My mother has died.
The old monster is gone.
But what I thought was the end is not.
It is a beginning.
I am singing in the car. Belting out a song, and happy. Seeing myself dance. In long contra lines, to fiddle music. Over dirty dishes, to Linda Ronstadt. In a candlelit room, in the arms of my beloved. Music transports me: All worry flies away. I see my three-year-old self being walked around the room by Nonno, my feet on top of his feet, while the old phonograph spills Tommy Dorsey. Maybe that’s when it began. Heaven.
And then it is not me I see; it is my mother. Her blue-black hair flying as she jitter-bugs. Each movement deft, perfectly timed. Her laughter unrestrained. “Your mother sure can move,” my father says, watching with awe from the sidelines. The beach made her happy too, but in a different way. She talked about the seaside art gallery where she would sell her paintings. My father chewed a toothpick while she outlined her plan. A happy aspiration colored with want and later, with disappointment. But long after the demise of her dreams, music could still get her out of a chair.
“You think you are the only one who danced with your grandfather that way,” she told me wistfully. “But he did the same thing with me when I was little—my feet on his feet. And I loved it, too.”
I didn’t care.
It’s hard now, admitting that my mother and I had a common love.
My mother is dead, but she is not gone.
I am walking by the river on a cold day. Its white surface is a still mirror broken in only one place by the wake of a wooden rowboat. A dory, actually, and probably the same one that floated a Christmas tree with white lights the winter before. She loved it. And suddenly I am a mittened kid scraping frost off the windows in the back seat of an old Chevy so I can better see the houses strung with red, green, and white Christmas lights. Her idea. She said, “Let’s take the kids for a ride.” All six of us suited up and piled in the car. My father cruised through a place disparagingly called Guinea Gulch where the neighbors tried to outdo one another in the decoration department. Guinea for Italian. My mother was Italian; we had family in Guinea Gulch. Being Italian was all I knew. I thought I was more Italian than anything else because of Sunday dinners at Nanna’s house and the maternal uncle who lived across the street. We were in his kitchen almost as much as our own. My mother’s people, my people, in the country of childhood. Gone now, nearly all of them, including her.
Except that she is in that neat little dory, carving a line in water like a charcoal stick on a page.
My mother is dead but not gone.
She wanted to be an artist, not famous but known. By vacationers who would return each June to buy a new painting of a fishing shack or sailboats. Instead she had four kids in rapid succession and stopped painting, stopped drawing. Her life was consumed with boiling baby bottles and soaking diapers in ammonia. And bagging peanut butter sandwiches for school lunches. And getting fat. Pounds upon pounds of resentment.
My elderly father hands me a brown paper bag with stuff culled from my deceased mother’s dresser. Inside is a stack of drawings, but not hers. They are mine. A picture of Daddy and Mommy and Melanie jumping off a dock into bright blue water that splashes up like an open flower. I sniff the brittle 55-year-old page. It still smells like the box of Cray-pas she gave me. I kept them in rainbow order, from black to white with colors in between. On the back of each drawing, in my mother’s script, is my name and an age. Melanie 2 ½. Scribbles in pencil that she noted I called “flowers.” Melanie aged 6. A rendering of my sister’s face—undeniably well done for a six-year-old. No circles for eyes or L-shaped line for the nose in typical first grade symbology. No, I studied the shapes and shadows and tried to render them accurately. “My eldest daughter is talented,” she unapologetically announced to anyone and everyone, but by the time I was a high school graduate with art awards for my drawings, she and I were arguing all the time. I hated possessing ability that came at the cost of her own, a missile she fired every chance she got. “I could have been an artist,” she said, “but I gave everything I had to you.” Her everything was my millstone. I gave away prize-winning sketches and discarded others, which incensed her. And now I understand why.
Because I did have talent. I do have talent. Obscured by her bitterness, but talent nonetheless. Giftedness, one might call it. She perceived it, and she was right. I couldn’t see it at the time because I was a kid, and because emotional survival is consuming work. But I see it now.
I see it, Mom.
Wordsworth wrote “Surprised by joy.” I am surprised not by grief, but by a notion of delicacy, like a ladybug that lands bumpily before folding up its wings. Or the fuzzy black caterpillar I nearly step on and the relief I feel that I didn’t. I am overjoyed that I can transport him, curled in my palm, to the safety of the garden. But I am heartsore as well. The ladybug and the caterpillar and the chickadee carrying seed from my feeder to the birdhouse I hung are to me what T.S. Eliot called “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.” I don’t have the right words for it, only know when I feel it. The gathering ache in my chest, the sense of a brush with mortality even as a twittering bird is feeding young from her beak. The clouds I search for rain are the visage of that delicacy, that suffering thing, and that’s when I feel her presence. As warm as if my mother were there…then gone. Light but no shadow, warmth that ebbs like the delicious spot in the cold lake that lasts only seconds before you have to wade to a new one. The twit-twit of a mother bird, the babbling laughter of chicks in the crosswalk with their lunch boxes and rain togs. Ephemeral yet imperishable. Perhaps this is where she now dwells, in light and wind. No longer embodied but not gone.
I don’t know, I don’t know. But I believe in my senses, and they tell me she is here.
She is dead but not gone, and interstitial is the word that comes to mind. From the Latin for “to stand between.” She is no longer standing but is perhaps dwelling in the spaces between. Between music and mind, cloud and eye, color and conception. When I hold Melanie’s six-year-old portrait, I am holding Melanie, and I am holding her young mother as well. When I hear in my own dancing laughter the laughter of my mother, I am dancing with her, and when I smell the aroma of simmering tomatoes, she is handing me a plate of scali bread dipped in sauce, the white and red deepened with a splash of olive oil. A painting in my mind, if you will. Time travel, and where does that happen but in the in-between? Between memory and desire, love and longing. Grief and letting go, as some say.
But if she dwells in the in-between, in that un-dreaming place between sleep and awake, she is not truly gone. The old rages, the violence—they are long gone. They were never her essence. I didn’t know that, until now. Nor did I expect it. I was unprepared. Loss is more complicated than a card, than a page from a visitor’s log at the funeral. Words reduce grief to snippets of sound, to squiggles on a page, but grief is a breeze, a flicker, an itch. It catches one unaware, as does beauty. The fleeting almost-pink of sunrise, the first chirp to break the dawn, the cool mist of twilight. The smell of a child’s hair beneath my chin, the perfection of her little hand. Beauty, grief, and longing: mixed.
Perhaps even one and the same.
In life, I called her “Mom.” A hard “Mother” when I was angry, and “Annie”—a diminution of her given name, Annamaria—when I was enraged. If I really wanted to annoy her, I called her “Mamasita,” meaning little mother, because she was four inches shorter than me. It was a moniker that sweetly announced, “Do not fuck with me.” A pre-emptive de-escalation of conflict over the usual things: What I wore or didn’t wear. What I said or didn’t say. Who I loved more than her (my father, she said) and how she loved me more than anyone. My ingratitude. My recollection of childhood events and my thwarted attempts to talk about them. The hitting, the screaming, the times she said she had swallowed pills. Her sobbing for days in a darkened room, in her nightgown, unwashed, over the lost life that she lay at my feet, her eldest daughter, the glue that kept her stuck to the father with whom she made me.
I was the living reminder of her own loss.
The embodiment of loss with a mouth that wouldn’t quit. A mouth that refused to call her “Mama.” Often a baby’s first word, perhaps because it is so close to the mmm of sucking, eating. I heard it myself, for the first time, in the sanctuary of night as I nursed my infant son. In the faintest of light, I gazed at him and he gazed back. Then he smiled and said, sleepily, “Mama.” There was no one to tell, no father to jostle, no attempt to get my infant to repeat the word. I alone heard it, and knew: He sees me and knows that I see him. I never felt that way with her. Seen or seeing, knowing or known. There was never the requisite quiet, the unblemished mirror of a stilled face. Only red rage, yellow resentment, blue despair. A sequence like the colors in the box of Cray-pas with which I drew the picture of Mommy. Melanie at 9. Mommy’s lips red, skin yellow, and tear blue, trailing like a deflated balloon.
Touching that brittle page, I touch my younger mother’s softness. I wipe away the blue tear. That mother is long gone. The remaining tears have vaporized. But the child who drew the portrait and the woman who now holds it remain. “Mama,” I whisper. Am I saying it to my mother or to the kid with paper and Cray-pas? Am I the mother of my younger self? Am I mother to the young mother who bore that child? To the one who died?
Or am I simply “Mama”?
I am, and she is.
Beauty and grief and longing. The long sigh that is a spring morning’s rain. The soft bed that is the earth where it falls. And everything unseen, in between.
My mother is dead but not gone.
“Mama,” I say into the almost-pink light.