All summer and fall, I’ve been trying to write about my mother, who died in 1999. I thought I was at peace with her when she died. I had been one of her hospice caregivers during the months she struggled for breath, and I was with her at the moment of her passing. At one point, she even made a speech in which she said everything I ever hoped she would say to me. My mother and I had no unfinished business, or so I thought.
But every time I went to write about her, I remembered a particular instance in which she threw underhanded, called me a name, apologized later. It became my personal whack-a-mole. No matter what I was writing about — my childhood, my father, my husband, my own children — up the incident popped. Yes, her comment was mean. But why skewer her? If she were alive, we could have a good fight about it, a fair fight. That one scene did not a relationship make. There were hundreds of other scenes — thousands — I could have brought to mind, but I was stuck. The words would not come. Until I opened the box with the Chinese brocade.
I don’t know what possessed me to go spelunking in my attic last week, but I felt compelled to pull out some of the stuff I have squirreled away in nooks and crannies. I’ve inherited some stuff, and collected other bits when my father moved out of his house in 2003. On this particular day I went looking for the bins I stored among dusty luggage, abandoned briefcases and boxes of seldom-used holiday decorations. The last time I opened one, I think, was when one of my children mined it for show-and-tell. Both of my children are out of college now, so that had to be long ago, at least a dozen years back.
Through the translucent side of the top bin, the contents looked like layers, vanilla except for a ribbon of red. What could possibly be so unabashedly red? I removed the packing tape, so old it it cracked rather than peeled, to discover what was on top. Oh, it’s you, I thought, as I extracted the remnant of silk. Left over from the cheongsam my mother had made when we lived in Hawaii, I greeted it like a long lost friend. It’s red without the pop of orange, red without a calming hint of blue: red for blood, red for lust, red for love. It’s red as in red-white-and-blue for the nation’s birthday, which my mother conscripted into a celebration of her own every July 3rd.
When I touched the fabric, still as vibrant as it was 50 years ago, I could see my mother laughing, regaling the family with the story of how she had pointed to where the slit should end, mid-thigh, and how the seamstress kept gesturing to a spot a foot lower and shaking her head: “not Chinese lady.” I remembered my mother showing off the finished product, her curves straining against the thick brocade, her thigh peeking forth a full three inches above the knee. My mother had movie star legs and feet so lovely they landed her a college job modeling shoes at I. Magnin, the nicest store in Seattle. Did the shoe models parade down a runway curtained like a puppet stage, I used to wonder, so that only the calves and ankles showed? My grandfather, who knew more than he should have about a nicely turned leg, reportedly told my father upon meeting her, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.” She was never traditionally pretty — exotic, yes, with the olive skin of the Black Irish, cheekbones like Mt. Rushmore, pillowy lips and dark brown eyes that snapped beneath lids that almost lacked folds. An interesting face, a strong face, but not one that could precisely be called pretty. Her hair, in the last ten years before her death, was more gray than brown but what she lamented was the increase in shoe size that followed the birth of five children. The beautiful shoes she’d received in exchange for modeling — the pumps and the sling backs and the snappy navy Spectators — all had to be given away.
I wrote, “Oh, it’s you,” because my mother felt more fully present than she had in years. Seeing the silk made me want to laugh and yell red, red, red, red, red! God, my mother loved red, and red loved her back. My father had a bouquet of Shakespearian sonnets he would offer up to her — or use to extol her after her death — but my favorite was Sonnet 130 with its dripping irony: “…I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks.” I can see him at the dining room table, looking at my mother, smiling a half smile as his baritone voice marked off the meter, ending with, “…I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”
Once I had touched the silk, she seemed to be woven into everything. Below the red silk was a pink bed jacket that had been my grandmother’s but it was my mother who told me about it. Now that I think about it, that brief exchange was just so my mother. I know she missed her mother, who lived with us for many years — she was a big help with the children — but I don’t think she kept the old lingerie for its utility. So far as I know, she never used it. I think she kept it for its sentimental value, for the same reason that I cannot purge it. I thought of her again when, at the bottom of the bin, I saw a little christening robe with an embroidered wooly kitten. I’m almost certain it was made for my sister.
My sister, Madeline Elizabeth, was born in 1950 and died on October 22, 1953, two days before my father’s birthday. They called her Midge. She was my parents’ third child, planned to be their last. At thirty-two, my mother had her daughter.
Sometime around Midge’s first birthday, my parents noticed that she was tired and listless, not the energetic little girl she’d been. My father’s brother, a doctor who specialized in blood cancers, came down from Boston to examine her. He took a sample of bone marrow from her hip and diagnosed leukemia. For almost three years, my uncle treated her with an experimental drug. During Midge’s last remission, the family vacationed on the Northeastern shore. In one picture, she held my father’s hand, looking shy. Even though she was not yet four, she wore size 6 clothing due to the weight gain that was a side effect of medication. It embarrassed her, my mother told me.
Then the remission ended. The leukemia advanced rapidly, and after she was taken to the hospital, my brothers never saw her again. They weren’t allowed to say goodbye, or attend her memorial service, or visit her grave; in 1953, that’s what experts recommended. Midge’s death must have brought my parents to their knees, but my mother muscled through it. She would have done well in ancient Sparta. She had two other children to care for, then six and ten, and she had recently learned that she was expecting. Again, the experts weighed in, advising an abortion since the stress might be too much for her or the baby. This time, my parents ignored the counsel. My brother Dean was born in April 1954. I followed three years later.
I remember seeing my mother cry only once. She was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes and looking at me, looking at me but not really seeing me. I asked her why she was sad and she told me she was thinking about my sister.
After my mother died, I found a book in my mother’s bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I stumbled across it again yesterday, in a cupboard, forgotten. The first thing that struck me, besides its red cover (now that she is on my mind, I see red everywhere) was her name written in pen. There is her name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. The book’s pages are a little water logged, as if she read it in the bathroom and accidentally dropped it in water. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” Here is my clue, perhaps, as to how my mother handled the losses in her life. She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”
Is this how she muscled through? By putting her faith in God? By practicing gratitude? Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.
Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she seemed to take far bigger challenges in stride. When my middle brother came home from his sophomore year of college to announce that his girlfriend was pregnant, there were no recriminations. My mother just rolled with it. In my brother moved with his new wife and baby. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her emotional lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that take their time to grow and then fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.
I inherited my mother’s ability to compartmentalize, although I’m a journeyman in comparison. I could use more of her joy, her appreciativeness, her unbridled passion. (I’m passionate, mind you, but more given to a more bridled variety.) I could do with more of her ability to forgive — obviously, if I had a hard time letting go of the one time that she threw a slur in my direction.
After she died, I typed out a list of words to describe her: proud, opinionated, funny, bold, independent, nurturing, dedicated, faithful, feminine but never frail, organized, a leader, passionate, fiery, loving.
There was nothing pastel about her.