I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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It may help the reader to know that the author’s mother is a survivor of the Armenian massacre of 1915, when the government of Turkey suddenly and violently deported its entire Armenian population of 1.75 million. The forced march across the desert to Syria and Iraq was a death sentence for many. Others were slain by Turkish soldiers en route. In all, six hundred thousand Turkish Armenians died.
“The Artist’s Mother” originally appeared in the anthology Our Mothers’ Spirits (Reagan Books/HarperCollins Publishers), edited by Bob Blauner. It is now a part of Peter Najarian’s new memoir, The Great American Loneliness, published by Blue Crane Books. © 1999 by Peter Najarian. It appears here by permission of the author.
I ’ve longed for someone since I can remember, and not a night goes by when I don’t reach for her. It’s been hell having something between my legs, but as my mother would say, we must make the best of what we have and not complain of what we don’t.
She’s back in the valley, and I just returned from the long drive. It used to be every four weeks but I’ve made it three, since she’ll be ninety this year and I want to go as often as I can before one of us disappears. I once said it was for her sake, but now I admit it’s for my own. She’s a kick in the ass and I always look forward to it, my car packed with laundry as if I were going home again.
“You still take your laundry to your mother’s?” Joe said the other night as we warmed up for basketball. “That’s disgusting.”
“Why?” I said. “It’s better than the laundromat, and anyway she wants it. It gives her something to do. She says my laundry is her happiness.”
“That’s disgusting,” Joe said, “a man your age taking his laundry to his ninety-year-old mother.”
It’s a pleasant drive after the windmills on Altamont, and except for when I was away, I’ve been going and coming for twenty years. When she lived back east I’d share a ride across country, and when I lived in England I’d take a charter flight in the summer and write once a week the rest of the time. She’s illiterate, but I’d write my English simple enough for a mailman to read. I was eighteen when I moved out. Since she was from the Old World, she didn’t understand why I didn’t stay until I married, like my brother, yet she was always better than I at living alone. She never asked anything but that I keep in touch.
“Here I am, Ma,” I would say. “Don’t worry. I’m OK.” I wasn’t really. I was miserable as hell, but I would hate her worrying. Now when I try to tell her how miserable I am, she tells me to shut up. “What do you got to be miserable about?” she says. “Be satisfied with what you have. Look at me, I’m satisfied. Whenever you’re miserable, think of me, and you’ll be happy.”
No, those letters weren’t because I didn’t want her to worry. Despite my need to cut the cord, they were to the only one who seemed to tie me to this planet. I was nineteen when I told her I was going to live in Mexico and write a book. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m taking a bus.” Then I hit the road with my thumb out and, lo and behold, who was the first ride but old Po-Po from the neighborhood, who spilled the beans while I was sending postcards from Memphis and Houston: “I just got off the bus, Ma, and I’m in the Greyhound station.” Since then she’s learned never to believe anything I write.
Sometimes I would love her so much I’d cry. In fact whenever I thought of her with love I’d cry as if she were gone and I’d never see her again. Yet I used to have dreams in which I yelled at her with such anger I would wake in a sweat. My dream mother was not her of course, but they were related somehow. “Leave me alone!” I would yell. “Go away!” I’ve always loved her, but we’ve had our epic yelling battles. She’s from the Mediterranean and could yell like the Italian actress Anna Magnani. Even her Italian pals in the factory would say she was like Anna Magnani because of her strong nose and flashing eyebrows.
I used to hate her yelling and am still attracted to women with soft voices, my femmes fatales not at all like her in looks or type, except in their vibrancy. I love vibrant women. I also hate them. There’s no one I hate more than a woman I love who doesn’t love me back.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I was just passing the windmills on my way to old Z. in the valley, which is what I sometimes call her in my journal: Z. for her name, Zaroohe, which comes I think from Persia.
When I arrive at her home there’s a piece of plywood in the driveway so the oil from my car won’t drip on the cement. If it does she’s out there with her wire brush as quick as Greenpeace in Alaska. She’s one of those obsessive types, and though I always appreciated her clean sheets and cozy home, her extreme tidiness could make me scream.
“I was always this way,” she once said when she admitted it does resemble a sickness. Even as a girl in the internment camp, she always made her bed after waking every morning. Never once, however, did she ask my brother and me to make our own, and we both scattered our mess wherever we wanted. When I was a child she even let me pencil my cowboys and horses on the wall by my bed as if it were a blackboard, and when the weekend came she would scrub them away with Babbo and let me make more. Some people are like that in this life of ours; they just love to clean. I had my first wet dream when I was eleven, and when she saw the gluey spot in the morning she laid a square cloth under the new sheet so the mattress wouldn’t stain the next time. She’d wash that cloth, too, of course, but the stains would linger like mementos from all my dream girls.
After I pull in the driveway, I dump my laundry by the washing machine in the garage and she sorts the colors from the whites. She really does love to do it and not only because she likes to work: It’s not just any laundry. It’s her son’s laundry.
“Of course,” she says in her matter-of-fact way, “if you had a wife I wouldn’t do this for you.” But I don’t take this matter-of-factly, and with Joe’s voice in the background, my bachelorhood sinks into shame and failure. When I first left her I didn’t want her washing machine or her food. I wanted to become a man and build my own home. Now I bring my sheets and take her jars not only because I don’t like laundromats and enjoy her cooking but because it makes her feel good. I wish I had a child whom I could feed and clean. It must be wonderful to be a parent. Remaining a bachelor son, however, can be so painful I want to die.
I used to think my death would be unbearable to her, but the older she grows the more enlightened she appears, and nothing seems to bother her except the ants in her kitchen. She might grieve like a Greek chorus should I die before her, but as she herself approaches death she accepts life in all its forms and wishes nothing but to go in peace without torture by a hospital machine. We sometimes hear how the approach of death can intensify life and bring a happiness to every last minute, and I see such a happiness in her when she hangs the laundry in the back yard by her fruit trees and vegetable garden. To be alive and stretch her arms to her son’s underwear by the blossoming apricot is everything, and she has no wish for anything more. Renoir once said of his own peasant mother, “Her laundry was as important as the German Empire.” I imagine infants feel this way when they smile like the guru Meher Baba, who told us not to worry and to be happy. She often seems like a child now, and like a Baba as well, an Old Z. who tells her old son not to worry, there’s really nothing to worry about anymore.
She was not always this way, of course. The vitality, the brightness, the Jimmy Durante twinkle, and the strength of an elephant were always in her, yes, but it was a hard road, and I never tired of her turning it into a saga.
“Why do you tell people I never talked to you as a child?” she once said to me in Armenian. “Before your father got sick I used to talk to you all the time. In fact, one day Baidzar came up the stairs and heard me talking in our kitchen when you were not even a year old. ‘Zaroohe,’ she said, ‘who were you talking to? I thought your husband went to work.’ ‘I’m talking to my baby,’ I said. ‘I always talk to him.’ ”
“I didn’t say you never talked to me,” I said. “I said you never listened.”
“Well,” she said, “you’re probably right. I needed to talk. But why do you complain about it? You can’t have everything. Be thankful I at least talked to you.”
Nevertheless she feels a little guilty sometimes and tries to correct herself.
“So tell me,” she says, “how are things with you?”
“Well,” I start to say, “I —”
But before I can finish my sentence she starts another of her own: “I had a wonderful week,” she says like a child. “Did you see my fava beans, how they sprouted so well?”
I let her continue. She’s alone even more than I am and has so much she wants to tell me. As I’ve done since I was a baby, I sit like an audience for her tales that go back as far as she can remember.
Alas, it is not far enough, and she can’t remember her own mother’s face, for she was only about nine or ten when they were marched into the desert to starve to death. She can remember details of her mother working hard, like herself, but the face remains a blur, and it is this blur that feels to me like the word mother itself.
Mother: What does it really mean? How revolted I would feel when women used it with pride and selfhood. As an old and crippled male who lost the rut to win a mate and so must wander alone for the rest of his life, I recoiled at so many females carrying their bellies like an insect queen who would squirt into this fallen realm more I’s for an endless longing. Nor was my mother pardoned from this horror where she was just another uterus for misery and death.
Yet the more my love deepens, the less she is mother than simply Z., though with her I might learn what the word really means. She, however, knows herself only as a mother. As I became an artist, so, too, she must have become a mother when she was just a barefoot orphan on her own path through life, as if, in needing a mother, she had to become one herself. It was her way of joining life, and it seems to have worked well regarding my brother, who has a family of his own, but with me it feels different.
I used to think how much better off I was than the poor girl who lost her family in the desert and almost starved to death; who at sixteen had to marry an older man she had never seen before; who as soon as she had stepped from Ellis Island had to sew in a factory twelve hours a day, until it became eight when the union started; who when her first son was just an infant had to return to the factory, and whose brief happiness was shattered when her second husband was crippled by a stroke; who when her second son was old enough for school had to return to the factory and care for a cripple and keep the refrigerator full and the sheets clean and the walls clean and everywhere clean because that’s what being a mother meant, to feed and to clean and not to complain about petty things. What a story, the story her boy kept wanting to hear, as if the hardship were beautiful. What a hard life my mother had, he would think. How much better off I’ve been than she.
But I don’t feel this way anymore, especially when I visit her wonderful home. She bought it when my brother moved his family to Fresno in ’71. Before then her retirement plan was to buy a little house in Belmar on the Jersey coast about an hour from where he lived in Ridgewood. Unlike me, he has always lived near her, and because of this I could feel free to wander without the guilt of leaving her alone. Once my father’s death freed her from doctor bills, she started saving her pay, and by the time she retired she had eighteen thousand dollars, which was just enough in those days. She chose Belmar because that’s where the tribe would go in the summer, and some, like her best friend, Manooshag, had already retired there. Then my brother went through a change of life and decided to move to Fresno. I had come to Berkeley a few years before, so with her two sons in California she also came and bought a little house near my brother’s, in one of the developments that decimate orchards and fill them with monotony. I used to think it shameful, but for my mother the cul-de-sac couldn’t be better. For the first time since she lost her parents she had her own home, with no worries about the heat or hot water. Ants, yes, but she could handle them, and the shopping center was a short walk, and she would learn the bus system like a survivor in a jungle.
“I don’t move anywhere I can’t take a bus,” she would say. “I’m not asking anyone to drive me around.” She still takes them, and just the other day rode downtown for her checkup at the clinic, which told her she’s “OK.” It is her good health that makes me feel how fortunate she is, and of course I mean her mental health as well. How did she get so healthy? I often wonder when I think of my lungs now black from all my cigarettes of despair.
One day, while working in her garden, she didn’t see me looking when she lifted her skirt like a child to squat and piss by her grapefruit tree. It was then I fully realized who she was and where she had come from. She was a peasant child who had been exiled to a factory for fifty years and now she was home again with the sky and the earth. She herself once said casually as if it were just another fact:
“They took away my father’s vineyard, but God gave it back to me.”
By God she meant that which she has always trusted, which has nothing to do with religion or science. If you ask her she’ll tell you she’s a Christian, because to her being an Armenian is being Christian, and how could she not feel Armenian when her family was slaughtered as such? But churches mean nothing to her other than a place for funerals, and her God is simply that which she never doubted. “You have to believe in something,” she once said to someone who claimed to be an atheist. “It doesn’t matter what: the sun, the sky, this little rock. But to believe in nothing is impossible.” Once, when someone talked about suicide in regard to a friend in a nursing home, she said: “It’s easy to talk about it, but how could you kill yourself when your soul is so sweet?”
She’s often wise when it comes to matters of faith and courage, but, though she would be angry at my making it public, her ignorance is just as illuminating. She’s as alert and inquisitive as ever, but I still can’t convince her the earth is round or that there is north, south, east, and west. Calendars, maps, or anything Copernican is beyond her, and yet she managed to raise two sons and provide a home for them until they were ready to build their own, her memory and sense of direction sharpened by her illiterate and archaic psyche.
She is, in short, as natural and organic as they come, or “grounded,” as we used to say. When I asked her one day what she thought of cremation, she said no, it didn’t appeal to her; she wanted to be buried in the earth — as if to say her body, which she respects so deeply, should return to what she loves. Anyway, she had just bought a cemetery plot because it was on sale. She’s one of those types that will walk a mile to save a nickel, and her eighteen thousand dollars didn’t come easily.
It might cause her mortal anguish to spend a nickel on herself, but her generosity is like one of her fig trees, which give such pleasure to her neighbors. She has to avoid figs because of their sugar, and she can’t endure seeing food go to waste, especially remembering the desert. She can be as frugal as a French farmer, and the six hundred dollars a month from Social Security plus the hundred from the union is more than she needs, so she always has some left over for her unemployed son. “I don’t want it,” I say, but she insists it’s for the gas to come and see her. “What am I going to do with it?” she says, as if it were the figs she can’t eat.
One day she told me she could remember the mulberry blossoms falling on her face when she was a child waking in the morning. She and her parents and her two brothers all slept in the open from spring to autumn when there was no rain, and she grew up playing among the trees and the vines. During the winter they all lived in one room in the city, but when the spring came they would return to their vineyard and live like peasants have since civilization first began. This was in Adana, by the Mediterranean, where Turkey curves into Lebanon and the sun is as friendly as in California or Provence. Their faces remain a blur, but she can remember her father tying the vines and her mother boiling fruit into syrup, the donkey sleeping under them and the mulberries as long as her finger.
In my darkness now I love to hear about them and search for new questions so she can tell me more. “Why are you asking me so many questions?” she says. “Are you writing a book?” “No,” I say, “it’s not for a book. It’s because I like hearing about the aki.” Aki is her Armenian word for the vineyard, and the sound of it evokes a lost Eden to me, that home of my mother’s childhood, which gave her roots she could transplant after she was exiled. The genocide and the wars would come and go, but she would endure because her roots would stay healthy and her arms would welcome life, whatever it might bring.
No, I no longer think how much more fortunate I am to have been born in America and to have had what we call an education. I know how to read and I know the earth is round and I know north, south, east, and west, but I don’t know what she knows, and I don’t even know how to sew. I have striven for success since I was a boy, and yet what have I done compared to her? With nothing but faith and courage and the grace of her God, she raised a family and built a home, and what have I done but wander in loneliness while longing to go home again?
During the old days, all those psychology books tried to tell me it was because of my mother I was neurotic; it was because she abandoned me when she returned to the factory, or held on to me in her loneliness. But it’s all baloney now, and even if it were true it wouldn’t matter anymore. Nothing really matters but here and now and letting go of whatever holds us down. But I don’t, I don’t let go, especially of her. I still hold on to her, I still bring her my laundry, I don’t want to lose her. She’s all I’ve got, I feel sometimes; when she goes there’ll be no one, and I will be like a kite let loose in the wind and never come down again. Often in my flying dreams I am rising in an overwhelming thrill, and then, in panic at never coming down, I reach in desperation for a roof or pole to keep me grounded, and maybe I once reached for a mother like that, for without her I might never have come back. Or maybe to stay I would have married one of those women who would have said yes, instead of rejecting them because none was the true love of my longing. I would have married like my brother and I would have had a home and a family like him and Joe and all the others I have envied, but no, I did not have to let go of my longing; I could go on longing and longing and whenever I flew too far to return I could write, “Dear Ma,” on a postcard or bring my underwear to her washing machine and she would always be there with her roots in the earth and her smile like a Baba. Without her, I think, I would not have become an artist.
Or perhaps I would have become a very different kind of artist. I used to think my becoming an artist had to do with my father, who sat like a crippled Hephaestus after Aphrodite had gone away. Indeed, he had been before his stroke a jeweler of delicate chains. Since I was a male, I could not become like my mother, though she was the dominant parent after he was paralyzed, so instead I would be a cripple like my father and turn my pain into art. Yet who knows how anyone becomes an artist, or anything else? I had genes for drawing and maybe even writing too, but my brother had even more and took a different road by wanting to work an ordinary job and live a simple life. I, on the other hand, ever since puberty thought only of how I could avoid work to have all the time I needed to become an artist.
There was no question of becoming anything else. It was the only way to survive. Already at five with no one home but a dumb cripple and a mother always gone, I was on my own in the wilderness of the city, and the only way to survive was by longing for the sky as if someone were there. So off I went down the cliffs to the barges on the river, like a little Wordsworth encountering the deep as if it were alive, always self-indulgent and fearless because come dinner time I could always go home and the food would be warm on the table and the sheets would always be clean. I could go anywhere I wanted and do whatever I wanted because I had a strong mother who never said no and who let me draw on the wall despite her obsessive cleanliness. And I stayed that way for the rest of my life, always wandering and searching and longing. Yet what was I longing for but the very warmth back there by her side? So why did I leave in the first place? Why didn’t I just stay?
I couldn’t, of course, or I would have really become like my father. No, I am not a cripple, a healthy Zaroohe is in me somewhere, but I get lost, I get lost quite often and am like that little boy I was one day after kindergarten when I hadn’t quite learned the long route through the perilous city and stood on the corner crying until Donald Negrini, the butcher’s son, came and led me through the strange streets.
I’ve been getting lost like that a lot lately, especially in the waves of homelessness that engulf our venal and profane America. If I can’t find a job and pay the rent, what am I going to do, where am I to go? No one’s going to buy anything I paint, and Donald Negrini is nowhere to be found. Could I live with my mother again?
“No,” she said in her matter-of-fact way, “I don’t want you to live here.”
I was a little shocked until I realized what she meant. She’s been losing her balance and has fallen several times while working in the garden. Fortunately, she was able to cushion herself with her huge thighs, but she’s afraid that if I came to live with her she wouldn’t be able to clean my mess anymore. It’s all she can do to care for herself now and not burden anyone.
Yet whenever I visit her, she is still the same Zaroohe, with her washing machine and her dolma that gets better and better, her sheets as clean as always. I sleep in the room near hers and once, when I woke first, I looked at her in bed with her legs sprawled and her arm out and I loved her so much I started to cry.
Why was I crying when she was lying there so alive? Why does love make us cry, as if like little children we are at the mercy of forces beyond our beseeching? I was crying as if I were a child who had lost his mother, but she was not the woman who then woke and peed and washed her face and joined me in the kitchen.
“Did you sleep well, my son?” she asked.
“I —” I said, and then she finished my sentence for me.
“I slept good myself,” she said. “I had a good dream.”
My own dreams are stormy and dark, but hers are often peaceful and filled with light. Sometimes she sees my father and they kiss and love each other. Most of the characters are dead, since she’s the last of the old gang, but they come and go like visitors. Then one morning she said, as if she’d had an illumination, “I saw my brother, my son! I saw his face! I could see his face so clearly! ‘Boghos,’ I said, ‘is it really you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s really me.’ ”
It was the first time since he’d disappeared into the desert eighty years ago. For eighty years his face had been a blur, and now suddenly it was clear again. He was her older brother, and she had often told me how she remembered him always drawing.
“What did he look like, Ma?” I asked.
“How can I tell you that?” she said. “I know what he looks like, but how can I describe him to you?”
And as she said this, he became a boy by the river near the cliffs, too far for me to see him clearly, he and his mother and father and little sister all so far away; the more I tried to reach them, the more they receded. “Ma!” I cried as a little girl once cried in a desert; Ma as in the word mah that means “death” in Armenian; Ma as in the last Pietà, where a crippled Christ was returning to stone; Ma that was beyond any breasts or vulva and made absurd a feminist selfhood about nature and the earth; Ma that had no gender or form but was the void that would be plenitude by my letting go. Let go, let go, it says. Don’t be afraid; there will be light at the end of the darkness, like a warm dinner for a boy back from adventuring.
So I returned to an old Z. sitting at the table peeling apples who was not my mother anymore, yet through her I might know the meaning of the word, though she could just as well have been a male. In fact, she could pass for a male now, her great nose and wrinkles like old Black Elk, the Sioux medicine man, invoking a grandfather.
In her bedroom there is, on the wall facing her bed, a picture of her second husband’s father, one of my own grandfathers. She enjoys all kinds of pictures on her walls, and though she usually leaves the hanging to me, she wanted on the wall facing her bed the one of the old pop with the Wyatt Earp mustache, who has remained there since she first moved in twenty-two years ago, his handlebars looking down at her as she sleeps every night. The picture is a tinted ten-by-fourteen blowup my father had made of a little photo taken before the massacre. Unlike my mother, my father had several photos of his family, and since he lived with them until he was seventeen, he remembered his father well, so my mother knew more about her father-in-law than about her own father. She loved her own father very deeply and I imagine she had substituted for his face the one of her old father-in-law with the gray mustache, though her father was only in his thirties when he was slaughtered. She doesn’t think like this, of course; I doubt she looks at the picture except when she’s cleaning the glass. But she has a father inside her, and more than once while working in her garden she has turned to me and said, “I feel I have become my father now. I remember him shoveling like this.”
So, too, as I sit here making lines have I become like my mother with her sewing machine. “My sewing machine is my yo-yo,” she says. “You have your yo-yo and I have mine.” Yo-yo is her way of saying yoga, which is what she calls my sitting on the zafu, the meditation cushion she has sewn and stuffed for me.
Yes, Ma, I do my yo-yo, and you do yours.