Monday, 11 May 2020

How I’d Explain What Kind of Mother She Was

by Lauren Camp

When you ask was she a good mother, I am back at our Tudor,
that three story building assuaged and slow in its timbre
of browns, back by the screened-in porch bound in its tangle
of snow boots. I have just slammed the door, wrenching
big sounds from my small alone body. My mother is basting,
as always, on our blue-knotted couch under the stickiest sun.
Blue, with its idle permutations and pace, its remarkable poise.
Shaking off slumber, she twists up her fingers, and rises
into the small port of her life. Though she wants to consider
each tiny battle and blank of my day, I just circle around,
and she watches the curve of each pigtail as I ask to go out,
to jump rope, or maybe shoot baskets right-handed toward
the mouth of the moon. What did she do all those long
afternoons as her children dribbled off on their own, and
the day, half-burnt, toppled out of the sky? Our relationship
was always that haunted, that taut and that still. Eleven years
without has made me agreeable to the needs of my grief,
but my mother-hunger is craving more than the dry taste
of restraint. The smear of what’s missing has blacked out
perfection. When I am sick now, her cool hand still brushes
my forehead as the thermometer counts, and even now
I hold the despair as she’s pulling it out, shaking it down,
dislodging that four-minute figment of touch, so I’ll live
with each uncertain lick of disease or infection. I understand
loss is supposed to get lighter, to fly off to the sky, like Chippy,
our poodle who died and she told me in our kitchen,
all yellow and nervy. Offered the news to my eight-year-old
mind, and the ghost of the dog became distant, a shadow
of flying, cramped up with my tin current of laughter.
Oh, how she hated that matted gray dog —
and every dog, bird and rodent that followed. But now,
when I lift my tortoiseshell cat, spoon my hand on the fur
on the low of her belly, scooping and rubbing, if I didn’t
learn this at home, how do I know what tenderness is?
I didn’t get death, and she didn’t explain it. But on each
yahrzeit of her papa, her mouth gathered up like a seam,
and her eyes floated sadly around in their harbor. How sour
we were then, holding our edges apart from her odor
of missing, the flurry of tears that extended like waves.
Shaped into stones in a tall house of stones, we passed our
hard surfaces around. I still see her, evenings, in bed
with the Times Dad snagged off the Lexington Ave
#6 train he took north from the office, the paper folded
sideways beside her. As an obsolete moon punctured
a moon-sized space through the window, newsprint
decorated her fingers. How often I sat there, needling
and pricking her patience with all of my questions,
hearing the jitter of fingernail nick at her polish. But
only now do I see the papers as some kind of relief
from the sections of home, how headlines typeset that
morning could forecast her feelings. The merciful comfort
of data, how the black words of the page were her wing
of desire, or the lines of the past, and the red wine
on the nightstand drowned the rapid dispatches of Dad
as he argued her failures and crimes, the obituary of days
always buried in days. Maybe she had no taste for the soup
of her children. When I wakened each night lost in my spit,
in the fable of monsters and witches toppling the masts
of my mind, and wanted someone to carry me back,
to help me across my dark street of danger, past the spears
of myself, past the sails falling forward, I gathered
my pillow and stood in the corner of her room by the door.
Indulgent, she said, when I woke her, because I read past
my bedtime, then turned pages of mysteries and thrillers
into my sleep. But she pushed at my father, who left me
his warm-body space in their boat-sized bed, so I climbed in,
floating happily up to their night-grafted peace
as Dad lumbered upstairs to snore with my masses of spiders.
After she died, I figured crosswords to keep busy, dreaming
new grids to fill in. Having a finite series of directions erased
what I couldn’t reorganize: our ingenious ways to never say love.
But I am being unbalanced. She smiled at everyone. Yes,
I am scarred by her leaving our two-sided existence,
the one where she didn’t bake cookies, or add notes
to my lunchbox, but I won’t ignore those trips to Manhattan
to see the Diors and snow-studded, Christmas-crazed windows.
And as my father idled the Buick, refusing to release change
to the meters, Mom and I sauntered past the procession
of mannequins whose arms turned out neatly at elbows.
We loved each other in hidden ways amid the folds
and tucks of their remarkable gowns. I wonder sometimes
if I just don’t remember the Kool-Aid or kisses, like a sieve
letting go of the sand but keeping the stones. Instead,
I see clearly the moment she stood at the foot of the stairs,
tenaciously pressing the banister, and telling me gravely
how I’d ruined her life and postponed her redemption
when I swiped those three pretty pink panties from that store
in the mall. Her anger was always red first. But how
could she mean that when she showed up at the station
and stayed while my fingerprints were taken, and we went
again to movies and museums? And just now as you’re waiting
for me to answer your question, I’m recalling how we drove
to Delaware in a downpour, how Mom in the passenger seat
kept lurching forward as I stuttered and struggled the car
through the nebulous dark. While I worried invisible ghosts
of the road, she gently read me each drop of the rain,
never irritated, never mocking my fear that the dark future
would harm us. We kept skating forward on those four
hinky wheels, both of us trusting the low mist of headlights
hazily lighting the long confused road to the end.

* * * * *

"How I’d Explain What Kind of Mother She Was" was first published in J Journal and is part of Lauren Camp's collection The Dailiness (Edwin E. Smith Publishing, 2013)

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