Tag Archives: mother

kaleidoscope

 

Halfway to Long Island, Ben had a panic attack and had to pull over to the side of the road. Still clutching the damp and wrinkled directions in his hand, he decided that he was a jerk, an idiot, for thinking that they would even want to see him.

Each exit he passed was the one he was going to get off, the one that would take him as far away as possible. The sun was prismatic; it shattered the sky with kaleidoscopic color. He couldn’t see through the glare on the windshield. His head was pounding.

Taking a deep breath, he wiped his brow, then pulled back onto the parkway. It was nearing two o’clock. He knew Ari wouldn’t be home from school yet, which would give him a little time alone with Robin. He couldn’t face them both at the same time. Ben parked at least ten houses away from where Robin lived.

She had moved, Matt said, because the rent at their old place got too high. She was living in a basement apartment outside of the city with Ari. Ben knew Robin had always hated suburbia and he felt a pang of sadness as he passed houses that all looked the same, searching for the right number.

78. It was a decent, rundown house. Matt had told him to go through the side gate, which lead to the backyard. To the right was a stairwell lined with painted terra cotta pots and chimes that, moved by the sudden wind, rang in cacophony. He descended the stairs, his hand clutching the bag which held Ari’s gift. After several deep breaths, he knocked tentatively on Robin’s door.

“What does he want?” was the second thought that ran through Robin’s head. The first thought was not a thought; it was a visualization of action. She wanted to back away from the door. She wanted to run away and hide. She stayed in the hallway for a few seconds, her heart racing.

Ari looked like just like him: same nose, same eyebrows, same jut of the chin. Ben’s eyes were Ari’s eyes, pale green or blue, depending on his mood and the way his mind was turning. Ben bit his lip nervously. He was wearing an impossibly thin coat despite the March snow that still lingered in the bottom of the stairwell. She opened the door a crack and met his eyes.

“I know … it’s been a while,” he said. His hands were shaking slightly, and he attempted to put them in his pockets. The shopping bag secured around his wrist caused him to struggle to find his right pocket, until he gave up and let his arm fall by his side, still clutching the bag.

“What are you doing here?” Robin asked.

Ben opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. He looked at her plaintively, unable to find the words. She closed her eyes slightly, and opened the door further for him to enter.

They moved around each other in the small space. Robin thought, how strange it was to have loved someone so fully, to have breathed that person in until he had become part of her; and then, to have him before her as a person she could not touch, a person she could no longer lay claim to.

“Would you like some coffee?” She asked.

“I would love some.”

Moments passed in uncomfortable silence. Ben looked around the kitchen, trying to find threads of their old life. His eye caught the painting above the table, “That’s new?”

Robin turned and followed his gaze to a rather small abstract painting; it was a scene of the beach, the colors muted and distant. Sometimes Robin thought she could hear the cry of seagulls, their insatiable hunger, vibrate on the surface of the canvas.

She tensed. “Oh, that. I finished that about a year ago.”

“It’s … it’s really beautiful,” Ben said. He cleared his throat. “You’ve gotten a lot better. I mean, you were always great. But it’s different …”

“Why don’t you sit down?” Robin asked.

Ben wondered which place was Ari’s. There were three chairs at the table; the thought that the third chair might belong to someone else pained him. He remained standing.

“I read your book.”

“Oh.” Ben said. “I’m almost done with my second one … that’s why I’m here. I mean, that’s why I’m here in New York.”

“I see,” Robin said, looking down at her hands. “How’s that coming?”

“Good, I guess. You know. It can be… difficult, at times.” Ben cleared his throat again. “You know how it is.”

“I don’t know if I do, Ben.” Robin said, her voice edging discomfort. The coffee pot behind her continued its persistent sound, a noise that seemed to gather volume as they avoided each others eyes.

Ben wrapped his hands around his cup. Robin imagined that if he lifted a finger, or his palm, off the cup, he would crumble. She wondered if she would try to put him back together, or if she would purse her lips and blow, as if that movement of air would push him away, scatter the past like dust.

“I can’t force a conversation with you …” Robin began.

Ben looked at the painting again. “You know I’ve been in and out of the hospital, right?”

“I’ve talked to Matt.”

“It’s the meds … They’re supposed to be making me better, more stable. But I think they’re just making me worse.” He paused then leaped ahead as if crossing a stretch as wide and deep as a fault line in the earth.

“Do you know how much I’ve missed you?”

“How could I know that, Ben? After the first time you just checked out. You left. Nothing …” Robin struggled to control herself. “Didn’t you think about Ari? Even once?”

“Of course I did.” Ben faced her. “I wanted … How could I …”

They stared at each other for a long while, frankly, viewing each other in parts that did not quite make up a whole.

Robin’s face told him about the days she had waited to hear from him, about Ari at six, seven, years he missed, years he left her to take on the responsibility by herself. Ben’s face told her about the nights he had stayed away from her, about the spiraling downs, the manic highs, the loneliness and the guilt, the bathroom mirror at 3am, all the pills.

“I brought something for him,” Ben said, motioning to the bag that he finally released and placed on the table.

After deciding to visit Robin and Ari, Ben had rationalized that he couldn’t show up empty handed. Matt told him about a store in Manhattan that was packed with curiosities and antiques, all unusual or different in some way. Ben had walked throughout the store lightly; afraid he would bump into something and knock it over.

“Can I help you, Sir?” A well-dressed saleswoman had asked, eyeing Ben as if she wasn’t quite sure he could afford most of the items in the store.

“Yes, I’m looking for a gift… for a boy, about seven years old.”

“What are some of the little boy’s interests? Science? Art? Music, perhaps?”

Ben didn’t know what Ari’s interests were, but he couldn’t say that; he barely wanted to recognize it himself. “I just want to get him something unique and beautiful … something he can hold, something to stir his imagination.”

The saleswoman had nodded and directed Ben towards the back of the shop. It was there that he noticed a kaleidoscope, tucked into a corner. Ben picked it up and looked through it. The world changed unexpectedly. It was breathtaking and filled him with a deep joy. He wanted to share that vision, that momentary enchantment.

Robin looked at the clock. Ari would be home from school soon.

“How is he?” Ben asked, averting his eyes.

“He’s okay. He’s really smart, really creative. I don’t think he has that many friends in school. But he’s relatively happy.” Robin paused. “You hurt him, Ben. He and I have a great relationship, but … I’m not his father.”

“Look at me.” Ben said, extending his hands upward. “I’m a fucking mess, Robin. It’s better that I’ve stayed away all these years.”

“Better for who?”

“For you, for Ari. I can’t be what you need.”

“What do you know about what we need? You’ve been, what, in and out of hospitals, you’ve been working on your second book. You, you, you. Do you hear yourself?” Robin felt her voice growing louder. “It’s all about you. It always was.”

Ben looked at her with relief; he would no longer have to wait for her anger, knowing it would come but not knowing when. “You’ve always been the more responsible one.”

“Because I had to be,” Robin spat at him, “Don’t you think I’ve wanted to be free of consequences, to do whatever the fuck I want, to really concentrate on my art, and not just … when I can?”

“Is that what you think I do? You have Ari, you have a life… I have nothing. Words, paper, a book. I spend half my time writing and the other half of it wanting to die. You want that? You can have it. You can have my disorder and my pills and my instability and my fucking overwhelming emptiness.”

Robin gazed into the living room, instinctively searching out the painting she had done when Ari was about five years old, around the time Ben had left. When it was finished, she had laid it against the wall to finish drying. Robin had sensed that it was a turning point in her work.

That night, when Ari had walked into the kitchen for dinner, Robin remembered turning to him, noticing his look of joy, then his hand, streaked with yellow ochre and alizarin crimson. Her heart had seemed to stop.

“You didn’t touch Mommy’s painting, did you?”

“I’m an artist, too!” Ari laughed.

Robin had raced into the living room to check the painting. The right side of the painting was blurred along the edge. Ari had taken his hand and allowed it to travel downwards in a long stroke, as if petting a sleepy cat.

Robin broke down. She literally fell to the floor in front of the painting; the strength that she had seemed to summon since Ben left was gone. She wept openly, bitterly. Ari watched, his eyes wide and scared. Robin caught his expression through her own pain, and knew that she would have to pull it together, allow the gaping wound to scar, accept that it might never heal. She needed to be stronger. For herself, for Ari.

At 3:25, the school bus arrived. Robin had told Ben it would be better for him to wait inside the apartment.

She stood on the sidewalk and waited for Ari to descend from the bus. The sun was cold brightness. Light refracted from windows and the chrome of car bumpers, throwing a dizzying spell.

Ari’s blonde head burned brightly under it; his hair was getting a little too long, and he pushed it from his eyes in order to see Robin. He ran across the street, smiling, dragging his book bag on the ground, his coat thrown open against the rough wind.

“Ari. Hold on a sec.” Robin looked at him, his face was so trusting, as open as the sky.

“What’s up?” Ari asked, furrowing his eyebrows and smiling at the break in their routine.

“Someone came over … someone we haven’t seen for a long time. Your father …”

A cloud passed across Ari’s face. Robin didn’t have time to explain any further; he took off running and didn’t slow down until he reached the gate. Robin was breathing hard when she caught up to him.

“Ari,” she said.

He avoided her eyes.

“Are you sure … I mean, it’s sudden. Are you okay with this?” Robin paused. “I can tell him to leave.”

“No,” he whispered. He didn’t move. He didn’t look at her; he stood rooted outside the gate.

“Do you want me to go in first?” Robin placed her arm protectively around his shoulders, and he nodded.

Ben was sitting in the living room, on the couch that doubled as Robin’s bed, his head in his hands. He looked up when they walked in, his face pale, so pale that Robin instantly asked, “Ben? Are you okay?”

Ari stood behind Robin, the way he used to do when he was much younger, when he was afraid of grown-ups, of strangers.

“I’m … I feel a little sick. I’ll be fine.” Ben tried to smile, but the smile came out more like a grimace.

“Ari, sit down,” Robin said, “let me get your snack.”

Ari sat at the kitchen table. His large eyes, dark and unsmiling, were focused on Ben.

“I brought something for you, Ari.” Ben said the boy’s name as if tasting a new word. “It’s right there, in that bag. You can take it out.”

Ari reached into the bag and took out a wrapped box. He opened the wrapping slowly, carefully, until he reached the plain cardboard that held his gift inside. Lifting each corner flap, he tipped the box so its contents fell into his hand. He turned the object over.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A kaleidoscope. It’s an old-fashioned one,” Ben said.

Robin set a cup of milk in front of Ari, along with some cookies on a paper napkin. “Wow, Ben, that’s really beautiful.”

The kaleidoscope was heavy. The body was constructed of solid wood, the lens was real glass. The turning chamber was an oil filled cell infused with color, containing pieces of glass, beads, wire, polymer clay and other hand made trinkets.

Ari gazed into the object, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Well,” Robin asked, “What do you see?”

“Colors,” he said. “I see a star, full of colors and shapes. When I turn this part, the picture changes. This is really cool.”

Ari looked at Robin; he seemed slightly dazed, as if his equilibrium had been altered by the spell of the object. He held the kaleidoscope possessively in his hand and glanced at Ben.

“Thank you,” Ari said softly.

“I … I just wanted to see you for a little bit. But I have to go now.” Ben stood up.

Ari looked up at his father in disbelief.

“It will probably take me about an hour to get the car back to the city, and my flight’s at six o’clock,” Ben explained thinly.

“You’re leaving?”

Robin watched Ari’s face change. She turned towards Ben as the kaleidoscope hit him in the jaw with a smack, a thud, and then crashed to the floor. Ben instinctively put his hand to his face; his eyes filled with tears.

Ari ran out of the kitchen.

“Go.” Robin said sadly. She put her hand on his cheek and gently brushed his bruised jaw with her thumb. Ben closed his eyes. He remained still, as if her touch extended beyond his face to the entire surface of his skin, then deeper, to his heart, his soul.

As she walked down the short hallway to Ari’s room, she heard the faint click of the door closing behind him.

Robin called Ari’s name, then stood outside his door and waited. Moments passed. Each second Robin felt the distance between them growing and shaping into something real.

She thought about the kaleidoscope in her hand and wanted to cradle it in her arms, to restore it to its earlier safety, inside the box, wrapped, an unexpected gift. She called his name again.

Ari opened the door slightly, and then returned to his bed. He curled up, facing the wall. Robin entered lightly and sat on the edge. She smoothed the hair from his damp forehead and placed the kaleidoscope beside him.

“Did I break it?”

“No,” Robin said, “It’s okay.”

Ari touched the kaleidoscope gingerly and held it to his chest.

“I didn’t mean to throw it.”

“I know.” Robin laid down on the bed next to him. Side by side, they searched the cracks in the ceiling.

“Will he ever come back?”

Robin wrapped her arms around Ari and closed her eyes. She imagined Ben leaving, walking into the raw sun, the wind beating down on his shoulders, leaving, over and again, caught the cycle of eternal return.

 

*

 

 

Kaleidoscope is a story I wrote many years ago, and was first published on this site in February, 2012.


selah

mother and child by Kathe KollwitzMother and Child by Käthe Kollwitz

 

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

Even though she is in the room across the hall, sleeping, I can’t sleep. She has been home for only a day. For over half a year, she has been in and out of mental hospitals. Now the tally is five times in seven months. I don’t know why she wants to die. I don’t know why nothing helps. She sees a therapist twice a week, attends a support group once a week, and I am with her every day, offering her advice and comfort and companionship. She takes “medication.” I run through the list of prescription drugs they’ve given her: abilify, zoloft, wellbutrin, risperdal, seroquel, throazine, depacote, lutuda. Then the diagnoses: depression, psychosis, depression with psychotic episodes, psychosis with depressive episodes, bi-polar depression with acute psychosis. My mind spins. I can only imagine what her mind is doing. I don’t know what all of this is doing to her. I don’t know what happened to my little girl.

Selah.

The last time, she tied her shoelaces together and hung herself from the ceiling fan in her room. I was with her only twenty minutes prior, and we talked about her goals for the day, positive affirmations, things she was grateful for. She showed me her journal; she said that she was grateful for mom, the cats, and art. She smiled at me. She said she loved me. Twenty minutes later, I heard a storm of glass crash to the floor. I rushed from my room to hers, across the hallway; she was two feet away. The light from the ceiling fan fell when she kicked the chair away. She was hanging, straining, her eyes wide with fear. First I tried to undo the knot, then I ran to my room to get a pair of scissors that I kept hidden in my drawer. There were seconds I had to leave her there, hanging, in a precarious balance between life and death. I ran back and cut the thin, taut rope with the child sized scissor, pushing her to fall onto her bed. She gasped for breath. She looked terrified, lost, shocked. She said, “I’m sorry.” I burst into tears.

Selah.

At first I blamed myself. I wondered what I did wrong. There was always too little money; I couldn’t afford her “the soil of easy growth.” Her father left when she was only a baby. I raised her alone, stayed home in the day as a full-time mother and worked nights and weekends. My mother watched her when I was gone. She was always cared for, always loved. There was never too little love; I gave her my time, my affection, my attention, all the things that money could never buy. I love being a mother. I never imagined that something like this would happen, could happen. I read countless parenting books. I read to her. I cooked healthy food. I baked cookies. I spent the little money I had on books and art supplies, musical instruments, science kits, educational toys. I encouraged her. I supported her. I love her so much. I don’t know what went wrong. What did I do wrong?

Selah.

I know I’m not alone. I see it in the faces of other parents when I have visited her in the hospital. We are searching the places we missed, the signs we didn’t know, the twisted path that has lead us here. I know she’s not alone. During all this time, I’ve seen so many teenagers go through this cycle, this revolving door. They are so young, they are so lost, their arms and wrists are scarred, they don’t know how they got to this place either. There were visits she rejected me, when she didn’t want to see me, when there was more anger than fear in her eyes. There were visits we played cards or colored mandalas, or simply talked, even laughed. There were visits when she just laid her head on my shoulder and cried. Each time I left without her, I felt a piece of me missing; my heart needed to stay with her.

Selah.

After the first time, I couldn’t look at children or babies. I’d see them crying in the store, begging for their parents attention, coddled with technological gadgets to pacify them. I’d remember Selah when she was a child; she was so happy. I looked forward to her teenage years; I thought they would be a breeze. Then everything fell apart. The relationship with her boyfriend began to appear unhealthy. Later, I would learn about the emotional abuse and the drugs, the cheating and the gaslighting, her increased anxiety, paranoia, and depression. Her self-esteem shattered, she was too fragile to pick up the pieces. She saw suicide as the only way out of the relationship, the only way to end the pain. Since then, she has ricocheted like a pinball in a sick machine, a mental health care system focused on drug therapy. At first, I wouldn’t let them medicate her. After her second attempt, I had no choice. I don’t really trust the doctors, I don’t really trust the drugs. I don’t know if they are helping or hurting. All I know is that she is in pain, and no matter what I try, I can’t seem to help her find her way out of this nightmare.

Selah.

I would do anything to help her. I have tried everything I can think of. If I could, I would take her pain and hide it deep within myself so that she would never feel it again. How many times can my heart be broken, over and over again. How many tears can I cry, useless tears, only wanting my daughter to be okay. I’ve learned just how exacting everything can fall apart at a moment’s notice, another suicide attempt, another hospitalization. I am a mirror of her suffering, her shadow as she walks a tightrope down this dark, dangerous path. “I’ll always be here to catch you,” I say. She smiles. Her face is pure beauty. But she doesn’t know that, she doesn’t know how beautiful and talented and wonderful she really is. What do you do when a person you love wants to fall? I am not a religious person, but I’ve touched my own spirituality. I pray. I meditate. I ask the universe, I plead: please let my daughter live, please let her live with health and happiness and peace, please let her feel love within herself, towards herself and towards the world. Please, let my daughter live.

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

*


mother’s day

The Mothers by Käthe Kollwitz, 1919

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

or perhaps I should say … Happy Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and to tell the truth, I’m glad it’s over. It seems the older I get, the less I like holidays. I hate the gross manipulation, commercialization, and materialism that has become part of how we celebrate these “special” days. I hate how the original intent of holidays seems to be lost, how we substitute simple gratitude with gifts. Instead of honoring and celebrating the meaning of the holiday, these times seem to throw a glaring light on what is missing, what is lost or broken, what went wrong. However, I feel that it is both important and necessary to reflect on these days, and to try to find positivity and deeper meaning in our lives, extending to the whole of society.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on Mother’s Day and I had shared Tillie Olson’s exceptional story “I Stand Here Ironing” as part of my reading series, in honor of the day. I don’t want to repeat myself (you can read the full post here) , so I will quote a bit of what I wrote for context:

Though we are not all mothers, we are all derived from a woman’s experience with pregnancy and birth. Women hold the font of all human life, and it is sad to me that the role of mother and the experience of motherhood is so often disregarded and marginalized. On Mother’s Day, we collectively experience a wide range of emotions – sadness and loss, anger and disappointment, love and gratitude – towards the women who brought us into this world and did the best they could.

We are all flawed people. Mothers are no exception. To be a mother is a complicated role and it demands all of who you are. And you will never be perfect, no matter how good of a mother you are. You will make mistakes. You will worry about the choices you make, and the path that you have created in which to nurture the growth of another person. Thanks to contemporary psychology, mothers have an added pressure of feeling total responsibility for the self-hood of their children. And while I feel that we certainly have a responsibility towards our children, it is impossible and unfair to expect mothers to claim the totality of the people their children turn out to be.

Right now I’m thinking of two quotes. The first is from Tillie Olson’s story I mentioned above: “Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know – that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” The second is from Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

What I’m getting at here is that children are their own people, and a mother’s influence on that is not as significant as we might think. Children come into the world through mother. They have their own personality, their own set of DNA, their own soul. A mother’s job is to nurture and guide her children, with the expectation that she is a flawed person and will try to do the best she can. Some mothers seek validation through their children.  They think that if they have a “good child” then they are a “good mother.” And the same goes for the negative side. They forget that their children are not their own. They lose themselves in motherhood, instead of finding themselves.

More and more, I am seeing women reject the role of mother. And that truly saddens me. I’m not talking about working mothers or stay-at-home dads or divorce/custody arrangements or people with addictions or mental health issues who cannot care for their children. I’m talking about women who have children and then leave them. I truly don’t understand this, but I have tried, and I think that the expectation of what it means to be a mother has something to do with it. I think that economics and education play a role. I wish these women would know that we write our own rules. We define ourselves. Motherhood is challenging but it is also infinitely rewarding. It is possible to have your own life and to also be a mother. In fact, I’d say it is necessary.

The fact is, children will grow into who they are no matter what kind of mother they have, or even if they have one at all. My daughter has several friends who live with their grandparents, neither mother nor father taking the responsibility of parenthood. She also has a few friends who were adopted. They do not know their birth mothers but they have adopted mothers. Other friends have stepmothers, along with their birth mothers. A couple of people she knows have had their mother’s die, an incredible loss to a young person.

I’ve known many people who have complicated relationships with their mothers. They weren’t loved enough or they were loved too much. They were neglected or they were smothered. I know people in their adult life still blaming mother for the problems they have and for the people they are. This is a two way street, mothers and children. The expectations are high on both sides. And I think it is important that we take a step back, and understand the most crucial part of motherhood: mothers are the vehicle in which children enter the world. That can be taken both literally and figuratively. But, as Gibran says so eloquently, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

The way I think about motherhood is that children are a gift. A precious gift that is entrusted to you for a short time. To mother is to care for, to nurture, to guide, to give space, to let go. To know that your role is limited and flawed. It is essential to retain your sense of self outside of or in addition to the role of mother. It is necessary to care for yourself first and foremost in order to be able to give freely and lovingly to your children.

I have always been honest with my children about my role in their life. I have never tried to pretend that mother knows all, or mother knows best. I tell them that I make mistakes, too. I tell them that I am not only a mother, I am a person in the world. In a way, I’m trying to alleviate the pressure on both of us, mother and child. And so far, it seems to be working. I have a great relationship with both my children, a relationship that evolves and changes as they grow. The relationship that I have with my children is a relationship for life. Sometimes that can feel like a weight. But in reality, it is love. It is quite an honor to bring another person into the world, and to have that bond be the cornerstone of your relationship, beyond infancy and into adulthood, throughout both of your lives.

On Mother’s Day, I went onto facebook briefly. And I can usually judge how things will go on facebook by the first few posts I see. That day, I first saw a post saying how mothers are all special and should be cherished and loved and pampered. The next post shared sadness at not being able to biologically have children, and not being able to adopt a child when she was young because she is a lesbian. Further on, another person wrote about how she chooses not to have children and feels pressured to be a mother because she is a woman. Still further, someone wrote something to the effect of “if this day is hard for you, know that I’ll be feeling the same way on father’s day.” Lastly, there were the pictures of happy families, gifts received, people showing off their moms, their kids, their enjoyment at having a mother or being a mother on this day.

I was overwhelmed. I got off facebook. I decided to read a story that one of my friends, a beautiful person and excellent writer, had posted in honor of Mother’s Day. I read “Falling to Earth: A Memoir of Sorts” by Eros-Alegra Clarke, an amazingly sensitive and beautifully written piece about her experience with her own mother, and how that shaped the woman and mother she had become. I cried.

I turned off the computer and spent the rest of the day relaxing at home with my children and my boyfriend. Then my boyfriend left to visit his mother’s grave in the cemetery, his first mother’s day without her. A little later, my daughter told me that her friend was feeling sad, and asked if she could come over. I know that the girl’s mother had moved out of state when she was a baby and left her to be raised by her grandparents. We didn’t talk about that. “Sure,” I said, and her friend spent the afternoon and evening with us. My older daughter and I made cake pops. I took my younger daughter to our favorite Italian specialty store to pick up some food. My mom also doesn’t really care about gifts or fanfare on Mother’s Day, but she joined us for a simple dinner. Afterwards, I took the girls to the beach. It was windy and getting cold and we laughed as we ran to the water and then back to the car. We came back home and all did our own thing. That night, I wrote. It was a wonderful day. It was mother’s day and I was conscious of that, but it was just like any other day in my life. And for that, I feel tremendously grateful.

I put a few links within this post, so I am going to recap them all here, in case anyone is interested in further reading:

“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olson

“Falling to Earth: A Memoir of Sorts” by Eros-Alegra Clarke

Reading Series 5.1   May, 2012

 


i stand here ironing by tillie olsen

photo by Samuel Kravitt

 

I Stand Here Ironing   by Tillie Olsen

 

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”

“Who needs help.” … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been – and would be, I would tell her – and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine.

I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood. I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.

Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.

She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his good-bye note) “sharing want with us.”

I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.

After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.

It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pock-marks. All the baby loveliness gone.

She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now – the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.

Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.

And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little by hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.

She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t there today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire there last night. momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.

But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness – the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands – and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?

The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.

It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them – too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let alone almost always as here brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses a laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.

Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time, after I had had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.

Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough.

“Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”

The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”

She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.

She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to eat, and night after night after night she had nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back: “You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice, “Now go to sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.

Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”

They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.

They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit “unless otherwise notified” – as we were notified the first six weeks.

Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. high up on the balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”

There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came. One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage>” Emily shouted in explanation. “They don’t like you to love anybody here.”

She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my leter nicly I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read – once. “We simply do not have room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.

Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.

(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold in my mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)

It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.

I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.

She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blond replica of Shirley Tmeple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.

There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.

School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an overconscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too often.

I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now-strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough, I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together.

Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and shells,dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.

Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurt and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.

Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking – but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.

I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin …” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscous of words before you speak, the constant caring – what are they thinking of me? without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives.

Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.

In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over her unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in her classes.

There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school.

I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”

Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in her anonymity.

She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself in the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.

Afterwards. You ought to do something about her with a gift like that – but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.

She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today.

“Aren’t you ever going to finish ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.

She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.

She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.”

She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.

I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondness and curly hair and dimples; she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her. She kept too much to herself, her life was such she had to keep too  much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know – that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

*


doing the dishes

Today while doing the dishes
I glanced over at my daughter
lying on the floor in the living
room, reading a book, and I
paused to wonder about her mind
her perception of time and space
how her world is centered

I felt the gentleness of my hand
on the plates, the running water
on my wrists, I watched my daughter
who once called my body home
assert her space on the floor, kicking
out her feet and stretching her lean
body against the hard wood grain

I smiled and washed the silverware
glinting in the dim light, every act
was purposeful, every gesture poetic
my hands are powerful, even
in this domestic chore
the sink empty, I washed it down
and returning the sponge to its place
I rinsed it clean.

*

Originally published in The Mom Egg, Volume 7. The print issue is also available through amazon.

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Happy Mother’s Day!!!