Mother of the Year
Weather is memory. Even the wind matters. The slant of rain can serve as a nudge, so can a quality of light. You don’t need a calendar to remind you of personal crises. You smell them, you feel them on your skin, you taste them. If you go on living in the same place year after year the weather begins to take on meanings, it is weighted with omens, and the temperature, the sunlight, the trees and leaves, evoke emotions on every anniversary. The whole venerating world turns on this principle of weather-sniffing familiarity: all such pieties have their origin in a season, on a particular day.
That lovely morning in May we were summoned from our homes and told Father was ill. Mother ?— ?frugal even in emergencies ?— ?seldom called long-distance, so the implication of this expensive phone call was that Father was dying, that we were being gathered together for a deathwatch, but a peculiar ritual all our own.
You come from a family as from a distant land. Ours was an outlier with its own customs and cruelties. No one knew us, nor did we invite any interest, which is why I told myself that when the moment was right I would put my family ?— ?Mother Land in every sense ?— ?on the map.
There were eight of us children, and one of us was dead. Our parents were severe, from hard work and their fear of the destitution they had seen in the Great Depression. They seemed ancient to us, but as long as they were in our lives, no matter how doddering, we remained their much younger and unformed children ?— ?still children, still behaving like children, when Mother was a living fossil. In old age we embarked on our true, awful childhood ?— ?infantile fogies ruled by their triumphant mother.
The fact that two of us were writers was a nuisance to the others, and often an embarrassment, since writing had little value in the family’s estimation. Being a writer seemed to this rabble a conceited form of laziness. I was blamed for what I wrote. I doubt that my writing will figure much in this family story, except incidentally when it becomes a problem for the rest of them. My concern here is the life I lived, while I was still a flight risk, before I left home, when I was about eighteen, and the continuation of it after I returned to confront death and failure and confusion, forty years later ?— ?the beginning and the end; not the books of my life, but the bookends.
When I was very young my mother, all smiles, used to tell me the story of a man who was shortly to be hanged. As a last request he said, “I want to talk to my mother.” She was taken to the foot of the gallows, where her son stood handcuffed. “Come closer, Mother,” he said, and when she inclined her head he made as if to speak confidentially to her and bit into her ear. As she screamed in pain, the condemned man spat out a piece of her ear and said, “You are the reason I’m here, about to die!”
Telling the story, my mother always folded her hands in her lap and nodded in satisfaction. Was she telling me that I was luckier than that man, and that she was not that kind of mother? Or did she think I was too confident and unruly. I didn’t know why, though the story terrified me, because I often felt like that condemned man, someone who had to be punished, a child among unruly children, a potential ear biter.
Even sixty years later, that was how we behaved toward one another, too, childishly, with pettiness and envy. The taunting was endless, and years after, all these big stumbling teasers, bulking and bullying, late-middle-aged potbellied kids, balding, limping, belching with ailments and complaints, went on mocking each other, wagging their fat fingers. When we were older there was much more to mock.
Our childishness was so obvious that Floyd once said, “Who was that dreamy French philosopher who talked about the permanence of childhood: A motionless but enduring childhood, disguised as history. Nobody in this family has the slightest idea of his name! Is it Pecos Bill? Time is the arch-satirist! It was Gaston Bachelard.”
Each of us children had the same father ?— ?he was solid, though he was often ill. He had the nervous anxiety of a compulsive saver. Frugality was his obsession. He would take a stick of gum and tear it in half, because chewing a whole stick was a needless luxury. He saved string, saved rusty nails and screws in a jar, saved planks of wood, saved everything. To the end of his life he retained a great fondness for the town dump, for the treasures it held. Going to the dump was an outing, and it made him smile as he set off, as though headed to Filene’s Basement, certain to return with a bargain. He always took a barrel of trash, but he returned with half as much in possibly reusable items he’d found, scavenging on the heaps of smoking refuse surrounded by contending seagulls. The dump was also one of his meeting places ?— ?he had friends there; the other was church. A boyhood of poverty left him with something like a lingering illness he carried with him through his life and made him grateful to be alive.
Mother was unreadable and enigmatic, at times unintelligible, like a wrathful deity. Insecure in her power, she had an enduring and demanding cruelty that seemed to come from another century, another culture, and it was never satisfied. It made her a willful killjoy. Mother’s contradictions, her moods, her injustice, her disloyalty, and her unshakable favoritism made her different to every one of us; we each dealt with our own version of her, we each had a different mother, or translated her, as I am doing now, into our own particular idiom. Fred might read this book and say, “Who is this woman?” Franny or Rose might object. Hubby might growl, “You ree-tard.” Gilbert did not know the woman who raised me. But Floyd, the family’s other writer, had more than an inkling, and when we talked he might raise a fist and say, “The Furies! The betrayals! The cannibalism! It’s the House of Atreus!”
Mother’s stories and confidences varied according to which child she was talking to. I should have guessed this early on, because her habit was to see us one at a time. She encouraged us to visit her separately and hinted that she loved to be surprised with presents. But the phone call was her preferred medium of communication; it allowed for secretiveness and manipulation; she liked the surprise of a ring, the waywardness of conversation, the power of hanging up. In seven phone calls ?— ?needy people are chronic phoners ?— ?she would tell a different version of her day.
It might be Fred, the eldest, the only child she deferred to and respected. He was a lawyer, with a lawyer’s circumspection and the ability to hold two opposing notions in his head, neither of which he believed. She poured out her heart to him and he responded, “This is what you should do, Ma,” and then the opposing view, “Or you could do this.” Later he would act as her counselor, her defender, her explainer.
Or it might be Floyd, second oldest, whom she despised and feared, saying, “He never was right.” He was a university professor and an acclaimed poet. Floyd used to say, “Art is the Eden where Adam and Eve eat the serpent.”
Or the sisters, Franny or Rose, both of them bulky and breathless, like those anonymous startled eyewitnesses on TV who gasp, “I’ve lived here my whole ...