I never witnessed the primal scene, Freud’s keyhole drama in which the child spies the parents in the act. I’m not especially curious about how mine disported themselves in bed. But I have lately become curious about what it felt like for her, my mother. Granted, it’s a subject I don’t know much about. Whatever I write is conjecture, intimations from what I saw and heard, or didn’t—what was conspicuous by its absence. I have a sense that her deepest satisfaction was in the vanity department, and the connection between vanity and sexual pleasure is even more obscure than are the facts in this case.
My father, who was such a vivid presence for me in his lifetime, has since his death been fading like a Polaroid photo going in the wrong direction, from color and definition back to milky blur. I once thought I knew him through and through, each atom; I had studied him with critical scrutiny, as daughters do. Now I’m not sure I knew anything at all except the surface. Now, unless I make a conscious effort to locate the particles of him that lodged in me, he’s like someone I used to see around all the time but never knew very well—the letter carrier or the man who drove the ice-cream truck. Certain people, whether living or dead, need to be physically present in order to be fully apprehended, while others leave traces that more readily adhere. My mother remains as vivid as when I last saw her alive sixteen years ago. I know her better now than I did then.
My mother was not prudishly silent about sex. Many mothers of her generation behaved (and looked) as though sex were not part of the human repertoire. For that difference, my friends envied me growing up, and it’s true I didn’t bear the burden of the common inhibitions. I had others, though, so I’m not sure their envy was warranted. I imagine my childhood friends managed to get over their sexual inhibitions (people do, as a rule), but other kinds of learned fears may be more tenacious.
From remarks my mother let drop, it was clear that she and my father engaged in sex (“did it,” as we used to say), that she assumed one day I would do the same, and that it was a good thing in general. The crucial words are “let drop.” Sex was something to be alluded to coyly, even lewdly—a born performer, she could do a great delivery of off-color jokes, though never very gross ones. But it was not a topic for extended discussion, either entertaining or serious. I once asked her what we would do if I had a baby before marriage. “Out of wedlock,” as we then said. That was a calamitous thing to have happen, or so it seemed to me. She smiled at my question; the likelihood must have appeared remote. Besides being ten years old, I was bookish and unworldly and had shown no signs of incipient promiscuity. “If you had a baby we would take care of it,” she said kindly. End of story. I was touched by her answer. I still am. Nowadays I suppose an enlightened mother would probe into the whys and wherefores of such a question, but at the time I was satisfied.
My father was the more close-mouthed on the subject. To me he never mentioned anything concerning sex, though I found out years later, with some dismay, that he was more frank with my older sister. “Sleep with him if you must,” he advised her about one boyfriend, “but don’t marry him.” What I would have given to have been addressed that way, as if I were capable of both judgment and passion! Probably he was more frank with my younger brother too, in the manner of fathers and sons, whatever that might have been. Did he think I was too “intellectual” ever to think about sex? Or even to require advice? In our staid little backwater, being “intellectual” and being sexual were considered mutually exclusive; it took me a while to realize that was not true, that the contrary might often be true.
But it’s not totally accurate to say he never mentioned sex. When my teenaged friend next door and her boyfriend necked ostentatiously on the front porch, offending my father’s sense of propriety, discommoding him as he sat on the other side of the low brick wall reading his paper and smoking his cigar, he suggested sarcastically to my mother that the boy, who was poor, apply to the girl’s father, who was rich, for “the privilege of sleeping with your daughter.” Not only were the neighbors rich but they were deeply stupid, and the injustice of that combination—wealth and stupidity—drove my father wild, he himself being smart with no money. He was so pleased with his bon mot that he stomped around the house repeating it whenever provoked; my mother had all she could do to keep him from proclaiming it on the porch. I myself thought it very funny, if cruel. I found my father’s verbal bursts of spleen dashingly clever. The eager couple did eventually marry. We all went to the wedding.
“I Love Every Inch . . .”
I never saw my parents in a genuine embrace. When my father left with his briefcase in the morning and returned at dinnertime he kissed whoever was in the room, including my mother, quickly but affectionately on the cheek, and during the time I was in erotic thrall to him (that didn’t last long, perhaps until the age of seven or eight) I would shout, “First is best,” if I’d been first, “Last is best,” if last, and so on. He found that cute and varied the order on purpose, just to hear it. During one phase of my erotic thralldom, when I was about four or five, I didn’t like to let him out of my sight, even to go to the bathroom, and so he sometimes let me accompany him there, where he managed to urinate—I still don’t know how and keep meaning to consult my husband about it—in the most discreet manner, never exposing a millimeter of flesh. He said he was watering the toilet and this satisfied me. Precocious as I was in some ways, I must have been a naive child, or at least exceptionally gullible.
The closest thing to an embrace that I saw was their dancing together at family weddings, my father’s rather short arms, in their suit jacket, settled firmly and formally around my mother’s thick, fleshy middle. Otherwise his public displays of conjugal love took the form of mock violence. He would twist her arm behind her back, she would wince and protest in mock pain (or real pain, for all I know), and he would give an exaggerated leer. When their friends came over, he would slap her genially somewhere on her vast cushiony torso and say, “I love every inch of it.” Maybe these professions were why my mother never suffered the self-loathing common to overweight women. When they went out, she dressed in tight, bright clothes and flaunted her bulk, as if she came from some distant culture where fat was prized. Paradoxically, none of this deterred her constant efforts to lose weight.
When I was very small and sometimes curled up for a nap with her, I would tell her she smelled good—talcum powder, I think; complacently, she would answer, “That’s what your father says too.” I regarded her naked body, which she never hesitated to show, as a kind of grotesque marvel. If I was around while she dressed, she would ask me to hook her enormous long-line bras, either “on the tight” or “on the loose” hook, depending on her state of digestion or her plans for the day: home or out. I was impressed by her nonchalance, for I myself didn’t care to be seen other than fully dressed; I think this had less to do with my body per se than with my already extreme penchant for privacy, my sense of a great divide between the inner life and the outward performance.
I accepted my mother’s size as a given, never having known her any other way. She was charming, well dressed, and eminently presentable—more, she was charismatic—so I could take her anywhere, so to speak. Still, I felt her weight made her different from other mothers. I knew for certain at a young age that I would never let my body get like hers. This resolve never lapsed. When I was close to forty, I found myself climbing up a ladder into a swimming pool behind my mother, confronting the backs of her thighs. I was appalled at their state. I wondered if anything like that could ever happen to my thighs; I resolved all over again to make sure it didn’t, as far as was in my power. I also resolved never to let my children walk behind me on a pool ladder when I got old, or maybe even sooner.
“He Managed to Call Me . . .”
I never heard my father call my mother by her name. Like her fat or his twisting her arm and leering, this was simply the way things were in our family. When I thought about it at all, it seemed a form of contempt or denial—he called everyone else by name; she called him by name—but I never stayed with the thought very long, even though I was considered a thoughtful child. I was thoughtful, but my thoughts were about what I read in books, not what was near at hand. I rarely pondered how it might make her feel, though I do now. Nor did I ever discuss the absence of the name with my sister or brother. We didn’t talk much about our parents. We were spaced far apart, and as we acknowledged to one another later, we all had different parents, in a manner of speaking: my sister the young ones, I the early-middle-aged, and my brother the late-middle-aged. Anyway, often children can’t distinguish between what is curious and aberrant and what is not, since they only get to grow up in one household. But surely we heard our friends’ parents call each other by name; in fact, I remember all my friends’ parents’ first names because in our gossip sessions we referred to them chummily that way, which wasn’t the custom in public—always Mr. and Mrs.
My mother mentioned this curiosity only once, offhandedly: “He never calls me by my name,” with a very slight tinge of rue, but more in the manner of noting a mildly eccentric but insignificant habit. Then, when my father was in his seventies and sick with cancer, she told me in her colorful, dramatic way how he had been in the bathtub and suddenly gone weak and faint, felt himself sliding downwards and couldn’t summon the strength to reach the faucet and turn the water off. “He could have slipped down and drowned,” she said theatrically, her green eyes wide, her mellow voice almost singing (she was an amateur singer, mostly of torch songs; she had the cabaret singer’s marvelous erotic knack of making every man in the room feel she was singing to him alone). “But he managed to call me. I was in the kitchen and luckily I heard him.” A meaningful, almost shy glance: “I knew it must be serious, because he called me by my name. Sarah, I heard him calling.” She rushed in. Actually, she added, with pride in his resourcefulness, by the time she got there he’d managed to release the stopper with his foot to let some water out. So maybe he hadn’t needed to break his lifelong habit after all.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s latest books are No Way Out But Through, a poetry collection, and Crossing Borders: Stories and Essays about Translation, which she edited and which has just come out from Seven Stories Press. She is the author of twenty-three other books, including the essay collection This Is Where We Came In; the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award), and The Writing on the Wall; the poetry collections In Solitary and See You in the Dark; and three story collections, most recently Referred Pain. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. She teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars. (updated 10/2017)