“Tripoli, Havana, Cyprus, Panama, San Juan.” My mother ticks off the names of the places she has lived, chanting them like a prayer. She married my father, a navy man, and followed him from post to post. When I was very young, young enough to sit with her in the middle of the day drinking milk from a plastic cup while she had her afternoon coffee, she would tell me about those places. She would sit by the window, looking out at our patch of backyard, light a cigarette (she could put out her match with one flick of the wrist), and begin a story.
Now she’s sitting in the passenger seat of my car. I turn my eyes from the narrow coastal road and see a thin stream of spit running from the corner of her mouth to her chin. If she were one of the old women sitting in front of her building waiting for the Shoppers Express shuttle, I could just look away. If she were my child, I could reach over and gently wipe her mouth. Instead I turn my eyes back to the road, although I know its every bend and pothole, just as I know that this day will end, as it always does, with my promise to return.
When my mother finishes her litany of place names, some part of me — the part that still imagines I might board a ship myself someday — waits for a story about one of those places. But it is only the names she remembers now, the lilting syllables new and luscious on her tongue every time. Lately even this empty recitation is unraveling.
“And Palermo,” I say. “Didn’t we live near Palermo, in Sicily?”
“So many places” is my mother’s answer.
“I remember Sicily. Remember how you used to lift me up on the big stone wall by the harbor and tell me to watch for Daddy’s ship? Then you’d buy me an ice cream.”
“I did that?” My mother nods, as though satisfied with this woman she used to be. “I was in the navy for twenty years,” she says. “You were born overseas.” She says this as though it were the crowning achievement of my life, as though I have done nothing as daring or interesting since. This nettles me, and I correct her, using a word I know she will not like.
“Daddy was in the navy for twenty years. You were a dependent.”
But she does not seem to hear. She pulls a little wad of kleenex out of her pocket, then leans over to clean the dust off my dashboard, wiping it with long strokes.
“Well, we were a navy family for twenty years,” I say. “I guess you could say that.”
Sicily was the last place we lived before my father retired from the navy. I was three. My brother Stephen was eight. My mother called him “Stefano” for years. Now when he flies in to see her on his way to somewhere else, she calls him “Richard,” my father’s name.
Those years spent in the lilting-name places, I have come to understand, were my family’s happy times. My parents’ marriage required a change of scenery every few years, my father arriving home on leave like a returning hero, a handsome visitor dancing with my mother to songs on the radio sung in a language full of trills and rolled r’s. He was a wandering magician come to sit in our living room, pulling silk scarves and an ivory elephant out of his duffel bag for me. For my brother, there were hand-carved puppets and fragile paper birds, broken by bedtime.
While my father was at sea, my mother ventured from the American part of whatever town in which we were stationed. She spent afternoons in seaside shops, drinking coffee flavored with cardamom, or flower-scented tea. While the other navy wives bought their groceries at the commissary on base, she shopped at the local markets, where she once saw a jealous woman toss a headless chicken at the feet of her rival. I remember none of this. I was too young or not born yet. My mother told me these things later, dry-docked in our kitchen, washing dishes or ironing sheets. She told me how she’d stopped a man from beating a donkey by grabbing his stick away from him. She told me about the day my father took a wrong turn down a narrow jeep track that ended in a yard full of goats, and a man with one tooth came out of a shack and yelled and banged on the hood while my frightened father tried to turn the car around. She told me about the shy lizards that clung to the ceiling and the tile walls — she fed them bits of rice — and the newspaper boy who called every morning under her window, “El Mundo! El Mundo!”
I am the keeper of my mother’s stories now. I give them back to her on our weekly drives along Narragansett Bay, which is not Palermo, but is pretty in its own way, especially in autumn. The coast is more crowded now than when I was growing up here, but I imagine most seacoasts are: Tripoli, Havana, Cyprus, Panama, San Juan, Sicily. As I look at the familiar views of beach and marsh, I give my mother back her stories: Fierce, beautiful women in black head-scarves. The smell of flowers and garbage. My father’s fear of foreigners, how he never learned to accept their insistent kindness.
My mother repeats her place names, her rosary of foreign ports of call, her gypsy lament. “Tripoli, Havana, Cyprus . . .” Then she dozes, her slight form hanging forward against the seat belt. I pull into the parking lot of the beach where we will walk until she is tired or cold. It is late October. There are only three other cars. A man is trying to lure a reluctant beagle into one of them. I say, loud enough to wake her, “Here we are. Shall we take a walk?”
Her eyes snap open, and I wait while she realizes where she is and who I am. Then I say again, “Shall we take a walk?”
My mother fumbles for the door handle. I get out and start to go around to help her. Another car pulls up, a compact like mine, but expensive looking. The driver gets out, puts one hand on the small of her back, and arches her spine, as though she has been driving a long time. Her hairstyle is utilitarian like mine, but she has that well-put-together look that I can never quite achieve: tailored tweed jacket, dark green scarf, short leather boots.
I open the car door for my mother and reach over to undo her seat belt, but she fends me off. While she struggles to release the latch, I watch the other driver open her passenger door and help an elderly woman out of the car, taking her hands and slowly raising her to her feet as though they were about to dance. The older woman is obviously the driver’s mother. They are both tall and rangy, with weathered, freckled skin and fair hair. The mother is slightly stooped but has the same well-put-together look as the daughter. (I wonder if she chooses her mother’s clothes.) The daughter snugs the lapels of her mother’s coat, then holds out her arm. The older woman takes it with a gloved hand, and they walk off along the boardwalk that runs through the dunes to the beach.
My own mother, after much twisting and grunting, finally propels herself out of the car. She is wearing pink knit slacks, badly out of season, and dirty tennis shoes. Her jacket, a Boston Celtics windbreaker that Stephen gave her for Christmas at least twenty years ago, has a brown stain on the front. I warned her that it wasn’t warm enough for a day like today, but she insisted. She stands with her hands in her pockets like a street-corner tough, waiting for my cue.
“Let’s walk by the water,” I say, and I turn toward the boardwalk. My mother follows, stooping to pick a sprig of seaside goldenrod, which she sticks behind my ear.
“You’re a lovely young woman,” she says, looking at me steadily, eyes luminous and pale behind thick glasses. I know no one else who would say this but her. What does she see? Her bright yellow weed in my faded hair.
We walk through the dunes and out onto the beach. A stiff breeze is pushing against the incoming tide, whipping up whitecaps. The water has a golden tinge at the horizon, and Block Island is visible as a high, dark shape. My mother walks beside me, kicking at stones and shells, picking some up, discarding most, pocketing a few. When we return to the car, she will empty her pockets onto the floor and then forget about her treasures by the time we get back to her building. My car is full of stones, shells, sand, and bits of seaweed. On hot days it smells of low tide. I mean to toss all that junk out in a parking lot someday. In the meantime the stones and shells clink together while I drive: a happy, tropical sound.
“Somebody dropped a glove.” My mother is holding a black leather glove. It probably belongs to the older woman I saw earlier, I say. She and her daughter are only a short distance down the beach, and we quicken our pace to catch up to them. The other mother treads slowly and deliberately, as though her bones are imminently breakable, which they may well be. My mother trots along beside me like a haggard gray sprite. She spends her days sitting in her tiny apartment, drinking instant coffee and eating peanut-butter crackers. I sometimes find evidence of cigarette smoking, although I don’t know where she gets them. Aside from these weekly beach excursions with me, she gets no exercise, yet her body is wiry and strong. She bends as easily as a girl to collect a crab claw or a pure white pebble.
We catch up to the other mother and daughter. I explain to my mother that the glove belongs to the older woman, and I suggest that she return it to her. My mother has few opportunities to socialize, and I like to encourage them when she does. I stay behind as she strides a few steps ahead to deliver the glove. The other mother stands blinking like an owl in daylight while my mother places the glove in her hand. Then the woman smiles, teeth still white and even. The daughter turns and gives me a friendly grin. Our mothers continue walking down the beach side by side while she and I watch. The other mother is clutching the returned glove; my mother is talking excitedly, gesturing out to sea. I can tell by the angle of her head and the sweep of her arm that she is reciting all the places she has lived.
The daughter and I stand with our arms crossed, facing into the chill breeze. Our mothers walk erratically, pitching and yawing toward the water’s edge. A wave licks their feet, but they do not notice. The daughter looks alarmed as the water hits her mother’s shoes. She takes a step forward, then stops. She is weighing, as I am, elderly wet feet in late October against the enjoyment we imagine for them, our mothers. The next wave eases up against our own feet, and we jump back with the same surprised cry.