Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Norma Hopkins Wallace: A Lively Spirit Flies

I received a phone call today at work from my brother. We don't
talk on the phone all that often, so seeing "Johnbro" on the cell screen alarmed me a little. It's kind of that same way when I see the "MomandDad" incoming call these last few months. Important people in our lives are "getting on" as it were. My mom, for one, has been in and out of the hospital. We lost my grandmother in July, but she was 102 so one can hardly begrudge the Lord for calling her home. If Victoria had her way, that homecoming would have happened years prior. But I was so grateful to have had the opportunity to hold her hand and kiss her on the forehead only hours prior to her demise.  I still get a lump in my throat at times when I look at the brown shelf that had been in her room, or the scarves that my daughter used to dress up in to entertain Gramma when we'd visit. These scarves have become part of the "dress-up" box, but they still feel and smell of Gramma, and so produce a little welling tear every now and then. But then I remember that I really did get to say goodbye.

I did not have that same sense of closure today when my brother called to let me know that my second California mom, Norma Hopkins Wallace, had passed suddenly from a heart attack. I was sitting at my school desk in disbelief as my brother relayed the news. In fact, for a few moments after I hung up the phone, I continued to stare at the essay I had been grading and for a flash of a moment I thought I had just hallucinated that call. The rest of the evening has gone the same way. If I just go about my regular routine, Norma's still alive, no phone call received. All is well with the world as long as I just do the dishes or the laundry or grade another essay. But then I needed to articulate this news. To my daughters as we drove from school, quite late post-soccer games.
"Do you remember Norma?"
"Yes! Is she coming to visit?"
"No, she just died today."
"But didn't she have another amazing trip to go on?"
"I think so, she always kept on moving, didn't she?"
Tears. More silence.

This is where distance creates such a confused state of grief. I felt very much this way when my first California Mom, Peggy Secor died over two years ago. When you do not see someone very often, but this someone has helped to form your soul and heart and has been with you in mind and spirit for as long as you can remember--when a person such as this passes away it's a grief that comes in waves. It is easy to have moments imagining that this is not true. It is not as if we spoke every day, or I drove to her house every Sunday. So what changes? Everything.

When I was at USC, Norma's home in Simi Valley was my freshman year "family dinner destination." And Norma was someone I could call (and did on many occasions) to help me work through my feelings of how annoying my Gramma (who I also saw most weekends in CA) was being about the clothes I wore or how I looked fat. Norma's way was to accept the world just they way it is, to love people right where they were. And while she might believe you could be better or work harder, she let you do things in your own time.  She learned this way of calm, I know, from her mother Grandma Jennie, a Norwegian-blooded 4 foot 9 inch spitfire, who also had a verve for life and way of making everyone feel loved, even if she was disappointed in you. Grandma Jennie passed away many years ago, and I remember writing to Norma and thanking her for sharing her mom with our family. Norma was my mom's roommate at Mount St. Mary's in Califorinia, so my mom had been adopted whole heartedly into the Hopkins family. It was a natural progression for me, then, to feel adopted into the Wallace family.

And this, I suppose is the pain I feel from Peggy's passing a few years back, and then Norma's passing today. These women were family to me. Because they helped me grow and challenged me to think of my direction in life, and inspired me to look at the world with wise, energetic and curious eyes.  They watched me become a person-- from toddler to teen to young woman to mother. And I watched them go from "friends of my mom" to "my California mom" to counselor, friend,  to beautiful elderwomen from whom so much could be learned.

I saw Norma last Eastertide. She was stopping by my parents for a couple of days between visiting her relatives in D.C. I don't live all that close to my parents, but she was only around for a weeknight, and I knew I wanted to see her. I didn't necessarily think that would be the last time I would see her, but, to be honest, I had a very carpe diem sense in my mind about that trip. I get that every now and then, a radical priority shift that says seeing family is more important than gas or time or finished work or sleep. While I cannot reconcile that visit as any kind of closure, I can add it to a slew of wonderful warm memories of an incredibly special woman who taught me that there is very little time in life for criticism, but all the time in the world to love from the depths of one's heart.

Norma, I will miss you. And I thank your beautiful children Jimmy, Allison, Stacy, Janelle and Chad for sharing their mom with me, too. I know there is quite likely a party at the gates of Heaven right now. Grandma Jennie is probably doing the funky chicken and you're giving little Noah big grandma hugs and kisses.