We are waiting.
Three of us are quiet with our thoughts or our books or our phones. One of us waits alone, drawing breath every once in awhile. Not in pain now….and that makes the waiting as easy as it can be.
I picture my dad waiting too. He’s leaning on a fence post near a big green gate without a speck of rust. He's wearing work clothes and work gloves and a straw hat. He’s come to meet my mom.
I’ve comforted myself these last days by looking through their photo albums and the pictures from the slides my dad scanned onto CDs. Here’s my dad planting a shrub on their corner lot….and tending a couple of rather scrawny tomato plants.
Here’s my dark-headed vivacious mother walking hand in hand with her two little girls…wielding a long handled hoe in what seems to be a gale force prairie wind….in work gloves, flats and a dress skirt and blouse? Looks like a very young me is doing my best to help, wearing a determined expression for the camera. The background could be Dust Bowl Oklahoma or Ash Can School industrial with naught but bare dirt and power lines far as the eye can see. In one picture she's as elegant as Jackie Kennedy...in another the camera catches a mama-to-be reading the color coded notes on a toy piano under the Christmas tree.
I remember that piano….
My kids tease me about the roomful of photo albums I have accumulated in this digital age, but they would understand were they to measure the albums and scrapbooks my mother created over the sixty years of married life. Nothing escaped her artistic eye; nothing was too trivial to be wonderful captured in the camera’s lens. Oftentimes the photographs my father took...were of my mother… trimming a tree, hanging out clothes, blowing out candles, walking through the woods, holding her babies.
But my mother recorded everything from Mt. Rainier to model planes, the first day of school to the first great grandson, from my dad high on the roof painting their century old barn to showing off a computer desk he had fashioned by hand for their condo by the Lake.
Fireworks, daffodils, gravestones, car shows, band concerts, daylilies. Country churches, county courthouses, small town main streets: her camera accompanied her day-to-day tasks on the farm and criss crossing the blue roads of Missouri long before the ubiquity and spontaneity of cell phones made photography universal.
Our family carries a Canon to every event of consequence. My mother is the reason why.
She encouraged imagination and creativity in her children. She supplied scarves and discarded jewelry for dress up and make believe; we never lacked for watercolor paints or chalk or crayons or colored pencils, even if we lacked talent. As I leaf through the scrapbooks, I see stories I wrote in grade school and Laura’s whimsical drawings of fanciful birds, animals and plants. We spent many hours at the local libraries and I can thank my mom for pointing me toward Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, Treasure Island and Dr. Doolittle, Nancy Drew and Jules Verne, the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, the British mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and the exotic African tales of H. Rider Haggard. She sewed constantly, making our simple play clothes and our Easter finery, supplying our bedtimes with the entire cast of A.A. Milne characters. The cedar chests and trunks of our home were always chock full of fabrics purchased for future projects...and bargains off the remnant table. When I worked in Washington, D.C. the summer before Blake and I married, she traveled out to visit, bringing the wedding dress she was making for me to try on, especially the intricate lace jacket with its ruffled cuffs and trim. I borrowed a car and we drove to Monticello and Civil War battlefields one day and Harpers Ferry another; it was a grand adventure.
One of my Easter dresses got a second life this last week when Abbie wore it as Little Bo Peep in ‘Shrek’. I’m sorry my mom didn’t know that; it would have pleased her so much.
One year our family traveled by train to Utah to visit my mom’s family in Ogden. Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Delore took us up into the Wasatch Mountain canyons and out to visit other relatives near Eden...Utah, that is, as well as all the sights related to the history of the Mormon church. I was captivated by the monument of Brigham Young and the early pioneers and the story behind “This is the Place” and the Mormons’ endeavors to ‘make the desert bloom.’ Those were my mom’s people, and even though she was married at First Presbyterian in Jefferson City and joined the Lutheran church after her marriage, I think some of that ‘make the desert bloom’ history was part of her DNA. Their home in Orland Park was spartan at first..but there were houseplants in the west window of the dining room and a treasured antique Christmas cactus in my parent’s bedroom. The dust clouds of those early photos were transformed to bowers of morning glories and four o’ clocks, marigolds and moss rose. She let Laura and me start Dixie cups of marigolds on our window sill. Besides the apple orchards on their farm, my mother and father grew grapes for jam and juice and wine, strawberries, red and black raspberries, cherries and plums and pears and peaches when the weather cooperated. A summertime visit meant a bowl of berries at every meal, sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey. In the summer, the house plants moved from the greenhouse to the cool and breezy market; a long raised bed of daylilies welcomed a visitor through the gate; crape myrtle and hardy hibiscus brought bright color to the late summer doldrums and dust of August. Sometimes mid Missouri felt like the desert, but my mother could make it bloom.
It’s good to remember those days, not these last days when her spark shone rarely. It’s sad to know she can’t call me ‘love’ where I can hear her. But I picture my folks in the early cool of a summertime morning walking down through dewy grass...my dad’s headed for his shop and my mom has a wash basket of laundry to hang on the line. The daylilies are abloom and there are berries to pick before it gets too hot. They are together on their beautiful farm...and one day we will see them there too.
Virginia Ann Renken
December 25, 1933- June 28, 2017