Motions of Grief (Memoir)

It has been a long time since I’ve worked on my memoir. The pursuit of tenure and promotion, and a bit of a health crisis swerve last September threw me off track. I’m finally feeling like writing again, and put these words down today. I’d say “happy reading”, but it’s hardly happy going. Best approached as a reflection of sorts about groping for the uncommon role of widowed new mother — there’s no etiquette book advice on how to combine these roles. As you’ll read, I flubbed the conflation rather badly! (Also, each time I tried to put this in the first person, I hit a road block, so for now it’s a step removed. I think that’s telling in itself…)

She tells everybody he died, but only when they ask about her son’s father.

Most people just assume she is the nanny, acknowledging the impossibility of the boy’s tow-headedness against the mother’s Mediterranean coloring; others see the mother’s smile in the son’s.

She stops telling people about being a widow after an experience on a small propeller plane ride to Cody, Wyoming on Christmas Day. Her four-month old son is squirming in her arms, and she nurses him through the take-off. The man sitting next to her avoids looking at her baby, suckling with loud gasps and coos, until the boy is fast asleep and she has refastened the clip of her nursing bra, one-handed, under her blouse. At that time, the man, noting the wedding ring on her left hand, says, “Are you flying to see grandma?”

She replies, “No, we’re headed to see grandpa.”

The man asks, “Did Daddy have to work on Christmas?”

She speaks bluntly, without thinking, “No, Daddy’s dead.”

It isn’t until she sees the man’s stunned look that she realizes she has committed a social faux pas of sorts. Death should be spoken of in euphemisms, and hushed tones, and with an expression she hasn’t mastered yet. One should look away and down, and perhaps falter over the words, as though they are hard to believe. Baldly stating her widowhood in the same tone as she expressed her preference for pretzels over peanuts to the flight attendant is a social misstep that she, great-granddaughter of the society editor of the Orange Daily News, should have known to avoid.

By the time she realizes what she has said, the man has recovered and composed his features back into that neutral mask that men cultivate and master in adolescence. He expresses his condolences, and asks, “How did he die?”

She has told this story so many times that it has frozen into a fable. There is the setting (ironically, near Death Valley), and the characters, the explosion, and the mystery. She tells it with little grief, reciting the details of the dining room hutch that holds artifacts from their gold mine instead of fine china, the gully (never an arroyo), the use of black powder as the technical name for an explosive, and not simply a description or appearance.

She recites the fate of the two survivors, and then waits. What comes next is the pedestal-ization of bravery. Young widows are sad and silently heroic. She feels neither of these, but simply numb. A baby needs to be fed and diapered and held.

These are the motions of grief.


About Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

Just another deaf academic/advocate/activist blogging about life.
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4 Responses to Motions of Grief (Memoir)

  1. Lori Christian says:

    Teresa, I am filled with a multitude of emotions. I remember that phone call we shared, the park off Bastunchery, the crack on Jim’s voice. His heart, as mine, broke for you.
    Deathaphobia is an unnecessary pandemic in our culture.
    We must talk of it.
    I never ever use the beloved euphemisms our society requires.
    Jim is not gone; as if at the market and will return home shortly. He is dead. Stephen hasn’t passed; he was not gas! My loves are dead. And it still hurts like hell to be in this world sans each of them.
    None of our deaths should be sugar-coated do the living won’t feel uncomfortable! ( I guess I’m still wrestling with my angers that death grew?)
    You are a brilliant writer, professor, mother, and woman!
    Jim held you in the highest regards and loved you dearly!
    This is an eloquent and authentic expression of the sojourn of grief!

  2. Matt Tait says:

    I almost don’t want to use the phrase “enjoy” to tell you how I feel reading this, but I like hearing about your experiences after the accident

    I was such a wreck physically and emotionally. It was nice when you visited me in the burn unit, but I somehow felt responsible for the accident and hoped you didn’t hate me. I was still a space cadet on heavy duty pain meds. My good friend’s widow, who I secretly had a crush on, had come to lift my spirits and I didn’t think I deserved it.

    Time has dulled some of the more minute memories of that day, but in case I didn’t say it then, thanks for visiting me. It did and still does mean a lot to me.

    Bye Terri,

  3. Motions of Grief. I am sitting here, having been unaware of the wash of emotions that were going to travel through me after reading this piece of your memoir. In Hebrew (the transliteration) we say Kol HaKavod, all the honor. All the honor to you for shaping language this way, for telling your story, for doing what needs to be done, all the days of your life.

  4. Rachel says:

    When some of us experiences tragedy in our lifes some of us learn to go numb and do not wear our emotions of the events as a chalice waiting for those who recognize it to cocoon us in sympathy. Many times I have found for myself that I look back at the events as though it happened to somebody else. I understand fully your third person storytelling it’s not like one wants to step back into that emotional hole and relive it as one is recanting the tail.

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