When you were a child, I would sometimes tell you that you were teaching me how to be a mom. Then, when you were about 10, you stopped me with this: “Wait a minute! Does that mean Joe gets a better Mom than me?” Your thinking was always a step ahead of mine.
Throughout life, you challenged me, laughed with me, forgave me, and told me what you needed. I did the same. When you were about 16 and our relationship was strained by your need for independence and my need for parental control, we each read and then discussed the book Parent Effectiveness Training based on the concept of mutual respect. It helped us understand what we were not getting right. That’s how much you cared. Even at 16, you were engaged enough to read that book so that we could negotiate strategies to benefit us both.
Even across the span of 70 years, I clearly remember this night, May 28, 1951, when Dad came home to tell us Mom had died. Mom, Molly, Margaret Mary Plunkett Herrmann was everybody’s sweetheart, none more than our Dad’s. They were married just short of 16 years on that night when Mom went to work at Standard Pressed Steel in Jenkintown and never returned home. She was 41.
The story, as I recall it being told to us, was that Mom felt sick at work and told one of her co-workers she had to take a break in the rest room. When she didn’t return, her co-worker went to look for her and found her there, apparently already gone of an undetected heart issue.
Mom left behind a grieving young husband, Al, who at age 40, never fully recovered from her loss; 5 kids: Al (15), Mary (13), Jack (11), Margie (8) and Patty (4); a father Pete; 3 siblings: Jack, Elizabeth and Ed; numerous nieces and nephews and friends. The entire small town of McKinley and the close-knit parish of St. James were both rocked by the loss of such a vivacious young woman, beloved by so many.
In August of 2018 we (son Joe, husband Tom and I) decided on a plan to travel to New York to see Hamilton as a comforting distraction over the Christmas Holidays. Ron, as most folks know, left on Christmas morning and each year we honor that day in a special way. During that season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I read the book Hamilton by Ron Chernow, studied the music and, paying close attention to the lyrics, discovered how closely the lyrics followed the flow of the book.
Throughout my life I’ve been a student of music lyrics, so I was especially intrigued by the brilliant rhythmic use of language presented in the art form of rap.
I decided to memorize about ten lines of the opening song, Alexander Hamilton, and perform them for a gathering of my women friends later that year. In the beginning, they were a bit wary at first, but when I finished, they stood and applauded. I was hooked! Fast forward to 2020, the pandemic took hold. Just after that, I learned that the Philadelphia Protestant Home (PPH), where we live, was planning to have a virtual talent show (usually live) so I decided to learn the song in its entirety to perform for the show. We edited the official instrumental from the musical Hamilton to make this track. It was a gamble because they could have removed it from social media, but it looks like they approved of it, because they are leaving it up!
I asked Joe to take a phone video of me rapping Alexander Hamilton, which I would have been perfectly happy to post on Facebook and elsewhere. However, Joe, being a music producer with a studio, quickly developed a larger vision, believing that if we are going to put out a video, we should make the best presentation we can produce. And so, the video became our pandemic project.
Doing this work has brought an enormous amount of comfort to us. Joe, Tom and I have had so much fun! I believe it is a gift from Ron to us, as it is all wrapped up in strategies to help us manage our grief and loss as well as bringing us to a fuller life expression. It has made us sing and laugh, dance and visit historical sites. Finally, this is the ultimate expression of true, unbound, joyous patriotism!
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Such was the case in late 2016 when I was in the Medical Mission Sisters’ chapel. After the service, upon leaving the chapel, the tiniest little whiff of a nun, Sister Gertrude, was suddenly standing before me.
It was October 31, 2015. We had invited Ron for dinner that
night. Our Hollywood, Pennsylvania, home was set at the geographical center of
town in such a way that year after year not
one child would find their way to our door unless they were toddlers
brought there by their parents, usually in the afternoon.
We planned to have Ron come for dinner that evening. He called
and said he could finish work sooner than expected and said, “How about if I
get there early enough so you can show me the new walking trail you’ve been
telling me about before dinner?”
At around 3:45 Ron arrived at our home to drive me to Lorimer
Park. We parked just outside of Rockledge Park so I could show him the whole
scope of the new trail extension.
It was a grey October day, not chilly, not warm, a little
damp. We walked from his car, through Rockledge Park where we picked up the
Montgomery County trail. I turned toward the property that belongs to the
Medical Mission Sisters and told him one of the reasons their founder, Anna
Dengel, loved that location was its proximity to Lorimer Park.
We crossed the high bridge, looked down on Shady Lane, and then reached the point where the new trail began. As we walked we comfortably chatted about many things. The conversation grew more serious as we talked about his childhood, our years in Roslyn while I was married to his dad. He had sweet memories of his parents together and we talked wistfully about them. No hard or sad memories of years gone by would be broached that day but tender ones. It was around 4:15 and growing a bit darker as happens early in the autumn.
I again spoke of my interest in Celtic Spirituality, and the belief that this was considered the most sacred of all nights, the night when the veil that separates the living from the dead is at its thinnest. It is the night when those we love who are on the other side of the veil are closest to us and it comforts me to believe that. Ron listened without comment. In Celtic Spirituality, the night is called Samhain (pronounced Sow een’).
We reached the point in the trail, about ½ mile in, where there is an opening on the right. Pausing there, I told him that this is the place where the upper and the lower trails connect and that, if you go into the park from there and keep to the right, the trail connects to Fox Chase Farm, which connects to Pennypack Park which ultimately goes all the way to the Delaware River. Ron spontaneously said, “This is so cool. I love it, Mom. Someday, I’ll run through the park and we’ll meet on the trail.” That was the quote we captured for his bench.
We turned back at that spot deciding to go home. The stew was
in the crock pot, Tom would be arriving home soon. Ron decided to take a slow
ride through Rockledge. It was approaching dusk and some neighbors had hauled
fire pits to their front yards. There was an air of joyous Halloween
celebration along with the smell of burning wood as parents and kids walked up
and down the street greeting one another and gathering around fires. We were entranced
by the old timey neighborliness of Rockledge. On subsequent Halloweens I have
driven through Rockledge at what I think is about that same time but never
could again find the streets with the fire pits.
That Halloween was to be my last time alone with Ron. It is a
night I will treasure for always, a conversation about life, love and the sweet
intimacy of people whose history is deeply intertwined.
This year I hoped to recapture the Celtic spirit of Samhain
by going to the park, light a bonfire and offer libations in honor of Ron and
other ancestors who have gone before with the notion that they are closer to us
that evening than any other night of the year. Mother Nature, however, seems to
have other ideas so the Celtic ritual of the bonfire and libations will hold
for another time.
All Hallows Eve
I shall always remember
where we stopped on the path
curiously pausing at the old grotto
that imagines midnight visions.
Quiet conversation as we walked.
It was a sweet
conversation, wasn’t it?
I thought so, but memory
The stew I made for
dinner turned out painfully bland,
lacking an elusive savory ingredient.
Standing at the stove,
I turned around
and saw a look of love in your eyes
that made me catch my breath.
You made an observation about
what the stew needed.
You were exactly right.
“I don’t have it to add
now. Next time I will be sure to.”
What was that elusive
I have tried to remember
I ask, but you cannot answer.
And the next time, the
promised next time, was never to be.
Yet here we are again on
another Celtic Halloween.
It descends slowly, uninvited sly and clammy like fog.
Without warning, her eyelids grow heavy and wet a stinging sensation in her throat shifts to her chest belly heaving. Legs immobilized, feet stick to the floor. A face across the table saying what?
Then the memories a smile, a laugh, that yearned-for familiar voice. Their sorrow, her child’s and her own.
They say that to be a mother is to have your heart walking around in someone else’s body.
What they say is true.
But wait! When that someone else dies what becomes of her heart that was carried in that dear body? Turns out, it was the most fragile of things. Who knew it was made of spun glass so delicate that when it fell, it shattered into exactly Seventeen thousand five hundred eight slivers.
No restoring that.
And so, she scooped them up and carries them around everywhere she goes. Every grieving mother has a stigmata on the palms of her hands.
The last time I was alone with Ron was October 31, 2015, when we walked in a new place, the restored train bed at Lorimer Park, where I showed him where the lower path connects to the running trail. We discussed how that path went from there through Pennypack Park and ultimately to the Delaware River. It was then Ron said, “Oh Mom, this is great. Some day I’ll run through the park and we’ll meet on the trail.”
Those words are captured on Ron’s memorial bench which is tucked inside the park, close to that trail he never did get to run.
In the days before Christmas, my sister, Patricia, who knows me inside and out, posted this for my benefit: “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break and all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go, love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ” L.R. Knost
Our son, Ron, died on December 25, 2015, Christmas morning. Tuesday, December 26, 2017, was Day 1 of Year 3. That Christmas Eve and Christmas morning of 2015 run through my mind like an old newsreel. I am at once remembering everything I did, every conversation I had that Christmas Eve, while simultaneously imagining every step Ron was taking in planning to end his life. I contrast my Christmas Eve joy to his Christmas Eve sorrow, my Christmas morning happiness to his Christmas morning resignation of his fate and ultimately his death.
When your child dies, they take an almost unnatural place in the heart and the psyche of the parents. Perhaps the shock and pain of a sudden, tragic death exacerbates the intensity of the sorrow, which may seem to border on obsession at times. What is the way forward? Is true healing even possible? We love our other children and grandchildren very dearly. We love the place they hold in our lives. But the one whose death was so sudden and crushing has, at once, opened a hole in our hearts and our lives while, at the same time, taking up more spiritual, emotional and psychic space than the others. Continue reading “If healing comes, what will it be like?”
When our loved ones leave us for the other side of life, the things they touched or used, or things connected to memories of them suddenly become sacred relics. They take on a new and precious meaning as we view them differently than we ever did before. We touch them with reverance and sometimes with awe, with the vague notion that maybe some part of them remains behind, holding tight to the things of this life even as our loved one has gone to the next one. Continue reading “Holy Things: What to part with when every item takes on new meaning”
Everything I do, in some way, I do for Ron and in his memory. On Wednesday night, August 16, I read a meditation I wrote for the Abington community peace vigil. As I read it, I was wearing the gold heart pendant that contains some of Ron’s ashes. Standing in the midst of my community, I know I do not grieve alone. We grieve together, we hope together. We are one. Here (below) is the meditation. Permission is granted to use it for your own purposes so that together we can be a source of peace and healing in the world.
Sisters and Brothers of the Abington community and beyond,
Introduction: Let us gather around closely together. If you are a believer in prayer, may this be your prayer. If you are not, may this meditation join you with the collective consciousness of those around you and with people of peace gathered all over the country tonight.
This will be in a “call and response” format. After each line, all will respond with “We are one.” (Practice “We are one”)
As we gather during this tumultuous and confusing time in our country’s history, together we say