C: my pagan mama
In jagged heaves of sobs I awoke from a hellishly dank loneliness, sure that I was dreaming that I was dead.
Rushing into the kitchen where my mother and father sat talking late that night, I screamed a holy terror.
“Mommy, mommy, I just dreamed I’m dead! It was awful!,” my five-year-old self wailed.
I’d gone to a painfully fearful place in that nightmare. With just myself in this macabre cast I’d been taken to a very dark region—within my own being—a place that resembled nothing I’d seen before, or have ever afterward. Alone, my little self stifled, scared beyond anything I’d ever experienced, I was sure, absolutely sure, I bawled into mama’s ear, that I was dead, that the dream had killed me, that I was afraid of dying right then, that very minute!
Perhaps I had seen my first dead bird that day? Or a drowned worm left to dry in a squiggle on a sunny pavement? Who can say, because many memories of my early childhood are very vague, very fragmented, a common symptom of children who experience life-altering trauma, which wasn’t to occur in my life until years after the nightmare of this particular evening I speak of here.
“I’m going to die!” I said inconsolably as I buried deeper into mother’s arms, sure that the horror I’d dreamt was as real as the big comfort that embraced me now. I sat on mama’s lap, shivering with fright, heaving in convulsions, surrounded by the strength and protective love of this woman named Eve.
“There there, little one,” she cooed after hearing my disastrous explanation. “Come back to bed with mama and we’ll fix everything.” She stood and carried me back to bed.
My mother, Eve, had been born to Lithuanian immigrants in 1918 and raised freely and wholesomely, on a self sufficient New Jersey hundred-acre farm, without hardly a tie to outside influences other than the weekly bread truck delivery and the kids traipsing off to school, walking to the one-room brick building three miles away, each morning and evening, rain or shine or sleet or snow. Lithuanians, in case no one has ever clarified for you, are a people that honor their previous pagan roots more than any other Catholic country or culture. Truly, the older Lithuanian-Americans I know, more than other Catholics, meet contemporary life’s challenges with the aid of ancient Baltic myths that deal with human origins and destinies with intuitive, magical folktales, and other quaint customs (Christmas cookies shaped like mushrooms and … little ears?), all leftovers from their original pagan roots, making their understanding of modern life a bit kinder, and certainly more entertaining than generic-style Christianity.
As soon as an alternative concept enters the picture of the traditional heaven-hell-purgatory, reward-punishment, one-life-and-one-death orientation of Catholicism, things start getting interesting. When a Lithuanian from my mother’s first-generation American clan, for instance, lay close to dying, it was proper and right for the soon-to-be-deceased to declare to their loved ones what it was that he or she wanted his or her spirit to be reincarnated as. Oak trees and bumblebees were popular choices, I was told.
That night when mama led me to my bed, daddy, a large muscular man named Linwood, whom my Lithuanian peasant-style farmer grandmother had dubbed, “the Camden gangster” just because he was raised in the city and not on a farm, merely nodded to his more adept wife, and stayed put at our linoleum-topped table where he was eating his favorite snack, a big bowl of ice cream. Dad was of another Heinz 57 variety entirely: his people had come from England on the second load of Pilgrims, in the sixteenth century. From my dad’s side of the family I would be eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution; from my mother’s I would learn to endure the hardships of coping with oncoming traumas of both family life and modernity, through the benefits of more nature-sanctified pagan beliefs.
Mama hoisted me up onto my bed. My older sister lay sleeping undisturbed in the twin bed next to mine. I still whimpered even though the gush of my uncontrollable tears had slowed. Any word of comfort from a loving parent is a wave of soft healing to a child, and I was blessed to have been born from two people who, at least in those days still, adored each other.
I lay in bed looking into her compassionate green eyes, so safe and assuring, and listened to mama’s voice as my sniffles quieted. Heaves of unknowns melted my stiff body into trusting this adult person who was my protector, my nurturer, my goddess.
“Close your eyes linduta,” mama said, using that endearing Lithuanian nickname she called me. “Let’s go to that horrible place you thought was so scary.”
“No mama, no!” I cried as I sat up, tearing off the covers, renewing the flood of tears.
“Hush hush, linduta. You have to trust me. Shush now, I’m going to show you there’s absolutely nothing to fear.”
Looking into her eyes to make sure she wasn’t playing a trick on me, I lay back down. I grabbed the soft blanket she put over me, clinging with my little fingers to the silky satin edge which I pulled up to my neck, afraid to let go.
“That’s right, just close your eyes, linduta. We’re together. You’re never alone. I’m here with you, always. Just close your eyes. Let’s go to that scary place you thought so awful. Pretend you’re back in that dream, right now, with me here. Together, we’ll go to that same place that made you cry. Go ahead now.”
I did my best to follow mama’s instructions. I wanted to please her, yes, but I also knew that somehow she knew what she was doing, because after all—she was mama.
“Are you back there now, linduta?”
I nodded my head because it had been easy to slip back into that freshly felt, fear-filled place, that dungeon of nothingness but bad things. Even though it had been terrifying before—when my dreaming self had brought it to the surface and made it into a nightmare—I now allowed myself to go back to that unsafe place because my mother was instructing me to. There she was, right beside me, protecting me. Fear of anything, for the moment, was entirely forgotten.
I felt the warmth of her body come off her like a cookie-filled baking oven. Her sweet spicy smell made me relax, as I sunk into my mattress even deeper. I felt mama’s gentle hand lightly patting the middle of my chest, as I lay deeply entranced by her soft entreaties. I listened to the musical lure of her leading me back to this most feared, most unknowable state of all—death.
“Good. Now, linduta, I want you to go even further back in your memories.”
I didn’t ask myself what she meant by that. No, I just followed her guidance.
“Go further back in your memories than this place you’re in now. Just follow your memories. Ease yourself back, little one. Allow yourself to be free to go wherever your memory takes you.”
I went. Deeply. Far away. To a place that had no colors, no shapes, no people or images, sounds or smells of any kind. It was a very light feeling, this thing: my existence. I became aware of a swaying, swishing motion all around me, as if my body was surrounded by thick water.
“Are you there now, linduta?”
I might have nodded my head, I’m not sure. My body felt encased in a tomb of divinely sublime trust. There was no effort, no resistance, no muscular effort from me whatsoever. I’m sure my heart must have kept beating, because I felt more alive, and happier than I’d ever imagined possible, in or out of dreams. I wouldn’t recognize it until many years later, when I would accrue the vocabulary to match this inner experience with the outer world of knowledge, but that state of wateryness I was now experiencing was none other—than me floating inside my mother’s womb!
“Good,” mama said, “now go back even further, linduta.”
Obediently, I went. Deeper. Further into the strange byways of trust. Into a vastness that could only be described—again, by a word I would discover years later—as bliss.
In that state I sensed a feeling of utter completeness, a delicious velvety peace. It was magical, that place. Time and space disappeared. I wasn’t even aware of being “me,” yet I felt totally a part of “It.” There was no distinction from me and It: We were One. Distinctly, I experienced the most tactile, definite sensation of being merged with It, which was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, either awake or asleep.
Was I asleep by then? I don’t know. Was this legerdemain of my mother’s making, to replace my nightmare with a sweet dream?
All I know is I felt completely cared for, a part of a whole, and no different from my tender, safe surroundings.
What clearly happened was that my noticing the beating of a heart was no longer present, as it had been since my mother first brought me back to bed. My heart? my mother’s? both of ours in sync? Who could say? But now—there was nothing but safe secure silence.
Completeness. Absolute peace.
Then I heard a distant voice. Mama was whispering to me, through the mist of my dream.
“You see, my little one, that place you thought was being dead, was only you thinking death so scary, so foreign, so bad—but now you see it’s actually the place you came from before birth. Death, and before birth, they’re one and the same thing, linduta.”