That’s what I remember most about my mother’s writing – at least from my years growing up. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered instructions:
> Don’t forget your lunch
> Working late tonight – make dinner for James
> The dog got into the trash outside – please clean up the mess!
When I was in college and living in Ireland, my mother’s writing was more expansive, but still prosaic. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, Rhode Island weather, how business was going at her clothing store on Federal Hill… The notes were comforting to me, but I never sensed that my mom liked to write. Her handwriting appeared rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, Oh, if we could just sit and talk, that would be better.
And then, at age 71, my mom asked me to read something she was working on. “I guess it’s a poem,” she said. “A memory, really.”
William Zinsser calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” The Blanket is my mom’s word snapshot of her life circa 1965, when our family lived in a double-decker on River Avenue in Providence, downstairs from her dying mother.
My mom wasn’t great at spelling. She worried that she had never mastered verb tenses and punctuation and syntax. I told her that was the easy stuff – we’d figure it out, no problem. “Lots of people know how to write,” I said. “But not everyone has something to say. That’s what’s hard.”
Though clearly not for her.
* * *
I have been sleeping under my
mother’s deathbed blanket
for thirty-six years.
It is white with delicate pink flowers
that grow from bottom to top
along the fold that drops
over the edge of the bed.
It was my blanket, a gift from Nana.
Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay
its newness on my mother’s sickbed.
The newness would certainly warn
the transporter being sent to take
my mother away
that she wasn’t ready yet!
Without her, who was to discover
the shoe-box cradle made
by a pre-school wizard?
Whose eyes would watch from the
second-floor window as the four-year-old
football hero ran for the touchdown pass?
Where would I find the approval she
gave me when, in the midst of my own
chaos, I pressed my new baby
into her arms?
The blanket, now thinning, with flowers
faded and ribbon missing, still covers
me as I journey into sleep each night.
I think I will lie beneath it until
the day I die.
– Norma Pantalone Walsh
March 22, 1933 – May 5, 2013