The thought of touching my mother startles me to this day. Ours was a business relationship. Her job: make sure I was clothed and fed. Mine: need as little as possible. I’d stand in awe as my best friend’s mother brushed my hair, nimbly working out knots beneath a fan that sucked the smell of bacon from their tiled kitchen. But once a year, on the fourth of July, she, my brother and I would stand in front of her bathroom window and watch fireworks flower over the Washington Monument. For a spell of time we’d hold our breaths while pillars of color cascaded three miles away. I remember thinking how calm she smelled. The fanfare over, we’d return to our lives, our separate selves. So rare were the occasions of our physical proximity we came away perplexed, like we’d done something forbidden.
I felt my mother’s dissatisfaction with her life keenly and early on. She made it clear that our existing arrangement was not at all what she had bargained for. Dramas composed two and a half millennia earlier held her interest, not the small ones milling around her feet. She’d far rather be reading Oedipus Tyrannous than transporting two kids to dentist appointments and school plays.
The first time I knew someone had lied to me I was eight, at a day camp on the grounds of the National Cathedral. Afraid to jump off the diving board like the other kids, I launched from the board’s side, my chin striking the pool’s edge before my body sloshed into the chlorinated water. When I asked the lifeguard if I was bleeding, he said no. He must have been afraid I’d come unmoored right then and there under his charge. Metallic taste of blood gathering in my mouth, I recognized that a lie rearranges everything—not in a good way, not like in the movies when a love scene takes up disproportionate time. A lie distorts the world: fun house mirror at the county fair.
Joe Early drove my school bus for ten years. His authority grew the day a sedan barreled past the bus’s blinking lights, and he launched a tire jack straight through that Volare’s back window. Everything stilled, the filaments of rear window defrosters waving, metallic spider webs in November’s air, metronome cadence of bus lights clicking. Because Joe made the littler kids sit up front and because the ride lasted 30 minutes, I’d clocked many an hour staring at the back of Joe’s neck. There was a crease in it, a fold of skin, supple and dark. I had the strongest urge to wedge a pencil in it horizontally, to somehow get that close to him.
The day after the tire jack incident, my father died at work. His chin dropped to his chest, what must have looked like a cat nap. He’d had a heart attack, a quiet one, in his chair. The next morning, I got up, dressed myself and went to school. Because that is what I did during the week and because Joe would be waiting for me at the bus stop. He was a man I could trust, day in and day out, to pick me up and take me home.
I kept the fact of my father’s death to myself all the way until third period Latin when I asked our teacher, Imogen Rose, if I could skip the conjugation quiz because my father had died the night before. The look on her face was such a peculiar mixture of disbelief and horror that I can replicate it to this day. To get the full impact, one must understand just how Mrs. Rose ran a classroom. If a student yawned, we were to leave the room, take a brisk lap around the building’s exterior, sleet of February no consideration. Yawning means one is in need of oxygen. When she entered the room we stood up until she lifted her right index finger in the manner of an orchestra conductor. This meant we were to sit back down. The day I wore my school uniform too long, the note she sent home read: Charlotte’s uniform unacceptable, appears as if she is in a ditch, please hem.
Before I was old enough to go to school, I spent my time on a closed-in porch just off my bedroom pretending to be a teacher. When my students ask me how long I’ve been at this, it’s hard not to include those years. My porch classroom was even fully equipped: chalkboard, dolls for students, black and white composition books, a xylophone.
What my mother did when she left the house remains a mystery. There was proof she’d visited the library and gone to the Safeway. But the rest of her day was as remote as she was. My best guess is she stayed away as long as she possibly could, driving down McArthur Boulevard or across Chain Bridge into Virginia where she’d watch water slosh over rocks in the Potomac far below. Sometimes she might have simply parked and read, or closed her eyes, hands resting on the steering wheel. The days Anna Gaither came to clean the house and do the ironing, my mother’s car would pull into our garage at the very last moment, just in time for Anna to catch the 2:20 bus to southeast D.C.
I kept careful tabs on my mother’s reading. One week it might be Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy, the next: Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. The weeks she checked out a Barbara Pym or Agatha Christie, her reading spilled late into the night. She spent most of her time reading: in the afternoon on the paisley loveseat in the sitting room. At dusk downstairs in the living room, head supported by the side of her wing chair, a glass of tonic water and Angostura Bitters sweating on the marbletopped table beside her.
At exactly 7:15 we ate dinner. Even though it was just the three of us, she’d ring the bell, wooden handled with a tinny sound. That meant we were to come downstairs so we could sit at the dining room table and eat Stouffer’s followed by cherry jello with two Pepperidge Farm gingerbread cookies.
My mother talked to herself as if she were someone else, employing the third person voice: good morning, Joan. Today is Tuesday, February 25th. Yes it is. And you have an appointment at 2:00 to get the oil changed in the car. Oddly, this talk supplied the greatest comfort of my childhood. It remains one of the most intimate things I can imagine: lying in bed hearing my mother’s voice parse out the day. Each morning in the exact same fashion, she’d read aloud the day’s page of her engagement book, slowly, as if giving dictation. And each evening, after dinner, she’d go back through the day, saying check to establish she’d completed a task. Oil changed in car: check. New Stride Rites for Charlotte: check. The engagement books were black, and in December we’d drive to Sherman’s Engraving and Stationery off Dupont to secure one for the next calendar year. Side by side, she’d note obligations and events, both personal and not. April 4, 1968: 10:00: Hair Appointment; 6:00 pm: Martin Luther King, Jr., aged 39, is shot.
Of course what didn’t translate in these notations was any feeling. I still have all her engagement books and occasionally open them and try to translate the feeling. With King, however, this is not necessary. That day in April, I was in the kitchen when the phone rang. After my mother said hello, all I heard was silence, a lot of it, followed by the sound of her slamming the receiver back down. When she returned to kitchen she was shaking. She walked over to the sink and picked up the bar of Ivory soap that rested on the indentation in the porcelain, then walked over to me, held the bar up close to my face, where it smelled so clean. Behind gritted teeth, she explained: if I ever, ever said the n word she would watch as I ate that entire bar of soap right down. She would watch as I got sick, sick as she felt in that moment. Though I knew not to ask what happened on the phone, my guess is that someone she knew, someone from a social circle my mother had long since abandoned, called to say how happy she was that King was finally dead.
Each Halloween, we’d disconnect the doorbell. Outside, all the ghosts and princesses traipsed up the stairs through crisp oak leaves only to be met by silence. We kept the lights out, too, just for extra protection. Christmases we ate at the local Chinese restaurant, the only place open. This was our job on holidays: to avoid them at all costs. And it is a lesson that has, for better or worse, stayed with me all these years. When any holiday approaches, I brace myself, knowing the hard place inside of me will only grow bigger, sponge sea creatures you set in a bowl of water until they expand to 100 times their original size.
Christmas mornings the Cathedral televises its services all over the nation. The boys’ soprano voices called to me so I’d walk the two blocks to the Cathedral to stand under the flying buttresses of that great building. My mother and brother watched the service from the upstairs sitting room. Walking back, I’d think how we’d heard the same thing from different points of view. I’d think how much of life is like this.
Tuesdays and Sundays the bells in Old Post Office Tower at the National Cathedral peal RoundsatEight, a sound so glorious I was surprised something like that found its way to our house. I could hear it best in the front hallway, a room with a tiled floor, so the notes resonated all the more. One weekend my mother took a workshop from the band of ringers, pulled a rope to engage the clapper on a bell that weighed two thousand pounds, made the sound I still love more than I can say.
When my mother talked on the phone, which was almost never, I’d pace the tiles trying to figure out what mattered to her. Only white ones, I’d instruct myself, not even an inch on the black. Or something else bad is bound to happen. The hallway had a radiator with a metal cover. On it, a silver tray with her married initials, JCM, a wedding gift. It was where the car keys and house keys went. It was also where my father would place his cufflinks, after he took off his jacket, vest, tie and suspenders. Before he left us for another woman. Before he died.
When I was in sixth grade, my father moved out, and my mother established that since he’d made that decision, he would never cross the threshold of our house again. After that, she took to listening incessantly to Scott Joplin. On the eighttrack: The Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, every day, hours at a time. The first week I thought she was trying to cheer herself up, but soon I understood that frenzied cadence had another purpose. Disquieting and alarming, it was the soundtrack to her present life.
Because she loved old roads, those in use before the interstate went through, I’m always looking to my right, hoping to scout one out. Sometimes, beside a road with a particularly steep grade, there’s a sandfilled lane. It’s there in case a truck’s brakes give out, to allow the truck’s momentum to fade in a controlled way. Now I see that is what my mother needed, a sand pit to stop all that seething and churning inside her.
How I was sure my mother had something incurable is hard to say except we all know that a dog senses a thunderstorm long before the rest of us. That’s the best way to explain it. My entire childhood, I felt something wrong burgeoning in her, something slow growing, taking over her body. She was a stately, modest woman, and I’d never seen her in anything other than a pants suit or a house dress. Still, I knew that underneath those garments, something had gone awry. And when it got worse, got bigger, overtook her all the way—who would take care of me then?
And I was right. The year after leukemia cells got the best of her, The Washington Post ran a front page story: photographs of the contaminated soil she’d played in as a kid, pictures of the very street she lived on cordoned off. Turns out, her neighborhood had been a bomb testing ground during World War I. The Army Corps of Engineers has proclaimed the area uninhabitable. As I write this, they are conducting a clean up of a one mile wide swath of northwest Washington.
I still have my mother’s address book, a blue three inch hardback I remember buying together on one of our rare outings. She entered the names in black flair in her distinctive left handed script. Whenever someone moved, she’d pencil through the old address and write the new one below it in pen. When someone died, she marked darkly all through the address, then wrote the date of death. Even though much of the book had cross throughs, she refused to buy another. I can understand why.
I wonder about the van driver who drove my mother’s body to be cremated. It was January and icy. Was he listening to the news? Smoking a Salem Light? Did he know what cargo he had? When Gauler’s Funeral Home told us we needed to confirm the body as hers, my brother stood up quietly and without pause. Four minutes later, when he came back to the room, his face revealed nothing of what he had just seen: our mother dead under a white sheet, about to be burnt up. I’ve never asked him about it, but my gratitude for his taking on that task will never fade.
Yesterday my students and I set out to compile a list of agreed upon facts: oil floats on water, if you touch its whiskers, a cat will blink, the earth is not flat, pearls melt in vinegar. But, the exercise got tricky real quick. We all had to agree it was an agreed upon fact. How long do houseflies live? Do elephants cry? Does time speed up when you get older?
In Hindi there’s the phrase, to me your memory comes. It’s the same as our saying I miss you. Hindus use it to address the living. I employ it for the dead. My mother’s memory comes to me. I miss her. Because she was an expert at staying distant in real life (agreed upon fact) now that she’s gone, I miss her in a way that does not fade, guileless and dependable as Elmer’s Glue.
My train is rolling slowly north, rural Virginia countryside. In the town of Orange I see into shop windows, the tracks just feet from Main Street. On one corner a man exuberantly waves a brown paper bag at the passing train. I’m on my way back from a weekend spent with my friend’s child, Flora. It rained most of the time so we went for puddle walks and worked on our spitting skills. We’d choose a target and assign it a point value for a successful bullseye. We tied at 83. Then we checked storm drains for suitable sticks for floating and went to the lake and watched our sticks sail out of sight. As I’m sure you can tell, it was magnificent.
But now, I regret I didn’t tell Flora that not so long ago philosophers were our scientists, and people must have given a lot more credence to what could not be understood all the way. I want to tell her that all this information we label as truth can make us dullwitted. It is only when we imagine that we become vigorous and brave. Plus, imagination lets us be more than one person at once. Agreed upon fact.
On the train, I also read a novel, translated from Italian, entitled The Days of Abandonment. Like most of the books I love, it’s hard to say what it’s about. There’s regret, loneliness, suspicion, and disfigurement. And there’s this sentence: we carry in our head until we die the living and the dead. My mother, though she’s been dead for almost two decades, peoples my head as much as—no, even more than—living people I see every day. There she is in her sitting room, as real to me as these words, as real as paprika.
Yesterday, outside Kroger, a little girl was riding a plastic horse her mother’d put fifty cents into to make it rock and play it’s a small world after all. The pride in that girl’s face was enough to make you love most anything. My students this semester, mostly engineers, are kind and earnest and smart. On the second day of class, Kelci nonchalantly used the term hindsight bias. When I asked for examples, she looked at me with her enviably placid brown eyes: That it was clear The Cardinals were going to win. That the car really did need new brakes. That we knew he should have gotten a flu shot.
Unexplainably, what came to mind was the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Instead of translating what was actually being said, his hand signals spelled out shrimp and rocking horses. When confronted and reprimanded for this, he said he’d seen angels on his way into the stadium. Hindsight bias: maybe he was right, maybe there were no words to sum up such a man as Mandela, maybe flapping one’s arms was the right way to wave goodbye.
More often than not, children want to be found, hearts racing as they wait for the outloud counting to end, to hear the approach of footsteps nearing the linen closet door. Such spectacular urgency to it all. Even now, in what I hope is the middle of my life, I sometimes find the need to run away: to the woods or the field behind the house. I do it most often in autumn when the cold begins to set in. Do I want to be found? I think so, if only to show me what I’ve lost about myself.