My mother hoped to raise a girl with no hungers of her own. She wanted her ambitions to smooth the way for me and to complete her life. I was a sad daughter who discovered too late that my mother too was a sad daughter. She pushed me towards a world that she had been denied by her own mother, a world of work and study, a world of financial success. My mother was ferocious for me and terrified for herself. We never spoke of any of this.
“You always hated me. I could tell by the way you looked at me.”
It wasn’t until after she was dead that I understood she was asking a question.
Nearly all the pictures of my youngest daughter show her looking at me with a glare, arms tightly folded across her chest, chin pressed forward. ‘You can’t get in here,’ she signals with her body. ‘I’m closed to you.’
I didn’t understand she was issuing an invitation.
My mother married a man who did not speak of his life. He traveled long vacant miles as a salesman and retreated into silence when he returned home. All those days of charming words left him emptied. She confessed to me in the years before her death, “I was so lonesome, I would go to the park and talk to the trees.”
My mother never wanted to have children. In the language of poor first generation daughters of the l930s, she wanted to “go to business.” She imagined she might become Rosalind Russell – not the movie star, but the smart, quick-witted gal who wisecracked with the guys and had her own desk and a place in the world that was her own. Instead, her world would be defined by the dimensions of a three-bedroom two-bath brick house in what was still an exurb; a fenced-in backyard with a victory garden; and her own Buick. She was, in the eyes of her family, a success. But her kingdom was always too small, her husband driving up the long highways of New England to meet with factory owners and show his samples of leather and hemp. “A peddler,” she hissed at him once, when she finally understood that working class Newark would always nip at her heels. “I married a peddler.” For my father, the dream was shaped around hard work, getting ahead, having more for the family and saving for the children’s education. He was doing his job, and it was up to her to do hers.
Opening the refrigerator, I remove the rye bread, prune juice, creamy cottage cheese, and Folgers coffee tin. I set the table with my mother’s favorite flowered china plate, place a scoop of cottage cheese precisely in the center as she preferred, toast the rye bread, percolate the coffee, and call her to the table.
She emerges smiling from my bathroom, face gleaming, hair painstakingly combed, trying to be unobtrusive as she holds on to the furniture for balance to make her way through the living room and into the kitchen. Carefully lowering herself into the wooden chair, she lifts her face for my morning kiss, then settles back, unfolds her cloth napkin and prepares to eat her breakfast.
Once I was the one who descended from my small bedroom to the much larger kitchen, slid into the green Naugahyde seat at the glass-topped breakfast nook – “more modern than just a table and chairs,” Mother said proudly – and ate the unvarying breakfasts that marked the school week. Everything in our lives was unvarying. Even the sorrow.
As my brother and I ate with our requisite good table manners, only “playing with our food” when she wasn’t looking, Mother stood across the kitchen, leaning over the cutting board where she made our school lunches. She went to the Jewish delicatessen to get fillings for our sandwiches, scornful of packaged meats. We had roast beef sandwiches with mustard on rye bread – never lunchmeat, never white bread. Not because we were kosher, but because such foods were lower-class foods – at least my mother, once a lower class girl, thought so. I traded my privileged sandwiches for bologna on Wonder bread whenever I could. An apple accompanied each sandwich. An apple that was never, ever eaten. I wanted cookies like the other kids. There was no conversation about lunch – what we liked or preferred.
Now she is in my kitchen. Now I give my mother breakfast. I know all her favorite foods and delight in my morning offerings, and in her pleasure in them.
I feed my mother, nourish her, as she was unable to nourish me. I want to fill my mother up with my love. She is grateful, a woman who never felt loveable. Not by her husband, her children, her parents, her sister. No one.
It pleases me to feed her, see her hungers spilling over, appetites she kept in check all her life in order to become like the slender Boston socialites she studied to hasten her urgent exit from all things Newark. I urge her to excess.
“Go on, Ma. Have one more bite.”
“You think I should?” she asked, looking up at me anxiously.
“Sure,” I encourage her. “We’ll just have lunch a little later, that’s all.”
“Oh. I suppose that’s all right then,” she said, bending her head to the plate and filling herself with my food, my eager loving.
Most of the time she is confused and thinks I am a nice young man who has arrived to take care of her. Within months, she will move to a home where she will be assisted in her living. My mother doesn’t want to be assisted. She wants to be left alone. She doesn’t want “strange people” talking to her, touching her, interfering with her carefully constructed routines. My mother becomes frightened when the day turns to dark. That is where the dangers have always been. The “shadows.” The “whispers.” The imagined footsteps. When my father was away on his weeklong trips to the buyers at large textile mills, my brother and I would alternate nights sleeping on his side of their bed. I never understood that she wanted her small children beside her so that she didn’t have to be alone in the dark, that our young bodies made her feel safe. Her nights were always filled with ghosts, and a dangerous history that threatened to surface.
When I was a younger woman and thought there were answers to all my questions, and more importantly, that I was entitled to them, I asked her “Ma, did anything happen to you when you were little that scared you?”
She swiveled around and facing me, hands on her narrow hips. “That’s a terrible thing to say. I don’t want you to ever talk to me like that again.”
She stormed out of the room and didn’t appear for several hours. When she re-entered the kitchen, we sat down to dinner and pretended nothing had happened.
Much of my childhood was spent pretending nothing was happening inside the confines of our home, which was spacious and filled with oriental rugs and the bone china my mother had coveted all her life. Rooms were swollen with furniture and drawers were lined with velvet, cradling a growing assortment of collected objects. A large aromatic cedar closet was filled with sachets and lined shelves to store the excess, which was sorted carefully by season and covered in gauze or plastic.
Feelings were kept in dark enclosures. Nothing was taken out of its place unless it was the right occasion and appropriate moment. Tears were aired briefly on a smooth cheek patted away by an ironed handkerchief. Kisses were required for the rituals of goodnight and good morning, at train stations and after school, and not on the lips because of germs. Loud talking was only for my father when he was drinking.
For many years, my mother sat behind the wheel of a succession of increasingly costly automobiles driving me to lessons. Lessons on walking gracefully, lessons on piano playing, lessons for proper elocution, lessons on theater and art appreciation.
As I understood much later, my mother came to believe her life was as she had always wanted it to be. Cooking meals, cleaning houses (for now there was also a country house), buying and then having her clothes altered (for she would never learn to sew as her father, a tailor, had done all his life), and only rarely needing to find a dark quiet room where she could lie on her velvet chaise and weep.
As a child, I used to tiptoe down the hallway to lie on the floor beside my parent’s bedroom door and press my ear to the light-filled sliver at the bottom of the door, hoping to hear what they were saying to one another. I knew that what they said in front of my brother and me weren’t the real words. I strained to hear them, went through closets and drawers looking for something, that would explain. When I was alone, I stood on a kitchen chair to take down her stack of hatboxes in the bedroom closet, going through each one carefully for hidden panels, small pouches, correspondence. I pulled the folded ceiling staircase down, climbing up into the rafters of the attic, picking my way across the beams stuffed with insulation, opening the rusted trunk, unzipping the clothing bags, crawling into the dark corners of the eaves, looking for what they hadn’t told me, the words to explain why my mother cried in her bedroom, why she slapped me and never my brother, why no one ever came to visit, why my father had one martini after another until he fell asleep.
I spent my adolescent years looking out the window at the pine trees, reading books, later dancing in the basement with a broom, practicing being popular and beautiful. Nothing was ever said aloud. Nothing was ever quite real. There were table manners. Pretty table cloths and china on the rare occasions someone came to visit. But never everyday conversation. Never unseemly curiosity. I was my mother’s work-in-progress. An unformed girl, needing to submit to the appropriate way of thinking, dressing, behaving and deciding.
I married at eighteen to begin my own life, only to replicate my mother’s. Eight years later this carefully constructed façade crumbled in a breakdown as my own hungers began to surface. I ran headlong into a series of what I called “adventures,” my two young daughters trailing behind me like tin cans bouncing behind a speeding car.
But now mother enters my kitchen, face radiant, hair combed and she lifts her face for my kiss and I am able to love her. See her. Recognize that she did her best.
My daughters are in their 50’s now with all my early missteps etched in their psyches. The scars remain, the adaptations, the choices, the defenses all well traveled consequences of my long-ago hunger to have everything. I wanted to inhabit my own life, be involved in the exhilarating world of the 1960s and 70s and give my daughters the exuberant, spontaneous, encouraging mothering I had longed for as a child of the 1940s and 50s. They are middle-aged women and have arrived at a time when the ways they defended themselves against my excesses and failed juggling acts are no longer necessary.
“We always knew you loved us, “ both of them say – their way of reassuring me that even with all my mistakes and the pain they caused, my daughters felt loved. I am grateful.
In my mother’s final years, living in a supervised community close enough for me to visit her three or four times a week, she repeated her understanding of our relationship, but this time, I was able to respond.
“You always hated me. I could tell by the way you looked at me.”
“I didn’t hate you, Ma. I just always felt that whatever I did disappointed you.”
“It was my life,” she whispered. “My life disappointed me.”
My elder daughter and I sit together to tape a conversation about her experience as my child and how I influenced who she became. She chooses her words with care and love. Much is not what I expected. Some is. The tape snaps and is useless. I begin to weep. This will be harder than I had thought.
Hers has been a vulnerable life, one of dogged exhausting work, little money and few rewards. She persists. This child lives unreservedly. No hedging or construction of safe places. Yet I hear my words resting upon her tongue, the ways I filled her heart with my conflicted legacy. “The values you taught me were always at the center of everything, but I have to live them in my own way now, in my own life.” And she does.
I received an unexpected gift when my younger daughter became ill and required nearly full-time care. In stepping out of my life to take charge of her healing, I was given (she allowed me) the second chance to mother her, this time with wisdom and patience.
Finally, at seventy-eight, I am able to be what she deserved fifty-five years ago. We spend hours, days, months picking through the rubble of our past. She challenged me with stories I hardly remembered and others that were hard to hear. Now both my daughters, their youth gone, are forgiving of my many failures, much as they are beginning to be forgiving of their own.
I am comforted that the three of us have access to the real words that allow us to stitch together that which was torn, real words that attempt to mend the fissures and disconnections of this partial, not quite good-enough mothering.
Published in the Spring 2017 issue of Persimmon Tree.