Mom’s Long Reach

Craig Jones
Legacy Columnist

Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to write things down? I mean, to have to, like a plant has to turn toward the sun. Most likely, you don’t. It’s a kinesthetic, restless, muscular thing, like how Hemingway said he wished he could carve his novels in wood.

I got in my car the other morning on my way to work at 5:45 a.m. and I had my head full of stuff already that I wanted to write down, and I couldn’t reach my little notebook, and all I had available was an empty incense package. I had a pen and I scribbled on the incense package what I was thinking about so I wouldn’t forget it.

I was praying for a stoplight. Imagine that, praying for a stoplight so I could write down what I was thinking without having it evaporate. Who prays for a fucking stoplight? A whole bunch of thoughts, none of them deathless, and I just scribbled them down as soon as I could on this incense package.

A lot of my day is like that. I carry around a small pocket notebook, with the spirals on the top, one of those little ones smaller than a 3-by-5 card or a smartphone. I use them for notes at work, and I use them for whatever I’m thinking about or listening to during the day. Sometimes I feel like a furtive cigarette smoker. Dash out back and light up quickly, then snuff it and come back in.

That’s the way it is when you have to write things down. A man (a writer himself) around a fire circle once told me that the way you know you’re a writer is if you have to write. Well, if that’s the qualification, then I’m in. No rhyme or reason and I don’t know what the hell to do with all the notebooks yet. Kerouac carried his sketchbooks around, too, so I’m in good company. 

It’s a compulsion that is hard to explain, and it’s a compulsion at the very heart of my most vivid memory of my mother.

She aspired to be a writer. I grew up watching her always reaching for some writing implement and paper, even napkins, paper towels, drug store bags, anything, to record stuff before it was out of sight and mind.

Of the fact that she had, and has at 93, a writer’s heart and soul, there can be no doubt. She wrote, all the time, as our nine months of work prepping her house, my boyhood home, for sale bore mute testimony. Notes about everything she deemed important on any scrap of material (including paper plates written on in crayon) at hand. She read constantly and marked the hell out of books, took literature classes at the local college, and wrote profiles of fellow church members for the monthly newsletter. I found a short story she had started, a foray into fiction.

This one Sunday at church, where we found ourselves as a family every week, I remember watching my mom listening to the sermon. She sat for a while, and all of a sudden reached out for the pencil and one of the cards (for visitors’ information, mostly) on the back of the pew in front of us and started writing down some thoughts that could not wait.

If anyone else even noticed at the time, they certainly did not remember it. It was nothing, nothing at all. I’d seen her write like that my whole life. But, for some reason, it is now one of the salient images I have of her. You could follow lines out from that one simple moment to every other important moment in her life:

  • Her faith (Baptist)
  • Her family (all beside her, except my dad, who had died when I was very young)
  • Her urge to write

Most of my early memories of her are not vivid any more. They have been supplanted by the current reality of someone very elderly and forgetful and slow moving.

I can’t picture her as a Cub Scout Den Mother, but I know she was there. I can’t picture her at my high school football or basketball games or track meets, but I know she was there. I know she was there when I was learning to drive with our standard shift Chevy wagon. I know she came to the grocery store where I worked part-time after school. She was there for everything.

But, what I remember most is that one morning in church, writing on the back of a card, probably in shorthand. The compulsion to get it all down, to not forget. The reach of my mom is long in my life, in all particulars, but none more so than the urge to arrange words into interesting sentences.

The upside was that it is a rich way to go through life. The downside was that she never threw anything away. She wrote notes on every conceivable kind of paper. She called them, rather warmly, her “scrids.” And she gradually lost control of her house and her life, buried in a hoarder’s nightmare.

In Peanuts, Pig-Pen once decided it was important to have clean hands, but after failing to wash them, realized that he had “reached a point of no return.” He would sometimes refer to the cloud that surrounded him with pride as “the dust of ancient civilizations.” That’s what her house was like.

It’s all good fun, being like one of the most popular of Charles Schulz’s characters, until it interferes with your life and functioning. The one act, a harmless note in church on a scrid, multiplied by ten thousand or a shambolic million.

I was definitely embarrassed over the years by her hoarding. It was hard to see her through any other lens. My high school girlfriend wasn’t allowed to come in the house the night we went to the prom. We had our photos taken out on the porch, then we left. There were a lot of times like that.

But, I also know that she gave my brother and me all she had, as a single parent, dealt an early and difficult blow by life.

My mom is now way nearer the end of her life than the beginning. I may be the only one in the family who understands this particular side of her. Just like how no two people ever read the same book, no two people know the same person.

I have told her, in every way I know how, given her diminished hearing and recall, that I am grateful for the direct line from her to me and my love of books, reading, words, and writing my way through life.

She’s aware of how I watched her that morning in church. She reached for a card and she reached into my future. I hope she knows that.

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