Friday, July 5, 2019

Fire and Smoke

I think of my mother every Fourth of July. Four years ago, in the early morning hours she departed this earth. My husband had driven through the night to meet me and that evening we sat in an outdoor cafe enjoying a nice meal as fireworks rose in the sky nearby. Everything felt unreal in its normalcy.  How could the world still turn on its axis without my mother? The once unthinkable had happened and life went on, at least for some of us.

 I decided then that every Fourth of July would be my personal commemoration of my mother, a yahrzeit of sorts. I recently accompanied a 95-year-old friend to her synagogue for a yahrzeit, the commemoration of her mother’s death. Her mother had died almost seventy years ago, and I thought of my friend “religiously” observing her yahrzeit every year since. Well, I have a ritual too, it is to see the world through my mother’s eyes. At this time of year that means fireworks.

My mother loved fireworks and she was always happy to celebrate our country. She was grateful to be an American. She had a kind of patriotism that I lack but have come to appreciate these past few years. Perhaps the values of our country can only be fully appreciated if you realize how close you can come to losing them. 

My mother’s parents were immigrants and she often reflected on the fact that she as a female would not have been educated had they stayed in the Ukraine. She loved flags as a symbol of our country. She put flags in her planters and alway hung one on the Fourth of July. When she accompanied me in the car, she would point out flags along the way. She had a sepia photo of the Statue of Liberty on her wall. 

“Do you want to walk over to see the fireworks?” my husband asked. It was the third of July when we have a chance to see early fireworks at a nearby lake about a mile and a half away. It had been raining nonstop so I imagined the mosquitoes and the wet grass where we would normally sit and hesitated. The thought of my mother’s “yahrzeit” spurred me on. I should at least be as consistent as my 95-year-old friend. A three-mile walk made me feel doubly virtuous. 

We arrived just as the fireworks were beginning and secured a spot on the curb close enough to see the smoke from the fireworks. You can pick out July on my camera roll by looking for the fireworks. Invariably I take a few photos. I guess that’s part of the ritual too, but it is especially challenging to get a distinctive photo of fireworks. No matter how stunning they may look to the naked eye, the camera loses the majesty and invariably misses the moment. "No more photos," I admonished myself. But I found myself captivated by the smoke. I was intrigued with the layered effect it created, juxtaposed with the fireworks themselves. The past and present existed side by side until both faded away into nothingness as new pasts and presents emerged. Ephemeral, a nanosecond of existence in the unfolding of our world. I reached for my camera, this time focused as much on the smoke as the fire. 

It was only later as I studied those otherworldly images that the metaphorical meaning became apparent. I had been working on a painting related to my mother on absence and presence, contemplating how absence can make a person feel much more present. How since I can no longer take my mother’s physical presence for granted, I think more consciously about how I can keep her presence alive. Her fire once burned brightly and her trail of smoke layers my life, always present.

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