a dress that suits me

In the last days of her life, my mother asked me to read to her. Of course, I say, of course. I have been home, on leave from college, for several weeks, but we know now, that we are getting close to the end.

It is difficult to know what to choose. I look through the few books I have brought home with me. I choose The Lover by Marguerite Duras. For its rhythms, for its poetry. For the simplicity of its language.

It is a terrible choice, of course. There are whole sections I cannot read aloud – the descriptions of their affair, the anger she expresses at her mother, her brother. But I will just choose a few passages, I say to myself. I will just read the parts about her traveling and the parts about the war.

When I enter the room these days, she looks hard at me. She knows it is me, but it is as if when she sees me, my face looks distorted to her somehow, a feature out of place. She squints a bit, a quizzical look. She doesn’t trust herself to ask: Did you change your hair? Did you move your chin? Did one of your ears get bigger? But you can tell that the question is there, just behind her eyes.

I pull the chair up next to her bed. Her brown hair on the white pillow. I begin:

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

She closes her eyes, pulls the thin blue blanket up to her chin.

I skip paragraphs, flip through the book for the unobjectionable passages. I know she drifts in and out of sleep as I read, that she wants only the sound of my voice as she drifts. I steal glances at her face. She is so still except for her thin lips, which seem to be quivering. If she notices the gaps that my censorship creates, she does not say.

This is in early fall. October. I read to her like this only for a few days – three? Four? Is it strange that I should not remember, exactly?

There are no drapes in her bedroom. I don’t know why. Perhaps they had been taken down for cleaning? Afternoon sun floods the room. The room itself seems temporary, spare: The light wood floors are bare. The brass bed with its hospital-white linens. There is a black steamer trunk in the corner. And the straight-backed wooden chair that I sit in.

While she sleeps, I will sometimes knit. I am not working on anything in particular, just casting on, knitting long rows until I make an error, then tearing it all out, starting again. It is a kind of meditation.

Sometimes she will ask to see what I am working on, and I hold it up to her. She will reach out to touch it, nod her head. Good, she will murmur. Good.

For a long time I’ve had no dresses of my own. My dresses are all a sort of sack, made out of old dresses of my mother’s which themselves are all a sort of sack. Except for those my mother has made for me by Do. She’s the housekeeper who will never leave my mother even when she goes back to France. …

Do was brought up by the nuns, she can embroider and do pleats, she can sew by hand, as people haven’t sewed by hand for centuries, with hair-fine needles. As she can embroider, my mother has her embroider sheets.

It is just a handful of days that pass that way.

There have been weeks of unknowing. There have been whole stretches of days that she is up, alert, walking around, eating. Sitting on the couch watching television. The school year goes on without me. My friends call, and I can hear the sounds of music in the background, the sounds of vibrant, heady life. I hang up confused. Angry. I try to write things down.

Then all of a sudden, we are hurtling toward the known. She is so tired, her body so weak. Her requests are so simple: A glass of water with a straw. Show me your knitting. Read to me.

Later, I will remember the confusion and anger and be ashamed. I will remember my own preoccupations with the life I was not living back in Providence.

I will remember her asking one day, in a fevered state, “Am I not dying fast enough for you?”

In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her, too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It’s the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I’m still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

Her passing is so quiet, in the still early hours of a Thursday morning. Her sister, my aunt A., is there with me, and we are by her bedside as she drifts from us. We hear her labored breathing, the rattling in her chest.

We make our phone calls, and the rituals begin. The merciful rituals, the arrangements. We have the service in the morning, the burial, followed by the luncheon.

First hours, then days – pass.

I’m wearing a dress of real silk, but it’s threadbare, almost transparent. It used to belong to my mother. One day she decided the color was too light for her and she gave it to me. It’s a sleeveless dress with a very low neck. It’s the sepia color real silk takes on with wear. It’s a dress I remember. I think it suits me.

jersey shore (circa 1980)

Every summer, when my sister and I were small, our family spent two weeks in Lavalette, NJ - on the Jersey shore. We’d spend the days on the beach, and at night, after dinner, we’d walk the boardwalk in Seaside Heights.

There was a haunted house on the boardwalk that terrified me. I can still remember seeing it for the first time. It was called “Doorway to Hell” and the entrance was a giant skull. You entered, of course, through the skull’s open mouth.

As a child, there was a time when I was quite preoccupied with demonic possession and with the occult. Blame it on my mother’s fascination with the Ouija board. She’d take it down from its shelf in the coat closet after dinner many weekend nights, and the adults would huddle around it, hushed and solemn.

There is a story my mother used to tell about one such night. It was soon after my adoption, and while the adults - my mother, aunt and grandfather - were communing with the Oujia board, they were visited, the story goes, by an apparition who they believed to be a relative of my grandfather’s. An uncle or cousin - thought to be a very bad man with ill intent. They recognized him because he was wearing a top hat.

“You saw him too,” my mother would say to me. “Because you looked over to where he was standing and said, ‘Daddy?’”

They asked the board why they should receive this visitation. “I asked it: 'Why did you come?’” my mother would say. “Your aunt and I - we had our hands on the pointer like this,” she’d say, and show me how you are supposed to hold your fingers lightly over the pointer.

“And immediately, the pointer started moving. And it spelled out: N - E - W - L - I…”

At this point, my mother would pause, looking meaningfully at me. “Well, we just both just threw up our hands and pushed that board away. We didn’t want to see how that was going to end.”

The first time she told me this, though, I didn’t get it. “How was it going to end?” I asked.

“New life,” she said, slowly. “He was coming for you.”

The Doorway to Hell was a two-story attraction, and on the second floor, there were these windows that had orange gels - like the kind in stage lights - which made them glow. That orange glow like fire coming from those windows made my 7-year-old stomach drop. If my grandfather’s evil cousin was coming to take me away, surely, his intent was to take me there, to his laboratory of horrors.

I imagined him carrying me, still in my nightgown, through the skull’s mouth and upstairs, chanting “new life, new life,” as if those were the only words he knew.

That summer, parts of Lavallette flooded after heavy rains. Power lines were downed and we played cards by candlelight. When the rain finally stopped, our street was underwater.

But then the sun came out, and my mother asked us if we wanted to go outside. She was wearing a long gauzy yellow tunic that I loved. The feel of that fabric on my cheek when I hugged her was delicious. I remember that my sister and I had matching red sundresses. We lifted them up above our knees as we followed her cautiously. There seemed something reckless about walking in the floodwater.

On the sidewalk, the cool water came up to our knees. The strange sensation of seeing water where there should be ground. We splashed around while my mother narrated her assessment of the damage. “Oh,” she’d say, “looks like they got quite a bit of water in their living room.” Or, “They really should have brought those lawn chairs in before.”

The air was cool and still after the rain. The sky bright. And I remember an uncommon quiet. Few people, it seemed, were drawn out to the scene as we were.

I don’t remember how long we were out there, if it was really that long at all, but I want to say that we spent the whole afternoon - for as long as there was light - slowly making our way up and down the flooded street, behind my mother, beautiful in her yellow dress, a beacon in the distance, shining.

pea shoots

Earlier this year, in the spring:

I am standing at the check-out line at the Whole Foods - the big one, on North Main. I am looking at my list - hastily scrawled on a slip of paper with orange ducks on it - and the young man behind the register asks: “Did you find everything ok?”

The answer, of course, should be: “Yes, yes thank you.”

But, today, I take the bait: “Actually, I was looking for fresh pea shoots, and I wasn’t able to find any.”

“Oh, I can help you with that.”

The moving belt that takes my items closer to their waiting bags, stops. 

He’s on the phone, calling the produce department. (“Produce,” he says, shaking his head. “Those guys are the hardest to get.”)

“I’ve got a customer looking for pea shoots.”

He nods, hangs up the phone. 

“They’re going to check in the back, but he thinks that’s it for today. There will be a delivery tomorrow morning, if you want to come back? After 10?”

I smile, thank him. “OK, I’ll do that.” And I think, yes, tomorrow, before I pick up the wine and flowers, I’ll swing by for the pea shoots. 

He carries on, dragging my items one by one across the scanner, and I think about my mother, what she would think of me, standing here with my micro greens, my sheep’s milk cheeses. 

My mother passed on to me her grocery shopping tips: Think about the layout of the store. When you make your list, group all the similar items together, and in the order they appear in the aisles - produce all together, and at the top of the list, then meats, then canned and boxed items together, then frozen foods, and last, dairy. This one I still do. It amuses M. to see my list - a bunch of items at the top of a sheet of paper and then a handful more at the very bottom with big spaces between. 

The other tip she swore by - bringing a small calculator with her and entering the price of each item you put in the cart - I have long since given up. 

My bags are overflowing. I have not thought about cost. We are entertaining guests this weekend and in the life I have now - so far from that of my mother and her pocket calculator - I am excessive:

Arugula to be dressed with cippollini onion vinaigrette; fresh ricotta to be spread on crusty bread with a drizzle of local honey and a sprinkling of sea salt.

Anjou pears so ripe and beautiful they make you want to cry when you bite into them - their flesh so tender, so white, the juice filling your mouth, running down your chin. The word luscious was invented for this. 

Fresh English peas, fiddlehead ferns, artisanal cheeses shaped like tiny inverted thimbles. 

A parcel of chocolates so pricey that watching the young man scan it makes me blush.

For a time, my mother worked as a grocery store cashier. There were years that she had trouble finding the work that she was trained to do - secretarial - and took instead, whatever assignments the temporary agency required, whether it was telemarketing or childcare, or late-shift grocery story check-out. And on most afternoons, when my sister and I would arrive home from school, we’d lie on the living room rug, watching MTV, eating tootsie rolls and “american” cheese slices until our stomachs ached.  

The transformation happens slowly, over time, from that first moment when you realize that the world you grew up in is not the world in its entirety. And you start to understand desires, aspirations, ambitions. Hunger. And you begin moving in the directions that your hunger dictates. But you don’t always feel it happening. 

Instead, you see yourself one day, as if looking down from a great height, fussing over pea shoots at an overpriced grocery store, in an expensive haircut and vintage-store jeans. You’re holding the keys to your hybrid. At home, in your overpriced house, your family waits for you. There are rose bushes lining your walkway. A purple clematis climbs up your back fence. And without warning, you think of your mother and her pocket calculator. You think of her hands, when she places them over yours as you sit beside her hospital bed. When she tells you, tears in her eyes, that there is not much money to leave you. When she hands you a small black booklet, shaped like a passport, that has recorded each transaction, each deposit into a savings account, for the last nineteen years, for as long as you have been her daughter. When she says that it is not much to show for a lifetime, but that it is for you. 

I tell this little incident - about the pea shoots - to my friends, to our guests over wine later that weekend, and to anyone who will listen. Not the part about my mother, just about wanting the pea shoots. About that moment of thinking “Who am I? And when did I start caring about pea shoots?” And we laugh, each for our own reasons, each with our own stories to tell.