by Janet Grace Riehl
My mother–Ruth Evelyn Johnston Thompson–died May 1st 2006. Today is the 6th anniversary of her death. We miss her. A strong matriarch and strategic visionary of our family–including our extended family–she gave us all the love a mother can give.
“Flower Cloud Land” copyright Janet Riehl 2012
This morning I’m with my father. When he came out of his bedroom this morning to take his medicine, I asked him how he’d slept and how he felt. Then, after he got his special socks on, I read him this post. His response was classic Daddy. “Yup,” he said.” And he needed to say no more.
Whatever she did she did Big Time: quilting, birding, painting, cooking and gardening. Her gardens were show pieces carefully plotted on graph paper. They covered such a large area, I can’t begin to guess the size. She moved them around–and, later in life had us move them around–like paintings. After her death my father felt we could no longer take care of them ourselves and didn’t want someone outside the family pottering around in them. He dug up the day lilies and gave them away. We cut back the gardens, and expanded the lawns.
We felt sad. The gardens did what they could to flourish on their own. This spring we watch the flowers she planted–and that we helped her plant and care for–bloom in succession. The snow drops. The happy profusion of daffodils and narcissus as we drove up our steep hill. The crocus. The tulips. The peonies. The lily of the valley. The flocks. The iris. All proclaim that the spirit of my mother remains alive and well at this blooming–this transcendent beauty against all odds. Against benign neglect. Against weeds. That was Mother. Strong will. Strong heart. Brilliant mind.
Our mantle above the fireplace in our front room is a kind of altar for her. Photos from youth to old age. Her teaching award. Around the room her paintings, and stuffed birds as in a natural history museum. Above the mantle there is a framed calligraphed copy of a poem I wrote for her in my early 20s: “Under Mama’s Yew Tree.”
That she should have died on May 1st–May Day–seemed such a fitting day for her to go. She was the “Queen of May,” as a family friend put it. So many people benefited from her work in the world–for her having passed through this world. Some say I look like her now that I’m in my 60s. I do. I see myself channeling her in the much smaller palette of my life. Sometimes in ways I admire. Sometimes in ways I cringe at. But, my admiration for her, my gratitude for all that she gave me rises up–as triumphant and as victorious as the flowers she left us. Her legacy. Her heaven on earth.
I can think of no more fitting tribute to her than to share one of the poems I wrote for her that appear in the “Sweet Little Dove” section in “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.”
for Ruth Evelyn Johnston Thompson
by Janet Grace Riehl (her youngest…her “Baby”)
from “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”
Born Ruth Evelyn Johnston (don’t forget that “t”).
Married Ruth Thompson, Erwin’s wife and lover.
We called you Mother or Mama,
but not “Mom.”
“Mom” is too much
like the women in the wax commercials.
You are an original.
Your own person.
A sociable eccentric.
Your will like a steel bolt through your character.
You fought and scraped and plotted
For what mattered.
You were never one to purr your way to favor,
rubbing against legs to be petted.
If you’d been born a few generations later,
who knows what history might have had in store for you?
Your grit the stuff of American legends,
I see you starting out
as a stock girl and ending up Corporate President.
Your feet so grounded they’d sprout roots.
Your head a computer, whirling out business deals.
Or, I see you sneaking into the army as a youngster,
Carrying the general’s bath water,
And ending up five star general yourself.
Hair clipped close and held firmly under your helmet.
Shoulders only slightly stooped by golden epaulettes.
The general in you incapable of small-scale projects.
You marshal resources and forces as you:
Make acres of quilts.
Cook roomfuls of banquets.
Plant fields of flowers and vegetables,
laying in stores for the winter.
Victory is yours, over and over,
as you pack
the productivity of two into one body.
Yet, for all your gumption, your feelings, like old lace,
disintegrate in my hands.
Your magnolia petal soul bobs down the creek,
navigating shallows and peering into depths.
Delicate titmouse feather Mama, same as those
miniature birds you feed before they dart into gourd palaces.
I write this wrapped in your masterpiece quilt,
appliqued with views of Africa
you crafted and cried over
for years during one of our civil wars.
One day I tore open a bulky brown package and there it was.,
Exquisite, a sign of our peace, and mother love.
It’s a woman’s quilt.
African women stately and beautiful,
Pounding sorghum and cooking porridge over an open fire.
Your were there when you were there.
The women loved you because you were you, of course,
But most of all, because you were a mother.
You were my mother.
You filled your life with the challenge of yourself.
Now, I call you on the telephone,
A year after your stroke.
We nearly lost you.
You lost megabytes of memory.
But, you never lost yourself.
The more you forget,
the kinder and softer you become.
“I love you, Janet, you say.
And then, say again a few minutes later.
“I love you, too,” I say.
Then, the surprise word slips out:
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