Angel Crown

The raccoon mother came back. I saw her climb deftly down a kudzu-covered oak tree that borders our backyard and the neighbors. She was alone this time; her babies (or “kits” as they’re called, just like young foxes) weren’t with her and I noticed her steps were more focused as she walked on the fence-line. She paused more often, though, stopping every few steps to sniff the air or look back up at the tree. Once she ran back up, then almost immediately back down before breaking out into a run and disappearing. I’m guessing the kits were either in the tree or gone from her forever. They don’t stay with their mothers long after they’ve outgrown their dens. The mothers show them how to find food and then they’re on their own. How do they know when it’s time for the babies to leave for good? Especially when they’re first time mothers, what clues or smells come from the kits to signal raccoon adulthood? I’m sure it’s so ingrained in their biology, that it plays almost like an orchestra. Small, stay. Grow, go.

It’s been striking me lately about how much our society as mothers has changed in the past hundred years. Or less, even. Before, in the time of our great-grandmothers, babies often faded away before their first birthdays. Even if they made it past that, they might catch something frightful, their eyelids hot, their foreheads beaded with sweat, their chests struggling to breathe. Many mothers knew what it was to have a family plot full of tiny gravestones, where stone lambs would rest their heads on the place where their babies were laid down to bed for the last time.

Now we live in a time when mostly, blessedly, hopefully, our babies outlive us. We usually don’t have to kiss them goodbye. Usually. Hopefully. Blessedly.

While my father was in town this weekend we went to one of my favorites places here, the Museum of Appalachia. In the Hall of Fame building, on the second floor, there is a small but fascinating collection related to the history of mourning and funerals in (mainly) Victorian times in East Tennessee.  The largest object is a horse and buggy hearse, underneath its carved black belly is a wicker “removal basket”. The smallest item in the collection is a curl of blonde hair tied with white ribbon, and the sweetest things are two small angel crowns on the pillows where they were born. Do you know what an angel crown is? Back when everyone slept on pillows stuffed with chicken feathers, when someone would die the bereaved family would open up the stitches in the pillowcase, and root around in the stuffing until they found a firm, soft little bundle of a “nest” formed from a dying person’s tossing and turning. They called them angel crowns, and believed that a visiting, guiding angel had left it as a reminder to the living of where we go when we die. Home. Safe. In comfort and on wings.*

They handled death so differently then. It was around them everywhere and occurred by the season. Letters were lined in black ink, wardrobes were full of stiff black crepe, a yard of pink netting was kept in a hope chest to soften the appearance of a loved one who lie in wait in the parlor. A photographer was called to take a final (and sometimes only) picture of a baby wearing their Christening clothes, and the resulting image is haunting and true and so, so sad. The mothers’ and fathers’ eyes: transparently grieving. Stiff arms held formally, holding the still infant or with a firm hand on a cradle.  Nothing to hide or work through. No mention of doctors or pills. Death was there, it took away the ones you loved, but you went on and on living because you knew your time would come soon enough and you would then be reunited.

Those photographs, and the tiny pink and blue coffins, are the hardest to look at. But still I look, and try to learn and understand, and thank the Universe that I live in the time that I do. My son will, most likely, outlive me. He will grieve a mother that he watched slowly grow older. It will be a natural progression.

This story from the NYT has been on my mind all day. In that heartbreaking editorial Emily Rapp writes about life with her toddler son, Ronan. Ronan who has Tay-Sachs disease. Ronan who will probably fade away before he’s three. She writes about how calm and loving their life is, how the daily pressures and outside expectations of parenthood don’t knock on their door. After I read her piece, and then read it again, and finally a third time, I was left with a feeling of powerful love and humble gratitude.

Why do we worry so much, and let other mothers (and fathers, and those who don’t have children at all) pierce our hearts with guilt-laden arrows? You must breastfeed. You must feed them only organic food. You must homeschool (or send to private school). You must not vaccinate. You must not circumcise. You must not go back to work. You must go back to work. You must give them siblings. You must do everything exactly right. Or else.

Or else…Emily Rapp is an illustration of a mother unbound. The only thing she has to make sure she does just right is to love her son as much as she can for the next year and a half (or more, most hopefully). She reminds me of those mothers in the photographs in the museum. Their eyes fierce, loving, and sad. Strong. Unbound. Here on Earth to give love and not judgement, bias, or to impose guilt on nervous new or veteran mothers and fathers.

Our babies usually survive here in our very privileged society. And yet we’re so hard on ourselves. We’ve been given an incredible gift, one that we shove in a drawer in favor of confusion.

That’s all tonight. I have a head cold (yes, the one that Xander had. He is very generous with his germs). Here is a picture and a more formal explanation of an “angel crown”. I think they’re so beautiful.

Angel Crowns

Click the photo for the article. It incorrectly lists the museum as being in Clinton, TX. It’s in Norris, Tennessee (right next to Clinton, TN).

I love ya’ll. Goodnight.

*I wrote about Angel Crowns almost two years ago on my old, original site “Controlling a Spicy Universe”. You can read that post here.


4 thoughts on “Angel Crown

  1. This writing is stunning.

    I was born a month premature, an identical twin. Doctors insisted neither of us would live. My sister died two days later. I survived.

    Am I my Martha’s angel crown, my DNA wound and rounded into wings–my genes nesting, nosing the nothing where she sleeps?


  2. Dear Kathy,

    Your story, your whole life, and the way you tell it, is so tender and heartbreakingly beautiful.

    And I think you are your sister’s crown, and that you’ll see her again.

    Big xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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