My Mother's Eyes

I'll always remember my mother's eyes—

the way she squints

even when she smiles, 

like she's angry at the world

for all the pain that pushed its way into her heart.

 

Did giving birth

to an Elvis impersonator and five strong women

take its toll on her eyes, "windows to her soul?"

 

Did being married to my father,

a man with a million plans

and a knack for executing them,

one at a time,

put that worry in her eyes?

 

Did the death of her sister,

shot in the heart by her husband,

in a deer hunting mishap,

work its way into her psyche?

 

Did she inherit the pain in her eyes

from her mother and father

who brought it with them

from El Greco?”

 

I see my mother's eyes in my sisters' eyes,

my brother's eyes, and mine.

Sometimes I see her eyes

in the eyes of my children,

my sibling's children,

and her great grandchildren.

 

My mother's eyes

are an heirloom we carry with us,

a genealogical gem – as hard to penetrate

and precious as the sapphire stone

in her mother's wedding ring,

the one I now wear

every day.

My Father's Photographs

I am fascinated

by his photographs,

stuffed away in dusty drawers,

waiting for me to pick them up,

one by one.

 

It's my father,

the photographer,

who draws me there,

as I slip into my parents’ bedroom,

kneel down in prayer pose,

and open the bottom dresser drawer,

where I find myself,

cradled in my mother's arms.

 

She is smiling back at him

like she'll be there forever--

as though the photograph is enough

to keep them together.

 

 

Heart Strings

"The midriff and heart-strings do burn and beat very fearfully, and when this vapor or fume is stirred, flieth upward, the heart itself beats…"  Richard Burton, 16th Century

A year after John and I married, I begged him to take me deer hunting with him. He was planning to go hunting with his friend, Bill, and I had never been deer hunting. It sounded like fun.

I’m the youngest in our family. My three sisters, Anastasia, Alexandra and Eftihia (Effie), were married with children. My brother, Frank, was also married and had a family. Demetrius never married. He came home a broken boy from the Korean War and ended up living at the Veteran’s Hospital in Salt Lake City until he died at 42.

My parents were not happy with me. I had married a Mormon. Both of them came to the land of the Latter Day Saints in the early 1900s from Greece. My mother was supposed to marry a friend of the family from California, but when she met my father, her heart was his. She refused to marry anyone else. I know all about that pull.

Friday night, on our way out of town, John and I stopped at my parents’ house. They were getting ready for dinner. My sisters were at the table with their families. Mom smiled a big smile when she saw us.

“Γεια, παιδιά! [Eeya, pethia] (Hello, children!) We are ready for have dinner. Won’t you join us?”

I can never say, “no” to my mama. We agreed to visit for a few minutes, but John insisted that we had to get to the Spanish Fork before sunset.

Mama got that worried look on her face when I told her we were going deer hunting. Then, suddenly, she disappeared. When she returned five minutes later, she was carrying a bright red sweater in her arms, like it was a baby. Determined to protect me, to make sure I would not be mistaken for a deer, she made me promise to wear it all weekend.

I put on the sweater and gave her a big hug. My mother’s heartstrings were sewn into that red sweater.

On our way out of town, I broke the news to John.

“I have something to tell you.”

“What’s that?”

“I found out why I’ve been feeling sick every morning. I’m pregnant!”

“Wow! That is great news!”

John married his first wife at 18, just before he enlisted in the army. His son, John Jr., was born while he was in the army. When he returned to Utah in 1945, little Johnny was already two years old.

I met John at the Saltair Pavillion after the war was over. He was separated from his wife, Doreen. I knew he was still married, but, as soon as I looked into his deep blue eyes, I knew we were meant to be. His eyes were as bright as the sapphire in my mother’s wedding ring.

I still think of Mama whenever I think about that night. She barely spoke a word of English, but her instinct was strong. She knew so much more than words could begin to describe. Mama was petite and very serious. She didn’t smile a lot, but you knew her love was pure and deep.  

It was getting dark in the woods and we heard a shuffling of leaves.

“John,” I said, as I pointed at the young deer and cringed a little when I thought about what that meant. The deer was going to die an untimely death in the woods. I was trying to tell him that the deer was too young. It was just a baby. But my voice cracked and the words got lost before I could speak.

John turned toward me and, suddenly, a bullet flew into my red sweater, right into my heart. My mother’s armor wasn’t enough to protect me--or my unborn child.

Did he forget where he was? Had he planned it all along or was it an accident like he told the police?

“The bullet was fired accidentally from a gun held by her husband, Jonathan Edwards Johnson, 24, who was just a few feet away. Investigating officers said Mrs. Johnson, her husband, and a friend, Bill Hardwick, 23, also of Salt Lake City, had come through some brush onto the road when a deer was sighted to the east. 

Mr. Johnson began throwing a shell into the breech of his rifle preparatory to taking aim at the deer, when his wife reportedly spoke to him. According to officers, he half turned to answer her and his gun fired. The bullet hit Mrs. Johnson just below the heart. She died instantly.”  

Also, according to the police report,

Mr. Johnson also had another wife at the time...”

What? He was still married to his first wife when we were married? How could that be? Was he planning to tell me? I now know that Mormon men did not believe in having affairs. If they fell in love with another woman, they married them as “spiritual” wives.

Until the day he died, Uncle Earl said it was not an accident. “He had been in the service. He knew, what the hell, how to handle a rifle. I still feel he knocked her off. No way to ever prove it. But that’s how I feel about it.”

John returned to Dora and they gave birth to another son. But his depression drove him deeper into his own pain and he left his wife and baby a second time. This time, he and his son, John Jr. moved to California to start a new life.

As I watch over both of our families, it’s like I’m watching a movie. Each generation knows my pain. There was no autopsy, but Mama knew I was carrying a baby. She just knew things. Two years after the deer hunting “mishap,” she died of a “broken heart.”

Now she is happy to be with me. We watch over all the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. They visit me at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where the deer roam freely, each of them carrying some version of the deer hunting mishap with the bouquets they leave behind. Only my husband knows the true story. 

Let it Be

Maggie thinks of Isabelle every time she hears the Beatles song…”Let it be. Let it be. There will be an answer. Let it be…”

In the summer of 1961, when Maggie’s family moved into the big white house on Green Street next door to Isabelle, both of them were 14 years old and starting 9th grade at Irving Jr. High School. Isabelle had a great sense of humor. She joked about things that weren’t really funny, but everyone laughed anyway. Maybe that’s because she was born on April 1, 1947. April Fool’s Day.

Isabelle bragged about how she was named after her grandmother, but deep down, she never wanted to end up like Granny, who sat in her bedroom, rocking away in her rocking chair most of the time. If she needed something, she’d call out to anyone who happened to be at home.

Isabelle seized every opportunity to get even with Granny, who demanded too much of everyone's time and attention--especially her mother's. One day, Maggie and Isabelle were cooking up some saltwater taffy in Isabelle’s kitchen when Granny called for help. Isabelle pretended not to hear her grandmother. As Granny's voice got louder and louder, Maggie’s friend would snicker from behind the bedroom door as she listened to Granny’s urgent plea… 

"Isabelle! I need to go to the bathroom!"

Then, suddenly, she’d pop up in front of her grandmother.

"Hi, Granny!  Were you calling me?" She asked cheerfully.

Maggie’s dad’s service station was just a block away from their new house, Nibley Park Service. In those days, customers drove up to a gas pump and waited until a man in a white jumpsuit appeared at the driver's window, smiling and asking what he could do to help. The attendant washed all the windows, checked under the hood, and made sure to let the customer know if the car needed oil, water, antifreeze, or a new part. If the customer wished, he would take care of it all right then and there. I always wondered why mechanics wore white jumpsuits, since they were always dirty with oil and grease.

Maggie’s dad inherited the service station from his father, whose appendix ruptured in and he had died suddenly at 56. Frank was happy to take over for his dad even though he hadn’t finished high school. His passion was working on engines. In fact, when World War II broke out, he worked on the engines of the fighter jets. That was when he met Jimmy Stewart, a famous actor who served in the army. Frank and my Effie, my sister, were married the same year he went to war. Soon after their son was born, Effie was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and we all helped her out with little Billy who was still a baby. The gold injections seemed to do the trick. Her Arthritis never returned. Frank and Effie were a happy couple back then.

When John and I were married, Maggie was just a year old. She won first place in a baby contest that year. Effie never stopped talking about that gold trophy. “Maggie was always a beautiful girl, from the time she was born.”

One day, Frank came home and announced, “I’ve found us a bigger house!’

Maggie's mom was pregnant with her 6th child and she knew the family needed more space, but she couldn't believe her husband had gone out and bought another house she hadn’t even seen. Frank was so sure Effie would love the opportunity to remodel the two-story dream house he found for her, he didn't think twice about it. But Effie was angry and hurt. That moment may have been the beginning of the end for their marriage 15 years later. She never did unpack many of the moving boxes. For more than 40 years, they sat there in the dark, damp, unfinished basement. My nieces ended up going through all the moving boxes after she had moved into Windwoods, an assisted living center and her house sold.

Maggie’s childhood friends were all Mormon, including Isabelle. Her father was a Bishop in the Mormon Church. Her mother was a nurse and an active member of the Relief Society, a women’s auxiliary in the church. Isabelle’s parents both had pure, white hair, even when they were young. Rumor had it that Isabelle’s father had backed out of the garage on his way to work one morning and accidentally ran over his youngest son, Daniel, who was outside in the driveway. After that accident, both parents’ hair turned white overnight and they became even more devout Mormons.

Isabelle was Maggie’s best friend. They went to Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) meetings each Monday afternoon, where most kids wore bandoleers with badges sewn onto them. They were like Boy Scout merit badges. Kids earned them for achieving good will goals. It took awhile, but Maggie finally figured out that if you were not a Mormon, you didn't receive a bandolier or any MIA badges, even if you had earned them. Since she never wore a bandoleer to the meetings, all the other kids knew instantly she was a non-Mormon. Isabelle tried to convince the Bishop, Mr. Smith, that Maggie had earned the badges as much as anyone else—even more than some of the other kids.

"I'm sorry, Isabelle. Only members of the church are allowed to wear the bandoleer." 

Isabelle taught Maggie the meaning of true friendship. She stopped wearing her own bandoleer to MIA meetings. After that, Maggie realized that true friends were those who knew you well and stood by you.

Two years later, Janet Bischoff's father, another Mormon Bishop, told all Maggie’s friends that she was "loose" with guys and insisted that they stop spending time with her. Her friends knew Maggie had never even kissed a boy, even after Janet had encouraged her to join in "petting" and "making out" with boyfriends. Her true friends, including Isabelle, were those who knew her well and remained her friends.

Isabelle and Maggie liked to sneak into the Motel 6 on State Street and go swimming in the pool, pretending they were hotel guests. Once they were poolside, Isabelle would loudly announce, “Hi! We just came down from our room to go for a swim!”

In the summer of 1960, their Motel 6 adventures ended. They had invited Isabelle's 8-year old brother, Sonny, and her older sister, Mary Jo, to go swimming at the Motel 6 with them. Sonny loved to swim. He'd dive into the deep end and swim laps over and over. But on that day, when he dove into the water, the splashing stopped suddenly. Mary Jo quickly jumped into the pool and pulled him out onto the hot cement. Instinctively, she laid him down and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. 

Maggie stood there, shaking, watching the two of them for what seemed like forever as her best friend’s brother, cheerful, wiry little Sonny, lay there—limp and lifeless—on the hot cement. His big sister was on top of him, breathing life into him, one deep breath after another.

Finally, Sonny started breathing on his own. Maggie was sure she had witnessed a miracle.

Two years later, 10-year old Sonny went swimming with his friends at Fairmont Park and, again, he dove into the water and disappeared. This time, Sarah wasn't there to save him and Sonny ended up in a coma for two weeks. He never gained consciousness. Sonny had a congenital heart defect. His heart and lungs had stopped suddenly upon the shock of going from a hot climate outside into a cold pool so quickly.  

For her part, Isabelle didn't let Sonny's death interfere with her bizarre jokes. One of her favorites was a joke about a woman who answered her door and saw a young man standing there with a telegram in his hand.  

"Well, don't just stand there, young man. Sing it to me."

The young man protested, saying he couldn't sing the telegram. But the woman insisted, saying, "Well, if you can't sing it to me, I don't want the telegram."

"OK," said the young man. "If you insist."

Hesitantly, he sang, "Dear Mrs. Peters . . . I regret to inform you . . . that . . . your son is dead . . . your son is dead . . ."  

Most everyone had a hard time laughing at that one, even though it was a pretty funny joke. Isabelle, on the other hand, told that joke over and over again. Even as a fifteen year old, she was able to accept death as just a part of life.

Isabelle and Maggie both went to the University of Utah. Isabelle was studying to be a social worker and Maggie was studying to be a teacher. Maggie’s circle of friends grew to include more non-Mormons, so she didn’t see as much of Isabelle any more. Yet, no matter long it had been since they last saw each other, Isabelle and Maggie continued their conversation as though time stood still. Whenever she saw Maggie smoking a cigarette in the student lounge, she'd walk up to her, put out her cigarette, smile, and walk away. Maggie let her do it every time.

Isabelle graduated a year later than Maggie, so their paths crossed even less. In 1969, Maggie married Michael and Isabelle lived at the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority House.

A week before Isabelle graduated, she asked Maggie if she and her boyfriend, Danny, could spend the night at their apartment. It was like a slumber party, except Maggie was married and Isabelle was looking for a comfortable place to spend the night with her boyfriend. Maggie was happy for Isabelle because she had found a liberal-thinking Mormon like her. And Maggie was looking forward to getting together as couples and being best friends forever. 

But life doesn’t always turn out the way we think it will. A couple of weeks later, Maggie was on her way to work when she got a phone call from my sister, Effie who was crying.

"What's the matter, mom?"  

"It's Isabelle," she said.

"What about Isabelle?"

"Remember what happened to Sonny? Well, the same thing happened to Isabelle. She was swimming at the Deseret Gym after the graduation ceremony yesterday and … just like Sonny…her heart and lungs just stopped. It seems she also had a congenital heart defect."

"Oh no … No. Not Isabelle!  It can't be."

Tears streamed down Maggie’s face. Her best friend in the world was gone.

"Why didn't the doctors do something after Sonny's death?” Maggie screamed. She pulled the car over and got out a package of Kleenex. The radio played on as Maggie sat in her car, tears pouring down like rain.  Maggie sat there, crying, wondering why the whole family wasn't tested for congenital heart problems after Mary Jo saved Sonny at the Motel 6.

 “Let it be, let it be. Let it be, let it be. There will be an answer. Let it be,”  

Maggie thinks of Isabelle every time she hears that Beatles song. She’s still waiting for an answer.

From time to time, I surround her with my love. I know what it’s like to wonder why and to wait for an answer.