I’ve written about my mother and friend, Sally Tolan, many times on these pages. I’ve been lucky to be with her several times a year, and while there was sadness as dementia took hold, there was also great joy, and a connection through laughter, music and storytelling.
Mom died early this month, and it feels like a bad dream. Not even so much that she’s finally gone after a few tough years, because I’m glad for her that she’s moved on to her next journey. But that we — my five siblings, my children and theirs, me, and so many friends — cannot come together to grieve, tell stories and hug. Such is the time of this horrible pandemic. Still, my house is filled with flowers, Irish drink, soup and even a pumpkin delivered by friends. Many sent heartfelt notes filled with love for Mom, for me.
Sally was not a person to settle into sadness or grief, though. She was a true optimist, always ready to move to the next challenge, to meet the next friend (she loved men), to write the next poem, to choose the next plant for her natural garden. For years she had a wild garden in her Milwaukee front yard — surrounded by neighbors’ perfectly manicured lawns.
As in many mother-daughter relationships, as a teenager and young 20-something, I had a few issues with Mom. Was she unable to go deep? Was she so bouncy to hide from reality? Was she shallow? No, sometimes, and no, I would answer now. Yes, she put on a happy face in tough times. That was partly a tribute to her generation, born in the 1920s, and having lived through the Depression and World War II. It was also because her husband, our lovely father, died when he was 49, and she just 47.
Over the years, she showed me what it was to be a woman, to be a mom, to be a person of the world. She was a member of Beyond War, whose name speaks for itself, a volunteer for a restorative justice organization for women released from prison, and she served on boards including a nonprofit bookstore dedicated to poetry and the arts, and an urban ecology conservation group. Her book of poems, Bloodroot, was published on her 80th birthday. Mom co-founded an all-women’s book club in the 1950s, which still meets — though the numbers have dwindled. Sal the Gal, as we dubbed her, shopped at a natural grocery co-op before most folks had heard of bulk items. And she delighted in her children’s and grandchildren’s personalities and accomplishments.
These past few years, when I would return to Flagstaff after visiting her, I’d call to say I’d arrived home safely. “When are you coming for another visit?” she would immediately ask. I would hang up and book my flight for a couple of months down the road. Now, I’m so glad I did.
Mom was someone I could talk to if I was worried about my children, if I had issues with my siblings, my bosses or partners. After a difficult divorce, I was distraught.
“It’s not what happens to you in life. It’s how you handle what happens to you in life,” she said. “I’m so proud of you for how you live your life, Mare.” Words I cherish now.
As I miss her so, I hold onto her words, and will try to make her proud, still. We were lucky to have Sally with us for so many years. If there’s a life after this one, I hope Mom and Dad are together, having a blast.
By Sally Tolan, 1984
Snow piles shrink.
Icicles fall into puddles.
Crows and jays find their voices.
The sun hangs ’round till supper time.
The hardware store’s sold out of salt.
Blizzards may still be lurking out west,
waiting to hit us when our backs are turned.
Still, we think of seeds.
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