It is not strictly true that I never saw my mother cry. My grandfather, her father, died when I was 7 years old. It was before we had a telephone but someone came from somewhere in the night to tell us, and we rode through the dark in the black Chevy coupe to the town five miles away where a telephone operator was waiting in a building only slightly larger than my walk-in closet. She connected Mom to a relative to find out about the when and how. It was the final checking out of his heart, which had had one foot on the other side of the door for years. I had never seen him upright.
My mother cried on the drive home. I saw the hunch of her back and heard her quiet sobs.
Our farm was isolated and we were a family isolated from each other within it – and with such bound up emotions that expressing any feeling was, literally, unheard of. Who knew what expressing anger or affection might do? Everything could fly – not fall, but fly – apart at the speed of Iowa lightning. Only remnants of us might ever be found.
So far as I ever knew, inside the house when it was only us, my father was mute. If he wanted the salt passed, he pointed and crooked his finger. It was up to my mother and brother to maintain any conversation. I was silent, making plans to get out even as I passed the salt. Maybe especially as I was passing the salt.
LIFE magazine with its photos and ads of sophisticated people arrived from another world. By adolescence, I imagined myself in an off-the-shoulder black sheath stepping out after dinner from a luxury hotel to my waiting car. It may have been a leap of vision from “slopping” the pigs with garbage and “picking” eggs from the hen house to dining at the Jockey Club, but it was not a disconnect. I knew there was a line from here to there and it was only a question of time and intent.
I can make this a sad story, but sadness isn’t the point. I am long over it, and my parents turned into love bugs in their 70’s. My father, especially. He became a sentimental, story-telling, loving, hugging, funny, talkative love bug. I still don’t understand.
But my point is: Crying and laughter are the natural responses to life. As we have the gift of laughter, so we have the gift of tears. Humans are outfitted for crying in gratitude, joy, frustration, anger, sympathy, and sorrow. Most of us need to cry more than we do.
I am at this moment on the train from NYC to my home in DC. I am wearing jeans and a light blue denim shirt with sandals and a studded leather belt – and, with great nonchalance, a long string of very nice pearls. Never have had an off-the-shoulder sheath. Too predictable.
New York had more people in two blocks of sidewalk than lived in that small town of my childhood and every third person was on their smart phone, including me – texting the singer-songwriter arrived from Nashville and on his way to the apartment, emailing the Ambassador about lunch the next day, fielding emails, and making arrangements for a birthday dinner for the singer-songwriter at a restaurant overlooking Central Park after champagne at the Ritz.
I have learned to cry, and I cried in NYC. I thought of my mother, who died at age 96 exactly six months ago, and I thought of my brother and my father, whom she and I buried. We loved each other and learned to say it.
I thought of my grandchildren as I looked at their collection of rocks from NYC streets (yes) on the windowsill over the Hudson River.
I have learned to cry for new friends and old, for genius presenting itself wildly in front of me, for people flawed and people nearly perfect, for the pain in the world beyond imagining, and for the people in Central Park with their dogs, children, Frisbees, family reunions, and picnics.
I have learned to cry because life is beyond knowing and because that is the ultimate gift.
In NYC I thought of many things to write about, and took many photos with that telephone in my jean’s pocket, but there wasn’t time to write or post photos. Walking a straight line while drunk with life was the best I managed to do.
On leaving this morning, I cleaned the apartment a little, remembered people who have been there with me and without me, saluted the beneficent fates and the ex-husband whose being made the apartment a gift that remained after the devastation was over, and I closed the door.
At the elevator, I knew what I needed to write as I suddenly understood the connection between my easy call these days to tears, especially in the presence of beauty, and my mother. A farm child during the Great Depression, selling apples on the street corner, she stopped crying. But she learned to laugh and to love.
I understood that we all need to cry as well as to laugh and to love. We need to see tears as the expression when words fail us. For many of us, tears may be as close as we come to being poets.