May 13, 2016KR BlogBlogRemembrancesWriting

Aloha, Mother



Toni Morrison, in her essay “The Site of Memory,” writes:

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’

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Mrs. and Mr. Hessel (Barb and Bill) sometime in the 70s. Love that dress!
Mrs. and Mr. Hessel (Barb and Bill) in the 70s. That dress and that smile!

I met Barb (Mrs. Hessel to me) when her son Brian and I were in first grade together in Mrs. Smith’s class. Barb was our room mother. I don’t remember any of the other room mothers from elementary school, but I do remember her. She was funny and sweet and she helped out during our first grade play called Aloha, Mother, which was about a little girl who comes to the mainland from Hawaii. Kahiki gets made fun of—mostly by Brian’s character, Jerry. Jerry says about Kahiki: “She won’t be inside the door before she starts telling us about Mother’s Day in Hawaii.” And: “Kahiki! That’s some name!”

I have a keen memory for the past, but I know all of this because I still have the program and the play script. I save things. I remember we had these delicious pineapple-shaped sugar cookies (there’s a picture of me eating one) and Barb told me she made them using a whale cookie cutter, because she could not find a pineapple one. She was creative and talented.

Here is the photo of me with Mrs. Smith, our first grade teacher; I was six. I’m eating one of the pineapple cookies Barb made.
A photo of me with Mrs. Smith, our first grade teacher; I was six. I’m eating one of the pineapple cookies Barb made.

I wrote the above two paragraphs as part of my remarks at the celebration of Barb’s life. Since I had held onto my mimeographed copy of the script, I included lines from our play, which was about Mother’s Day.

You can still make out the faded purple typewriter font in the program and the script. You can see the smudges from school glue from the program. The construction paper backing is long gone.

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I’ve always been aware of this—being (overly) nostalgic for a time that’s over. Who would want to stay in first grade forever? Not me, but I remember it as a happy time. I’m glad I kept some photos and our play script.

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Was it all for this future memorial and I didn’t know it? Or did I find a way to make these objects useful, this ephemera, given the opportunity—so many years later. It never crossed my mind that Barb would be anywhere but at her house on 330 Varinna Drive. She was youthful—a young 67 years old when she died, her life filled with laughter, her grandchildren, making quilts.

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In his essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams quotes William Saroyan first and then writes two sentences I’ve never forgotten:

“In the time of your life—live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

We grow older, things change, the world changes. How does one devote one’s heart to stopping this time from slipping away—except by living fully—and perhaps by writing?

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My teacher, Mrs. Smith, also attended Barb’s memorial service, and now there’s a photo of us from the service, from a month ago. Mrs. Smith looks very much the same, and after many years of looking more or less like my younger self, I can see my face looks different now. I can see some of the stress of the last two years in the photograph, and it makes me sad. Stress even from things that, in some cases, we think of as good: love, marriage, moving, a change of jobs, more time to write, a new life.IMG_8651

At the memorial service, Mrs. Smith told us about her new beau. I showed her a photo of my husband from our wedding last June. He and I each wore four garlands (it was a traditional Hindu ceremony). Mrs. Smith and I beamed at each other. She had come to the event late and missed me speaking. I handed her my copy of my remarks.

At the end of the play Aloha, Mother, little kids bring out different flowers to present to the moms and say some verses. Here’s are two:

KA-HI-KI: Jack brings the promise of the primrose.

JACK (Holding primrose):

The primrose is for youthfulness. / Its color is pure gold. / We give it to our mother / So she will never grow old.

KA-HI-KI: Jane will speak for the forget-me-not.

JANE (Holding forget-me-nots):

The tiny, blue forget-me-not / Is just the sweetest ever. / And it belongs to Mother. / Could we forget her? Never!

In the final scene of the play, we placed garlands around our mothers. The script explains to the audience: “You put it [a lei] around the neck of someone you love.”

Check out Mom’s polyester pantsuit.

I always thought aloha meant hello, but it means both hello and goodbye. It means two things at once—not unlike my favorite line in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost: “It was like the Asian Nod, which included in its almost circular movement the possibility of a no.” This is a head movement that South Asians make—something between the American yes and no—and which can mean either. In Gujarati, the language my parents speak—which was my first language and which still ghosts inside the English I mainly speak now—the word for yesterday and today is the same, “kaal-eh,” only distinguished by context and the form of verb used. The word holds both past and future at once.

I’ve often been criticized for this—or it’s been an observation from both friends and others who are not friends—how present the past is for me, within both present and future.

In an essay titled “Walking Tributaries” that I published five years ago in my college alumnae magazine, Wellesley, I wrote: “What I know how to do, what I love to do is to rubberband back, is to walk through a landscape with the layers of every other time I’ve been there underneath and around me, shifting as I walk. I am five years ago and now with every step.”

I wonder sometimes if this predilection for the past gets in the way of seeing what is in front of me—even my preference for seeing the 70s photo of me and Mrs. Smith rather than the 2016 one. Every day a palimpsest, every moment a ghost of another moment.

It seems unbelievable to me that Barb is not here. A month from diagnosis to death. I hear Barb’s laugh, see the quilts she made hanging up on display at the Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church that day. I remember her taking our photos before the Senior Ball; Brian was my date. He was my childhood crush, my first love. I remember the family photos in their family room and in the hallway. I remember calling her daughter Cheryl “angel” in elementary school, because of her curly blonde hair. I remember it made her mad. Brian and I are still friends. He and his wife attended my wedding. I still think about Barb.

What do I miss by not seeing what is in front of me? Instead, I conjure my first grade teacher. Also from the memorial service, there’s a photo of her with her former students (we’re all grown up and then some) on Facebook.

Mrs. Smith (center) surrounded by former students. Brian and Cheryl are in purple on the right.
Mrs. Smith (center) surrounded by former students. Brian and Cheryl are in purple on the right.

I am grateful to still have that script—is this what I have been saving things for? I found my form, some vein that felt natural to me, writing elegies, eulogies, anything in the elegiac vein. World that was before. I did not know what to say. A first grade play script contributed some words around which to build a eulogy.

During Barb’s last few days, Brian and I texted. I wanted to know how he was, how she was. He had told me to call her a week before that, but I had been afraid. It had been several years since I had seen her and I didn’t know what to say. I thought there might be more time (I was in LA and thought I could wait to call when I got back to Rochester—or to stop by).

Barb with Brian, Bill, and Cheryl.

Instead, while in LA, I sent Cheryl a Facebook message and asked her to please read it to Barb. Cheryl said she did, and that Barb loved it. I mentioned Aloha, Mother in my letter and said she was the best room mother everIt was my way of saying I love you. I was shy. Just to be sure, I wrote it anyway.