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Three Mothers

Elizabeth Graver

AROUND DAWN this morning as I lie sleeping, I am visited by my grandmother Rebecca, who died two years ago this week. I see her in a room, reach past someone toward her. Who is it I reach past? I don't quite remember, except that she is a big-bosomed woman, wide and German-looking, someone I feel I once knew well. In fact I think, now, that she might have been Molly, the elderly German nanny who used to babysit our neighbor's daughter Mara. When I was a girl and Mara a baby, I would follow them on their walks, Molly in her stout shoes pushing the big stroller, me walking barefoot over the pebbles and the soft, hot tar. I remember loving both Molly and the baby, loving them more than it seemed I should, really, since they were only a tiny, tangential sliver of my life. In my skinny, nervous ten-year-old body, already poised for loss, I loved them for their solidness, the baby blond and firm, her bare heels hanging out of her stroller like breakfast rolls. We walked distances, the three of us. Sometimes I pretended the baby was my baby. In fall and winter I tucked her beneath her afghan, pulled her hat down, touched snow to her hot cheek. Other times she was my sister, Molly my mother. I had, at home, a mother and sister who loved me, but in the space between my skin and theirs, there was always room for more.

In my dream, perhaps it is this Molly I reach past, Molly who is probably dead by now, for she was an old woman even then. Perhaps she is caring for my grandmother. If so, they are a strange pair, the unmarried German nanny and the Spanish Jew, mother of six. Still, they are in a room together, and though my grandmother had only one leg when she died, she is whole and standing. She smiles at my confusion at seeing her, and then, in the way dreams buckle time, we are going for a walk, I am pushing her on a long stretcher, and she is all wrapped up in many cottony, tangled blankets, the whole heap soft and old and a bit complicated the way she was, and we are going past gardens, up hills, by fences, through some town I do not know. It is a good, calm, lovely walk, not painful even though she is on a stretcher. Only one thought jars a little with the rhythm: my entire vision of this world as I know it should be shifting, because I am walking with a ghost.

And then my grandmother is sitting up, flipping through the blankets and reeling off the names of her children: Albert David Frank Jack Suzanne, who is my mother. And leaving out only one, her stepdaughter Luna, the name I love most, Luna like moon, like lunar moth, lunatic, loon -- the aunt who has always hovered, uncomfortable, on the edges of the scene. My grandmother names the names, then sings them in a kind of chant, folding back the layers as if she might find her children burrowed down inside this nest. And afterwards, the grandchildren: Lisa Rachel Pam Jen Sam Matthew Helaine Jonathan Ruth. Luna's son Carl and I are the only ones she does not name.

Me, I want to say to her, me me somewhere in the blankets, and then she says it, laughing -- Eee-leesa-bet -- and I feel, for an instant, what it is like to be quite newborn and swaddled. Wrap the baby womb-tight, the doctor says, or she'll panic at the way her limbs fall through the air.

And then I am grown, a woman with breasts, calm in my stomach and strong as I push the stretcher up steep hills. We talk about the flowers we pass; each time we stop she grips my arm the way she used to, picks up my hand and exclaims over its beauty, my beauty. As I look down, my hand becomes a thing outside myself, the bones like slight green twigs when I arch my fingers back. She is almost giddy with something, some delight that seems to be mixed up with my reaction to her being there. She is thrilled, I think, at the shock she is creating in me, even as I am not exactly acting shocked. Instead I feel relieved at the return of the familiar, her tangle of white hair, her accent when she says the word "look" -- like "luke" almost, and the way she must, really, have been speaking the truth when she used to say she could read minds and pass over oceans; for here, without fanfare, she is.

And then I am leaning over the stretcher and fumbling for my grandmother, and I think she has hunched down beneath the covers, gotten tangled up, tricky as always, dodging me, but as I go through layer after layer, I realize she is gone.

I am woken early this same morning by an argument taking place in the yard which meets my backyard. A son and a mother, 37 years of his unspoken rage. As I lie alone in bed among my heap of sheets, he explodes. The words are so pointed, so condensed that I feel as if I am listening to a play by Tennessee Williams and have to remind myself, lying there half asleep, that what I hear is real. "Three sons," he says, "you didn't have three sons, you had two sons and a punching bag. You never loved me, you never ever loved me. Tell me you ever loved me."

A silence, at least from where I am.

"What did I tell you? You never loved me and you hated me because I loved Dad, I did love Dad, but from you it was only Willy Willy Willy!" His voice is shrill here, fake-womanly.

She laughs, a staccato, hard laugh, and says something too soft for me to hear.

"I don't care!" he yells. "You were my mother, for Chrissake!"

"Stop yelling," she says, and across the distance I can feel what is goading him -- the control in her voice, the cool sharpness of her laugh, can picture him throwing himself up against her as if she were a steel door, trying to get a dent to show itself, a tiny shudder even, some kind of mumbled answer to his pain. I think: this man is bruised -- that is the only word I can think of -- and although when I rouse myself enough to peer out my window I cannot see these people through the trees, I picture him middle-aged and a little portly, his skin blotched and mottled, a heart of sweat showing through the back of his shirt. A man with a Boston accent, a balding man who grinds his teeth in his sleep. And she, the mother, must be small and tight-featured, her hair the color and curl of pencil shavings; she must be wearing a clean and stingy apron, sitting on the back porch as he stands below her on the grass, flailing his arms.

Only maybe because he has the loudest voice I am missing a whole half of it, maybe it is unfair, his story, the child always the one who gets to throw the blame. Still, I do not like her; he has won me to his side though he does not know I am listening. As I lie there, all I can think is yield a little for him, yield. Step closer, one foot toward him, down those steps he probably climbed on as a child.

"Let them," he yells. "Let them hear, I don't give a fuck, I've waited 37 years for this, God how you used to humiliate me, every single day, in front of everyone. Listen!" Now he is calling out to us, the leafy neighborhood. "Hello?!"

In my mind I see him as a baby in the lurching, toddling stage, all possibility -- to himself, to her -- and how, when he walked, at first, it was always towards her outstretched arms.

"Don't you see I don't give a shit who hears me, I've waited my whole life for this!"

And the mother, her voice finally rising a little, "You're rotten! A rotten egg! Get away from my house, you get out of here, you're no good."

And he, still yelling, a jubilation to his voice now, "Well, too bad, because you made me how I am!"

Then the words get softer, and though I strain to hear and raise my head to squint through the leaves, it is a green blur between me and them. Finally she must begin to cry, because he says "Ha, it's a miracle, look at that, water from a fucking stone, I've waited my whole life to see that."

After that, a silence, and I picture him getting into his car and the way she sits there, her face set as he drives away. Picture, actually, my grandmother in her worst moments, how her mouth could get set in a thin line and her gaze level out into something resolutely blank, for there was hatred, too, in our family, between my grandmother and her stepdaughter Luna, the one she feared her husband loved more than life itself. And as I lie there listening for more, another sign from the yard which touches mine, I wonder how many other neighbors have been witnesses, lying, like me, alone in bed, or next to people they love or do not love, their children sleeping in the rooms down the hall or waiting, all hunched halves of potential, in their testicles or ovaries.

Again I must fall asleep, because I wake to the phone ringing loudly beside my bed, and a voice in lilting, non-Parisian French -- "Allo allo?" When she says she is the mother of François, I say "Ah oui, bonjour," in false recognition, though I have no idea who she is. My recent trip to France flips like flash cards through my sleepy head -- all the mothers I met there: the mother with the son about to take the English exam, the one with twin baby boys, the mother of the bride, of the groom, of the child I used to babysit when I lived there, the mother -- "On the plane," she says. "We sat together."

And now I am awake, now I remember. A flock of them on the plane from Paris to Boston, 50 or so women from Zaire, all dressed in bright, lush dresses sewn in different styles but from the same fabric, a deep blue background, curled flowers, and printed on the cloth, a kind of scroll covered with lettering: "L'Association Internationale des Amis de Dieu." Or something like that, something religious, and one of these women sat next to me, twice my size in her blue dress, taking up her seat and half of mine. For the first part of the trip we did not speak, but then I asked her where she was going, and she said to a religious conference, in Boston, where her son lived (François, yes, that was his name, 24-years-old, an engineering student; he lived with her sort-of other son -- here she hesitated -- the son of her husband, tu vois, but not her son).

She was informal with me, called me "tu," reached deep into my lap to take a magazine, flipped up the armrest between us so that her hip could sink into my seat. And I wanted to talk to her and did not want to, wanted to ask her did she have a daughter and did her daughter have a daughter, and yet was not sure what to make of how she took my roll off my plate as if we had known each other forever and pressed me far into the corner of my seat.

As we neared Boston and she began to peer into a compact mirror at her eyes and lips, I said, "It must be nice to get to see your sons. How long has it been?"

"My son," she corrected, and sighed a sigh that pressed against me where we touched. "I made this all --" She gestured down at her dress -- "so he wouldn't think his mother had turned into nothing with him gone. Zaire is a beautiful country. You should come visit, I'll show you things."

In the end, after I had translated her customs form and shared my bag of candy with her, she asked for my phone number -- to meet for coffee in Boston, she said. The same way, when I was on the train from Paris to Strasbourg two weeks earlier, the widow next to me showed me photos of her dead husband and grown children and said if I were ever in Nancy, here -- her address, scrawled on a chocolate wrapper and pressed into my hand. Lonely women, all of us, I could feel it from one seat to the next, not terribly lonely, for we all had photos in our wallets as we sped down tracks or through air, but I could tell, still, that they wanted something from me, could feel a thin line of longing, just enough to make me a little nervous. And yet I wrote my address out, each time, gave it to these women, these mothers.

This morning, on the phone, she says she has a gift for me. No, I say, that's not necessary, but she says yes, just a little something she brought from Zaire, a tout petit cadeau.

"Thank you," I say. "Really I don't need a gift, but maybe we can meet for coffee?"

And behind my voice, my two selves --the adventurous, lonely one: yes, coffee with a woman in bright blue whose son lives across oceans; and the other self, leery of strangers, she will try to convert me, ask me for something, press me far into the corner of my seat.

No, she says, her voice urgent, no she can't, she's going home tomorrow, but she will leave the gift with her son, they will call me back at exactly six tonight, will I be there? He will give me directions to his house.

I want to say, but wait, what does this gift mean? Does she want me to meet her son, to become his wife, for she asked me on the plane (both of them asked me, she and the widow from Nancy) if I had children, if I were married yet, and when I said no, she frowned a little frown. Or perhaps she wants to convert me to Christ. Or maybe this is a simple gesture, a glance towards the fact that in a world with fewer distances, I might have been her daughter and she my mother; her son might have stayed close to her; my grandmother might have loved all her children equally and then not died, leaving my bones aching for her hand to transform them into new, green twigs.

I picture, then, a swatch of bright fabric from Zaire, the kind of cloth my grandmother would have held to her cheek and pressed against her mouth, deep cotton fiber and colors so bright they seem to be multiplying, still, on the cells of a leaf just about to open.

I say yes, I think I can be home.

Originally published in the April/May 1994 issue of Boston Review



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