Finding My Parents

I lost my mother when I was 23. I lost my father when I was 28. I spent the majority of my 20s trying not to lose my mind. I’m not sure if I succeeded or not. But I made it out of my twenties without any serious self-harm incidents or suicide attempts, a trend I have continued. I count this as victory.

But I didn’t lose my parents in my 20s. I find them everyday. Or rather they find me.

When I put on my clothes in the morning I hear Ma say, “Put on some earrings to frame your face.” And I do. Put on my earrings. Because she told me so. When I get ready for church I hear her chiding me for not wearing stockings with my dress. And I don’t put those stockings on. I hate stockings, especially in the summer time.

Like most depressed folks, I ate my feelings.

The recipe book of my mother’s recipes sits with my other recipe books. My brother consults it often as he keeps with my mother’s tradition of two-meat Sundays. Fried chicken and pot roast or ribs and turkey wings that complimented the macaroni and cheese, string beans, roll, and the sure rice. He’s a better cook than I am. I guess this is what happens when both of your parents were amazing cooks. In my family you either sit and eat or you cook then sit and eat. Most of us do the latter.

My brother and I talk about the seasoning he puts on his collard greens or how he got that pot roast to be so tender. And sometimes he makes my mother’s famous smothered chicken, which she called Company Chicken. It is so good that even company could eat it.

The euphemism of “losing a loved one” is so sweet, so simple. But in reality they are dead and there’s nothing sweet or simple about that. I can hear my grandma’s sure, steady voice say, “For everything you love, you’ll lose it somehow.” That’s a century of wisdom talking there. A voice I lost exactly 7 days after I turned 30 years old.

When my father died, before fall break my first semester at an MFA program, I took two weeks off and took my ass back to campus. I could hear my father saying, “Don’t let me be your excuse. Don’t blame me for not going back to school!” When I walked across that stage, it was hard to think that he was with me at the beginning of my studies, but wasn’t there at the end.

I try hard not to forget what their faces look like and remember their words like my father on the other end of the phone when I was in college, asking me if I had eaten or the way he would look back at me when I asked him for advice on some major life decisions. His response always was, “I don’t know, Jenni. What do you think?” This was one of the most aggravating aspects of my father. How he would always ultimately leave my major life decisions up to me, offering not even one shred of advice on how I should proceed. Letting me live my life. Refusing to suppress me with his opinion.

I can’t say that each year gets easier or harder. Life just goes on and I get accustomed to not having them here. “You never get over the death of a loved one,” Ma always said when somebody died. “You just learn how to live your life without them in it.” And that’s what happens. You go on living and you find them in the simplest of tasks like when you cook one of their well-loved dishes or see a little girl in pig tails attached to her mother’s hip in the supermarket. You find them in your nephew’s mischievous smile. You find them in your son’s eyes.

I imagine how much more they could have given had they lived longer. I imagine all of the conversations I lost, all of the goodbyes and hellos, the cookouts and dinner celebrations, all of the two-meat Sundays. But more than the bounds of my imagination, I focus on the glorious memories, the ones I’ve been replaying for years.

I’ve lost much in a short period of time. But I have so much more to find.

Published by jenniferbartellpoet

Jennifer writes and teaches in South Carolina.

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