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.