Sunday, May 11, 2008

Legacy


Her voice is papery thin, frailer than I remember, like her bones where shining out of her blanched skin last time I seen her. The message is the same. You have reached this number. Talk to the machine. Because you sure as hell aren't going to talk to me. You are my first-born. I despise the man who contributed the other x chromosome. You are grown. I cannot scream at you or beat you into submission. My legacy remains, tainting you forever. For that I thank all of the demons in hell and a few of the angels in heaven.

I manage to choke out a proper greeting. Say something inane. Here is my phone number. You can call me. I am grown. You are still my mother even though I have rejected your legacy and moved beyond it. I love you. Maybe I will come see you sometime. It's been awhile. Happy Mother's Day. I hang up. Mother's Day is a day of mourning. For what could have been.

She wanted. She always wanted. She wanted my love, demanded it, could not recognize it. I was a terrified child. I could not name the terror to my own self. I told anyone who would listen for a minute that my mother drank too much. No one listened. And she drank on and on. The scotch. After marrying again, the wine. The pretensions. She wanted to be Italian. She really tried. The only spices she knew were salt, oregano, parsley, and sometimes a bit of basil from the garden. She doled them out sparingly. She said pepper was made from little grounded up rocks. We didn't have a pepper shaker. Bacon had to be burned to a crisp in order to be rendered edible. I was a child. I did not always remember everything I had to get at the store. By sixth grade I was doing the laundry at the laundromat and all of the supermarket shopping. I learned to ask the produce man or a lady customer who looked nice to pick out the ripe tomatoes for me, to tell me which of the bunches of bananas I should bring home. I was a child. I didn't know how to do many of the things that were required of me.

When she was angry, her voice took on a vibrancy that is gone now. She screamed. She yelled. She threw a bottle of tonic water at me once in high school. She threw me down some stairs once, after dragging me on my stockinged knees across the carpet. She was the queen of humiliation. She pretended to call my nursery school teacher and screamed into the phone the horrible thing I had become. Years later, I realized that the nursery school teacher had to be dead. She called me a frig. Frig was her favorite word, a baptized substitution for the word fuck. You are a frig. Frig frig frig. Hit her Tony. I always thought of him as a jellyfish, yielding to all of her orders. He was. I was too. Not to be, well perhaps I would not have survived my childhood and adolescence.

She baked cookies. Sugar cookies from a recipe torn out of a magazine. They were good. She made drop cookies and cookies with melted chocolate pieces too. Mainly though, it was the sugar cookies. With lots of butter in them. She made a Polish rum cake once. She dumped an entire bottle of rum over it after it came out of the oven. The cake was so thick with rum that pressing the fork tines against it would yield a flood. In my blackened innocence, I thought an alcoholic drank wine at home. So as soon as I could, I drank beer out. I had forgotten about the beatings, the vindictiveness, how she made my poodle disappear one Sunday when I was visiting my dad. I'd forgotten how at restaurants she would delicately eat the seafood or spaghetti and delicately lift the elegant shining stemmed glass to her painted lips, pretending all was right with the world and that she had two shining daughters from the same father and those two daughters loved her more than life itself.

Every year for two weeks we went down the shore. There would be a house near the ocean, or once a cramped motel room which I hated for the lack of privacy. There were other kids there, down the shore on vacation with their parents. I learned to walk barefoot on the hot tarry street, how to smoke a cherry cigar once, how to dig under the overturned lifeguard boat at night and have a child's seance. J.F.K. if you are here, give us a sign. And the candle would blow out and we would dig back out of there with a quickness. We went to Bingo as a family, to the beach as a family, to a restaurant, to the boardwalk. My little half-sister and I rode the rides, were treated to custards, walked and walked and walked holding hands in front of the two parents who were busy weaving a public fantasy. I learned how to panhandle on that same boardwalk with a younger summer child vacationing down the shore. Mister, I need a dime to call my parents to come pick us up. And so we would collect enough money for a five dollar bag of weed. Then we would walk the three miles back to our beach along the shoreline, avoiding the gate where we were supposed to pay. The beach where we stayed lacked the rides or the matrons of the gates demanding payment. The cars at our beach had parking stickers instead. And there were gazebos instead of rides. And the overturned boats.

I swam out once, way beyond where I was supposed to be. The lifeguards sent a boat out after me. I was fine though, a strong swimmer in my element. The saltiness and the fresh air and the sun invigorated me. By time the boat got to me, I had already turned around and was halfway back. They did not insist that I get in the boat. They didn't yell at me for doing such a stupid thing when I'd arrived back on the sand. My mother hadn't noticed, or pretended not to. A small crowd had gathered to watch the aborted rescue. My mother continued sunning herself, reading a paperback all relaxed as if nothing potentially dangerous was happening. She didn't say a word to me when I got back and flopped on the beach towel. The music pouring from the tinny transistor radio didn't miss a beat. And I learned that silence can be as fracturing as a beating.

If I had to choose one word to describe my mother it would be vindictive. My mother is still vindictive, even in her senior years. The thing inside her that made her give away or abandon my dog and call me a frig and be late for the wedding pictures still exists. I do not pretend to know how it got there. That doesn't matter now. The knowledge of her vindictiveness does not comfort me. Yet it is better to know an unpleasant-- even cruel-- truth than to ignore it and pretend. I do not pretend that everything that is wrong with me or toxic about me is purely the result of her essence. I will not pretend that there weren't good times. It's just that the good times always ran into the bad times, that there was never any escape. After my physical escape, there were years of learning how to escape mentally.

When my mother dies, I will mourn. I will mourn for what could have been and not for the woman she was. I will grieve for a long time and I will carry on. Life is like that. Happy Mother's Day.

spike q./sapphoq remembers