Our Mothers, Farewells, and The Departed

Ada was the biological mother of three of my friends, but it was not until she died  recently that I truly knew she was my mother, too.

I spent most of my late adolescence in her world.  I attended 4-H club meetings in her basement, shared overnights with her daughter, rode in her panel van to Jackson’s Mill and Camp Virgil Tate, ate in her kitchen, played ball in her front yard, ran up and down the basketball court at her church, and even hid out in her new basement bathroom the night before I was married.

Ada was synonymous with comfort and a place called home.

She had incredibly good posture.  I wish even in my tallest, straightest moments I could stand like she did.  Her crystal blue eyes always stayed connected to mine when we spoke; in fact, at her memorial service I shared my belief that talking to her was like being in a tractor beam, and the comment received rolls of laughter in recognition.  Apparently I was not the only  person upon whom she focused her full attention when talking and listening.

Trying to pin down her most memorable trait, for me it was this utter focus in conversation.  While that may not sound particularly special at first, consider how many people in your life you can say always — always — give you their full attention when you are together.  She had a husband who was significantly older than she was, and who needed her towards the end of his life as much if not more than her three children needed her in their own growing up, yet she never seemed lacking in energy and interest in others.

To see Ada was to feel joy.  I remember hundreds of times I saw her.  Sometimes it was unexpected, like in the grocery store.  Other times it was entirely anticipated as she opened the front door to her home and her face lit up as she exclaimed, “Liz!  Come on in, it’s so good to see you!”  Whether at her front door or in the bread aisle, her presence was consistent and loving.  She was what I think everyone dreams of, sometimes even subconsciously, when they dream of a mother.  She was one of her parents’ eleven children.  As a middle arrival, maybe that is where she learned the skill of managing younger and older people equally well.

This past weekend I drove up to her house for the first time since her death.  It was all routine until my car reached the first familiar bend in the road that for thirty years led me to the place Ada raised her family, extended and otherwise.  My chest felt oddly hollow and I took a moment to make sure my heart was still beating.  I took the next turn, and the car rose up the hill which would crest in the homestead I sought.  There was that strange chest sensation again as I reached the driveway and my eyes rested on the place where Ada no longer was and never would be again.

The house is empty, save for a few remaining personal things, their destination and ultimate dispensation to be determined by Ada’s children.  It is a strange place to me now, this domestic structure that for decades held some of the happiest times in my life.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I think it was to feel some of Ada still in the house.  The truth is, I didn’t feel her there at all.  I felt very sad, and I began to process and manage some of the larger grief I feel beyond the acute pain from the event of her death.

When a person and the home they built disappears in a physical sense, it is a heavy thing.  Forced to deal with this passing, I had clarity about Ada and all that she shared with me as an anchor in my own psychic landscape.  I remember a similar feeling when my beloved Uncle Guy died, a physical feeling of loss, like a gaping wound was echoing a cold wind on aching walls.  The deep desire to put my hands on my lost mother, to feel her and see her and hear her again, is still intense.

I know from losing my uncle that the ache will diminish but never fully go away.  When Ada died, one mysterious term kept popping into my head: “The departed.”  While I am not Catholic, I am familiar with the concept of the departed from the prayer that reads,

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The spiritual concept of a soul having escaped the limits of what we know is, for me, spooky and compelling.  Something about a person’s essence having made an exit with a sense of other-worldly destination rings true in Ada’s unexpected and heartbreaking death.  She departed.  She is somewhere else now.  I can’t see this place, or touch her there or hear her voice, but I feel strongly she is in a new home, where she is greeted — always — with complete love and focus.

As we like to say in Christian parlance, “The tomb is empty.”  That is a metaphor, but it is also reality.  I love you, Mrs. K.  Thank you for everything.  You shaped my life, and I will never forget you.

Image credit: Mary Cassatt

Campfires, Tattoos, and Blood Oaths: Rites of Passage in Adolescence

When I was living in North Carolina several years ago I attended a great training on helping youth navigate their transitions to adulthood by appreciating their need for ritual and rites of passage.  I may still have that material around here somewhere, but for now I “dig out” a lot of resources with Google.  Today I found this project that is very similar to the one I knew in Durham:  ROPE is Rite of Passage Experience.

Children and teens have a natural impulse to create or take part in rites of passage experiences to claim their place as adults. If this impulse is not acknowledged and channeled, it can result in them turning to destructive activities such as drinking, smoking, bullying, sex, delinquent acts, joining gangs, and the use of drugs to mark for themselves and their peer group their entry into adulthood.

I loved the training I attended, because it was open to exploring the opportunities around young people’s natural instincts.  It also helped me appreciate why I think the West Virginia 4-H Program at Jackson’s Mill had such a strong influence on so many adolescents in my community.  The program has taken some heat for borrowing too heavily and perhaps not always authentically from Native American traditions; that said, those traditions, campfires, chants, shared songs, peace pipes, tribal affiliations and spirit sticks grabbed hold of a tremendous amount of teen energy and kept it constructive, serious, and positive.

Adolescence is a time of growth, and change, and mystery.  It is a time of powerful transition and even spiritual evolution.  It fascinates me how primitive but important developmental “tasks” are fulfilled one way or another as kids grow up.  The picture I chose for this post is from the movie Dead Poets Society. Students of a particularly inspiring teacher take to secret meetings in the woods to read the works of dead poets, but also to bond with each other and explore amongst themselves thoughts, dreams, and goals they have never allowed themselves to consider before in the broad light of adult expectations and rules.  For those who are supported, it is freeing and resets their life course for the better.  For the one student whose new fire is abruptly extinguished by a disapproving parent, it is devastating.

Like adults, kids have a need to mark their dramatic transitions with ritual and rites of passage.  That process will happen one way or the other in the adolescent years.   Caring adults can help it happen with purpose and long-term benefits.

Image credit: The Students of Welton Academy