Mother’s Day

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Two women raised me, and here in Cairo, I don’t even have a picture of either. Perhaps that’s good. It’s better to rely on the salvages of memory. None of us will survive in photographs, compressed to two dimensions; we only persist in the frailty of a human touch. At some point in life you start to realize you’ve become the custodian of a strange museum, the last protector of a small sodality of people who have died, now starting to fade and crumble like bolts of old fabric as those who remember them join them among the dead. The guardian of memories has a terrible responsibility, the keeper of fragile afterlives: as if a dusty butterfly collection in an attic, impaled on frayed velvet, were actually an array of souls entrusted to your oversight, and you still couldn’t keep the friable wings from dissolving in the sudden, stabbing light. Eventually I too will survive only in someone else’s memories. And I too will erode away, though there will be moments — panicked as a dream where you grope for an invaluable penny, indistinguishable from any other, that you’ve stupidly given away – when the custodians of me will clutch their pockets to seize a recollection they feel escaping, and, wanting it desperately, the precision and detail, will realize they can’t hold on. It all vanishes. Then they’ll feel guilt, as I feel guilt: a failure to sustain the dead in the half-life left them.

Then that will pass.

I remember my great aunt’s skin. On her face it was reddish and rough, but still yielding. Age hadn’t creviced her with wrinkles; she remained soft, with an inner softness as though you could sink into her like a pillow. The smell of talcum powder always underlay her perfume, as though it were the scent of that ease of giving. She was tall (anyway, to me). She’d acquired a curvature of the spine that gave her back a sort of bulbous hump, but it never affected her determination to stand upright and elegant, and it would have taken great courage to suggest any physical inadequacy in her. But the straightness and the strength existed so that she could lean forward, take you in. They weren’t the contradiction of tenderness, but its condition. She was my mother’s aunt. I remember my mother’s skin, too, pale and somehow stretched thin. Mostly, though, I remember her eyes. They were grayish and could flash angry, particularly when she saw something unjust, or delighted when she saw someone she loved; but much of the time they were sad, a candid quality imperfectly caught in photographs, where her spectacles (she was given to that Gary-Larson-schoolmarmish style) glassed them in a fixity unfriendly to emotion, as if on ice. Somewhere there are some photographs I took of her a few weeks before she died. While she could not have had a premonition of the heart attack that would kill her, her eyes looked so immeasurably sad in those: they were like spirit photographs, where the plaintive ghost, invisible at the time, only emerges when the negative is developed. We’d just replaced our old refrigerator, a huge thing that had been a temple of my childhood, with a newer model. I’d taken some photographs of the old one before it was carted away, for nostalgia’s sake; and then I took some pictures of her. She suddenly said, apropos of nothing: “You care about the past. You want to remember it. Don’t ever lose that, Scott.“ At the time, it was strange. In retrospect, it seems a mandate or a plea, telegraphed from the borders of death. Whenever I think of that, I start to cry: not least because I remember what her look then meant, but not the precise angle and detail of the look itself. The exactitude has worn away, and the word “sadness” is left, pasted over it in palimpsest. I cry because I’ve betrayed her.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XI

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XI

My mother was Ernestine Wilson Long; my great aunt, Leila Wilson. A few years before I was born, my parents moved from Ohio to Virginia. My mother invited her grandmother, then almost ninety, and her aunt to come live with us – it didn’t seem wise for them to stay alone in an isolated Ohio farmhouse. This meant a surfeit of strong women in my childhood. My mother’s family had been farmers for generations, and she was the first child ever to go to college. Everybody said she was brilliant. She wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor; but in the rural Midwest, these were unheard-of aspirations for a woman, and immediately got translated into schoolteacher or nurse. She became a teacher. In Virginia, she rose to an elementary school principal. Her aunt, living with us, took on some of the work of raising me, which freed my mother to hold onto her career. They shared in mothering me; they saw me to adulthood. They died within two years of one another, my mother when I was seventeen and my aunt when I was nineteen. Whatever I’ve become (some mornings, in the Egyptian heat, it seems an open question) is largely their doing. What, Yeats demanded, is a life’s final product? What does it mean to

Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
The finished man among his enemies?

Living, being a finished person, is the paltry coin of tribute you can pay to those who shaped you – the unknown instructors, Yeats called them elsewhere. It is mainly a way of doing some credit to what they made me.

Caldwell, county seat of Noble County, Ohio, in a photograph from ca. 1886-88

Caldwell, county seat of Noble County, Ohio, in a photograph from ca. 1886-88

My great aunt (till the day she died I called her “Nany,” which was the way I spelled “Nanny” when I learned to write) was born in 1908. She married when she was about twenty-two; pregnant with a son, she left the man not long after to return to her parents’ farm. He disappeared from the family lore, never attended the family funerals which were our main reunions. When I asked her about him, I got the curt impression that he drank, or gambled, or both. She raised her son with her parents’ help; she also raised her niece, my mother, through a complicated castling on the family chessboard. On top of that, she got a job. She became an assistant as well as best friend to the woman who ran the most elegant clothing store in the vicinity — the only Jew, so far as I can make out, in Noble County, Ohio. None of this can have been easy. To flivver from the fields daily to a small-town dress shop that was a little cosmopolitan island in a Depression-era sea of gray – to shuck off farm work in the morning to become a working woman in the afternoon – took great courage and daring. It also meant a transit between local and larger horizons that few people around there ever managed. (Lena Alter, her boss, famously travelled to New York once a year to bring back fashions from the Great World to that rural corner.) In the 1920s, when anti-Catholic nativism swept the Midwest, my great aunt’s father had succumbed, even briefly joining the Ku Klux Klan. He can hardly have been happy when his daughter joined the employ of, and befriended, an immigrant Jew. My great aunt stayed completely confident in herself, serenely proud of the connection. Lena Alter, who died when I was two, became a legend of my childhood: through stories of her, I learned about the vanished Austria-Hungary where she was born. Vistas opened of an imagined eastern Europe, a mélange of consonants and countries that became real much later, when I lived there. So she too – unmarried and childless – survives in me, though I never knew her. From my great aunt I learned about independence, and a cosmopolitan flower of friendship that could blossom defiantly in the unlikeliest dust. I also learned that you could be strong and independent and still full of love. These weren’t copybook lessons; putting them in words only weakens them. But I also remember some things my great aunt thought important enough to tell me. A lot had to do with justice, the weak and the strong. “The lowest thing on earth a man can do is to hit a woman,” she’d intone. I assumed this had to do with her truncated marriage; I knew she felt it urgent that I learn it. It was important for me to know that strength in the wrong hands could be dangerous; also, that independence had costs.

Railroad crossing at South Olive, Ohio, the village where my mother grew up. The building on the right was my great-great uncle's Samuel Harper's store.

Railroad crossing at South Olive, Ohio, the village where my great aunt and my mother grew up. The building at bottom was my great-great uncle Samuel Harper’s store.

My father beat my mother. He didn’t do so regularly; just at intervals, in argument, when his inarticulateness felt cornered by my mother’s way with words. Once or twice I tried to step in to defend my mother, but I was too small. Mostly I’d run to my great aunt, screaming in terror; and she would intervene, shouting and cursing down the incarnate powers of manhood in incantatory rage.

My mother knew about sadness. I learned many things from her, but one was that sadness was also compatible with love, could indeed become its ground. She loved me sadly, because she felt the constraints on her life, and wanted me not to experience them as a condition. There were many things she couldn’t give me: she couldn’t, for instance, make the nights my father beat her go away. She could, however, give me a sense of justice. This sense was lambent in her, shining almost visibly under her skin. Nothing made her angrier than to see a wrong being done to someone else; her ferocity at such moments almost scared me. I could trace this throughout her life. A Northern liberal, she’d followed my father’s job and moved to the mountain South in 1959. She was determined that Southern racism not get its talons in my mind or in our house. The year she was hired as a principal, she presided over the desegregation of her school. “Desegregation” in our corner of Virginia meant that the one decrepit African-American school in fifty miles – the weirdly named Christiansburg Institute — was closed down, and its teachers and pupils distributed across the county.  A new arrival, my mother understood perfectly clearly that segregation was ideology as well as a system, older than Christiansburg Institute (which was almost a century old); a legal gesture could diminish but not destroy it. At school, she fought intensely to make sure those teachers and pupils felt as little as possible of its persisting effects. Outside the school, our house – the principal’s house – was always full, from my earliest memories, of my mother’s African-American colleagues and students. It may seem small, but her social invitations sent a covert message to the other staff and students and parents. Yet it was simple, and natural. To me, a child, it was ordinary – my mother insulated me from the hatred roiling outside; only later did I understand the meanings her decisions had taken on in that time and place. (My family was snubbed by a lot of white neighbors for decades.) My mother would never have made an issue of any this – she was never patronizing, much less self-congratulatory; the naturalness was the point. But she had a passion for making sure that no one ever felt unwelcome or unwanted, and while this could inform political acts, it rose from generosity, personal in a way that preceded politics. She was shy herself, but I remember her walking into any room – a party, a wedding, a wake – and seeking out the shyest, most excluded person there, and doing everything she could to bring them in the circle. This was a form of justice, but it was also a form of love.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XX

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child No. 20

Mother’s Day used to be a gift to the greeting-card industry. Now, when all our emotions have moved to cyberspace, it’s a social-media carnival, a virtual Saturnalia. Once you sent flowers to your mother alone; this Sunday, though, everyone’s posting photos and memories on Facebook, as if they need to share their filial piety with all their five thousand friends. Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! It’s strange, this impulse to make the personal collective. I keep thinking of those who are left out: the orphaned or abandoned, those who grew up alone, those who haven’t spoken to their families in decades, who lost their mothers not to death but to alienation or hate, who flinch at the mocking thought of parental love. Is there a Facebook post, a flower, a kiss, for them?

No; but there’s a word.

At the climax of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus finds his ghostly mother, dead of cancer, among the booze-fueled hallucinations of Dublin’s Nighttown. He is riddled with guilt; it’s an antic staging of James Joyce’s own deep guilt over his mother’s death. He cries out to the grotesque resurrection:

STEPHEN (Eagerly.) Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.

THE MOTHER  Who saved you the night you jumped into the train at Dalkey with Paddy Lee? Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? … I pray for you in my other world. Get Dilly to make you that boiled rice every night after your brain work. Years and years I loved you, O my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb.

“You sang that song to me,” she says, “Love’s bitter mystery.” She has already said the word, and so has he.

The great privilege of my childhood, which ended when I was nineteen, was that I knew what it was like to be loved unconditionally. Love like that is strong, but it has no superhuman strength. It is vulnerable, like everything that is alive. Its mystery is bitter, its kiss reserved only for the smallest corner of the world; it can only give so much; it cannot overcome its time, its place, its limits. My mother and my aunt couldn’t promise me that their love would protect me forever, or that it would bring me justice or redeem my wrongs. They couldn’t even protect themselves. They could only tell me that unconditional love is possible. That was enough.

Most of my friends do work that invokes the big words of our world: they labor for peace, for justice, or, like me, for human rights. The terms take their force from their legal nicety. Yet the experience of justice and the experience of having rights are different from the legalisms. They’re instinctive knowledges, understandings in the bone of when one is treated rightly or when one belongs. That knowledge is Utopian – no one enjoys the experience fully or unhindered; the paradise of belonging lies in an unapprehended future. Yet it also lies in recollection. We recognize it from the moments in the past when we were loved without condition: for ourselves, for our failures, for our weaknesses, for our insignificance, for our strength. Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? … Years and years I loved you, O my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb. Hope is a memory; we learned it from what we lost and are still losing, from the frailty of the disappearing past. This I gained from my mothers; it will remain as I fade away.

Van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

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