Stories & Essays

From Enchantment, Counterpoint Press

Four About My Mother

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 electric.     Maybe I made a deep appeal, asking her to let me live.  Or maybe we met in some 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.
             Afterwards, 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.  At the same time I remembered my mother’s face above my crib.   For an instant her face had become my face, her eyes my eyes. And then she had separated out, became miraculously herself, vital and alive in a world with no air. I have 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’s confining?" I asked.
            "Too small.  The kind that makes you nervous."
            I knew I was small and made her nervous so I decided that I was confining. I sat on the other side of the dark room wondering what she saw behind her vacant, darting eyes.  She seemed to look ahead to places she’d never reach, and back to places she’d never been.
            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 bobbed up and down, while her chickens flocked around her.  I was never  sure whether she actually gathered eggs, or performed some act of obeisance. With something, or perhaps nothing, in her basket, she hobbled back to the house.    Down the avenue opposite the alley, I could see men returning from work-- a promenade of hats and newspapers.  I watched them, hoping to one of them was my father. 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 displayed in shop windows. I understood her favorite century wasn't this one:  She bought rhinestone earrings that looked like chandeliers and replicas of Victorian hand mirrors.
            Sometimes my mother slipped into evening without a trace. The walls and faded green couch gathered her up, keeping her in shadow and comforting her. When my father came home, he would always seem bewildered that she’d almost disappeared.  As though she was just about to come back—or maybe hadn’t left at all--he padded around the kitchen opening cans of soup, ferreting out boxes of stale crackers. 
            "Would you like some soup, Marlie dear?"
            "A little bouillon?"
            "Maybe later."
            My father's voice was tense and cheerful--an affront to all the grief my mother felt.  If we’d had a fireplace, he would have sat the two of us in front of it with soup, looking at the flames and pretending she was happy. But instead we sat in the small kitchen, painfully aware of my mother on the couch.
            Sometimes it seemed to me that the present night, in which 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.  In truth, 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 privileges.  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. I wondered if my mother's imperious voice continued to speak inside her head, invoking the night, asking it to protect her.
            But there were other times when the approach of evening didn't calm her. The furniture refused to absorb her, 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 her surroundings and called our apartment a slum, and my father--who wasn’t there—a neglectful person because he wasn’t finding us a better house.
            At these times her voice became a detonator and she blasted  everything in the room. The  furniture seemed to stiffen and the ashtrays looked polite and she wrung her hands and looked at the ceiling as if invoking a family of bats.  In the hall neighbors paused--discreetly, because the boards creaked.
            I wanted a place to hide. I knew my mother's voice would blow in my direction, like a monsoon. In spite of her cluttered closets, my mother's memory was neat. Nothing I had 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 then say. "Books and magazines everywhere!" The embossed titles of the books in the bookcase 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: 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 thinking about what I was doing I opened it and began to rub it on my face. The effect was fascinating. Like an etching becoming visible, I became 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, and 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 and invincible,  billions of years old, like an alien and stubborn star. My mother stood poised, holding the shoe, and 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 antique writing 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 tilted surface that one could write on.  My mother bought the chest in England when I was seventeen, and she, my father and I drove up a winding road to the Bronte's house. There we saw the impossibly small buttons on Charlotte's wedding dress, incompressible books the children had written in code--and the graveyard beyond their house. The antique store was at the bottom of the hill, and my mother, who at that moment was happy, bought the chest. Originally she bought it for herself and then said she wanted to give it to me.  But I was leading a nomadic life and didn’t want it anyway. Periodically she’d ask me if I wanted it and periodically I said no, not now. The conversation became a ritual between us.
              But after my mother died I felt obligated to take the chest and lugged it to California on the  plane.  When I got home, I opened it idly, expecting to find nothing. Instead I found all my mother's writing: Letters she had started--often to me--and never finished, toying with suicide.  There were also five or six journal entries so close to part of my imagination, I wasn’t sure if they were hers or mine:
            The dreamer sleeps and nothing can stop her, she wrote, 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.
There were also other things in the chest: birthday candleholders from my birthday parties long before she had the chest, , a picture of my mother when she was thirteen,. There was also a single sentence, written on yellow note paper and it looks 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 look at everything. The plastic candleholders in the shape of birds. A wooden rattle I played with when I was three. And it occurred  to me my mother knew I would find everything in there and the chest  was really a haphazard postal system between a mother and a daughter           
            The chest smelled like my mother. The  smell of Ponds cold cream--unguents of the fifties and sixties. I put the chest in the living room . It still stays there like a heartbeat.

IV. Mildred
             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. 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.
            But  when she died, that I realized that my mother was a confining wall, one I must scale again and again every time I wrote.  I'd always had had deep regrets about her sense of emptiness, and the antique writing chest didn't help them, because I knew that 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.
            My mother had kept a map of Asia from her father and I put it on the wall next to the antique writing chest, thinking I would write about Nineveh—she had known about and liked the myth that women there made children out of their own bones.  A day later, though, I took it down. It was my mother's story, not mine, if only she had been able to tell it.  Every time I looked at the map,  I knew there was a story there, hidden in the folds --the way, at night, when I looked up from my desk, I imagined there was a cosmic lining in the sky, and if I could open it, stories would tumble down. My husband didn't notice that I'd taken down the map. We had reached a stage of apathy that went far beyond paying attention. 
            During that time, however, a curious kind of help came, and this was in the form of a pale wraith-like woman, who looked almost exactly like 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 I taught in, but sat in the back of the room, a grateful wraithlike radiance. She asked me if she could audit the course and I said yes, of course, she could.
            My mother had always wanted to be a writer and might have been a good one. But she wasn't able to withstand 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." 
            This woman, whose name was Mildred, usually  sat in the back of the room  or, on days when she was bold, in a corner, quite close to me. She had a mole at the end of her nose, and until 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, all I saw in her was beatitude. I have been blessed, I thought, like a character in a story about Chassidim. My mother has returned to let me teach her.
            I was embarrassed by my belief that Mildred had been sent to me. I was embarrassed, too, that I took to writing paeans to her that I never showed to anybody. I wrote them in long hand in a kind of hieroglyph that even I wasn't supposed to decipher, and even though I've never tried to translate my handwriting, they 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.
            I found the story lovely-- well-written and generous about another life—generous in a way I was sure my mother could have been if she had been remotely happy.  I waited for Mildred to come back so I could tell her how much I liked the story, but she'd vanished. Later I discovered that she'd gone to many classes in the writing program, always submitting the same story.  "No doubt she wrote it herself, but a long time ago," a colleague said, laughing a mean-spirited laugh. 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 alone and I continued to believe she was sent, until the belief faded the way a dreams fade.  Even so, it surfaces now and then, this fierce belief that my mother broke through death to talk to me.