An Empty Rocking Chair
October 31, 2021
Were you close? I lied and said, yes. I didn't have the right words to defend a profound grief that he didn't understand. He patted my shoulder and reminded me that this was my daughter's aunt, not mine. Her grief, not mine. It's not a lack of compassion or even tenderness on his part. A lot of times we don't have the context to understand. This is one of those times.
We weren't close. The last time we spoke was at Lucia's wedding and before that, Lucia's father's wedding and that was probably seventeen years ago. Given the world we are, I suppose I'd feel my children's pain but have very little of my own. I do feel my children's pain. I feel my ex-husband's pain. Maybe even more. But also, I am gutted. We had history, nearly forty years of it, good, bad, or indifferent.
When I was pregnant with Mike she gave us a children's dresser that belonged to her boys when they were small. She glanced at the rocking chair in the living room as if I'd ask for it. I might, mightn't I? She said, not that, I can't give up the chair. I rocked my babies in that chair and for the first time, I saw more than just the scientist. I saw the woman's heart and it beat just like mine. I don't know it's the same for every mother, but for some of us that would be the one thing we'd bring to a deserted island if we could only bring that one thing.
My son has a chair in his possession because he can still remember and he couldn't bring himself to let that go anymore than I could. Lucia's got her heart set on an entirely different sort of chair and he was confused when she said she didn't want it. Everyone's experience is valid. To be honest, it wasn't what I wanted either. I wanted my mother's chair, but we broke that, she and I, the last time she sang Scarlett Ribbons for me. I climbed into her lap, she sang, and the thing shattered. I was eleven and I believe the chair came from the Salvation Army store in 1964. It had good life.
I wanted the chair in the unfinished wood place because it was big enough to fit two babies on my lap. I didn't know when the second baby would make an entrance, but I had no intention of kicking him off the metaphorical breast before it was time. I have a photograph. They are four months and five in identical yellow Winnie the Pooh sleepers and they are both in my lap. My arms reach around both babies, my head tilts forward and I'm reading a story. This memory comes from an earlier epoch but the mother-heart has no boundaries.
The rocking chair is a big, bulky sort of thing that came from the unfinished wood place around the corner from the farm. I wandered into the shop after I'd dragged a crib and mattress down the stairs of the second floor second hand shop. The mattress was about the best you could buy in 1986 and it cost more than the rocking chair; same with the crib, I think. I paid the woman $75 for the crib, the mattress, and a quilted blue jumper and that was the last of the baby money.
I went into the store anyway. The price tag was tied to an arm and I flipped it over. I sat in the chair anyway. I rocked awhile with my hands on my belly and my overactive fetus stopped doing the sea monster thing and went to sleep. The sea monster thing, you know what it is. When you can see the ripples and the elbows and knees when they still have enough room to roll one side to the other. I knew he was a boy because he said so. If that doesn't make sense, just let it go.
I cried in the car.
I don't know how my mother or Mike's aunt knew how badly I wanted that thing but they split the cost and it showed up at the baby shower. I spent the next week with a rag and a can of Tung oil in the driveway until I got it just right. And I did get it just right. The patina on that chair, thirty-five years later is exactly what you'd want it to be.
I know three women who's hearts are embedded in nursery rocking chairs. One of those chairs traded its life for Scarlett Ribbons, one more time; doesn't mean the mother heart ever left the chair. One of those chairs has lost the mother, but her heart is still there. One of those chairs is waiting patiently. I hope my boy sits in it now and then.
I know other things about Joanne, random maybe, unless you connect the dots. I know she was the first of five. I know her father named her before her mother got a word in edgewise. I know she lost her youngest before he was twenty-two. I know she was a research scientist well before a woman could walk through those doors without running the patriarchal gauntlet. Daily. I know she was my mother's generation, not mine and that made her less accessible than Suzanne, who is my age.
Lucia wrote that she was brave and I'll add to that. It's one thing to be brave when it's just you, and another entirely to do it with your heart wide open. That whole family, all seven of them, are built that way. Now there are four and I'm gutted: for the lose of three, for the shredded hearts of the four, their husbands and wives, nephews and nieces, lovers and friends, for the hearts of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - and it ripples...
That grief is a storm that washes chunks of the past onto the shores of history. This is the place we find the parts of ourselves we may have forgotten. Grief can drop you down a well and leave you there, far longer than you might think possible, but the ability and willingness to experience that grief is the gift that holds our people close, long after they've gone. --- hold your people close.
Blue skies, Joanne. Blue skies, warm winds, and safe travels.