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Dating : Afterlife: When Parents Reach Out From the Grave

h2>Dating : Afterlife: When Parents Reach Out From the Grave

Getting to know them after they are gone

Lin Cochran Burgin
Photo by author? This is not the picture I took.

My mother was not the type to pay attention to anything other-worldly. If she saw this picture she would have said it was a trick.

The picture above is not the picture I took.

Photo by author. This is the picture I took.

This is the picture I took. It shows an antique bowl and pitcher that I made into a planter and filled with succulents. When Mama owned it it was a lamp. All during the planting, I was thinking, “Wonder what Mama would think of this?”

I bet she’d like it.

I’m pretty sure I never heard of Frederic Myers, and I’d bet my life Mama never heard of him, or “Life after Life” or “after-death communications.” If you look closely you can make out the words “paranormal index” and “next.” You can see an image of a human-like figure, perhaps coming through the veil that separates the dimensions.

I promise I never researched “Near-death experiences and the afterlife.”

I confess to wondering often ‘what would Mama think?’ throughout my life

For much of my childhood, my mother was unwell. Not sick with something that had a name, but malaise and undiagnosed depression caused her to act as if she was angry. Measles left her partially deaf at age nine. My birthdays came and went, and she never gave me a party. I always thought it was something I had done. I became accustomed to feeling unloved.

When Mama died

When Mama died, I found a large clear plastic box with my name on it. I opened it and placed the box on Mama’s desk, next to her computer that she learned to use after she retired. The first things I saw when I opened the box were feature stories and columns I had written. She had cut them all out and placed each one in its own clear document presentation folder with black inserts so each clip would show well.

Pictures from the box

There among the clips was the picture of her and her sisters, all older, richer and skinnier than she was. Jealousy ran both ways though because our house, though smaller, was prettier because Mama had her way of doing things. Even though these cold Southern sisters rarely visited each other’s homes, Mama made sure if they did there would be no original condiment containers on the table. Mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise all had to be presented in tiny glass pots with lids. She must have seen that idea in a Woman’s Day magazine.

A picture of my only girl cousin, Joyce, in her cheerleading uniform, smiled at me. She was two years older. We should have been like sisters, instead of rivals. Our mothers were rivals, and they pitted us against each other comparing our grades; mine were better, but that was not enough. Joyce could dance and do acrobatics. I could not turn a cartwheel. My father bought me a small ukulele when I was five. I learned to play ukulele and sing, but Joyce became a cheerleader. Mama bragged on how slim and nimble Joyce was.

Newspaper clips in the box

A column I wrote about fashion shows in Dallas reminded me how Mama sewed most of her clothes — and mine. Better to hide her fat, she said — and mine. Joyce was petite so, Mama said, she was easier to fit. Pauline could afford to buy her clothes and the right brand of ballerinas, Capezio’s. I had to settle for no-names that I was certain made my feet look like sausage rolls.

Every week she cut out a “Beyond Dieting” column. It was a Q&A that ran in the weekly food section of my local newspaper. I was a natural at writing about dieting. When I started to first grade, two bullies taunted me as I walked to the Girl’s Room, Fatty, Fatty, Two by Four, Can’t Get through the Kitchen Door. I stole a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and ate the whole thing. I never told her until I admitted it to my readers.

The report card that changed my life

Ah, the report card that got me moved out of the third grade into the fourth halfway through. My grades were all A+’s, so they promoted me early. I was nine, but the other girls were eleven or older, some entering adolescence. Mama was accustomed to my being “the smart one.”

Now I was just the youngest. I would have done anything to fit in.

That horrible burnt orange coat

A faded yellowing talent show program peeked out from underneath a folder. I wanted to be popular, so I practiced playing and singing throughout elementary school, and performed on stage whenever I had the opportunity. By the time I got into high school, my interest in making good grades had become secondary to finding a boyfriend. Mama nagged and pleaded with me to do better. I started sneaking around, meeting friends and smoking after school. I signed up to compete. It was Christmastime. I wanted to play my ukulele while a mate and I sang a duet, “Winter Wonderland.”

Green Christmas trees, fake snow, and glistening white lights decorated the stage. Mama bought me a new coat to wear, burnt orange, perfect for my brunette coloring. I hated it on sight, said it looked like a camel and refused to wear it. I borrowed a blue coat from a friend. I felt terrible but not enough to wear that orange coat. I didn’t care what she thought. Daddy beamed at me up there on stage, strumming my ukulele under the lights glistening, singing about sleigh bells ringing are you listening? Mama tried to hide her disappointment.

Bobo’s pies

I spotted the column about my grandmother Bobo’s pies, which were worthy of their own column. I recalled that fateful day when I came home from school and found Mama standing at the sink, holding a red-checkered towel — so she could dry her hands, I thought. Piecrust cooled on the counter, so I knew Bobo was at home. Bobo lived with us most of the time because she said her other daughters’ homes smelled like mothballs. Bobo kept our house smelling like cookies baking.

Do you have something to tell me?

Without turning to look at me, Mama said, “Are you pregnant?”

“Who told you?” I still remember swallowing hard and freezing on the spot.

“Pauline said Joyce came home from school and said she heard you had gotten secretly married.”

That was the lie I had planted so it would look like I got married before I got pregnant. Mama would thank me for that, at least. That’s when I knew the towel was for drying her tears.

My beautiful baby son

Pictures of my son as a baby reminded me that my shotgun wedding happened on too short a notice to buy a dress, even if Mama had been willing to. But I had a brand new oyster faille princess dress, trimmed in black piping, that she had made me hanging in the closet. When she had fitted it on me, she’d said, “You aren’t shaped like other girls. You go straight in and straight out. How is this thing going to hang right?” I was not thick in the waist yet.

My son’s birth changed my life and Mama’s too. After he arrived, three weeks before my 16th birthday, Mama enrolled in banking school.

Mama went to night school

She got a job in the basement of a downtown Atlanta bank counting money, where it did not matter that she was almost deaf.

Mama’s innate intelligence and trustworthiness, coupled with being a hard worker, moved her up through the banking ranks until she became a vice-president in charge of operations. Hearing aid technology improved so she could talk on the special phone the bank provided her. Among other duties, she purchased printing and furnishings, and with her talent for decorating, she opened several branches. Her deafness began late enough in her childhood, so she had learned to speak clearly. She read a dictionary for fun, and whenever she came across an unfamiliar word, she asked me how to pronounce it and to spell it. She loved to learn all her life, but she always felt less than.

We moved to Florida where I became a writer

On Mama’s desk was a seashell lamp I brought her one Christmas. I was glad when my husband’s job moved us to Florida. I went back to school and got a job selling window treatments. During a group aptitude discussion, everyone said I looked like a writer, maybe for newspapers or television. It boosted my confidence enough to go to the local paper and get hired as a typist in the advertising department. At every opportunity, I placed myself in front of the managing editor and reminded him I was waiting for an opening in the newsroom. Tired of me badgering him, he said he would let me try out for city desk clerk. I bugged him about writing, and finally, he said, “Write me a lead!” I ran around asking everyone, “What’s a lead?” After a year, I was writing soft news features, celebrity interviews, fashion, food, and had my own weekly advice column about weight control.

Mama had her first heart attack but recovered enough to go back to work.

Memories kept on coming

Every celebrity I had ever interviewed was there. My heart beat harder as I realized how much time and love she had put into those clips. There was a picture of her at her desk at the bank and a few of her business cards in the box.

She loved plants and antiques. She had my father make a lamp out of the antique brown toile washbowl and pitcher, shown above, which I put into my car, along with the box.

I wasted no time having my husband transform that lamp into a planter for succulents. The featured plant was a flapjack kalanchoe, rising out of the pitcher, which nestled in the bowl. As I filled the bowl with cactus soil, I kept thinking to myself, “I wonder what Mama would think about that.”

Repeatedly, as I sorted through Sempervivum (Chick and Hens), placing each one lovingly, I wondered, again and again, “what would Mama think about that.” I always wanted to please her. The task completed, I took a photograph of the finished planter and printed it out.

The Mystery

Words appeared on the photo.

I printed the photo again.

This time no words.

As I thought about it, it seemed like Mama had found a way to let me know she liked it. It is ironic that Mama contacted me electronically, as she did not learn to use a personal computer until after she retired.

I felt certain I knew what Mama thought about the planter.

And about me.

Soon afterward, Mama visited me in a dream. She was a young adult, full of laughter, in a field of flowers, smiling. It was as though I was seeing her essence, unhampered by earthly cares.

I finally got the message that she had loved me all along.

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