Anger, yet great terror and vulnerability—my mother, sixty-nine years old this month, does not like to be touched. She is arrogant, competitive, though her body has gone soft and she has lost height. The drinking has added to her middle, larger now than her bust. Yet the first thing she did when she arrived in this town was to buy herself a red linen dress. The dress was hanging in the window of the shop across the street from where I live; she spotted it while she was parking the car. She brought it on a hanger with its bow as if it were all she was bringing when she climbed the long flight of stairs to my loft.
It has taken me so long to know her, and now what I find is a woman carried away with herself, who knows no boundaries, who’s acquisitive and who knows better, always. Who is widely read, who hasn’t gone through a day in her life without complaining about some physical ailment, though she has not set foot in a hospital except four times when she was in labor. Who does not want to be beholden to anyone, who does not know how to give. Who without hesitation would defend her children against the world, but who turns on them just as quickly in private.
My downtown loft is an open space we share for a week. Her clothes are everywhere. I don’t have much closet or drawer space, but it wouldn’t matter; in all the houses she has lived in, her clothes have draped the chairs until you can’t see them. Clothes are everywhere and she walks through, back and forth, talking about a bad headache, a recurrent headache she has had since she went back to bed in the mornings when I was small.
My mother brings with her to my loft the divorces and the old history, the fact that none of her children were planned. She brings her jealousy of my years in Italy, and she brings her temper, calling me an idiot and telling me to shut up once when she’d had too much to drink at the home of friends. “I don’t have a temper,” she said very quietly after that episode, following a long silence over the phone.
When I moved here last year we fought about her moving here too. I told her if she were to do that, she would have to have her life in order, finances especially. I had to say it, this is a woman with a history of borrowing from her children and now with dreams of uprooting herself and starting a business, opening a school when she can barely get by. The red linen dress is her proof that she still can—except then there will be the next proof she needs, and it will cost another two hundred dollars.
After that talk about finances, she didn’t return my calls for some months. In our next conversation, she said with her usual arrogance: “I’ll never be a burden, don’t worry.” The following spring she bought a new car and had my sister cosign the loan.
And so she arrives here in the South, in the midst of summer, having driven the whole way in that lonely determined way of hers. She has come down from Massachusetts for a family reunion—this is the reason for the red dress—and to help her Aunt May move into a retirement home; but she has also come to look at real estate for herself, because, as she says to shopkeepers and waitresses, and to me as a reminder, she has been interested in this town since 1992. Even though—her refrain about the South—she can’t take the heat.
Actually, my grandfather met my grandmother in this town, but she doesn’t often mention that to people. It hurts her to remember that her father never stayed around for long, and then left for good.
I don’t want her to move here; I feel the possible consequences of this decision in every interaction she has with people, from strangers to the friends I have made. It is not that I fear she will take friends away. On the contrary, she burns out friendships and always has. My mother has become good at living at the edge of the rich. When you hang around the rich, you can’t possibly reciprocate, and friendships start there. For almost fifty years she has lived as a Southerner among Northerners, Yankees who don’t understand someone just dropping by, but she does it anyway and to great effect.
I know the hunger behind the softness; I know that what seems like a whimsical ethereal manner masks voracious social ambition and envy. My mother with her lovely eyes and light laugh, her straw hats, her Southern accent, renewed and stronger now that she is back in the South again—no surprise that a friend of mine here, a man of fifty who spoke with her for just a few minutes, confirmed that Oh yes, oh boy does that woman still exude sex appeal, no question.
My mother reads my moods with a maternal advantage, but has seldom comforted me with a mother’s warmth. Before describing her as a mother, I would describe her as a woman who has been married four times.
My style and anything I have she pursues relentlessly: what is this lotion, I want some; where did you get that neck pillow, how much did it cost; where did that throw come from, I need one for my sofa. She breathes all the air in this loft with fifteen-foot ceilings.
It has to do with money. It always has.
“Hold onto that,” she says about the rocking chair I had as a child. “It’s worth a lot.” As if otherwise I wouldn’t hold on to it. As if my childhood hadn’t occurred to her.
“That’s old, that’s worth something,” she says about the low bench from the summer house we once owned.
Putting on her reading glasses, she turns over the dishes and reads the backs.
She uses her credit cards freely, pays hundreds of dollars to upholster a chair with good lines, yet there is the constant undertone of having little, or nothing, especially after she has had vodka or wine.
“Well of course I didn’t have a father who made it possible for me to live abroad,” she is sure to say if I mention Italy at night.
Pressing her sinuses, she says, “I’m tired.” My mother has been tired since I was a child. Now, at nearly seventy, she has a right to say it and a right to expect kindness and sympathy, and I have little to give.
For although she begins the visit with determination and the energy to accomplish things, to settle Aunt May into the facility and then to meet with a real estate broker and see some rentals, I know she will spiral down, show her worst self. I know that will happen.
So yes, she makes grits and sausage for breakfast, buys lamb chops for dinner one night; she does the chops to perfection and makes a key lime pie to take to the reunion.
But then she starts to fall apart, to be herself; she finishes the bottle of vodka and starts on the wine; she sleeps in her clothes.
I watch her invest in the future with small, contrived gestures. I didn’t understand her wanting to buy a wedding present for a cousin’s daughter; there was nothing for her in that, and giving has never been an end in itself for her. She spent twenty-four dollars at a discount store on sunglasses (my mother always buys sunglasses on trips), saying, as we walked to the parking lot, that after all, the cousin has stored things for her over the years; the wedding present is as much a gesture for that. Still, this is unexpected; she’s not the type to show generosity for a deed already done. So I’m not surprised when we drop off the present and my mother asks Annie to drive to another relative’s house in Rutherfordton to get furniture she says is hers and store it.
When we go to my friend’s bookstore, we are not going for any other reason than so she can price books from the seventeenth century because she says she has some to sell. When I say they have been kind to me, that I like to patronize the shop, she suggests I buy her birthday present there.
At the Grove Park Inn, a palace of rock built in 1913 where presidents have stayed, we sit inside, looking beyond the quiet diners to the mountains as the sky darkens. We have come here on impulse from the crowded reading at the other bookstore in town, and because I know she expects me to pick up the bill, I’ve warned her I have only a small amount of cash. “Well can’t you charge it?” she says, ordering a glass of Merlot and having a lighthearted conversation with the waitress about choosing between the beach and the mountains that ends with turning to me and saying, “Come on, honey, have the champagne.” When the bill comes, she takes it up, just to look. “I think we can manage that,” she says, the way people do when they have so much money that it’s amusing to appear modest.
Watching the sky darken, hearing the elegant clinks of glasses around us, the polite social talk and the laughter of people having a good time, I feel poor. She has always made me feel that way, and it is not the kind of poor that makes a woman strong and resourceful because her family is close. It is a poor that hates itself, that walks into a room and cannot appreciate the beauty of it for longing after it.
She talks about a rich friend of hers who would like it here, who likes to be waited on. I have heard the woman’s name on and off for a couple of years; my mother has been on trips with her and to her house on the Cape. The woman is a widow. “She likes to have me around,” my mother says. This year the woman, Edith Popkin, has invited her for Labor Day.
“I thought I might find something for Dee,” she says when we’re coming out of the Folk Art Center. “Just some little thing—she has so much money, she doesn’t need anything. Like that small teak butter knife, that would have been fine.”
“But you’ve visited her so many times,” I say.
“Oh look, honey, she doesn’t expect anything. In fact it would probably embarrass her if I spent more than five dollars.”
She is on the edge of her temper; one more comment from me will do it.
But I have watched her all my life, landing on people’s doorsteps and staying just long enough that they don’t get her game. She doesn’t write thank-you notes; she’s on to the next thing. My mother is messy, she is extravagant, she is tired and manic about her privacy and the kind of lonely that makes her go to other people’s homes but never invite people to her own.
“Oh, for Dee Popkin’s life.” She actually says that.
“If I could live there and have that view I could finish my book, I could finish it in two months.” Then, to herself: “But you won’t ever have that, Julia Rose, so just stop thinking about it.”
My mother carries herself with an air of nobility, but stands in a shadow of shame. She has left every house, every home, every husband.
In a gift store she sees a china-shard box and she says, “Oh. You already have one of these. I don’t need to send you the one I got you for your birthday, you already have one.”
My mother thinks we’re alike. If I say something about the way I am, she says, “Well that’s like me. You’re like me.”
I give her a tranquilizer because I can’t stand to hear her move at night; I want her out cold so I don’t have to hear about it tomorrow morning. It is selfish, the reason I give the pill.
She has brought a book with her, a historical biography of an old New England family, and showing me the pictures, she talks about an art school she wants to start on the South Shore estate grounds with their financial help. She has talked to a few people, she says, and I actually turn away and close my eyes when she says this. My mother worked at a gallery in Boston for some years and knows a little of what she is talking about, and perhaps I have no reason to picture the day when we children will be called upon to show our best, compassionate selves—her four children driving to the rich to get her, to take her back from where she has stepped over some invisible line into a world where she owes no money but people don’t like to have her around anymore.
The day we have barbeque, she is so at home in the South and happy, showing an amused, storytelling side of herself from my childhood, that I want her to stay. We pull up to a gray shingled building with a nearly empty parking lot in the middle of the day, a nothing sort of place I wouldn’t have noticed even with its big sign, and she laughs with the man who takes our order as if she has known him all her life.
Near the end of her visit, just days before her abrupt departure, we’re waiting on a street corner in a mountain town, and the view between buildings makes me long for the North. We’re up high—when we cross the street and walk down the hill we’ll be in shadow, but for the moment I can see out to the interstate, where a distant rock face, blasted to let the highway through, catches the sun. The rock face is pinkish gold in the morning, and corrodes during the day to a dirty coral. You get the sense of both technological speed and the great age of the land when you see that highway and rock face in the distance, as if what you’re looking at has been marked out as some sort of important axis in the world. Until the traffic light changes, my mother and I are silent; yet restlessness has taken me over, an impatience to return to where I belong. I think of the sun on the buildings in Manhattan where I was born; I think of my father and his claim on the city and the world.
Then, as if my mother has read my mind—and of course she has, this is the maternal advantage—she begins to talk about New York. Just a mention of it, those days when she and my father laid claim to it together. This is when my mother’s voice is softest, kindest, when she is indulging herself—being kind to herself in what she chooses to remember.
“Well, I had the best years of your father,” she will often say in a self-satisfied tone about her life before she had an affair and left him, as if during their marriage he had been the one to have the affair and leave her.
We walk down the hill, into the shadows between buildings, headed to the antique stores on the street below. The street happens to be named Lexington Avenue, a coincidence that invites more of her memories of New York.
Absolutely, my mother sees herself in the things she buys: the chandelier, the brocade pillows with tassels, the small fine rug and antique birdcage, a Pisgah vase with turquoise crackle glaze—as if they are not destined for three cluttered rooms in a rented apartment in Cambridge.
One night we go to a restaurant and order hors d’oeuvres and drinks and she announces that it’s her treat. “If I can’t take us out once, I guess I’d better give up the ghost,” she says about a twenty-six dollar restaurant bill after she’s spent over five hundred dollars on herself.
When we get back to my loft, she wants to rearrange everything, or to buy things from me—a lithograph I bought during my marriage, an antique chest of drawers, a little table with Italian writing on it. Have. Buy. Take. More.
“You should put that here, you should move that there.” She covets the French andirons (they have women’s faces on them), frames on the drawings, the way I have done the muslin curtains. I tell her that a friend helped me, but she is not listening. She covets it to the point where she tells me how it could be done better.
It doesn’t surprise me that on the morning we are supposed to leave for the family reunion, we argue. First about logistics, because what am I supposed to do when she leaves the reunion to stay the night with an old friend two hours away? And then, having found no solution to that, we argue about her clothes. This is old history. As she is getting ready, getting her things together to be on the road for a few days, it becomes evident that she is planning to leave all her clothes spread out on the couch and hanging over the railing at the top of the stairs and on chairs. Clothes and maps and shopping bags from stores, the rug and vase and chandelier and pillows, gold tissue paper she doesn’t want to throw away. It’s one of her ways of taking over. It has happened before and will take its course.
Focused on herself, she walks the length of the loft, back and forth as if she lives here, the red dress ready to go on a hanger, a prize she has won.
She leaves me no choice: I have to take my space back. In the past, I was not patient or diplomatic; I was frustrated, angry, and pointed out her faults. I accused her of being dramatic, inconsiderate.
Now I apologize for not having more space. I’m sincere. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s just that this place looks messy with even just a few things strewn around. I wish I had more closet space but as you can see—”
“So you want me to take all my things now,” she says, signaling that not far off is the terrible voice of the woman who claims she doesn’t have a temper, the woman who is jealous that I have lived “abroad” and will outlive her.
“Well, or if you could just fold things. If they were in piles—” I hedge.
“Fine,” she says, as if she has been silently counting to ten in order to calm herself. “I just wish you had told me before that my things made you uncomfortable.” She has put on her sunglasses, which is something my mother does: she puts on her sunglasses in the house before leaving and sometimes wears them in museums or while a guest in someone’s home. She starts across the room. You’d think someone had made her angry over there and she was going to settle the matter. “I’ll just take everything now,” she says, not removing her sunglasses, “I’ll pack up everything now.”
She wants me to stop her, but I know where this is going: she will drive to the reunion alone. She will go without me, insisting, “I don’t want to be with anyone who doesn’t want to be with me.” I wait for her to say this, something she has said to husbands and friends and relatives, but she is silent.
I could insist that she leave her clothes here, could apologize and plead with her, but I don’t.
“Forgive me,” she says from behind her sunglasses on the way to fold her clothes, “for making you uncomfortable in your own home.”
On her way to the bathroom to collect her things, she flies in front of me again, playing a caricature of herself that almost makes me laugh: “I just wish that you had told me sooner so that I could have made plans to leave at a better time of day.”
“Mom,” I say, but I say it softly and then I don’t finish the thought. I can’t make myself do it.
I know that she expects to be paid back for the barbeque, she has said as much, and this too is old history; and, sure enough, she does not refuse my money when I offer it. “Thank you,” she says, and whispers about getting gas on the way out of town. In return, she gives me back my key.
I go into the kitchen and look out at the mountains. My body relaxes. My shoulders. A calm spreads, as if my mother’s energy has nothing to do with me and can do nothing to me. It feels like every morning when I first moved here and woke to a mountain chill, sun and coffee, and NPR.
I know she will pack fast and make it difficult for herself by stuffing the nylon tote bag and duffel until each is full and heavy, and will refuse any help.
In Japan, in China, this would be unthinkable. Here in the South, I’m sure it’s unthinkable. But again: this is old history between us.
It is so quiet. After a few minutes, I peek around the freestanding wall, and see that yes, she has stuffed the expandable bags to the gills and is now going to try to carry the heaviest, most awkward bag down the long flight of stairs to the street. The stairs are located at the right of the room against the windowless wall, and I can hear an echo as she goes down the stairs, the sound of someone going down into the earth.
Then there is silence because she doesn’t have the key anymore. Both of us are realizing this, and I know she is counting on me to get the key and go down to the bottom of the stairs in the dark where she is waiting, and let her out.
“I’m coming,” I say.
She is still wearing her sunglasses when I get to the bottom of the stairs. Breathing hard, her wild heart pounding as I reach across her chest with my key to let her out, my mother will never be more alive than she is at this moment, waiting and angry, as if I have engineered this moment of her being at the bottom of the stairs at my mercy.
Then she is gone. She has left nothing behind, and as the days pass without a call from her, I conclude that after the reunion and visiting her old friend Eliza, then helping Aunt May, she has started the drive north, leaving me and the South behind as she once left her whole world behind—mother and uncles and aunts and siblings, in a dry town about an hour from here.
In summer, my mother always travels with a crisp white shirt hanging in the car, to wear over whatever has got wrinkled on the drive (also a straw hat placed on the back seat), and that’s how I picture her as she drives north.
She has taken with her everything she knows about the South, and this makes me miss her. When great thunderstorms roll through, for in the mountains they are fierce, I feel the whole of what she knows about life here, compared with what I don’t and never will.
Standing in line at the co-op the day after the storm, I catch myself slouching and remember, as if she is right there with me, how she has always told me to stand up straight.
In two years, it will be over. I’ll get the call at seven in the evening about a misstep at the top of a long flight of stairs in her building at around one in the afternoon. A broken neck; a broken wrist; no alcohol in her system, according to the autopsy. In her apartment: the novel I published in which she makes a fictional appearance. It’s in a brown paper bag on the top shelf of her closet, hidden away like a bottle of liquor.
A year from now, though, she’ll still have a chance and she’ll be fighting for it. We’ll argue; I’ll hug her close as if I forgive her and I’ll say, “Mom. I’m on your side.” As the first of her four children, I’ll keep the old history going.
Sarah Gaddis was born in New York City and has lived in Cambridge, Los Angeles, Paris, and Asheville. She is the author of the novel Swallow Hard, and her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Faultline, AGNI, and Paris Passion. She currently resides in the Hudson Valley. (updated 10/2010)