She wrote all sorts of notes in her bible, my mother did. Not just favorite verses, although there are those. But poems that spoke to her. Like this one: A kiss of the sun for pardon, A song of the birds for mirth. One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth. She wrote it twice on the same page and dated it: Rose Garden, 1975, Portland, Oregon.
My mother embodied those words. She was far more comfortable in a garden than she ever was inside a church. She spent a fortune on her garden, and up until the last two years of her life, worked tirelessly in her yard.
The roses she planted at my brother’s home are blooming now. I can barely stand the thought of seeing them.
On book tour once, I bought her a beautiful ceramic birdhouse at a lovely shop in South Carolina. I packed that thing all the way back across the country. Mama thought it too precious to put outside so she proudly displayed it indoors. It’s in my garden now, next to the roses I planted in memory of Mama.
Mama had a lot of bibles. I have the one she used during the 70s, that time when she made the migration West. I can see in her notes the longing to leave behind the decade following my father’s death. A decade of struggle and too many poor choices.
When people inquire as to how I ended up in Oregon from Georgia, my reply is the same: My mother was running and I followed her.
Here’s another one of the quotes I found in Mama’s bible: “Walk straight on my son, do not turn your head, do not look back. You are going to the land of our Lord.”
It’s a quote from the book “I heard the owl call my name.”
I had never heard the quote, never heard of the book by that name, or even the film adapted from the book. I had to look it up.
My mother wasn’t one for looking back. She never could understand that reflective side of me. Fortunately I married a historian who totally gets it.
Because my mother was raised the only daughter with five older brothers, she didn’t have many girlfriends. During the last 20 years, Murphy, a former co-worker was one of Mama’s best friends.
I have never met Murphy. She is Native-American and lives in coastal Oregon. A few days ago, I received a letter from Murphy.
From the time our mother discovered she was dying of cancer, Murphy sent Mama notes, cards, letters. It seemed every other day, Murphy was sending Mama words of encouragement. It meant the world to her. Mama would make me stop by the mailbox every single day to see if there was another card. Many of you sent cards, too. Thank you for that.
Here’s what Murphy said in her letter:
“In my 3/4 enclosed old front porch is where I spend all my spare time and do all my paper work. I need you to know that twice since December the same bird has silently flown in, perched right smack on the table I sit at, looks me directly in the eyes, for what seems like a long time, then silently flies out and away. The first time without hesitation I said, “Well, howdy Shelby. I’m glad all is well.”
Then Murphy added: “In the nine plus years I’ve been on this porch no bird has ever flown in here. Plus my companion cat “Mister” who is an avid-expert hunter never even made a move. You know how your mom enjoyed the outdoors and fed the birds.”
I am a woman of faith but I’ll confess that heaven is a very hard concept for me to grasp. It was easier to believe in a city with streets of gold before I stood bedside and said goodbye to dying friends, before I took a warm washcloth and bathed my mother’s dead body for one last time.
When my mother left me in Georgia and came to Oregon in 1974, I had some concept of her life here. My brother was already living in Portland. I knew Oregon had big mountains, deep rivers and tall trees. I knew it rained a lot, and that it was a lot colder than Georgia. I could visualize my mother, my sister, and my brother in Oregon.
It’s hard to visualize Heaven. To be honest, streets of gold and gated communities don’t interest me much. And I only want a mansion if there is a staff like on Downton Abbey to take care of it.
My idea heaven would be a home at the end of a dirt road on Mobile Bay. A place surrounded by white roses, a porch for pondering, and birds – redbirds, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and even a visit from a Mama bird, every now and then.
How do you see heaven?