Image used with permission from Mentality Design | Central park in Kharkov, Ukraine
It was in my sixth year, shortly before my birthday, that my mother took us to live with her mother, Dominique, in Beverly Hills. In my perception, we were one moment walking along the beach in Maui, the sky an intoxication above us, and the next, we were beside my grandmother’s swimming pool, the calm water blue and alluring. I did not recognize that we had crossed a border between worlds. It seemed we were merely located in a somewhat different region of a perpetually warm and luminescent continuum.
I was immediately enrolled at Westford Academy. I welcomed the sense of ritual, the order, the uniforms and schedule. When I climbed the steps of the school bus on my first day, I had the sensation that my life, at last, was beginning. I was not frightened. I did not look back.
My mother was a poet. She had educated me in an eccentric mode of her own design. In Mexico, where I was born and lived until I was three, I had a local girl as a nanny. I have seen pictures of this house perched on a cliff above an ocean implausibly blue. It was in this house that my mother finished her fourth book of poetry, Squandering The Blue, a manuscript ultimately published by a now long bankrupt small press. Not a single copy still exists.
The house itself survives in photographs. It was in this small white villa washed by a constant salt wind that my mother stared at the sea below, recognizing a vast and remote blue space within herself, some intimation of profound necessity that she forced into stanzas while I learned to speak Spanish. What I learned at three I would forget immediately, though I suspect there is somewhere within me a certain capacity for a kind of blue, a sea rhythm, perhaps, salt air or waves.
After Mexico, my mother took us to Kyoto where she taught for one year at the university, studied Zen, and wrote the poems that would later be published by a small press in Oregon, as Green Tea at Dawn. I have found one review of this book which called the poems, “too still and private, overly meditative, lacking the flamboyant sense of the dramatic that her earlier work possessed.”
“When my ship comes in, I’ll be too weak to meet it,” I remember my mother saying, lighting a cigarette and laughing.
The sound of typewriter keys informs my recollection of Japan. The sound of the typewriter, falling rain and a sense of cold in the air. In Kyoto, I was four and educated solely by my mother. She read poetry to me in the garden.
It was after Japan, when her trust fund was almost entirely exhausted, that we lived in the jungle of Maui. There, my schooling consisted of walking with my mother from our shack beside a river to a similar dwelling where children were communally taught the alphabet and counting, every other morning, weather permitting. I cannot draw a line between my actual memories and my reconstructions, my reinventions based largely on my mother’s Maui poems. Those disputable records and their shifting resonances have become part of the personal history, I somehow both believe and doubt.
I am certain of nothing before Beverly Hills. Still, an image asserts itself aggressively at the periphery. I want to remember my mother at night, opening a suitcase and packing, agitated. She would have done this by flashlight and lantern. We had no electricity in the jungle. There would have been the smoky shadows I took as the unquestionable face of night. My mother finds an old pair of high heels she has not worn in years. She puts them on and walks with effort through the one room of our wood and chicken-wire shack on a river of red ginger in the jungle. My mother, stumbling and laughing and not alone. Night with the smell of kerosene and what I later learn is marijuana. My night is fragmentary, seen through mosquito netting. But I must be imagining this. If she were packing anything in this partial memory, it would be notebooks and pages of manuscripts. I have heard Dominique say, at a cocktail party or over the telephone, that we crawled out of the jungle with only the clothes on our back.
Then the green arms of Beverly Hills, a crisp and ordered green after the dense excess of the jungle, pulled us in. There was the sense of something assured and dependable, like the cradle I had lacked. I am talking with my grandmother on the brick terrace near the intricate geometry of tile swimming pool. The gardener is cutting and mowing. I am swimming with Dominique. I do not see my mother. She does not like to swim; she does not like the sun. Dominique and I are tanned, glistening with beads of chlorine on our skin. My mother chooses to be remote, on the edge of the yard, in shade. She is staring at the bird-of-paradise poking orange and purple between bougainvillea. She is erased of expression. There is a notebook on her lap, a pen in her hand, but she writes nothing. The pages are blank. I sense there is a disturbance in this abundance of white. I am somehow afraid I will be blamed for this, but I am not.
It occurs to me that I am half expecting punishment for my mother’s inability to write because I have somehow willed this for her, this severing from her source, this exile and erasure. I do not like her relentless chicken scratches and her refusal to swim and sunbathe, to laugh and tan, as we do. My mother embraces the periphery and I will her to fade into it completely.
This is a land of magic, where she complies with my will. She becomes part of the background, like the water sprinklers, the gardener, and the maid. I barely think of her. The world is now dense with fences and anchors, the routine and predictable. I like this. Somehow I sense that there will be no more nights lit by candles nor silences broken by the sound of long-haired men playing guitars. My mother’s laugh will not longer emit from a night thick with cigarettes and kerosene, a night punctuated by rain. All of this has been banished.
I wear gray-and-white uniforms to school. This does not vary. The school bus arrives precisely at eight, without fail. Even the climate has been revised. It is always warm and rainless. And what my grandmother says to my mother never alters. It is a perpetual quiet litany of how my mother has failed. My mother should do something with her education, like teach English. My mother should get married. Her hair is a scandal. She drinks too much. Dominique and I share glances. We know how to float on rafts in the pool in the hot afternoon. We know how to make the sun love our skin. We are agile and strong. Dominique and I are conspirators, nodding in perfect agreement.
One day, I realize with absolute certainty that I am different. It is at a school festival, the May Fair or the Halloween Party. I suddenly recognize that, simultaneously, I have no father and my mother has no husband. Everywhere, my classmates are clustered in groups of three or four or five. My mother and I are glaringly, flagrantly, the exception. We are only two. I am breathless with rage. My mother has burdened me with her defects, her terrible flaws. I am conscious of this then, at that moment, and later, when I must say that my parents are divorced. I feel humiliation and shame.
There is a further level in this first intimation: my mother and I are only two. I recognize that this, like the blank pages in my mother’s notebooks, is an unacceptable absence, an absence I fear will be noticed and remarked upon by others. Again, I suspect that I am to blame. Again, I am not blamed. Somehow, I believe that Dominique will not permit this.
I cannot determine years with any certainty. There are repeating images that seem identical in their dimension and intensity, though surely I grow older. I am at the house of a classmate. I am adroit with people, always. Friends surround me. I am standing in a child’s playhouse set in a backyard beyond the swimming pool and tennis court, in a part of the yard where the ground refuses the insistent demands of order. It swells with the unruly and the tropical. A region of the backyard that asserts the authority of the indigenous, a place where the ground refuses to be manicured. There is a bird’s nest, perhaps, and vines with mice, hedges of red-and-yellow hibiscus thrashed by latania.
I am playing tea party with Ashley or Courtney or Chelsea. I get to be the mother. It is my idea. It is always my idea. I am placing teacups with pink roses painted on their sides in matching saucers. I am arranging plates on a flowered cloth and I sense my mother approaching. I do not hear her. It is rather that I become aware of her nearness as I might have sensed the ocean or a coming storm. There is an alteration in my personal climate. I look out the miniature window of the playhouse, the window with miniature hand-stitched cream-white lace curtains, and she is approaching.
She is navigating the green expanse of the grounds, the irregular gravel path between lawn and grass as if she were walking on a ship, unsteady, with enormous effort. Her chin is set, tense, a map with ridges of bone for cliffs. She is walking as if her life depended on it.
I am on a tennis court; I am older. Suddenly I am completely blinded by the sun. It is not the sunlight that is, without warning, disorienting me but rather the subliminal agitation I experience that accompanies her nearness. I am shading my eyes; I am unable to return a simple shot. She is coming toward me, walking unbalanced, as if gravity has taken her by surprise. Her hair is too long. She has stopped dyeing it. Her hair is partially gray. It looks dirty. And she is wearing blue jeans and sandals. I can’t stand her. The other mothers wear nylons and skirts and high heels, even when they have been in skiing accidents and have limbs that are bandaged. I think my mother is the perpetual victim of an accident without name; her damage is permanent. I am without fail embarrassed. I avoid contact with her eyes. Always, her eyes register with something I am later to identify as wonder, contempt, and terror but then misread as merely something deeply startled.
It is that startled quality, the wide and too full eyes that informs my childhood. It is her startled eyes and how she stumbled as she walked, as if the ground were somehow denser and more complicated than she had expected. I do not remember when my discomfort hardened and I became bitterly ashamed of her. Perhaps it was shortly after my eighth birthday, my second birthday in Beverly Hills, when my mother began attending meetings.
I did not feel relief when my mother joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather, I felt a kind of scorn. The beast, which had no name, now had a history, a morphology. There was a category for my mother, after all. It seemed to make her smaller. AA seemed to me the stuttering beginning of an alphabet I did not expect her to master. How could she? She could barely comb her hair and walk. She sat in the shade. She couldn’t even soil pages with words no one wanted.
In the distance, I am aware of my mother suddenly animated and often absent in the evenings. She is going to meetings. Dominique and I exchange glances which say this will not last. She has no grace. She is a creature of the rudiments. She cannot even find a decent hairdresser. She cannot recover.
There are moments when my mother occupies my attention. I am angry when she intrudes, when she does not erase herself. The telephone is ringing constantly. She is driving others to meetings. She is promoted and now entrusted to make coffee, sweep floors, and bring cookies. The kitchen smells of her chocolate chip cookies. The kitchen cabinets are stocked with bags of chocolate chips, canisters of flour and sugar, tins of cinnamon.
I would enter the kitchen in the morning, dressed in the uniform that reassured me, and find my mother standing near the oven, wearing a bathrobe, distracted, chain-smoking. Trays of chocolate chip cookies would be cooling on the imported from Italy tile counter. My mother often baked cookies all night, usually immediately before the temptation to drink became irresistible. Then for weeks or months there would be no cookies. My mother would be drinking, the door to her room locked, a bottle of vodka on the night table. The radio would be playing the Rolling Stones or the Eagles.
Then, suddenly, the trays of cookies and stacks of cookies in aluminum foil would reappear. She was attending meetings and doing the first three steps. She was admitting that her life was unmanageable. She was praying that a power greater than herself would restore her to sanity. And she was struggling with the third step, the step that required she turn her will and her life over to the care of God as she understood him. The problem was that my mother did not understand God.
My mother remains out of focus in these memories. It is as if the cycles of disease and remission, the waves of abstinence, temptation, and obsession that comprised her life, run through my recollections, blurring her anxious face, pale even in the California summers, like a photograph of someone moving too fast.
There is something achingly intangible and unsustaining in her successes. The Maui poems, finally published by a feminist press in New Mexico, did not seem to matter in Beverly Hills. The fathers of my classmates won Academy Awards. Photographs of their mothers appeared in fashion magazines. Was there a triumph in a slender volume available only by special order from an obscure press in a distant state? I thought her poems were a dubious enterprise, an excuse for failing to live normally. Dominique said it was a form of therapy. Then she would say it was vulgar and cheap. I did not disagree.
Ask me what I felt when I saw the book was dedicated to me. I felt a desire to run from the room. I did not want my name on the front page. I did not want to be publicly associated with her. I did not want to pretend to be pleased. And why do I seem to remember that my mother placed the book on my bedroom table, later, when it was dark? Can it be that I simply stood there and my arm refused to move, to reach out, to take what she was offering?
One vivid summer my mother seemed to possess a rare sense of purpose. She sat in the shade of the terrace, at a glass-surfaced table cluttered with papers, books, dictionaries, packages of cigarettes, ashtrays, and soda bottles. She was translating Spanish love poems written by women. Four months later the editor would change his mind and decline to publish the book. My mother walked from the mailbox with the cancellation letter to the liquor cabinet. I am standing in a bathing suit. She is unscrewing the cap from a bottle. She is studying the side of the bottle.
“It’s the labels,” she is musing, “enticing as a postcard from Kauai. Or a medieval script, an illumination imposed upon the pagan.”
My mother looks directly at me. She says, “Understand. I have prayed for humility. I have prayed for surrender. I have tried to comprehend God. And this” - she is holding both the cancellation letter and the bottle -“is God’s answer. Perhaps I’ll answer my own prayers.” Then she is pouring vodka into a glass. But of course I cannot actually remember this, I must be reconstructing this dialogue from some intangible evidence, like a shadow not on the lungs but on the soul.
I feel distant and superior. The cancellation letter my mother holds proves that she is deficient and suspect. Of course they will reject her. The implication is that she deserves this. I cannot tell her I love her. I must deprecate her, must push her into a safe and resolved distance. The idea of wrapping my wet body around her, of pressing my chlorine-draped flesh into hers does not occur to me. I do not say this rejection is unfair, the project worthy, the translation excellent, and no, you must not drink, must not take even the first sip.
Whatever my mother knows is obscure and intrinsically flawed. I have all the evidence. She cannot provide me with a father. She doesn’t make any money. No one has ever heard of her. We have to live with my grandmother. And Dominique can’t stand her, either. My mother can’t even stay sober. The other mothers play tennis and bridge; they make dinner parties, attend premiers, and go on location. They are tanned and assured. They don’t have gray hair. My mother is not like them at all. I don’t care if she drinks vodka until she dies.
I am eleven years old. It is summer. We have lived in Beverly Hills for nearly five years. My mother is not drinking. She is not absorbed in anything now that would render her remote. Her bedroom is no longer locked. There is something airy and green, a sense of the lavish in this summer. My mother joins me in the pool. I am astonished that my mother can wear a two-piece bathing suit and swim. Some border has been crossed. Time seems to elongate.
It is late in the afternoon. I have been swimming with my mother. I have followed her to her bedroom. I am looking through the doorway to her imported from Europe tile bathroom. She is taking a bath with her bathing suit still on. It suddenly occurs to me that this behavior is unacceptable. I realize that I witnessed this particular repetition for an unnaturally long period of time. I, who pride myself on my immunity to her moods and eccentric expressions, am forced to ask why she is bathing with her swimsuit on.
“There is something I choose not to see,” my mother said, as if that explained everything.
Then it is a bit later, perhaps August. We, Dominique and I, know that she has breast cancer. We know she has concealed the lump on her breast for months or even years. That is why she wears her bathing suit in the bathtub. The lump is the size of an egg. The tumor in her breast is inoperable.
My mother is baking chocolate chip cookies and listening to the radio. It is Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne. She knows the words. She sings. She is sober and I realize that she has been for over a year. She refuses painkillers. She is extraordinarily pale. She is smoking a cigarette. “I prayed and God answered.” She smiled. “This pain”- she pauses, cannot describe it -“this is an answer I can understand. I have finally found a sobriety I can comprehend.”
I am swimming laps, twenty, thirty, forty. I am afraid to stop. If I stop swimming, I will be sucked down to the center of an expanse I cannot bear to imagine. She is on the far side of the pool, watching me, her face so entirely illuminated with emotion that I do not dare look at her.
“I am completely surrendered,” she says with a sense of wonder, as if she has finally surprised herself. “You will remember everything or you will forget. In either event”- she shrugs her shoulders - “it will be exactly the way it should.”
She is dead in November. It is the swept clean of autumn in Los Angeles, when the world is a simple equation, blue into blue. The air smells of purity and creation. Perhaps I am relieved. She has been a burden, with her undyed hair falling past her shoulders, with her blue jeans and poncho and sandals, with her unprovable poetry, her vodka, spilled ashtrays and cookies. She is gone and I am free of her cycles of deprivation and excess and that startled look is finally removed from her eyes. I am the only orphan in Westford Academy. I’m invited everywhere.
I am prepared to mourn her but find I do not. Instinctively, I know I can trade on her tragedy, can use her death to enlarge my life. I do this with the ease of a child, ruthless, without conscience. I have the conversation piece, the show -stopper. It is better than playing the piano or tap dancing. She was hiding a lump the size of an egg in her breast, I say and survive. She bathed with her bra on, it’s true, I’m not kidding, I say, and I am always the center of attention. I keep surviving. I am twelve. I am thirteen. My tennis improves, my skiing and French. My mother, who had lived somehow posthumously, at the periphery, always somehow after the fact, is finally and completely gone. I feel born for this total eclipse, it feeds me.
I don’t know precisely when I was first overtaken by these longings for her. I cannot say when shame and cruelty were transformed into love, what secret bridges must be built or how such structures are devised and crossed. I am much older.
When I am asked the place of my birth, I name the village on the Pacific coast of Mexico where my mother, alone with an infant, wrote poems, lost entirely except for the title. At such moments, sometimes quite unexpectedly, I consider the permutations of squandering the blue. I do not tire of this. I do not think I will ever exhaust these possibilities.
Always, I return to my mother in Maui. What seizure of doubt, of herself and her purpose, must have assaulted her that she would leave the jungle where so little was expected and she was competent, to return to her mother’s house in Beverly Hills? Certainly she could foresee how alien this would be, how she would feel suffocated behind the rows of scrubbed greenery, after the unimpeded ocean of Mexico, after the directionless abundance of the Hawaiian jungle, the sunsets with their delicate reds and pagan purples indelible, like birth. She knew Dominique would be severe and unrelenting. She knew the implication would be that what she did was unsubstantial and useless and her drinking could not but worsen.
I would like to tell her that I understand she did this for me. Mourning was an atrocity. Her sensibility was a curse. She brought me to a place she could not bear and by an act of faith greater than herself, she endured it for years. She gave me back my life before I realized that it was not mine I did not say thank you. I did not say I love you.
In my mind, she is always traversing a backyard in Beverly Hills, her walk unsolid. In this re-creation, I am not avoiding her eyes, annoyed. I am playing tennis, and this time, I toss my racket away. I say this means nothing. And take the teacups, the ballet and swimming lessons. I do no need them.
In my reinventions, I am not standing in mute banality. I say this life you have given me is of no consequence, not the gray-and-white uniforms, not these houses with their grounds a pathetic suggestion of the tropical. They are out-lines without substance. I can do without them.
I am reaching out my hand. I am saying let’s go to Cancun or Honolulu, where there are men with long hair and guitars, the kind you once and too briefly loved. Look at how young and strong I am. I can walk for hours, with you, along sea cliffs adorned with permanently wild flowers. You will see that I possess a capacity for silence. You will see that I can listen.
I understand that I will never be able to fully comprehend her. I am aware of her vulnerability now. It is not that I romanticize neurosis. It is simply that at last and finally I feel an inexpressible sympathy. I know that whatever is excitable and open in me, all that desires magnitude and grace, this is her legacy.
Of course the things we would most want to say, to change, to soften, the very words that could, in fact, alter the course of our lives or the very orbits of worlds, are the words we cannot say, not then, not later, not ever. My mother loved me.
Kate Braverman is an experimental writer of a singular and ruthless breed. She is a poet, short fiction writer, essayist and author of the novels, Lithium for Medea, Palm Latitudes, Wonders of the West, and The Incantation of Frida K. Her Graywolf Prize winning memoir, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir was published in Feb. 2006. Kate also recently won the 2005 Mississippi Review Prize and received a Christopher Isherwood Foundation Fellowship for lifetime recognition of achievement. Kate’s short-story “Mrs. Jordan’s Summer Vacation” won Editor’s Choice Raymond Carver Short-Story Award.