Make a Heart

The early dawn’s cold left a thick coating of frost on my car windshield this morning.  I searched my car for the ice scraper, my thoughts returning to past November mornings when I would drop my three children off at their elementary school before I drove to work.  As I dragged my scraper across the surface, I could almost hear the ghosts of their laughter from inside the car.  They would sit shoulder to shoulder in the back seat, chanting “Make a heart!  Make a heart!” until I traced a heart in the windshield’s frost.  When the heart was complete, they would clap their mittened hands and cheer as heartily as if it were for Santa himself.

I like hearts.  They are circles, with a few side steps, much like life itself.  Like wanderers in the woods, we put one foot in front of the other, thinking we are traveling in a straight line, only to find we have walked this path before, and that the curve of our path indeed took us to our beginnings.    Somewhere along the way there were roadblocks, obstacles that diverted our steps to a different path, but the detour is not forever, and soon we are back on the path.  When the journey is complete and we look from above, the pattern we traced is a heart. The symbol of love.

I thought a lot about love this week as I spent time with my mother.  Like many people, my earliest memories are of her.  Those early memories are shadows, hidden too deeply in my heart to clearly define, but the shards of them trigger my senses with amazing acuity.  I know her scent, and they way it feels to rest my head at her breast, and how her long arms and strong hands cradled me.  I know the softness of her hair and the way her body sways back and forth when she walks, and the thump, thump, thump as she rhythmically pats a baby’s back to work out the burps.    I can hear her alto voice and my father ‘s tenor singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” in harmony during car rides, and their laughter rising through the stairwell to my darkened room where I was supposed to be sleeping.  I see her silhouette in the wool skirts she sewed to fit her tall frame, and I smell her red lipstick when she kissed me goodbye before she and my father left for a rare evening out.  

All these memories are laced with love.  Love that is palpable, that has a scent, that bleeds through trials and arguments and obstacles.  Love that did not divide among eight children, twenty-something grandchildren, a bunch of great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and the kids whom she taught in junior high school classrooms, but instead multiplied again and again like a geometric progression.  It is too abundant to be contained, spilling over and dripping on everything she touches.  It grows like her children did, with long arms that reach out to gather others into the fold.  It stains the heart crimson, bleeding through tears shed for strangers and aching to change a world that closes doors on the untalented, unpopular and unlovable.

 The frost on my windshield is clear, but I see clouds gathering to the north and know that a long cold winter lies ahead.  There will be treacherous days and frigid nights, and times when I want to bury my head under the covers and lie alone in the dark.  But I will remember the voices of my children and the lessons of my mother.  I will make a heart.


When I was a little girl, I hated going to sleep.  On summer nights I would lie in my bed and listen to the slap of PF Flyers hit the pavement while the older kids in the neighborhood played hide and seek in the shadows of the elm trees on Green Street.  I thought being sent to bed was insulting, and going to sleep a waste of time.  Most of all, I was afraid I’d miss something fun and exciting.

In the morning, I wakened early, the smell of toast and coffee tickling my nose, and crept silently down the stairs so I could surprise my mother and father by bursting into the kitchen with a loud “Boo!”  For years, Boo was a pet name only used by my parents, not shared by my siblings or friends. 

But things have changed.  Nobody calls me Boo anymore.   Although I still follow the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, there are no stairs to creep down, and no parents buttering toast in the kitchen.  And even though I still find life fun and exciting, I cherish my sleep.

As babies, my children would fight sleep, pumping their arms and legs, and struggling to keep their drooping eyes open until at last, they relented.  I loved to hold my sleeping infants in my arms, their relaxed little bodies like rag dolls, their breathing light and even.    I would watch them sleep, their rosebud lips and the blush of their cheeks so delicate, so tender that I would barely stand to put them down.

Each had a unique way to slip into restful peace.  Abby would lay her head across my shoulder and thumb in her mouth, stroke my earlobe as she drifted off to sleep.  Gabe loved to nap in a pack on my back. He would gather the hair at the nape of my neck in his tight fists and rub his face in my hair until the rocking of my steps swung him to the Land of Nod.  Elizabeth could slumber anywhere, as long as she had her green patchwork quilt.  At church, she would snuggle under her beloved “nigh-night” and be in deep repose before we got to opening song’s second verse. 

We rarely think about sleep unless it eludes us.  Usually, I drift off within moments of lying down, but lately, worries have occupied my mind and night after night I lay in quiet darkness for hours, eyes open, unable to drift off.  I revisit the problem in my head, playing out different solutions, different responses, different paths, over and over, with no resolution.  Finally, I fall into a restless sleep, waking every couple of hours to change position, flip my pillow and try again to slip into a state of unconsciousness.  I wake feeling worse than when I went to bed, head aching, stomach churning, knowing that it will be seventeen hours before I can again crawl between the cool sheets and sink into my awaiting pillow.  I think of my precious Elizabeth and how many times she dragged her tattered quilt with her on hospital visits. She would wrap the quilt around the hospital pillow, replacing its antiseptic smell with the quilt’s familiarity.  If only I could wrap that quilt around my pillow and hide in its scent.

Friends offered their favorite remedies for insomnia- a cup of warm milk, a glass of wine, a shot of bourbon.  I have tried reading, watching television, praying, and playing Solitaire on the computer until my eyes blur.  Still, once I nestle down under my comforter, it begins again- the same nagging concern, the same unsolved problem, and again I watch the LED display of my alarm clock click from ten to eleven to twelve. 

Last night my thoughts turned again to the memories of my sleeping infants.  What was it that made them relent, to allow sleep to overtake them and carry them silently through the night?  It was trust.  Trust that the strong arms that held them would not let them fall.   Trust that they would be warm and fed and safe.  Trust that tomorrow would come, that after a time, the ebony night would be split open by the pale golden fingers of the sun.  Trust that they were held close by someone who would love them beyond days that could be numbered. 

Could it be that I was lacking trust?  I trust…sort  of.  I give over the problem, but find myself clinging to a corner, just in case.  I know that I need to relent- to let go, but I pump my arms and legs, and thrash against it, much the way my infants fought their naps. 

But that isn’t really trust and I know that I need to release my hold totally and completely.  I realize that it is time to stop fighting, to stop controlling, to stop directing.  It is time to know that the arms that hold me are strong and will not let me fall. That I will be warm and fed and safe, and that this ebony night will someday be split open by the pale golden fingers of the Son.  He will hold me close because He loves us beyond days that can be numbered.

Love Notes

A couple of weeks ago, my son Gabe received notification from the University of Leeds that he had indeed met all the qualifications required for his Master’s degree.    This, of course, made my mother’s heart swell with pride, and I immediately conveyed my congratulations to him and emailed all one hundred of my closest friends to give them the good news.  There is an unspoken pact among mothers that when it comes to boasting about our kids’ educational milestones, all rules of etiquette are suspended for a twenty-four hour period, allowing us to brag ad nauseum without social repercussion or consequence.   I took full advantage of this.

And then,  this morning, while rummaging through some photographs, I fell upon a wrinkled slip of paper that made my heart swell to the extent that it leaked out of my eyes.  I unfolded the paper to find a note that my young scholar wrote when he was seven.  My thoughts flew to Gabriel in second grade.  He was tall and so thin that the other kids made fun of scarecrow physique and his missing teeth.  He loved to read, but he hated any schoolwork that resembled mindless repetition.  One day, while visiting his classroom, I searched the brightly decorated bulletin boards for my son’s work.  At one end of the classroom was a display of poems, obviously meant to be second grade gifts for Mother’s Day.  There were rows of papers, neatly penned, framed with hand drawn pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunny rabbits.

                “Roses are red

                Violets are blue

                Sugar is sweet

                And so are you.”

Where was my son’s work?   I looked back and forth across the rows of red roses and blue violets.  Surely he did one -he hadn’t been absent.  Perhaps he hadn’t finished.  No, the dates on the papers indicated that they had been done several days prior. Surely he had time to finish his work.  Maybe he didn’t want to participate in a Mother’s Day gift. I had yelled at him last week after stepping on his little green army men with my bare foot.  And I nagged him to clean up his room. Again.  And to stop teasing his little sister.  Again.

God.  Maybe my kid hates me.  

At last I found it, the last in the bottom row, scrawled in pencil, barely perceptible amid the riot of cheerfully crayoned pictures labored over by his classmates.   My eyes welled up then, as they did this morning. 

For the next several years, school was a challenge.  Gabe never learned to color, or to do the same work the same way that everybody else did. 

But you know, I’m kinda glad he didn’t.

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