Shortly after May 30, 1957, our 38-year-old mother Agnes, weakened by anemia and chronic drinking went to bed for three months. She delegated the care and feeding of newborn Stacy to my sisters and me.
Ten-year-old Gael spent endless steamy hours sterilizing glass baby bottles. Twelve-year-old Maere used her authority as the oldest to redo the assignments in order to do the least amount of work. We all took turns feeding the baby. Meanwhile our father was commuting to downtown Chicago by train from our anglicized Irish-American enclave, as part of a brief effort to be a sober citizen, husband and father.
“Women should always have babies in the summer,” Agnes would say, “in case they’re colicky, they’ll be soothed under the trees by the sounds and the shadows of the leaves.” She’d mutter ‘idiot’ under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any other season. And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.
My job was to walk collicky Stacy around the neighborhood in her baby carriage, hoping the swaying of the leaves would soothe her distressed stomach. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on an inheritance—the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us.
My mother’s life was rooted in addiction—less like the tranquil trees, and more like the life-sucking aphids. Yet, her words gave my family a love for trees—a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.
It’s taken a lifetime for me to understand my mother was spiritually in tune with the earth, its seasons and its creatures. As soon as Stacy was able to sit up and clutch the handlebars of my bike, I rode her around introducing her to birds, clouds, the sun. I had a hunch her life would be happier if she could name her birds before she had to memorize the ABCs. Agnes gave us that.
Until 1970 we observed Memorial Day on May 30. Now its the last Monday in May. This year we involuntarily honored the Covid shutdown. There were no beginning-of-summer public celebrations during pandemic-stricken Memorial Day weekend. My habit is to observe Memorial Day on May 30, Stacy’s birthday. That day marks the start of summer when leafed-out trees relieve winter doldrums. This Memorial Day I pray the trees soothe my baby soul as I emerge from the worrying world to a new normal.