I. My Mother’s Face
When I was three, old enough to understand, my mother tried to strangle me. It was late afternoon, the time of raw nerves, hard for her in the middle of Kansas. I was in my crib, crying. From the ceiling of my bedroom, I saw a confusion of her face and my face, her eyes and my eyes. Her hand twisted my head, pressed her thumb against my throat and pushed my chin into my neck. My doll caved against my ribs, an ally of sorts, with hard, plastic fingers.
Bits of air, meant for me, fanned around my mother’s face. Her eyes in slanted glasses were dark and fierce and electric. Maybe I made a deep appeal, asking her to let me live. Or maybe we met in a mysterious harmony. In any case, her hands loosened.
Later my father walked me around the living room. He wanted to see if I could move my neck. I could.
As a child, I often felt I’d swallowed a bubble of air that kept me from breathing. I felt it at the movies, or on long walks through Kansas fields. I also remembered my mother’s face, the way I’d seen it above my crib. For an instant her face became my face, her eyes my eyes. And then she had separated out, become miraculously herself. In a world without air, she was vital and alive. I’ve never seen another person more clearly.
II. My Face
Winters were bleak in the Midwest. There were days when the furniture lost its edges in late afternoon, and the world was dark by five. Then, until the lamps could do their work, everything was blurred, and my mother sat often sat in the living room staring into space. She said she didn’t like winter because it was confining.
“What is confining?” I asked.
“Too small. The kind of small that makes you nervous.”
Since I was small and made her nervous, I decided that I was confining, too. I sat on the far side of the dark room watching her vacant, darting eyes. She seemed to look forward to places she’d never reach, and back to places she’d never seen.
Outside, the old French peasant who kept chickens in the heart of suburban Illinois came out to gather five o’clock eggs. Her kerchiefed head bobbing up and down, while her chickens flocked around her. I was never sure whether she found any eggs, or was performing some act of obeisance, as she bent down. With something, or maybe nothing, in her basket, she hobbled back to the house.
The alley looked beyond the peasant’s house and other houses to a long avenue where I saw men coming back from work– a promenade of hats and newspapers. I watched them, hoping to one of them was my father. But my mother looked somewhere beyond the window–to an opera house, where women in tiered gowns fanned themselves, or a London street where Pears soap was in shop windows. I knew nothing about history yet understood her favorite century wasn’t this one: She wore rhinestone earrings that looked like chandeliers and hand mirrors that she said were Victorian.
Sometimes my mother slipped into evening without a trace. Then the walls and faded green couch gathered her up. When my father came home, he always seemed bewildered. And though she was just about to come back—or hadn’t left at all–padded around the kitchen opening cans of soup, ferreting out boxes of stale crackers.
“Would you like some soup, Marlie dear?”
“A little bouillon?”
My father’s voice was tense and cheerful–an affront to my mother’s grief. If we’d had a fireplace, he would have sat the two of us in front of it with soup and looked at the flames and pretended she was happy. Instead the two of us sat in the small kitchen, painfully aware of my mother on the couch.
Sometimes it seemed to me that the present night, where the moon rose over the chicken coop and my father and I ate our soup, was only a convenience–something to create the illusion that my mother actually existed. But the real night was somewhere else, and my mother–on the couch under the wedding scene by Breughel–was an imperious ward of the night with unusual powers. Once I saw her staring at the chicken coop across the alley, and it seemed that the pattern of the moonlight changed directions on the rug.
But there were other times when the couch didn’t cover her like a cloak and the walls didn’t let her fade. As if the night wanted to expel her, her hawk nose became sharper, her eyes became brighter, and her thick hands became unbearably distinct. Having lost control over the night, she turned to the apartment. She said it was a slum and being there at all there was my father’s fault because he hadn’t found us a better house.
She wrung her hands and looked at the ceiling as if invoking a family of bats. Her voice rose, the furniture seemed to stiffen and the ashtrays looked polite. In the hall neighbors paused–discreetly, because the boards creaked.
Eventually my mother’s voice would blow in my direction, like a monsoon remembering its season. In spite of her cluttered closets, my mother’s memory was neat. Nothing I’d ever done, or not done, eluded her:
“I begged you to leave the house, but you insisted on trying on those gloves. Those crummy dime-store gloves. Pieces of cheap felt! I begged you and begged you but you tried them on. Hours while I waited in the hall. Hours! We missed the bus! We missed the bus! You tried on those gloves and we missed the bus!”
Sometimes in the heat of her tirade she would decide I wasn’t clean. Then she would fly at me, undress me, and put me in the tub, invading me with soap and language. But these scenes were reserved for the greatest miseries, the nameless, wrenching kind that could only be relieved by an assault on another body. More often, she dismissed me, and turned her attention to the smaller objects in the house, who witnessed her like frightened rabbits.
“Look at this!’ she’d say, picking up a clock and throwing it against the wall. “Everything cluttered in this tiny room! Everything in a heap!”
The clock would fall to the floor–still itself, only with a hairline of glass across its face. Obediently, it kept on ticking.
“Books!” she would say. “Books and magazines everywhere!” From the bookcase, the embossed titles of the books looked at her like eyes. She glared back at them, picked up a magazine and rattled it: “This thing! This goddamned thing!” she said, holding it in front of her and shaking the pages.
Usually I found myself in the same position as the objects: motionless, mute, enduring with a sense of apology. But one afternoon, as my mother hovered between absorption and exile, I went to her room and sat in front of her dressing table where her make-up was laid out in front of me: her mascaras, her eyeliners, her powder. There was also a small cut-glass pot of rouge from drama school–a rouge so red, so dark, so fragrant, it promised unholy forms of transformation. Without ceremony I opened it and rubbed it on my face. The effect was fascinating. Like an etching becoming visible, I became all radiant and red and strange, flying under the flag of another country.
When I came back to the living room, my mother had just assaulted one of her black, high-heeled shoes (those shoes that embarrassed me whenever I saw them), and was about to attack another one.
“This life!” she cried. “How I loathe and despise this life!”
She didn’t see me. I stood as still as the shoe waiting to be thrown. Red radiated from my face to my feet, riveting me to the ground. My mother turned to pick up the shoe and saw me.
“Get that red off your face!” she cried. “Go inside and wash that red off!”
I didn’t move. Inhabited by a power I didn’t understand, I stayed still, compressed and hard as stone. I felt small, yet billions of years old, like an alien and stubborn star. My mother stood poised, holding the shoe. I stood in front of her, radiating.
Suddenly my mother started to laugh. It was an amazing laugh, as though her skin were about to crack open and lay bare her bones, as though something deep inside of her had burst. I stared at her, and she laughed and laughed and laughed, as though night were pouring out of her, from her bones to mine.
III. The Antique Writing Chest
The chest came from England and was the sort of chest gentlemen of means took on journeys in the 19th Century. It had drawers, boxes for pen, ink, paper, sealing wax, and a sloped surface that one could write on. My mother bought the chest after she, my father and I drove up a winding road to the Bronte’s house and saw the impossibly small buttons on Charlotte’s wedding dress, books the children had written in code–and the graveyard beyond the house. The antique store was at the bottom of the hill, and my mother saw the chest and wanted me to buy it. But I was seventeen, unhappily wrested from my boyfriend, and on the verge of a nomadic life.. Periodically she’d ask me if I wanted it and periodically I’d say no. The conversation became a kind of ritual between us.
But after my mother died–savagely, unhappily– I felt obligated to take the chest. I lugged it to the plane and lugged it up the stairs to the living room. When I opened it idly, expecting to find nothing, I found letters she had started to me and never finished, telling me she was going to kill herself.
There were also birthday candles from my birthdays long before she bought the chest, a rattle from my childhood, a picture of my mother when she was thirteen, and a braided candle that startled me because my mother had clung to my father’s Presbyterian roots, and had never celebrated the Jewish Sabbath. There was also a single sentence, written on yellow note paper and it looked quite recent: When Eurydice knew she was to be chosen she suddenly became afraid even though it was really a very elaborate sojourn that was being prepared for her….There was nothing to go by, not even a map…
I looked at everything. The plastic candleholders in the shape of birds. A two-inch doll from Guatemala.. And as I looked I realized that the chest had become a haphazard postal system between a mother and a daughter. Again and again she had asked me if I wanted it. Again and again I’d said no. And all this time, she was filling it with things for me to find. There was also writing, startling with its imagination:
The dreamer sleeps and nothing can stop her because sleep is a consuming possession, a lust that no one can observe.. At the same time sleep, the domain of the sleeper, is not comforting. It is cold, solid, burdensome. The eyelid repairs the night. It is morning and the typical day is commenced. Only the seasons change.
The chest smelled like my mother. Of pink face powder and cologne and cold cream. I put the chest in the living room . It stays there like a heartbeat.
After my mother died, I was no longer able to write because I realized it had been her, after all, that I’d been writing to all along and she was no longer there. My mother had not liked my writing, and was disappointed that I didn’t write like H. H. Munro or Henry James or any one of a number of people who wrote in what she called good simple ways. “Why don’t you write what you know about?” she often asked.
What she meant was why couldn’t I write what she knew about. I never could. But after she died I realized I had always been writing to her and for her. My mother had wanted to be a writer but couldn’t cope with the occupational hazards of the trade nor did she have an audacious belief in the powers of her imagination. Her favorite line was from the Cherry Orchard in which a character said: “I could have been a Dostoyevsky.” The emptiness she felt wasn’t the emptiness mystics talk about, but an illusory emptiness that comes when one can’t use one’s powers. She didn’t want a child who bushwhacked into alien territory and when I did, she jealously imagined a life of constant exhilaration I didn’t have. But I wasn’t as unhappy as she had been and, if I hadn’t known this already, it was made obvious by what she had written in the antique chest.
My mother had always been fascinated by ancient Asia and had bought an ancient map, which I put near the antique writing chest. She’d especially liked the myth from Nineveh that women made children from their own bones. I knew there was a storyin the map, the way–at night, looking up from my desk– I imagined there was a cosmic lining in the sky, and if only I could open it, stories would tumble down. And I thought that I would break the silence by writing about Nineveh. But after a few days I took the map down. Nineveh was my mother’s story –if only she’d been able to write it.
After her death I kept looking for for signs that the silence would end. I read about a self-help book that had made thousands of people express themselves and bought the book, sure it would unleash me. A phrase would occur to me and I’d pummeled it until its letters shredded.
During that time, though, a curious kind of help came, and this was in the form of a pale wraith-like woman, who looked almost exactly the way my mother would have looked if she’d been happy. She was a small woman in her seventies with tiny, fluttering arms and a hooked nose. She wasn’t enrolled in the writing program where I taught and asked if she could audit a workshop. I said of course she could and she sat in back of the room, a grateful wraithlike radiance.
Her name was Mildred. Now and then she sat close to me, in the front row, off to my right. She had a mole at the end of her nose, and unless I looked closely, I could never tell whether this mole was skin or moisture. This added to the impression that Mildred was melting. She always wore a green sweater covered with small woolen balls and dark brown pants. She had glasses like my mother’s, but her eyes emanated light. As I fielded competitive remarks from other students, I looked at Mildred and thought: I have been blessed, like a character in a story about Chassidim. My mother has returned to talk to me and let me talk to her.
I was embarrassed by my belief that Mildred had been sent to me. Embarrassed, too, that I wrote paeans about her that I never showed to anybody. I wrote them in long hand in a kind of hieroglyph that I couldn’t decipher later. But even though I never read them, these were the first things I wrote after my mother died. When a mean-spirited student asked why I was letting a seventy-year-old woman who wasn’t in the writing program audit a class that qualified graduate students hadn’t been able to get into, I looked at these very notes and said Mildred had once been an accomplished teacher and I wanted her to critique me. The student didn’t believe me, but when she complained, the head of the department looked the other way. Perhaps Mildred had been his lover once. Or maybe he knew I was reeling from my mother’s death. The idea of the two of them in bed amused me. She was so frail, he could break her bones.
Mildred gave me just one story. It was about an older woman who took a younger woman in as a boarder in her cavernous apartment. The younger woman was a cellist who spent hours playing Bach Inventions while the older woman served her tea. She met an archaeologist and left to get married.
The story was well-written and generous about another life—generous in a way my mother would have been if she’d been happy. After I read the story, I waited for Mildred to come back so I could tell her how much I liked it. But she’d vanished. Later someone told me that she’d gone to many classes in the writing program and always submitted the same story. “No doubt she wrote it herself, but a long time ago,” a colleague said, laughing in a mean-spirited way. I asked her what the story was about. The colleague said it was about buying a rug in a peasant town in Italy. This convinced me that Mildred wrote about the cellist for me—a veiled and allegorical letter, giving me permission to be happy. After a while, the belief that she was sent faded, the way dreams fade.. Even so, it surfaces, this fierce belief that my mother broke through death to be with me, broke through to wish me well.