Famed writer Grace Paley wrote a wonderful short story called “Mother.” And I do mean short—420 words. Words made exquisite by their eloquence. The thing about eloquence is that it’s so elegant. And elegance means distilled into perfect beauty.
The story starts out this way:
“One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: ‘Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.’ By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway.”
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx to Ukrainian emigrant parents. I’m a Southern-born writer living in Brooklyn. We have nothing in common. And everything. I understand her emotional reaction to that song. The song of life and death. A dirge lamenting the passing of time and people.
Her mother was already gone; mine is going. Slowly walking away from me, arm in arm with Alzheimer’s. We now live a thousand miles apart—her life is in Tennessee and mine is in the great City. More than miles, though, we are years apart from the time she stood young and vibrant in doorways as she watched over me. These things we remember of those we love: A stance, a look, a melodious phrase reserved just for us. “My Sonny Boy,” is what Momma calls me still. But for how much longer?
Stand in a doorway. That’s the prime advice for surviving an earthquake if you are caught indoors when the swaying begins. Do mothers instinctively stand in doorways because they feel their world crumbling and sense the danger?
Grace Paley heard a song on the radio and immediately identified with the artist’s theme. So do I. Her sense of longing for a mother now gone and the writer’s ensuing strength of emotion—“By God!”—I get it. I make the same connection. I feel it. We all must live it.
This is the joy of the human condition: We each inhabit our own island; but when an item that is human-made washes up on our shore, we are pulled to it. We are destined to pick it up. We trace its shape with our fingers. Feeling its smoothness. Marveling at its rounded curves and abrupt edges. Focusing on its rougher spots. Reveling at its creative design. Wondering if we could do better. Thinking. Learning. Growing.
This is what a human is: We think, learn, grow; therefore, we are. Change, evermore. It is the necessary human component. Necessary, but, oh! How it hurts.