This excerpt was submitted by Susan E. Woods ’70 from a lovely, unique book published by Susan and her mother, Helen H. Woods, MD ’36, entitled Guacamole Conversations: Mother Daughter Reflections across Time and Place.
I’d like to coin a new phase: guacamole moments – named for way my Mother expressed that word to capture all she was missing of her former life on the Texas Gulf Coast, when she practiced medicine and my father was alive. Guacamole moments are unspoken moments of recognition, appreciation, regret and connection that fall below the surface of everyday interactions with those we love. They are the shared understandings we realize between the lines of explicit events but most too fail to express.
After she died, I found a poem with an attached note to me that had never sent. It read: To Susan, do you like my poems? Why don’t you write to me? I write them partly to share with you and partly to share with sea. Much love, Mommy. And so I am writing to her, a guacamole conversation of sorts.
The sun was oh so high in the sky
When he first appeared this morning
He startled me when he burst through the clouds
And jumped on my back without warning!
And my reply:
My mother and I attended the same Eastern women’s college—she, the class of 1936; me, 1970. She was an accomplished student, Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. I graduated late. For this, she held the college firmly responsible. If she were disappointed in me, I didn’t know it. Over time she mellowed.
One of the last trips we made together was a return to the college for an alumni weekend conference on women’s health. We shared a room. We ate in the dining room with other alumni, delighted to see mother and daughter in attendance, especially two who looked so much alike.
We made the bird walk around upper lake, listening for birds we couldn’t see and spotting birds that didn’t count. We attended presentations on breast cancer and ovarian risk, menstruation and menopause. In the yoga session, she sat in a chair against the back wall while I sat in the middle of the room, cross-legged, drawing deep and measured breaths.
For the acupuncture session we sat in the second row. The scheduled California speaker had been replaced last minute by a young man, a local practitioner who boasted certification from a six-month training program in the ancient healing art. He began his discussion with reference to the pelvic basin, positioning his hands low in front of his body in a bowl-like gesture, which he jiggled up and down. With each successive reference to female body flows, our composure drained away. We squirmed and giggled under our breath, covering our mouths, sliding away from one another to the opposite sides of our chairs. Tears dropped from our eyes like loaded raindrops. Our feet were in puddles. I knew in that moment we could not look at one another or we would roar.
We checked out immediately after that. We left the conference in disgrace, but satisfied. We had found what we had come for.
The sea comes in gently, so gently this morning
Its song a mere whisper of yesterday’s self
The water forms aprons of eyelet pique
That lap and lap over the sandbar’s shelf
Then slip back to ocean, embroidering the beach
With bubbles of suds that glisten and quiver
And finally burst . . .
And sink into sand in the sun of the day.
And my reply:
As a little girl, I treasured my parent’s wedding photos, my daddy so handsome and mother so happy. I was fascinated by brides. Still today, I slow down when driving past a wedding party gathered on the front steps just to catch a glimpse of the bride. It’s not marriage that intrigues me; it’s the whole bride-ey idea—the dresses, the veils, the flowers. My mother’s wedding dress was made of white eyelet pique—simple lines, a full length skirt cut on the bias, a neckline narrowly scooped to a gently sculptured vee, short sleeves complemented by long open-fingered gloves that came to the elbow. My sister, Sally, and I played dress-up in her wedding gloves, held up on our skinny arms with rubber bands. When I was five and Sally, four, mother cut the gown to cocktail length. Make do, make over or do without, she said. She used the extra cloth to make bride dresses for our Christmas dolls. We found them standing side-by-side under the tree, veils of petticoat netting hitched in their hair, strings of pearl piping round their necks. White eyelet pique wrapped my girlhood make-believe, imagination channeled through gloves with no fingers, a fabric full of holes sunk deeply into memory’s cloth. I’ve no idea how often she wore the cocktail dress. It’s vanished by now, but I know it was put to good use. My youngest sister, Sherry, wore it to a seventh grade dance with an extra piece of cloth inserted in the neckline to hide her new-formed cleavage.
The Mollusk’s House
Soft bodies need strong houses
If they are to survive
But the beauty of the sea shell
Comes from architects on high
A mollusk could secrete
A substance square cement
What mollusk mind has intricacy
And boldness to design
A palace for protection
From forces not benign?
In her later years, my mother found the discovery of new planets on the outer regions of space deeply disturbing. She didn’t want to know about them and would have preferred that such discoveries not be reported on the evening news.
I don’t know if I believe in God, she told me on one visit. There are too many planets.
This meant something else, I knew. The longer she survived my father, the less she thought of life. A part of her had been abandoned; what was left she could not reconcile with God’s goodwill. She went to church she said because she liked the chandeliers. I chose not to believe her. –SEW
Helen H. Woods, MD was a physician, a wife and mother of four children. She grew up in New England, but practiced medicine for thirty years in South Texas. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, class of 1936, Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year, and Yale University Medical School, class of 1940. She was a physician well before women were widely accepted in that profession and before it was considered appropriate for a woman to work while raising children. Helen passed away in 2000 at the age of 84.
Susan E. Woods is Managing Partner in Henderson Woods, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in workplace training, facilitation and consulting. She retired from Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations after twenty-five years working in the field of labor and employment relations. Like her mother, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College. She holds an M.A. in Economics from Duke University and a M.S. in Labor Studies from the University of Massachusetts. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her partner of twenty years, Bonnie Camarra. They were married in Canada in 2009.
Reprinted with the permission of the author. Copyright Susan E. Woods.