The Girl Who Loved The Wind

May 12, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

The first year was the hardest.

Even now, six years later, I can remember with amazing clarity waking up that Sunday morning two months after my mother's death and thinking:

Today is Mother's Day. And for the first time in my life I will spend this day as a motherless child.

It was a mournful thought, one that played over and over in my head like a dirge. But since I was a mother as well as a daughter I put aside my sadness, or tried to, in order to concentrate on the Mother's Day surprises planned by my sons for me.

But when I was alone that night -- the night of my first Mother's Day without a mother -- I found myself sitting under a small circle of light in my bedroom, rereading parts of "Jane Eyre."

I was drawn particularly to the part where the orphaned, %J 10-year-old Jane is transported late one night by carriage to Lowood School and, with no preparation, is set down abruptly into the fearful, unprotected world of the parentless child. As she steps out of the carriage, young Jane is approached by the headmistress of Lowood and the immense impersonality of her greeting to this abandoned girl sent sharp pangs of grief through me:

" 'Is there a little girl called Jane Eyre here?' she asked. I answered 'Yes,' and was then lifted out; my trunk was handed down, and the coach instantly drove away."

I think I sobbed out loud at that point, and I would not be offended if you thought my outburst silly. After all, there I was, a grown woman with two teen-age sons, crying over a fictional orphan girl. But sitting there in the middle of the night, alone and wrapped in a quilt, the house around me silent and sleeping, the grown woman was scarcely present at all: It was the child within me who sobbed bitterly, feeling suddenly abandoned and set down, as Jane Eyre was, in the alien world of the motherless child.

Someone, I can't remember who, once said that there are no such things as adults; that there are only children who try -- usually without success -- to imitate adults. However, what I found out on that Mother's Day night six years ago was this: There is but one response to the death of a mother, no matter your age. What the child feels in the face of this loss is what the adult feels. The difference lies in the way such emotions are civilized by the adult into more socially acceptable grieving.

But child or adult, it seems to me the task created by a mother's death remains the same: Suddenly your world has heaved and shifted, creating an emotional fault line that alters the underlying structure of your life -- and suddenly you've got to find your place in the world again. A new place.

But how difficult it is to move on and give up the old, familiar place! For one thing, it is the homeland of your childhood; the place where things get etched into you in a way that never happens again. Six years have passed since my mother's death and still it all comes back to me, sometimes, in a rush of memory as clear as the water in a mountain lake -- exactly how she looked and what she said and precisely what I felt looking at her and listening to her.

SHE LOVED THE WIND.

When I was growing up, my mother would often recite this poem to my brother and me:

"Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I,

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by."

She told me once about how, when she was a little girl walking to church, the wind lifted her hat off her head and carried it down to the bottom of a steep incline. It was her best hat -- navy straw with a white grosgrain band around the brim -- and she was afraid she'd be scolded for losing it. So, dressed in her Sunday best, she climbed through the underbrush down to the bottom of the hill to retrieve it. Which she did -- along with an abandoned kitten who was to become my mother's most beloved childhood pet. She named him Zephyr, she told me, because he was as light as a gentle breeze.

There's an old photograph in the family album of Zephyr and my mother. In it, my mother -- who must have been about 10 at the time -- is standing in the garden behind the house where she grew up, holding a small, gray cat who is struggling to jump out of her arms. The motion has blurred Zephyr's tail in the picture, causing it to look like a huge, gray, floating feather.

Looking at the photo recently, I tried to imagine what the girl who would become my mother was feeling at that very moment, as she smiled into the camera lens. I noticed that the wind was blowing a few loose strands of the girl's long, dark hair across her eyes. Did she smile perhaps -- this girl who loved the wind -- at the feel of the breeze touching her face? Or did the cat's predictable struggle to escape evoke in her, as it always does in me, the wish to laugh at the way cats will never do what you want them to do?

It's odd, but in the six years since her death I've thought more and more of the child who was revealed to me in my mother's stories about herself, and less and less of the adult woman I actually knew.

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