Although a fabulous pretender my mother was not a fly by nighter: she was a planner. In August we planned our Christmas gathering, at Christmas we planned our summer reunion. While I begin the task of emptying her scarf drawer, winter closet and filing cabinet, I see that some of her plans weren’t as rock solid as I once thought to be, but compared to who I was at say 15 or even 26, I can state for certain she got me to look forward and plot out a life worth looking back on. My mother usually began our random solitary talks quick to the chase by asking, “What’s your five year plan?” On first hearing, her question was as alien to me as reading Mandarin, maybe even more so.
I am one of six, and generally, practically always, I gather to celebrate with my family, including my own brood, for every major holiday. Somewhere along the way my mother decided that scheduling a walk with each of us, separately, would be the only way she’d be sure to not only see us during these hectic visits, but speak to us privately. Also this kept her walking, which she loved, and did at breakneck speed. As I was pregnant 3 times during my twenties when she doggedly insisted on this ritual, I often trailed behind, carrying a child, one way or the other, and trying desperate to keep up.
The five year plan remained a constant opening question, followed by, did I have any idea what kind of life I would be living with one, then two, and finally three little ones, say, in 5 years? Married, then not, this question took on more urgency. In my memory I only uttered blankly. Daily there were dirty diapers and dinner demands, shopping for soccer cleats and Now with a capital N, starting at dawn and ending just about never. Unlike my mother I was not a planner. Skipped college. Didn’t bother about bedtimes. Mine were a boisterous crew, who, ran me ragged. Clearly my mother saw that, so she kept up her big picture questions. Ever think of going back to school? Something beyond this now? Care about the world beyond your picket fence? I’m fairly sure I just gave her the one raised eyebrow look and listed my present day matters that would cement anybody’s idealism into reality. But not my mother. She persisted in reminding me that there was more. Plenty more. Enough so that I found my way into everything she might have hoped.
My first 5 year plan, which I deliberately set into motion, didn’t come about until my early 30’s, and shocked even my parents’ flexible sensibility, but with 3 babies I signed a divorce document and entered college in the same year. My parents took over where they could. Summer’s they scooped the three up for a week or two and opened doors for their imaginations to soar. There were art camps. Basketball camps. Beach time beyond our land-locked state. Hikes in the woods, swims across the lake, and dinners at the Club. During the school year piano and violin lessons. We all saw more and more of the magnificent world and year after year got closer to graduations. One degree followed by another, I was miraculously at 10 years with a Master’s and guiding my teens through solid plans of their own.
In reflection I now understand there was more to my mother’s seemingly simple question. It wasn’t intended to be only about me. About what I would do with my life, this terribly short life, but what I would give back for having been graced with this life. In her later years she would ask if I was helping the poor. If I gave to those suffering around me. She reminded me that at some point that would be all that really mattered. I got a check mark for 20 + years of teaching at a rural public school but she prodded me to see there was more that I could do. Last spring I heard her ask my grown children the same: How are you giving to this world we share?
Even without her physical voice my mother’s questions will continue to bounce around in my head and prod me along to walk, and talk, and plan, and care beyond our small separate worlds.
The ship goes on
as though nothing else were happening.
Generation after generation,
I go her way.
She will run East, knot by knot, over an old bloodstream,
stripping it clear,
each hour ripping it, pounding, pounding,
forcing through as through a virgin.
Oh she is so quick!
This dead street never stops!” (Crossing the Atlantic, Anne Sexton).