a continuation of a story first introduced here (including disclaimer info).
I didn’t realize I had sighed out loud until I heard my mother on the end of line other mock me with an exaggerated sigh of her own. “Hmphhhhhhhh… Sheesh, what’s eating you? I just asked you a simple question.” But that’s just it, Bernice, I wanted to say, it’s never simple with you.
“Was that it, or was there something else? You don’t have another bombshell to drop on me, do you?”
It was the question she had asked me five minutes ago and four minutes ago I had said “yes.” But I couldn’t go on. She thought the fact that I was planning a trip to a town near where she lived and *might* visit her was a bombshell announcement. How was she going to react to the litany of life changing decisions that would be unleashed if I said the one thing that would change everything. It’s not like she actually really new me, but I had done a good job of maintaining enough distance to fit the impression she had formed in her mind over the years. Layers and layers of false memories and incorrect assumptions and childlike fantasies that had been painted onto any realistic image of *me* until I wasn’t there anymore. Just an imperfectly manicured, fuzzy painting of angry brushstrokes of hair battles, streaked with tears of frustration and later regret (hers, not mine), and torn in places where i had tried to break out. Ultimately I had just settled on lying. It was easier to pretend to be the fuzzy picture than to have to suggest that I might be a photograph, in sepia tones, and not primary colors at all.
12:09. I had just been on the phone for 8 minutes and already it felt like a lifetime. It was like this every time. If I didn’t call her, I would never hear from her. Why wasn’t that ok with me? Why couldn’t I conjure up the 13-year-old me who had spent the year speaking in only Portuguese? And made no eye contact with Bernice. It wasn’t as hard as it seemed. She hardly looked at me anyway. She was always trying to find herself. Find where she belonged, and reveling in placing herself in situations where she didn’t belong. At the center of someone else’s birthday party. In a suit. At a parent-teacher conference. It was as if she was most alive when she was making herself fit where it most seemed possible. And damn her, it didn’t always fail.
I could almost picture her, wearing something yellow and sitting on her bright blue rocking chair on the porch of the little clay roof cottage she had bought just outside of Santa Fe almost eleven years ago. I couldn’t remember what color the rest of the house was, but the chair was burned into my memory. Each time I would visit her, she would ask me to apply another coat of paint to the chair. Always the same bright blue – she called it Sonny’s Blue. Only years later would I understand this is as the last vestige of her former self, one that read Baldwin, Hurston and Emerson, enjoyed Mahler and Ellington, and wondered about the world enough to want to do something that meant something. That Bernice and I would have been friends.
Before I could go on, I heard her say on the other end of the line, “Open your email. Don’t ask why, just do it now.” There was an attachment. Of course. No contact for months, and now an attachment. I just wanted to have a five minute conversation. But now I had an attachment. It was a photo, taken with Bernice’s cell phone camera so it was quite grainy. It looked like a brown grocery bag.
“You’re welcome!” she bellowed from inside the phone. “I found a bunch of crap you asked me for when I was cleaning out the boxes marked ‘1997’ so I shipped it to you. “ The “crap” referred to a list I had sent her as a letter when I was away at camp during high school – no doubt another thing she had kept and found in this mess of 1997.
Where was this bag of crap going to go? Yet another thing that Bernie pushed onto my life for which I didn’t have the emotional or physical space. What would it be like to think of my mother as my mother, and not as some alien life form that occasionally flitted into and out of my life.
Imagine a scene:
Sitting on a park bench, two women who were clearly mother and daughter, both with heads of luscious hair, one almost completely silver and the other with just the slightest hints of grey. The mother in complementary shades of grey — a cowl neck sweater that hit at her hip, a not-too-flowy skirt of lightweight wool that swirled around her knees, and steel grey patent leather pumps — highlighted by a carefully chosen rose pink cashmere shawl, worn as a scarf. Her daughter, equally minimalistic in her boot cut jeans in the perfect shade of blue-black falling perfectly over her mahogany, wedge-heel boots that were buttery soft and gleamed in the warmth of the late October sun, a crisp button down shirt in shade of dusty rose that invited touch; and presumably for warmth on this perfect autumn day, a thin, cashmere tank top peeking out from underneath her shirt, in palest shade of pink that it looked almost white – almost. Eileen Fisher couldn’t have painted a more ideal portrait of estrogen compatibility.
Mother in grey: I think you were right about drinking warm tea while reading Tolstoy! I was transported – like I was there with Anna.
Daughter in boots: I can’t wait until you finish — it’s almost the end of December and my Anna itch needs scratching!
Mother in grey: Patience. I wish I could tell you about this new case. All I can say is that we need a new conversation in this country. These kids that I see just want someone to hear what they’re saying. Baldwin turns in his grave, I’m sure, when he sees and hears what this country is doing. It’s strange to be reading him alongside Tolstoy – but also strangely symbiotic.
Daughter in boots: You’re too nice sometimes, mom. The world isn’t like that when the kids go back into it. But I know you can’t be different, and thank goodness for that. Did you go back to “The Fire Next Time”?
End of scene.
And on and on it would go, sharing texts, hearing one about each other’s work, raising questions. This is not a daily event – more regular than a conversation once every four or five months, but not so frequent that it dissolves into the inanity shared by close friends, some sisters, even the occasional interaction between strangers who share laugh about an unfortunately worded advertisement in the subway or something equally inconsequential.
This is a relationship that is respectful, attentive, evolving. But instead I was part of something – did it qualify as a relationship? – in which one person (Bernice, always Bernice) dumped baggage, literally, onto another’s (mine, always mine) life. Today brought the promise of a grocery bag full of sewing notions, pressed flowers, a stethoscope, a waffle iron, a collection of paint chips; what was my 15-year-old self thinking??
I can only hope she had the sense to put it all in a box so that I could take it directly from my porch to the Goodwill drop off center.
Part 4 en route…