Monday, May 11, 2015

Reflections on my mother

     My mother was an immigrant. She was born and raised in England, herself the daughter of immigrants (from Ireland). She emigrated to the United States when she was thirty and went back almost exactly thirty years later to England where she lived out the final twenty years of her life. I was her American-born daughter, caught between a yearning to have her close and an acceptance that the United States would never feel like her home. She straddled two worlds and, like every child of immigrants, I had to learn to straddle them with her. This is that story. It was originally printed in 2005 in the now-defunct Ladies Home Journal. I hope you enjoy it: 

     There is a black-and-white photo I keep by my bedside. It’s a picture of my mother and me kissing. I’m about a year old, standing up in the harness of my stroller, my hair no more than a shadow of curls held back by a small barrette. My mother is in silhouette, leaning forward. Our noses are touching. She is wearing a patterned blouse that cleaves to the contours of her body like silk, tied off at the neck with a jaunty scarf. Her nails are painted. A gold bracelet dangles from one wrist. And in her left hand, she is holding…a tissue.
     My mother died several months ago after two years of strokes that left her paralyzed and eventually, unable to speak. But this picture is always how I will remember her: elegantly attired, a lady in every sense of the word, and yet always at the ready to wipe a runny nose or blot catsup stains on a shirt.
     I am forty-four now, older than my mother was when this picture was taken. I am rarely out of jeans and sweatshirts. The only scarves I own are the wooly kind stuffed in the back of my mitten drawer. I never wear jewelry. My nails are too bitten to paint. And when my children sneeze or fall or get dirt on their hands, I end up frantically searching my car for a canister of towelettes which are wet and cold and nowhere near as comforting as a tissue.
     My mother always had a clean tissue—up her sleeve, in her handbag, in the pocket of her jacket. They materialized whenever they were needed, a safety net of protection and consolation for all the little mishaps of life: for the ice cream cone that seemed to melt faster than I could eat it, for the scraped knee that kept bleeding, the cold that came on after we left the house, the enthusiastic red-lipstick-kisses from my father’s aunts.
     My mother parented in a very tactile way. She grabbed my hand when we crossed the street long after I was old enough to cross by myself. She washed my long, thick hair until I was nearly a teenager because I had difficulty rinsing out the shampoo. She knitted sweaters. She sewed clothes for my dolls. One Halloween, she fashioned a Raggedy Ann wig for me out of a hairnet and brown wool. One Christmas, she sewed red polka dots on a stuffed elephant because I fervently believed Santa Claus would bring me such a thing. My mother taught me how to ride a bike, type a letter, drive a car.
     She parented by instinct, not observation. Her own childhood read like a tale out of Dickens. Born in London to Irish parents, she lost them both to tuberculosis by the time she was eight. She was sent to live in a Catholic orphanage in the countryside of Gloucestershire where the work was hard and the nuns could be brutal. She lived in a large communal hall with rows of beds. She wore hand-me-downs. For Christmas, she received an apple, an orange and a banana. When she was thirteen, the nuns found her name scrawled on a sidewalk along with the name of a boy she liked. As punishment, they locked her in a room for a week with only a bible. At sixteen, she ran away to London and vowed never to return.
     But the London of the early 1940s also proved tough. There were bombed-out buildings, nightly air-raids and long lines to buy rations. Rooms for rent often carried the warning, “no children, dogs or Irish.” My mother became engaged to an American GI—and lost him in a parachute jump at the Battle of the Bulge. By the time she immigrated to the United States in 1955 at the age of thirty, it seemed my mother had had enough of English life. She met my American father just months after arriving, married him within a year and applied for citizenship soon after. By the time I came along, she had completed her transformation from English to American. She’d learned to drive, gotten involved with the PTA, become a den mother for my girl-scout troop and developed a passion for American current events. The only part of her not American, as far as I could see, was her accent, which was something only other people noticed. To me, she didn’t have an accent. She just sounded like my mother.
     I grew up, finished college and eventually moved out of the house. I had no need of my mother’s physical parenting anymore. When we got to an intersection, I walked two steps ahead of her so she couldn’t hold my hand. I moved out of her reach the moment she produced a tissue. I stopped wearing the sweaters she made. I gave away the doll clothes. I still loved my mother, but I saw her as the human equivalent of the box of stuffed animals I kept in our attic: something I could always return to, something that would never change.
     And then, one afternoon when I was twenty-four, everything did change. My mother sat me down in our dining room with the sunshine pouring in, illuminating her shelves of bone-china teacups and the tapestries she’d stitched through the years, and she told me she was leaving my father and moving back to England. As she told me this, I had the distinct sense of particles moving through the air between us, forming a current that would forever separate the mother I had known from the mother that was to be.
     The leaving-my-father part was not entirely a surprise. My parents had been having difficulties with each other for years. The house of my youth—with its walls adorned with my father’s oil paintings, my mother’s needlework, their photos, books and travel souvenirs—had started to collapse in on itself from the weight of a life that no longer existed, like a ball with a slow leak of air.
    Dissolving their marriage, I could accept. Selling the house I could accept. It was the “moving-to-England” part that shocked me. My mother was not simply leaving my father. She was leaving me. Her only child. Her best friend. She was moving from the United States, the only land I had ever known. She was settling in the countryside of Gloucestershire she’d sworn never to return to. And she was moving in with a man I’d heard of only in fable—the boy whose name had been scrawled with hers on a sidewalk when she was thirteen.
     I was startled and bewildered. This was not the mother of my youth.  “You are an adult now,” my mother pointed out. “You have your own home and life.” Surely, she said, I didn’t want her to become one of those clingy parents who were always dependent on their children. It wasn’t like she was sick or dying. We could still visit each other. We could talk on the phone and exchange letters. This wasn’t 1945, when moving across the Atlantic was the equivalent of goodbye.
     And yet I understood why the Irish of the nineteenth century held a wake when a loved one left for America. There was a psychological distance that came with moving to another country. The money was different. So were the holidays. In England, Mother’s day—known as “Mothering day”—falls in March, not May. No matter which day we celebrated, one of us would always feel left out. Home movies from the U.S. wouldn’t work in British VCRs. The five-hour time difference meant that I couldn’t just pick up a phone, either. By the time I got home from work most nights, my mother would already be in bed. In miles, she may have lived only a little farther away than California. In my heart, it was as if she’d moved to Tibet.
     When she left, I cried for days. I lived in my own home, yet I was homesick for the first time in my adult life. We called and wrote each other often. She came for long visits every six months or so. I could see that being back in England had made her happier. Her blood pressure was down. She looked younger. She smiled more.
     Yet I kept thinking she would return. Perhaps when I’m married, I told myself. My husband and I settled in Tarrytown, NY after we got married, but I didn’t sell the condo I’d purchased in New Jersey. I reasoned that if she ever decided to come back, it was a place for her to live.
     She didn’t come back.
    Perhaps when she becomes a grandmother, I thought. When my son came along, my mother visited for six weeks. She knitted sweaters. She brought toys. But she never entertained the idea of staying. By the time my son was two, I began to see that she was never likely to settle again in the United States. I sold the condo.
     Our lives had settled into two distinct patterns of interaction. In letters and on the phone, my mother was still as warm and supportive as she had been when I was a child. It was when she visited that I felt the distance most keenly. Our relationship had come to depend so much on words and letters that we were rendered shy and awkward in each other’s presence. My mother stopped grabbing my arm when we crossed a street, stopped plying me with tissues. She no longer reached out a hand reflexively just to feel the touch of my skin.   
     In the same way she’d once transformed herself into an American, my mother had now gone back to being British. On visits, she’d act like a tourist in her own country, marveling at the low gas prices, the plentiful helpings of food, the way each state had its own laws. At my local grocery store, she studied the goods on the shelves with an anthropologist’s fascination. Once, she picked up an eggplant and handed it to me. “We call this aubergine,” she said. This, from the woman who regularly baked the best eggplant parmigiana I’d ever tasted in my youth.
     Her insistence on being English irked me. It was a constant reminder that she had separated herself from me—probably, I realize now, because it was too painful to do anything else. My mother knew that leaving the United States meant she might become estranged from her daughter. To weather such a loss, she knew she had to build a life that could withstand it—a life that didn’t have an “us” at its core. I know this now, but at the time, I felt each small betrayal acutely. Try as I might, deep down, I could never get over the sense of having “lost” my mother.
     I never told my mother this—not directly. It came out in little ways—the milestones in my son’s life I would “forget” to tell her about, the times she would talk about visiting, and I would put her off a month or two. I wanted her in my life, and yet paradoxically, I felt most apart from her when she was on top of me. Apart, we could talk and write openly about our feelings, reasoning that it was distance alone that kept us from connecting completely. Up close, we were forced to confront a certain reserve that had developed between us, a hesitation to get too close to each other, lest we be hurt again.
     The years went by and the distance became an accepted part of our lives, like a fault in the earth that smoothes with time and sediment. And then one December, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my mother came for a visit, left and never returned. She had the first of three serious strokes less than a day after her flight back to England. I was too pregnant to make the journey to her bedside then. I made the first of three visits when my daughter was four months old.
     My mother was not in good shape. She couldn’t talk or move much. Mostly, she could look at me and squeeze my hand. My letters to her were suddenly rendered useless. So were my stories and words. If I was to connect to her at all now, it would have to be through touch. I stroked her hair. I gripped her hands. I took tissues and wiped her face and eyes. The delicate dance we had done around each other for almost two decades had no place here. There was only the physical and immediate. There was no “we” and “you.” Once again, there was only “us.” I sang to her—and continued to do so every time I called and visited. In a small way, I became the mother she had once been to me. I don’t know what it did for her, but it gave me the comfort and peace I needed to let her go when her time came.
     After my mother died, I went through her closets and took home some of her clothes. I couldn’t take everything so I picked the blouses that smelled like her cologne, the sweaters she’d knitted, the silky jackets that reminded me of the graceful way she moved. I found her velvet bathrobe on a hook in her closet. It was a smock-style robe, with a zipper down the front and two slits for pockets. It was the color of a Christmas tree and smelled of the lilacs in my mother’s shampoo.

     I didn’t slip it on until I got back home. I was used to the distance, but my mother had always been on the other end. Now, she was truly gone. More than ever, I needed her comfort. I got out of my clothes and zipped up the robe. I felt a slight bulge in the right pocket. I reached a hand inside and found two neatly folded white tissues. My mother’s ever-present tissues. And just for a moment, she was there beside me again. I put the tissues back in the pocket and that’s where they remain, this little bit of my mother still comforting me.

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