The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
I celebrate every Mother’s Day by constructing a shrine to Artha Jean, assembling a Day of the Dead memorial homage of beat up Polaroids, candles, desert flowers, a costume jewelry necklace I gave her in 1962 and a card she gave me when I graduated from university in 1977, which I display open so I can glory in her handwritten words: “From your very proud and happy mother.” With no recording of her voice, Artha Jean’s blue cursive words, spoken with a ballpoint, suffice.
In a picture central to my shrine, my short butterball of a mother has her arm around me and it is evident I am an obnoxious, wriggling teenager embarrassed to be touched by his mom. Ignoring my protestations, her gleeful persistence is preserved by Polaroid.
How would I know she was making up for the lost warmth of a cold childhood?
“We’re all untouchables.” I adjust my mask as I kneel at Holy Hope and touch her name engraved in the stone: 1915-1979. Every visit I surrender to the tenacious yearning to feel the dead. Just one phantom touch.
I count my blessings. She sleeps beneath stone and sod rather than staring out at me from behind the window of assisted living in the age of distance. Memories of touch bubble up.
Artha Jean’s hands were rough, perfumed fists with pudgy short fingers and thick nails, fire engine red. I studied her scarlet talons when she grabbed my thieving little hand and held it tight all the way up to the surprised manager of the grocery store. A sharp fingernail silently nudged me to confess and return the pack of gum. I close my eyes and recall her stroking my shivering head and cooing as I sobbed in shame in the front seat of our aqua blue Pontiac.
Hugging, ribbing, elbowing, tapping, backslapping, nudging, and hair mussing, her repertoire of touch, is understandably on hold in the age of corona.
She would approach you for a hug like a condor coming in for a landing, her endless wing span of outstretched arms enveloping you, pressing you against her soft roundness, rocking you in her maternal refuge where you were safe from all monsters, beasts and things unknown.
Her repertoire of touch was extensive.
The Muss. If your hair was perfect, and you displayed a hint of vanity, you were a target for mussing.
The Jab. An elbow to the ribs was a command to join her in laughing uproariously. It’s been eclipsed by the 2020 elbow tap, followed by very nervous laughter.
The Pat. My fantasy of Artha Jean, the Encouraging Phantom, patting cashiers, national guardsmen, cops, doctors and nurses on the back amuses me. “Did you feel something a moment ago?”
The “Come here, you!” hug. This was the anaconda hug you got when you were inconsolable. People who never got the “Come here, you!” hug grow up to be sociopaths. Or worse, politicians.
The Soothe. In a December, a lifetime ago , mom and dad’s window offered a view of falling snow. Sick with fever, I watched the snow swirl as Artha Jean sang “You Are My Sunshine” ever so slowly, her hand tracing soothing patterns on my burning forehead until I drifted into healing sleep.
I whine to her headstone I have not held her great-granddaughter since Chloe was born in early March. This lament would mystify the woman who’d warn her grandchildren, “I am going to eat you up,” and then proceed to waddle after them until the squirmers were subdued with tickling, followed by a frenzy of arm nibbling, giggle inducing back-of-the-neck gobbling, chin gnawing, with a chorus of “Num, num, num” punctuated with tummy raspberries.
Where is this world where unconditional touch was the norm? Where’s your mask, Mom?
When I saw her rough, chapped, meaty hands, the hands of a gardener, a laundress, a custodian, a cook, and a dishwasher lain across her heart in 1979 I remember with shame and regret the snotty teenager who recoiled at her warm touch.
The old man kneeling at Holy Hope, in 2020, the time of 6 feet apart, or 6 feet under, remembers the moment and the boy too well. And the hands that would examine a Mother’s Day gift of dime store costume jewelry like it was the Hope Diamond, the hands that would clap a lively rhythm to “Amazing Grace,” the hands that would clap us by the shoulders and assure us everything would be alright.
I stood and promised her etched name everything will be alright, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that I will stay safe, and well, for I am counting the seasons until I can take off this mask and safely tell Chloe, Emma and Cassius, “I’m going to eat you up,” and begin the chase.
David Fitzsimmons: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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