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my mother

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

    Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

My mother’s birthday was July 7; born in 1925 she would have been 90 years old this year. Through the years we usually celebrated it along with our July 4 festivities, and this holiday and something about summer clothing reminds me of her. I originally wrote this essay in 2013.

. . . . . . .

I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.

I walked right into the thick of sleeveless summer tops in gingham with white collars, striped tank tops, colorful crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband in the women’s clothing department right by the front door. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered over it all, putting outfits together for my mother.

Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I still think to myself, “Mom would love that,” even if I walked nowhere near the clothes.

I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability to wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred pants and more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.

But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!” just as I had done all through childhood with rocks and bugs and feathers and flowers and, of course, kittens.

Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it would be identified if it ended up in the laundry, and couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.

However it happened, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them because often they refused. I had ideas but never figured out why the things I brought just weren’t right, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.

Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but now, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.

And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she liked what I’d bought but found things hard to accept. As time went on and her eyesight gave in to macular degeneration and she could not see the stains and wear on her favorite clothes, she still dressed the same, or thought she did. The aides at the places she lived made sure to cajole her to wear something else when they knew we were going out.

My mother’s birthday is July 7, born in 1925 she would have been 90 years old this year. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.

On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but they added a grand finale to a day of memories.

. . . . . . . .

I posted on July 4 a photo from my garden of a female Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in her black form. This dark cloaking mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and predators have adapted to avoid them, so the black form female Tiger Swallowtail keeps herself safe though she is not at all dangerous.

The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.

I’ve written other essays about my mother, read them here.

. . . . . . .

When I began this blog I had intended to use it for the occasional essay; well, more than occasional, I had also wanted to encourage myself to write more essays and short stories more frequently, especially as I was in the thick of caring for my mother in her declining years. It was that very caregiving that kept me from taking the time to write. I’ve been drafting articles, and have much to explore where my parents are concerned.

. . . . . . .

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit “purchasing” for availability and terms.

 

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Composition

photo of composition book memory of mother
photo of composition book memory of mother

My mother’s composition book from a banking class, 1940.

My mother ended her long battle with life four years ago today. I think of her daily in one thing or another as I’m sure we all do our mothers. Though ours was a more antagonistic relationship and memories are not so fine, in my everyday thoughts I find a different story and one small theme has come back to me frequently lately.

When I was little and discovering the world I took everything I found that I could carry and presented it to my mother. She rejected everything—bird feathers, rocks, flowers, small household items I’d found in the street, kittens—telling me she was allergic to the thing and not to bring it into the house. If I did, it disappeared. Years later, living in personal care, clothes I purchased for her were similarly rejected, or if accepted, would appear on someone else as she’d given them away.

Fifty years of that never stopped me from trying. My mother suffered from serious depression and I think I sensed that very early on, possibly because it was particularly bad after I was born, and I had the urge to both share my wonder and to make her happy, and I also brought things I just thought she’d like. Those patterns can be difficult to shake. I’ll never be convinced that nothing I shared through life—success in college, my paintings, my artwork, my writing, on and on—got into her. Every once in a while she would slip and make a remark that proved she remembered exactly what I’d shared and why.

So every once in a while, when in the course of everyday life I look something up on the internet, often read e-newsletters and my newspapers and magazines and watch movies on my computer, I think how much she would have loved the internet, just absolutely been absorbed by it. A lover of crossword puzzles, I remember her sitting in her chair working a puzzle surrounded by all her reference books, the crossword dictionaries, thesaurus, encyclopedias—old, but some information is timeless—various almanacs, world atlases and other reference books. Then there were the television shows and movies and the reference books on those subjects, then baseball, especially, and football to a certain extent, and the Olympics, and politics, and she had it all there in books and if she couldn’t relate a fact immediately she would find it.

She loved looking something up, just the act of pursuing facts and finding them was exciting. So was proving someone wrong, but that might be expected. And so was voicing loud opinions and having a heated discussion about politics or music or current events, sitting in her chair in the corner of the room and not often leaving the house, indulging in early talk radio.

To have all those facts and more at the click of a mouse would be exhilarating. I can picture her today constantly researching something just because it was there, and also firing off comments on Facebook, repeatedly watching her favorite movies on Netflix, and checking the weather hourly. It would be ideal for someone like her.

She had lung cancer surgery and a near-fatal cardiac condition in May 2001 but recovered enough to return to her home for a little over a year, after I had begun working at home. I constantly checked on her, finding her asleep in front of Lifetime TV and a movie she’d watched over a dozen times already. Her eyesight for small print was failing and she was nearing cataract surgery, so I got her a small boom box with both cassette and CD and checked recorded books from the library for her. Same rejection pattern with those, although there were some all-time hits that she could listen to over and over and I was glad they were long ones.

I had the chance, briefly, to introduce her to the computer, and did so. I cooked for her all the time, taking the food to her house in meal-size containers that could be heated in the microwave, and at least twice per month I drove her to my house for Sunday dinner, which was usually some sort of soup or, unbeknownst to her, vegetarian/vegan variations on some favorites like stew or holuptsi (stuffed cabbage) as I didn’t eat meat and she was supposed to be careful of cholesterol and such things.

While here, I used my computer to show her around the internet. A computer can seem completely unmanageable to people who’ve never used one, and in 2001 there just weren’t as many computers in everyday life as there are now and most people didn’t have a computer at home, though many did at work. I wasn’t concerned she wouldn’t learn to use it. In the 80s I had taught her to drive and she got her license the day she qualified for Medicare. If she wanted it, she’d learn it.

I used the mouse and, humoring me, she typed, we looked up a few things, equating that with using the index in an encyclopedia, showed her a few early online stores using JCPenney and comparing it to the catalog. Quickly enough she was frustrated by the mechanics of it and I knew I’d just have to find one moment of her discovering its potential. One afternoon she actually moused around herself and looked up a few things, and then a few facts pertinent to our conversation. Then we sent an email to my niece, her granddaughter, in Savannah GA (we are in Pittsburgh PA) and got an answer back. I could see the wheels begin to turn.

Unfortunately she was regularly developing pneumonia living at home and spent some time in the hospital after that day, moving directly into personal care. She was weak for a long time and angry to be where she was, and as much as I thought about how much fun a computer would be where she lived, in that day, personal care homes did not have wifi. By the time computers and wifi were widely available it was way too late.

If she had not suffered that illness and still lived at home, a computer would have been one of those gifts I would have gladly gotten for her, one that would not have been rejected, I know that for sure. She probably would have had me install it on her kitchen table where she spent time in the morning at crafts and creative things. I can almost picture here there. It may not be a memory, but it’s the next best thing.

Read other essays and poetry I’ve written about my mother.

. . . . . .

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit “purchasing” for availability and terms.


Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

memories of mother, butterfly on phlox

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

When I began this blog I had intended to use it for the occasional essay; well, more than occasional, I had also wanted to encourage myself to write more essays and short stories more frequently, especially as I was in the thick of caring for my mother in her declining years. It was that very caregiving that kept me from taking the time to write. I’ve been drafting articles, and rather than go back the beginning to catch up with issues in the order in which they arose, I am beginning now.

. . . . . . .

I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.

I walked right into the thick of sleeveless summer tops in gingham with white collars, striped tank tops, colorful crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband in the women’s clothing department right by the front door. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered over it all, putting outfits together for my mother.

Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I’d think to myself, “Mom would love this.”

I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability to wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred pants and more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.

But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!”

Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it would be identified in the laundry, and couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.

Whatever, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them. I had ideas but never figured this out, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.

Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but now, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.

And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she liked what I’d bought but found things hard to accept. As time went on and her eyesight gave in to macular degeneration and she could not see the stains and wear on her favorite clothes, she still dressed the same, or thought she did. The aides at the places she lived made sure to cajole her to wear something else when they knew we were going out.

My mother would have been 89 years old today, July 7, 2014. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.

On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but they added a grand finale to a day of memories.

. . . . . . . .

I posted on July 4 a photo from my garden of a female Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in her black form. This dark cloaking mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and predators have adapted to avoid them, so the black form female Tiger Swallowtail keeps herself safe though she is not at all dangerous.

The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.


Mother’s Day

petunias
petunias

Petunias

I always had a difficult time finding an adequate Mother’s Day Gift for my mother, but at one point settled on purchasing a couple flats of flowers and planting them in her yard. I did this for nearly 20 years, also starting seeds for flowers she liked that I couldn’t find, like hollyhocks. Though my style goes for the wildlife habitat and naturally shaped areas of wildflowers and trees, my mother’s yard was carefully sculpted with edged flower beds and shaped shrubs—I know because I was the one who did all the trimming—and she never failed to sneer and ask if I wasn’t going to clean up around here when she visited, we could agree on the riot of color of impatiens, petunias, geraniums and marigolds along with the occasional verbena, alyssum and other annual bedding plants.

The flower solution was more than an answer to a predicament; it reached much deeper than that. To say my mother and I didn’t get along well is a simplification, in fact an affront, to a much deeper issue. My mother lived behind a wall of serious clinical depression, and when I was born she developed most likely a deep post-natal depression that went on for more than a year and had a negative physical effect on her too, changing her body as well as her mind for that period of time. Though she recovered from this, lost the weight and regained her self esteem she had lasting medical and physical issues for the rest of her life. A part of her always seemed to hold me to blame for that awful time in her life and the changes in her body, I could see it in her eyes every time she looked at me. She kept her distance from me, treated me differently, denied things to me and even into her days of dementia she still berated me for imagined things I’d done, never thanking me for the things I actually had done, except for one brief time in all her illnesses she really was weak enough to let the wall down.

I learned some of the explanations for this through paperwork I’d found in her house when I sold it and which I still have, finding at least partial answers to many questions regarding both my mother and my father and their actions. At some point years ago I realized depression was the issue and instead of arguing and rebelling I just decided I’d get the heck out of there when I could. I sent myself to college, and it was the break I needed.

As the youngest I was always on hand until college, and in feeling I was responsible for my mother’s happiness I became her caretaker and in one capacity or another I maintained that role for all the rest of my mother’s life, through my father’s lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease, her many surgeries and medical treatments and nursing her to health afterward, actually teaching her to drive and buying her a car when I was totally unwilling to be a taxi service, pursuing the diagnosis of her lung cancer, and shepherding her through surgery, near death, recovery, home care, personal care and skilled nursing.

But I always knew, trapped behind that wall, was a person just like me. Years ago I had begun slipping behind that wall myself and understood the perspective from that place, but I was lucky to have escaped and managed it through my adult life. Though patience and understanding wore thin and there were times I avoided my mother altogether, I would do anything to see she had what she needed.

And she needed flowers. I could do that.

I’ve written other essays about my mother, read them here.

. . . . . . .

For a print of any photo, visit “purchasing” for availability and terms.

All images in this post are copyright © Bernadette E. Kazmarski and may not be used without prior written permission.


Poem for Saturday: About My Mother

my mother
my mother

Helen L. Kazmarski

My mother died in late January 2011 and around this time I always remember her. I wrote this poem the night she died, and  first wrote this post after her memorial.

I lost my mother at age 85 after so many levels of illness in her life: decades of chronic conditions and surgeries, the lung cancer ten years ago that weakened and eventually put her in personal care, the beginnings of dementia two years ago, the move to skilled nursing a year ago, the weight loss and greater need for care all leading to the last few months of decline.

two women

My mother and me in our only photo together, in our sailor dresses and our big 80s hair, 35 years apart in age.

She was in the hospital with the last bout of congestive heart failure when she died. The night she died my brother and I went to her room at the nursing home to take the few possessions she had left there; I didn’t want to go back there if I didn’t need to, and I knew the next few days would be very busy. I was holding back sobs as we walked in, but words were forming in my head and when we entered I took a small scrap of paper and wrote a few of them down. That was enough to ease my heart for the moment, setting the intent, enough to get me through that and back home.

woman with babies

My mother in her mid-70s with two of her great grandchildren.

After several phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat in the quiet of the night outside watching the snow gently fill the air and fall in a soft blanket on the ground, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk, wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite. I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading, just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others, and to read the new poem, and that I would also read it at the little service we’d have for her at the funeral home.

I could never encapsulate 85 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem, so I won’t even try, but I want to share this. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the shirt she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.

I’ve also written a post over on The Creative Cat about this process of loss.

Without further ado, here is the poem.

About My Mother

Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.

All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.

I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
and great-grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.

When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.

About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski


Full Wolf Moon

moonrise in bare tree
moonrise in bare tree

Wolf Moonrise

The winter sunset shades to deep pink in the east as the Wolf Moon rises over the hill, encircled by the branches of an oak tree.

The moon still looks a little hard-edged and flashed out, but at least I managed to get a little detail on it. Usually under these conditions the moon looks like a flashlight in the sky, just a hard bright circle, but it was moderated somewhat, perhaps by the branches in front of it.

And I finally caught that pink glow over the horizon fading to the faded turquoise of a winter sky in the east, opposite a sunset, on a clear, cold night.

. . . . . . .

I quickly shot this photo as I packed my camera equipment out of my car on my way to the paranormal investigation at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall January 7, 2012. My family, especially my mother, had a strong tie to the place; in the houses you can see near the bottom of the photo, my mother was born and grew up in the one you can see the best, the yellow one.

. . . . . . .

A few months after I’d published this image, a conservation organization in California asked permission to use the image in their newsletter to accompany a poem by William Carlos Williams. Would I mind…

The Hills Conservation Network (HCN) of Oakland CA published one of my photos, “Wolf Moonrise”, in their latest newsletter.

The HCN was formed after the devastating 1991 East Bay Hills fire. In a state known for wildfires this was the worst one to date in 1991, killing 25 people and injuring  52 others, leaving some 10,000 people homeless by destroying 3,354 single-family homes and 456 apartment units. The group formed to help organize efforts in restoring the scarred land while  preparing for other wildfires in a way that would mitigate future damage as much as possible.

They publish a quarterly newsletter, and in this case the Winter 2012 was “celebrating trees”. They would publish a poem by William Carlos Williams entitled Winter Trees and wanted my photo to illustrate.

No one has to twist my arm to have a photo published along with a poem by William Carlos Williams, and while I didn’t remember this particular poem once I read it I was in full agreement, especially at the lines: A liquid moon/moves gently among/the long branches.

I am also glad to help an organization whose mission I support, and those interested in carefully reforesting and restoring the land and preparing wisely for future actions.

Click here to read the newsletter; my photo and the poem are on page 3.

. . . . . . .

For a print of any photo, visit “purchasing” for availability and terms. For photos of lots of black cats and other cats—and even some birds as I first published this post there—visit The Creative Cat.


The Christmas Moon

photo of moon over hill
photo of moon over hill

The Christmas Moon

This is one of my stories of Christmas magic, a little interesting moment that really did happen one Christmas night a several years ago.

A few years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also deepening to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon perfectly placed above the uneven horizon line, a mix of pine trees and the reaching bare branches of deciduous trees, these nearly silhouetted against the sky. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene as I drove along, vowing to remember the composition and carry its beauty with me.

As I followed the curves of the road the moon seemed to follow me on my right, a watchful presence as I drove through the deepening twilight. I had just driven my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. The two places were at least 50 miles apart and the journey took quite some time on both highways and back roads. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. At each place I stopped for a while to help them in and to get resettled in their respective spaces and discuss their care with staff. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen, there was very little traffic and the day had been beautiful, clear and sunny though cold and now, alone, I had some time to ponder.

Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.

A small valley opened out on my right, a flood plain along a stream, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on one side of the road then the other, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road while on the other side the hill would fall into a valley, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.

As I passed this little valley I noticed movement among the trees, probably a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, and more by intuition than actual fact it had seemed human to me. We recognize these things without realizing, that ancient part of our brain assembling patterns and instinctive knowledge before our slower logical brain can react, and making out of the pieces something we can recognize.

The fact that it might be a person was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, and while I might wonder if the person was in danger or in need of some sort I would be most likely to allow them their privacy. But something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why, probably that ancient brain reacting again, but I trust it when it does that. And even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there was a possibility I tried to pursue these little ideals that arose, stopping to explore. At that time, with all the complications of my life, I rarely felt I had the time to spend chasing an illusion, but I didn’t question the need to explore this one.

I had passed the valley by that time so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see into it.

That silent pale yellow moon, now nearly white, still shone on my right, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, and shone directly into the little space lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.

But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.

And if, instead of being the author, I was reading this and didn’t know the story, I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie, I remained alone, you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.

As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, typically a sour and sarcastic person but here, almost unrecognizable in her happiness. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.

Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio as I almost wished I was right then.

But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life; some of them, sadly, rarely so. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.

I had been thinking so deeply about them all as I drove in that deepening twilight under the watchful eye of that full moon, remembering where I had memories of them or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and even sometimes I get so lost in these necessary alternate realities that I feel the cold or hot or wind, I have the conversation, I see the light in a person’s eyes. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together, happy to be alive. I will never know which it was, but I would be comforted to know this was how they would all spend eternity.


Poem for Saturday: My Mother’s Tuesday Afghan

photo of colorful crocheted afghan
photo of colorful crocheted afghan

My mother’s Tuesday afghan.

I stopped in at the nursing home to see my mother on a November afternoon in 2010, and, really, the first thing I saw when I looked in her room was the afghan pictured above, and it immediately took me back to an earlier day, a similar afghan…and a younger mother.

. . . . . . .

My Mother’s Tuesday  Afghan

She was calling, calling
reaching from the depths of the body
I no longer recognized
to this world she no longer recognizes
an imitation of reality
patched together from
leftovers of memories,
pleading for someone to do something,
but the first thing I saw
was the afghan across her bed
one big granny square
row upon row growing larger
each row a different color
brighter and more cheerful
with each row.

She recognizes my voice
but not really who I am
still I can guide her attention
away from her unidentified need
in this unfamiliar world
to where mine had gone
when I saw the afghan
remembering one just like it I’d made
decades before as a young teenager
scraps of yarn from other afghans I’d made
for other family members
each row a different person
a different room in a different house
a different memory
and given to my brother.

And so with leftover scraps of memories
tied to leftover scraps of yarn
I led her back to her home,
the afghans, my brother, the 70s
all of us
a time I knew she held close
until her voice lost the desperate note
and she sat back
talking of the neighborhood
and the new kitchen makeover,
my cat Bootsie and her kittens,
and of people who had died years ago
and, surrounded by these familiar things
in an era where I’ve always felt she was happiest,

I hoped she might spend the afternoon there.

Poem (c) 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

She was in her bed calling for someone to do something, I’m not sure what, and it took a while for her to recognize my voice; her macular degeneration had virtually blinded her, just as her dementia had done, taking away the reality we see and feel every day and replacing it with an inferior imitation, patched together from the leftovers of memories. Visiting her at that point, just two months before she died, was not easy because she was mentally so far away and the confusion really frightened her. I appreciated any tiny kernel that could help to organize her mind, and in this case, mine as well.

I did my best to take her mind from her unidentified need by pointing out the afghan, which she could barely see though I described it. I’d made one much like it years before just as I described, out of scraps of yarn left over from afghans I’d made for sister and aunts and even neighbors, every row a different color, a different person, a different room, a different home, round and round, and gave it to my brother who hadn’t yet received one of my crocheted creations, and through many situations he kept it for years though it had ended up in her house. Pulling together those odds and ends of memory, the yarn, the afghans, the 70s, my brother, all slowly steered her to a different memory, focused on a different time, and I hoped she might spend her afternoon there.

Ironically, that time was a profoundly unhappy time for me, one I’d rather not remember, but perhaps visiting it in this context softened the edge of memory.

My mother died just two days before I had a poetry reading scheduled. The day she died, after taking care of much business, I went late in the night to sit on my porch swing in the dark and watch the snow fall, and wrote a poem for her and decided to go through with my reading in her honor. I read this poem as well as the dedication poem at that reading.

Read more poetry here on Today or visit my poetry page to see more about my poetry and other writing, and to purchase Paths I Have Walked.


poetry book

I’m proud to offer a folio of my poetry

Paths I Have Walked: the poetry and art of Bernadette E. Kazmarski

FROM FOUR ANNUAL POETRY READINGS AT ANDREW CARNEGIE FREE LIBRARY & MUSIC HALL IN CARNEGIE, PA

People who attended one or more of my poetry readings encouraged me to publish some of my poetry in a book from the beginning.

Once I completed my 2010 poetry reading, my fourth featuring the final piece of artwork in the “Art of the Watershed” series, I decided it was time to publish something and it should be those four poetry readings.

Poetry books are not best-sellers; it’s difficult to convince a publisher to risk effort on a beginning poet, and while self-publishing is the best option it’s not inexpensive and once you’ve got the book, someone’s got to market it. Plus, I’m a graphic designer and I designed books for years, and I want things my way.

All of this is a recipe for a little bit of trouble, but I decided the book was well worth the effort so I designed the book myself and had a set printed—no ISBN or anything formal, but it’s a start! I’m really excited to offer it.

Books are 4.25″ x 11″, 40 pages of information and poetry, with glossy covers featuring “Dusk in the Woods” and little thumbnails of all four pieces in “Art of the Watershed”.

$8.00 each plus $2.50 shipping (they are oversized for mailing first class).

You can order one on my poetry page, or in my Marketplace.

About the books and the poetry readings

My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.

In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person” for submissions of writing about the place we feel most familiar. I’m a long-time listener to PHC and reader of Garrison Keillor’s books as well as a daily listener to The Writer’s Almanac featuring news about writers and writing and of interest to writers as well as a poem, all compiled and read by Keillor himself. I  was astonished to find my poems were among the first chosen from apparently thousands, and so happy to be able to share them with a potential audience of so many similarly inclined writers and readers.

My poetry readings and art exhibits were the vision of Maggie Forbes, executive director of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, after learning of my publishing of those two poems. I owe her many thanks for encouraging me to present this combination of my visual and literary art, a first for me. Each year I am invited back to read my poetry and exhibit my artwork. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor.


Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

memories of mother, butterfly on phlox
memories of mother, butterfly on phlox

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

When I began this blog I had intended to use it for the occasional essay; well, more than occasional, I had also wanted to encourage myself to write more essays and short stories more frequently, especially as I was in the thick of caring for my mother in her declining years. It was that very caregiving that kept me from taking the time to write. I’ve been drafting articles, and rather than go back the beginning, I am beginning now.

. . . . . . .

I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.

I caught myself looking at a pair of bright white crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband at the end of a rack in the women’s clothing department. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered to the colorful sleeveless tops hanging near them, a few gingham, with white collars, putting an outfit together.

Not for me. For my mother. Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I’d think to myself, “Mom would love this.”

I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability ot wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.

But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!”

Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.

Whatever, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them. I had ideas but never figured this out, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.

Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but not, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.

And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she accepted it.

My mother would have been 88 years old today, July 7, 2013. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.

On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but in the grand finale they added to a day of memories.

. . . . . . . .

I posted on July 4 a photo from my garden of a female Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in her black form. This dark cloaking mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and predators have adapted to avoid them, so the black form female Tiger Swallowtail keeps herself safe though she is not at all dangerous.

The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.


About My Mother

my mother
my mother

Helen L. Kazmarski

My mother died in January 2011. I first wrote this post after her memorial; today we remember her.

I lost my mother at age 85 after so many levels of illness in her life: decades of chronic conditions and surgeries, the lung cancer ten years ago that weakened and eventually put her in personal care, the beginnings of dementia two years ago, the move to skilled nursing a year ago, the weight loss and greater need for care all leading to the last few months of decline.

She was in the hospital with the last bout of congestive heart failure when she died. The night she died my brother and I went to her room at the nursing home to take the few possessions she had left there; I didn’t want to go back there if I didn’t need to, and I knew the next few days would be very busy. I was holding back sobs as we walked in, but words were forming in my head and when we entered I took a small scrap of paper and wrote a few of them down. That was enough to ease my heart for the moment, setting the intent, enough to get me through that and back home.

After several phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat in the quiet of the night outside watching the snow gently fill the air and fall in a soft blanket on the ground, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk, wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite. I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading, just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others, and to read the new poem, and that I would also read it at the little service we’d have for her at the funeral home.

I could never encapsulate 85 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem, so I won’t even try, but I want to share this. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the shirt she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.

I’ve also written a post over on The Creative Cat about this process of loss.

Without further ado, here is the poem.

About My Mother

Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.

All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.

I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
and great-grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.

When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.

About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski