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Sending Letters to Mother by Janet Riehl

by Janet Riehl

“Please put on some speed. Follow my lead. Oh, how I need someone to watch over me.” This scrap from a favorite George Gershwin song hummed through my head as I drove my godchildren to the ocean.

In between the ordinary concerns of school, friends, and favorite music, we talked about their mother’s recent death. Talking with close ones while driving evokes the same intimate pleasure of talking while walking or lying in bed in the dark. Without direct eye contact, we speak spontaneously—as if partly to ourselves and partly to a listening presence we count on to understand.

“When I’m troubled,” I told my young passengers, “I go to the ocean. Because it’s so vast, it embraces everything. The day your mom died, you asked her to be your guardian angel. If you believe that she’s your guardian angel, you’ll always feel the love that she sends.”

My Tibetan Buddhist teacher says if we call out for help, the Buddhas come immediately to help us. I told the kids it could be like that with their mom. “Think of her, and she’ll be there.”

Their young legs tired at times on the two-mile walk down to the ocean. But when they caught sight of the size of the surf, they surged forward. “Can we play in the waves when we get to the beach?”

“Okay, but keep the waves in sight. Know what they’re doing, and you’ll be fine.” I thought they’d just wade a bit, but their Sunday wade in the ocean became a flat-out engagement with the elements.

Watching from my driftwood perch, I felt like their protector, even though what really protected them were their own wits and wave craft. Many times my breath caught as a big wave loomed or they fell in the surf. Still, I let them come to know the waves.
Enormous waves arrived rhythmically every sixth surge. They watched these, let them break, and then ran towards the shore in the foaming surf. Laughing and screaming, the children choreographed simultaneous swoons on the shore as they listened to their heartbeats rhyme to the pounding waves.

Back on shore, they toweled off and replaced wet top layers with heavy, dry coats. Seated at the weathered picnic table, we wrote notes to their mother. I’d bought luminous pens—angel pens—just for this ceremony.

Because Thomas’s fingers were too cold to hold a pen, he dictated his message. “We love you and miss you. Now that you’re our guardian angel, I hope you write back.” He turned his slender face to meet my eyes. “Well, I do hope she writes.”

“That’s a miracle that’s not likely to happen. She might send messages in lots of ways, but I doubt you’re going to get a letter from heaven in your mailbox. She could come in dreams, though.”

We went at it again, with me as his scribe. “I hope you’ll send messages and talk to me in dreams. Keep the bad dreams away and send good dreams. When I had a bad dream, you told me to remember it was only a dream. You said since it was my dream that if I stayed with it, I could change it into a good one.”

“That’s not bad advice in any situation.”

Andrea wrote her message privately with the fluorescent angel pen while I scribbled my own letter to the children’s mother with black felt tip.

We wrapped our letters in a Tibetan Buddhist scarf of white silk traditionally used to greet one’s teacher and ask for blessing. Thus robed, the notes were set to journey beyond the ocean to an unknown shore where their mother had recently arrived.

Writing and wrapping completed, we became celestial mail carriers searching out the best mailbox. Finally, satisfied, we launched our silk packet in a corner of the cove sheltered by tall jagged rocks.

Our pilgrimage fulfilled, the children composed themselves for the walk back on cold, numb feet. Andrea sat on a rock near a stream to rinse her feet before putting on her shoes.

Thomas didn’t know how to begin. I sat him down on a rock and walked a little distance away, to give him a chance to figure it out. Because he couldn’t get his feet inside the high-topped shoes, he got up shuffling and limping. We couldn’t force his feet inside the shoes anymore than one of the wicked stepsisters could get more than a big toe inside Cinderella’s glass slipper. Since his shoes were laced in a continuous loop with a knot tied in the middle, there wasn’t enough slack to slide in his foot. His limp continued until I located someone with a knife, cut the knot, and restored Thomas to proper walking order.
The kids were encumbered with wet, salty clothing on the difficult walk back. Andrea, as befits a young teenage girl, had a change of clothes in the car. Thomas, pre-teen boy, didn’t.

Even though we were cold and cranky with runny noses, we walked staunchly towards our goal. But the parking lot seemed 100 times further than our outbound trip. Reaching the car felt like finding the Holy Grail. The heater couldn’t come on fast enough to warm our stiff, soggy bodies.

We headed toward an earthly heaven—the home of a friend. He greeted us with hot chocolate, hot showers, clothes dryer and a holiday Dracula movie to restore our good humor and fortify our courage.

While we whisked off to a Christmas Eve service, our messages tumbled their way to the children’s new guardian angel. In their dreams that night the children swayed to remembered rhythms of their first dance with the ocean.


Janet Riehl is a writer and artist living in Northern California on the shores of Clear Lake, where she operates Rocking Triangle Studio. While earning her master's degree in English, she co-edited her university's poetry magazine. Her work has been published in a number of literary magazines, including The Harvard Review.
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