Friday, March 26, 2010

LAST VISIT

When we returned from my mother’s on Sunday afternoon there was a message from her on my phone. I had left my laptop at her house. I called her right away. She was apologetic, saying that she had given me too many things to take with me, that she’d made it impossible for me to be able to remember everything.

“It’s nothing,” I heard myself saying without hesitation. “I’ll just drive back down this week and get it.”

“Really?” my mother said. ‘You don’t need it right away?” She’d been ready to wrap it in yards of bubble wrap and send it Fed Ex. My mother who just went on food stamps.

I noted how easily I said I’d be back, the words coming out like they’d been waiting. “I’ll come after work on Wednesday,” the last day before my sister arrived.

“I’ll make us some supper,” my mother said.

And so three days after saying what I thought was my last good-bye and taking my last lingering look at the house, I am returning, alone this time, without husband or dog, just me.

My mother opened the door, diminutive now, she has shrunk so much, her back rounded with osteoporosis. But I notice her white, white hair and the childlike bob she has recently adopted. For a long time she wore her hair pinned up, but now it’s cut blunt and square to her ear lobes and it’s pretty.

I step into her small living room. It is more bare than it was on Sunday, closer to being empty. A small radio sits where the TV used to.

I feel tall and big in my mother’s living room. I start to take off my hiking boots as she turns towards the kitchen and then she turns back towards me. “Let me give you a hug!” she says.

I am surprised. She often bypasses hugs, or delivers them stiffly, but tonight she actually says the word and wants it.

It is still light out. I sit at the small wooden dining table that she and I bought from a thrift store in Narrowsberg about 13 years ago. It will be picked up by another second-hand store on Saturday.

I look out the back window, through the thin winter woods to the spread of lake that is a mass of brilliant sparkles, reflecting a sun that is going down. it is much more beautiful than a cheap acre of land in the most economically depressed county in the state has any right to be.

My mother and I talk of easy things. My mother talks. I listen and comment and ask a question here and there. I like the color she is wearing. Just a bulky woolen sweater and work pants, but they are a dark periwinkle/lavender, a color that flatters her. my mother, in her last decade or two, has started to wear colors very consciously and well and it fits with almost nothing else that I know about her.

She brings out a shallow bowl of cooked peppers – red and green – and onions, and the bowl is so pretty I wish I had my camera. It’s as if all the laws of symmetry are satisfied by this bowl and its contents. And again the gentleness of the bowl of food, its simple perfection surprises me. This is not where I expect to see such things.

“I looked up your town online,” I say. “It looks pretty nice!” I did look up the town and was pleased to see it has more heft than I’d imagined. But I can’t keep up this thread of conversation. It requires too much effort.

We eat. I make tea as I always do when visiting my mother, relieved tonight that our ritual is not over yet. But as soon as I drink it down I say I have to get going. My mind does not want to slow down too far. If I slow down I will start to say things that keep creeping into my mind like how she won’t see her daffodils bloom, or the lilac – grown so tall now from those stumps we planted.

“If you need help with the house or the renter, let me know,” I hear myself saying, me who has been so aloof.

She is surprised. “Oh,” she says, “that would be great. Thank you.”

We have things to put in my car – the flowering plant, the laptop, some candles. “And I’ll get a few logs from the woods,” I say.

My mother’s face brightens. “I’ll come with you!” she says, and I know we are both looking forward to those few moments – the short walk down to the pile of logs, picking up a few, putting them in my trunk. Something outdoors.

As I walk back up to my car, logs in hand, I feel the pull of this small piece of land – the two houses, nothing separating them, the one that used to be mine, for a short-but-long six months. I feel the land holding me, wanting me.

I put the logs in the trunk, my mother puts in hers. “Let’s go get more,” she says.

“No,” I say, “that’s enough.”

“That’s not enough,” she argues.

But it is. There is room for more, but something in me says no.

“Come check that you haven’t left anything,” my mother says.

I know I haven’t. I know she wants me to come back in just to keep me a few more moments.

And I’m happy to go through those motions. I glance around the bare room.

I hug my mother. “I’ll come see you real soon,” I say. I cannot linger. I just can’t. “Bye, Mum,” I say as if I were coming back in 30 minutes. I can’t bear to have it any other way.

Monday, March 15, 2010

ON THE MOVE

My mother is moving to California in a couple of weeks. Last I heard. Maybe the woman who agreed to rent her house backed out. I haven’t heard if the lease got signed this week like it was supposed to. I called my mother yesterday to find out but only managed to leave a message. It is very rare for me to call my mother during the week, during the day. A special occasion. I felt I was doing it because she may only be here for another two weeks. And also I’d like to know for sure if it’s really happening now.


When I first heard she was leaving, a few months ago, I felt very sad. I felt a great sense of loss, not so much about her, but about her in that house.

I was very involved in the purchase of the small white clapboard house she has lived in for the last 12 years.


I was still iving in the ashram in the late 90s and my mother wanted to move up to the ashram neighborhood, rural Sullivan County. She figured if she lived near the ashram she’d see a lot of me and my two sisters who visited the ashram from California once or twice a year. Plus, my mother by that time had a lot of friends of her own in the ashram world. She knew the ashram routines and customs. She even had a picture of the guru in her house. She was part of the ashram fabric, a quirky party, but a part.


In the late 90s I was living in a part of the ashram most off the beaten path, away from the fancier, more central areas. I had finally, after 6 years, scored my own room, now had a toaster oven for baked potatoes, a radio for NPR and my own bathtub to read The New Yorker in. In Spring evenings I sometimes walked down the road, past mis-matched houses, rather than dash to the evening chant the way I used to.


And one evening, just a minute or two down the road, I saw a small hand-lettered For Sale sign stuck in the lawn of a small square house.

It was perfect and though it took a few months, my mother purchased it with a $10,000 down payment, her entire savings account. Scraggly lawn, scraggly woods, even a lake just beyond her scraggly woods. A place for her to garden. She planted every year. My mother’s gardens are always erratic collections of things that are working and things that are not.


In January 2000 I moved into an almost identical cottage next door. My financial consultant sister wanted to buy the second cottage when it went up for sale and my plan was to live there, paying rent and writing. Except that six months later I moved to Woodstock and Fred. I left my mother.


While I lived in the cottage I was aware in the back of my mind that I was filling a role very conveniently. My sisters, both younger than me, were married and living on the other side of the country. It was very handy that I was single and content to live next door to my mother.


But I walked out on that job when life opened up so unexpectedly and I walked in a very different direction than the plan of living alone next to my mother.

I remember sitting in my mother’s living room – or actually, I think it was in mine. Our living rooms were the same shape, the houses laid out almost identically. I remember sitting at the table with her. “I’m going to move to Woodstock,” I said. “I’m going to move in with Fred.”


I knew it wasn’t what she expected, not what she wanted. I was aware I was ruining something. I had liked living next door to her, and across the street from the Dobsons, an ashram couple with a baby whom my mother cared for every day. I was walking out on something. But there was no debating it. No contest. I knew I wanted to go to Woodstock and be with Fred.


A few weeks ago, visiting my mother, she said, out of nowhere, with a shade of anger in her voice, or a shade of strong emotion – not something that arises often in our conversations – “But you’re like that,” she said to me. “One minute you like something and the next minute you don’t. You never know with you!”

I hesitated, not knowing what she was referring to therefore not sure how to respond. But I could sort of see that many scenes of disappointment were in her mind. There have been many years during which I have been someone she could rely on – though none of them recent – and a few very dramatic times when I have leapt off in a new direction without explanation, for myself, leaving her stranded.


And now she’s leaving the little house that suits her perfectly. My sisters orchestrated it. I would have not said anything and let her live there until she complained or it became obvious something had to change.


She has acquiesced, my mother. My mother, who never expects love, is maybe glad that anyone wants to do anything for her. And, okay, she just lost her drivers license which makes life in the sticks a very different matter. I still wish she had stayed until it was clear she could no longer.


And in my head is a mixture of sadness that one phase is so decidedly ending, and it would be easy to get sentimental. I don’t want to get sentimental. I want to stay alert. The story is much more complex than mere sentiment allows.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Maybe Somewhere Else

High school is finally just about over. A few more weeks and I will be done. It’s been a three-year slog. I came back to the American high school after five years of living abroad and none of it had really gone well.


The high school that I entered – age fourteen, grade ten – was modern and sleek, a beige one-story building built in the sixties, corridors lined with beige metal lockers and a smooth linoleum floor. The chairs attached to the desks in a mold of chrome and formica. Spiral notebooks and loose-leaf binders. Boys in blue jeans, tee shirts, sneakers. Girls who wore a different outfit every day.


I stepped into it, feeling like an alien, wanting very much to not only blend in, but be successful there. I wanted to be one of the girls with a boyfriend who slung his arm across her shoulders as they walked down the corridor between classes. I wanted friends of any sort, but something had caught in my throat two years before and though I’d hoped that the excitement of moving back to America – “America” – would dislodge it, I found myself still mysteriously crippled. There was something that hung over me that I could not shake off. I beat at it, tried to outrun it, but it was always there, a shadow, clinging to me, forbidding me to talk to other people, especially the ones I liked, or worse, admired from a distance. I shrank from the people I liked, so certain that they would crumple me up like a piece of scrap paper and throw me out if I cam anywhere near them.


So I was glad that graduation was in sight. I was sure that once I didn’t have to show up for these ridiculous classes and once I didn’t have to be with these people anymore, things would get better.


Then my father told me that he had arranged for me to go to Hungary for a month after graduation. It wasn’t couched as a graduation present. My father was Hungarian, my mother Canadian. They had never received graduation presents in the very different cultures from which they came, and although they had both lived in the States a good 20 years or so, neither of them became familiar with American norms. They remained outsiders, virtually without friends, and always with a strong resistance to anything American. Except for things like democracy and the right to vote, the word “American” was not flattering in the house I grew up in. American usually meant childish, spoiled and uncultured. “You sound so American,” my mother would sometimes say to my sisters or me.


So my father was giving me this trip, the purpose of which was to enroll me in a month-long program for children of Hungarian parents born abroad to teach us Hungarian language and culture.


Whatever.


I tweaked the trip a little. I asked to fly Icelandic to Luxembourg because, I told my father, it was the cheapest way to go. I didn’t mention how much I’d read about how everyone flew Icelandic to Lexembourg and smoked pot on the plane and I hoped maybe the shadow would melt away on that plane and I could turn into a girl in the back row, passing joints, in the thick of a crowd laughing and talking, with a boy or two falling in love with me.


I negotiated a backpack, a EurRail pass, a journey first from Luxembourg to England and then from England I’d make my way east to Budapest and my month-long program.


I wanted to be a backpacker in Europe. This might crack open my tomb. I had hitchhiked the previous summer across the States, alone, lying to my parents that I was on a Greyhound bus, and though this had brought me the company of Joseph, a worldly 27-year-old man of the road, and it had been almost my fantasy, I had still felt the lump in my throat, the inability to speak, the terror that if I spoke my fragile camouflage would disintegrate, someone would see behind it, and there would be nothing there that anyone could like at all.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

On the Trail

I mailed a card to my father this morning. I sat down yesterday evening, found a card in the stack on the bookshelf that was adequate quality to send him, a card not perfectly suited for him, a card that would have been perfect for my mother, a colorful wood block print of birds – the artwork not fine and classic the way my father would expect, but the shades ob blue and gray were strong and striking and I could imagine him noticing that.


I wrote a card that said very little. It talked about how Spring was coming, how we and the workshops were doing well. I didn’t mention Paris in case he’d take offence that I hadn’t gone to Budapest. Or maybe I just didn’t want to say something that important. But I did respond, and this morning I left for work early so I could stop at the post office and send it on its way before it just languished in my purse for a week.


The sadness in my father is huge. When I was little I remember noticing how all the Hungarians who came to our house were sad. My father laughed when I told him what I saw – I was only three or four – and he always remembered and repeated it. But my father’s sadness went far beyond the sadness I saw in the guests, his friends.


But he was never glum He was always being the cheerful one. When I was little I loved the way he made everything better. And when I got older and became a teenager I hated what felt now like false cheer and like pressure to hold up my end of the bargain.


I stopped speaking to him. Not out of meanness or on purpose, but at some point I froze up against him and when he took me out to the opera or a concert or for an extravagant dinner – driving into the city from the suburbs -- something I looked forward to – my voice dried up, and he would talk and keep talking, telling stories from his Hungarian youth, or discussing some piece of history he was reading about. I froze, and I didn’t know what it was that had me glaring out the window. Later when I met him on Wednesday nights at the Yale Club for dinner when I was going to school and living in a city dorm – I didn’t know what it was that curdled our evening every week and made me want to get away.


I thought it was something more in me than in him, and I wished I could be the daughter I imagined him wanting – intellectual, European, Ingrid Bergman, laughing, entertaining. And all I could manage was to be very pretty and almost completely silent.


I would leave the Yale Club, cross the street into Grand Central and into the subway, with relief to be back on my own ground, to be in motion with everyone else, going from one thing to the next, though I would end at the dead end of my small dorm room where I closed the door and then there’d be nothing, a frozen space – my bookshelf, my records, but everything standing still.


And the only thing that brought real movement into the room was Jeffrey’s call at 11pm when the rates went down. I waited for it, the black phone and phone cord linking me again to a world where there was movement – his voice, his friends, his family.


As I spoke to him I always felt I was faking it, pretending to be someone that might have a role in the world Jeffrey was in. It didn’t matter that he said he loved me. It mattered in that I wanted to hear him say it, but the words provided only the most fleeting sense of safety.


I would take his world, pull it over me like a blanket, like camouflage to hide behind.


And it was all so scary because I knew I could not pull this off forever. This boy, who made all the difference, was sure to leave at any moment.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

ON EDGE

There was a letter from my father waiting for me when I returned from Paris – typed, in a blue envelope – on the library table, lost in a heap of mail, papers and magazines. It stood out. Blue, typed, colorful stamps.

I opened it. One small page. Awkward misspelled English. My father’s English, though strongly accented, was fluent, but he hasn’t lived in the States for almost 30 years now, and he has really retreated into illness and old age so that he is hardly recognizable.

The letter was an attempt at friendship, an appeal of sorts. “We used to be such good friends. I hope we can do so again.” Something like that.

Plus a word about having read my book and something about how he was sorry things had been hard.

And enclosed an old color photo of him as a young man, sitting outside on the ground, writing in a notebook on his knee while I, a two-year-old, cause him to look up, our gaze locked on one another.

I do not want anything from my father so it’s not that there was not enough of something here.

My aunt, his sister, wrote a note at the bottom saying she had done the typing and apologizing for the “faults.”

I felt a little stab of pain that he no longer has the secretary who used to come once a week to his apartment to type up his letters.

I am out of touch with my father almost completely. I haven’t fired off even a breezy little card to make him feel better. I haven’t gotten to it and don’t know if I will.

My parents have always made me sad more than anything else and I can’t see any way to lift that – I guess I can send a card, but it all seems kind of meaningless.

My mother called last night and left a message. She’s found someone to rent her house and she is moving to California in three weeks. It doesn’t seem real. It seems so clich├ęd and like someone else’s story: my mother moves to California to be near two of her daughters who have found her some kind of senior housing. My mother isn’t the senior-housing type – she’s independent and vigorous for her 85 years, but her eyes, she says, aren’t good enough for driving anymore, and she is going.

“I guess I won’t be seeing you too much after this,” the message says, and then she quickly changes the subject because it’s all too scary.

I thought, oh, well, I guess I’ll go out there for a long weekend some time in the next ten months or so. But that too sounded like something out of someone else’s life. “She’s going out to California to see her mother,” I imagined people at work saying this, nodding, understanding, of course. This is what people do when they have elderly parents.

But will I? That’ll be a few hundred dollars and vacation time I don’t have. And what about all the other places I want to go and things I want to do?

These things bash at me.

My first thoughts are always: Oh, I will send a card, or I will go visit, and then those ideas just kind of wash slowly away. They don’t hold up. They are just ideas.

I had a friend years ago who lived way out in Wisconsin, being an artist, living on almost nothing. When she got engaged she immediately went to work to earn money for her wedding, which she wanted to have in Manhattan. She spent a year making money and had the wedding at the Plaza or something. I only saw the photos. They looked like movie stills from the Great Gatsby. Looking at them made me uncomfortable. They had nothing to do with the person I knew. The pictures weren’t telling me a real story.

Paris was very much a real story. The word “vacation” has within it a sense of getting into some kind of vehicle that just takes you on a coasting effortless ride from which you emerge rested etc. Paris had much more texture than that.

I think of the colors and textures of where we lived, pushing the buttons of the keypad on the street by the set of tall heavy dark wood doors. 45326, pushing open the heavy door and stepping into a dim inner courtyard, the curving stairs leading up, the raw unpolished grey wood of the stairs, the red door to unlock, the steps up and into our little place.

“What was this space used for originally?” I asked Nathalie, our landlord. “I have no idea,” she answered.

Its high ceiling, the long red striped curtains, classical music from Radio Classique, a station I found, or the person next door practicing piano in the mornings, making scales sound like virtuoso feats. And on our last morning there was an umbrella open and drying outside her door, and we could hear a man singing opera as she accompanied him. I always imagined the pianist was a woman.

The city. The streets. Finding my way.

Yesterday at work I went to YouTube and typed in Paris, looking for videos of the streets and places. Found a little of what I was looking for though it’s always someone else’s Paris, not quite mine.

I loved the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. A wonderful, messy mass of books – the kind of place you can stay in for a long time, reaching out for this title, then that one. The way a bookstore should be. I really understood what the chain bookstores have robbed us of. I bought a book there called something like Rebel Bookseller, a guy writing about what it’s been like to have a bookstore – it’s his way of encouraging people not to give up the dream if you want to have a bookstore. Though I have often thought about it, I probably won’t do it, but I sure hope others do.

I hear there’s a group of people who might buy the Golden Notebook together and keep it going. If Woodstock were to lose its bookstore I would feel like the heart of the town had died.

I am going to hear Itzhak Perlman tonight. I so hope I lose myself in his playing, in the music the way it happens sometimes where you feel yourself disappear, the musicians disappear and you all are inside the music. I have been wanting to hear him for many years. This is so great that we can go. Violin is my favorite instrument. Its sound breaks my hears.