Have you ever seen a ghost? An angel? The physical image of a departed loved one?
No? Nor have I.
But my mother did. Here’s how it happened.
The year was 1951. Our family of four, Mother, Daddy, baby Henry, and me, lived on a farm near Manheim, Penna. It was a Monday morning. Mother was breastfeeding baby Henry when she saw her father’s big white car pull up in the driveway.
Her younger brother Allen opened the front right door and walked toward the house. Her father headed to the barn. This seemed strange, and as Allen approached the house, Mother knew something was wrong.
Allen entered and blurted out the message he had come to deliver: “Mother’s dead,” he said.
I have no memory of what happened next, but my own mother, 24 years old at the time, has never forgotten it.
She drove to the farm where she grew up, entered the iron gate in the front-yard fence, stepped onto the porch and crossed over the threshold. She knew that life would never be the same again.
As she turned the corner to the left, she saw her mother’s body stretched out on the day bed where she had collapsed after coming in from milking just a few hours earlier. Her neck was thick. Foam had gurgled into her mouth. Mother screamed upon the sight.
Immediately, she was told to shush. So she did. Holding and hugging, wailing and lament, were not traditions in her family. The woman lying on the day bed had lost her own father when she was only 18 years old. Her grief was a long, quiet, one.
Mother is a woman of faith, but this event in her life tested her faith. She was angry with God. The suddenness of the loss of this good woman with no warning offended her sense of justice. She never got to say good-bye except to the corpse. The fact that as a new mother she needed her own mother more than ever and that her milk for the baby dried up after the trauma of the announcement, these were pains so deep she had no words for them.
One afternoon as Mother was sitting in her bedroom, reading sympathy cards she had collected, she looked up with a heart full of sadness, anger, and pain. There, across the room, sitting in the little green rocker pictured above, was her mother, large as life. She was wearing her black coat and bonnet, the same ones mother had seen hanging in the closet at the house the day she went to see the body.
Mother’s entire body felt electrified. She gazed at her mother’s transfigured face, full of a glorious smile that reached all around the room and gathered Mother in. She heard no words with her ears, but with her heart she heard. “All is well.” These, of course, are the words of St. Julian of Norwich. They also are the words of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints” that we would sing together at my father’s funeral thirty years later.
Mother let herself thoroughly bask in that smile and tried to jump up to clasp her mother in her arms. She couldn’t move. And in the act of trying, she glanced away for a split second.
When she looked back, her mother was gone. The chair was just a chair.
This vision, as she would call it later, was a precious treasure she seldom talked about. It was too sacred. But she told my father. My father told me years later when he took me on a “date” to see the local high school production of Our Town. “Your mother had an experience like that Emily Webb in the play tonight.” I felt very, very special as I listened to this man, so limited in his language skills, reach into his heart and share a profound story.
Last week, Mother told me the story again after seeing the picture of me wearing Grandma’s bonnet in my last post. Grandma was wearing that same bonnet in the vision Mother saw.
I’m so thankful I have my Mother and that she has shared her grief, her anger, her love and her joy with me and all her children.
Mother is now 85, and I’m 64. We’ve both been granted many more years than Grandma Hess. My mother has missed her mother every day of her life. Just like her mother missed her father.
Out of such grief many other experiences of love and resilience were born. Mother doesn’t blame God anymore, either for this loss or for many others she has suffered since.
Mother believes she was visited by an angel and the message from the other side of this life has sustained her and taken away some of her own fear of dying.
Have you ever had such an experience? Have you heard any stories? Were you fortunate enough to know your grandmother a long time, or, like me, do you have no memory of her?