Updated: Dec 22, 2022
It's rare in life that you get to really say goodbye to someone, knowing full well it will really and truly will be the last time you ever see them. Think of all the people you have ever known and cared about in your life, and then how many of them you were able to say goodbye to. I mean like a real goodbye, as in, I will never see you again. Not many, right? For me, it has happened exactly twice: once was my grandfather, and once was my mother.
I said goodbye to my grandfather, my mother's father, at a senior care center in Nephi, Utah, in November 1996. I had just returned from a trip to Dublin, and by that time he was so far into his dementia that he tried to eat the stuffed leprechaun toy I brought him as a souvenir. He was 94 years old. The horror of watching him try to eat a toy leprechaun nearly undid me. I went out to the parking lot, got in my car, cried some hot, angry tears, and willed that this would be the last time I would see him alive. He died in December of that year.
I said goodbye to my mother last March. I am very grateful I had that opportunity, not least because, even though she didn't know who I was -- or at least she pretended not to -- she said things I wanted to hear. She claimed repeatedly that I couldn't be me, because "Liz lives in Holland, and she speaks Dutch." I couldn't be Liz, clearly, because there I was in front of her, we were not in Holland, and I was speaking English and not Dutch. (Nevermind that I live in Finland and speak perfectly good English, these are just minor details, after all.) She spent our visit like she spent most of her waking hours at that time, sitting in her wheelchair, looking out the window, and nibbling absently on York Peppermint Patties. (Yes, it's true. She claimed, probably accurately, that York Peppermint Patties kept her alive. She loved those things and ate them constantly, including with every meal. She was known to dip them into her tomato soup.) "If Liz were here, though," she continued to say between bites of peppermint patties, "I would tell her that we love her and we wish she was here, because we miss her."
At this point, my sister, who sat next to me during the visit, broke into tears and said, "You have waited your entire life to hear those words." My mother was a complex woman, you see. She was not the demonstrative type, at least not to me.
She died on December 3. Her funeral service and burial was on December 9. Her burial was 26 years to the day after her father died. Like her father, she was also 94 at the time of her death. Like her father, 94 years old was probably too long in her condition.
I came to our home at Bastubacka today to think about her, to be alone in this space and remember her essence. I love this space, our Bastubacka home, for many reasons. One of them is that being here makes me think of my family and those who have come before me in a way our city home does not. The place is old, and the way we do things here reminds me of my parents' home, my grandparents' home, and of stories I heard from them about their parents and grandparents. Simple, everyday tasks that we carry out here, like lighting a fire or digging a furrow in the garden, causes my mind wander to them and how their hands and minds used to be occupied with the same tasks.
"I love this space, our Bastubacka home, for many reasons. One of them is that being here makes me think of my family and those who have come before me."
Even the language spoken around us here, Finland Swedish, makes me think of them. It's a bit of a stretch, I admit, but everyone knows that Swedish is close enough to Danish to be ... well, kind of mutually comprehensible. A few of the words are familiar because I heard them from my mother or grandmother, who spoke at least some Danish, which they in turn learned from their mother and mother's mother, and so on. In fact, in an unexpected turn, during the last few months of her life my mother sometimes resorted to speaking Danish, or at least that's what her listeners thought it was. If this is true, it must mean that her mind had gone back in time to the most formative years of her life, when she was still surrounded by people -- mostly women -- who spoke Danish.
Our house at Bastubacka, too, is filled with things that used to be hers, or theirs, things that were made by their own hands. There are plenty of old tools and implements that were left behind at Bastubacka when we moved in, and those have been supplemented with things that were left behind by my parents, things that came from America but seem to just belong here. For instance, the rolling pin my mother used to roll out pie crusts now hangs in our kitchen at Bastubacka. The rolling pin was handmade by her grandfather. Upstairs in the sleeping loft there is stack of blankets and quilts made with my mother's own hands. These are just a few examples. It's not just the tangible things, either: it's the motions and the motor memory, like when I make my mother's English toffee recipe, which I do every Christmas. I know exactly when I should take the pan off the heat so it won't scorch, because I watched my mother make several batches of the same recipe, year after year, as gifts for my brothers.
I learned so much from her, so much that I will probably never even realize. I like to think that I am different than her in many ways, but deep down I know this is not entirely possible. Her ideals and values and ways of being are planted in my soul, because she is the person who raised me. More than probably anything else, she taught me to be self-reliant.
Now during Christmas I will honor her memory in various ways, like by making her English toffee recipe, fruitcake, and, on Christmas morning, aebleskiver. This will continue throughout Christmas and beyond. Next spring I will pull out my oil paints and attempt to capture some of the beauty of Bastubacka in bloom on canvas. As a child, I used to go with my mother to her oil painting class each week; I definitely inherited her artistic side. As soon as the ground at Bastubacka thaws, I will attempt yet again to successfully plant and grow purple bearded irises. My mother loved gardening--incidentally to the blatant neglect of our actual home. All summer long, she was there in her two acres of desert garden, planting, sowing, weeding, and eaking life out of those long, hot days and poor soil. Purple irises occupied prominent spots in her gardens, and I hope to achieve the same. There is a reason irises are my favorite flower.
Losing a parent is a big deal, in large part because you lose a very real element of your own mortality. I vow to keep mine alive through memories, actions and words. As long as I can keep her memory alive, then it wasn't really goodbye after all.