The advertising-free magazine of writing The Sun, published in Chapel Hill, has an invitational section called “Readers Write” that throws open a different resonant topic each month — upcoming ones include “Paying Attention,” “Rumors,” “Cheap Thrills,” and (still open) “Authority,” “Saying Too Much,” and “Boxes.” Last fall I sent the following as a submission to “Singing,” but probably too late to meet the deadline. I’ve been encouraged by my brother and my mother to post it here.
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Do we ever really know our parents? I was so stuck to my mother as the central axis and problem of my life that it took me decades to back off far enough to get a good look at her. A raven-haired natural beauty, capricious, temperamental, given to impatience and depression, she held me spellbound, first by “rejecting” me as a small child (suffering from prolonged postpartum blues, she turned me over to her mother during a two-year, three-times-a-week psychoanalysis), then by “dominating” me as an adolescent (she was so beautiful and vivacious that I thought even my own friends liked her better than me). She was not the sort of warm, nurturing mother who makes you feel cherished and secure; on the other hand, she gave me—and the five siblings who followed that successful, for her, psychoanalysis—some great things. She let us play in the gushing gutters in our oldest underwear after thunderstorms, and she sang to us at bedtime. She had a frail but ringing soprano (she said a high school teacher had called her “the ghost tenor”) and a large repertory of tragic Child ballads. I can still hear her voice singing, “There was a ship/ sailing on the Lowland Sea /And the name of that ship/ was the Golden Vanity …” When I came home from college for holidays we’d sometimes sing together, me shyly carrying the melody while she supplied the harmony: “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming …”
I vividly remember the first time I got a hit of the mystery of who she really was: my hand closed around her wrist in a swimming pool in Mexico and I felt how much smaller her bones were than mine, and was struck by the paradox of fragility and fervor that was her essence. I was 25. The next year I did what Jean Shinoda Bolen describes in Goddesses in Everywoman: “the archetypal ‘nice girl from a good family’” got involved with a “tough, streetwise man” as “the means through which a Persephone woman separates from a dominating mother.” Romantic love and babies had been my mother’s turf and, as much as I idealized and longed for them, I scrupulously chose a life course that would deny me them. Instead, I let myself be ravished into the underworld of a Gulag survivor’s wise, traumatized psyche and eventually became its queen.
Last spring I stole a few days from taking care of my now disabled husband and visited my parents in Florida: 92 and 86, still in love. My mom is still beautiful, wrinkles and all. She’s fraying around the edges a little cognitively, but more hummingbird-brilliant than ever at the core. I think she’s burning so much fuel on the thoughts that really matter that she can’t be bothered with peripherals like where the keys are. It’s already happening to me. My brain, though not my temperament, is so much like hers that I consider it a preview of what I have to look forward to. She had gone on the Internet, found the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s sinuous, sneering “Hong Kong Blues” from To Have and Have Not, and memorized them all. Right then and there she sang the whole song for me—“He got twenty years privilege taken awa-ay from hi-im/ when he kicked old Buddha’s gong”—and then cast me a look of such intimate, conspiratorial merriment that I thought, God, she’s irresistible. I don’t remember what it was we then started belting out together that caused my sister, trying to sleep in the back bedroom with her husband, to come out and ask us to please shut up.