My home is in my mother’s eyes.
When I was five, my mother would lift me up onto the green hassock in our living room so I could see myself in the big mirror over the couch. She’d brush my hair and pull it back into a ponytail just like hers, then send me out to play in the yard while she changed the baby’s diaper.
Sometimes I ran away to my grandmother’s house down the street. I took a shortcut through the back yards where wash hung from drooping clotheslines and children played in wading pools. My grandmother’s house smelled of cigarette smoke, and she was always on the phone. She would stop talking just long enough to say, “Hi, honey.” I knew where my grandmother hid the cookies, and I stuffed my pockets full of the chocolate-chip ones. Later, my mother would come after me, pushing the baby carriage, my sister tagging along behind.
One morning, I came downstairs to find my mother sleeping on the couch. I shook her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “I’m hungry.” She didn’t wake up, so I turned on the TV and sat down next to her. Later, my father came downstairs. He couldn’t wake up my mother either. He grabbed the telephone and dialed, then slammed the receiver down and yelled, “God damn it! She’s always on the phone!” He turned to me. “Go get your grandmother. Hurry up!”
I took the usual shortcut through the back yards. It was hot, and some children in underpants were playing in their pools; a baby boy was crying as his big brother poured a bucket of water over his head. I ran through my grandmother’s garden, and a purple flower got caught between my toes.
Later, I sat on the green hassock in our living room as two men in white lifted my mother from the couch and put her on a silver cot with wheels. My father sat with his head in his hands; my grandmother was crying. No one said a word.
I was five years old when my mother died. My grandmother once told me that, when I was being born, my mother gripped a large mahogany table in the doctor’s office and screamed. No one had told her it would hurt so much to have a baby. If only I could go back to that day and watch her. I want to know her from the inside. I want to touch my fingers to her cheek, feel her tears.
My father gave me knee socks that Christmas; I pulled them straight up over my calves and was happy to see that the designs matched up on both sides. My father married Valerie, and my mother became a secret I shared with my grandmother, who visited us on Christmas and Easter. I was never forbidden to talk about my mother, but Valerie’s disapproval seemed to hang in the air at the mention of her name.
My friend Susan’s mother was an alcoholic. When Susan was five years old, her mother went to run an errand, leaving Susan home alone. Her mother was gone a long time. When it started getting dark outside, Susan collected the newspapers scattered around the room and made a chair of them in front of the TV. She watched cartoons and The Sally Rogers Show. She watched the news and Leave It to Beaver and Rin-Tin-Tin. Finally, using the newspapers as a pillow, she went to sleep.
Susan says it was a very long time before she really woke up again; she remembers that period of her life as a kind of long, waking dream where she and her father spent years searching bars for her lost mother.
Growing up, I sometimes wondered if my mother had ever really existed. I wondered if she was a character created by what my stepmother called my “overactive imagination.” “Do something useful,” she’d say. “Don’t just stand there. Dry these damn dishes.” One day I fainted while drying the dishes. I thought I’d seen my mother walking across the neighbors’ yard toward our house. She was all gossamer and soft light. I woke to a washrag on my forehead and Valerie’s voice in my ears: “These tricks won’t work with me, missy.”
When I was ten years old, I pushed my sister into the rosebush that climbed against the wall of the garage. I don’t remember why. Valerie saw the whole thing from the window above the kitchen sink. “Come in here,” she said in a way that made my stomach drop. Standing on the black-and-white linoleum in the kitchen where my father had once thrown a pot of tomato sauce against the wall, where I had spent the month before Christmas sitting at the table and reading from the Bible, I tried to think of an excuse for wanting to crucify my sister against the climbing red roses.
My father never talked about my mother until I was in my early twenties, and then only at my insistence. My throat hurt from the effort of saying “my mother” to him. To the question “What was she like?” he replied: “She was the nicest person I ever knew.”
When Susan was in her twenties, her mother resurfaced. Susan says she felt impervious to her mother’s influence by then. Neither her absence nor her presence made much difference because Susan had a life of her own: she worked as a cashier during the day and danced and drank her way through the night. Susan was proud of surviving her motherless childhood, and took this opportunity to condemn her mother by rejecting her overtures. I’ve never understood why, when she had the chance, she didn’t wrap her arms around her mother’s neck and cry. It was her one chance to feel the softness of her mother’s earlobe, to check for freckles on her back, to gauge the size of her breasts, the narrowness of her hips. Were her fingers long and tapered? Were her feet small, or wide? Bleached hair, sweet breath, silver-filled teeth, good taste in clothing?
“She was drunk,” Susan says with a laugh.
What is it like to have grown up without a mother? It is as though I come from nowhere. I am like the goddess in the Greek myth who springs fully grown from her father’s head. Where did I come from? I cannot ask my mother. In an angry moment, she cannot accuse me of not being her daughter. I do not think of myself as a daughter. I have no boundaries, no beginning, no starting place. My life begins, alternately, when I read my first book, when I pushed my sister against the thorns of the red rosebush, when I made love to Jim in the Poconos during a spring snowstorm, when my son was born, when my sister died.
There have been times in my life when I wanted a mother. Each time I married, I wanted a mother to help make all those plans about whom to invite and whether I should wear a veil or a hat and if it was OK to make my sister a bridesmaid rather than maid of honor. Sometimes, when I fought with my sister, I wanted a mother to intervene and show us the line we never should cross. When my sister was dying of cancer, I wished with all my heart that my mother could have been there to cook dinner, wash the clothes, bathe the kids, smile sweetly, kiss my sister’s cheek. I found myself making those old childhood deals with God, deciding which of my body parts I was willing to trade for my mother’s presence or intervention.
Now I am a mother. At one time I believed I could not be one because I had no mother of my own to show me the way. Of course, parents often raise their children differently than they were raised. But I had no one to rebel against.
My mother had brown hair, brown eyes, long legs, and false teeth she got when she was sixteen. She’d lost her mother at age five, and her father was an alcoholic. She had a brother (also now dead) and two sisters, one who stayed and one who went away. My father says my mother was beautiful and kind. He says she never fought with him. He says they wanted the things all young married couples want: a house in the suburbs, an inground pool, a car, a dog, annual vacations.
Susan says that for most of her life she thought she wanted a family. She loved men who had bossy mothers and noisy holiday gatherings of relatives. She learned to bake bread and to braid her children’s hair. She bought matching dining-room chairs, and filled the pantry with Cheerios and canned spaghetti. Then, every four or five years, she’d get divorced and have a tag sale. “I’m selling everything,” she’d say. “I’m sick of this country look,” or, “these ruffles and chintz,” or, “this leather-covered bar.” “This time I’m going to make it simple.” Finally, she gave her children to their father, emptied her closets and dresser drawers into the trunk of her car, and headed out West. “It’s different out here,” she tells me over the phone. “People don’t expect anything. You can be exactly who you are. It doesn’t matter where you came from.”
Susan’s two children do not live with her. She cannot figure out how to be a mother. “All I know is that I’m not the same as my mother. My kids are fed, someone sees them off to school each day. They know I’m their mother.” Trying to be a mother was the one thing that broke Susan’s heart.
A picture hangs on the wall of my study. In it, my mother is kneeling to pose with my brother, my sister, and me. The picture was taken a few months before my mother died, and we are all smiling, cheerful, innocent, unaware of the ways in which our lives are capable of changing. My father, who lost his father when he was eight, says there is no good reason for these things to happen, so it doesn’t make sense to waste time talking about it: “Talking can’t bring back the dead.”
I talk about it in a certain way. I talk about not remembering, how it feels not to remember. Two different times I went to see a therapist and asked: “Can you help me remember my mother?” Neither of them could.
I remember some things about my mother. She wore her hair in a ponytail. Sometimes I stood on the green hassock in the living room and watched in the mirror as she put my hair in a ponytail, too. She was young, very young, when she died: I know this from photographs, and from my father’s stories.
My mother hung the wash on a clothesline behind our house. She always went barefoot, even in the snow. My grandmother says that is what made my mother sick. Once, I climbed to reach the cabinet where she kept the bottle of St. Joseph’s aspirin, which I liked to eat. I shared the powdery orange “candy” with my sister and made her sick. My mother was mad.
That’s it. That’s the list of things I remember about my mother.