It Is a Songbird
By L B Gschwandtner
I look at the painting again and wonder where my mother is in it. Is she the bird singing its plaintive song to the marsh? Or is she the marsh, all green and muddy with slight glimmers of pale light at the edges?
If I look at the painting long enough, I think maybe I will see my mother in it. It’s not a self portrait, though in a sense it must be, as every work of art reveals something of the one who painted it. So I stand before this painting staring at the muted tones searching for this other mother, the one who could paint such serenity. It’s not the mother I ever knew.
It is a songbird. I’m sure of that. The bird perches atop a broken off branch that emerges from the bottom of the canvas off to one side as if from a marshy pool, surrounded by soft ochre and grayish greens that lead to pale milky blues with a blush of peach to the right of the branch – just a hint of pink hue. Nothing you would pick up on at first glance. Like my mother the painting has a sense of more activity lurking beneath the surface façade. But what’s down there remains a mystery.
The bird is small in relation to the space of the canvas. So you couldn’t say this is a painting of a bird. The little thing is almost incidental to its surroundings. Its chest is puffed out. Its feathers are suggested with a slight ruffling of the brush, painted loosely so that it almost blends into the background as indeed it might in nature. Its beak is open and its head tilts toward the sky. You can almost hear its trilling from this painted moment of songbird reverie.
My mother made this painting when she was sixty-three. Ten years before a surgeon opened her left leg and cut out a length of healthy vein to use in pieces to bypass four obstructed arteries around her heart. Seven years before the same surgeon sawed my father’s chest in half to bypass three arteries around his heart. Fifteen years before a different surgeon amputated the big toe on my father’s left foot – the beginning of a downward spiral that ended two years later when my father refused to continue dialysis.
But at sixty-three she was still painting sometimes. She used the pointed wooden end of her paintbrush to scratch some lines in the painting of that little bird, lines that denote parts of the broken off tree branch where the bird is perched. A few lines scratched in the background to show texture and depth. An unusual way to use the brush. Almost an afterthought it seems. The scratched out lines add a soft Asian quality, like one of those old screens you see in books on Chinese art, adorned with delicate blossoms and gray herons wading in silent pools, the background a mass of cliffs that reach toward the clouds above, the atmosphere foggy and mysterious.
That’s what I told my mother when I first saw it. In fact I was so moved that I immediately and without thinking rushed over to her, standing in what she termed her “studio” but which was really an extra room she shared with my father’s TV set, his leather Eames chair and a big desk leftover from his last office, some bookshelves and a little table. I put my arms around her and hugged her close. At least as close as she would allow. She stood rather stiffly, taken by surprise at this spontaneous show of affection.
“That’s beautiful,” I told her.
She leaned back and looked away and almost as an aside said, “Oh. Well.”
It has always been difficult to make a connection with my mother. There were so many barriers. There still are. Different ones now. I wonder where the division is between the ones on her side and the ones I’ve had to construct.
“When did you paint it?” I asked her, trying to soften the conversation, offering her room.
“Well,” she stammered a little, “I just painted the bird on this board.” She went on to talk about where she bought the board and why she liked these boards better than stretched canvas and how much they cost, filling the space with information irrelevant to the lovely painting she had made and to the love it made me feel. She seemed unable to gather pleasure from the painting or the recognition that she had done something wonderful. Yes, she had talent in her from childhood, along with everything else.
Over in one corner of the room she shared with my father’s desk was my mother’s work table with a plastic cloth over it so no paint would spatter anything. She managed to work in a pretty small space and always to control the circumstances of the act of painting. She had accepted the hug, but there had been no corresponding hug back. My mother can be as aggressive as a pit bull and yet, when it comes to physical tenderness, she becomes as passive as a sheet hung on a clothesline. She will accept but will never initiate. She will stand and be the object of tenderness, but will not reciprocate. She seems always out of synch with the emotional moment at hand.
She gave me the painting without a backward look. When I finally located it in my basement and took it out to have framed some sixteen years later and told her about it, she did not remember that painting. It was all gone. As if it had never happened. Like a lot of my childhood.
By the time she made this painting I was already a little taller than my mother. Now she is eighty-one and I have a few inches on her at least. This is a process that one never expects, can’t prepare for, and it surprises and hurts a little. Not like the old hurts. This one is new. This one comes from outside the circle you have drawn around each other. The circle that denotes where she stops and you begin but that also locks you into lines of battle and a way of communicating. This hurt comes from nature. The great mother of us all. She will have us back one day, will Mother Nature.
* * *
I am three. We are living in a brick colonial-style house. There are lots of stone walls outside and grass, green lush grass that seems to spread without end. I am playing with two puppies. We are on the grass, squealing and tumbling. One of the puppies is black. The other oyster white. Soon there will be only one puppy, the white one. I don’t have any memory of how the other one disappeared. The one that’s left becomes my mother’s dog. After this transition, the grown dog doesn’t like me anymore. Sometimes she snaps and growls.
I am five and I’ve just come up the stairs heading toward my room. To the right at the top of the landing my parents’ bedroom door is half open. It’s daytime. The sun is shining. I remember it clearly because the window seat set into the wall between my room and my parents’ is awash in bright sunlight. The room beyond the doorway is dark, the shades drawn, my mother is stretched out in an armchair, the cocker spaniel on her lap. My mother rests one hand on the dog’s head. The other arm is flung over her eyes. An ice bag covers her forehead. She is crying softly. I don’t know what’s wrong. But I know enough not to go in there. I watch for a few moments. Maybe I’m hoping she’ll see me. She never does.
And then she is gone. I don’t know where. After some time – weeks, months, I have no idea how long, looking back on it from where I am now – she comes back. She is quieter for a while. Then the screaming starts again. I try to remember the circumstances in my childhood that might have set her off on any one of her screaming binges. I cannot. I have blank spaces for much of the sequence of my childhood and there are years where I can’t reconstruct a fabric. I remember certain times, experiences, days even, as clearly as if they had happened yesterday. Me awakening in the morning to the chorus of birds. Whippoorwills and redwings, robins and wrens, warblers and jays, the barn swallows that nested in the rafters between my parents’ cars in the garage. The sun streams into the two windows that look out across the acres of lawn to the woods behind the grass field where my father set up a baseball diamond. Every morning sunlight pours through these windows. It is a cheerful room. Pink when I was very young. Repainted a light apple green when I was about nine. My mother brought home paint chips and let me choose the color for my room. I remember feeling very grown up making the decision.
“Now imagine this on all your walls. Be sure it’s what you want. There will be a lot of it,” she told me. It was good advice. And I did like the end result.
The single north-facing window on the other wall looks out over two large patches of quince apple shrubs, cut back to form hedges. Between the two beds a concrete walk with steps at the end leads to the gravel driveway that forms a wide circle before it loops into a straightaway toward the asphalt road. In spring, when the quince is in bloom, hundreds of bees flit from flower to flower in these hedges. They make a low humming sound that scares me, so I run as fast as I can to get through the hedges to safety.
I am six when I run down that walk and trip on the last concrete step and go down, my right knee mashing into the gravel. I know right away I have done some major damage. I can’t look. I hobble into the house and up the stairs. I sit outside the bathroom, my leg bent, wounded knee facing the wall. I am crying, sobbing, half from pain, half from fear. Then she comes out of her bedroom.
“What have you done now?” She stands over me, contempt in her voice, irritated that I need something, that I have done something she cannot ignore.
I hold my hand over the wound. She starts screaming. I cry. I can’t look at her. She snaps my hand away and the knee is exposed. I sneak a look at her face and see real fear. Then we are in the car. In the doctor’s office, he is so nice I can’t believe it. I feel protected. He speaks softly. He says he knows it hurts. Slowly, painstakingly he picks all the little bits of gravel out of the exposed flesh. There is surprisingly little blood. He explains that he won’t stitch it together. There just isn’t enough skin left. He says he won’t put iodine on it. He’ll put something that won’t sting. He finishes cleaning it and covers my knee with a large dressing. He tells my mother how to change it. He tells the nurse to give her supplies to last two weeks. He tells me not to run until it’s all healed. He pats my head and smiles at me. He tells me I’ve been a brave girl. My mother and I drive home in silence. I feel a sense of triumph. She had to take care of me. It will be decades before I stop scraping, cutting, mangling and bruising myself.
We live on ten acres. Five acres of manicured lawn and another five acres of deep woods that connects to forest owned by neighbors leading far back behind our house, so far in fact that in all the years of my youth, and all the hours I spent hiding in those woods and exploring them I never reached the end. I thought they must have gone on forever. I did find hidden springs deep in the woods, and a large marsh where skunk cabbage pushed through the ground in the spring and water gurgled under large rocks. I could hear the underground stream but it always eluded me. The marsh seemed an impenetrable place. But safe. In trying to find the main spring that formed this marsh I hopped from rock to rock many times but never found my way out of it. Now I think maybe I didn’t want to find the end or the source. I didn’t want to know what happened when the boulders and the sweet gurgling springs ended. I was afraid to know what the real source of that gurgling was. Afraid to learn where it led. Afraid to find out that it had an end. Better to wonder. Better to imagine something beautiful. Better not to know what terrifying thing might be under there.
I am in second grade, Mrs. Carlucci’s class. At the end of the day we wait in the third grade class for our school buses to take us home. I don’t know the third grade teacher. My bus is late and we’ve been waiting a long time. I sit at the piano with another girl and we start banging on the keys. Neither of us can play. It is one type of lesson my mother did not make me take. Out of nowhere the third grade teacher, who has to wait with us until all the buses have left, is standing at my side yelling at me. We stop banging on the keys. I am very quiet. She’s looking down right in my face.
“What nationality are you?” She screams. “Tell me right now.”
I think it’s a quiz. I am still in school and she is a teacher. And even though I am only in second grade I know what nationality means. And I know all about a woman standing over me and screaming relentlessly.
The screaming happened at home so often I can’t even put an age or date on it. I am small during that time, a little girl standing in the hallway outside my bedroom or downstairs in the kitchen and my mother is screaming at me about something and there is no one around to stop her. I have no idea why she is screaming at me, what she wants me to do differently, what I have done that she is so very angry about. She screams and screams, the pitch getting higher, the rage more threatening. I am remembering all the different times she did this and rolling them into one memory. One long scream.
I stand like a stone, hands balled up into fists behind my back, teeth clenched, lips set hard. She cannot hurt a stone, I think. The words cannot tear me down. I am an indestructible rock.
“Scream back at me,” she finally yells. “Scream back.” Her voice reaches a pitch that sends shock waves through my little body. But I will not budge. And then she screams something odd. Almost as an afterthought, as if she is doing this for my benefit.
“Get it out of your system,” she yells. “It’s better to let it out.”
But she doesn’t tell me what it is. And I don’t dare ask. So I don’t ask about the quiz this teacher I don’t know is giving me. I just answer the best way I know how.
“American,” I say. This makes the teacher furious.
“No,” she yells at me. By now every child in the classroom is a statue and the silence surrounds me like a fog. “What RELIGION?”
I think for a minute. I’m not so sure about this one. My friends all go to church. Different ones. We don’t go anywhere. On Sundays I play outside. And wait for my friends to come home from church.
“Jewish I think,” I say it softly. I’m just not sure what the quiz is all about. I don’t want to give the wrong answer.
She stands up straight, her hands settle on her hips. She looks mean. And then she smiles. But it’s not a nice smile. It’s a triumphant smile.
“They’re all troublemakers,” she says. “Now get away from that piano.” She turns and walks away.
I’m confused by this exchange. Later I tell my mother about it. I want some kind of clarity from her. An explanation. Instead she gets angry.
“I’ll take care of that,” she says. “She can’t get away with it. She works for us. We pay taxes. I’ll go to that school and complain about that teacher. She’ll just see who’s the boss.”
She didn’t seem to see that I was the injured party. Not because a teacher I didn’t know was mean to me. But because this was a game I just didn’t understand. No one ever addressed my confusion.
When my mother screamed at me instead of screaming back I would dig my fingers into my palms so hard sometimes I would be afraid there would be blood there when I finally let loose. My nails made deep grooves, but after a while they faded.
Later, alone in my room, I would scream inside my head. I would fantasize revenge. I would run. I would hide. She would never know where I went. Some nice mother would take pity on me and take me in and care for me and about me.
I took to hiding chocolates in my room. At night I would take a Hershey bar to bed with me. When my mother came to check me I would hide it behind my back, always terrified of what would happen if she caught me with it. But she never did. At night my father was home from work. She never screamed at me when he was around. After she left my room I would feel safer. Then my father would come in to kiss me goodnight. And every night he went through the ritual. Opening the closet door. Turning on the closet light, chasing the monster out of my room. By then I was having a recurring nightmare that would awaken me to the sound of my own screaming in the middle of the night. The screaming nightmare in one form or another would be with me for decades until finally fading away when I reached my fifties to be replaced by dreams of working out puzzles and coming up with solutions to problems.
Sometimes when I was locked in my room, told to stay there with no food for the day, I would escape by drawing. Or reading about women who overcame great difficulties. Marie Curie. Amelia Earhart. Or women who became great artists. Isadora Duncan. Mary Cassatt. Or books by women writers. Pearl Buck. Daphne Dumaurier. Willa Cather. She gave me that, too. The paradox of it does not escape me. But there were times – lean years of acting out my distress in ways designed more to hurt myself than anyone else – when I had no way to see what she had given me, only a way to see how she had almost annihilated me. Are these words too harsh? She never molested me nor beat me senseless, nor left me untended. She was, if anything, overly concerned with the minutia of cleanliness and hygiene in all its forms. In fact any odor that emanated from my body was cause for shame, in public if possible. Being dirty was the worst sin of all others, although minor sins like talking too loudly or touching one’s hair, not sitting straight at the table, placing an errant elbow next to a plate of food, walking around in your own home in a full slip, were remarked upon as shameful display. Shame was the weapon of choice. Harsh words of contempt came next. Screaming was reserved for making the most lasting impression.
* * *
I am eight and the pull-down stairs to the attic are lowered and I hear my mother’s footsteps tapping above me in the attic. In a moment she appears at the top of the stairs. The attic is hot. She is wearing a skirt. She is always wearing a skirt or a dress. Never pants. She never owns a pair of jeans. She always looks like she is about to go to a party. She has no grubby clothes for working around the house. She descends the stairs. I see her feet in high heels; she’s wearing stockings. Her skirt comes below her knees. Now I see her belt buckle and then her silk blouse. She is wearing something over the blouse. It is white and fluffy and soft, with big square shoulders. As she comes into view I see she is beautiful, her black hair against the white fur, her bright blue eyes smiling.
She smiles and steps onto the carpet leaving the stairs behind and twirls in front of me. She is on exhibit. She is center stage.
“You look like Ginger Rogers in a movie,” I tell her.
“This is summer Ermine,” she stands next to me so I can feel the wide-shouldered jacket. It is so wonderful I want to try it on. She takes it off and we play like two girlfriends. I think summer Ermine means a fur you wear in summer. This is the mother I want. We pretend I am Ginger dancing in a movie. It does not last long. But it’s there.
My friend from childhood – we are still as close as sisters – tells me that her mother was over protective. Whenever she wanted to go somewhere or do something she was told no. She was watched. Not because her mother didn’t trust her. Just because her mother was old fashioned and thought children should stay close to home.
In my home there was fantastic freedom. I never had to ask if I could go out or when I had to come back. I knew when to come home for dinner. Other than that, after the school bus let me off, I was free to go anywhere or do anything, as long as I had no lessons that day. My mother had a theory about children.
“You should be exposed to everything,” she would say. That meant dancing lessons, ice skating lessons, sailing lessons, art lessons, stints at the museum and nature center cleaning animal cages, student teaching young children at the local art school, even traveling by myself from Connecticut to New York – an hour ride by train every Saturday for a year when I was twelve – to attend the Museum of Modern Art’s children’s art classes.
Never mind that I was always alone doing these things. Never mind that I had no one to talk to, no one I knew at these activities, no one to confide in, no one to tell about the man who followed me out of the train station one day, the man who touched me, the man who frightened me so much I couldn’t even admit it had happened for ten years. Never mind all that. I had plenty of freedom. Not that I had asked for it.
* * *
I am nine and we are living in Florida for the winter. We do this every year. We start school up north and then leave in October, driving south on U.S. 1. There is no Interstate system yet. We drive through every city and town on the east coast. We stay in a rented house in a small town on the Atlantic coast in south Florida until April and then we come home to finish school. This year is different. Instead of the one-room tutoring school, I go to a real school in Florida for the whole year and at the end of the term we will leave to go north. But something else happens this year. My father does not go to work. He goes out fishing a lot. In Florida he spends more time at home than when we are up north. My mother is rarely alone with me. And she does not scream. It’s hard to tell when spring comes. It’s always warm and sunny. But at some time my mother becomes more subdued. She seems to spend more and more time in my parents’ bedroom with the shades drawn and the dog on her lap. This goes on for days that melt into weeks. And she cries endlessly. And then, after some flurry of activity and lots of phone calls, my father has arranged something and she is gone again.
He arranges to take her back north and that is not easy in 1954. I don’t know how it gets worked out. It is one of the many questions I never ask. Someone must have put me on a plane because I fly back to New York alone on a DC3. A fat, noisy plane with four big propellers. The engines are so loud you can’t really hear what anyone is saying. The voices sound all fuzzy. I sit in the seat very quietly, my little legs sticking out in front of me, my bangs unevenly cut so they slope across my forehead. My mother cuts them this way. She can’t seem to get them straight. When she trims them she is impatient with me and tells me to stand still. Her face looks grim. As if it’s my fault she can’t get them right. The flight takes many hours. I feel every bump as if I am on a trampoline. The pilot’s voice comes over the loud speaker, wavery and rough, telling us we’re running into even worse weather. The woman sitting next to me vomits into a paper bag the stewardess gives her. Everyone on the flight is barfing into bags. The woman keeps fingering a long set of beads. I have no idea why. I am the only one on the plane who doesn’t get sick, except for the nice stewardess. She smiles at me when she hurries down the aisle. I watch her. She seems to be doing a good job. And she’s not yelling at anyone. My aunt meets me at LaGuardia airport, which is very small in those days. By the time I arrive it is dark. And pouring rain. I walk across the tarmac and she is standing there at the door to the small terminal. She is tall and has golden-white blond hair. Her arms and legs are long and slender and her fingers look as if they are carved out of a delicate china. She has a soft voice and she smiles at me. She envelops me in her arms and we walk together to wait for my little bag. During that year my aunt will take me to Broadway to see Peter Pan with Mary Martin and she will take me to my first ballet, the Nutcracker, of course. My aunt comes from Georgia. She has only a hint of her original southern accent. To me it sounds like she is singing when she speaks. She is sweet to me. I wish she were my mother. I don’t know where my mother is.
* * *
I am ten. My mother has been in the hospital for almost a year. I haven’t seen her in all that time. Today is our first visit to her. I am all dressed up. My patent leather shoes all shiny. My little white socks evenly folded down at the ankles. Her face looks different. Puffy. And her waist does not seem to be where it used to be. She looks rounder than normal. And sad. So very sad. Her face has no expression. She smiles every once in a while but without any emotion. She’s just vague. I’m wary. Is it okay to trust this new mother? Or will she go back to being the other scary mother? We drive away from the big dark building that my father says is the hospital. We go out on a picnic. We sit on the grass in a park. She doesn’t talk much. I chatter about my friends. She doesn’t seem to know who I’m talking about. My father has explained that she might not remember some things. It seems odd. But I don’t ask why she doesn’t remember. I never ask.
During that year I see a movie on TV. A black and white movie called The Snake Pit about a woman who gets very sick, kind of like my mother, and has to go to a hospital. She talks to a psychiatrist and she likes him. But one day they won’t let her see him and she gets frightened and hides from them. When they find her they put her in Ward Ten. Everyone in Ward Ten is insane. Incurably insane. And she is stuck there. And I think I can’t be angry at my mother if she’s in the hospital and it’s like that. She can’t help herself, I think. And I know. From that time on, I know that she needs to be protected. That she is the one we all have to protect. That the rest of us are secondary.
Years later I learn all about shock treatment. How it wipes out recent memory. How it is used when a patient is so depressed that nothing else will dispel the depression. I used to think my mother’s memory losses were the result of all the shock treatments she had undergone during her many hospital stays. But now I think not. I think she has wiped out much of her own memory. It wasn’t all illness. It was something else. Even without the illness she was not like other mothers. Not like the mothers of my friends. Not at all. And no matter what label it was given, it really didn’t matter. I still had to deal with it somehow. To try to understand it and separate from it and not be like it. Because to be like it was to die. At least that was the way I felt.
I look at the painting again and wonder where my mother is in it. Is she the bird singing its plaintive song to the marsh? Or is she the marsh, all green and muddy with slight glimmers of pale light at the edges?
I took the painting to be framed and the woman who runs the frame shop, a painter of exquisite quality herself, was instantly enthralled by it.
“Who painted this?” she asked me, coming out from behind the counter to gaze at the picture.
When I told her she just shook her head.
“It’s wonderful. Pure poetry,” she said. “And the composition is so unusual. I love the way she’s actually dug into the paint to scratch out the branch. And the bird. You can just hear it singing, can’t you?” She went on that way for a good ten minutes. A crowd gathered for the impromptu lecture. A man who was waiting for his framing order wanted to buy it.
“I’ve promised it to my daughter,” I told him. “That’s why I’m finally framing it after having it in my basement for seventeen years.”
My daughter. I have three of them. I loved them from the very second they were born, each of them. When I held them I felt safe for the first time in my life. We were a closed circle. The girls and me. I knew just what they needed even though I had never even touched a baby before. I understood how they felt when they cried. I listened to their worries and their fears. I comforted them and put many of my needs aside to tend to theirs.
And I loved doing it. Not like my mother.
Families have stories that get told over and over. They follow themes. They may not be long or involved, may only be a couple of sentences. But the stories reveal a truth if one can unravel the symbolism within the story. My mother repeated the story of my birth more than a few times.
“The first thing I did was count your fingers and toes to be sure you had everything. You had long dark curly hair,” she said. “And I had to brush it right away. I used a silver baby brush I had brought to the hospital.”
That part sounds nice. Loving even. And then the zinger.
“The nurse came in and asked if I wanted to nurse you and I told her, ‘What do you think I am – a cow?’ ”
Sometimes appended to this story would be an afterthought, sometimes it was repeated as a stand alone story.
“I first got sick when you were born.”
And following that, depending on where her mood was swinging that day, she might add:
“You’re going to get sick just like me.”
At some point, when I was old enough to start sorting through the miasma of my mother’s misconceptions and erroneous thinking processes, I discovered that her illness predated my birth by many years, had shown signs as early as her childhood.
I had help sorting through this maze of my mother’s bizarre behavior. My father tried to help, certainly.
He told me over and over, “It’s not your fault.”
That was fine as far as it went. Only I didn’t know WHAT wasn’t my fault. My mother was the way she was. It never occurred to me that personal fault had anything to do with it. My rage was very democratic. I blamed everyone.
By nineteen I was seeing a psychiatrist. To my parents I seemed out of control. But my concern for the first year of therapy was simple.
“Will I get sick like my mother?”
And the answer always came back, time and again, after the question was asked in subtle and direct ways, over many weeks and months, “No, you’ll never be like that.”
She was right. Nothing was preordained for me.
I don’t know why it took me so long to look at that painting again.
When I told my mother about taking it to be framed and how beautiful it was, all she said was, “Really? I don’t remember it.”
There’s so much she doesn’t remember.
I’m afraid I remember too much – and not enough. Maybe I’m missing some good parts, some parts where she held me and cuddled me and told me how wonderful I was. I did that with my children. I’ve tried, over the years, to remember something nice. Didn’t we bake cookies together? No, never. A wonderful black lady named Lucille who lived with us did that. Didn’t she teach me how to sew? No, my nurse, who lived in my room with me until I was six, did that. Didn’t she show me how to apply makeup, to match my clothes up so the colors went together, to deal with catty girls, to do my homework, something? Anything? I can’t remember it if she did. She was always so busy with herself. Or she was sick. Or in a hospital. Or getting over being sick. The cycles roll along, one hospital stay melting into another, the years cascading over each other in a jumble of impressions that form a patchwork like a jigsaw, with loose pieces at the edge of the table that I’m still trying to fit into place.
* * *
I am twenty-two and my mother sits next to me on a bench outside another hospital. This one has wide lawns and big trees. It looks like a fancy boarding school with dormitories and academic buildings. This hospital is one of many where my mother has been a patient. By now there are drugs. Not as many as there will be in years to come, but some. She takes a mood altering drug. Mellaril. Elavil. Triavil. One of these. The names mean nothing to me. My mother tells me stories about the other women in the hospital. She gossips about them as if they are all living in a small town. She lets me know she is better than they are. Not as sick. She has a husband who loves her – dotes on her. But she complains about him. And about everything else. She doesn’t ask about me. Does not want to know about my life. This is about her. I sit and listen. And watch her face.
That face that is so difficult to soften, so set in its grim view, so removed from what is happening in the moment, so far off when it is only inches away. I have lived an entire life since my childhood. I have married a man I love and who loves me. We’ve built a successful life together, shared many happy years and raised three wonderful daughters. I look back at more than fifty years and see myself as a child and wonder if it wasn’t another life that I see back there, over the hills of my adolescence, behind the forest of my youth, past the rivers of my childbearing years, through the thunder of my rage and the soft steady rain of sadness.
We have come to a time when I am no longer young, my children are grown and gone and she is old. And alone. And dependent on me. Not financially but emotionally, psychically. And sometimes she feels guilt about the way she treated her family. Well guilt is not exactly correct. She has glimmers – like the marsh in her painting – a slight wash of hues that illuminate her memory and make her wonder aloud if she was “that bad as a mother” if she “did bad things.” Such musings do not feel to me as if they require an answer. Should I shout, “Yes! You treated me badly. You were sadistic and cruel. You screamed and punished and mistreated me. But worst of all, you never saw who I was, never saw the little girl who needed tenderness and love and acceptance, not for who you needed her to be, not for a child who would fight with you and try to tear you down so you could win in a fight so unfair in its matching that it was like a lioness fighting a mouse. A child who needed love for herself, for who she was inherently. Why wasn’t that good enough for you?”
Would that solve anything? Would that make things right?
Some people do not really want the truth. But how can a daughter know if her mother is one of those people? I think that’s easy to answer. The truth is not so hard to uncover, or discover. It is there. Always waiting. It does not age or change with the season. No, truth is resilient. It does have nuance. It does depend on the truth teller. But for anyone willing to look, to ask, to remember, to seek… it is there. If my mother wanted the truth she could find it for herself. She could uncover her own memories and she could probe as hard for the truth about my experience of her as I have done. She can be brutally honest. But brutal honesty is not necessarily truth.
I understand a lot. I understand that my mother had a mother too. That there’s a lineage to behavior just like the inherited gene for eye color. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody comes from nothing. Our antecedents pave our path. But we can walk off the path into the woods and blaze a new trail. We can only do that through understanding and acceptance. I had to swim through so many layers of rage sometimes I thought those depths were a bottomless ocean and I was a poor minnow who would never reach the light. My childhood was characterized by what I perceived as a struggle to survive. Not in the sense of bodily survival. That was never in doubt. I had plenty, in fact more than I wanted or certainly needed. The teen years showed the first signs of serious rebellion. Or what everyone took for adolescent rebellion. I know now that my anger was so deep and so wide that I hated anything or anyone putting any kind of walls around me. I needed to extend as far as I could in order not to feel I was losing the small sense of self that I had.
And as I write this I still find it hard to believe. Because I know she loved me and still does.
Now, when neither of us is young anymore, when she feels weak and alone and fragile, when she is afraid of suffering before she dies, when her husband and most of her old friends are gone and her memories are all she has left, she softens. She calls me on the phone.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” she says. “I don’t feel right.”
“Tell me about it,” I respond. I sit down and start doing something else with my hands – washing dishes, a crossword puzzle, email – so my attention will be divided, so I maintain some distance.
“Well I don’t know,” she starts. “I just feel strange. Something’s wrong. I know it.”
“Can you describe it?”
“So many things happened this week. The woman who comes to do my checks and help me with my mail didn’t show up. That insurance bill came again. I went to see the State Farm lady – you know that one over in Lantana over the bridge, oh what’s her name – and she called them up and that woman up in New York is in such a mess and she doesn’t know what she’s doing … ”
“Are you talking about the insurance policy you canceled a year ago, that you got confirmation that you cancelled, that you got a refund from already? That insurance company?”
“I told you if they send anything else to you just throw it away. Everyone’s told you that. You don’t owe them anything. You certainly don’t owe them help in getting their paperwork straight. Just throw it out.”
But she can’t. She can’t let anything go. I’ve been hearing about this bill for four months now because they keep sending it to her. I know it’s simply a computer thing. But my mother lives in a different world. She doesn’t understand cash cards and T-shirts and email and Web sites. She couldn’t go out without wearing a girdle if she had a gun at her head. Even at her sickest, her nails were always perfectly painted and her stockings straight – no, she has never owned a pair of pantyhose and her stockings used to have seams up the back. She always took care of herself. She did know how to do that.
At the end of the conversation, when I know and she knows that we have made no headway in the insurance bill issue, that she will go off and ask the State Farm agent to call the other company, that she will muck around with this thing until she ropes someone into solving it the way she wants it solved, she tells me:
“I’m sorry to bother you with these things. You’re going to have to take these things over for me. I know that,” she tells me.
“We’ll talk about it when I’m there,” I tell her and we say goodbye.
Was it all illness? Is every mother who does not know how to give, what they call for lack of a better term, unconditional love, in some major way ill?
That’s the conclusion I came to after many years of struggling with the question of why a mother would behave in such destructive ways to a child she loves. Illness. Anxiety disorder. Bi-polar disorder. Depressive disorder. These mothers are disordered. They want to do what’s right. In all but the most extreme cases, and maybe even in those, I believe the mother wants to be a good mother. Unless you accept the notion that evil is rampant in the world. That the Devil Himself is operating at all times to destroy the corpus from within. That prayer and fasting represent our only defenses.
What we used to call mental illness takes the controls out of your hands and puts them somewhere far away. Mainly it puts control of your life in the hands of other people. Anyway, that was before drugs. In the 1950s, when I was a little girl and my mother was very ill, there were no drugs. There was something called insulin shock treatment. And electric shock. And lobotomy. Not exactly the array of treatments available now. These days I don’t hear anyone referred to as mentally ill. They’re OCD or bi-polar or schizophrenic, depressed or anxious; they have a disorder of some kind, a genetic bad rap.
The sickness was only part of the issue. I heard her diagnosed variously as:
- Schizophrenic with depressive tendencies
- Severely depressed
- Suffering from manic depression (what today people call bi-polar)
- And lately I hear from one expert she was none of the above.
She was certainly never schizophrenic. She did suffer from deep depression at various times. At other times she was certainly manic. In between the highs and lows she was never what you would call carefree or happy. She always seemed to be somewhere else, either worrying or seeming to be absorbed in some internal dialogue that kept her from being in the present.
They say we grow up and rebel and at some point, when we’re thirty-five or forty, and we have children running around and we’re just fed up with the rat race, we yell at our kids or rebuke them – and wham. We sound just like our mothers. But this never happened to me. I would never let it happen. I couldn’t. The price was too high. I knew from early on that I would not be like her. Yet in some ways I am. The creative side of me came from her.
I study the painting again, looking at the colors and brushstrokes, trying to find the key that will unlock the treasure I so wish to be there. I feel it is in the little bird with its upturned beak and its soft feathers seeming to be ruffled by an unseen breeze.
If it is true that we become our mothers, if I am destined to be her, then it is still imperative that I discover who she really is. I must locate the essence of her. I feel it there, in that painting, atop that branch, in the silent call of that little bird, who sings to no one in a murky marsh, who calls out for recognition, who needs to find its voice, that bird so winsome and yet so strident perched at the very apex of a branch that leads to no tree and that comes from the shadowy pool where it is rooted. But the bird can fly away. Perhaps in another painting the bird has taken off. It circles the marsh and sees it from on high, as just a place where it once stopped to consider its song.
I’ve never told my mother about my pain. Or about my struggle to recover from it. When you’ve been hurt over and over you develop a wary and watchful approach to the one who could hurt so deeply. You never let down your guard. I can hear her now, if I were to tell her how it really felt all those years ago. She would make some caustic comeback, some toughened remark, but there would be no redemption in this exchange. Surely there would be guilt, possibly remorse, but it would be covered, to come out later, maybe in a week or so, as a statement without its relevant surroundings – a stab at me. No, it would be impossible to have a conversation about it. These days the conversations tend to be about weather, daily activities, physical impediments. Complaints about being alone. Lots of talk about doctors and bodily functions. But we never connect. It is too much work for me to try. And there’s too little reward for the effort.
Sometimes now, at the end of our phone conversations, she’ll tell me, “You’re so sensible,” or “I hope I haven’t upset you.”
I tell her, “You don’t upset me. I just wish you wouldn’t upset yourself with a lot of stuff that really does not require getting all worked up about.”
She agrees. But she can’t help it. So I talk her down from the ledge again and she goes off, exhausted by her worry and anxiety, and busies herself with a thousand repetitive tasks and turns on the TV or reads a book.
Some of this is just the aging process. But some of it is an old image seeping through the layers of brushstroke.
I see the painting now as a roadmap. In it is the mother I never knew. And I’ll never know why she couldn’t be that songbird. Why she thought she had to be so hard. The painting will remain after she is gone. And I will have more time to find her in its soft colors and gentle forms. Perhaps I will be able to find my own beginnings there. Because somewhere in my mother’s painting of her life, my journey began.
* * *
A female hummingbird once flew into my garage and got stuck there, attracted by the white ceiling. She kept fluttering against it until the tiny thing was so exhausted she could fight against that impenetrable white no more and landed on a cable strung along the wall. I ran into the house, put and red poker chip in the bottom of a shot glass, poured in some sugar and added a little water, stirred until the sugar dissolved and came back to the garage where the ruby throat was still resting on the black cable. She was too tired to fly off and so let me take her in my hand. She was smaller than my thumb, her heart tapping away like a little drill. But she did not struggle. I tilted her sideways and stuck her tiny beak into the shot glass. Attracted by the red color her tongue darted out, repeatedly sucking at the sugar water. She drank and drank and when she finally stopped, I stepped outside the garage into the sunlight, opened my hand and stood there for a moment while the hummingbird just rested in my hand, looking at me. Then she took off, flew to a tree branch near where I was standing and landed. She puffed out her feathers and began preening. Before she flew away, she looked over at me. It was only for an instant. But we nodded to each other.