Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Way It Is

Deidre is a small woman with an interesting angular face and large eyes. She is old enough to be an old woman but she is still fighting it off. Her hair, streaked dark blonde, is straight and frames her face, a little like straw. She has glamour. She wears heels and clothes with style. Last night I had said something to a circle of friends about feeling guilty that I am not inviting my mother out for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

We were sitting in our friends’ living room. Deidre looked over at me. “Can I tell you something?” she asked, her eyes solemn and sincere. “Sure,” I said, cringing a little. Deidre likes to talk about how she has mended everything with her family and I was sure she was going to tell me that if I don’t behave nicely to my mother I will regret it, that “she will not be here forever” etc. “I’ve been through so many things with parents,” Deidre began, speaking slowly, searching for the right words, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you just have to put them in a lifeboat – making sure the lifeboat has no holes in it – and wave good-bye. That sometimes you have to accept that you will never have a real relationship with them.”

I nodded, relieved, expanding with the realization that Deidre was supporting me. Just that morning I had been walking in the woods with Tamar and I’d thought how maybe I’d ask Rabbi Gregory to talk with me. I thought about how I wanted to explain what I was doing around my mother – withdrawing without being antagonistic – and then I thought, as I walked, how I didn’t want to discuss anything with the rabbi. I just wanted him to support what I was doing, tell me it was okay.

And I think that underneath the withdrawal, the not sending gifts, the not calling every week anymore, underneath that, the next place to go is realizing that my mother is not a warm accepting person. She can’t be. It’s as if she had that part of her blown away a long time ago, back in British Columbia, on the farm where life was hard and there were no soft edges – not in any of the stories she told. My images of the farm she grew up on are barren, a place where my mother walked to a one-room schoolhouse, carrying her shoes so they would last longer, a place where when she fell off a horse in the woods and broke her leg she had to crawl home by herself, a place where her mother cooked three meals a day for seven children, her husband and the handful of working men, where my mother was a plain child whose siblings taunted and ran away from her. My mother always told these stories with a laugh.

I keep thinking of standing in the kitchen in the kitchen in the house we lived in in England, a small rented house. My mother cooking supper, wearing an apron, a simple meal just for her and the kids, my father always away during the week. It was homework time for me up in my room and I would sometimes come down early, stand behind her, put my arms around her waist, turn my head sideways against her back. She would pat my hands that were clasped around her waist. She would say something gentle but always a little teasing. I felt like I was reaching out to sea and trying to pull the boat in to shore and never quite managing it. It was my own gesture, this hug from behind. I never saw anyone else in my family do it. It felt cozy to me, but I had to steal it. I only did it in the evening when my mother was cooking. It was my favorite time of day. It felt the safest, my mother cooking in the evening.

We ate at the kitchen table. We always sat in the same places, my mother with her back to the stove, facing the window that looked out onto the sidewalk of a quiet residential road. No one ever walked by. We walked down that road sometimes – my mother taking us all for a walk. Just walking. We did a lot of walking as a family. We walked and we read – the only two things that everyone did. As a child I walked just because my parents told me to.

I walked with my mother and my two sisters down that lane when we didn’t have anything else to do. My mother told me once on that lane to walk with my head up. I had started to walk with my head down, looking at only the ground in front of me. I hadn’t noticed that I had started to do this. When my mother asked me to hold my head up, it felt very difficult. Looking down felt natural.

Long dark afternoons in the English house. My mother with only me and my two sisters for company. She doesn’t talk on the phone to friends. She doesn’t have friends. I don’t either anymore. I used to. I used to have lots of them, more than anyone else in class. But now I am 12 and 13 and I’ve lost the touch. I don’t know what has happened to me, but some awful spell has fallen over me and I am always outside the circle now like my mother, like a wallflower.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I imagine my father in that dark Budapest apartment where the sun shines in directly for a few minutes through one window at about 7 in the morning. I imagine him sitting in a chair, not moving. I don’t call.

Seven months or so ago I wrote a card to my mother and said that I’d like to take six months off. No calls, visits, notes. She assumed that included my father and let him know that I was checking out for awhile. It wasn’t what I had meant. How to deal with my father I hadn’t figured out. But I didn’t hear from him and later when I heard my mother had included him I felt relieved.

I saw my mother a couple of weeks ago finally. Very undramatic. I did two hours, letting Fred do most of the talking, and then I left. A week later she called and left a message. I answered with a pretty card, an expensive one even. I rarely buy cards. They feel like an extravagance so I was treating her special with a specially chosen card. I mailed the card.

Two days later in a consignment shop – a strange place of odds and ends where sometimes I buy and sometimes I just go for the simple pleasure of idle treasure hunting – I found a pretty pale blue cardigan with the tags still on. I thought it would be a good present for my mother. For Christmas maybe I thought, though I don’t usually buy Christmas presents til the last minute when it’s fun and not well-planned. Or I could just give it to her now. Or I could not spend money I didn’t really have.

I left the cardigan hanging, then returned four hours later and bought it, yielding to what felt like temptation.

My mother’s phone message had been about buying me a kitchen appliance. She’d seen it in Walmart, she wanted to get it for me, she was checking if I wanted it.

The card I had sent was supposed to gently stop the flow. My six-month absence had created a piece of land. Her phone call was like a little stream trickling into my land. I didn’t want it there.

But then there was the sweater which now I’d paid for, throwing out the money because I had just cashed a check that morning and felt rich.

My mother will be given an award this week. She has worked for about ten years as a homecare person and they are giving her an award. My two sisters are coming in from California to go to the dinner with her. I thought of the baby blue cardigan arriving in the mail, my sisters there to see it, my mother maybe even putting it on for the award ceremony.

Because by now I had made up my mind to just go with the flow and mail it now, not wait for Christmas. I bought a big puffy envelope, I wrapped the sweater in scraps of tissue paper that I would not have used for anyone else, but my mother doesn’t care about things like obviously used tissue paper. She is not someone who expects to be treated well.

I sealed the envelope yesterday, stuck my address label up in the corner and addressed it. It didn’t take much longer to realize I had to stop, not send it. I felt like the addict setting down the drink. No. It was too easy. To send this present. That’s what I would have done two years ago, always trying to get satisfaction by giving.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Other People's Houses

On the day the woman comes
to wash my floors
once a week
I hide my shoes
my 4 or 5 pairs of shoes
that seem such an extravagance
because I've never had 4 or 5 pairs all at once before.
Not because I think she will take them
but because I remember what it was like
to have other people's wealth in my face --
their jackets and bags casually dropped here and there
as if they cost nothing --
when I went to other people's houses
to clean or type for them.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


I think the point of writing – of art – is to reveal yourself. Which means becoming very vulnerable. Which maybe explains why the writing looks, to its creator, so bad sometimes. How could it not? The more vulnerable, the more successful the writer has been at getting below the surface, the worse this unprotected, unshellacked piece of writing must appear to the writer who wrote it.


I work at a desk in a room with a cathedral ceiling, at the top of which is a skylight. I can look up and see what the sky looks like, or at least a piece of it. It’s my favorite thing about the room -- the high ceiling, the way a little piece of the sky is visible.

The room I am in is divided into four desk spaces, partitioned one from the other and a corridor down the middle that everyone passes through. My desk – or counter, really – is made of wood. That too is good. I hung a bright red sari down one wall and pasted a mad collectin of prints from old art calendars I had saved, so I threw color into this working space. I tried hard to overtake the bland grimness of workspace. Still, it’s hard to get enough color into even this space with its benevolent blonde wood, enough color to feel alive.

It makes me think of all the desks I’ve sat at since I was 18 – over 30 years. I’ve sat at so many desks in so many offices. Man, if karma exists, then I have desk karma. With all the desks for some reasons certain ones remain in memory.

My mind often drifts to a large room full of desks. I think it was some kind of banking or insurance place. I was a temp there for a week or two, 21 years old. I had just moved to California, to L.A. I had a desk in this big room of desks and the whole place has the color of grey-green as if everything there including the air had been misted with the grey-green color of filing cabinets.

There was a man I rarely saw, a boss of sorts, whose office was behind a closed door. One co-worker told me the boss was having an operation for hemorrhoids. The only think I knew about hemorrhoids was from Preparation H commercials. I didn’t really know what they were. I’d see the yellow Preparation H box in my father’s bathroom. I hadn’t known it was something people had operations for and I wondered how such an intimate detail about this man’s life had made its way into the public giggle space of the office.

It was at this place at this desk that Eric called me from New York City, an exciting thrilling call.

Eric was the lawyer I’d had a brief unconsummated fling with six months earlier, back in New York. I’d been a temp in his office too, just over the Christmas break, and there was nothing appealing about Eric except that he was utterly out of my league: a boyish high-powered lawyer with a Porsche that he’d let me drive once by myself through Central Park. Me, who loved driving. It felt good to have this man hunger for me especially since Jeffrey, my live-in boyfriend of several years, had just had a three-month affair with a woman who was also way out of my league: a published author with an eight-year-old kid.

It was an ongoing debate with Jeffrey who insisted that just because he wanted to sleep with other people didn’t mean he didn’t love me, and my inner struggle to let him have what he wanted because if I didn’t he’d resent me and take it on the sly, which was even scarier. So when Eric called me in the sea of grey-green desks and asked if I could come to the Virgin islands for the weekend I said yes.

The timing was perfect. Jeffrey was just about to head back to New York for a few weeks. I’d gone on anti-depressants, hailed as miracle drugs, and I had felt no results until the Friday night of Jeffrey’s departure when suddenly the movie we went to was one of the best I’d ever seen as we sat over delicious Chinese food I could not stop talking. I had so much to say. I felt great. Jeffrey didn’t enjoy it. “I can’t believe the drugs are kicking in just when I’m leaving,” he said.

It was such a joy to be able to talk. I had stopped talking somewhere around thirteen years old. It had only gotten worse all through high school and college. I couldn’t not speak with my peers. I could speak with my parents and sisters only as a jokester, someone who kept the mood light when dark clouds threatened which was often. But mostly I stayed quiet, felt out of place in the chattering crowds of school where I walked around mostly feeling like a knife was twisting in my stomach, feeling like I was locked inside some awful impenetrable place where no one could see me, where I was crippled. That Jeffrey, the boyfriend, had picked me out – a boy who was rich and had friends and knew how to get drugs and have sex and had a huge record collection – a boy who had so many things that were out of reach for me – that he had come to me and made me part of his world was a huge opening and I had grabbed at it. Our closeness too was unique in my life – how we knew each other’s every expression, how we seemed wrapped so close one was inside the other. And when it hurt it hurt real bad, and when he was mean he was vicious and I walked out, slamming the door, many times. But I had always returned because I had nowhere else at all to go.

So my sudden chattering that Friday night when the sound of my voice didn’t make me cringe was a pleasure I wasn’t familiar with.

I visited my mother last week and again sat quietly while she talked and things happened around me. I hadn’t seen or talked to her for six months. I noticed my quietness. there was just no impulse to talk while I was with her, except once or twice, briefly. But mostly I felt as I sat there at her little table by the window, not animosity, but that anything I might say did not matter, had no place.