"All politics is personal."

T.A. Barnhart

Four weeks ago today, in a grocery store in Winter Haven, Florida, my mother told the cashier she wasn't feeling well.  After fifty-five years of smoking, two years of chemo for cancer, and a life of work that had ended "officially" only three days earlier when she finally retired at the age of 71, that she did not feel good was no surprise.  But the cashier didn't know any of this, nor did the people in line with her.  She was just an old lady with an oxygen tank, of which there are plenty in Florida; and then she was a stricken old lady, collapsed on the floor of a grocery store in Winter Haven, Florida.

Her official time of death ended up being July 4.  Someday I'll think that is cool, that she shares her passing with Jefferson, one of my heros.  Right now, though, there is nothing good about her death.  I had never lost someone this close before, and I was not prepared for the shock and grief.  I don't think I'll be getting over it for a long time, so that date will be nothing I celebrate for a very long time. 

I went to Florida for her memorial service.  There is something surreal about a family reunion under such circumstances.  I prefer a picnic where everyone is there, happy, laughing and eating and enjoying the presence of all, not grieving the absence of one.  But being with my brother and sister was good; I see too little of them.  Also good was the service itself.  I got to hear from the people who knew my mom in her daily life: the people she worked with, the people who were part of the local theatre to which she gave so much.  I learned some very special things about my mom.

One thing in particular stodd out.  She won three "Director's Awards" from the Winter Haven Community Theatre; these are awarded by the director to volunteers who go above and beyond.  The director came to the service and spoke about her with real affection.  She did not act or do anything major; she just made sure each play had the best possible props.  She found props that made each scene work, and she found them real cheap -- and saving money on props meant the theatre had more money for other needs.  Like so many art organizations, the ability to make a buck go a long way means a great deal, and my mom did this with a panache that was distinctly her own.

As I returned to Oregon, I thought about how my mom and I were not very close.  For years, I have wondered what I got from her that was meaningful.  I can see a lot of my dad in myself (they divorced when I was 12), but of her -- there are too many years of separation for me to know what to recognize.  But now, having heard the way people spoke of her there, I think I begin to know what it is in me that is my mom's heritage.  I hope, in talking to my brother and sister in the coming years -- they saw more of her, knew her far better than I -- I hope I will come to recognize more of my mother in the person I am.

For now, I have this one thing:  She was not willing to let things be.  Her actions in life differed from mine, but she could not simply sit back and be passive.  She did things her whole life, so many little things in her personal and professional life to try and make the world better.  I think she saw the bounds of what she could actually effect, and she did everything she could within that area.  She did not try anything grandiose or earth-shattering; she simply gave her local world everything she could.

In the four weeks since, I have thought about this a lot.  I find myself forgiving her for what she did not do -- an activity in which every generation surely engages -- and grasping ahold of what she did do.  I think of the words of those who spoke at her service, and I compare the life they saw with my own.  I am coming to this understanding:  If I can live my life fully and with dedication, and with the smile that seemed never to leave her face, then I will be my mother's child.  Whatever may have been lost in our relationship over the past thirty years can be regained, or perhaps reborn, in the life I lead from here on.

  • Penny (unverified)

    Your mom sounds like a very special lady, and I'm sure she would be happy that you are recognizing some of the gifts that you share. Sincere sympathies on your loss.

  • (Show?)

    Thank you for this eloquent post, Mr. Barnhart. I, too, offer my sympathies, but it sounds already like you've found a constructive way to carry on your mother's legacy. I wish you success in that.

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)
    • Grief of dying can energize living. A loss can be a gain.

    • Consciousness of it changes when the personal mind changes.

    • All personal mind changes come in communication, which means shared information and experience.

    Rearranging these thoughts can produce a proof that: Consciously sharing experience (spending time) with others is the remedy for grief and the health of living.

    And to see the personal in politics, ask your correspondent (taking time) to draw two columns on a sheet of paper and in one, list answers for What your country can do for you?, and in the other, list answers for What you can do for your country?


    Wait, maybe that's What your mother can do for you?, and What you can do for your mother? :-)

  • Becky (unverified)

    I lost my father in February, so I understand and share your sorrow. Interestingly, my relationship with him also was not close, as my parents divorced when I was 13 and I rarely saw him again. Like your mother, my father dedicated himself to volunteering in his community. It was a very healing experience to learn that so many people in his community loved him and were helped by him. I am going through such a similar learning experience about myself as you are about yourself that I just wanted to reach out to you. It is good to see beauty can come out of such a sad experience, isn't it? Kind of like the tender grass that pushes its way through the asphalt, there is a certain vigor, a stubborn joy, to life that keeps it continually moving forward.

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