Almost too late a daughter understands her mother's gifts.
|They were her vases, penny jars and a thousand other things, although I saw only a ragged assortment of jars and bottles. Mama couldn't bring herself to throw out 'a perfectly good container.' Through the years, neighbors received a tonic bottle transformed with glue and glitter into the perfect vase for a single perfect rose. Children discovered cloth-covered jars with a slit in the Mason jar lid made wonderful banks for the pennies they saved. I fought with embarrassment each time one of her precious bottles or jars left our home to take up residence in the neighborhood.
"Mama, why can't we buy something nice to give as a gift?" I asked the same nagging questions so many times, I'm surprised she never swatted me for my impertinence. Instead, a smile always accompanied her answer.
"Why, honey, anybody can buy a gift, but I prefer giving something special, something I take the time to make. I know my gifts aren't expensive, but each one has a little bit of me in it and I think folks know that."
Sure they did...all I had to do was listen to the girls at my school whispering and giggling when they saw me coming. I knew it was because we gave such cheap gifts. They'd rather have new lipsticks than a bottle from Mama filled with homemade cologne, or a few dollars instead of a jar filled with sand art! How humiliating it was to face them each day. Mama had never understood!
I wandered away from her workshop and retreated to my room. A special cabinet held the many beautiful bottles and jars she had made for me. My favorite took her hours to glue old beads from broken necklaces and bracelets into a pattern resembling a feather pen. She had filled the bottle with dark blue water to represent ink. Knowing I wanted to write for a living, that bottle was her way of saying she approved.
Beside it stood a blue Mason jar. Mama said the blue was too pretty to cover, so she bought some cheap rhinestone necklaces, took them apart and poured the gems into the jar. When the light hit it just right, my walls were covered with a private starry night created from that gift.
"It'll never compete with your brilliance, angel, but it does cast a pretty shadow, doesn't it?" I could hear Mama's soft voice as she placed the jar into my hands as though it contained something truly precious.
The tears that had accompanied me to my room dried as each jar and bottle caught my attention and drew me backward into the memories attached to them. A stunning piece of sand art had been painstakingly poured and contoured in a squat liquor jug. It was the only clear one I'd ever seen and easily the most beautiful of its kind. The art wasn't just layers of colored sand, it formed a scenic view of flowers all around the jug. I'd tried my hand at it and gave up in frustration in a couple of weeks. Why had it never occurred to me how much time Mama put into her gifts?
Two matching wine bottles had sand art in the bottom and dripping candles in the top. "Who knows? Maybe someday this small gift will have a place of honor on your table after you marry!" Sweet laughter rang from her lips and mine as well. I remembered thinking that my table would have silver candlesticks, not shabby homemade ones. Yet, as I Iooked at them now, I knew there wasn't a silver candlestick in the world that could compete with the love in those.
How often had I hurt her by suggesting, no, almost demanding that we buy our gifts? How had she remained so loving and kind during those times? Mama wasn't a saint; I guess no one is, but her patience was something I yearned to possess.
Rising from the bed, I went in search of her. She was, as always, in her workshop, carefully applying modgepodge to a tall, elegant bottle. I walked up behind her and kissed the top of her head. Though a smile creased her lips, she never slowed in her work for a moment.
"Mama, I'm sorry. I didn't understand the beauty you were creating, nor what it meant to you. Forgive me?" I gathered her in my arms. She shook me loose, a brief look of annoyance crossing her face.
"Angel, you aren't supposed to know; you're too young, but I knew you'd come around one day. And look, you have." The annoyance was gone. Her smile was back in place.
Daddy walked in at that moment, kissing me on the cheek before turning to Mama. "Irene, it's time to go, sweetheart. I have your coat."
"But I'm not finished yet! No, I can't go yet. See, this piece has to have at least one more coat put on." She was getting agitated. It happened every weekend, but Daddy insisted on bringing her back home for Saturday and most of Sunday. I usually came over to help care for her. Sunday night she had to be returned to the ward. Her psychiatrist kept saying she was improving, but it wasn't readily apparent to anyone else. Still, she was Mama and we loved her dearly.
When my twin brother died two years earlier in Iraq, Mama tried to bury herself in her jars and bottles, but it didn't work. Instead, she formed her own world where Jimmy never existed and I remained a perpetual teenager in her mind. The workshop took over her whole life. Eating and sleeping became foreign to her until we were forced to hospitalize her or watch her waste away. Jimmy still never existed as far as she's concerned, but the hospital has decorated plasticware in every room. They won't let Mama have glass there; she only works on that realm here at her home.
I went back to my old room, opened the cabinet and pulled out the candle bottles. Tomorrow was my sixth wedding anniversary and they would grace my table - not with shabby splendor, but with the love and tenderness Mama put in them when she was still sane.
I hurried to help put her in the car before turning toward my own home.
Featured in Shadows: A Paper Doll Gang Publication Volume 1: Issue 1, May 2009
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