This photo was captured on my last afternoon with both my mother and my godmother, and it will be a precious memento for years to come. We stood on a balcony in the Palm Beach sunshine and did nothing but smile in that embrace. Now, they are both gone, but I count myself the luckiest of girls to have been with them for six decades, for their love is an epic tale.
The two, Eileen McAllister and Barbara Rice, met while in elementary school in Brooklyn, and soon became fast friends. Friends who became related when Barbara married my mother’s cousin. Throughout my childhood, I knew she was my godmother, and my Aunt, but Barbara’s role as my mother’s best friend took precedence over any other. Those two would hide away in each others’ bedrooms, or speak their special invented language if we children drifted within earshot, and for the entirety of their years, this special relationship never altered. Children? Between the two they had 14: Barbara had 8, while my modern mother only 6. But the responsibilities we 14 brought into their lives never stopped them from laughing up a storm hour after hour.
As I rode the Bridgeport Ferry into Port Jefferson, through the breakwaters into the harbor I scanned the homes nestled along the shore, and in my memory I could still see them there, up on their respective porches, waving a sheet to welcome me back to our summer place. These were mothers whose doors were always open. Who were the happiest surrounded by family. And that meant hordes of people and all the chaos we brought with us. Didn’t matter. Arms opened. These mothers were our safe place.
Immediately in the front door, there would be a talk of corn and lobster and peaches. Of taking a dip in the sound before dinner. There would, eventually, be conversations that hit the bone, and those might come as we walked along the rocky beach but without fail there would be those two off laughing. Feisty Barbara, as so many referred to her, was not one to back down or to beat around the bush. She let you know exactly where she stood. And as the water lapped our feet, she often did just that. On this day, that of her wake, I imagined how we would argue politics or environment or even dinner options, but then my mother would laugh, and turn the talk back to their children and grandchildren and they would both strut out all the latest accomplishments. Those proud and fierce mothers always showed me what matters most. Those voices will never diminish.
Many of Barbara’s children revealed that after my mother passed, their mom just lost her will to go on. She outlived her almost a year, but life’s luster was diminished without her dearest and oldest confidant. I understand that loss, for all of us miss my mother’s exuberance daily. Sadly, now we have Barbara’s own radiance to miss, for her light was one of great beauty.
On the day of Barbara’s funeral, there was, of course, plenty of talk of my mother too. Especially as we come upon the anniversary of her passing. A cousin asked me if I feel my mother’s presence, if I still feel her in my life. I paused, and after thinking for a minute said yes. I tried to explain that I feel her inside me. I feel her when I stand tall. When I speak the truth. When I remember that I am stronger than I think. Standing on this beach, on their beach, where they raised all 14 of us, and a dozen or so cousins and plenty more beyond even our clan, and struggled through our antics, and their own marriages, and careers after the kids were raised, and all the loss and beauty life showered upon them, standing here, I can feel them both loving me still. Loving us all.