It is a great honor and privilege to share this guest post by Robert W. Finertie, my friend and co-contributor to the anthology, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey (She Writes Press, 2016).
Bob tells me, “I want to connect with others through my writing.” The below excerpt is from Bob’s forthcoming memoir along with a beautiful poem inspired by this particular scene. His essay, Dialoguing with the Inner Critic, from the above-mentioned anthology, is both entertaining and serious. I recommend reading it; especially if you are writing a memoir.
We hope you enjoy this sampling of Bob’s writing. Stay tuned for more!
Ruthie (and Bob)
Mom picked a lousy time to die. It was Labor Day 1941. I was eight and a half years old as I peered into the casket. We were in the Dobbins Memorial Methodist Church of Delanco, New Jersey. The woman lying there looked like my mom, her arms folded across her chest holding a white corsage. I could trace the veins in her hands, the thin blue trails that once carried life to her arms so she could hug me, to her cheeks so she could smile at me, and to her lips so she could kiss me good night. But her eyes were now closed. How I wished she would open them and look at me to reassure me of her love. Dad said she was in heaven. I’m sure he meant that to be reassuring. It was not. Heaven was a vague place somewhere up in the sky. I guess she needed her eyes up there, wherever “there” might be.
I would learn later that children up to the age of about twelve have a concrete-operational frame of reference through which they see the world. They see trees, not the forest; waves, not the ocean. During this stage of development, a child has no ability to grasp concepts or ideas. He sees Nana and Grandpa, not grandparents; cousins who play croquet on the back lawn are Cousin Dick and Cousin Fred, not sons of our parents’ siblings.
I saw the locket I gave her fastened around her neck. I didn’t understand. When I bought it, I’d thought it would help her get better. It hadn’t.
She appeared the same as she always did, except she didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She didn’t look at me. That was what bothered me most of all, that she didn’t look at me. I touched her hand. It felt cold. Dad asked if I wanted to kiss her good-bye. Yes, oh yes. He lifted me up so I could kiss her on her cheek. Her cheek was cold too. Yes, I wanted to kiss her and I wanted her to kiss me back. No, I didn’t want to kiss her good-bye. I didn’t want her to go away.
Dad put me down and said, “Don’t cry. Be a big boy.” The church organ played softly in the background. Art Young sang, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me,” in his distinctive tenor voice.
The man in the black suit from the funeral home asked me if I wanted Mom’s locket.
“No,” I told him, “I gave that to my mommy.”
As he closed the lid of the casket, I heard people sobbing. I watched Dad fighting back the tears, just after he’d told me not to cry. I wanted to cry. I wanted to rage and yell and scream, “That’s my mom, and I don’t want her to go away!” There was a battle going on in my head between those words and these: “Be a good boy. Don’t cry.”
Forty years later, this poem bubbled up from whatever deep recess I had buried it in:
The Day the Lights Went Out
“Don’t cry,” he said the day earth swallowed up the one who bore me.
“Don’t cry, for when you do my own grief threatens to overwhelm me.”
“Don’t cry; for I must work so we can live, if survival counts as life.”
“For the dam, once compromised by one small teardrop, would allow such torrents
of anguish and despair to follow that none could stanch them.”
“Don’t cry,” he said, and I made some vain attempt please him,
To comply, so I would not be twice bereft.
“Don’t cry”? When fate has intervened;
When death’s icy fingers rend my bosom
And rip my heart—still beating—from my breast?
© Robert W. Finertie