On freethinking spinsters and the 50th anniversary of the passing of Shirley Jean Lewis
On May the 11th 1972 my parents hosted an impromptu gathering. My brother David had turned nine two days before and there was a little birthday cake left over, so my mother called a couple of people to come over and finish the cake, but the affair eventually grew larger than the birthday party itself had, and my father had to run to the grocery store to get lunchmeat and bread to feed what he would always refer to as marauding hordes if the visitors were my mother's family members or esteemed guests if they were anyone else. Even though there was not enough furniture to provide seating, everyone settled in the living room with their drinks and paper plates of food laden with sandwiches, potato chips, pickles, and olives, and – in a miraculous multiplication that would have had the Lord himself impressed – somehow enough leftover birthday cake for all.
My mother sat on the floor with me on her lap. Not expecting that she would be hosting such a party, she hadn't had the time to change out of her outfit of cut-off shorts and one of Dad's shirts, but she looked luminous nonetheless, dark eyes sparkling with joy and cheeks pink with temporary health.
“Shirley, you look gorgeous,” said one of the ladies.
“O please – I look like I've stumbled out of the pages of Tom Sawyer” my mother responded, but I could tell she was glad of the compliment because I felt her sit up a little straighter.
I said, “Mommy you do look beautiful!” and she hugged me tight. She smelled of Ivory soap and what I thought good dreams would smell like if they had a scent.
As tended to happen at such gatherings, stories began to be told. My mother – like me – couldn't get enough of my grandfather's stories, so she would prompt him (not that Gramps ever needed much prompting): “Dad, tell that one about ...” . There was a lot of laughter, which I loved, because every time my mother laughed, she hugged me even more tightly, as if she wanted to clothe me in that laughter, surround me with it so that it would somehow be a part of me in the future when such joy would be hard to come by.
One of the stories had to do with a local woman whom my mother adored but most others were not so terribly fond of who was large, loud, intelligent, and outspoken, and – unique in that time and place – insisted on being referred to as Ms and not Miss. She had been seen at a local eatery with a much older gentleman and they had reportedly been discussing – “in disgusting detail” – a book called Portnoy's Complaint, in particular a part that had something to do with a piece of liver and something sexual that I didn't understand but made a note in my journal to investigate further at a later time. (Although ridiculously precocious, I somehow knew that, at age six, I surely wouldn't understand; I waited until I was twelve before I read a copy that I got from my sister Kathy in one of our many conspiratorial moments.)
At one point a woman sitting next to my mother shouted out, “She's going to get into trouble someday – mark my word. I wish she would just pack up and move to a big city somewhere. There's no place here for a freethinking spinster.”
I had never heard freethinking spinster before, and so I had to stop for a second to see if I could figure it out without having to ask my mother. Freethinking seemed easy enough; I imagined colourful thoughts that rose out of hearts everywhere, soaring gloriously up and away, unencumbered by anything or anyone, painting the world in love. I assumed that spinsters were people who had the special ability to make those thoughts take flight, to unleash them on a world that I suspect desperately needed them.
“Mommy,” I asked, “can I be a freethinking spinster when I grow up?”
Everyone laughed except for Grams, who, lips formed into a line as slim as the slice of cheese on her sandwich, shook her head almost violently. “No!” she mouthed.
But my mother, hugging me tightly and nuzzling my ear with her nose, said, “Of course, my darlink. You can be whoever you want to be!”
I think it's a fitting testimony to my mother (Mommy she'll always be to me because she was gone before I was able to outgrow that) that in reflecting on the half century since her passing, this particular story is first and foremost in my thoughts. As it is her death I remember this day, one would think my thoughts might turn elsewhere, to her sickness, her struggles, her frustration, her sadness, and that awful, awful morning when Dad, defeated and lost, told us the news. And it would also be easy to reflect on a half century, that – in addition to all the wonder life can offer – also saw lives ruined and hearts broken and the introduction of a devastating loneliness that abides to this day. It would be easy to be maudlin, and I have to admit that in these days, with this dreadful anniversary looming, I have given into some cultivated sadness. I have gone through old photos and letters and taken a kind of sepia-coloured comfort in them; their lack of colour – their black-and-whiteness – speaks well of the dullness of grief and loss.
But I can't stay in this dullness long. The embrace of her story – our story – is just too strong. What a world has continued to open up for me because of the presence of this woman in my life. What a gift it has been to know that while many others would have me believe that who I am is somehow wrong, I always knew I could be whoever I wanted to be. And I have known this because I have been empowered by the presence of a love that most definitely did not end with my mother's last breath but continues to breathe in me fifty years later. And though my heart still aches, I cannot help but be grateful for her and for that part of her which still lives, still makes me feel loved, still lets me know that I can be whoever I want to be.
I no longer want to be a freethinking spinster. But I have to say that I still imagine colourful thoughts that rise from hearts everywhere, soaring gloriously up and away, unencumbered by anything or anyone, painting the world in love. And I do want – because I know my mother wanted it for me – to be a person who has the special ability to make such thoughts take flight, to unleash them on a world that I suspect desperately needs them.
Of course, my darlink. You can be whoever you want to be!
I want to be someone who paints the world in love. Thanks, Mommy, for setting me on that path and walking with me every step of the way.