Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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We are sticky with the long car ride, hundreds of miles, hours when we have grown sick of each other.
“Let’s go to the hotel first,” Mother urges. But my father drives to this house where his mother waits by the window, her thin hand trembling at the curtain. She’s been waiting forever.
“At last,” she says.
The sorrow of her bent bones scares me, the hunger of her hug surprises me. No one has ever held on to me so wonderfully. No one else never wants to let me go.
I sit close to her on the stiff sofa.
“Don’t you want to go outside and play?” Mother whispers, as if the scent of lemon trees and fresh sun, the splash of ocean breeze, can compare with the way my grandmother looks at me.
I arrived early in the morning unannounced, “Mad dog-niner” in a UH-1C helicopter gunship. We were told to land and await further orders. I hovered over a rice paddy dike that fronted a white stucco hooch with a red tile roof. The sky was clear, but in the distance I could see the tree line, dense, deep green, and forbidding. An older woman wearing shiny black “pajama pants” and a baggy white shirt stood alone in a dry rice paddy, threshing shocks of rice against a tall wicker booth. I tried to hover carefully so my rotor wash wouldn’t disturb her. But she left her work and disappeared into the house, surprised and fearful.
We shut down the helicopter, ate C rations, and the rest of my crew began to doze off. When she emerged from the house, we watched each other. My curiosity overcame my embarrassment and I walked over to her. She looked at me from under her hat, then averted her eyes. I offered her my olive drab can of “ham, eggs, with salt” and she accepted. She invited me into the house, and I hesitated. I knew how quick and unexpected violence can be. But I was young; it was easy to “know better,” but do otherwise. The room was open and breezy. Curtains undulated at the windows. The morning sun streamed in, illuminating the white walls, simple table and chairs. We spent only a short time together, smiling and nodding to each other. She served hot, strong tea. She pointed to photographs of her family set in her wall shrine. From my billfold, I withdrew photos of my own. When I heard the helicopter engine start to spool up, I rose to leave. She walked with me to the front gate, where I waved goodbye. She was such a gracious host. I wanted desperately to be a good visitor.
Usually when my mother comes to visit me in my dreams, I know it’s too good to be true. I hear a little voice whisper, “It’s not real. She’s been dead for almost five years now.” Even dreaming, I know not to let myself get too happy. The minute I see her, my heart sadly recognizes the surrealism of her presence. The smile that was once so warm and comforting now brings heartache. It’s like that caving-in feeling you experience as a child when you learn the truth about Santa. You can never talk yourself into believing again.
Except for last night.
Last night, I walked into the kitchen of the home where I grew up and saw her standing at the counter, her back to me. She was dipping a finger into the big shiny bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough she reserved for “double batches.” I saw the white Jergen’s bottle she kept on the windowsill above the sink. I heard her humming, “Qué será, será,” as she brought the dough to her mouth. I listened to her “Mmmm-mmmm” of appreciation. She was there.
It never occurred to me this wasn’t real. Thrilled to see her, I wanted only to watch her for a few minutes without her knowing I was there. I could not look at her long enough.
I knew that when I finally announced, “I’m home,” she’d turn around, ready with one of her world-class hugs. None of this high-society kissing the air above the other’s cheek. We’d always hugged like we meant it, until cancer consumed her and it hurt her to be held too close.
But last night, her body was round and soft. I knew I could hug her hard and she would hug back. I knew that she’d say, “Hi, sweetie.” No one has called me sweetie in five years.
Then, just as I opened my mouth to speak, I woke up. Again, I had been cheated, once in real life and now in my dreams. I thought I was about to have the “one more chance” anyone who’s ever lost someone dreams of having.
I spent most of that day walking an emotional tightrope, forcing back the tears that came to my eyes at the grocery store, the bank, the laundromat.
Then, that evening while I was sitting at a stoplight, something clicked into place. Maybe she had visited me. In that place that exists beyond our finite conceptions, we had been together. I had heard her humming, “Qué será, será,” when I walked in, I had smelled the faint scent of Jergen’s. And in some future dream, we’ll pick up exactly where we left off, and she will turn around and face me with open arms when I say, “Mom, I’m home.”
Kansas City, Missouri
My cousin and her family arrived in California one day in the summer of 1964. I’d visited her in Minnesota a year before. Now, we claimed each other as friends. Wedged into a space between my parents’ bed and the wall, we emptied her suitcase. Beneath the jumble of clothes, toys, and souvenirs, was a book about menstruation. Months earlier, my mother had said I was too young to attend the special program for fifth-grade girls. That day I had left school early and alone. Now I sat with my new friend, stealing forbidden knowledge.
The first night, we lay next to each other in sleeping bags on the living room floor, and my cousin taught me a song. “God is good to me, God is good to me.” Her hands made pictures as she sang. “He holds my hand” (hands clasped), “He helps me stand” (fingers spread in an upside-down V), “God is good to me” (her cupped hands cradling the words).
Hymns were new to me, especially a song that played with God. I spent most Sundays at the Kingdom Hall with my grandmother, a Jehovah’s Witness. It was my duty to write down every scripture the Brother quoted; later, back in her bed at the convalescent hospital, my grandmother would search her Bible for each chapter and verse.
My life was narrow, pinched between Sundays, school, and chores at home. But being with my cousin felt like slipping out of tight, stiff clothes and into my own skin. Hours flashed by while we ran like horses up the street and into the nearby hills, or whispered and dreamed in secret places.
In the spring of 1965, camping in Yosemite, we realized one of our dreams. Dressed in matching checked shirts, we walked to the stables and signed up for our first horseback ride. While the stable hands formed a line of horses and riders, my cousin twisted in her saddle to look back at me. This is it, our faces said. Later, we walked into the park gift shop with money rolled tight in our hands and came out with a cedar wishing well for her, a cedar box containing a five-year diary for me. That night the air inside the tent was pungent and warm.
Suddenly it was June, and she was leaving. Overladen, the blue station wagon sat in our driveway, engine running, while our parents said a long Midwestern goodbye. I watched my cousin sitting in the back seat, her face lit with happiness — lakes and trees and the promise of freedom shone in her eyes. I wanted to slide my hand across her straight, fine hair one more time.
The car was still there when I turned and walked away. Alone in the house, I started writing the first letter. “How are you?” it began. “I am fine.”
Half Moon Bay, California
There’s one time a year when everything makes me crazy. It’s when the relatives come over.
First, there’s Auntie E. She’s the one I despise the most. She walks into the house with a Tupperware container. Whenever she visits she brings garlic soup with onions in it. I tell her every time she comes that I’m allergic to onions.
Second, there’s N., one of my favorite cousins. She has a slight drinking problem, but she knows how to control it; she always carries mints with her. But her face gives her away; it’s always red when she drinks.
A. is another one of my favorite cousins. When she was born, I was one of the first people to hold her. Ever since then I’ve felt like she is my child. I spoil her rotten. Her mother says I give her too much. Whenever I see her she jumps right into my arms. The feeling is so overwhelming I can’t explain it.
Finally, there’s weird cousin W. He eats more than anyone I know. I remember once when he was visiting me, I cooked a dozen eggs. I took one and he took the other eleven.
Oak Lawn, Illinois
At the social service community house where my wife and I lived and worked for several years, visitors were sometimes part of the job. It was the part Sarah and I hated the most: people showing up at odd hours wanting “just a little gas money to get to the funeral of my sister/father/daughter back on the reservation/down South/back home.” For a while, the community had extra money and we gave out a full tank of gasoline to every sob story that came along. By establishing a credit account with a service station nearby, we avoided handing out cash to potential alcoholics. We also gave out canned food and whatever else extra we had, especially to women and families who came begging.
But the sporadic trickle of visitors turned into a daily stream. We became more discriminating. This was the hard part: judging people; sticking my face near enough to another human being, a stranger, to see if I could smell alcohol; observing behavior for signs of derangement; turning down people on hunches, on the way I happened to be feeling when a hesitant knock interrupted the first minutes of solitude in my day.
We knew we had had enough when Sarah and I responded to one of these knocks by pretending not to be home. The visitor turned out to be a friend of ours who walked in the unlocked back door and found us hiding in a closed room.
St. Louis, Missouri
Uncle Madison brought Jack to see us whenever Jack was in town doing one of his flagpole endurance stunts. He’d live in a small wooden box suspended high above a parking lot near the downtown library for days at a time. The reason Jack did this stayed up there with him. Maybe it was to get publicity for the city, or to raise money for Madison’s favorite charities.
My parents would take my brother and me downtown after school. The fog would just be pushing in and it was hard to see the top of the pole. My dad acted embarrassed and tried to pretend he didn’t know us as we shouted hello to Jack. My mom stood back and smoked cigarettes. Once we were allowed up into the box. We carefully climbed the pole with our dad behind us. I could see through the fog past the lettuce fields to the ocean.
I was never quite sure who Jack was. I thought he was a celebrity. This might have been his only job — a traveling flagpole-sitter. That was all I knew about him. I did know about Uncle Madison. He visited a lot. He was my dad’s uncle. Madison could put both his legs behind his head at the same time. I had no idea what yoga was, but I was impressed. Madison told us how he used to go into action whenever his teacher turned her back to write lessons on the chalkboard. Instead of copying whatever she was writing, he would put his legs behind his head. He was clever at whipping them down the second she turned back to the class. Once, one of his pals was quicker than he and tied his shoelaces together.
Madison also did magic. He pulled nickels from behind my skinny ears and put out burning cigarettes on his tongue. He worked in a bank and gave us slotted red cardboard folders to collect rare pennies. Once he brought some meat and asked my mother to fry it for dinner. She told us it was chicken, though she grinned when she said this. It didn’t taste like chicken, especially when she kept the grin all through dinner. When she finally confessed it was rabbit, I cried and wouldn’t eat. I had a stuffed rabbit who was my ragged companion at night. I cried because she knew that.
Madison was the brother of our dad’s real father, and he was Jack’s brother. We didn’t know who our dad’s real father was. Only that his name was Harold. Our dad never talked about Harold. Never. Neither did my mom. Not like our Grandpa Daily who we saw every year at Christmas. Grandpa Daily was Dad’s stepfather. That was different.
One night when “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was on TV, Madison rang the doorbell. He was with a man I didn’t know. My mom introduced him as Uncle Lloyd. We had to talk to Lloyd, tell him about school, though we wanted to get back to the show. She served coffee, sat back, and smoked. My dad didn’t come out of the bedroom. We could hear his TV.
I didn’t know anything about Lloyd. I’d never heard of him. He didn’t sit on flagpoles, didn’t work in a bank, didn’t do magic. He was just one of those numerous relatives of Dad’s who had grown up poor in Missouri. Whatever my mother thought about Lloyd and his quick visit, she kept secret. Something in the way she avoided my questions reminded me of the episode with the rabbit, but this time she didn’t grin. I soon forgot him, and never saw him again. My dad said nothing.
I found out last year that Lloyd wasn’t really my uncle. He was the grandfather I thought I’d never meet. He was an alcoholic. He beat my grandmother. That’s all I knew. My mother hid Lloyd’s identity all those years, as if there were something wrong with me for wanting to know.
Madison died while I was in college and left my dad a small amount of money. I knew about that. Lloyd also died. I found out about it months later from an aunt. My father still doesn’t talk about him.
We live in a rural town in Colorado, one of those little towns you breeze through while driving long distances. You might wonder about us and smile at our quaintness. You might stop here for gas before going on to your real destination.
Unless close friends or family make a special effort, our only visitors are those on their way to Denver. One of our big-city guests said he loves to come here on vacation because “there is absolutely nothing to do here.”
Other friends gush during their visit about “how interesting you still are, in spite of this desolate place.” Sometimes they comment on the locals’ high level of education or cosmopolitan attitudes.
While visitors are glad to come and see us, most are very glad to return to their shopping malls, specialty bakeries, ethnic foods, and frozen yogurt shops. Then it gets very quiet. The clouds sometimes clothe our jagged, lovely mountain peaks. The light of the dry, rocky hills of the desert reflect subtle pinks, grays, and buffs. One recent snowy morning I rose to find the tracks of a large deer leading right up to the window by our bed. The young garlic and tulip shoots had been nibbled. I am certain he watched us while we slept.
I started small, but the customers flocked in and business grew. The single tube feeder with sunflower seeds was mobbed every day, so I added a hopper feeder for the larger birds. Next came a hummingbird feeder, then a small satellite feeder for the chickadees, a suet feeder for the woodpeckers, a window feeder for close viewing, and cracked corn on the lawn for the ground feeders. Supermarket bags of birdseed were no longer economical, so I began purchasing fifty-pound bags of seed from the Feed and Grain Store. The visits of the different birds, who began arriving at dawn each morning, felt like gifts. Soon squirrels, chipmunks, and moles joined in.
Late one night, I glanced out the window and saw rabbits feeding on the cracked corn scattered on the ground. I began to see the rabbits each night. Occasionally they were joined by an opossum or a raccoon. I discussed the feeding of wild rabbits with the clerk at the Feed and Grain Store. My next order included fifty pounds of shelled corn.
One evening I was amazed to see nine deer in the yard feeding alongside the rabbits. It was a moonlit winter night and for a moment I thought I was seeing things, but they were real. I considered the visit by the deer to be a special blessing. Soon a salt lick and a deer block were added.
I described this ever-expanding banquet to one of my friends, depicting each stage of its development from the arrival of a few birds to daily visits by more than a hundred birds, plus chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, and now deer. I ended by asking, “God, I wonder what it’ll be next?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but if I were you I’d have sandwiches ready.”
The best part of living in a little two-room apartment is that people can rarely invite themselves to stay over. If they do, you can always say, “I wish I could, but I hardly have room for my own bed.” You do not have to say that you have a futon rolled up in the closet. You do not have to offer them the kitchen floor, or even your own bed. This you do only with friends and family.
The best part about living in and out of altered states of consciousness is that you can have disembodied friends visit whenever you want. There is no time in their realms; they can come at 9, stay for a week, and leave by 10. They never leave the top off the toothpaste, throw your favorite towels on the bathroom floor, scratch the bottom of a frying pan you’ve been seasoning for ten years, or wake you up in the middle of the night with their snoring.
One of the nice parts about living by yourself is that no one can say, “You’re too big to be talking to people who aren’t there.” In your own house, you can never get too big for anything. Except for the closets, the drawers and the file cabinets. The best part about my friends is that they don’t have any of those things. Dolphins and whales don’t, either. If I lived out in the middle of the ocean, I’m sure I’d be entertaining all the time, inviting people to stay for months on end.
Brooklyn, New York
One day when I was a young girl sitting in church, a scripture jumped out at me: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2. Entertained angels? Really, do you suppose people have entertained angels, I mean had them over for dinner and not known they were angels? My parents had lots of people come for dinner. Some of them were strangers to me.
I became more attentive to the persons who came to our house. I asked them where they were born, who their fathers were; I looked carefully for bumps along their backs where wings might attach. When I could find no clues, I decided that as my parents knew all those who came to our house for dinner, they must not be true strangers.
I started observing real strangers — people on the streets, in the grocery store, driving by in cars. I was obsessed with the idea that some might be angels. In my enthusiasm I talked with strangers wherever I could. When my mother found out, she told me all about men who offered candy to little girls. This was so frustrating; there might be real angels out there and there was no way to get to them. I soon lost interest and became cynical.
A few years later a woman visited our family. She was the kind of person children like. She spoke directly to me and listened attentively. She was one of the few adults who asked real questions, not just, “How’s school?” She framed her questions from my previous answers. This proved what I had only suspected up until then: I was worth listening to.
This stranger presented a small Christmas angel as a gift to our family. I wondered if this woman who was so very kind and loving was herself an angel. I studied her throughout the meal. Afterward, when I was alone with her, I decided to share the scripture and ask if she thought it might be true. She paused, then took my face in her hands and said, “Lisa, there is a special secret that the scripture didn’t tell you. It is that every stranger is an angel. If we remember that and treat them that way, then the earth will turn into heaven.”
I never wanted visitors at Christmas. I was embarrassed by the fact that we were Jewish and had a tree. I was especially embarrassed after the rabbi showed movies about the Holocaust.
“Oh,” my mother said breezily, pointing to the spaces between the branches of our scrawny tree, “there’s barely any Christmas in a tree like this!” A little Christmas was okay.
Pammy was my neighbor’s niece. She was a loud girl, with square yellow teeth. Nan, my neighbor, bragged about Pammy’s academic achievements. Pammy was aggressive at school — and at home.
“I’m coming over,” she bellowed one Christmas Eve.
The pared-down version of Christmas stood innocently in my mother’s living room. Our dog Alex circled the cotton sheet, tiny red hairs finding their way onto packages.
“You have a Christmas tree!” Pammy yelled. Her teeth looked yellower in the tree’s tiny flickering lights.
“Yeah, we do.” I wanted Pammy to leave my house and my holiday. I suddenly felt protective of my mother and her strange brand of Judaism, and of that skinny little tree; it was like the runt of a litter of soft-nosed bulldogs.
“I can’t believe you have a Christmas tree! You’re Jewish!” With that indictment, her face turned red. I hoped Pammy would explode, an overripe tomato on a blistering day.
“Look, I didn’t ask you to come over. I didn’t ask for any visitors.” My face was burning and my throat was tight. I could barely squeak out my indignation. I’d never dis-invited anyone before.
Pammy left, taking her excellence and her teeth with her. I remember Pammy’s visit that skinny Christmas because of the way I protected that wilting pine and my mother’s wavering devotion to her religion.
New York, New York
Mother loathed cleaning and cooking and let us run wild most of the time. She wanted only to work and make money. My father believed women shouldn’t work but belonged at home. He raged at her. She raged back. How and why they ever got married still eludes me. My mother moaned about not having “nice things” for the house and complained that it looked like a pigsty. No one in my family ever invited people over.
The visitors we couldn’t avoid were relatives from out of town. My maternal grandparents visited every two years from the time I was seven. I remember looking forward to their first visit, imagining them to be gentle, affectionate people like the grandparents I had read about in school. In reality, though, Grandma was skinny, critical, and bossy; the corners of her mouth curled in a perpetual frown. I felt cold when she hugged me. Grandpa smiled more, but he had always disapproved of my father for being a foreigner, and my father was quite sensitive about the issue. My parents’ fights always escalated right before my grandparents’ arrival.
During their visit my mother became a well-behaved, sweet, cheerful, obedient daughter. She worked hard at pleasing her parents, and she expected everyone else to do the same. Suddenly, it was important that I wash my hands before eating, that I say please and thank you, ask to be excused from the table, and help with the dishes. I did not appreciate these sudden demands and expectations. The pressure to pretend everything was different for my grandparents made me dread their subsequent visits, and filled me with a deep sense of shame.
The situation eased after I got married. When I had a family of my own, I quit playing the charade. When my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s a few years ago, I was able to feel love for her and my mother. There has been a lot of healing.
I believe part of that healing came from another visit during my childhood. A paternal uncle showed up but my mother did not feel the need to please and impress him. His visit had a calming effect. He was understanding, and he eased some of the anger and tension between my parents. He smiled a lot and had eyes that seemed to delight in watching me play. His hugs felt warm, hearty, and spontaneous. He had been a tailor, and I remember him sitting with me and very patiently and gently showing me how to thread a needle and tie a tailor’s knot in it. He took me for an ice cream cone and thanked me for keeping him company.
Evie flew in from the coast. She looked blank, as always, but as always, she wasn’t. She was cryptic. I made her sit on my lap, because otherwise I didn’t know how to find her behind her dignity. Little Phil took her and Mr. Mun downtown to look at John under the coroner’s sad sheet. Little Phil told me Evie screamed and screamed. Poor John; after all this, Evie was still screaming at him. But he didn’t budge. He looked like he was displeased. I think it’s just the way his mouth was built. While the kids were down at the funeral parlor, Diane came by with an elaborate antipasto, just like her mother and father would have done. She brought Dr. C, too. In the kitchen, I said, I can’t ask anyone else: what does it feel like to die from an overdose? Does it hurt? Is it frightening? Dr. C had her arm around my waist. Both of us stared at the floor in front of the sink. She said, No pain, and no fear. It couldn’t be a nicer way to die. It could only feel good. In fact, marvelous. Not to worry, right?
John’s uncles didn’t come to see him or us. One sent a donation to the charity of the family’s choice, and the other stayed in La Honda and smoked the usual amount of dope.
Before the service, I stood outside with Diane, leaning on her quietness. I looked up and saw Jane trying to walk by me into the ballroom. I reached out my arms to her: Janie, I’ve missed you so much. Her face stayed as still as always. She said the conventional thing — how it was a terrible time. I said, Jane, it’s very interesting. Her face changed slightly; she had a handhold now. Interesting? she asked with distaste. I was being inappropriate. This woman and I had seen each other through the beginnings of our careers, carved out a place in the community together as risk-takers, as truth-tellers, then separated. Separated more than I knew. Another death.
We spoke at the service, and sang and drummed. There were hundreds of people to mourn this street boy. Afterward people came by to hug us and to say what they had to say. I felt someone warm behind me. I turned and looked into Alice’s face. She was dressed in swaths of fabric and a feather headdress and stones on silk cords. How are you, she asked, not smiling. I hadn’t seen her in eleven months. I was surprised, so I said what I hadn’t said to Jane: I’m pretty sad.
Yes, said Alice, and embraced me, and moved on, rustling.
“Don’t talk back to your mother that way, young lady!” I heard over and over during my Southern upbringing.
“What way?” I was a perfectly reasonable child. All you had to do was tell me why you wanted me to clean my room, and I’d take it under advisement. This was not the desired response. I also heard, “Children should be seen and not heard.”
This made me determined not to impose irrational authority on my own daughter. Unfortunately, it didn’t take her long to learn that a good punch line would get her out of almost anything.
Once, after I had yelled at her to make her bed, she asked, “Do you know what ‘matricide’ is?”
I figured my time had come.
“It’s what happens when you cut the tags off the box springs,” she told me.
I not only helped her make the bed, I vacuumed the floor.
After the divorce, when she was nine, we became a comedy team, traveling companions, and best friends. I loved her ferocious independence, as well as the teary snuggles when her bravado wore thin. Still, I ended up doing more than my share of bathroom floors, laundry, and emptying the trash.
On the other hand, we could get angry and shout and slam doors and cry and make up and go to the movies and have ice cream afterward. This mother-daughter relationship was a revelation to me, and I figured it would go on forever.
But then came her first day of college.
Her father, with whom we have each remained good friends, helped us move all her belongings. We hauled and sweated up to the fourth floor of her dorm. He and I dutifully took orders, set up the furniture, helped unpack, made the bed. Rented a tiny fridge and bought a ton of groceries. Kept her company while she wept fitfully from time to time in shadowy corners. Bid her adieu to more hugs and tears. And, exhausted and happy at a job well done (raising our daughter? launching her like a battleship?), drove back to the city.
The next morning when I got up, there was no one there.
There was no one there the morning after that.
Or the next.
I kept wandering into her room and just standing there. I thought I was admiring the pristine neatness. It took weeks, months, to get used to the lack of noise, mess, chaos. When I put something someplace, it was still there two days later. A miracle. A tragedy.
Slowly, I began to realize how much of my energy had always been at my daughter’s disposal. Now, I was entirely on my own. Writing I had postponed for years began rolling out of my computer. I started doing research. I made my first speech at a conference. Afterward, a grandmotherly participant asked me, “Kids in college now?” It was obvious. But only to the members of the private club you join the minute your pregnancy shows: mothers.
It took Thanksgiving and Christmas visits and the whole summer vacation — to which I’d been looking forward — to realize that something had changed. This didn’t mean that she stopped calling three times a day. That my advice wasn’t sought. That funny stories and daily minutiae were no longer shared. But it did mean that when I put the phone down, she was in her home and I was in mine.
Now I’ve reached the honorable status of Mother Emeritus. It’s a joy, a loss. It makes no difference that my daughter still considers my home her home (she’s never considered it “our” home). It makes no difference whether she returns to live in my home after she’s graduated from college. And it makes no difference how many years it takes her to realize this fact herself.
I know it. In every bone, in every cell, in every passing minute. In every future plan. From this time on, and for the rest of my life, my daughter will be a visitor in my home.
New York, New York