Sometimes I wonder what makes her tick, this mother of mine. Did I make her up whole cloth? What planet did she come from? Did I, as the Buddhists say, choose her specifically in order to rework wrongs from my other lives?
Suspend your beliefs for a moment — suspend all moral judgments, as well as any oh-no’s, and all finger-pointing. I have a tale to tell, and I don’t want any prejudices (yours or mine) to get in the way.
It is my fifty-seventh birthday. My eyes are turning pale with time, the flesh on my arms is sagging from the bone, and the legs are skinny, especially below mid-shank, where the hair is gone. Veins litter the wings of my nose, line the tender parts of my feet.
It bothers me to age; I won’t deny that. I am bothered by what time does to my notions of invincibility. I am not bothered by the inability to remember — but by the inability to forget.
I have drunk my morning cup of tea. I am alone before my mirror, and in other places as well (in my house and head, for example; or here on the printed page). I am loving myself. Me and my body conjoined in one-on-one love. I avoid my eyes, but my eyes cannot stop boring into the great purple plum cavern at the center of which oozes a nectarine string, a string tying me to past and possibly mythical future generations. My body loving itself and, in the process, me loving my forebears.
I am loving me, as I have done so many times before, as I probably will until I die — willing even to die while so doing, as some have died in acts of love with wives, husbands, and other strangers. “He died in bed with himself,” they can write on my stone.
I bring myself near to climax and then pull away, and come near, and pull away again. I find myself filled with a memory of her from forty years ago.
My father lies dead on the twelfth floor of the St. Regis Hotel in New York. Two hours earlier he’d fallen to the floor of the bathroom, marking the white hexagonal tiles with his blood. My mother is lying in the far room where Aunt Rose is rubbing her back. My straight but true upper-class mother — she spent all her summers as a child on Cape Cod — is bellowing, an animal cry out of the far reaches, a cry perhaps never before heard on the twelfth floor of the St. Regis Hotel.
I at the edge of passion suddenly hear her bellowing out her sorrow; I see me in my houndstooth jacket and charcoal gray pants and ribbed tie straight from Middlebury, and I remember thinking, “Can’t she control herself?”
After completing the complicated act of self-love in the tantric mode (we never reach climax, we push the energy, whatever it is, up and into our hearts), I dress and drive north over the border. There is a letter from her in my mailbox. She warns me about the dangers of living in Mexico, she asks me to write, she says she wishes she could bake a cake for my birthday, but she doesn’t bake so well any more, perhaps I had better do it myself. There is also a check “to keep the wolves away.”
“She is so active and alive, even though she’s ninety-two,” her friends marvel. I find it a bit unnerving. When I finally call to thank her for the check, her questions are not so different from those in 1948, when she asked me what I had done at school, why my grades were so low, who my friends were.
She wants to know (forty years later) if I need more money, and who my friends are, and who is watching over my house in Mexico when I am gone. I tell her that I have a Mexican friend who watches over it (I am here referring to sweet Fidel, who takes care of all my things and all my needs; I don’t mention how his skin reflects the fire of the brick walls of my home there.) “They all steal,” she says. “Who?” I say. “Mexicans,” she says. “Mexicans?” I say. I think of my Fidel, with black hair down to here; I trust him with my bank account, and all the money she sends me — and if need be, my life.
“They all steal,” she says.
“I love you,” I say.
My mother trades a half-million dollars worth of stock a year. Carefully, slowly, she takes in the checks, folds them to her, and then carefully, slowly, with bent fingers, disburses them. Not to herself, certainly not to charity, but sometimes to her children, mostly to “the market.” The children may just be her children (she once wrote me that she never understood why people wanted children) but the market is her spouse. It is a friend who talks to her during the day and the long nights. She lies alone in the one twin bed with the scarred oaken posts in a seventeen-room house on the Savannah River, and the market speaks to her of capitalization, long-term debt, price-to-earnings ratio, convertibility status, annual, semi-annual, or quarterly payouts.
Once the house held other sounds. The river would speak to her out of the night. She’d hear the wind in the camphor tree and the soughing of the long-leaf pine. There was the noise of her many children going up and down the stairs; the next-to-top step always groaned. Now she’s deaf, so she no longer hears the wind song of the river, and her children are long gone and far away, their steps too distant to be heard.
So she listens to the threnody of assets and liabilities, earnings for the past three, and five, and ten years, net worth, fixed-charge coverage, growth in real and apparent income. The music comes to her like a cantata, sung by her favorite choirs: Boeing, General Motors, General Mills, Philip Morris, Lucky Stores, Winn-Dixie, American Home Products, Columbia Gas, United Tobacco, Northwest Airlines, Washington Water Power.
They sing to her of security and stability and sanctity. The lyrics of open-high-low-last coming down through the ages, rocking in time, a rhythmical flow, the springtime flood of “open,” the summer waves of “high,” the falling notes of “low,” the last notes of “last.” My dear old deaf and near-blind mother, rocked in the bosom of Abraham, with the even song of the market in her ears.
My mother is a prisoner in the house where she has lived these many years. There are bars on the windows and bars on the doors, an eight-foot electric fence outside. When we were young we never knew locks, never secured a window, never used a gate, never had keys. Our lives were of an ease that now seems impossible. The light rippled through oak and camphor and orange and fig trees, making a great green emerald garden of the grounds. When we left for the summers — to the Great Smoky Mountains — we never locked doors and windows. To our neighborhood there came no wrong.
Several years ago one of my sisters, stirred by the rapine and murder and manglings reported by television and newspapers, decided it was dangerous for the house to be open. At great effort and expense, she put in bars and locks on windows and doors, inside and out; call boxes and alarms and electric eyes and ultrasonics and a tall fence encompassed the large yard. The house we once called home is now a prison for this woman of nine decades.
They have hidden her behind locks and alarms, chained her to Value Line’s bar charts and graphs. She is a prisoner of net worth and the ten thousand memories locked inside, including the scuttling movements under the old Chickering baby grand, unused for twenty-eight years since the last wedding in the great hallway — the day now gone, the people all gone, the children all gone, the marriage itself now gone.
There are bars to darken her world as she leans over the maple-leaf table where once, evening after evening, people dined graciously, with gold-edged plates from Lord & Taylor, silverware (the heavy Lockheart pattern), and always pure candlelight with dinner. They were memorable meals, filled with laughter and a dozen or more candles in the curved Regent holder with its fluted edges and the scalloped base. It would take Belorah the maid all morning and most of the afternoon to polish the silverware, the candleholders, the napkin rings.
Now there’s a tuna sandwich and coleslaw over yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. No longer Poilly-fuisse, but a glass of water. And no candles — her milk white eyes require a spotlight set at the edge of the ceiling. As she eats, she bends to the numbers reported in the Standard Revised Edition of Standard & Poor’s. She is hungry for numbers, as she never was for food. “If they could just line up pills for me,” she has said, counting one-two-three on bent fingers, “so I would never have to eat again, that would be fine with me.”
Does she remember her wedding, and her wedding night? She was conjoined stiffly with the man who was, she will always say, the gentlest man in the world. He was. Later he became — as did the rest of us — an orphan in the wintry house there at the edge of the great river. I suspect he was never able to teach her much about love, the hot and somewhat disorderly combat of love. There was no time nor inclination for such; there was too much to be done, there were too many silences to keep.
Sometimes he was bad — a child, too, in this house of children — and she wouldn’t talk to him because he had been bad. There would be whole weeks of cold in which no words were exchanged, great gaps of silence into which all our hopes would dash themselves. It was very quiet at times in the great seventeen-room house, until one day my dad turned to the ultimate silent treatment on the bathroom floor at the St. Regis. He left her with nothing but a stack of heavy papers engraved with stout figures bearing helmets and staffs and little else, standing above words like 1,000 shares and debenture and security and common stock and sinking fund — her own sinking fund of self-faith that grew out of his surprise departure for another bourse. “He never taught me about stocks and money,” she says. “I had to teach myself everything. It took a while, but I did it. You have to be a bulldog.”
She wants no pity, my mother. If you reach out to her to help with the weight of years she will tell you that she needs nothing. You want to help? She can do very well on her own, thank you. The eyes? They’re getting better now since the second operation. The hip? That, too, is much better now; they stapled it, you know, just like a sheaf of papers. No — she needs no assistance at all in getting up from her chair. And there are always the maids. Beulah comes in the morning, Maude during the afternoon. At night, she can take care of herself. Isn’t that what people do among their prison bars and certificates and silences when they are ninety-something? The memories trail her to bed, and soon enough she lies wrapped in a vague sleep and dreams (faint dreams) of the great white house in which she grew up, a great white house on Edgeware Boulevard with great rooms, dark wooden halls, bright spaces upstairs, stairs with curving banisters — the large white house where, so many ages ago, she grew up (she was always dressed in white) and lived with and in the heart of her father whom she always called (and still calls), “Daddy.”
Daddy was omnipotent. He was not only father, but brother, confidante, good fairy, traveling companion, joke-teller, and dear friend in a large house where for the first and last time she was happy. He gave nonstop love for his lone child. “Daddy always told me . . . ,” she says when asked about the times from back then, the years of the tens and twelves and fourteens of the century. For her, being a child was being with a Daddy who always told her things. “Daddy always told me never to go into debt,” she says. “Daddy always told me never to buy bonds.” “Daddy always told me never to be afraid.” A Daddy who told her always: always sit straight at the head of the table; always have candles with dinner; always have a Daddy Our Daddy which art in heaven. Never leave me, Daddy always said, and she promised never to leave him. When this other man came to the white house in an army uniform and said he wanted to marry her, she said, “Yes, I will marry you — but you must come and live with me and Daddy.” And he did. They slept one door over, the two newlyweds, my mother and my father in each others’ arms next to Daddy’s room.
Now they are gone from the great white house. She still misses — a half-century after the departure — the great sun-filled rooms upstairs, and the dark wood-paneled walls, and the Daddy of white mustache and white linen suit and white shoes, now gone, dark shoes now, dark suit somewhere in the ground, dark in the ground now, gone from the house (now gone too) leaving her bereft, not even a husband but just ghostly daughters age five, seven, and eight who play hide-and-seek in the corner of the bedroom and giggle to each other as she is falling asleep, giggling so much that she has to call out to tell them to hush so she can sleep, and that if they don’t hush, they can’t go out to play later, even though it is almost midnight, and there is no out there left to play in, no children even to play later.
Sometimes I wonder what makes her tick, this mother of mine — Dios mío. Did I make her up whole cloth? What planet did she come from? Did I, as the Buddhists say, choose her specifically in order to rework wrongs from too many other lives?
We create our parents as much as they believe they create us. Now that I have brought this one to life, it is time for me to do her in — but it is the one act of love I cannot enact for you, or for her, or for me. I can only mirror, in words, one final vision of the two of us coming out of each other.
I dream of her. I am visiting her in that house, the house where she still lives, where we both tried to grow up. She is sitting upright in a frilly, silk-lined casket — a large, heavy casket mounted on carpenter’s horses, there on the Oriental rug in the front hallway. She chats, asks questions, watches me with bright-eyed attention. She wants to know who I am. I try to tell her — but I can’t seem to get the word past my lips. The sound of my name is stuck like some gum I can never pull from my mouth, though I try and try again.