Seventeen years ago this month, my mother, Elnora Sydnes Wald, died. She was only a few weeks short of her 96th birthday. My last visit with her had been difficult, since I had trouble admitting to myself that I might not see her again, my own home being in a distant state from hers. She was realistic, as always, about life and death, living with good grace for eight years at the retirement home, though as time went on her disabilities began to color her various small pleasures with pain. Her bones were bad and she suffered from occasional spinal fractures; in addition, arthritis took its toll on her knees, wrists, and especially her fingers to the point where she couldn’t hold a fork. One of her table mates cut her food for her or she would place a slice of meat on a piece of bread to eat it from her hands. Yet, she always maintained a cheerful disposition with a gentle undertone. Her nature was one that sought simplicity and refinement, this attitude also evident in matters of dress and décor.
She was a lifelong Christian, telling me of the strict requirements she dutifully met as a young person being instructed by the Lutheran pastor at her home church in Slater, Iowa. Her parents were second generation Americans of Norwegian extraction, and that language popped up even during my growing up years when Mother and her sisters got together. I was given to understand from the paroxysms of laughter that the jokes were what Mother would term as “earthy,” for that family was not prudish even with their devotion to their faith.
Norwegian author Sigrid Undset tells of an untranslatable word in her native tongue that expresses ideal characteristics, a combination of qualities most admired by that people. I always associate those attributes with my mother as defining her personality and character. The qualities are threefold: one doesn’t put oneself above another person, one is emotionally controlled, and one is imbued with the milk of human kindness.
I wrote the following two poems telling of the last year of my mother’s life.
“. . . some sweet oblivious antidote”
She began by returning my own family’s photos,
poses at special events and on trips.
“They’re really yours to keep, you know;
I haven’t room in this small place.”
Without looking about I knew it was so.
Only one room and one drawer
in the mahogany escritoire
to store the memories of one life
Later she dismantled the old black albums,
tearing snapshots from their moorings.
“Take these if you want. It’s all so long ago.”
Pictures of her and Dad in their early married days,
standing beside the Model A, newly bought.
Family groups of aunts and uncles, cousins,
grandparents, all at a picnic or on the farm.
A shot of my brother and sister in a little wagon.
Or of myself on a swing or sitting on a log
holding the wild bunny my brother had caught.
Next to go were those of young faces;
the babies, graduates, and wedding parties,
mute tokens of a long and full life.
Tossed out with seeming disregard.
“Don’t you want to keep a few?” I asked,
unsure of taking away all her past,
“So you can look at them from time to time?”
She sifted through the discards but only said
she’d like to have more recent photos.
“I don’t want reminders of the old days;
It’s too sad.” And I understood at last
the need she had to rid herself
of those backward views
that spanned the decades.
People, times vanished
like spring rain
into the earth.
At the last, having to leave her small apartment, she went into the Health Center’s hospital-like room.
A Preparation, January 1998
At the end of your life,
now defined by one small room
a revolving circle of attendants--
slow walks for food--
rests in bed--
visits from those who love you,
you’ve settled lightly in this place,
and still have the wits
to stand your ground.
No telephone, you say,
the talk that drains
that strains the wrist
and your resolve
to leave us.