My mother’s big trick for survival was to imagine herself as a blameless, incognizant wild animal. She didn’t want to be forced to admit culpability for mistakes, or to feel the need to examine these incidents for causalities later on. I think this whole philosophy of carelessness may have been an extreme reaction to her feeling like a failure. When she was young, she used to write poems and stories and paint, all with the assumption that such a careful record of self-reflection and observation would set her apart as someone special. It probably could have, but unfortunately, my mother has always been lazy. She let herself decline intellectually and physically more than any normal person would, though she is, truly, the most special person I’ve ever known – she’s the one who draws everyone’s attention on a crowded street. She was pretty like a flower that’s starting to turn brown, and the kind of smart that sounds dumb sometimes – if you caught her at the wrong moment she’d stall with uh’s and um’s, but if you gave her just a minute more to collect her thoughts, she’d treat you to an inclusive private joke or express opinions formed in part by important books that she’d assigned herself to read.
“I never, ever imagined myself with kids,” she said once. “I know, you hate it when I talk about having you --you think I sound too objective when I talk about having carried you and how hard it was to give birth and all the drugs they had to give me and everything like that. But just listen to me a sec -- I didn’t want to have a kid because, when I was a kid, I always thought I needed to grow up to do something; I thought I needed to be, like, some solitary woman just living and breathing art all the time, no kids or anything else to distract me from some lasting work. But then I had you, and you are my purpose. You’re what I did.”
She’d woken me up to tell me this in the middle of the night, of course, because she’d gotten sad watching some movie on TV or something, and wanted the company. I adored my mother, Gloria, but to adore her, one had to figuratively roll one’s eyes at about half her declarations, especially if they were slurred. One had to figuratively shrug one’s shoulders in a gesture like “That’s our Gloria,” only in response to a benign destruction, though. Only when she was just telling white lies or asking to borrow money while joking that she’d never pay it back. Some of the damage she caused scorched the earth, and sometimes those who adored her wished we’d never known her, wished we’d never even be born.
I was fully awake by now, so she kept on: “Remember that man Jake that used to come in to the bookstore? Did I ever tell you he was a writer? He had two novels published, and he was really great. He got everything just right on the page, like, the most perfect way to describe something. And he was really handsome too, remember? But when we’d talk sometimes he’d just sound so self-obsessed and depressed, and after a while I couldn’t stand it – I’d just avoid him when he came into the store. It was really sort of maddening that he thought his ideas were so important. Sometimes I’d hear him talking to George and I’d just want to go over and shake him and tell him, ‘Stop thinking so much!’ I wanted to tell him he’d be happier if he just gave up and had a kid.”
Now here I am trying to painstakingly record the details of my upbringing. It seems that I’ve been saving up all these details over the years, though I thought that I’d been throwing them all out or forgetting them along the way, trying to keep my story spare and current, like mom tried. She spent so many unsuccessful years trying to teach me an unfettered enjoyment of good sensations, like when you know you don’t have to record or remember a significant moment later on, and you can just move beyond bad experiences, no reflection necessary, the way a pet that gets lost outdoors will accept the stranger who takes it in, with no apparent longing for its old family. We’d taken in several stray cats over the years – at least eleven -- and without exception, each animal eagerly adapted to its new life. Or at least I think so.
|John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1852)|