She's Still in There - But Who Was She
It seems like forever since I've written much of anything, let alone "blogged." That's a verb, right? There are lots of reasons for it. I was writing or at least doing many "writing adjacent" things, just not making progress towards whatever goal it is I imagine and hope will make me feel whole, worthy, productive and God only knows what all.
The goal-making, the task-mastering (a verb, right? or would it be an adverb? gaah) receded. Life, death and family, so much family, oozed into the spaces left behind. Melodramatic, I know, but here's the thing, or, a thing. I happens to everyone. Always has. Death, that is. Yet the inevitable end of life so often comes as a surprise, a shock, a seeming aberration rather than a consequence as natural and frequent as birth (no, duh).
How could this happen? How could this happen now? Of course, many deaths are tragic, unfair in their timing and circumstances. Not my mother's. At least not the physical aspect of it.
June Rice died on December 2, 2019. Her death wasn't unexpected. She was 97. In the final stages of Alzheimer's. She didn't know who she was, let alone who I was. She'd long lived in some foggy in-between place, a living limbo or purgatory where bodies drift, disconnected from their past, present and future. Her past existing only in the minds of others who remembered, each in their own way, who she was, who she had been to them. With her few friends and peers having already abandoned this mortal coil, that mostly meant my sisters and I, and, drawing from different memory pools, our children.
In the final years, in assisted living and then memory care, Mom would blurt out a rude observation on someone's physical appearance, pull a sour face - as if the world smelled bad - or point her nose skyward and, for a moment, the gesture, her scant words, evoked the imperious matriarch of family legend and lore.
"She's still in there," I would say, or one of my sisters would.
Yet what did we mean, really? Who was the "she" we so easily recognized. I don't believe it had much to do with the roles she'd performed for most of her life - wife, mother, educator - though how she executed those roles was often memorable. It was more basic than that. An essence rooted in girlhood dreams and aspirations. Fueled by judgement, frustration, perceptions of success and failure. All those mysterious quirks and traits that form "personality." Even stripped of its associated memories and experiences - wires cut, synapses scrambled - that essence of June Rice remained in the background, like faded wall paper. A signature substrata that ran on auto-pilot, or perhaps pure soul - concentrated as perfume - hard-wired to the bitter end.
The brain's version of muscle memory? Or something more profound? Who "she" was is, was, always will be, complicated, multifarious, elusive, undeniable.
June Rice - who at 16 left small-town Shasta, on her own, to attend UC Berkeley - was smart, stubborn and independent. Traits that weren't always deemed appropriate, or amenable, in a woman. She became a seasoned world-traveler, wanderlust driven by the need to scratch an unrequited itch, those early hopes of becoming a renowned, feted, archeologist, or sociologist, a la Margaret Mead, of living outside societal conventions, with a swarthy lover in every port or archeological dig site.
She valued education, tolerance, knowledge of other cultures, religions and ways of being. I am grateful for the exposure and opportunities her expansive world view afforded me. I am grateful too for the family she created, for my sisters, our children and our children's children. I'm also mindful of the ways I chose not to emulate her. I could never agree that child-rearing is first and foremost a "job." I would never say, as she did, when asked to babysit her grandchildren, "No thanks, I've done my time." Nor do I believe affection and praise ruin a child or that it's necessary to "break their spirits," so they are appropriately humbled and malleable.
I could go on. But I won't. For now, suffice to say, as one of my children did, "I loved and admired Grandma June. And, I was afraid of her. She was a complicated woman."
I was a newly single mother with a head-strong two-year-old son when she shared her pragmatic advice about child-rearing with me. I can now imagine she believed she was being kind, that she was doing me a favor, that my life and my son's, would be easier with cowed expectations and humbler hopes and dreams. It was a case of "do as I say, not as I do," for surely her spirit had never been broken, her dreams never quashed. Tried, tested, bruised and tarnished by time's passing, yet into her final days, it was that essence of what she longed and hoped for that shone through the haze of Alzheimer's. It was that that flame my sisters and I recognized, and that made us turn to one another with a familiar admixture of admiration, chagrin, and (at least in adulthood) grudging acceptance, and say, "She's still in there."
It can't have been easy to be June Rice. I wish for her that her dreams had all been realized. I wish for her that she rests in peace, free to travel anywhere, speak any language, be anything, love anyone and be loved in return.
June Ellen Brainerd Rice
July 13, 1922 - December 2, 2019
Janis L Haag
1/22/2020 05:47:58 pm
Beautiful piece, Dorothy! I love the way you write about your complicated mother "still in there." And I love the way you've expressed gratitude to her and for her. My deepest sympathies to you all as your mourn her passing.
1/26/2020 06:28:25 am
Thank you so much, Jan. I so appreciate hearing from you.
10/4/2022 05:40:16 am
This was great to read thank you.
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Dorothy, author of GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK, blogs about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman and a writer of a certain age in a youth-centric universe.