By Teresa Swartz Roberts
28. Copyright 2020
The last time I saw her, she was herself. She was brimming with love for her family and her God (with a big G) and her country. She was pure energy, a tornado with a smile.
I didn’t know that the last time I saw her would be the last time I saw her.
She was in my life more than 50 years. We didn’t like the term stepmother, but that’s what she was. There’s not a stage of my life that doesn’t have a memory of her hanging from it, 50 years of Christmas trees seen either in person or in pictures. Well, there was that one year that she didn’t want a tree because she had begun to see it as a graven image, a symbol that had become bigger than the baby it represented. This woman was serious and thoughtful about her religion.
She eventually worked through the Christmas tree dilemma, putting up a tree decorated with memories, even some she crafted herself, shaped from the red clay at the bottom of the spring-fed pond on the farm. She had a way of taking something mundane and turning it into something magical. I tried to capture that quality in a letter I wrote for her birthday last year, one year ago today. I wrote about spending an afternoon on my hands and knees searching for lucky four-leaf clovers and about believing in elves so tiny they would fit in a jewelry box.
While she convinced me to believe in magic, our belief systems when it came to God were different. But I had to respect her version of all that is holy because of her sincerity. Growing up, I went to church with her and Dad. My church at home also had the name Baptist attached to it, but her church was not like mine.
She was a god-fearing woman. I see myself as a beloved child of God. There are differences, so many differences that I eventually left the Baptist church for the UCC. Our love for each other had always allowed us to build bridges of understanding between each other. But nothing could have prepared me for the political division we would face these last few years. The Facebook messages we sent and posted emphasized that we stood miles apart on most issues. Maybe we didn’t so much send messages as lob grenades across the divide.
She loved her country and served it by working at her local polling place on Election Day. She believed in the sanctity of the voting booth. It must have been hard for her to avoid electioneering at the poll because, like most passionate people, she was all in. Black and white, right and wrong, nothing in between.
We had to set boundaries. We just wouldn’t talk about politics. Politics was the tail of the snake that would turn around and bite us if we tugged. The list between the head and the tail of that snake was long: elections, candidates, corruption, dirty campaigns, climate change, socialism, capitalism, feminism, misogyny, political parties, taxes, the one percent, abortion, health care, caring for the poor, immigration, wearing a hijab. . . eventually full-circle back to merry Christmas. That’s a lot of territory to avoid.
In the end, it was easier to avoid talking. Thing is, I didn’t know it was literally the end. Her metastatic cancer was already taking over her body the last time I saw her. I regret the wall that had been built between us brick by brick during speeches about a wall. When she was at her sickest, and I wanted to hold her hand in mine and look into her eyes so that she would know that I loved her, my Parkinson’s picked that exact moment to advance and make me feel too unsafe to travel. I could not go there. I had the memory of the last time I saw her, when I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw her. It wasn’t enough.