How Little We Know

Resentment goes with the territory...but I got over it once my kids were out of my hair. My mother clung to it...

This is the first chapter of my memoir-in-progress, about relationships between mothers and daughters from both sides of the divide. It is tentatively titled "How Little We Know."

Chapter One: Click

Click.

My mother habitually flipped her dentures in and out of place with her tongue, most energetically when she was reading.

Click click. Click click.

It was the only sound in our cramped Bronx kitchen as she read her book or magazine those occasional evenings my father didn’t come home for dinner. She sat with my sister and me, out of a sense of duty I suppose, without actually eating. Her attention was riveted on the page in front of her. I learned early on that nothing I said or did could get her to close her book.

Is it any wonder I became a writer?

Click click click.
The tap-tapping of typewriter keys formed the soundtrack to my children’s lives.
Click click. Mommy’s reading.
Click click click. Mommy’s writing.
But she’s here. At least Mommy’s here.

My mother’s mother wasn’t. Lily died young, when my mother and her younger sister Janice were still children. Maybe that’s why Rhoda didn’t feel compelled to exert herself on our behalf: maybe she figured we were lucky just to have her around.

In those days my mother also knitted—brightly colored sweaters; big fringed afghans we snuggled under while watching TV.
Clickclick. Clickclick.
I could distinguish between the clicking of her teeth and the clicking of the needles; the needles went much faster. She carried canvas bags filled with brightly colored wool everywhere, even into movie theaters—back then silent devotion wasn’t de rigeur at the movies: people smoked, ate and held loud conversations. My father, stretching the truth only a bit, used to brag that Rhoda could go into a theater with a bag of wool and emerge two hours later with a sweater.

She was more accessible when knitting than reading, and sometimes I even got to participate. I’d keep one eye on the tv, the other on the ball of wool in her lap, watching it shrink, waiting for the moment when she’d haul a new skein from the bag at her feet and announce to the room in general that she needed help. I’d jump up before my sister could beat me to it and go sit across from my mother on the sofa. I’d raise my arms, bent at the elbow, and she’d slide the wool over the fingers of each hand, the webbing between my thumb and finger serving as a hanger. Then she’d grab one end and roll the wool around the tip of her finger until it was big enough to wrap around itself. In this position I would remain for as long as it took to transform the skein of wool into a tightly wound ball. Two-thirds of the way through, my arms would inevitably start aching. If I complained enough, my sister would take my place, but I tried not to. I tried to hold that position to the bitter end, watching the wool on my hands diminish as the ball in hers expanded. I didn’t want Linda to usurp my place, to deprive me of a chance to prove myself competent. Wool was unbreakable. It would not fly out of my hands and shatter on the floor like dishes, light bulbs, records...you name it, I broke it. Nothing I could possibly do to a ball of wool was likely to evoke my mother’s, “You’re so clumsy!”

**********

We’re in the bedroom, my mother folding laundry while I play with an old rag doll. It’s my parents’ bedroom in Queens, so I’m at least six—our family moved twice, once when I was six and again at twelve, so I can always estimate my age in a memory by simply calling up the background scenery. She plucks grayish underwear out of the laundry basket and piles it neatly on the nubby white chenille bedspread. She matches up socks and rolls them one inside the other, turning them into what she calls footballs. Dust motes hover in the stripes of sunlight coming through the slatted Venetian blinds, settling lightly on top of the dark mahogany dresser. Everything is perfectly fine—or at least nothing is not-fine. From one minute to the next my mother switches: she’s looking at me that way, talking to me in that voice. An icy chill creeps up my spine, snakes through my limbs and torso, freezing my blood as it goes. I am paralyzed in all ways but one: my mind is busy trying to work things out. When did the change occur? What triggered the switch? If I can get back to that moment when everything was fine, if I can just figure it out, I’ll know next time not to do whatever it was that made Mommy hate me.

************
Forty years later my mother and I are sitting in my San Francisco apartment. She no longer knits, but does crossword puzzles, and sometimes we work one together, passing it back and forth. For every word I write in she adds six or seven, repeatedly saying things like, “Come on, you know that!” or “You don’t know this?” (After decades solving puzzles, I still don’t know the term for Hawaaian goose or the months of the year in Hebrew.)

The puzzles were just a vehicle to distract us while we talked: I don’t know why, but my mother and I found it somehow impossible to sit still and converse like ordinary people. Carefully choosing what I thought was a neutral topic—I hid much of my life from her to avoid her disapproval--I told her I’d resigned from the Board of Directors of a nonprofit I’d served on for some five years. When she asked why, I told her about the organization’s nepotism, how one family had four members on the Board and several more as advisors, and that other people’s ideas, particularly mine, were ignored. When I finished I gave a little laugh and said, “I think they’re glad to be rid of me.”

My mother’s mood suddenly switches. She looks at me that way, shakes her head and says in that voice, “Why do you always have to make trouble?” The familiar chill creeps up my spine, paralyzing my body as my mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out.

There’s a difference, though, between then and now. Now I know exactly what happened—but I still don’t understand. She didn’t know the people I was talking about, or anything about my experiences with them, yet she reflexively took their side against me. It was as if her default position towards me was blame.

I could almost forgive her, chalking it up to maternal resentment, something I know a little bit about. Resentment goes with the territory of motherhood—but I got over it as soon as my kids were out of my hair. My mother clung to it long after there was any cause. I was no longer keeping her from her beloved books—so why did she hate me?

The habit of trying to figure out my mother’s moods became a permanent part of my personality. Any time a change of mood occurs in myself or in others, I hit the pause and replay buttons to examine the chain of events leading up to the switch. In this way I lose great chunks of conscious living—life goes on, events keep occurring, and by the time I abandon my futile search for meaning, I cannot possibly catch up. Imagine what this has meant over the course of a lifetime. Imagine how much of reality I must have missed.

************
My mother moved to Florida almost immediately after my father died. Half a year later the kids and I flew down for the first of many annual visits. Florida, it turns out, is actually cold in February, and we’d naively packed for fun in the sun. I spent a lot of time in the building’s sauna, escaping more than just the weather. It was the first prolonged period of time I’d spent with my mother in years, and I’d almost forgotten what she was like. More important, I was facing, for the first time, the absence of my father, who, I now realized, had somewhat diluted the full force of her personality. I was in a bit of shock. We all were, even Stacy, who at eleven was afraid to go home after the funeral because “I don’t know when I’ll see Grandma again.”

We go to an indoor Miami shopping mall, one of the activities my mother has planned for us, even though she knows we have no disposable income and I hate to shop. My brother Charles, who lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, has taken off work to play chauffeur for the week. He and Daryl are fooling around like guys, and my mother is telling me something about my sister’s friend Chris from her high school days. As we step onto the escalator, Stacy looks up and asks, “Who’s Chris?” I glance down at her while my mother goes right on talking. I’m caught in between, wanting to answer Stacy, who’s been more or less ignored all week, but afraid to interrupt my mother. Stacy repeats, louder this time, “Who’s Chris?” My mother looks down at her granddaughter with her gun-metal blue eyes and says in that voice, “Linda’s friend!”

I place a hand on Stacy’s shoulder; it shrinks from my touch. My mother resumes telling me her story. From the corner of my eye I see Stacy choking back tears. I know I should say something—but I am paralyzed in all ways but one: my mind is busy guilt-tripping myself for not protecting my daughter. Whenever I recall this scene, I always envision Stacy with her thumb in her mouth, something she had of course outgrown by then. It’s how I see her in the situation: little, scared and vulnerable. I still beat myself up for failing to protect her from the witch.

After that, I began to notice that my mother never spoke to Charles or Daryl in that voice, never gave them that look. Was her hatred rooted in sexism? If so, then she too was a victim, so how could I, a feminist, hold it against her? This tug-of-war between my politics and my daughterly rage was a conflict that informed my relationship with my mother forever.

The day before we were leaving Florida, I did our laundry in the machines down the hall while the kids played cards on the dining room table. My mother puttered about, folding up newspapers, watering plants, taking out garbage. She seemed anxious to erase our vibes from her apartment. We were all uncharacteristically quiet, and while our clothes dried I pretended to read a magazine, while surreptitiously studying my mother. She was obviously deep in thought; I could see it on her face. My eyes bored through her wrinkles and lines, trying to pick up what was going on behind them.

Tuning into a person’s thoughts—“mind-reading”—really doesn’t take superhuman powers when two people are as bonded in flesh and blood as a mother and daughter, no matter the quality of their relationship. People call this kind of thing ESP, and “believe” in it or not—usually not. But I was tuned in to my mother’s thought processes that day, and there was nothing mysterious about it. She was thinking about us—the kids and me and our relationship—and our new place in the scheme of things now that she was alone in the world. She was reviewing the week, recalling our conversations, sparse and superficial. She recognized that her relationship to her daughters was of greater importance now that her husband was gone.

And, indeed, my mother’s behavior began to change after that first visit. A few months later, during one of our Sunday phone conversations, she told me that her Aunt Minnie, who lived in the building next door, was dragging her to a weekly class with “that guy, Leo somebody, you know who I mean, he’s on televison all the time. He writes those books about how to talk to people. It’s all nonsense.” I investigated and found out she was talking about Leo Buscaglia, the reigning self-help guru of the day, who wrote books with titles like Living and Loving.

On the phone a few weeks later I told my mother I was getting my front teeth fixed. “Oh, that’s good,” she chirped merrily. “Then you’ll be perfect.”
“Huh?”
“That’s the only thing wrong with you, your teeth, so now you’ll be perfect.”
Who was this lady, and what had she done with my mother?

Eventually the Leospeak eased up--but what remained was a kinder gentler Rhoda. For the next dozen or so years—during many more visits to Florida, and her visits to me in New York and, later, California—she stopped belittling me. She stopped looking at me that way, stopped talking to me in that voice. Our conversations gradually deepened; I asked her about her life, and although she claimed not to remember much, she seemed grateful to talk about whatever she did recall. I even told her more about my life—not quite everything, but more. Every so often she’d slip back into her wicked witch persona, but she must have been aware of it, because she came out of it quickly.

During those years we became friends. I can’t say I completely let my guard down, but we were friends. It must have seemed miraculous to her: she mentioned it several times. Once I heard her tell somebody that it took a long time, but now she was good friends with both her daughters. Another time, after I’d had a fight with Stacy, she told me not to worry, that eventually our relationship would improve. “Look at us,” she said, alarming me somewhat. “Aren’t we friends now?” At the time I did not recognize how close we’d become.

I only realized it when, in her old old age, she reverted to her former self. It seemed to happen all of a sudden, from one visit to the next. For the last four or five years of her life, I was forced once more into the brutal struggle to survive my mother’s verbal abuse. It only eased up again at the hospice center, when she roused herself from near-coma for a moment, pierced my eyes with hers, and, pulling me down, wrapped her arms around my neck.

Read more of "How Little We Know" at http://marcysmemoir.wordpress.com

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