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Being present


My mother drove me crazy at times.  She had to talk to everybody, be it the mailman, the Schwann’s man, or the bum on the street.  She could strike up long convoluted conversations with absolutely anybody. Perfect strangers ended up telling her their life stories, their deepest fears, and their secret ambitions.  And she remembered it all.  Anybody she had ever talked to once could be sure of a warm greeting whenever my Mom ran into them, be it months or even years after their first meeting.  She never to my knowledge forgot a name.

All of this was highly irritating to a child of my particular temperament.  I was shy, and couldn’t remember who had been in my class by the next school year.  But it wasn’t envy that made me dislike my mother’s personability.  It was impatience.  Do you know how long it takes to go shopping when you mom insists on talking to everyone she runs into in the store?  And then has a ten-minute chat with the clerk at the register?

Getting to and attending church was its own adventure.  We would all get up on Sunday morning.  Eat breakfast.  Try to get dressed.  Lose our shoes.  Misplace our coats.  Run around yelling to everyone else to help us find our lost items—simultaneously.   Eventually we would all get bundled into the car, and after two or three of us ran back to get two or three forgotten items, two or three times each, we left.  It took twenty minutes to get to church, breaking the sound barrier all the way.  I never did find out how long it would take following the speed limit.  We never did get pulled over for speeding on the way to church, probably because any cop who saw us didn’t believe his eyes, especially when his radar couldn’t get a fix on our speed. 

We would then arrive for church, only five minutes late, and find that Paul had forgotten that he never had found his shoes.  Did you know that wadded up tinfoil, dredged from the depths beneath a seat and molded onto the foot, makes beautifully fitted, futuristic footwear?  It even serves the double purpose of assuring that aliens can’t tell what your feet are thinking.

Before we entered the chapel, I was ready to leave.  I didn’t want to have to enter a chapel full of already seated, tidy people.  I didn’t want to be in the parade of six that was my family, squeezing past our immaculate neighbors to find seats, with out hair un-brushed and my brother modeling astro-boots.  But I went in anyway, blushed, squeezed and sat, while doing my best to avoid looking at anyone. 

I then sat and for ten minutes tried to listen to the speakers.  Uniformly boring.  I poked Allison.  She, of course, poked me back.  All-out war ensued, until ultimate peacekeeper mom stepped in, returning momentary order.  Then one of us would pick op a program, obtain a pen from Dad, and start to draw.  This would of course start a revival in abstract art, which in turn started a major wave of diplomacy unrivaled in the annals of history, as those who didn’t have programs or pens negotiated with those who did.  There was usually about one program and two pens (this being the number our Dad carried in his pocket to church—why it was always two when there was one of him and four of his children I will never know).  The one available 8″ by 5″ program would eventually be torn in anywhere between two to fourteen unequal pieces, depending on the respective bargaining power of each sibling, and the stubbornness of the program holder.  All in all, sacrament meeting on our bench rather resembled a year in central Africa, only with rather more violence and political coups. 

You may wonder why I was so embarrassed to enter church, yet entirely unembarrassed to behave this way once seated.  That is probably because you have forgotten the law of invisibility of children.  Once a child is seated in a large room full of people who aren’t doing much of anything, they of course become immediately lost from sight.  NOBODY can see them.  Obviously.

But after church was the worst, so far as my mother’s amazing sociability went. We always went to my grandma’s house after church, where she had four perfectly evenly divided dishes of candy laid out, one for each of us.  The image of that waiting candy seemed to taunt us as we waited between an hour and two hours for mom to stop talking to everyone in the building.  She simply had to find out how everyone’s grandparent’s or child’s cold was doing.  My philosophy was that if anyone had perished of a sneezing attack, we would have found out already, and that if there was plague in someone’s household, you had better avoid them to keep from catching it.  But no, we could only leave after practically everyone else had already gone home, probably much later than they would have if my mom hadn’t been there.

We would eventually get to grandma’s house, where mom would sit in deep conference with grandma.  But that was okay.  I had my candy, and as the second oldest I got the small sheet of funnies first, and the large sheet of funnies second.  But even the Sunday funnies must come to an end, a characteristic unfortunately not shared by my mom’s talk.  It went on and on well after all the funnies had been read and we were reduced to poking each other to distract ourselves from our sugar headaches.

Of course, each of us got the same treatment.  Crying because some kids had teased me, my mom would wrap her arms around me and listen, then tell some story from her own life to shed more light on the issue.  Lonely because none of my friends could play, she was always ready to talk with me instead.  In every encounter with us or anyone else, she was always present; mind, heart, and body.  

Then one day she was gone.  Dead in the water without a sound on a boating trip.  Sudden heart failure.  The disappearance of her presence opened a whole in the sky that threatened to consume my young world.

The funeral home was bathed in flowers.  They spilled out of the chapel and down the hall.  Afterwards, the extras supplied flowers for all the churches in the city and filled our house.  Everyone sent flowers, even the clerk from the store checkout line, though I don’t know how she even found out.  The Billings Montana florists must have been left without a rosebud.  Out of all the bouquets one stood out.  It wasn’t terribly attractive, having nothing but maroon roses.  It wasn’t anywhere near the biggest, though there were over four dozen flowers.  The thing was that to each rose was tied a note, all from the women and girls of our ward.  The notes weren’t written to my dad, or to us kids.  They were all written to my mother.  “Dear sister Schumann, you always listened to me.”  “Dear Karen, you always seemed to know when something was wrong, and you always knew just what to say.”  “Thank you so much for everything you have done for my family.  We were really struggling when we first moved in.  You made us feel like we really were home at last.”  The notes went on and on.  I wondered what these people were thinking.  The woman they addressed in their notes could never read them.  It puzzled me.  It was as though they wanted one last chance to give the thanks they had held back one day too long.  They wanted one last chance to say something to a woman who had always listened to everything they had to say.

Many years have passed since I last read those notes.  I’ve gotten older, and I understand a little better now what my mom was trying to teach us all those years before she died.  And sometimes, when someone wants to talk and I don’t feel like I have the time to listen, I remember those notes and I make the time.  Mom’s influence didn’t end when she died.  She touched everyone around her, in a way that will last long after her memory is gone.  If there is anyone who would care enough to come down from heaven to read the things her friends so badly needed to tell her, it is my mom.    

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