Blowin’ In: Beyond the Sunset
By Susan Mangan
Right now, I am looking out over a darkened ocean. The sun has just set over the Gulf of Mexico. Pelicans and white egrets have returned to the wet grass along the beach pass. High above me, the Little Dipper is shining like a white flame. The day is over, and it was quite perfect.
My daughter and her friends have arrived at an age where they prefer the company of my husband and me. We laugh, drink, share food, and play card games. Mostly, we accept one another, unconditionally.
The path that leads to this relationship is long. It is fraught with the sharpness of razor shell clams. At the end of the sunset, we love and accept one another. I am most content with our walks along the beach path. Here, I point out the birds that soar above our heads and the animals that scurry beneath our feet.
Life is filled with fascinations and mysteries. Our imperfections appear to blend seamlessly with the wetlands and the slowly fading colors of sand and surf.
As I stand barefoot in the rising tide with my daughter and her friends, I am reminded of one of my more distinguishing features, my birthmark. It is perfectly oval, quite large, and the color of chocolate. It is a curiosity that elicited stares throughout my tender years.
As a child, I would close my eyes, count to ten and will my spot to disappear. I imagined that when I opened my eyes and looked down at my leg, it would be unmarked and ivory like the smoothest shell that sits protected amid the sand.
Interestingly, my younger cousin also had a large round strawberry mark directly in the center of his back. When we were children running through his Missouri farm, the sun shone brightly, and our birthmarks blended joyously with the flowers in the fields and the lily pads in the ponds. I felt free on the farm, playing amid the young calves and the tall stalks of corn. At the time, I did not travel to the Gulf; I spent holidays with family in the farmland of southern Missouri.
Recently, my aunt sent me a packet of photos that I had never before seen. In the image, I am a toddler in a dress the color of a blue June sky, my birthmark set proudly between the lace cuffs of my white bobby socks and the folds of my linen frock. My mother is reaching out her hand to steady me from falling or perhaps grounding me to the earth on which she herself toddled and grew.
Her smile captures a moment that is not a part of my collective memory, yet her love, unconditional and all-encompassing is palpable even from the stillness of the frame. My relationship with my mother grew with the green growth of silage pastures. She taught me to seek joy in that which is imperfect and would always caution that “beauty is as beauty does.”
After my mother died, I clung to nature, looking for signs that assured me that my mother was still with me, though she no longer walked on our physical earth. Much like that little girl who believed that magic could erase my pain, I looked for that same magic to bring my mother back to me.
Many people hold tightly to the belief that a cardinal perching in a May lilac bush is actually a visitation from a deceased loved one. For others, the spirit manifests in the ephemeral wings of a dragonfly glinting iridescently over a summer pond. I have seen my mother soar high above her home in Crooked Lake on the wings of a pileated woodpecker and in the curious eyes of a little white egret.
When my mom and dad first retired to their home on the lake, they purchased a set of binoculars and a pocket guide to the birds of North America. I love to flip through my mother’s book and read the notes she scribbled in the margins. She would keep a running list of Indiana birds that she and Dad spied over the years. Indeed, her spirit rises on the wings of the birds; a bit of this magic lives safely in my heart, assuring me of her presence.
I like to think that my mother walks beside me. I see her in the tilt of my daughter’s smile and in the pale color of my eyes. Her strength resides in my son’s arms when he gives me a much-needed hug. I sense her gentleness shining from my youngest son’s eyes when he and his grandfather laugh through a tale told for the hundredth time.
On my mother’s last day, she spoke of yoga, magic teas, and Ozark blackberries. These were her very last words to me, images really. Even as her body began to fold into itself beneath a lifetime of labor, toil, and love, her spirit remained sturdy. A cement silo that could withstand great wind and a lighthouse that drew us to safe shores. When her parchment thin lids closed over her blue eyes, my mother knew that she loved well and fierce.
At times, I am not sure that I will ever possess the strength of her spirit, but without doubt, I am graced with a bit of magic; especially, when the royal tern pauses in his sunset search for food and looks at me with earnest understanding, or when the snowy egret hops alongside me on my morning beach walk.
If I close my eyes and count to ten, I know that when I open them, my tears will have receded like the tide, and that the birds of dawn will continue to sing with the clarity of my mother’s voice. Joy always rises above pain.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.