My mother lives in a small white clapboard house. When I drove up last week I noticed the paint is peeling. It needs a new paint job. I wish I could offer to have her house re-painted. I remember when it was done a few years ago, how good and bright it looked. I hate the sad way the paint is peeling now, that hopeless sign that there isn’t money to fix it. It hurts me, this sense that she might be feeling any pain at all, and at the same time I know it’s crazy – my mother doesn’t care if her paint is peeling, just like I don’t care much that mine is. Our peeling paint doesn’t make either of us suffer, just my seeing hers does.
There’s a small stretch of grass in front of my mother’s house and then the road and then a large fake-Tudor house directly opposite. Inside the Tudor house lives a couple in their young mid-fifties and their adopted daughter.
The couple is a little bit like my mother’s kids – they often act like a daughter and a son-in-law – and the little girl is the closest my mother has to a grandchild. The girl has real red hair. She is nine years old and pretty big for her age. They’ve had her since she was a few months old.
The woman and the little girl are going to move to Iowa where the woman’s parents live. The parents have each had strokes and the woman wants to go take care of them. She has always at least half-wanted to move back to Iowa and the country land where her original family is. The husband doesn’t want to go. He is going to stay. They will visit once a month. They say they are not separating or getting a divorce.
It makes me a little nervous. I guess because having the couple and the little girl across the street has always seemed to me part of the fragile structure that has come into being almost of its own accord, the structure that takes care of my mother.
When I arrive my mother is ironing for the woman across the street, something she does for pay. She keeps ironing as I sit on the couch and look at old photographs she found lately – pictures of my grandmother back in Uruguay as a teenager. I read a letter my grandfather wrote to his sister in 1907. My mother stands for a couple of hours, ironing. “Do you hate ironing?” my mother asks. “Most people tell me how the one thing they hate doing is ironing, but I kind of like it.”
“I don’t mind it,” I say, absently. “I only iron one thing at a time.”
I wish the woman across the street wasn’t moving away with her little kid. It seems mean, breaking up the family for the sake of her parents. I know the man will miss his daughter terribly though my mother says she’s been hard to raise.
I don’t like the colorless dress that my mother is ironing. My mother holds it up, without judgment, just showing me and it makes me angry, the grey-blue dress with the floral print from the seventies. It makes me mad again at the woman across the street. She should wear things with more style.
I know the couple. The man’s name is Daniel. He chose the house they live in. I remember when it was for sale, almost twenty years ago. I passed it often. “Baba slept there,” people said, referring to Baba Muktananda. I wanted to buy that house. How impossibly wonderful, I thought, to live in a house in which a saint had slept. I was surprised that it took over a year before the For Sale sign came down.
Daniel had bought it. I didn’t know him very well. He worked in the vast Purchasing department of the ashram and I heard he had a real estate license and I asked for his help when I saw the little white house across from him for sale a few years later. My mother had asked me to keep my eyes open for something she could move to. She couldn’t stay for free in the Curry’s garage apartment forever. She’d have to find something cheap to buy and Sullivan Country is about as cheap as you can find.
Daniel bought the house at least partially because Baba had slept there. His wife was never such a passionate devotee. I don’t think the house meant as much to her as it did to him. I slept in the room where Baba slept one weekend when I was housesitting, the weekend I rented Trainspotting, during the years I was getting ready to leave the ashram but didn’t know it, knew only that I was craving hardcore art like movies about heroin instead of just yogic treatises.
For a few years there I’d stuck to a diet of yogic treatises, convinced that I could grit my teeth and tighten my belt for as long as it would take for the cosmic pay-off, and then I started to think that maybe yoga wasn’t about just who could follow the rules better than anyone else, and I started to find ways to have my own things inside the ashram world until it led me all the way out of that world.
I watched Trainspotting in the house where Baba slept.
And then I moved in across the street – not into the house my mother was living in now, but the almost identical one next door – a perfect writer’s cottage – I’d meditate and write and copyedit for money and trust in Feng Shui and live next door to my mother, a nice simple life that because it was so different from what I’d just torn myself away from – ten years on staff in the ashram – seemed fabulous and daring and full of possibility. I knew there wasn’t much going on around me in this deserted corner of New York State, but I’d pump it full of meaning – I’d find art in the smallest places and make this a town worth living in.
But I only stayed six months. The vista of Woodstock beckoned, so much larger and more colorful. It was almost as if I tried to start life over, to keep it small and in the corner, something I could manage with my eyes closed -- just my mother and me and my birds -- and it stayed in place for a few months and then got out of hand all over again – huge and vigorous and consuming.