Friday, September 01, 2006

Johnny Mathis, Stick Pins, and Felix

The last few years of her life, my mom lived in a side-by-side duplex in a small rural town in Pennsylvania. Had that house been situated anywhere else in the continental United States (with the possible exception of backwoods Kentucky), it would have been condemned. The electrical wiring alone was enough to bring on the wrecking ball, and it wasn't worth fixing. From the outside, it was a residence like many others on that street: old, ugly, falling apart.

But once inside the door, you found yourself embraced by a welcoming environment carefully crafted by someone who very obviously loved her home and made the best of what she had. If a piece of furniture was ugly, Mom painted or reupholstered it. Hole in the wall? A framed Victorian Era postcard covered that up nicely, and no one was the wiser (except that Mom was always so proud of her abilities, she made sure she showed you the hole). And as my sister was fond of saying, everything else that didn't move got decoupaged.

Little children and adults alike took comfort in Mom's house. No matter the time of day or night, a pot of coffee was brewing, its aroma wafting from the back kitchen to the front of the living room. Mom drank way too much coffee. In fact, we found no fewer than seven coffee pots in her home after she died. And yet she wondered why she could never sleep.

Add to the smell of coffee any one of the glorious aromas emanating from Mom's oven, and it was almost easy not to notice the pitch-perfect voice of Johnny Mathis singing softly in the background. I grew up listening to his mesmerizing pipes, and to this day I cannot hear the song "Arianne" without my eyes tearing to overflowing:

Arianne is Mama's crystal
bread that's nearly finished baking
She's a rainbow in a puddle
and the happiest of birthdays
She's the going off on Friday
and the coming back on Monday
with a tan

That song, to me, is my mom. That and Dobie Gray's "Drift Away." Mom couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but that never stopped her from singing. And dance...the woman could dance. People would clear the dance floor to watch her; I've seen it happen.

In the other half of the duplex lived a woman named Phyllis. Tavi endearingly called her Felix, something that never failed to make both Phyllis and Mom double over with cigarette-hacking laughter, the kind that threatened to make them pee their pants. Phyllis was one of those neighbors found in small towns across America. She was loud, talked incessantly, and Mom often complained that she was nosy. But when they were together, I could tell how much Mom loved her pal Felix. There wasn't a thing in the world that woman would not do for my mom, and I know Mom appreciated that. And when Mom died, Phyllis was devastated. Two peas in a pod, and now the pod was feeling too roomy.

Phyllis died last Saturday. She was 77 years old. I don't know the cause of death. I only know she wasn't feeling well, so she went into the hospital and never came back. When I went to Pennsylvania this summer, I thought about visiting Felix. But the thought of doing so felt awkward; the one thing we had in common was Mom, and she wasn't there. I just didn't know how I could go back to that house, revisit those memories. So I didn't. And I didn't call. And I'll never have an opportunity to do that again.

There was a time when a less forgiving version of myself would have grabbed hold of that weakness and berated myself with it for weeks, maybe months. I've learned the futility of that sort of behavior, realized that my energy could be spent in more productive ways. But it will always be a regret. More than that, though, I'm feeling a melancholy rooted in the fact that I've lost yet another link to my past. It happens everyday, to everyone, in some little way. I know this. Knowing it doesn't make it easier to handle.

Felix was like the pot roast in the oven, the coffee in the pot, the overkill of decoupage. As sure as I knew I'd sit on one of the 863 straight pins Mom kept stuck in her sofa (she was a seamstress, after all, and pin pricks in my butt, arms, back, and legs were just a fact of life), I could always count on seeing Felix when I visited Mom. She was a fixture in Mom's life, and now she's gone.

I sigh. Cry a bit for reasons both selfish and benevolent. Wish for her grown children a sense of peace, knowing full well they've got some powerfully dark days ahead of them. And I say goodbye.

If only Johnny Mathis had a song for this.

1 comment:

Judith K. Witherow said...

What a wonderful neighbor. We can never turn back time, and do the things we wish we'd taken the time to do. They matter to us, and most of all they matter to those who've lost someone dear also.
Your mother's neighbor probably knew more about her then any family member. It was their relationship--the same way we tell our friends our deepest secrets.
May she rest in peace. It's a nice thought to think they found each other after passing over, and are catching up on the laughs they missed after your mother died.
Thank you for the beautiful column.