RIP, Mary Elizabeth Palmer

mom age 10

My mom, age 91 at the time, was telling me stories of her youth. Just talking. Telling stories as they popped into her mind. Memories of a young girl.

“The school was very big. Five stories high with a big attic. Mount Saint Mary’s Academy For Girls in Little Rock, Arkansas. I lived there. For a bit.

I remember so much….

When I first arrived at St. Mary’s, my older sister was crying as the nuns showed us around. Showed us where we were going to live. Told us the rules. I didn’t cry. I was okay. And I was so young! I adjusted myself to the situation. Somehow, for some reason, for me, it was no big deal. I don’t know how I did it. I just did. You just do. Adapt. Adjust.”

I reminded her that I, too, easily adapt. A trait she passed on to me.

“I remember the nuns rapping our fingers for acting up.”
“What was considered acting up?” I asked her.
“Talking.” We both laughed at the simplicity of the bad behavior kids got themselves into. Compared it to today’s standards.

My mom continued.

“I think it was amazing the way I loved the wood. The wood of the banister. I just couldn’t get over it. Well, anyway I was running my hand along the smooth wooden banister, walking down the stairs when I noticed Bertine Miesner, a red-haired Jewish girl, stepping up the stairs. ‘You’re so spoiled, you’re rotten!’, she said to me. I didn’t even know her. Never saw her before. And, she didn’t know me! So I said ‘If I were rotten, I’d be black!’ Bertine just looked at me like, hey, that makes sense. We became best friends after that.”

My mom smiled at the memory.

“One year, there was a Halloween party at the school. The nuns let me borrow a tutu. You know the kind? Like a one-piece bathing suit, with the lace around my hips? Well, I was wearing that tutu, which was too big for me, and I didn’t care. I was doing cartwheels and it would fall off my shoulders. But, I was having a ton of fun. Just flipping over and over. While listening to the sounds of chains being dragged across the pipes. Making spooky Halloween sounds. During one of my flips I noticed a woman watching me.

Next thing I know I was invited to a party. A party for one of the other girls. A girl living off  the school grounds. There was party at her house a few weeks later.”

I kept listening. Just watching my mom’s gestures and facial expressions. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, even if I tried, because I was so mesmerized by her tales of long ago.

“The nuns dressed me for the event in a very pretty red dress. They chauffeured me to the place. Dropped me off. I had arrived a little late, so I walked in by myself. As I passed the adults sitting down near the entrance, I heard someone say ‘Oh, she’s here.’ To this day I have no idea what the interest in me was. Kids were never told anything. And we didn’t dare ask anything. When I sat down to eat cake and ice cream that same woman who had been watching me do cartwheels, leaned over and whispered in my ear just as I was gobbling a mouthful of cake. I don’t even know what she said. All I know is how embarrassed I was that my mouth was full, and I couldn’t answer.”

I didn’t say a word. I wanted to let my mom live in the past, so I just listened. Wanting more.

“I was a great skater,” she continued.
“Roller skating?” I asked.
“Yeah. We skated all over the school, except for the side of the school reserved for the nuns. It was their private area.”
“Where did you get the skates?” I questioned.
“Skates were on the school grounds, for the girls to use. We would skate down a slope. Skate like the boys do now. Whoosh!” She demonstrated with her hand and arm, gliding them in a quick sloping motion. “We would go down, then up. Up onto the sidewalk. Just like during the Olympics,” my mom stated, firmly.
“Oh, yeah. Like they do in the X-Games, right?”
“I think so. Yeah. We were doing that! Not with skateboards. With roller skates. But still, it’s the same thing. In a way.”
“What were your skates like?”
“I strapped them on. And tightened them with a key. The wheels were metal. We’d zip up and down. Do it over and over. In the back of the school,” she happily retold the memory.

“Later, when I moved to Los Angeles, to live with my aunt and uncle,” my mom continued, “I walked right up to a group of girls at my new school, assuming they would just allow me to join their conversation. As I approached, one of the girls said, ‘Oh, hi, we were just talking about you. Trying to decide if you are beautiful, or pretty, or just average.’ I was curious about what they thought. I just stood there, waiting to hear the answer, when suddenly another girl shouted out, ‘Let’s play ball!’ Everyone suddenly dispersed. I never did find out if they thought I was beautiful or not.”

She put her finger to her lips, a sign of contemplation.

“Well, I am sure the answer was most definitely beautiful. You always have been. Looking at pictures of you. Throughout your life. You were beautiful. Still are,” I said, with heartfelt emotion.
“Yeah, I am assuming they thought I was beautiful.” She laughed.

“I am rambling on,” she quickly added. “Next time I will let you talk.”

“Oh, you’re not rambling. I like hearing your stories. Tell me anything. Everything. I am listening,” I honestly admitted.

My mom yawned.

“You seem tired.” I knew she was.
“I am,” is all she said.
“I will let you rest.” I gave her a hug. A kiss. “I like your stories.”
“I guess when you get older you remember things,” she reflected.

I smiled.

“I love you,” I told her.
“I love you, too.”
“Bye, Mom. See you later.”

Grave Plots, Cremation, or Tibetan Sky Burial

IMG_1934I don’t know about any of you, but for me, when I die, I want to be cremated. Cremation is a choice I made many years ago, and have expressed as much to my family. I am not sure of the exact moment I decided this – was it after watching intriguing shows about death, like Six Feet Under, where the details of what to do with a body after a person dies is the focal point? Whatever the reason, what I know for sure, is that the idea of having my remains sprinkled into the strength of the ocean’s movement combined with its serenity soothes my soul.

When I was 16 years old, my brother Bill (one of my nine brothers) was killed in a car accident. At the time, amongst severe grieving, my parents purchased not only a grave site for my brother to be buried, they also bought plots for each member of our family, all thirteen of us. A little less than ten years after Bill died, my brother Scott passed away during a seizure. His body was laid to rest in a shiny casket, directly above Bill’s. And then about fifteen years after Scott, my Dad departed from this earth. He was quietly placed in the ground, next to Bill’s coffin, diagonal to Scott’s.

As one might expect, over the years, I visited the graveyard, and wondered which plot would be mine. Until I married and became a mother. Wait, I’d say to myself, while wandering over the low rolling hills. How do my husband and children fit in here? At some point, while considering options about where we should be buried, I also received, filled out and have carried around for what seems like forever, the organ donor card, which eventually became a permanent pink dot ingrained on my driver’s license. The want to be a donor furthered my thinking about where I wanted my body to go after I passed on. Ultimately, all this in-your-face information, and lots personal consideration, I knew, being a simple, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact person, that cremation is for me.

Simple. No-Nonsense. Matter-of-Fact.

And then, I was unexpectedly introduced to another, very raw and natural, way to finally let go.

Recently, I was reading Oprah’s June 2014 magazine (the theme being Age Brilliantly!) when I came across a snippet about reckoning with death by Caitlin Doughty, who also is the creator of the YouTube™ series “Ask a Mortician”. Interestingly, she talks about the ancient art of Tibetan sky burial, in which the deceased body is placed outside for vultures to eat and taken into the air with them. (Ms. Doughty does give more vivid details on her series – Episode Three, in case you’re interested). “It is one of my favorite death customs because it’s just beautiful,” she begins. “The idea of your body being taken apart and flown into the air is really powerful.”

Talk about simple, no-nonsense, and matter-of-fact.



     Bill, maybe 7-8 years old.                                                    A partial Bill, on the far left.

Four young kids. Three boys and a girl. Brothers and a sister. That’s who we were. Soaking up the sun for a week. Darkening our light-colored skin, naturally. We woke in the morning, ate a quick meal, and spent the day using our imagination. Exploring our sandy world. We’d walk up and down the beach, and occasionally stop to investigate a bunch of seaweed that had washed ashore. We’d take turns using the only boogie-board available to us, watching each other fall off, flipping into the crashing waves. And, building sand castles using small styrofoam cups was a must-do. So much happened throughout those long days. So much of not much.

William, who was never called that name, but was instead referred to as Bill, was the oldest at thirteen years old. My brother Christopher, nicknamed Kit, was somewhere in the eleven-age range. I was ten, and my youngest brother, Andy, was seven. At the day’s end, our aunt would call to us, having come down from her home on the hill, to come on in! to have dinner with her and our uncle. Suddenly realizing how hungry we felt, we’d run up the slight incline, rinse ourselves off with the hose in front of their long and narrow beach house, wrap a towel around our small frames, change into some dry clothes, and then sit at the dining room table for a home-cooked meal.

I remember it was Bill who smiled at me, made me feel better, when my aunt seemed mad when I wouldn’t eat the canned peaches she served for dessert. Cling peaches with a little whipping cream. I politely told her I don’t like peaches. Not even if it was candy. My aunt grunted when she took my dish away. Bill’s smile widened.

During those carefree days, those fun-in-the sun days, no one, not anyone, knew that six years later Bill would die in a car accident.