My mom and dad, Polly and Lou Cowan, died on November 18th. The year was 1976. They tend to float into my awareness during this holiday season, but it's been so long that I have to remember to remember. No wonder Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday.
contact sheet, portrait of Polly Cowan by Mary Morris Steiner, 1958
And by strange coincidence - which I do not actualy believe in - the other day I received a packet of photos from the estate of Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence, who died in 2009. The package came on Monday the 21st, which means it could have been sent from San Francisco on the 18th. Close enough.
Mom raised me to believe in reincarnation and communicating with spirits. It was not something she spoke about with any but a few close friends, and with me. The story of her death is interesting, though, in this light. She called me about a week before she died. I was living about three hours away from Manhattan, in the Catskill Mountains of NY. She summoned me to the city to go with her to her bank so she could transfer my share of some heirloom jewelry to a safe deposit box we would open in my name. She had had her jewelry appraised and evenly divided amongst the four children. She didn't want us to have to pay inheritance tax on it when she died.
I thought she was being ridiculous. She was only 63, her health was perfect, she was fine. Great. But I went. I asked her why. She wasn't about to die. She said, "Oh, Liza, you and your sister think I'm going to live forever, but when my time comes, I will go."
We made the exchange. I spent the night. Meanwhile, for the past couple of weeks I had been horribly - for me- depressed. I couldn't seem to shake off some kind of dread and sorrow that I didn't understand at all. It had been triggered by watching the TV movie Sybil about child abuse. But I hadn't been abused, of that I'm certain. On the contrary, my childhood had been filled with love, stability and good times. But that movie touched some nerve and I couldn't shake it.
I talked about it with mom, told her about some other stuff that was going on in my life, stuff about friends, work, the usual. She told me that although she knew it was impossible, she wished we could live together again.
The next morning we spoke about reincarnation and communicating from beyond the grave. This was not an unusual topic for us, but in hindsight it was poignent. The very last paragraphs we spoke, as I waited to catch a cab to the train station, were about how she would try to communicate with me after she died.
I never saw her again. A few days later there was a fire in my parents apartment and they both died.
And yes..she did communicate with me. I had lucid dreams for weeks afterwords in which we would chat. I would say, "mom, this isn't a dream, right?" and she'd say, "No, it's not a dream. I'm here." When those stopped, I would see her in the mirror, looking at me from what should have been my reflection. Or a photo of me would turn into a photo of her. Then it all stopped.
These days, she rarely communicates. When my daughter Willa was born, mom would visit us through the twinkly lights above the crib. I told this to my brother Geoff one day when he was visiting. He laughed. All the lights in the house flickered, sputtered, went out. Then came back on.
Some days she leaves me a little token. Nothing, really. A pen found in the wrong place at the right time. Stuff like that. Or she directs a packet of photos to be send on the anniversary of her death.
Here's to all the ancestors we have lost. No matter when.
Polly Cowan. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner. November 1958.