And what could be more comforting than to fold grief
to fold anger like a blanket,
with neat corners
to put them into a box of words?
Long before I encountered the poetry of Mary Oliver, I understood what it meant to put grief and anger—and all of life, really—into a box of words. Words have, indeed, helped me explore the gnarled complexities of life, and simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, made life easier to endure.
My stepmom, Venita, didn’t share my appreciation of words, however. The one time she came to visit, just 14 months ago, she looked at the wall of full bookcases in my living room and said jokingly, “Got enough books?” She had told me many times throughout my life that she found reading difficult; she was easily distracted and cared nothing about literary elements (I surmise, in the same way that I often experience numbers). So, a piece of writing very well may have been the last item she would have wanted for a gift. But my skill of juxtaposing words meaningfully just so happens to be the only gift I have to offer in her memory.
That’s not to say I didn’t stare at a taunting blinking cursor for some time. My stepmom was one of the many people I had long ago lost touch with. In the journey to self-preservation, and the hunting of happiness, I forfeited many relationships, some intentionally and some not. And the truth is that, as I experienced her, Venita became a different person after the death of her sister, and more hardship seemed to ensue. She was grieving. And I needed, for once in my life, to try not to grieve. We experienced our own losses and faced our own challenges, but she seemed to retreat from the world. And I ran right out into the madness–ambition, perseverance, and words ablaze.
I can’t proclaim to understand her response. And I can’t proclaim to have really known her. By the time of her death, well over a decade had passed since we had been close. To be honest, in her final years, I found her dissatisfaction difficult to be around. And the distance between us is now marked by the fact that the only item I have to remember her by is a jar of leftover Crisco she bought to make pork chops at my place last summer. I’ve never used it, and I never will; but I’ll keep it in the cabinet for a bit, the relic that it is.
And I will do my best to empathize, and admit that maybe the time had come for me to “do something else” (an idea I presented in an earlier work). I could have texted. I could have donated to her Facebook birthday fundraiser last fall, especially when I saw that it had only raised $2.00. I could have thanked her for the years during which she felt like a mom to me. But I didn’t. And now I can’t.
But I can tell you that, on her best days, she loved traveling, playing bingo, and thrifting. She loved dogs. She told a lot of (often inappropriate) jokes, and made a lot of people laugh with her unpredictability. She couldn’t wait to put on her pajamas. And she was an amazing Italian cook.
She took me to practice for my driving test—even though I was trepidatious to the point of using two feet, ensuring that I always had a foot close to both pedals. She took me shopping at 4 a.m. on Black Fridays. She gave me such fond memories of camping that I aspire to take my own children someday (and I assure you that that was no easy feat). When I visited, she took me everywhere with her, even on mundane trips to the local Marc’s grocery store—which were never mundane because Venita was involved. She talked to me about safe sex even when I didn’t want to hear about it. She encouraged my independence (though I had that covered all on my own). And I can still hear her saying, “You’re a hell of a woman.”
For her and for those who love her, I wish she had more time among the living. I wish she could have had more opportunities to be both the giver and receiver of kind words and good deeds. I wish she could have seen more fall days glazed in hues of burnt orange, and experienced more summer days enveloped by a weighted blanket of sun. I wish she could have seen me get married, and that she could have taught me just one of her recipes. I wish she could have continued as the matriarch of her family of nieces and nephews. I wish she could have watched more comedies and done more reminiscing while listening to disco music (which we did when I was a teenager). More than anything, I wish she could have loved my father even just a little longer.
So, like my stepmom had, I too sometimes struggle to comprehend certain combinations of words—such as “Venita’s death” or “Venita’s gone.” But I’m filling a box just for her. And I’d like to believe that I still might change her mind about words.