Unless

My mother was magical.

She and I shared a most unique experience once. When I think of all her magic, which I find I do a lot since she died 20 years ago this month, it is an experience that could only have occurred for me because of being attached to Martha. I was nine years old, and she was informed by my pediatrician, Dr. Payne—(yeah…that’s not a joke…my entire childhood I envisioned it spelled Dr. Pain)—she was informed by Dr. Payne that I needed my tonsils removed. This was the era when this surgical procedure was done as routinely as tooth extraction. My mother was already scheduled to have lymph node surgery, herself, because of some unexplained lumps in her armpits, which, thank God, would turn out to be benign.

“She can’t be scheduled next week,” my mother said. “I’m going in the hospital next week.” 

And then came that magical word. A word, which, whenever it came out of my mother’s mouth, meant that the impossible was just about to be made possible.

“Unless….” she would offer with a singsong drag of the last syllable, about to tell whomever of her bright idea. And it would usually be an idea that probably shouldn’t be done, and yet her powers of persuasion were quite remarkable. 

In this case, the next thing I knew Dr. Payne had gone from explaining to my mother why hospital regulations would never allow it, because I was a child, etc. to making the arrangements for her and me to not only be hospitalized at the same time, but to be roomed together!

I’d been in a hospital only once before, at five years old, for a hernia operation.  I’d bunked in a ward with twenty other crying children. I didn’t know anyone, and I cried a lot too. And while drinking my alphabet soup one night there, and pulling the bowl up to my mouth, I dribbled half of it down my front. My hospital gown was changed, but the rest remained undiscovered until the bandages were removed weeks later, and pieces of moldy peas and carrots and random letters were prominently found pasted to my groin. I got a laugh from the nurse, which kind of tickled me, but otherwise I’d hated that frightening experience, because frankly I wasn’t comfortable being around other children. So, by this present idea, I was excited. 

Mom and I had our surgeries roughly around the same time, on the same day. I hazily remembered them bringing her into the recovery room, where I already was, as my surgery had concluded first, and I was already coming out of the anesthesia. I saw her crying hysterically. It’s one of the common symptoms of anesthesia wearing off.  But I didn’t know that at the time, and I panicked but my mouth wouldn’t move; I was still under the spell of my own drugs.  I think I remember her trying to punch one of the orderlies, from being so delirious. 

Still, the whole thing remains such an iconic Martha story, because how many people can say they’ve done that?  We had our own private room, Mom and me.  The only part I didn’t find especially enjoyable was that she got chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes for dinner, while I got boring Jello.

My mother was magical.  

When she visited Paris for her first time during my teenage years (a tradition I would inherit, as Paris ended up becoming my favorite city on the planet, which I’ve now visited several times), my mother brought back for me a print of the Post-Impressionist painter Jean-François Millet from the Musée d’Orsay. My hairs stood on end when she presented me with the print, entitled “Shepherdess and her Flock” . . . as it was ME in the painting. This 120-year-old painting!  The portrait was of a field as atmospheric as Millet could occasion, with the young shepherdess and her flock in the foreground. Downward gaze of fleshy cheek and sullen eyes. In fact, no eyes at all, just eyelids. Mine. This was why Martha had bought the print for me. And, of course, the first time I eventually made it to Paris, myself, I promptly went to see this painting in the flesh (or paint & canvas), and was tickled all over again that “I” lived in this museum in the great City of Lights, an ocean away from the life I knew.

But on this day when Martha brought the print home to me, I remember being so stunned that my face was the face in this painting that I asked how this could be possible! And yet another “unless” escaped like a fairy dust spurt from her mouth, as my whimsical mother could never resist a merry penchant for spinning magical fables—her loveliest trait, frankly. And she began by using, as a component in her case, the fact that our family name on her side is Shepard, then proceeded to declare that I WAS that shepherdess another lifetime ago, and had been Jean-François’ muse and perhaps even his lover. And as my face grew completely scarlet from the embarrassment that my mom would say these things to me, she just laughed with great jollity, and with—as always, gratefully, gratefully always—the undeniable sparkle of possibility. 

Blessings and flight among the angels, my sweet, magical girl.

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