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Iris and the Twenty-One Duck Salute

Aug 11, 2009
Kimmy Sophia Brown

My mother’s birthday was Sunday, August 9th. This year, she would have been eighty-seven years old. The last time I celebrated my mother’s birthday with her, I was fourteen years old. After that, I was either away in California, or Europe or other places every August, until she died in 1983 when I was twenty-seven. This year made 40 years since I had celebrated her birthday with her.

She and my dad were married on Great Diamond Island, in Casco Bay, which is near Portland, Maine. She always talked about Portland with such longing and reverence, about how beautiful and how special it was to her. Our photo album is full of pictures of my parents’ wedding day, December 21, 1946. My dad was a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and my mom was a truly lovely, twenty-four-year-old woman. There are also pictures of a plain, little tract house with my mom on the steps holding a cat (probably Navy housing), and other shots of my parents picnicking on Sebago Lake.

During the past week I started to receive mental nudges that I should honor her birthday this year. The plan came together rather organically. I wanted to do a variety of things for her, even though I couldn’t be with her physically. So I thought that since Peter and I now live in Portland, that the celebration should take place on Great Diamond Island. There was a thunderstorm forecast though, so I didn’t want us to take the ferry boat and be stuck in the rain. Instead, we opted to go to Two Lights State Park, which is a gorgeous place that epitomizes the beauty of the Maine seacoast and would stand in as a good second. If a storm came up, we could leave more easily.

I thought a poem would be in order for the day and I found the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “God’s World” in a poetry anthology, which was one of my mother’s favorites

I put on my white skirt and an East Indian white blouse with a bit of blue embroidery, and Peter and I set out for Two Lights. We stopped and got a bunch of pink gladiolas. I wanted irises, because her name is Iris, but they didn’t have any. I once went for a bike ride when I was about twelve and saw a florist in Skokie, Illinois, where we lived, selling gladiolas for fifty cents a bunch. I bought some for my mother and she was so pleased. Remembering that, I bought a bunch. We also bought a small bottle of Black Swan, Shiraz red wine, because my mother enjoyed wine. In lieu of a cake we bought a bag of Lindt chocolates. My mom always like vanilla best, so I thought we could eat some white chocolate, which is sort of close to vanilla.

On the way in the car, I told Peter things about my mother – for example how nice it was to fall asleep against her in the car driving home from somewhere. My dad would be driving, and I sat in the middle between them on the front seat. She was soft and cuddly and I felt utterly safe. I remember feeling that besides loving me, she really liked me – that she thought I was funny and smart and she encouraged that in me. Sometimes I came home from school and there would be a present on my bed such as an article of clothing that I had wanted or a book. She gave me the book, “Beautiful Joe”, by Marshall Saunders, which is sort of a canine Black Beauty, told from the point of view of the dog. From the second grade it was my favorite book until she gave me, “Harriet the Spy”, by Louise Fitzhugh, and later, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, by Maggie Smith.

I loved watching old black and white movies with her on television. Actually, I’m not sure if the movies were black and white, but the television was black and white, so we had no choice! On Sunday afternoons our local NBC station, Channel 2, (one of the big 3 that we could tune in), would air things like Tarzan movies starring our favorite Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller. I was always trying to peek under his dish towel while he was swinging from a vine, but to no avail. Also, Charlie Chan movies starring Werner Olan (a white man in Asian makeup!), and Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone. One of the very best movies my mom bequeathed to me though, that I still cherish to this day, is “Whistle Down the Wind” with Haley Mills. (I’ve been hunting for it for years on DVD so if you find a copy, let me know!) It contains one of the best scenes in cinema history in which her younger brother calls her, “a rotten cow”, in his charming Yorkshire accent. There’s much more of course, but I won’t give away the plot!
My mother was very playful. She cared about people. She was the most loving, kind and cheerful person I’ve ever known. I learned so much from her about trying to be sensitive to others, remembering details about people, understanding people’s emotional burdens, not to mention all she imparted to me regarding nature, books, music and art. She was a lover of humanity and a lover of intangibles such as goodness, beauty and empathy. She was extremely compassionate toward children and animals and cried while watching news stories on television or while reading articles from the newspaper.

Arriving at Two Lights, (named for the two small lighthouses in the neighborhood), Peter and I parked in the shade and brought our bag of goodies down to the sea. We walked a good way down the cliff on the rocks until we reached a spot about twenty feet from the water. What a glorious day it was. The sky was bright blue with hardly a cloud, the air was warm, though buffered by a delicious sea breeze and the magnificent ocean sparkled before us.

We spread out a small blanket and sat there in awe of the beauty. I held Peter’s hand and said a little prayer, inviting God, our ancestors, our parents, angels, divas, nature spirits, fairies, and anybody else in the vicinity to join us to celebrate her birthday. I read aloud the poem, “God’s World.” Just as I reached the line,

“Here such a passion is,
As Stretcheth me apart,– Lord, I do fear
Thous’t made the world too beautiful this year;”

...Peter nudged me and pointed. I looked up and saw a huge V of ducks flying over. We counted them, twenty-one in all, and then they were gone over the cliffs in a flash. What IDW, (Invisible Duck Wrangler), was hiding on the hill, waiting to let them go right at that moment? I don’t know, but if that wasn’t a Twenty One Duck Salute, sent for Iris, I don’t know what was. We sat there for two hours, and no other ducks, turkeys, warblers or dodos flew overhead again, either before or after.

Then we opened the wine bottle and I blessed it to make it holy wine. I touched some to Peter’s lips because he doesn’t drink, and I drank a little, and we poured the rest into a tidal pool on top of a rock, and its gorgeous blood-red color dissipated and was gone in a moment. Then we shared a white Lindt chocolate, and went down to the edge of the rocks, and threw one single gladiola into the water. We watched it for a long time, floating in the waves until it was out of sight. I kept talking to the gladiolas because I felt sorry that they were out of water for so long, and sorry that one of their sisters was sent into the ocean, but I told them it was an honor for her and not to miss her, because a mermaid would probably find her and put the gladiola in her sanctuary.

Walking back to the car, I gave some of the remaining gladiolas to little girls I saw, (asking their parents if it was okay first, of course)! I felt very satisfied as we left the park, and very happy that we took the time to honor my mother this year. As we drove back into Portland, the dark clouds began to blow in, and we were so glad we went to Two Lights early in the day when it was bright.

I miss my mother more than I can say and I pray to God for the day to come when I can see her again. Happy Birthday, Mommy, I love you and miss you more than anything!

Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.

She writes the column "From the Back Porch" as well as reviews of music in her column "MusicViews". Her goal in her music reviews is to introduce music she loves to people who may not have heard that particular artist or CD. For information about how to submit a CD for review, click here.

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