My mother’s ruinous grief made her cruel.
The past shadows you no matter what light is cast. Alone in my days after dropping off Z at school my mind skips from one moment to another. In one moment the slant of light reminds me of the dirt road off the Blackfoot in the heat of September and the bleached grass — sunshot like some idyllic reel of film — the dust motes in the golden light — and I see myself in my late twenties — and how I crowed to my friend to hightail it up to the edge of the road and I waved my arms wildly at the passing trucks, sticking out my thumb — my girlfriend looking askance at me because no one hitchhiked anymore. My Subaru parked in the lot of a bar where some guy fashioned a radiator cap out of whatever he had on hand.
In the next moment I am a child. Older than ten. My mother is sitting on the couch in our 800 square foot apartment; the front door opened to a living room on one side, dining room on the other — an open, hardwood floored space with three large windows on the east wall of the living room, and the west wall of the dining room. The doorway in the dining room led to a galley kitchen — If you happened to follow someone in to the kitchen you had to turn around and head back out — barely wide enough to open the oven door — you had to stand to the side to baste a turkey. The back door led to the apartment’s basement and the coin-operated laundry room. The empty boiler room painted red where my friends and I faked seances and scared ourselves silly getting buzzed on my mother’s boxed wine. If you stood at the front doorway of our apartment you could look straight through the open space to a bathroom — and to the right was my small bedroom, to the left my mother’s. In my memory the old ginger jar lamp is casting a yellow light in the room and the ice is tinkling in my mother’s glass and she lifts her hand to smooth the hair over my ear — and I jerk away as if scalded. Her voice is sweetened and softened with her drinking and its then that she wants to coo over me and I don’t want it. But there were the stories. I see it now. Plenty of my friends don’t know their parents’ stories, their grandmother’s — and while I don’t have all of them — she inscribed in me such indelible stories — of her own heartbreak, her fears, her joy, her terror; she was pregnant with me, staying in a hotel on a drive down to Florida when my father first started beating her. The necklace of flowers around the neck of the wild donkeys in St John’s on her honeymoon. How she sold shares of a beaver coat to her sorority sisters so she could get the one she wanted. The hidden courtyard she and my father found in Manhattan, after the rain, and how they ate at wrought iron tables surrounded by vines. How, as a stewardess, she flew on flights with boys home from Vietnam. The rest of the world, her younger siblings were growing their hair and staging sit-ins and she was wearing wigs and false eyelashes and vacationing with her mother on the Costa Del Sol. But before that: her summer waitressing on the Cape. Her affair with the ski instructor. Her one year teaching high school in Ponitac. Her fall from grace. Fleeing to Florida, lying to her parents about learning to surf when she was pregnant, meeting my father — a married man, a brilliant bi-polar professor, an alcoholic who, in 1978, would bleed to death on the doorstep of a Florida apartment building. She told me how, when I was born premature — in an isolette for months where all she could do was reach her hand in — that I was her one thing, her only thing, the only thing she ever did right.
My mother was 34 when my father was killed. She turned 35 the summer we moved to Minnesota. No job. No prospects. Parents focused on her own sister’s all-consuming descent into schizophrenia that ultimately would destroy them all.
She told me how my father beat her when I was an infant as she sat on the bed, shielding me. How, when we lived in Minnesota and she smoked pot for the last time she hallucinated slaughtering me in my bed. The last she told me as a revelation, I’m sure, later in my young adulthood as a cautionary tale.
In my young childhood I remember pulling the chair up to the stove to cook in that first duplex we had in Minnesota. I remember our neighbors, girls a few years older who became my best friends. I would run into their house, their side door open — and their mother, who baked cookies — would envelop me in her arms, and she took my mother in too — the two of them talking for hours on the telephone even though they lived next door to one another. i remember being in my bedroom and hearing my mother’s sobs. A silent house and nothing but your mother’s sobs — you would think you could move on, somehow from that.
It took me months to gently reach out my hand to touch Z’s head, to brush her hair behind her ear — so reflexive is my own response — that I had to recode it — to remind myself that this child knows none of that. I was driving her to school yesterday and she asked me “Mommy, is God dead?” “Because I can’t see God” — we’re not religious people — but I have let her watch some Veggie Tales — a Christian-based cartoon — and I’ve read her a child’s book about God — and the way I answer is that God is love — it’s all I know to say. And then she said “God is in your heart.”
I drove alone in the car thinking that there will be day when she understands the word “murder” and what it means — these words, these stories — for so long lost context for me — who I was, the child I was, the life we lived — the child that the parents’ of my friend’s must have seen — was invisible to me — but since Z’s birth — there is a kind of starkness — it comes to me through her eyes -this child that knows none of it — yet. What if my mother had never told me? Never chronicled her bruises, never told me about cowering in closets? Her anguish and pain — so raw for so long — and then the only thing she could do was escape — reading her mystery novels for long hours on the couch, watching marathon cable sessions on the months we were flush enough to have cable, meeting her work friends after work at the bar.
There is a year of my childhood that I don’t remember. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, or my classmates, or what I looked like. The teacher’s name came to me this year, for the first time — drifting upwards from some deep and murky place.
I think of it every day — because of our family, our children. G and I both — though our circumstances are different — are isolated — from family, from community — we’re both drawn to the idea — but have no natural inclination towards it — having had none of it ourselves — no family gatherings, no community of faith — only our friends.
My mother lives not even ten miles from me and a month can go by before we see her. My mother-in-law lives two blocks away from me and walks by this house every day on her daily walk — but would never think to stop in.
I gave W’s mother a book by Christiane Northrup — about the connection between mothers/daughters. I had bought it for myself when I thought I might have a baby easily — and when it became clear we wouldn’t get pregnant easily, if ever — I pulled it from my shelf and offered it to her when her daughter was born. I keep thinking I should order it again. Some things are so deep — when Z hurts herself — minor things, I mean — when she’s moaning over a stubbed toe (she is wonderfully dramatic) I find myself like my mother — I come to her not with empathy but with something that must look to her like angry dismissal — but really my own fear — and I recognize it comes DIRECTLY from my own mother and the minute I note it, try to rewire it — go to her with the heart she deserves, hoping she doesn’t see my wired response — with my own mother if I brought her pain — emotional or physical there were times when she simply couldn’t open her heart but it was because she feared her own heart would be shattered. I get it now.
I have, for years, wondered if I would ever return to a writing life — or wondered who I was beyond the person who is a part of this family and then I came to the realization that this is it. This is part of the entire life’s path — how I love them all, and myself — that’s the work. It’s work enough for me in this life. Returning to a creative life is the way I take care of myself — and wading through the rest of it. Slowly.
Sorry this post is so scattered — I’m trying to fit it into the morning hours when Z is in school. I’ve had so many drifting thoughts that I can’t get hold of. I miss Allie every day and if I stop and allow myself too much silence I’ll cry. I feel like she’s with me everyday. I can’t recall where I got this snippet of information — a comment on someone’s blog I think –about children and their development — and how the one determining factor isn’t parents so much as peers — and I thought again how Allie mothered me. I’ve been reading a bit — finished Atwood’s MaddAdam (which I LOVED) and am now reading Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. I’m finding it really interesting because I’d read The Long House earlier in the year — and it was such an example of her meticulous attention to craft — and this novel really does feel like an outline or draft — just at the NYT reviewer mentions. It’s actually heartening somehow — maybe because I still, for no good reason, hold out hope for my own writing. Just this morning I remembered meeting Ann Godoff — the President of Penguin Press (is she still? So out of the loop) — she’d been a publisher at Random House — and I met her at Squaw Valley — in a workshop run by Janet Fitch — and she told me that I had to imagine myself a character — get enough distance if I could — in order to craft it — I’ve been thinking alot about that — whether I could just write this all as a novel (not memoir because as I’ve proven in the past — that is a sure way to gum up the works indefinitely) — in some ways I just want to move on — and I can quite get the story out of my system — so maybe I just need to write it and then get on to the work I really want to do.
Okay — so. Word salad. Hi. How have you been?