she'd ask as I'd pick up the phone. "Ah sonni winnow!" I'd reply.
I had an idea that she'd repond to this, even at her great dying distance, but didn't want to seem melodramatic and didn't press it. It was my brother Dave who managed to spark her last words the next day. He told her he had brought some tomato plants for her garden. "Black cherry tomatoes?" she asked with some of her old eagerness, and then lapsed back into silence. She had been planning to grow some this year, after I raved about the ones I had tasted at the Tahoe Farmers Market. So sweet, with dusky skins that looked more like chocolate than black cherry.
I'm always unnerved by the photographs on the newspaper obituary pages. People in housedresses or business suits or ballgowns or military uniforms, people who don't realize they're tilting their head and composing their features for a picture that will eventually attend the announcement of their death. I almost don't want to put this wonderful photo of my mother alongside this slight vocalizaton about her death. But there she is, sitting between the river and the trees, holding a red balloon, her face still and soft and so lovely--and I can't resist.