The Summer Solstice is always overshadowed for me by my mother’s death.


The night before she died, I attended a performance by Liz Lerman at the Colorado Dance Festival. Lerman was working with old people and I fancied I saw my grandmother — who’d passed many years before– on stage, looking perplexed as always.

white carnation

Midway through the performance, I began to feel dizzy. At intermission, I tried standing and could not. There was a party afterward, but I could only go home. I fell right to sleep. In the morning, my son, who was in school near my mother’s home, called to say she had died. In a fire. My dizzy spells were taking place as she was dying, breathing the smoke that made her faint and finally filled her lungs and choked her life away.

Midsummer Celebration Fires in Sweden

Midsummer Celebration Fires in Sweden

This is a day for festivities, when most of the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the Solstice with great revelry. Fitting, maybe, that my mother would perish in fire, on this day, while bonfires are lit to mark the onset of summer, the longest day of the year. The word bonfire, comes from bonefire, when it was bones that were burned.

(In Bolivia, we celebrated the Winter Solstice on this day, and there are fires and offerings and dancing.) Winter Solstice in Bolivia

Tonight I’ll take a thoroughly tattered set of Tibetan prayer flags down from my porch and finish off the prayers — amen them, so to speak — by burning the rags in a cauldron in the garden (near the pond, just in case…).

The chrysanthemum is the Japanese flower of death. In China, carnations. For the ancient Greeks, the death flower was most often poppies, just as the Flanders poppy is a memorial for the war dead. As I surveyed the wreckage all around my mother’s house, the piles of ash and debris shoved out the doors and windows by the firefighters, I came across large scraps of a Japanese silk screen she’d treasured. On it were painted bright orange poppies, vivid as flames, dulled by a coating of wet ash. I framed the scrap and it hangs where I can greet it every morning.

japanse poppies