I started flipping through the pages of my mother’s address book even before she’d died. The pages were filled with her neat script and careful notations. She must have used the same one for years as some names had address after address crossed off. My eyes filled with tears. Her handwriting had changed recently, even before the radiation to her brain. The cancer had likely been affecting her for far longer than we’d realized. In my last letter from her the writing veers upwards and she makes a joke about it. “They say if your handwriting goes upwards you must be a optomistic person.” My mother was a optomist, despite the difficulties and struggles she’d faced most of her life. She always saw the good in people.
My mother lay dying in the next room and I’d picked up her address book on the premise that we would be able to use it in notifying others of her death when she was gone. But really, I picked it up because I was simply curious about this enigma that was our mother.
She loved people. When she traveled, which was infrequent, she would come back home with stories about the interesting people she’d met. Her address book showed just how much she cared about others. I studied the pages of the book, amazed and astounded by the sheer number of names written in it. Many of them I recognized. Each of my siblings were in there, her brothers, my cousins. Many names I’d heard her mention, but I wasn’t sure who they were. A handwritten name and address from Guam was taped on one page. Who were these people, I wondered. The Brach’s candy company was listed. So was the Pope. I quickly returned it to her writing desk, suddenly feeling as though I was invading her privacy.
After she died, the address book was the first thing I removed from her house, knowing she would have names and phone numbers of some of the people we owed thank-you notes to. I was right. A couple of friends were not listed in the phone book but Mom had their addresses and phone numbers in her address book. I dutifully wrote out thank-you notes, and then flipped through the pages again. If someone in the address book had passed away, my mother jotted that down next to their name. “Dead,” she’d note in pencil. My sister later told me that the Brach’s company was in there because she’d written them about some cinnamon candy they no longer made. I’m not sure why the Pope was listed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she’d written him, too.
Every few days I’d pick up my mother’s address book and flip through the pages and ponder the kind of person that my mother was. I’m not much of a “people person” but I wanted to be. I wanted to be more like my mother, who never met a stranger.
I wrote a friend of hers, using the address in the book, and the woman replied within a few days; writing a long letter telling me how much my mother had meant to her. She wrote about how they’d met and their long phone calls where they discussed religion and children. I don’t suppose you would have the time to write me and be my pen pal, would you, her letter ended.
I have a new pen pal now.
I found the address of a man who had done some detective work for her years before (I told you she was an enigma. How many of us have an investigator in our address books) along with several Christmas cards from him. It was obvious that her last two cards had been returned because he had moved. His business card was in her book and I did a Google search and found his website. My mother would never have thought about a website or e-mail address. I e-mailed him and asked if he remembered her, then informed him of her death. He e-mailed back immediately, lauding praises of my mother and mentioning several visits he’d had with her since he worked for her. Visits I’d known nothing about. He asked about projects she’d been working on and said he would have a Mass said for her, indicating both that he was Catholic and he’d known how much her faith meant to her.
I wrote a young man whose letter I found among her things. His family had cut down some of her trees and they’d evidently had much in common.
Then I found her Christmas card lists from the past few years. An idea began forming in my head, but I shrugged it off. After all, I’m working on a book and I have my own Christmas cards to address and send.
My mother thought she would be here this Christmas. She’d asked the doctor if she would make it to her February birthday if she had radiation to her brain. He’d given her no reason to think otherwise. She would have been working on her Christmas cards about this time. Some of these people might not even know she has passed away. I see the notation (letter) after a couple of names, leading me to believe she not only sent them cards, but wrote them a letter to include with the card. I flip through the pages again, biting my lip.
Then my sister finds our mother’s box of Christmas cards and looks at me, the paper pack-rat of the family. “Do you want these?” She asks, and I nod my head, making a sudden decision.
I’m going to use my mother’s cards and my mother’s list and send each of those people a Christmas card.
So that is what I have been doing this morning, writing out cards to the people my mother cared about enough to have in her address book and on her Christmas card list. Two cousins I haven’t seen for 20 years are getting a card. An aunt I met only a few time. A nephew I haven’t ever sent a card to. The wife of an Army buddy of my Dad’s gets a card, a letter, and a copy of the clipping of my mother’s obituary. The pile on my table grows. I might not know who some of them are, but maybe I will find out. I will definitely gain some insight into my mother’s life, and maybe a couple of pen pals along the way. I have 15 cards ready to mail today, and more to address. I am not sending cards to everyone in her address book. The Brach’s company won’t be hearing from me, or the stranger in Guam that my mother might have met once on a bus. Or the eye specialist or dentist.
But the Pope might.