In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The voice has meaning independently of what it says.
— Roland Barthes
In São Paulo, Brazil, where I traveled for an extended business trip, the dense humidity in the air gathered itself together each afternoon and concocted a fast, crackling thunderstorm that dropped curtains of rain on the hilly streets. Torrents of water rushed down the gutters, bags of garbage surfing by like small hovercrafts. People huddled under awnings and in doorways to wait out the storm. A half-hour later, when the squall had exhausted itself, the air smelled clean and sweet, and the streets steamed, cool water kissing hot tar.
It reminded me of the way my mother talks. She starts up gently, like the Amazon River, whose source in the Andes is not a spring, but clouds. Thoughts and observations solidify and trickle down; she meanders, exploring tributaries that divide and branch into smaller story-streams. Then she backpaddles upstream to the main plot line, only to get pulled by a side current into a mangrove swamp, a tangled alleyway of thought:
Louie called. He’s really worried because his leg is taking so long to heal. He always said he’d take care of his diabetes after he turned sixty, but he got himself into trouble. That’s what we all do, then we wonder how we got there, and we feel sorry for ourselves — but, you know, it’s dollars to doughnuts they’re making fifty grand a year between them. Dolly has a high-school diploma, and Louie dropped out in tenth grade. I say, Get on your knees and thank God. Jack’s dead — they’re all dead down there, drinking and all that stuff. Look at Kate smoking; she’s half dead.
Some psycholinguists believe that, as infants, we imprint our mother’s speech: rhythm, assonance, intonation, sound play, repetition. My mother has a lovely voice, not high-pitched or breathy, not low and raspy, but a smooth, clear, fluid Sprechgesang — singing speech — like rap but without the sharp edges. She rarely stammers or says “er” or “ah” or “um.” She barely pauses, but inflects and gestures and repeats and talks fast — allegro, “jolly” in Italian. Music to my ears.
I didn’t always crave my mother’s talk. One afternoon around my twelfth birthday (just before my parents divorced), my older sister Sally summoned me: “Mom wants to talk to you.” Being singled out among my six siblings was rare, so it carried an ominous overtone, especially given the way Sally was smirking. I found my mother ironing in the cellar, and I plopped down on an inflated inner tube on the cement floor.
“What?” I said.
“You’re becoming a young lady now, and there are a few things you need to know.” She sprinkled water over my father’s shirts from a glass bottle fitted with a metal nozzle, like a watering can.
“Pretty soon you’ll start menstruating.”
My mother liked to use proper nomenclature, even more so after she and my father separated and she enrolled in a one-year course at Peabody Vocational School to become a licensed practical nurse. Vagina. Penis. Labia. I wished she would use the slang terms my girlfriends and I had invented: chuck for periods, gee for any part of the female genitalia, screws for tampons.
“Mom, I already know this,” I said. “Can I go now?” This was not the chummy mother-daughter parley my friends seemed to have with their mothers.
By seventh grade I had become deathly embarrassed by my mother’s good-natured chatter, her clichés worn as smooth and soft as chamois: The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Lay him out in lavender. By hook or by crook.
“Mom, don’t forget to pick us up after softball practice,” I said one morning. “And don’t say anything while my friends are in the car, OK?”
That afternoon, my mother drove into the dusty parking lot near the ball fields of Fisher School, perched on a pillow to see over the steering wheel (she was four-foot-eleven and has since shrunk with age), her dark hair wound around pink foam curlers, her brow smudged from gardening. As my friends and I, in stretchy nylon brown-and-orange uniforms, climbed into the station wagon, my mother said, “You live on High Street — right, Becky?”
I gave my mother a look to remind her of her vow of silence.
“I’m only asking where she lives,” she said, and then she remained quiet for the rest of the drive. After she had delivered my friends to their homes, I tried to talk to my mother, but she was in no mood for conversation.
When I was in high school, my mother began dating Ed, an acquaintance of her sister in New York. My mother occasionally visited Ed in New York on weekends, but more often he stayed at our house. Ed was in many ways my father’s opposite: blond and blue-eyed, Italian, a hunter and a fisherman, a skilled tradesman who could fix or build anything, a Vietnam veteran, generous and smart, but quick to anger. My father was tall with black hair and almost translucent white skin, a Boston Irish city lad, artistically inclined and intellectual (he likes the idea of nature), but mechanically a “dunderhead,” as he sometimes called us.
On weeknights, my mother worked the three-to-eleven shift at the hospital, and I had a job pumping gas until 10 P.M. When my mother was home, I was generally out with my friends, so I didn’t see her much and can’t recall any long and intimate conversations from those years.
Then I left for college. My mother sent letters periodically: xeroxed copies of an original, addressed to “Susan, Sally, Maureen, Joanne.” My name would be circled, and at the bottom she’d add one or two handwritten lines.
I didn’t call my mother much while I was in college, mainly because I was seeing an older man, David, whom my mother immediately disliked. In David, I saw a handsome Latino; a talented, self-taught musician; a Sufi who was intellectual and worldly. My mother saw a scrawny, divorced father of a five-year-old, a janitor who drank too much and wore gold velour pants and ill-fitting Oxford wingtips — clothes discarded by the students whose dorm rooms he cleaned. My mother wrote me a four-page letter beseeching me to leave him. It had the opposite effect, naturally. So, for the three years I was seeing David, my mother and I bristled at each other.
When I graduated from college, I left David behind (my mother was partly right: he drank too much) and went to work for my mother and Ed at the Hitching Post, a small country bar they’d opened in Wappingers Falls, New York. I stayed at Ed’s house, but my mother still lived in Massachusetts and drove up nearly every weekend to take care of the business. My youngest brother, Mikey, who was thirteen, came with her. Though she and I still had occasional flare-ups, without David as tinder, the underlying animosity dissipated. Working side by side in the restaurant every weekend for a year, we grew close.
The pressure of working full-time and running a business on the side took its toll on my mother and Ed’s relationship. One weekend, they had a terrible fight, and sometime after midnight, Ed threw us all out of his house. My mother was too tired to drive Mikey and herself home to Massachusetts, and I was scheduled to work at the restaurant the next day, so we decided to stay in a hotel. First, we stopped off at the Hitching Post and made ourselves roast-beef sandwiches on bulky rolls. Then we drove the winding, one-lane roads abreast of the Hudson River, looking for a room.
We finally landed at the seedy Balmville Motel, where the mattresses sagged in the middle, and the pillows felt as though they were stuffed with newspaper. The fourteen-dollar room was warmed by a rusty electric space heater with a frayed, cloth-covered cord. At two o’clock in the morning, my mother, Mikey, and I sat on the beds and ate roast-beef sandwiches as if we were having a picnic, my mother cussing out Ed, all of us laughing deliriously.
My mother and I talked well into the morning. “I guess it’s my challenge in life to figure him out,” she said finally, and we both rolled over to sleep. I stayed awake, though, for fear we would perish in an electrical fire the minute I shut my eyes.
In the dark, I could hear my mother quietly crying.
At the Hitching Post, I met Steve, my first boyfriend whom my mother liked. She must have seen Steve as I did: a quietly confident young man with a disarmingly forthright manner and a bright wit. Steve was working a temporary construction job in New York for two months — just long enough for me to fall in love with him. Then he returned to Michigan. Eventually, I bought a one-way ticket to Michigan and spent the first three weeks there agonizing over whether I should stay.
One night, I called my mother sobbing. Her advice, naturally, was a cliché: “I can’t tell you what to do. Just follow your heart.”
I did. I moved to Michigan, and whenever I flew home to Massachusetts, I slept with my mother in her queen-size bed. I liked lying next to her, close enough to feel the warmth from her body, chatting in the dark for hours. My mother did most of the talking, catching me up on everyone in the family, the characters at the Hitching Post, the neighbors, her co-workers and patients.
I was working a temp job at Norwood with a gastroenterologist last week. This elderly woman was lying on the gurney for a sigmoidoscopy.
You know, the light that goes up your behind.
Why do you always laugh? Chris Pepin used to do that, too. I’d say something, and right in the middle, she’d crack up. Anyway, I could tell this little old lady was nervous and probably hungry and cold, and so she had a spasm — it’s happened to me before; I mean, you have a thing shoved up your ass — so she’s flailing her arms, and I said, “Take some deep breaths and squeeze my hand.” The doctor says to me, “Would you let me do the talking?” I was just trying to comfort the poor thing. The doctor — he’s in his thirties — goes around shooting rubber bands at everyone. He thinks it’s cute. What an asshole. He’s in the right business.
When the faintest light indicated the possibility of morning, my mother and I turned our backs to each other, pulled the blanket up to our chins, offered one or two more thoughts to the night, and nodded off in midconversation, as if we’d continue the discussion in our dreams.
Just over a year after I moved to Michigan, Steve was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to St. Joseph’s in Ypsilanti. I called my mother every night that first week. She had worked on a cancer unit for ten years. Between us, we tried to ascertain exactly what was wrong with Steve, based on his symptoms and the tests the doctors were running. For days, the oncologists would not breathe a word of Steve’s prognosis, though they knew after his bone scan the first day that it was terminal.
My mother made an open-ended offer to come out to Michigan for a week to help; she was waiting for me to say when. Months went by — months that the doctors had predicted Steve would not live. Finally, after a year and a half of treatments, his bodily functions began to fail.
“Let me know when you want me to fly out,” my mother said. “I’ve already spoken with my boss. I can come for the funeral, if you want.”
“You should see Steve before he dies,” I said.
Before my mother flew to Michigan, Steve and I had a procession of visitors: friends and neighbors who realized he wasn’t going to be around much longer. One caller, the mother of one of Steve’s boyhood friends, sat on our couch until past midnight. Wanting to connect with our experience, I suppose, she recounted the saga of her other son’s suicide. When she left, I cried, not because of her story, but because I was so tired. After eighteen months of dealing with Steve’s illness, neither he nor I had the stamina for so much conversation.
So when I picked my mother up from the airport in Detroit, I said, “Mom, don’t talk to Steve too much. He doesn’t have the energy to listen.”
My mother was alone with Steve while I worked in the afternoons. I’d return each night to a home-cooked meal: chicken potpie, lasagna, stuffed fried pork chops — my mother’s specialties. My mother scrubbed the apartment until it sparkled and, though it was a humid, sticky July, ironed all my dresses.
One morning, when it seemed my mother was taking a particularly long time in the shower, I stuck my head in the bathroom and found her on her hands and knees in the tub, scrubbing the rust ring and the mildewed tiles, water raining down on her naked body.
“Don’t bother,” I pleaded. “We won’t be living here much longer.”
Two days into my mother’s visit, I asked Steve if she was driving him crazy.
“Hell, no,” he said. “She barely speaks. I say, ‘Sit down and talk to me,’ but she runs around cleaning all day.”
This is my mother: whatever the task at hand, whatever must be done, she does the best job she possibly can. If her mission is to be silent, she will not speak, no matter that talking defines her.
“Mom, you can talk to Steve,” I said. “He wants you to. Just don’t overdo it.”
Every night for the rest of the week, Steve and I huddled in bed like children and called to my mother, “Come talk to us. Tell us a story.” She’d sit at the foot of our bed and begin:
Cousin Kate has her ass in a tub of gravy. She fell off the curb in front of the supermarket — she was three sheets to the wind, of course, but she’ll never admit that — and so she sued Hollisville for failing to shovel the sidewalk and won thirty thousand dollars crying “lost productivity.” Not that she ever opens the beauty parlor anymore. I don’t know whose hair she could be doing; she’s always getting soused with Tom at the Dewdrop. And, oh, get this: now her own daughter is suing her for defamation of character! Little Kate sent a nasty letter to her mother. She used to do nails in Kate’s shop, I guess, but for some reason that didn’t work out (no surprise there), so Big Kate kicked her out. Then Little Katie sent the letter, and her mother posted it in the window for the world to see — well, only Hollisville, but you know that place: everybody knows everybody and is sleeping with everybody else. I tell you, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
My mother’s soothing, hypnotic soliloquies erased from my mind the reality of Steve’s cancer, the daily bread of his dying, cell by cell, like a failed scientific experiment.
Her patients were good subjects. The litany of other people’s ailments, described in lurid medical detail by my mother’s smooth vanilla voice, sent Steve and me drifting into a deep slumber on a raft of words: A man came in with a pilonidal cyst, the biggest one you ever saw. . . .
When I was in seventh grade, I went skating one night with my friends on Memorial Pond. I stayed on the ice long past the point of practicality, waiting for a boy named Paul Connelly to glide with me to a small island and kiss me. When I took my white figure skates off, my toes were stuck together and numb. At home, my mother rubbed my feet in her warm hands, and my toes began to thaw. That’s when the ache set in.
It was like that after Steve died. After I’d taken care of the business of death — selecting a casket, deciding on prayers and music for the funeral, making small talk at the service, choosing a headstone — and after the heat of August (the climate of Steve’s death) had turned to the cool of September, I awoke to the finality of his absence.
Sometimes at night, the grief would blow in like a quick summer storm. Only my mother could console me then. I would dial her number, but when I heard her say, “Hello,” I couldn’t speak. I could only suck in a huge gulp of air, as if choking on oxygen. And my mother, who always knew it was me and not some heavy-breathing crank caller, would begin:
It’s all right now. It’s OK.
Upon hearing this incantation, my body would let loose great sobs, like chunks of ice calving off an iceberg: not words or intelligible sounds, but primordial, unrecognizable noises from the umbilical center of my gut. The sound of air expanding in my chest cavity and then being forced past the catgut of my vocal cords — that’s the sound my mother heard. It was a frightening, ugly sound, but the grief was pure and clean. Against the thickness of it, the viscosity, my mother would segue from soothing words into stories:
You know the girl who works the front desk, the cute little blonde, Marla? Well, she got herself pregnant. The doctors told her if her multiple sclerosis got worse, she couldn’t have kids, so she decided it’s now or never, but suddenly her boyfriend doesn’t want anything to do with the kid. I don’t know what she sees in that dodo.
Listening to my mother talk the way she does — not calculating or processing her words, but rushing on intuitively — I was comforted. In minutes, I’d be lying on my bed with the phone pressed to my ear, becalmed. My mother’s words, like empty boats, floated my sadness away.
One summer day before I entered first grade, I ran to my mother after a skirmish with a playmate. I can still see my mother standing in front of the dryer folding a hill of clothes as I tearfully narrated my tale. But instead of coming to my aid, she said, “You’ve got to learn to fight your own battles.”
I’m sure there was more to her response. I don’t remember the specifics, only the awareness that something had shifted in our relationship. A mother’s job, ultimately, is to push her child away, no matter how much she wants to draw her or him close. And I suppose this is a good thing.
For months after Steve died, I didn’t answer the phone. Instead, I listened to the voices of my friends, my sisters, and Steve’s mother as they spoke to the answering machine perched only three feet from where I sat pretending not to be home. I went to work in an emotionally suspended state that I could sustain for about eight hours, but which collapsed when I got into my car for the drive home. I cried every night from Lansing to Ann Arbor — sixty miles — often glancing up and not knowing where I was or how I got there, or noticing suddenly that I was doing eighty, or forty-five. Other than going to work, where I was thankfully busy, I slept and watched television.
One night nearly a year after Steve’s death, I called my mother, craving her voice and stories, and she said, “Maureen, you’ve got to get over this.”
I resented my mother’s not coming to my rescue, as I had on that summer day when I was six. I never called her again when I was distraught, though I’m sure she wanted me to. Eventually, however, I understood that this was her way of helping me: pushing me back into the world despite my wobbly legs. This time, it wasn’t just her voice I listened to, but her words.
My mother collects words, listening to vocabulary tapes as she drives, taking the Word Power quizzes in Reader’s Digest, adding to her stockpile: plethora, anathema, paradigm. I recognize when a new word enters her discourse, like a shiny new bracelet. I love in particular the words that describe speech: persiflage (idle, good-natured banter); circumlocution (roundabout expression); dithyramb (wildly enthusiastic speech). My mother is especially adept at dithyramb, a form I seem to be gravitating toward as I grow older, overcome at times by the need to rant about some injustice in the world.
There’s been a paradigm shift in my relationship with my mother over the last few years. I don’t turn to her for solace or advice anymore. Instead, I find myself advising and consoling her.
Recently, my mother was fired for the first time in her life, after working only two weeks for an agency that determines whether or not the insurer should pay for a patient’s medical treatment. Her task was to interview patients over the phone about their physical ailments, but she had difficulty ending the conversation in the allotted three minutes per call. My mother was heartbroken.
“They never even gave me a chance,” she said, crying into the telephone.
“Fuck them,” I said. (My mother and I have come a long way since the days when she’d wash my mouth out with soap for saying “shut up.”) “They don’t deserve you.”
But my words sounded vacuous and useless. I wanted to spin yarns that would ease her mind and help her forget, except I had none.
Later, I realized that my mother doesn’t crave chatty stories or a soothing voice, as I once did. Divorced at thirty-two, remarried and then widowed in her sixties, my mother has had less education, less money, and less power than her spouses, her bosses, and now her children. Her strength, I saw, comes from telling and retelling her own story. All I could do was listen and hope that it would be enough.
This new doctor — I felt so bad for her. She’s had nine nurses quit, so I thought, I can take it. I’ll just let it roll off my back, but the other day we were three or four minutes late getting our patients into the room, and she said, “That’s inexcusable for a new nurse.”
She feels that if she doesn’t get involved, she could get behind. I’m a time-wise person. I mean, if I put a cake in the oven, I’m not going to stare at the oven door for twenty minutes! I thought I could organize her, but you can’t get blood from a stone. And she’s so picky, picky, picky. The other day, a patient came in with a stomachache, and you know the chances are good the doctor might do a rectal exam. I said to the patient, “The doctor wants you in a full gown.” If they have a toe problem, she wants them undressed and in a gown. But the patient said, “I don’t need to put that on.” You can’t force a gown on a patient. Well, in the middle of the examination, the doctor comes storming out of the room and yells, “I want all patients who come in with a stomachache to be undressed!”
She’s a wonderful doctor — I’d choose her myself. There’s a lot of good doctors out there, but that doesn’t stop them from being assholes.