“Who am I?” she wonders. “Who do you say that I am?”
In response, we offer a litany of adventures, sayings, and stories written on our hearts: “You are the woman who drove a yellow Bronco and announced lunch meat for sale by the yard.” “You told people, ‘I wasn’t overly whelmed.’” We recite the Peak Frean / Freaks Peein’ cookie debacle, and other lessons from the holy book of spoonerisms. The Word of our Mother.
Our remembering FOR her is a kind of sacrament, a sacred act through which we put her back together. We re-embody her life by telling the stories she has told us, recounting experiences she can no longer carry for herself.
“Do you remember sailing to England before you eloped with Dad? When you were 22, and you crossed the Atlantic all alone, dancing with all the sailors on the ship?”
“Well,” she admits, “I remember THAT I did it.” The images and senses now all lost, she carries but a trace in some story she remembers telling or being told.
“You kept a travel journal, Mom. Kathi found it and made copies. It's wonderful! I brought my copy with me--see?”
She smiles, then closes her eyes and drops her chin to rest, letting the story wash over her.
“You stood at the ship's railing in ecstasy. You wrote, ‘I am in love, I am in love, I am in love with the sea!’”
“Oh yes,” she grins widely. Then, lifting her eyes to mine: “That sounds like me.”
In this scene, I am Joni. I speak her lines and reenact her life. She is the audience, always seated now, observing only—unable to replay this alone. It is assisted re-living. Assisted memory.
As the things she has done, the places she has been, the people she has known slip further out of reach, she clings to our conversation. She tries to tell us “very important” things but fails, and so we step in, carrying the story to its end.
Months later, long distance, she confides: “It's so good to talk to you. You remind me who I am.”
Yes, we offer up her life in parables; we relay, in coded stories, the answer to her question. We reveal the true nature of her identity: “you are our mother, the one who created us, in whom we have lived and moved and come to being.”
It is a sacred responsibility, this re-telling—one she has empowered us to fulfill. And this duty to remember is her gift to us, as we find that the meaning of our lives and stories resides in their circulation, their return. Together, we share the bread and the blood.
Sheila Hassell Hughes is Professor and Chair in the Department of English, and former Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, at the University of Dayton. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, she now lives with her husband, their 13-year old daughter, and two black cats in Miami Twp., Ohio. She earned her BA (British Columbia) and MA (Toronto) in English and her PhD (Emory) in women’s studies. She is currently working on a poetic memoir about her mother and the other women in her family. She has published scholarly articles, poems, and prose in a variety of journals and literary reviews. Hughes won the Erma Bombeck competition local human interest category in 2010 and was a runner-up in the same category in 2012.