Thursday, April 13, 2006

I think back through my mother.


A good friend of mine here became a grandfather about three weeks ago. Whenever I see this person, he asks me, "How's your eternal soul, person?" (He has been calling me "person" for thirteen years.) I tell him, and then I ask him how his eternal soul is. When I asked him that two weeks ago, he said, "I'm overjoyed, because Jenny Two Souls has now become Jenny One Soul, and mother and baby are happy and healthy."

Thirty years ago, at 6:03 p.m., Mama Two Souls became Mama One Soul and Baby (now Dr.) S (or Doctor Daughter, as both my birthday card and my beautiful office-delivered flower bouquet proclaimed me). I don't want to minimize my father's role in the process, by any means, but it occurred to me this afternoon that while I've told you how cool my father is, I've never really taken the time to do the same for my mother. And so, since today is also her thirtieth birthday, in a way--since she was born as a mother at the same moment that I was born as a person--this one's for my mom.

I've never asked my mom about the actual moment of my birth--about what it was like for her, I mean. You and I both know the story about how I was born unimpressed and went right back to sleep. And how the doctors said, "About your baby..." and her heart sank and then they told her that I had six left-foot toes and she thought, is that all. And how I came late and reluctant, how she suffered through false labor for a week and had twenty-four hours of my taking my sweet time (probably continuing to sleep, or maybe trying to read one last thing before realizing how late it had gotten). (I'm starting to tell you old stories over again. These must be the ones that really matter to me.) But the feeling of that first separation (and, I imagine, mingled relief and heartbreak and heartsoar and utter fatigue) is hers alone.

I don't remember anything for the first couple of years. But the first thing I do remember is sitting at the piano with my mother, learning to read a Richard Scarry book and mispronouncing the word "boat." In the memory, I keep saying "bo-at" and my mother keeps saying "boat." She never loses her patience.

She did lose her patience with me when I was little. She still loses her patience with me now sometimes, and I with her. This is because we are the same, my mother and I: we are both fast talkers, fast loud laughers, big with our love for the people we care about, big and hot and creative with our anger when those people get hurt. When we're not on the same page, I suspect that neither of us can really understand why that is, or how it could even be possible. How could one of us be so completely wrong? It doesn't happen often: my mother is always right. Except when I am.

I remember getting into the car with my mother after a late-term obstetrician's appointment, when she was pregnant with my brother, and having her ask me what we should name the baby. "Raggedy Ann," I said. I was two. "And if it's a boy?" she said. "Raggedy Andy," I replied. No hesitation there. And Andy it was. (She bowled a 180 the day before he was born and still managed to figure out which day would be the best day for me to come to the hospital to visit her and my new little brother.)

I have been with my mother for more than half her life. One thing I love about her is that she has always let me know that she's liked having me around. I remember when she told me about coming home with my dad, after the doctor's appointment that confirmed she was pregnant. "We just stood in the front hall and hugged and cried," she said. "We were so happy you decided to stick around." Tonight she said, "We're always so glad that you chose us." "I don't think I had a choice," I told her, "but if I had, I'd have chosen you."

Last July, my mother and I hopped a plane to Boston and hung out there for a week. It was a riot, a blast, a silliness and an adventure. Not once (that I know of) did either of us want to hurt or maim the other. We're that kind of pair. And I was so happy that she got to see whales when we went out whale-watching.

I remember sitting with my mom in the house on Fiddler's Green, watching her quilt. I remember being hugely proud of her when she organized her first quilt show in 1982. I remember being maybe even more hugely proud that an image of the two of us--a drawing copied from a photograph--was on that quilt show's program: in it, she works at a hoop, while I stand behind her, my left hand on her shoulder, watching over her right shoulder. She tried to teach me to quilt a couple of times, but I didn't have the patience for it. One night, sometime in the early 1990s, when she was working on a charm quilt (basically, a quilt of trapezoids, a scrap quilt to use up a plethora of fabric she had lying around), I crept downstairs one night and put a row of stitches in, where she'd left her needle for the night. For me, it's painstaking, awkward, clumsy-looking work. For her, it's art: fast, deft, confident, creative, beautiful.

My mother's pride in me has been one of my life's driving forces. I have worked my whole life to pay back the privilege of having been born to this red-headed woman, vibrant and vital like no one else I know. I still hate to disappoint her. She tells me I could never disappoint her. I have never doubted that she loved me. But I always want her to be proud. I always want her to have the best bragging rights.

When I was very small, I would get up early in the morning, when my father was getting ready for work, and I would climb in bed with my mother and we would lie around under the first quilt she made, a grandmother's flower garden bound in yellow that's now on my bed, well-worn. And we would say goodbye to my father, who would sometimes call me Martha, Junior. And then he would leave for work and we would lie around for awhile more. I think that sometimes we slept; I know that sometimes (probably all the time) I chattered.

I could have a two-hour phone conversation with my mother every night of the week.

When I was about four, I tried to get down my mother's bottle of Chanel No. 5 because I thought it smelled beautiful. But in climbing up on her bathroom sink to get it, I somehow managed to break her bottle of Joy, which is the perfume she has always worn, my whole life. And this bottle was new, and all that Joy went down the drain. And she didn't even get mad at me, at least not that I remember.

When Buffalo had its sesquicentennial, my mother took me to the park and we listened to the bells ringing for the celebration and fed stale bread to the happy swarming ducks.

My mother is my family's rock. As my father says, she protects us all.

My mother has an active revenge fantasy life. When someone wrongs any one of the three of us, she hatches the most devious schemes and plots--things one never, ever could or would do or say but that are secretly delicious fun to contemplate.

My mother taught me the meaning of devotion, all those years she drove me all over rural Indiana so that I could keep studying piano with the only Suzuki piano teacher in the area.


When I was little and experimented with biting by biting my mother, she bit me back, and that was that. People were shocked. "I wasn't going to have my child biting me," she said, calmly. My mother does not believe in arguing with little kids, and she did not need me to like her when I was a child. She was right to wager that I'd still love her (and would probably even like her a lot more) later.

When I was getting ready to go to college, my mother decided to make me a quilt. She picked out a pattern of triangles: Red Hot Mama. She finished the quilt on time; it is all reds. Many of you reading have sat on that quilt: it was on my couch in Ithaca. I also took it with me to England when I studied there, because it was that important to me to have one of my mother's quilts with me. When I was getting near the end of my Ph.D., my mother made me another quilt: it was on the back of my couch for the last year or so I was in Ithaca. When I moved to Gambier, she stayed with me for a week and made curtains for all my windows.

My mom and I used to work puzzles together at the round coffee table in our family room. Sometimes, I would hide the last piece, just to be sure I would be the one who finished the puzzle. We both have obsessive enough personalities that we could tear through 1500 piecers pretty swiftly, though we never did them upside down the way some relative of mine used to.

Before my parents had me, they flew out from Detroit to San Francisco with another couple for some early-twenties carousing. They had a picture taken of the four of them in some hotel-top bar. In the picture, my mom is wearing the floor-length figure-following flowered dress with the keyhole front and the nearly fully bare back (the one, the dress I wish she still had so that I could take it, just as I wish she still had the chartreuse leather jacket that I know she wore to the point of its falling apart), and she's sitting on my dad's lap. I always loved that picture. Not until I was in my twenties did I realize that in the picture you can see the shape of my dad's left-hand knuckles under the fabric on her left side, because he's slipped his hand around her ribcage, through the back of her dress. Knowing that has made me love the picture even more, because I love thinking of her being desired so much and loved so fondly.

There's a reason that some of my earliest words were "Pretty mama."

I look at those pictures of my mom from the 1970s, and I see a woman so young and so lively and so wicked-witted, with her wavy hair and her plastic glasses and her huge grin. I look at the sharp line of her jaw, the rise of her chin, the point of her nose, the flash in her eye that says, "I dare you."

I look at those pictures and I see myself, as in a mirror. Sometimes the resemblance is so clear that it's uncanny. And I am so grateful.

Happy birthday, mother of mine.

7 Comments:

Blogger Poking-Stick Man said...

for your parents...


"A Birthday"

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

--Christina Rossetti

10:31 PM, April 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr. Z. Dr. S. is a lucky woman that you are her friend.

7:50 AM, April 14, 2006  
Anonymous Mother of Dr. S. said...

Wow! What a lucky woman I am!

7:55 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger KYlitprof said...

I'm not even your mom and I got teary reading your tribute! I am so happy for you both that you have this relationship.

8:02 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Beautiful, beautiful post!

8:05 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger ttractor said...

oh, my. I could not even get half way through this before I started to cry. How lovely. You are all so amazingly lucky. Thank you for sharing your tenderness and joy, and especially on the day you are supposed to get gifts!

8:22 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger David Shultz said...

That was a beautiful post. Happy birthday, and happy I'm-a-mother day to your mom, who sounds fabulous, strong, and kind.

8:30 AM, April 14, 2006  

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