Each year as Cinco de Mayo arrives, I think about my youngest brother, whose last fiesta was that celebration in 2004. He drove to Portland from Baker City, stayed a few days with his step-daughter, partied with a friend, and then made the five-hour trip on U.S. 84 through the Gorge back to his rented house.

It was his last trip. I don’t intend that as a pun, but it probably was one of the last times he was high as well, since getting high in one fashion or another had been a major part of his life for 40 of his 56 years. Adding weight to my hunch is that another reason for the trip was to pursue the status of his application for medical marijuana. Less than a week later, on May 11, he died of complications from AIDS.

Now that he’s been gone for five  years, it’s an almost universal process that my mother’s ghost follows him into my mental house. Even though she died 32 years earlier than he, they are linked. Perhaps because he was the child she agonized over the most, perhaps because he was the baby of the family, our mother’s last child.

He was born when I was almost 12. It was one of the most self-absorbed times of my life, preoccupied as I was with pre-teen life and hormones, secretly plotting to meet the boy I liked when I wasn’t even dating age! I met him at a movie matinee, having told my parents I was meeting a girlfriend. All in explanation as to why it is I have so little memory of Johnny as a baby. Just snapshots, mostly of my mother.

I see her playing pat-a-cake, hear her singing ‘Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, how you can love” to him, and watch her “shoeing the horse” on the soles of his baby feet. Crooning “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy-Boy, Billy-Boy?” she would change the chorus line to Johnny-boy. She took his little piggies to market and held him tight when he cried.

She mashed potatoes and thinned them with milk, and ground cooked meat in the food grinder attached to the kitchen counter for his dinner. She made angel food cakes for the family from the leftover egg whites she’d saved after cooking the yolks for the baby’s breakfast.

Concentrate and other mental, shaded images slide into view. She sits in front of the dark and rumbling oil heater in the living room, while late-afternoon sun adds slanting light to the scene. She holds Johnny, wrapped in a blanket, on her lap. When he had earaches, she’d put a little warm oil in his ear, rest the achy ear against her breast and rock him till the pain would ease and he’d fall asleep.

I’m sure she did similar things for our 4-year-old sister, but I was 8 when she was born, and there are no recalled scenes in the brain bank.

I didn’t always admire my mother’s choices, and for years my mantra was: Any way but Mother’s! Nor did she approve of mine.

But as a young mother who knew nothing about being one, or when thoughts chased through my mind that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be one, it was those remembered images that showed me what to do. You sing to the babies, hold them when they cry and hurt, and bake an angel cake.

A broker with RE/Max Equity Group, Alexsandra Stewart  describes herself as “an artist, traveler, dreamer, real estate broker, reader, and gardener in no priority order.” She returned to her hometown of Portland three years ago after a career as a diversity and organizational-development consultant, helping businesses and nonprofit organizations weather the process of change. This post originally appeared on her site on the real estate blog Activerain.com.

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