At Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, they hand out maps of the store, as if it were a forest you might get lost in. My mother is looking for a novel; I want something that will help me identify the birds and trees of the Northwest. Oregon is much more lush than I remember; its green makes California look brown. My mother grew up in Portland but doesn’t recall the names of things. I lived here until the age of seven. Now nostalgia is driving me to try to name what I lost. Since we arrived I’ve been drawing leaves, but I’ve failed to note how they were arranged on the branch, making positive identification difficult. A tree I saw earlier could be a birch, an ash, a cottonwood, or an alder.
My quest is motivated by more than just nostalgia. The novel I’m working on is partly set around a lake in Oregon, and I want to make sure I don’t simply superimpose Bay Area flora and fauna over the local terrain. My mother’s reason for coming here is different: she wants to make a sort of mother-to-daughter transfer of history, to show me her town and tell me her story. I think she’s glad I’m finally interested. She’s been waiting a long time.
We’ve had our clashes over the years, but this trip is going surprisingly well. We’ve driven up from the Bay Area, through rain and sun and more rain; around sharp mountains and rolling green hills; past horses standing under trees, trying to escape the downpour. On the way, my mother was learning to speak French from a tape. “Allons,” she’d repeat. “I need a porter.”
Last night we both called home from our motel room, and our conversations were uncannily similar.
“It’s going well,” we told our respective mates. “No, really.”
And it is going well. I feel more open to my mother than ever before — which is good, of course, but also rather distressing. I’m finally beginning to feel the pain and loss she’s been telling me about for years, and I wonder what sort of legacy it has left for both of us.
In the bookstore’s cafe, we sip iced coffee and page through stacks of books. There’s a thick pane of glass between us and the street, where students, bums, and construction workers give each other a wide berth. The sky is its usual opulent gray, and the cafe tables are covered with brightly patterned oilcloth. People flip through magazines before returning them to the rack. A group of middle-aged women, sharp-tongued and fashionable, have just finished discussing Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and are now talking about a couple they know. A man wedged into the corner reads 32 Days to a 32-inch Waist. At another table, two young Japanese Americans with hair the color of Easter eggs press their faces together and giggle. I suddenly feel old, but not old enough to have figured anything out.
I steal a glance at my mother. What has she figured out? Flipping through a novel she’ll be reading for one of her many book groups, she is absorbed, far from me. The lines of concentration around her mouth are deeper versions of mine. Her half glasses sit low on her nose, yet she doesn’t look old. At this moment she seems filled to bursting with mystery, bitterness, and good intentions.
She senses my gaze, but before she can look up, I return to Mark Strand’s The Continuous Life:
Although it was brief, and slight, and nothing To have been held on to so long, I remember it.
I look up again. “You used to tell me about your stepmother,” I say. “How she made you eat alone, in the kitchen. How she almost ran you down with the Oldsmobile. How she hit your father in the face.”
My mother flinches almost imperceptibly.
“How she stopped for pie and coffee on the way to the hospital when you had a broken foot.” I have a trace of belligerence in my voice, as if to say, You told me this stuff. Why are you flinching? “Tell me more,” I demand.
It’s not more horrific details I want, but something else: context, a way to understand what happened to her and why she wants me to know about it.
Instead she tells me about a recurrent dream she had when she was a girl:
“My stepmother, my father, and I were all sitting at the dinner table, and we heard an eerie sound outside, a sort of who-whoo.” Dissatisfied with the owl-like noise she has produced, she tries again. This time the sound is a cross between a ghostly sigh and a faraway train. People at nearby tables look up.
“We put down our silverware and listened. My stepmother and I argued about what it was: a bird, a boat, a train.
“ ‘No,’ my father said. ‘It’s a scarecrow.’
“He got up and went out, and I went after him. In the yard my father was standing with a female scarecrow. They were together; you could tell.
“I tried to approach them, but my father told me not to. Then the scarecrow, who had these big, heaving breasts, took a breath and let it out, whoooosh, trying to blow me down.”
What a mother image, I think: a spooky scarecrow with tits.
“Other dreams,” she continues, “had the same scarecrow, who sometimes cut my father with the lids of tin cans.”
I wait for her to explain the dream, what it means to her, but she’s looking over my head with a thoughtful, distracted expression.
“Well?” I finally say.
“Well, what?” she replies.
So that’s it: No translation, no interpretation. Just the pure, dripping, undigested image. It’s like one of those fairy tales that are supposed to entertain but really terrify. A ghost story you can never shake. Am I supposed to take this dream and figure it out, or am I just another in a long line of women who must carry it, become it, pass it on?
Back home, I will tell my boyfriend the dream, lowering my voice in awe, trying to mimic the half-bird, half-train sound my mother made. Somehow, though, the story will turn comic; my boyfriend and I will laugh helplessly, who-whooing each other for the next few days. But even as I laugh, I will be stung by the sound’s bottomless loneliness, will feel the hair at the back of my neck stand up. I reimagine the dream, adding my own touches: the scarecrow trussed up in rusty barbed wire, dead birds skewered on the barbs. Maybe my job is to make the story even scarier.
I ask my mother to show me all the houses she lived in as a girl and as a young wife. There are many of them, in all parts of town. At each one we pull up to the curb and sit in the car. While my mother tells me what she remembers, I take notes. After a while we get out and take photographs of each other in front of the house. We rarely smile in these photos. They are a record, a document of the house and of each of us at her current age: sixty and thirty-eight.
Done reminiscing, my mother pulls away from the house she once inhabited. While she drives, I write, my handwriting crabbed and probably indecipherable to anyone but me. Though reading or writing in a moving car makes me nauseous, I bow my head to the task, trying to get the past down before it drifts away and comes back in other, more complicated guises. After the last hard stroke of the pen, I throw the notebook on the carpeted floor and lean back in the seat. Cars and trees and houses round the edge of my vision and disappear. Somewhere in this landscape there must be a stationary landmark, something that will orient me and give me back my sense of direction.
Posing for a picture at a house in Lake Oswego, I think, I’m not so young, but I will never be this young again.
“The houses are much closer together than I remember,” says my mother.
“What years did we live here?” I ask. “How much did you pay for the house?”
“We lived here from 1965 to 1967. The house was almost new when we bought it. We’d managed to save quite a bit of money in the Peace Corps. It cost $14,000, and then we sold it for $21,000. We put in another room, which added to the value.”
“I remember now,” I say. “I walked to catechism from here.” My father was Catholic until he lost his faith. My mother was nominally Protestant but never had much faith to lose.
“You never went to catechism,” my mother says, and she laughs. “You went to Bible study for a month or two. We thought it would be a good way for you to meet other kids.”
I consider this change to the story of my life. That catechism memory has served me well, especially in Catholic environments. I think I’ll keep it.
MayLee was my mother’s foster mother, with whom she lived after she escaped her stepmother’s abuse. MayLee is gone now, but her daughter Sandy still lives in the house.
“You look just like MayLee,” my mother tells Sandy, who is scattering crusts for the ducks with a quick, efficient flick of the wrist. More ducks glide across the lake, then lurch wetly onto land. Across the water are wild irises and oak trees hung with vines. The place smells like decaying leaves, fresh grass, and mud.
“She fed the ducks till the day she died,” Sandy says.
My mother’s dyed hair is a dark smudge against the blue of the lake. Sandy has let her hair go gray; it glints as she tosses out the last of the bread. Then she starts to scatter seed. The seed hangs in midair for a moment before curving back down toward the earth.
I’ve noticed that my mother is telling family stories in my presence. It used to be that she wouldn’t, which meant I had to make up my own. But whatever once gave her pause is gone. Maybe it was my youth. I was a judgmental young woman. That I am no longer so young or critical makes me feel as if my edges are eroding; it’s not a pleasant feeling.
Sandy tells us about one of her daughters, who has signed on to the belief that the apocalypse is nigh. After reading a book describing the chaos that the new century will bring, the daughter and her husband moved to the country and started to stockpile food. They have distanced themselves from all who do not share their view.
Sandy says she doesn’t believe a word of it. Besides, if all hell is going to break loose, wouldn’t it make sense to stay close to your family?
Sandy is baby-sitting her grandson, one of those little boys who give off clean sparks of energy and make you wish you had one just like them. I am reminded that most people my age center their lives around their children.
That night I have a headache and can’t sleep. I toss and turn quietly, trying not to wake my mother, with whom I am sharing a double bed. My throat constricts, and regret washes through me. I feel in my body the sadness of knowing I will probably never have a son or daughter: someone who, after decades of not listening to me, will suddenly demand to see every house in which I’ve ever lived.
The next morning my period starts: one of the heaviest I’ve ever had. (Back in San Francisco, I will mention this to a friend, who will tell me that many women miscarry without realizing it. She’ll go on to say that she believes each woman has just a few shots at motherhood. If you blow your chance, that’s it.)
After driving around all morning, my mother and I stop for coffee.
“Let’s take a break from places,” I say, opening my notebook and uncapping my pen. “Let’s move on to people.”
We are both exhausted by our many forays into the past. What keeps us going, then? I think I know the answer. Recently I have fallen into the knowledge of mortality in the same way some people fall in love: with a sudden, rapt despair and the suspicion that nothing will ever be the same. My mother and I are doing this for the first, and perhaps the last, time. Will we ever again have the freedom and inclination to canvass Portland for old houses and forgotten stories? The whole thing feels like a drawn-out rite.
“Let’s start with Ninie,” says my mother.
We smile at each other. Not long ago, I appalled my mother by asking, about Ninie, “Now, who was that woman?”
“That woman” was my great-grandmother.
“She read me the Oz books,” my mother says: “Jack the Pumpkinhead, Glinda the Good. She told me God was love and that he was taking care of my mother. She told me stories about Chiquita, a little girl, and her monkey.
“My grandparents moved to Palo Alto in 1950. When I visited them, I’d come down on the Shasta Daylight, the train from Portland to Oakland. Then I’d take the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco. Was the Bay Bridge there then? I don’t remember.
“One summer I had a boyfriend down there, David Something-or-Other. He came over once, and Ninie brought out cookies and lemonade. I thought, So this is what it’s like to have a mother.” She looks at a wall display of shiny mugs, and her eyes fill. “I wonder if I let her know how much I appreciated it.”
Now the tears are breaking her mascara into little clumps. My eyes overflow, too. A woman eavesdropping at the next table seems on the verge of tears. Empathy is either the key to a civilized world or the path to madness.
“Now you’re writing, ‘And then she starts to cry,’ ” says my mother.
“No, I’m not,” I protest. But I am. And though I’m caught in the act, I can’t put down the pen until I finish the sentence.
On the way to the lake where my paternal grandparents had a house, we stop at a dolled-up seaside town full of galleries and cafes. The local library is closed, and I peer through the window at the vacant reading chairs and the old-fashioned card catalog. I imagine that they have no Hemingway but have the entire Black Stallion series: Flame and Son of Flame and The Black Stallion Rides Again. I’ll put that in my book, I think with satisfaction, as if the detail I’ve invented were the truest thing about this place.
The road from the coast to the lake house is shorter than we remembered, and the lake itself looks smaller. But the description I wrote of it in the first draft of my novel is not untrue: modest houses, modest plots of land, an immodestly beautiful lake.
I have a moment similar to my middle-of-the-night fear of remaining childless, but this time it’s about my book remaining unpublished. Will my words, labored over in solitude and coming from what often feels like a dream world full of undigested emotion and painfully bright colors, ever make it out into the cool light of day?
I got the lake right, but I left out how much warmer it is here than on the coast, how the air is soft on the skin, how bright and varied the rhododendrons are: hot pink, vivid purple, peppermint-candy white.
Prowling around the house that once belonged to my grandparents, we see that the windows have new shutters, and a new boathouse has been built. We pose for pictures, glancing nervously at the doors and windows, hoping no one will burst out and run us off.
My grandfather, a big man who would occasionally slip into throat-scraping Dutch, went into a nursing home at the age of seventy-six and didn’t last the year. His wife lived another decade and was laid out in an open casket, dressed in her favorite polyester pantsuit.
We stand by the lake for a minute before we go. Fish appear suddenly in the shallow water, dozens of them breaking the surface with their stiff black fins. Maybe they’ve been there all along, and it just took us a while to notice them, but they seem to have burst forth all at once. There is something disturbing about these creatures’ being so close to shore and to the lake’s surface. When clouds blow across the sun, the water turns opaque, hiding the fish, but when the clouds pass, they are revealed again. I expect the fish to dart away, to become a flash in the water, but they stay. They are longer than my forearm, thicker than a man’s wrist, and they just sit there. I could wade out and take them in my arms. Out of their thin mouths would come a lonely call: Who-whoo. Who-whoo.
Driving away from the lake, my mother tells me how one of her older male relatives tried to “seduce” her when she was in her early teens. The tale is hard to listen to, but I ask questions, keep her talking. Usually my girl-reporter pose serves as a buffer between me and the discomforting stories I’ve elicited, but this time it’s not working. This time I feel my mother’s extreme pain as my own — so much so that I am drowning in it. Although I am the one who has been pumping her for information, I suddenly accuse my mother of always telling stories in which she is the victim. This makes my mother cry, which makes me cry, too. I look out the window so she won’t see my tears. Trees flash by. I can’t bear all this shit, I think. I just can’t.
Later, we are singing in the car. We don’t know many of the same songs: I know a few lines of hers; she knows some of mine. Humming our way through the blank spots in our memories, we drive past tall trees that are either birch, ash, cottonwood, or alder. I think of the aisles in Powell’s Books, and of all the stories I’ve heard in the last week. How shall I classify them, make sense of them? How close shall I let them come?
Finally we find a song that we both know all the way through, one my mother taught me long ago:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine You make me happy when skies are gray You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you Please don’t take my sunshine away.
In the next verse, the singer dreams of holding his beloved in his arms, then wakes up to find her gone. Although I know it as well as I know anything, I pretend to forget the words. That verse reminds me of my mother’s dream, of the haunting sound that still goes right through me. I feel a catch deep in my throat. I know I won’t be able to sing without that barb rending the air, once again exposing the deep vein of loss that seems to run through everything.
But I try, and to my surprise I manage to smooth out the catch and keep my voice steady. And although the words we sing are sad, our voices rise up in a melancholy harmony that could almost pass for happiness.