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She is up before dawn every day, no matter the season. While the rest of us grab a last few minutes of sleep, she pulls on her puffy blue robe, pads barefoot across the house to the front door and picks up the daily paper off the porch. Sipping her first cup of coffee at the kitchen table before the sun comes up, she reads every word of her town’s terrible paper with its terrible news. I am a reluctant riser, one of those who has vowed repeatedly to change my ways and become a morning person. But six decades in, I must concede that I prefer the bed in daytime to any piece of furniture. When dawn arrives, I am blissfully unconscious.
The last time I saw her she said she was feeling tired. “I just want to spend a whole day in bed,” she said. “I’ve never done that in my entire life.” She is on the upslope toward 90 and is tempted. She looked at me like a child contemplating doing something naughty. “You could do that,” I said. “Why not?” She said she’d think about it.
She is thrifty and frugal. She goes to the grocery store on Tuesdays with an envelope full of coupons and shops accordingly. If Folgers is 50-cents off she buys Folgers. She balances her checkbook and has probably never paid a bill late in her life. I despise even thinking about money and spend it whether I have it or not. When coupons come in the mail, I don’t even look at them; I throw them away.
So much of her identity revolves around being a motherless child. Her mother died after giving birth for the tenth time, leaving behind this nearly 6-year old daughter. She cried on Mothers Day every year when I was growing up, even if my father bought her a gardenia corsage, her favorite. She cried no matter how many handmade cards with declarations of love from all her four children. I have taken for granted a certain reliability, knowing always that my mother is there.
She never liked driving and quit for good when she was 55 and got cataracts. I am never happier than when I’m staring down the possibility of a thousand-mile road trip on unknown highways, to places I may never have been. Behind the wheel, I am footloose.
If you walked into her closet, you would see every color in the spectrum. She is comfortable in pink and yellow and lilac and purple and red and every shade of blue. She is fond of floral prints. Somewhere in her closet is a matching purse in nearly every color. She cherishes every piece of jewelry she has ever owned and keeps each piece carefully wrapped in little silk bags and soft lined boxes. My closet is utterly neutral: gray and black with an occasional smattering of brown. My jewelry, most of which I never wear, sits on an open tray gathering dust.
She has prayed and read the Bible and practiced Christian devotion every day of my life. Even the atheists and agnostics in our family don’t take lightly the possibility of being on her prayer list. I have come late to praying, when it felt my family was being hurled over one cliff after another. Out here in the middle distance, I am still trying to capture a notion of God.
When I was growing up, she meditated with needle in hand, stitching together museum-worthy quilts. I meditate in the garden, hunched over seedlings emerging from the winter-ravaged soil.
We agree easily about most things and don’t care to disagree. If we are ever together on Monday nights, we tune into Dancing With the Stars and issue scathing judgments on those contestants with no visible physical grace. We love Tony and wish he’d get a better partner. If we are together on weekdays, we eat cheese and crackers and watch The Young and the Restless as we have for 40 years. We hate pompous Victor and we love evil Adam. Lately we have spoken of him by phone as he is currently laid up in the Genoa City Hospital in a bullet-induced coma. We love sharing bad news.
Among the gifts she has given me are Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and their collected works. For my birthday this week she gave me new pajamas, robins’ egg blue. She always sends her cards on time while mine languish in a mental to-do list. Remember to thank her, it says. Don’t forget to thank her.
— With apologies to the late Natalia Ginzburg whose legendary essay, “He and I,” inspired this piece.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.