A daughter remembers her mother's released spirit

Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke

Some summer evenings, my father would burst into the house causing a ruckus between him and my mother.

"Harry, don't bring those things in here," she'd plead. "Take them down to the basement."

Mischievously, like a child defying his own mother, he'd pause and look for me, then flash his trophy: a bouquet of dead rabbits hanging from his fist, sleek and long and smelling of blood and green thickets.

I followed their ongoing argument down the basement steps, anxious for a closer look -- my mother worrying, my father crowing with pride.

Stealthily, I made my way to the grisly spot where the rabbits swung by their large feet above a sheath of newspaper.

"Don't touch; you'll get dirty and have to wash your hands," my mother warned. But the fur was irresistible. It was as if it was calling me to touch it, to recognize its wild beauty and never forget.

Years before I had worn practical slippers of leather lined with rabbit fur. They were so soft they felt like a bed of eyelashes against my naked feet. I went barefoot to avoid their fine heat.

"Mama, does it hurt a lot for them to get shot?" I was sincerely hoping it didn't.

She stroked one, too, absent-mindedly. "I don't know. But I know they scream. It sounds like a baby crying."

Maybe she thought of her firstborn, a daughter who couldn't digest the only food they had during the Depression: powdered milk, coffee and beans. Not yet 2 years old, she died in my mother's arms on her honeymoon night with my father, her second husband. Harry was only slightly less abusive than her first husband; at least, he was employed. Ironically, her decision to marry him had been for the benefit of the child who had vanished from her embrace.

At the end of her days, my mother confessed that for weeks after the baby's death, she roamed the old house where her daughter had crawled, haunted by a desire to hear her cry, the way a mother cat searches corners and closets for kittens that have been whisked away to be sold.

The hares were a great conflict for my mother. Duty said this was her moment of glory as a wife: preparing them as hasenpfeffer, a dish that brought my father's rare compliment. And yet, as she cleaned them, tears rolled down her cheeks.

"Why? Why do they scream, Mama?" Their big, glassy eyes were staring at me blankly, as if they wanted to know, too.

She had her back to me. "Go to bed now, before you catch cold." She never said, but I kind of knew.

A scream is the sound a silent thing makes when it remembers, at that last moment, what freedom was.

The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.

-- Pascal

After 42 years of marriage, my father's infidelities, jealous rages and two attempted suicides, it was actually he, not my mother, who filed for divorce. It was the bitterest of ironies and a powerful source of shame for a woman whose life was dedicated to husband and home.

She was 62. After a shattering depression, she blossomed like a hothouse orchid -- earning her GED, learning to drive for the first time, finding a job as a public housing inspector, and teaching disco dancing. Before her first marriage at 17, she had stopped creating art; now she turned night into day, painting through the still hours to reveal watercolors of luminous pears, fuchsia nudes or the bright gases of the Crab Nebula against the dark void.

She was on friendly terms with the void now.

That summer, she went to Boston with a college friend and me. On our first morning, I found her at the 24-hour diner across the street from the hotel. She'd been there all night, chatting up hookers and street people, sketching their wizened faces and slackened bodies, spouting her motherwit and learning a few new tricks.

We chastised her that she had acted foolishly -- even dangerously -- with the smug indignation of the young. In my mother's world, everything, especially fear, was her teacher. She had endured domestic violence and grinding poverty while caring for nine children, the chronic illnesses of two sons and a divorce after age 60 -- and she was supposed to be afraid?

When she died, would she simply decide to cross the street and interview a dark stranger, a guy with a funny accent who would buy her a Coney dog and tell her dirty jokes until dawn? To her, life was a process of uncovering sinister secrets to befriend them. Her heart grew larger with time until she encompassed it all -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- without terror or disdain.

I suppose the bright artist smocks and red lipstick, the unbridled laughter and optimism, the brief stint with clowning and long investigation of mysticism would look irrational to staid, more conventional minds. I trust that her butterfly soul knew exactly how long it had to soar into its own ether.

Not long.

Separation is one of attachment's conditions.

-- Lyn Buckley, Elegy for Vincent

"Mama, are you coming up?" I called, watching the shadows of our big black cherry tree flash against the ceiling and walls of my dim bedroom.

Always, without complaint, her face would peek from behind my door. Always, she would refit the corners of the sheets that smelled freshly of sky from drying on the line all day. That way, the monster beneath my bed could not grab my feet.

Her hands on my cheeks, I gazed up into her hazel eyes, the fine freckles of her summer face, the utter peace and security of her person. "Would you read to me?"

Lying next to me, she entertained me with the adventures of Lulu and Sluggo or Felix the Cat until sleep snuggled around me, heavy and warm as it pulled me into its familiar embrace.

Sometimes, I would catch her creeping from the room, thoughtfully leaving it open a crack so I could see the light in the hall if I awoke frightened in the night.

Now, at the end of her life, it was I who came to her late at night, when the nurses seemed most indifferent and absent, to straighten her sheets and plump her pillow. As trusting as a child, her sightless sky-pale eyes searched for mine.

"Do you have to go now?"

I read her my poems, favorite psalms, a corny joke. Despite congestive heart failure, diabetes and blindness, her mind was avid as ever, wiser for its lifelong troubles.

At the end of ministrations, water offered and taken (always chilled, lest she pronounce the stuff "warm as cat piss"), I tucked her in the hospital bed and headed for the door.

"Goodnight," she called out tentatively, her words like a hand reluctant to release its tentative clasp around my heart.

I always left the door open just a crack so she could see beyond the gloom of her room through the watches of the long night.

I didn't want her to lose her way as she walked in places I could not imagine -- on a journey that I could not follow.

At the moment of dawn on January 20, 1991, the sky suddenly releasing its burden of snow, Christina Trachsel died in the presence of daughters. Outside her window, I saw a herd of deer seeking higher ground. I believe she followed their tracks into a place like her heart, as gentle as it is wild.

Rebekah Shardy is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs.


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