I am inhabiting her life
You have no interest in my mother. Why should you? She was not a headliner. She was not noteworthy outside of the family and our immediate neighborhood on the Upper West Side. There, she induced a certain energy field like minor royalty, a second cousin of a third-tier baroness. Her generation long gone, there are only a handful of people left who remember her powdered face, chalk white with pink circles of rouge on her cheeks and cerulean smudges on her eyelids, the seams on her stockings almost straight.
How remarkable, then, that DNA dictates that her ghost has now moved its furnishings into my body. It's an almost perfect fit, my osteoporotic spine bending to accommodate hers, my thighs expanding to make room for her ample shape. I keep my used kleenex in the waistband of my pants as she did and have recently elected to wear my hair parted on the left with a jaunty wave over my right eye. Caroline, expertly wielding the comb and scissors, comments that it has a '20s look and, sure enough, there is my mother's marcelled cut from long before I was born coming into focus in the salon mirror.
Once, about five years before she died, I broke down in tears in Great Barrington when she suffered an excruciating compression fracture far away in California. Feeling helpless and anguished, it suddenly became clear to me that she had been my first home....that there was a time in 1945 when I lived inside of her in a warm, dark, wet tenement that she carried around with her when she squeezed the melons at the fruit stand and picked out a seeded rye at the bakery on upper Broadway. Of course, being well into my fifties, I knew all about gestation. But somehow I had always given more thought to my own pregnancy, my own motherhood. This moment of recognition near the turning of the millennium was a first encounter with my deep origins in the pungent folds of my mother's flesh.
The image is like a bellows, expanding and contracting, inflaming memory. Sometimes, the fire is reduced to embers. The long years of adolescence and early adulthood when I didn't want any part of her. The bitter winter in my garden where her ashes are now resting, for the most part unattended. I thought when I buried them there that she and I would chat regularly about the anemones, about the grandchildren, about the unrelenting passage of time.
But words don't seem to be the medium of our exchange. She speaks to me through my short legs and misshapen feet, my pale blue lashless eyes. She inhabits me as I inhabited her seventy years ago. And she keeps me company. She is there in every gesture. When I throw back my head to wash down a pill. When I drink my coffee out of a thin porcelain cup, never a ceramic mug. I have grown up and drink it black now, not light and sweet with non-dairy creamer and saccharine as she did. But I am still married to the aristocratic pinkie lift that I must have learned at her linen-covered dining room table.
My father was morbidly sentimental. You couldn't go to a matinee with him without the crumpled handkerchief coming out of his pants pocket to dry the tears that fell at every cinematic loss or betrayal. But my mother was ensconced in her corset and devoted to decorum. When she was hurt or angry, she would take to her bed. When she felt the need to cry, she would leave the room. She couldn't bear the exposure of open grieving or gratitude. Retreating to the kitchen while my sister's husband, only sixty, lay dying. Hiding in a dark corner of a back room while her circle of friends and family celebrated her birthday with rounds of rye and ginger.
Now, traveling as she is inside of my life, wandering through my days along the highway of hyperawareness, on the far side of several personal and historical upheavals, she cries openly all the time. It is my gift to her.
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Thank you Susie Kaufman for a tender and beautiful mother and daughter story. Susie is a wonderful storyteller and you can read much more here.
And thanks to all of you for staying with us for another week. I hope to see you next Sunday.