Growing Up with the Trojan Woman
She was never a normal mother. Normal mothers in the sixties wore aprons and used Tupperware and stayed home unless they were teachers or nurses. No one’s mother was an architect or graduated from Harvard or washed her hair in the kitchen sink. She was beautiful and walked and swam as if time was running out. A repeating memory of her disappearing, her long legs moving her too fast for me to catch up, her stroke was a crawl that would leave you gasping for breath. My repeated dream was she was dead, in a coffin and I was being told to tell her goodbye. I had this dream many times as we lived in Ireland, England, Spain and New Jersey. I adored her and I feared her and I hated her and I needed her and I contemplated suicide so she could finally understand my despair, how badly I was bruised and neglected, how hopelessly lost I felt. She sewed our clothes, baked our bread, made birthday cakes shaped like animals or Irish cottages. She smelled of Chanel N°5 in black stockings, hair a French twist, and as a couple she and my father looked like Italian movie stars. The fabric was Marimekko, the living room chairs Herman Miller, everything chosen with care and taste and lacking excess money, simplicity.
Meanwhile I longed for snacks, La-Z-Boy chairs, sugared cereal, plastic bags, stuff. I sent away for government brochures, makeup samples, subscribed to a dinosaur bone of the month when nine that nearly landed me in jail, had pen pals and constantly tried to connect from the stark white-walled farmhouse my mother renovated. She stained the deck, fixed stuff in the cellar none of us understood, baked all the bread, grew a garden filled with vegetables., and sewed our clothes. If it wasn’t the pressure cooker it was the sewing machine or a drill. I wanted something softer, less capable, more mine. She didn’t show up for car pools, plays, soccer games or slumber parties, graduations and nervous breakdowns. A standing joke was her asking me when I was in a play and my answer was, “It doesn’t matter. You won’t come anyway.” These events were witnessed by my dad who did so well in a crisis. All she did was scream and collapse.
I was her helper able to obey commands as a sous chef, willing to accept her alpha position. But I also comforted her when she was injured by my father’s drinking until blackout and rage expressed in terrible words and physical violence. I loved him just as much but he was elusive and she was in your face. My best moment starting college was returning from a party and not seeing my mother in a Lanz nightgown, at the top of the stairs yelling, “You’re drunk.” Of course I was drunk. I was a fifteen-year-old alcoholic but she wanted me to remain on the edge of that identity, bad but not as bad as having someone with a fatal illness, an illness I shared with my father. My mother thought I was beautiful, accomplished and good. When a drunk driver killed my eldest sister at 32 leaving a boy of three behind and a group of shell-shocked survivors, my mother intensified her denial to the point of insanity, refusing to cry at her memorial where everyone was red-eyed, refusing to admit her heart was broken, speeding up to try and outrun the truth that her eldest daughter was dead. Returning home from my apartment in Hoboken one day I found her napping on the couch. She woke up and said, “I have the loveliest dream. I had my right arm cut off but your sister was alive.”
“Mom,” I said, “Talk about her. I need to talk about her.”
But she shook her head. “No. It won’t help. Nothing will help.”
It would help me.
Now, she has disappeared. Something in that incredible brain, that Harvard educated architect whose sharp wit and incredible ability to create has snapped or evaporated or simply run out of batteries. We spent twelve days in Ireland several years ago, just the two of us in a rotten rental car with a broken GPS, driving on the opposite side of the road, her talking incessantly while I tried to find our next hotel. It was torture, it was glorious, it was time with my mother, my incredible, brilliant mother, she asked me a few questions, we laughed at bizarre things and she told me endless stories about a bank robber second cousin who “drove across county on a crime spree,” sometimes we talked about my dead sister and my father, she told me a wonderful time they took her to New Mexico but she would only touch that knife edge and then retreat. She fell asleep and I looked at her and realized it was all about love, imperfect, hard love.