How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 7


Kathleen speaking…

She died in her sleep the night of January 31, 1979. For her last two years she had a very bad heart. She suffered from heart problems all her life, but during those last two years she had two heart surgeries. But the doctor said the last wasn’t very successful. She had the valve in the aorta replaced. It was a plastic appliance. He said it was like sewing into wet tissue. It couldn’t hold a stitch. He gave it to her straight, but surprisingly, she wasn’t morbid about it. Typically they say depression sets in after heart surgery. Not her.”Just let me get on with it.” There was a significant change in her after that operation.

My mother was always so boisterous,loud––couldn’t say anything calmly. That’s Italian too. But she really mellowed. Those last few years after she had heart surgery she didn’t drink. She had had something to drink every night, and that did affect her. That was a catalyst for her to be loud. When she was stirring the pot while she was burning the food, she was drinking.

She was a remedial reading specialist working with handicapped children. She had her master’s and was working toward her doctorate. She worked very hard.

When we moved up here to Maine, she felt I was “throwing her to the dogs.” She found it a personal offense. She was furious, hurt and devastated that we were leaving New Jersey. [When] I told her about prayer meetings, she knew she saw something different in me and George. There happened to be a “Jesus Week” in her parish, and she, my father, and my aunt and uncle went. My mother, my father and my aunt went forward to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came––Bango!––in power. She attended prayer meetings. She’d stay up til all hours reading the Bible. I have a notebook of favorite scriptures of hers and then prayers she’d say afterwards. You would have had to know my mother before to really appreciate the change in her after that.

We visited New Jersey several times after we moved up here. It was nothing to go down there three or four times to visit. The last visit it was different. My mother seemed a lot less absorbed in me. She had things to do on her own, whereas before we were the focus, the center of attention. She was picking up on friends she had had long in the past. She was renewing friendships she had had as a younger woman. The parting was different in that there weren’t a lot of tears. It was very matter of fact. We said our goodbyes, headed out the driveway and down the road. I realized that I had forgotten a carton of milk that was for the children for the ride home, so we turned around.

I had liked that goodbye and I thought I might find her in tears. It was almost as soon as I had opened the door there was this elation. I had this rush of joy. I remember she was just in the kitchen. She busied herself. “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad I get a chance to hug you again,” and all I could think was, “I’m so happy for you.” I knew something wonderful was going to happen for her. It really is inexplicable to reduce it to language because it really was a sensation. We just hugged.

I grabbed the milk and I was bouncing out of the house. Something wonderful is all I can say. Something so exciting. And truly, once I got in the car, the sensation, the feelings were gone. It was just the satisfaction I had that I had a chance to give my mother another hug.

My mother always dreaded the winters. She’d always say, “Once January’s gone, I feel like things are going to turn around. Things are going to warm up now.” The day my sister-in-law called me, as I was packing and preparing to go back to New Jersey, that scripture from Song of Songs, “Come now, my lovely one, come…” came to me. When my sister-in-law told me, “She’s gone,” my first thought was not one of grief or sorrow or surprise. In that instant I recalled the sensation I had the last time I saw her. I said, “I knew it! I knew it!” Then I was really struck by how much God respected her wishes. She always said, “I want to die with my boots on.”

That she was very active, that she hadn’t been sick… She was in her prime almost, waiting for company. It was actually the first of February that she was expecting two old college friends with whom she had renewed acquaintance. She was expecting them for dinner about five in the evening. They arrived on schedule and no one came to the door. My mother’s sister Lucille lives down the street, and these two women were concerned when no one answered the door. My Aunt Lucille had a key. She said she knew immediately.

The three walked back to the house and opened the door. They saw that the table was set, that everything was in order. She was just in bed. She had her rosary beads in her hand. Her Bible was on the nightstand. She had a prayer that she’d say and that was on top of the Bible. It was a prayer for a happy death. I’m sure she said it that night.

Lucille called my brother and sister-in-law. She didn’t want to call me and tell me, so my sister-in-law did. My mother and father’s parents came from big families, 15 kids in one, 13 in the other. She had 75 or 76 first cousins and they all lived in the same neighborhood. When I moved to Maine, it was mortifying to her that I should leave.

Ever since I was a little girl, all of the funerals and wakes I went to were in the same funeral home. A funeral seems like a festivity. People were talking and laughing and crying, a few wails every now and then. “He looks so beautiful. He looks so peaceful. He looks-a so good.” The undertakers lived upstairs. While the wake was going on, there were always Italian pastries, cold cuts, and the wine for us. Typically the table in the upstairs kitchen was full. It seemed like it was an event every other month or so.

Now, it was back to the funeral home again. My brother and I arranged it. I remember choosing the casket downstairs. I was astounded at the prices. She had a full casket. There was a dressmaker there. There was always one there to make a suit or a dress. You didn’t wear anything old. She had an ankle-length, formal, peach-color dress made.

Before the final viewing, the undertaker wanted to know if I wanted her jewelry, particularly her wedding ring. I left it with her. Her commitment was eternal, I felt, and it held true after death and that was a symbol of her commitment. She loved costume jewelry. I kept a few of the really gaudy things I had loved as a child. I remember looking forward to being able to go through her jewelry drawer and helping myself to whatever I wanted.

As far as the funeral and wake, it seemed like any other wake or funeral I had gone to. There were lots and lots of people. The wake lasted three days, afternoons and evenings. George and the kids were there.

What was difficult after my mother died was that we had her house, her home to dispose of. I stayed down for a month afterward. The house sold quickly. The hardest thing was breaking up the house. We gave a lot of her furniture away to relatives. We delivered them in the red truck.

There’s definitely an overall sadness and a longing for her, especially for the children. She loved Gwynnie and AnniPat. Fortunately I have some tapes of her voice. The children would talk to her and she would answer. I felt bad for my two daughters, realizing how much they would miss her.

There was that sense of thinking, how can I be alive if my mother’s dead? There was a physical connection that sustained me through her. That lasted for about a year. It wasn’t a panic. It was a fear: How can I continue to breathe? How can my heart continue beating if the person who has given me life is dead?

I did miss her at the times the children would do something cute and I’d think, I’ve got to call Nanna and tell her, and in a split second I’d realize I couldn’t do that.

Does she continue to exist? I guess it’s just on my faith; it isn’t anything I can say from experience. Looking back on that precognition, I guess that confirms it for me. One way I connect with her is through a few clothes of hers I saved. The smell of her perfume is still on them. One is a camel hair coat with a raccoon collar. It was something she wore frequently and that’s why I saved it. If I just pick it up, I can smell the perfume and that just brings me right back.

Kathleen was 32 when her mother died and was 42 at the time of this interview.

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