by Jennifer Downs
I spent a week with Jennifer Downs in Baltimore, Maryland in 2012. I was attending ‘home funeral’ training with Final Passages. An acupuncturist, Steiner educator and political activist, Jennifer’s tagline is ‘Wake up to your wisdom, embrace your life’. I’m often inspired by her blog at Pivot Point Projects and asked her if I could share this piece about her Mom’s memorial.
Charm City Steel, the five piece band, pick up their sticks and in rhythm tap out a fetching tune on their huge steel drums. This is the preamble to a special program to celebrate and remember my mom, who died of advanced dementia at age 87 in my home. The music lifts me as people wander in.
It is Mom’s memorial service and she asked for this. It was ten years ago out of the blue between steel drum dance tunes in Maine. She pointed at me from across the village green and said, “I want a steel band at my funeral!” No matter that she never brought up death or dying before or since. At that moment the heavens opened and she delivered her wish to me. And I said to her, to myself and my daughter Amelia, “Done.”
I am to MC this memorial service. It is daunting and an honor, to welcome people to a venue where mom came into her own at City College High School in Baltimore when I was a teenager, the oldest of three who would soon be going to college. She would make sure we all had the chance to go by challenging herself to do something bigger, something that was important to her and that would earn money for the family. She was the head of the guidance department. What a gift financial necessity can be.
Mom had a potter’s wheel in the basement of our campus row house. It was a kick wheel which meant that she had to kick it to get it going so she could throw a pot. Now people usually have motors on their potters’ wheels. She was determined and just had to have a way to make art. She made pots, cups, dishes and even heads of all her children. She had a kiln to fire the pieces in. My mother was first an artist. When we dismantled their home of thirty five years and took apart her studio, we found stacks of drawings of us as little kids on paper that was thin and falling apart. She even drew on newspaper sometimes when nothing else was available. Mulling over Mom, I remember how she loved that potter’s wheel and can see her now leaning over it in the dank basement, balancing and centering. Now that Mom is gone, I relish the kind glances that came in the very last days and weeks of her life which is now complete. I know her more through her massive amount of art work: pottery, drawings and water color paintings, even poetry and journal entries. I have a new view of this person who was hidden from me.
Was her life as an artist not similar to what she did as a guidance counselor? Is it too obvious a metaphor? She had to earn money to send her own kids to college so she got her Masters and was hired at a school where she helped to give those students a chance to shine. She shaped them like pots on a wheel. It takes work and is a challenge to rise to the occasion in this world. Mom had some hidden pain and self doubt. At times it ate away at her. Sometimes, it made it hard for her to be there for her own kids. But she was driven to create in whatever way she could. She was masterful at creating opportunities for high school students to learn how to be responsible and fulfilled adults by placing them in internship positions in the community.
Who is an artist? Someone who takes what is in front of her, using good tools, to make something beautiful or interesting or engaging. Someone who takes the kids that came through the door, listens to them, assesses their strengths and weaknesses and puts them into challenging situations where they have to rise to the occasion.
Moms in this world provide something to fight against and rebel from. I’ve learned as a mom myself that this is a personal challenge of the highest degree. We learn who we are and understand more over time while also parenting. Mothering is a challenge worthy of fortitude.What a task! This goes for dads too but now I am looking at “mom issues.” Isn’t this a familiar term, mom issues? We have to break away from “mom,” be our own person, after being totally dependent and gradually more independent over a number of years. It is revelation to learn that our mothers were actual people before they mothered us.
The simplicity with which mom ambled through the last months, weeks and days of her life was an inspiration to me. She was childlike in her fascination with beautiful, or even ordinary rocks, leaves, anything that caught her eye, including small children. She walked up to toddlers and almost got down to play with them, not self conscious in the least. Her face brightened and she beamed out of the depths of her dementia. It was as though the loss of cognitive function took with it any scrap of anxiety, of which she had plenty for much of her life.
For me, who had my healthy share of “mother issues” as a teenager and young adult, it was profound to be with her during this time of cognitive deterioration that people tend to assume is tragic. In fact, her blue eyes often shone in wonder at things she saw, and some glances at me and others, especially my dad, were full of uninhibited tenderness.
I sat with her on the last night, when everyone else had gone to sleep. Her breathing was fast and loud until I got up close and held her foot in one hand and her arm in the other. Then she quieted and her breathing slowed. Gradually it got slower, stopped a few times momentarily, and then just stopped. I was stunned and grateful all at once. She was so peaceful. I sat in the stillness of the middle of the night and observed her face grow more relaxed and at ease.