I wrote this essay a while back …today is the 20th anniversary of my mother’s passing from pancreatic cancer. There is no real way to put into words all that she meant to me, my sister, my brother, and our family that loved her so…she is missed daily.
Mary Poppins Returns was playing at the Woodstock, Vermont Town Hall Theatre. I am not easily convinced to leave my warm and cozy little house to venture out into the cold dark evening especially on a Monday, but I did. How could this movie possibly compare with the original Mary Poppins? In 1964, at the Union Theater the magic of fantasy and technicolor made an enormous impression. Disney magic filled the screen, but the true magic was sharing this experience with my mother so many years ago. While Mary Poppins was “practically perfect in every way” so was the woman seated right beside me. I truly thought and imagined that I had compartmentalized those warm and wide-eyed emotions keeping them in my childhood treasured memory, but not so.
Comfortably seated in the Woodstock theater, the audience was mostly comprised of contemporaries. How many in the audience had seen the original Mary Poppins in the theater? There was no evidence that anyone of us felt compelled to bring a young child to justify our attendance. Instead we were looking to revisit the child within. Mary Poppins Returns respected Disney tradition. The screen exploded with vibrant and extraordinary color accompanied with exhilarating music to set the scene. The story unfolds with the viewer meeting a grown-up Jane and Michael Banks learning that Michael had sadly lost his wife and was raising their young three children on his own. Sister, Jane Banks was very much involved in their lives but was unaware that Michael was financially struggling and had secured a loan against the family home. Michael was not meeting his financial payments leading to a bank seizure of their beloved home. Enter Mary Poppins. Actress Emily Blunt, in similar fashion to the fabulous Julie Andrews, mystically appears from above floating through the mist and clouds in shades of gray as she makes her way to the Banks home once again. Quite unexpectedly as I watched Mary Poppins descend my eyes filled and tears rolled down my cheeks. Was I mentally returning to that tiny theater years ago with red velvet seats seated next to my mother? I clearly understand the loss of a beloved mother so was that enough for the tears to fall? Was I relieved? Was Mary Poppins on her way to help the Banks children resolve their adult problems, or was I personally hoping Mary would save me too?
Packing up our family home a few years back was many things but mostly it was a tremendous tug on my heartstrings. It is never really about the physical structure but instead the people who inhabit our heart. For so many years chatter, laughter and on occasion even sadness filled every available space making each particle of air witness to the life of a family. The energy and resolve to undo and pack-up a home is at the very least daunting. Taking one step forward and three steps back as we reminisced, laughed, teased. We shared special moments of our life together. A family of four. Listening with delight to the playful banter between a brother and sister made the shuffling of boxes more acceptable. The pressure of time could not interfere with our shared journey as we would pause to admire a school paper, a much-loved stuffed animal and discuss the endless NSync posters. How does one sum up a lifetime?
The large basement housed the usual furnace, hot water heater, oil tank and workbench. Unwanted furnishings that once played an integral role upstairs now worn and dusty piled together for the dumpster. An old model train table to remain with the house as it was made permanent years before, even though its tracks no longer employed the HO train set. Boxes stacked like a city landscape occupied only a quarter of the space, but the task was overwhelming if not suffocating. Handwritten labels appeared on some boxes, black magic markers corrected old labels with new and others were simply mysteries until the contents were exposed. In the section of boxes were neatly stacked and perfectly packed clear plastic containers with brightly colored lids carefully selected with coordinating colors making for a predictable set. Recognition of the few but emotionally packed boxes produced an audible gasp. I had quite honestly forgotten about them, not even quite sure how they arrived in our basement. Self-preservation. My hands responded automatically while my mind was cautious and my heart reluctant. The emotional significance wrapped around familiar objects ushers an immediate response. Thoughts floating through the stale basement air felt more like an emotional free-fall and I began to long for Mary Poppins’ umbrella to break the fall. Down the road when these possessions become the property of another generation one can only wonder if the very same precious items will be viewed in a very different light? Their meaning and history will fade with each generation.
I thought I had already sorted through the contents of these precious boxes long ago in another basement. My parents’ basement. The contents of these boxes are the last physical reminders of my parent’s personal affects including handwritten notes, policies etc.…I thought for sure I had already touched each item, every piece of paper before packing them up and relocating the items to our home but I was wrong…
With each move space and time become more and more precious. In our effort to minimize what we store in our now small home my husband brought me a cardboard moving box to sort through. I opened the tidy cardboard box thinking I knew its contents as it was packed within the past two and a half years, but I didn’t. Not until that very moment.
“AFTER ALL, YOU CAN’T LOSE WHAT YOU NEVER LOST.” – MARY POPPINS
I came across a thin royal blue folder showcasing its content. I instantly recognized my mother’s impeccable longhand as it jumped off the pages of simple white notebook paper. The familiar writing and crisp white paper appeared as if she had written the words that very day.
The initial piece of notebook paper talked about her lifetime role as a caregiver and that empty feeling when one’s role changes due to the natural process of children growing and realizing their independence. My mother wrote about her self-imposed responsibility to us; “to lovingly nurturing them into wonderful adults.” She would go on to write about how she missed being an integral part of our daily lives and those immediate shared confidences when we lived at home. What resonated to me as I read her words was, I completely understood her thoughts and feelings. I was reading her words at nearly the same age she wrote them. Understanding that I am now in the same cycle of life that she was as she penned the words. Maybe it was by design that I found the papers when I did so as to understand her a little more and understand me a bit more currently.
The final few papers were small in number, but their impact was tremendous. They were visually different from the others. My mother’s beautiful handwriting had become shaky and indicative of her weakened state. Struggling yet determined to document her thoughts and feelings after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the once beautifully formed letters were nearly unrecognizable.
Somehow, she knew when unrelenting back pain would not resolve itself, she stated; “This better not be my dam pancreas!” She was smart and intuitive always, but I so wished she was wrong this time and just this time. Numerous consultations with various doctors did not provide her with definitive answers until a CT scan did. Standing by her in her hospital bed, in the emergency room one early Saturday morning while she received an IV for dehydration, the news of her CT scan was delivered. Shock, great sadness and horror permeated our thoughts in the small curtained room as my mother’s mortality became a devastating reality. “I am going to die?” she urgently asked.
Transferred to Boston Medical Hospital for futile chemotherapy treatments she employed her quiet solitary moments without a rotating bedside vigil to document her wishes to spare her family during this unrecoverable brief period of time. “My family – my family – what was I doing to them? How can I protect them?” We were always her first concern even in her greatest hour of need. “The fight was still in me, but the energy was leaving me fast” she wrote. A blue ballpoint pen sketch on the same lined notebook paper illustrated the city view from her hospital bed left me breathless. The visual, this visual. She was prepared but we were not.
Each ending is ours alone to face even though we are surrounded by those that love us. The journey is singular. “I prayed to go” …my mother’s final sentence.
Thank you, Mary Poppins, for reminding me that:
“NOTHING IS GONE FOREVER, ONLY OUT OF PLACE.” – MARY POPPINS