My Mom, Mary Buckley, died this week 2 years ago. She was an incredibly strong person who dealt with many tragedies over the course of her life.. This was a piece I wrote about her for a Grub street class last year.
Jars of Clay
When you fill a clay jar with too much water, eventually it will crack. It is not noticeable at first, you can’t see the corrosion inside but over time there are small outward signs –the texture changes and there are slight variations in color. Until one day the vessel cannot hold and eventually breaks wide open. The day we buried my brother, Michael, I noticed the first sign that my mother’s jar was overfilled.
It was her eyebrows. They were purple. I stared at them across the kitchen table long after the mourners had left the wake, while my brother, sisters and two nieces chatted.
“It was a long day,” my mother said, tendrils of smoke escaping through the side of her mouth, “I can’t believe how many people were there. They just kept coming.”
Next to her, my sister-ln-law, Paula, moaned, excused herself, and left the kitchen.
In the eyes of our family, my brothers’ widow had not handled the day very well. Paula had spent the entire wake screaming and gnashing, throwing herself across the open casket, oblivious to her own 8 and 10 year-old daughters’ pain. Understandably, her husband had been taken from her by a drunk-driver, the day after Christmas, but our family had already buried a brother and had lost our father less than 2 years before – we were grief veterans and we wore our badges with dignity and honor. We were taught well by our mother to be stoic in the face of tragedy—never let them see you lose control.
But I saw. I knew that she had taken careful steps that morning –picking out her classiest black suit, ironing the cream-colored Lord and Taylor blouse. Matching her belt to her patent leather sling-backs. This was important to her. She needed to prove to friends and family that she was stronger than anything this life could throw at her. Carefully, like a movie star in her dressing room, propped on the pink stool of her vanity, she applied foundation and mascara and then drew in her eyebrows; painting a perfect arch –not too straight, not too curved. But in her grief, my mother had reached for the wrong pencil. Instead of the brown eyebrow pencil she always used, she grabbed a purple pencil used to line the under eyes. When that was done she put on her pink lipstick and then with a straight back, stood up and left to bury her 34-year-old son.
To tell her would have been too much. I feared that the embarrassment of having been around so many people with purple eyebrows would have been the final drops that destroyed her well sealed jar of dignity– feared that her jar would completely disintegrate. So I just stared at her face, and said nothing.
It was my brother’s 10-year-old daughter, who finally spoke up,
“Grammy she said, “why do you have purple eyebrows?”
Everyone stopped talking and looked at my mother.
“Look,” said my niece, showing her a mirror.
She stood and walked to the hall.
“And none of you people told me?” she spat, turning an accusing eye on me.
“Um, well, I really didn’t notice,” I lied.
I know that internally my mother was mortified, because later in the car she lashed out at me, but that day in front of everyone, she did not dissolve. She held fast and strong proving that my mother was made of far more resilient material than clay.
My mother stared at the mirror for a few minutes, composed herself and then spoke to her granddaughter.
“I think it was your dad’s favorite color.”