Monday, September 11, 2006

Portraits of Grief

My mother cannot keep up with the newspapers. They rule her. She feels an obligation to work her way through every section of the New York Times, the Boston Globe, (daily and Sunday editions), and an assortment of local weeklies. A pile of newspaper travels with her, crammed into omnipresent canvas bags. She is almost relieved when she has to wait in the stand-by line for a later ferry or fly cross-country. For a short time there is a sense of satisfaction while the pile shrinks rather than grows. These windows of peace are brief. For once she leaves the airplane, two or three days lighter, perhaps even a week lighter for a flight from Boston to Seattle, there’s the local news lying in wait, another newspaper between her and ever being caught up.

My mother feels buried in papers but she simply cannot bear the thought of missing a single article that might be important. She points out that she wouldn’t even know what she had missed if she skipped even a single day, as though that logic is irrefutable. For she is a one-woman clipping service, strictly volunteer. Catalogued in the gray matter between the short hair and the family double chin, are the personal and professional interests of some 30-40 friends and relatives, who apparently don’t read the papers. Beneath the disarming exterior of blue eyes, knee socks, corduroy jumpers and large dangling theme earrings (Scrabble letters, Christmas trees with battery-generated flashing lights during the holidays) is an extremely focused sixty-seven year old with scissors. She seems to have the type of instinctual need to clip articles that a salmon has to find its way back to its birthplace to spawn.

Rainy day museums in Paris, maple-syrup woes in Vermont, caterpillars, letters to the editor, the acrostics for the neighbor, a reference to Zanesville, Ohio…The articles are cut carefully and set aside to send to the friend who may have made a passing reference to a rainy visit to Paris. Eventually such clippings spill out of envelopes that have been recycled and sent to me along with a forgotten hairbrush from our visit, or a bathing suit that was marked down. The clippings, sometimes newsprint, sometimes copies, can date back months and create a game of connect the dots, forming the outline that my mother would trace of me. Triple chocolate cake recipes without dairy, train travel to Canada, essays by writers that she thinks I read, parenting columns. An occasional message in one corner, “don’t know if I’ve already sent this to you.”

This could be a full-time job for my mother; unfortunately she has other demands on her time. Her part-time job as a teacher’s assistant at the junior high, an average of thirty emails a day to read and reply, my father’s unwillingness to do household repairs, babysitting for her twin granddaughters, her spoiled cats, her hungry chickadees, the need to videotape even more news than she reads, “Days of our Lives” to watch on tape. Then there’s the laundry to line dry, the daily walks to pick up litter, the League of Women Voters (45-year member), the Democratic Party, and her two late night indulgences, ice cream and computer Scrabble. And most demanding of all, besides the weather reports and the letters owed, is keeping up in her journal. She uses a weekly calendar, alternating colors of ink for the days of week. Writing in very, very, very small print she includes all the highlights of the weather, and an accounting of the pertinent information, as she sees it, for each particular day.

It is no wonder that my mother falls behind and the newspaper pile grows. In the summer when all three generations are crowded together in the family cottage, my sister grows the most impatient. She mercilessly combines my mother’s stacks, jumbling up partially read with unread in one towering corner pile. Last summer my mother sometimes stayed home from the beach to try to catch up. We’d leave her uncharacteristically sitting in the afternoon, scissors in hand, newspapers on her lap, the cottage cool and quiet in the shade. But that was in simpler days.

It was my mother who called me from the East Coast, early on my sister’s wedding anniversary, to say that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My daughter had come into my room and crawled into my bed. I was reading to her when the phone rang just past seven a.m. The sun was shining in Seattle that Tuesday. Ninety-five heavenly blue morning glories were blooming for their one day. For us on the West Coast, the world outside the window looked normal. Trucks rattled by; there were no sirens. It took a while to notice the silence of the skies.

The newspapers swelled in the days and weeks after the attacks, boasting special photo sections and entitled with themes: America Under Attack, and then, America Strikes Back. My mother’s reading broadened, she felt obligated to read more about the middle east, every account of the doomed flights, and then, in the New York Times, the section called Portraits of Grief. The numbers count shifted up and down on the front page but in this section the numbers stayed fairly constant, about twenty lives per day. There were photos if available and three to four paragraphs apiece to capture a sense of the person who had been lost: the free spirit, the janitor, the avid sailor, the grandmother, the executive, the twin. Snapshot biographies all leading to the same ending, like string drawn from different geographic birthplaces, leading to nearly one single place on the map. My mother fell farther and farther behind, like a gravedigger who cannot keep up during plague. But she dismissed the thought of skipping even one single life, and she kept on. She cut out the boxed sections and put them aside, unable to place them in a paper bag for recycling or in the fireplace grate. October. November. December. What to do with the Portraits of Grief?

Finally she did what came naturally. She put these clippings in oft-used envelopes, the kind with padding that gets loose in gray clumps, and sent them along to me. Passing along a burden that was too heavy for her to carry. Unsuspecting at first, I opened that first envelope, and amidst the packaged chocolate sauce, photo reprints, coupons and usual inch of clippings out came the folded squares. The heat blowing from the floor vents made the clippings shimmy in the drafts. My tears would anchor them as they dropped onto the newsprint, my insides feeling as squeezed as the grapefruit on the counter beside me, the taste bitter in my mouth. And wondering, not just about the families, but about the obituary writers. How much more can they bear?

Alone in my kitchen, I would read every one and then confront again the question that my mother couldn’t. What to do with these lives on paper? Lives lost in an instant, or worse. At a certain point I thought, print every one. Whatever happens, don’t stop before it is done. Be it 3,015 or 4,232. Even if it takes all year, don’t stop before you have printed every single one. Finally, but never without pause, I carried the sections gently to the recycling bin at the top of the basement stairs and placed them in carefully, almost as if I was returning a bird to its nest.

And so these clippings will continue to flurry, floating down from my mother’s scissors as she frees them from the New York Times, and they will soar across the country in heavy sacks of mail. In my kitchen they will be free again, fluttering like all the paper that rained on lower Manhattan and has coated us everywhere with a gray, dusty coat of grief.
March 2002