I thought each call would be easier than the previous, but it’s just the opposite. Perhaps my numbness is fading, and my grief is sinking in. Or perhaps I’m just tiring of sharing with others the reality that my mother has died — tiring of sharing the circumstances and the details of how we’re all reacting, what we’re planning, how we feel.
It’s not at all that I don’t want to tell people — to allow them to start down the path that people follow after a family member has died. Really, I do want to tell people; I want to share the news and my grief; I want to show people I’m getting by, even after this sudden loss.
But the bottom line — whatever the reason, whatever I think about it — is that each time I call someone to tell them Mom is gone, the pit in my stomach deepens a little, my throat closes a little more tightly. Each time I have someone to call, I wait a little bit longer before dialing the number, I take a deeper breath before they answer.
Grace Elizabeth Viard Ward was born on the 28th of February in 1930, just a few months into The Great Depression. She shared plenty of stories about that time, some from personal recollection, others retold from the stories her mother told her — such as that her mother, Helen, negotiated with the merchants in Boonton, N.J., often paying them just a bit at a time, or paying them late, for the family’s needs — but she always paid them everything they were due. Helen was proud of that, as was her daughter, Grace.
Family stories were nearly Mom’s stock in trade; she repeated her mother’s stories about ancestors and other relatives, kept track of all that her cousins did and where they went, and she shared the stories with us, her three children, expecting us to see the importance of the stories, as she did.
She did not limit her audiences to her family. Often, to our embarrassment, she shared the stories of our lives and accomplishments (even the modest ones, that take a mother’s view to see in flattering light) with whomever she met when she was out in public — taxi drivers, cashiers, doctors and nurses, fellow travelers … anyone could become one of Mom’s audiences.
Aside from simply having a wealth of those stories to share, I believe she told them because she was proud of what her family — in every generation — had accomplished. She was even proud of the granduncle who — well, who strayed, but who also left us part of his sizable fortune, opening opportunities that otherwise would have been unavailable to us. Our lives have been eased by the industry of others; we lived among affluence, even though very little of it could be attributed to us.
Mom also kept close tabs on the education of her children. She was a 1951 graduate of Wheelock College, where she had studied early childhood education. She put that training to use for decades, teaching preschoolers about socialization and preparing them for later grades.
Wheelock was also where she had developed her knack for spotting the shortcomings of whatever school we might be headed toward. For example, she had asked to tour the public school I was to attend in our Long Island hometown, and when the school district denied her request, she wasted no time in placing me in the same private school my father, Larry Ward, had attended — even though I spent an hour a day on buses getting there and back.
Mom was a fierce protector of her family, against whatever foe emerged from the fog of life. And much later in our lives, we did our best to protect her from the foes that attacked her health and wellbeing: arthritis, vertigo, hypertension, and the depression and anxiety that increased over time.
When the house that my parents bought 50 years ago became an obstacle to Mom’s safety — three half-flights of stairs between their bedroom and the laundry, flagstone steps at almost every entrance, the threat of the stone patio that made us all cringe whenever we thought of Mom tending her many outdoor plants — we moved her, and my father, to Connecticut, to a setup where everything they needed, from bedroom to kitchen, was on one level. We then set her up with medical providers to keep tabs on her mood, on her equilibrium and her debilitatingly painful right knee, on her general health.
But there was no protecting her from the great inevitability. When Dad and I returned home from the Festival of St. Sebastian, where we had visited with my eldest daughter (the eldest of my parents’ seven granddaughters) and her husband, and where we had eaten plates full of fried food, we found her already gone — so much so that even the heroic efforts of dedicated paramedics could not revive her.
It was that swift, that shocking.
In “Dirge for Two Veterans,” the American poet Walt Whitman describes the burial of two men, beginning his poem as the funeral march winds down in the fading light of the day: “The last sunbeam // Lightly falls from the finish’d Sabbath.” Whitman notes the “sad procession” of the two men (father and son) being carried to their graves; he shares the visceral pain he feels from grief: “every blow of the great convulsive drums, // Strikes me through and through.”
He is describing the same end that took my mother on Friday evening, the same pounding grief that we who are left behind feel today.
But he also describes how he (and we) can keep alive the memories of those who pass before we do, and he links pure nature and human nature, in the continuity of the all-too-brief lives that overlap and merge into tremendous swaths of time, into history that builds on itself every day, into legacies we treasure.
“O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.”
Yes, Mom is gone — but in the same way that she sustained her family by telling their stories, in the same way that Whitman sustains the lives of those two veterans by giving them love, we can keep alive the memory of Grace Elizabeth Viard Ward — A day after her passing, a year afterward, she will be sustained in the stories we tell, and in our hearts.