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Jeanmarie Burtness

© 2004

JeanMarie readingNow and Then

         Still in her blue-printed hospital gown, my mother peers out the hospital window, noticing the clouds shift and change.  A jet climbs and draws a line, separating the sky into sections of light and dark. 
        “The trees look nice today.  I used to know the names of the trees and the birds, but I don’t any more.  That tree over there has a nice shape.  I could put a star on top of it for Christmas.”
         After a few minutes, she asks in a quiet voice, “Is this August?”
         “No, but it is very humid and hot outside today,” I say brushing her short, fluffy silver hair.
         She clutches a white flannel sheet around her shoulders, snuggles back, and says in a monotone voice, “I’m glad I’m in here where it’s cold.  I like these heated blankets.  I’m in a cozy nest.”
         We watch morning television and wait for her doctor so that she can be discharged.  Barbara Walters interviews Martha Stewart about going to prison.  Mom looks down at her Black Hills gold rings that slide around her fingers, and she comments, “I like Martha’s earrings, but I think she’d look better in a dress with brighter colors or a nice print.  Something with flowers.  She looks dull.”         
         A nurse comes with papers to sign.  Mom holds the pen very tightly and pronounces each letter as she writes, “G...e...n...I can’t do all the letters today.  My daughter can fill it in for me.”  With a confused gaze in her blue eyes, she looks up at the nurse and attempts an explanation, “In first grade it took me all year to learn how to spell my name Genevieve.  The others had short names.  Tom, Bob, and Mary.  I could never remember where the ‘i’ is supposed to be.”
         I remembered back to when my mother used to make up hours of stories and games as we weeded my grandmother’s big garden on the farm.  We made wildflower clover chains for our straw hats, draping and twisting garlands around the brims like Anne of Greene Gables and her best friend Diana.  We stuck stray chicken feathers in the hat brims as we carried buckets of water to the vegetable garden.  We dribbled water on our bare feet to stamp our tracks and make ‘mud feet’ like the “Little Goose Girl.”  My mother had me open the mouths of the snapdragons, to give them drinks a drop at a time.
         Red-headed woodpeckers swooped and tapped in the trees in the shelterbelt.  My mother would tappity-tap back.  When the meadowlarks called, my mother sang back, “Oh, do you see that pretty bird?”
         My mother’s hair was reddish-brown and so curly that it went every which way in the heat.  My Grandma Nina said, “Genevieve has high-spirited hair, just like her.  I never know what that one’s going to do next.”
         My mother had wanted to leave South Dakota, but the war came.  After the war, there was me.  Mother and Dad prided themselves on ‘making do’ with what was available.  “You have to do what there is to do in a small town,” she’d lecture my sister and I.  To set a good example, she learned to golf at the nine-hole golf course that you played around twice, and then she learned to play bridge.  She wasn’t a particularly good bridge player, but she was known for her double chocolate chip walnut date bars that she served with vanilla ice cream
         In a town where boys wore their blue jeans and cowboy boots to the high school prom, she pointed out, “People don’t always act like they do around here.  I want you to know how to behave and dress-up so if you’re in a formal situation you won’t embarrass yourself.”  In the summer we were shipped off to get to know our cousins in Arlington, Virginia.   We took extra piano and flute lessons, learned how to ride the city bus around Washington, D.C. and visited museums.
         Every week my mother drove my sister and I to the library and encouraged us to read about other places that she didn’t ever visit, but my sister and I have.  When Dad hurt his back, Mom lobbied the library board for the children librarian’s job.  Before there were Miss Frizzle books, my mom dressed up in clown suits and capes for the summer reading programs.  That first job led to a series of library jobs, and she went to night school and summer college workshops to become a documents librarian in the South Dakota State Library.  She worked until she turned 65.  Mom was the only mother in my circle of my high school friends who worked outside the home.  After my daughters were born and I was wrestling about whether to be a stay-at-home mom or not, my mother advised, “Earning money gives you a pride in yourself that you don’t get from housework.  So don’t feel guilty about juggling your career and your family.  Do something you think is worthwhile.”
         When Mom turned 60, she said, “Great! Now that I’m getting old I can be as eccentric as I want.  People will just have to put up with me!”  I thought people had been doing that for quite awhile.   In high school I was with Mom in the clothing store to shop for a coat.  My mother tried on a scarlet-red car coat that emphasized her plus-sized figure.  She modeled the coat in front of the three mirrors and sashayed back and forth posing like a runway model.  Two older girls whom I respected immensely came into the shop to browse and giggled at my mother’s antics.
         “Mom, I think you’d look slimmer in that black princess-style coat.  It will give you a more serious look.” I suggested.
         Very loudly Mom announced to the whole store, “There comes a time in a woman’s life when she needs to do one of two things—buy a red coat or have an affair!”
         When I told my father how she’d embarrassed me once again, my dad laughed.  “Well, she bought the coat, didn’t she?”
         She wore that crazy coat for years to Community Concerts, to church, to school events.  She was really easy to find at the high school football games.
         On the corner shelf of the hospital room, Mom’s purse sits on top of the outfit she was wearing when she called me about her chest pains – a pale blue flowered print shirt and elastic-waist stretch jeans.  No more red coats.  Now her clothing is mostly blue and easy care that all seems to go together. 
         The cardiac doctor asks Mom how she feels, and she explains, “My knee really hurts today.”
         “What brought you in?” Dr. Nordbloom asks.
         “My daughter probably drove me here.  I don’t drive any more.”
         “How do you feel today?” he tries again.
         “A little sleepy, but as good as can be expected,”she says, nodding vaguely.
         “Do you know where you are?”
         As she looks up into his brown eyes, she smiles a bit.  “This is the first time I’ve been here.  Can you take this pin out of my arm?.
         “Not yet.”  The doctor tries again, “Do you know the name of this place?”
         “No, but people have treated me very nicely.”
         When Nurse Kallie joins us with discharge papers, mom continues, “I like the uniforms you wear.  They’re all different, but cheerful.  I liked the girl with the rabbits on her shirt.  The person in the other room gave me these new socks.  They’re soft and very warm.”
         Nurse Kallie breaks into a tiny grin.
         “The food here is the best I’ve ever had,” Mom says, causing Nurse Kallie’s grin to explode into a raucous laugh.
         Mom continues, “We watched a lot of T.V. today.  It’s fun to be at this hotel.  The beds are adjustable.  Now that’s a good idea.  We’re all together in this hotel.  People keep coming in.  We must be having a party.”
         She turns to me, “What are we celebrating?”
         I think, “You, Mom, you.”