It has been almost five years since my mother lost her brave war against leukemia. Within this time frame, sadly, some of Mom's familiar traditions have become more of a fond memory rather than a continued reality. For example, although we can all cook a Christmas ham, it was Mom who criss-crossed those seasoning cloves just right on the hind, drowning them again and again with her secret glaze until the browning and flavoring were perfect. And it was Mom who decorated our home and Christmas tree into a welcoming, warm winter wonderland, season after season. Sure, my wife and sisters could probably duplicate her feats, given enough time, but it's just not the same without that extra ooomph of Mom's energy swirling among all the festive activities. Of her love swirling among her family.
The realization (or maybe, rather, fear) that someday my kids wouldn't remember Gramma, with her specialness and unique ways, was so strong, so biting, immediately after her death that I, along with my siblings, worked hard on trying to keep things just the way they were before she died. We tried to arrange the food in the fridge like she did. We continued keeping a pen and paper on the counter in the kitchen, right where she did. We folded towels just right, "like Mom taught us." We changed bedsheets from the cotton variety to flannel and then back during the revolving seasons of each year. We spritzed her perfume in the bedroom, desperately trying to keep her scent fresh. Writing cards, cooking a favorite meal, shopping in excess (with seven kids, if something was on sale, you bought ten of it), calling one another on Sundays...
Not only us kids, but Dad, too, seemed to expend a momentous amount of energy into recreating a surrounding environment much as Mom would maintain. As if somehow, despite Mom's permanent absence, submerging ourselves into a specific physicality of life would sustain our memories and souls.
Slowly, we each learned (at different paces and different depths) that it was okay to create new memories. New traditions. That it was not a betrayal of Mom or her memory to not bake a ham on Christmas or to not fold the towels in tri-fold but rather bi-fold. Memories injected with her presence, I learned, would always make me smile, no matter how things may now be done.
As a result, new traditions have begun to emerge within my family, poking their hesitant faces through the stomped, packed-down soil (laid by moi) and into our sunlight. They are now welcomed whole-heartedly. Fresh Polish sausage and perogies have become our Christmas dinner staple.
Dad, like a few of my siblings, will still occasionally struggle over the exactness of maintaining Mom's traditions. However, he too has gradually learned to let go of some of the uniqueness of these traditions and, instead,"go with the flow." His smiles and good-naturedness seem to walk hand-in-hand with releasing some of that burden. As they say, a remake is rarely as good as the original.
Just like the rest of us, Dad has also created some of his own rituals and traditions. And recently, while visiting him over the holidays, I was reminded of one of his rituals that I hope he never abandons.
It was during the drive home to visit my father that I explained to my wife that I was struggling to find material to write through the holidays that did not carry too much "heaviness" to it. It seemed all I was observing in the ER were patients and families with too many problems, too much heartache, and too high a level of expectation that we could fix all of their problems. On Christmas day alone, I continued, I had seen several elderly adults, without any complaints, "dumped" off in our ER by family who then immediately left to resume their holiday celebrations. "You'll have to keep Mom a few days," said one son, "so don't call me to come pick her up." After seeing an older gentleman for "trouble walking for ten years," abandoned by his family in our waiting room, I was losing a little faith.
Where was the love?
As we approached my childhood hometown, much like we always do, we turned off the main highway onto a small country road, a road that leads to the cemetery where my mother is buried. Single-lane and winding, my kids love how I beep before each sharp curve to alert an opposing vehicle or pedestrian that we are "coming around the mountain." It is a five-mile country journey that we have grown to love, anticipating the moment when we can pull off the bumpy dirt road and into the cemetery, where Mom is always waiting for our visit, right beside Christ on his crucifix. A visit back always starts this way.
Cautiously, because of freshly falling snow, our vehicle ascended the cemetery's small entrance knoll, turning left and then right and then left again, until we parked alongside the field where Mom is buried. As the kids always do, they hurried from our SUV and ran to Mom's grave stone, appreciating the fresh evergreen wreath, the new plaque, the winter flowers, and the leftover sea shells brought by Gracie the previous summer.
As my wife and I took our time getting out of the vehicle, my wife pointed down to the snow-covered ground and exclaimed, "Jim, do you see what I see?" I looked to where her finger was pointing, to the aisle leading to my mother's grave, but remained oblivious to her point.
"Look at all the other grave sites and aisles leading to them," she continued, "and tell me what you see."
I looked around at the cemetery, paying extra attention to the aisles. They were covered in freshly-fallen snow, hardly disturbed, except for the occasional lone foot prints leading to a stone and back. I looked back at the aisle leading to my mother's grave site. And then I got it--my wife's amazingly simple point.
"Do you see the footprints?" she asked, as I looked down to appreciate the well-worn path made by my father's size 15 winter boots, a path that lead right to my mother. His multiple trips back and forth were evident.
And suddenly, at this very moment during this very holiday season, I had found the love. A diamond of wonder among the sparse holiday rubble of disappointments.
My father will soon be turning 81 and, yet, twice a day, every day for the last five years, he has visited my mother. Through thick and thin. Through sunshine and snowstorms. Through the emerging dawn and the pending dusk. Rearranging fresh flowers, lovingly trimming weeds, and cursingly wiping bird poop for her stone's top. Crossing himself time and again while whispering his prayers. Sometimes, I imagine, wiping a tear from his eye. Sometimes, I'm sure, smiling his big smile while immersed in a warm memory.
And down at my feet, where I stood, was the proof of his five-year tradition--his beaten path leading to and from Mom's grave.
I smiled big, hugging my wife for pointing out this almost-missed moment. How could I have not seen this beaten, well-worn path? I grabbed my cell phone and immediately took several pictures, one included above, although none captured the minute details of each of my father's boot prints. It didn't matter, though. The moment had imprinted itself into my mind, forever.
And suddenly, as I looked toward my wife, who had joined my kids at Mom's grave site, I spun myself around, taking in the magnificent surrounding mountains while breathing in the clean country air. This world of ours made sense--the clarity of things changing, of the constant coming and going of new and old traditions that would continue to feed our wanting souls.
I wonder what traditions my children will continue when they become adults. Me? I know one tradition I hope to someday emulate or be the recipient of...
The beaten path.
To Karen, thanks for pointing out the obvious to me. As always, a big thanks to you for reading...I hope you each had a great holiday season and are enjoying the new year.