Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Visit from Mom

Last night in my dream, I was browsing in a used bookstore and picked up Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the PortugueseI'd read it more than 30 years ago in grad school but had little memory of it. I thumbed through the pages and saw notes inside...written in my mother's hand!

My eyes shot open to the black night. I reached for my Kindle and downloaded the book. I knew there had to be a message in it from Mom, who died eight years ago.

Mom (Arlene), 1958

Mom, a school nurse, was an avid reader and later in life became a writer of articles and, eventually, romance novels. Our love of the literary profoundly connected us. She read everything I wrote, including my poetry, although poetry wasn't really her thing.

But I clearly sensed in this vivid dream that she had a message for me in this book of poems. Not just any poems, but those written by a woman she would have admired. Browning (1806-1861) was a prolific writer and social critic who condemned child labor and advocated for women's rights. 

Elizabeth Barrett Bronwing

Likewise, Mom supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was very active in her community, helping the poor and underserved. She said that the best self-treatment for sadness, depression, or regret was to help other people.

Helping others, fostered in her Catholic background, became her "religion" once she no longer believed in the church. While my father and I were drawn to spiritual explorations, she rejected it all as hocus-pocus. 

No surprised then, that after my dad died, I felt him come to me several times (which I've written about here and here). My mother, though, proved to be more elusive...until last night.

It wasn't only that I saw her handwriting in the book. I felt her presence. 

Sonnets form the Portuguese, published in 1850, is a collection of 44 love sonnets. They weren't really translated from the Portuguese, as the title suggests, but Browning titled it this to keep her privacy. She'd thought the poems were too personal to publish, but her husband insisted it was the best sonnet sequence since Shakespeare. The most well-known poem in the book starts, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

I didn't remember that last night, though, when I opened the book at 3 a.m. My heart was pounding as I read the first poem, waiting to see what Mom had to say. 

The first sonnet starts with the speaker thinking of a Greek poet, Theocritus, who sings about the past, "the sweet years, the dear and wished for years." She begins to cry, thinking about all she has lost in life. (Browning had suffered deaths of many close to her, including her favorite brother.)

She then feels a "shadow across me," a "mystic shape" moving behind her. Eerily, it draws her "backward by the hair" and then speaks to her. It says: 

'Guess now who holds thee?'—'Death,' I said. But there,
The silver answer rang ... 'Not Death, but Love.'

I broke out in tears. There it was, my mother's message, plain as day, fittingly written in the pages of a book, since we so loved books. 

It isn't her death that holds me, but her love.

Mom and me