Thursday, July 16, 2015

Of Blessed Memory

After my mother passed, I stepped into the whirlwind of activity that accompanies a death. Having done this with my father I knew what to expect this time and with two weeks of waiting we actually had done many of the necessary things.

I had dreaded the funeral, thinking of it as something I just had to get through. Somehow I managed to deliver my remarks on my mother without dissolving into tears. I was touched by the people who shared memories of my mother. Their experience with her in the public world was the same as mine in the private world of family. So many people present a different face to the public. My mother had a consistent presence and was so often described by her kindness. She was an easy person to love and admire. I still have trouble describing her in the past tense.

Our drive back to Minnesota felt like a separation from the hard reality in which I had been a participant. I could almost tell myself that my Mom was still back there living her life. I don't think the reality has fully hit me yet. The finality of it all. It was fascinating and mysterious, but oh so final. I've heard from readers of this blog who experienced some of the mystery that I too observed. It has changed my understanding of death and left me more hopeful that our energy continues in some form. I guess I'll find out some day, but as I used to say to my mom when she talked of death, "No hurry".

What I had not expected was this wave of fatigue. For almost two weeks I had camped out in my mother's room in hospice, waking every two hours as nurses checked on her. Now I cannot sleep more than two hours at a time. The hospice social worker calls. They continue to reach out to family to offer support. Very solicitous, but my stoic self can't imagine how I'd draw on what they offer.

In the midst of this my computer gets a virus, sending errant emails to my email list. I want to wail,"Leave me alone! Don't you know my mother just died. Go pick on someone else."

I throw my energy into my to do list, filled with post-death financial responsibilities. I check off my list diligently, taking comfort in these tasks I know how to do. My solace is always in action and there is no shortage of things to do.

Once again I pick up the threads of my life that had been abandoned as I waited in that hospice room in Illinois. Tonight I have an opening and have spent the day assembling the pieces around my paintings. The work is focused on memory. Once my focus was loss of memory as I watched my mother lose pieces of her memory, yet retain her identity. Now the theme of memory revolves around my memories of her.

I have written in these pages of a memory jar that I once gave my mother, filled with all my precious memories of our time together. It felt symbolic to retrieve it from her home and bring it back to mine. I am indeed the keeper of our memories.

The Jewish Artists' Lab show that opens this evening is on the theme of water which I of course tied back to memory.  Because I couldn't stop at just one painting it turned into a diptych inspired by a quote by Toni Morrison.

"You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places... Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."

Water is often used as a metaphor for memory. We speak of waves and floods of memory. Of memories submerged or bubbling up.

In the beginning God's breath hovered over the water. Then God divides the water into sky and sea, then land from water. The creation of the world has to do with differentiation. A flood signifies a returning of water to land, a remembering of its origin. The sky offers its rains that roil the waters and overtake the land, joining firmament, ocean and land into its original whole.

My artwork examines the parallels between memory and flooding, identity and creation. My work on memory explores the persistence of identity that also develops out of differentiation, an echo of the creation story. We are this, not that. Even as memory flees, we continue to seek the familiar boundaries of our one-time identity just as does the river when it floods.

In front of my painting is a memory jar. I am asking people to contribute a memory they once shared with a loved one who may have lost memory. I will develop a series of paintings of memories that are shared. The series will honor those who are kept alive in memory by those who love them. I will call it "Of Blessed Memory", what more fitting conclusion to my recent tumultuous weeks bidding goodbye to my mother.

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