Julie Notarianni / Seattle Times

On Mother's Day: Remarkable mom shared road trips and poetry

Published: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3E

For as long I can remember, I have heard women say they wished they could speak with their dead mothers.

Often they want to share something that happened or they wish they had asked their mothers more about their lives. Somehow, while I found these sentiments interesting, I didn't think that I might ever feel that way myself. Mother, after all, was still around.

She stayed around – reading book after book and walking around the duck pond at the Chateau at River's Edge assisted living facility in Sacramento – until late February when her heart and lungs gave out and she died at the age of 97.

It was then I realized that I was like those daughters I had heard lamenting. I wanted to call Mother and hear her bemoan everything from the escalating bloodshed in the Middle East to the rise of super PACs.

In fact, I told myself I would even tolerate her periodic bouts of irritability and her grousing that my bangs were too long. I also pledged to stop feeling irked when I watched Mother – a woman with graduate degrees in English, social work and law – spend a long time reading package labels in the pharmacy aisles.

All I have left, really, are memories and my pride that Ruth Sward was a college English teacher, a public housing authority manager and a lawyer in an era when such women were a rarity. Mother believed in the ideals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and she felt many people had no real sense of the deep damage done by slavery in America.

All these things I know about Mother, but these recollections will vanish when I am gone. So I hold onto what I can by examining memories. One involves a night when I was 8 and couldn't sleep. I stood in the doorway of my parents' bedroom and told them I didn't know what I would do when they died. They reassured me, and I went back to bed.

Father – a psychologist who gave Mother, my sisters Martha and Ellen and me great happiness – died in 1980. In the years after his death, Mother and I took road trips.

For each trip I packed books of poetry. Mother, who at the age of 3 lost her own mother in the influenza epidemic of 1918, was the first of five siblings who went to college, and she retained much of what she learned: She could quote from Shakespeare's sonnets and answer my many questions about British history.

At sunset wherever we were, I would mix gin and tonics and she would read poetry to me. We did this many places, including a cabin on the Yuba River, a beachfront, white-walled hotel in Santa Barbara, and a 1930s cottage in Palm Springs.

Some years ago, Mother moved to Sacramento to be near my sisters. She said San Francisco, where I lived, was too cold and full of hills. As she grew older, she enjoyed applying her critical faculty to matters large and small.

Once I washed my van before our errands. She looked at the car and said: "You missed the side mirror." Other times she spoke witheringly of the Democrats' failure to protect those on the bottom.

Although Mother enjoyed offering darkish assessments of life, she rarely spoke of death. Mostly, I felt that she let her choice of poems convey her thoughts. Two of her favorites were Conrad Aiken's "Bread and Wine" and Aline Kilmer's "Things."

Kilmer's begins:

"Sometimes when I am at tea with you
I catch my breath
At a thought that is old as the world is old
And more bitter than death.
It is that the spoon that you just laid down
And the cup that you hold
May be here shining and insolent
When you are still and cold."

Aiken's poem opens:

"Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread …"

One night shortly before her death, Mother tossed restlessly in her bed while I tried to sleep on her living room couch. Off and on she talked in her sleep, and at one point I heard her announce distinctly: "He is a Democrat."

At dawn on Feb. 25, Mother died in her sleep. I had no chance for a final conversation in which I told her I loved her and thanked her for all she gave me – a love of literature, a belief in the need to assist society's underdogs and a desire to give my sons Nick and Tim the loving family world that my sisters and I had growing up. Without the closure of a goodbye conversation, I go hunting for solace in poems she loved.

One of her favorites was Shakespeare's sonnet No. 71. It begins: "No longer mourn for me when I am dead …" If I shut my eyes and say the words, she is reading aloud. We are on that cabin porch overlooking the Yuba River, and I don't need to say goodbye.

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