Dear Mom,

I’m sorry I can’t visit you. Your facility has locked down because of the Coronavirus and only outside, paid caregivers are allowed. This is unfair, but Aunt Mary always said, “Life isn’t fair.” Have you noticed how you can’t recognize anyone because of the colorful bandanas over their nose and mouth? That’s not weird, but intended to protect you from outside germs. So far there are no cases of the virus in your retirement home! This is a gift from God and demonstrates how hard everyone there is working to keep you all healthy. 

I woke up this morning from a dream where Miss Washington, the kids’ grade school gym teacher, approached me and said, “Your mother has no pulse.” Shocked and confused that this random person would be telling me such important news, I said, “What does that mean, is she dead?” She shook her head and responded, “I’m sorry.” Startled awake, I made coffee and walked the dog down our deserted street. Out by the lake, a mama robin flew by with bits of dried grass in her beak. I thought about this dream and how I might bridge the enforced gap of connection we are experiencing and I thought of the beautiful nest you’ve built for me over the course of my entire life. In an effort to bridge the gap, I’m writing you a letter every day.

One of the things I do in my haphazard writing life is curate a blog for a website called Patheos. I won’t try to explain what “curating a blog” means, just think of it as a piece of writing on the computer and I pick out what gets put on that website. I also won’t try to explain what a website is because in your 85th year, it doesn’t matter. A recent article I posted talked about a daughter’s estranged relationship with her mother and all the questions she wanted to ask her but didn’t get the chance to ask before she died.

Sadly, the mother and daughter never reconciled their relationship. I’m thankful we are not in that situation! Instead, you’ve been the most wonderful and beautiful mother in the world. It’s important that you know before you die the legacy of love you will leave behind. If I think of questions that I need answers to, I’m asking your caregivers to read these letters and write down your answers. When I’m free to re-enter the front door of your facility, I’ll grab those precious answers from the drawer of your desk. In the meantime, enjoy these bits of memory. May these letters bless you and sparkle the remaining memories in your mind.

Margaret, Jessie and “Nana”

If you do die tomorrow, (hopefully, you will get my first letter and it will be after that) I need to thank you for the most important thing you’ve formed in me, faith. Although you are somewhat of an introverted artist, probably the most introverted person in our entire family and definitely a four on the enneagram, you’re a quiet evangelist. When we moved all the furniture out of your townhouse, some into your cozy apartment, some into storage and some to our kids’ apartments, we decided to keep the tall end-table with the middle drawer. You know the one that stood between your two checkered chairs facing the TV. I found one of your Bibles inside the tiny drawer, covered in pencil markings— underlined passages, questions, cross-references, quotations — a worked over King James. I knew you spent many hours sitting at the feet of Lilian Weaver as she conducted Bible studies, but I’ve never thought of you as a student of the Bible, until I opened this book. Thank you for forming my faith by teaching me the songs and stories when I was little — “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The first vacation Bible school I remember attending was at the First Presbyterian Church in River Forest, the one you’ve always called “Dr. Ball’s church.” This is the same church where you led me by the hand into the sanctuary to see “Goggie’s window,” the stained-glass window on the your right as you enter from the back. Mounted beneath the glittering glass is a plaque with her name on it, Mary Jane McGreevy. How impressive to a five year old! She must be rich, I thought. But it was more than rich in money, both of my grandmothers overflowed with kingdom riches. I didn’t know what that meant back then. 

Thank you for forcing us to sit through Handel’s “Messiah” sung at Rockefeller Chapel every holiday season. Just so you know, we were bored out of our minds by this ritual of torture which felt like it lasted three days, but now the melodies are inked upon my soul. Thank you for making us do things we didn’t want to do. Hanging from my charm bracelet is a tiny church and when you peer through the window you can see the Lord’s Prayer. Either this charm came from the V.B.S. at “Dr. Ball’s church” or you and dad gave it to me. I still love it and wonder about this miracle. How can the Lord’s Prayer be visible all these years later in microscopic print, through a window less than a quarter of an inch in diameter? 

I know you hated renting our house on the river, but we loved it! Renting instead of buying a house means nothing to kids, but living in a house backed up to “real” woods on a river means everything! We sailed our bathtub boats in “the creek” and picked fistfuls of narcissus and “wild” tulips every spring. Thank you for making me go over to Mrs. Downs and apologize when I picked every “non-wild” tulip out of her garden to give to you on Mother’s Day. We met God in those woods amongst Lily of the Valley and the Stations of the Cross walk created by the brothers of the Sacred Heart. I thought everyone lived in a house with the Stations of the Cross in their backyard. Studying those bas relief plaques mounted at the center of each cross, my two hands stuffed full of periwinkle vinca, forced me to stop and think about suffering. I’m thankful that despite losing your memory, you are not suffering. 

You sang to us and you still know the words to every hymn—may I be so fortunate. After setting up our nativity set on the front hall stand of our 935 Batavia Ave. house, we would sing “Away in the Manger” in our pajamas as you lit the candles. Now, we do this as we set up our own nativity scene. Also, I want to remind you how incredibly cool and artsy it was that you and dad created your first nativity set out of plaster during the early years of your marriage. You painted one of the angels, but all the other figures were left a pure, white plaster, an art project unfinished. If this bothers you that you didn’t paint the rest of the figures, no worries, they look better all white.

And I can’t forget Honey Rock Camp! You sent us to “sleep-away camp” when we were probably too young, but I get it. Two weeks away from your kids in the summer to do what you want to do sounds like a good idea. Well, it wasn’t just good for you and dad. I thrived in that rustic space with my friend Stephanie. We tried new things (like sailing) failed miserably and laughed. I sang the song, “How Great Thou Art”  for the first time and never forgot it. We worshiped in Cathedral Pines and left with splinters in our bottoms from the rough pine benches. My counselor, “Q” showed me that you’re never too old to wear a bathing suit and make fun of yourself acting in ridiculous, campy skits. Thank you for trekking up to Family Day when our kids attended the same camp thirty years later. I know that sitting on a soggy log and eating cold fried chicken and watching your grandchildren fall down in the “ski show” isn’t the best way to spend a rainy summer day. You could have been getting your hair done. 

Faith is the greatest gift you can pass on to a child. When something like a virus comes along and has the power to strip everything away, it will be the last thing standing. I love you and I thank you!