Category Archives: Love

Happy Birthday!

At 12:02 p.m., 15 years ago, Zeke was born.

I cannot imagine my life without her, without our headbutts and arguments, without our heartfelt late-night conversations, without our restaurant trips with her friends where I get a glimpse into what being a teenager these days is. I can’t imagine a life not surrounded by her and her friends, who fill this house on the weekends, and sometimes during the week. I can’t imagine not hearing the sound of her voice as she sings in the shower, or not seeing her dancing in her room to the  tunes on her iPod.

She and I live together with our dogs in a little two-bedroom condo. I drive her all over the valley to pick up and drop off friends, and sometimes I feel like an ATM machine as I hand out $20 here and $20 there so she can take a friend to a movie or walk to the grocery store and buy “movie night” snacks. But I’d rather always be on the verge of running out of money and have her in my life than have a fat savings account without her. When I hear her talk to her friends, and counsel them on their life problems, I am proud. She is thoughtful, wise and strong-willed. She doesn’t bow to peer pressure. And she makes me laugh.

Fifteen years ago today, my little miracle was born. I’d had three previous pregnancies (and two after her birth),  and was not supposed to be pregnant at that time because I was undergoing medical treatment for a scarred uterus and ovaries. “You can abort it,” the doctor said, “and start over. Or you can keep it and risk another miscarriage.” Or keep it and be violently sick for eight months (don’t worry, severe morning sickness is a sign of a “good” pregnancy, according to my OB-GYN), and then give birth early, induced because of toxemia, and hold in your arms, at last, the tiny, perfect product of years of wishing and yearning.

Happy Birthday, Zeke! I love you.

Retrospective 8: 1970 — Confusion

  • We toss little plastic men with plastic parachutes on fine string off our sixth-floor apartment balcony. They spin and turn as they float to the grass below. Then we clatter down the stairs (the elevators were always broken), and pick them up, and we wrap the string and the parachutes around their bodies as we go back up the stairs. And we do it again and again, a complete aerobic workout, in the breezy summer days of those early years in Switzerland.
  • Who is we? My sisters are younger. Ruth May is still an infant. Perhaps the parachute-throwers are me and my best friend, Genie. She speaks English too, and we have our own private language with which we can torment our friends. We tease them in French, then talk together in English, and they implore, implore us to tell them what we say. She has a cardboard Wendy house, and we paint it bright colors in her living room. Then we pop in and out in crazy games of hide-and-seek, while her round-eyed little brother beats on the roof with a paper towel holder.
  • I am five and inclined to be helpful. I decide to take the trash out one night. I tie the top of the bag and haul it down to the basement, where I heave it into the dumpster. By the time I get back upstairs, in the dark, my mother is frantic. She grabs me. “Where were you?” her voice high with panic. But Dad is home, has just walked in the door, and after she is done with me, he give me five francs. This is the beginning of a pattern that haunts me for the rest of my childhood. When Mum is furious with me, he is nice.

Retrospective 7: 1969 — Stubborn memories

My mother drives her flower-painted moped, and we wave her goodbye. She always turns her bright face back towards us, smiling, waving. And then she is gone.

That is not what I remember. I remember driving in the van out to the country, up a winding road to a farmhouse with a view. It must have been in the foothills of the Alps. The landscape was wide and rich with growth, and I turned around and around to pull it all into my heart. I felt like Heidi or one of the children from The Sound of Music.

I wrote about that time, those memories, here. Nothing has changed. The memories remain stubbornly the same. The man who was bearded and booming-voiced, and who pulled francs out from behind our ears.The wine and picnic baskets in the Alps. Swimming in a blue lake.

But something else intervenes. My baby sister is born, Ruth May, late in the year. My mother says Dad took her hand after the birth, and said, “Don’t worry, dear. The next one will be a boy.” My mother’s response: “Doctor. Tie my tubes!”

And that indeed did happen. Four children in five years was enough for her, four girls, each so different, each so lively and also so needy.

There are more snapshots. My aunt came, Dad’s brother’s ex-wife. She was blond and brassy, with a loud voice, and she filled the apartment. No. Wait. I have mixed her up. She came earlier, when Leah was born, so my mother could go alone to Nashville. No. She came before Leah’s birth, and cared for us when my mother went to Nashville for her mother’s funeral. No. My mother went to Nashville for the funeral, and took Rachel and me, and stood in the airport with her belly growing, feeling desperation. That’s when she went to the doctor to ask for an abortion. Aunt M never came.

But I remember her. I remember snapshots. They might have been taken on the same day, or not. They might be years apart. Aunt M with her commanding voice, and my mother at the airport with us in tow, and Ruth May’s blond wispy hair caught in a flare of sunshine as she reaches her plump hand towards me. I remember all of them, but their relationship to one another, their grounding in time and space, is long lost.

When did it start raining?

Retrospective 6: 1968 — Days without Rain

Snapshots of the early days in Switzerland.

  • I was three for most of 1968. Rachel had diarrhea and exczema and I spent an afternoon running from the bathroom to my mother, carrying clean cotton nappies, and then from my mother to the bathroom with the dirty ones. We couldn’t keep her clean. It was a game for me, helping with Rachel’s nappies. Leah was little and compliant that day and didn’t cry much, and the sun made a square on the floor of the living room. I passed through it over and over again, and marveled.
  • I found a stuffed toy fox in the dumpster underneath the apartments. I climbed into the dumpster and pulled the ragged creature out. Where was my mother? Perhaps I was older than three or four. Time was meaningless in those years. I have only snapshot memories of that time anyway, and they are jumbled up. Still, they were happy times. I took the fox home and Mum sewed it up and washed it and it became mine. I still have it, 40 years later, sitting in my room with my other stuffed animal, a bear, this one 60 years old, my mother’s own childhood toy. None of my sisters wanted him. His button eyes were gone, and his nose, and he had brown coffee stains on his worn yellow pelt, and he wasn’t new and shiny. But I love(d) him, and he and the fox share space on my bedside table.
  • I don’t remember rain in those days.

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from Amazon.uk.com, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through Amazon.com — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Retrospective 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.

Retrospective 4: 1966 — In shadow

Two moments rise out of memory for this year, two pieces of information that I can never fully reconcile. There is my mother, in the doorway, backlit, with me on her hip. My dad (not my father, you understand) turns in his office chair, arrested by the fall of golden hair, the silhouette, the voice. When she comes into his office, he sees the clear pale cream of her skin, the scattering of freckles across her nose, and he aches with love. It is the first moment, the first recognition. It is the last image of her he carries, for after she dies, all the others flee. He remembers her most clearly in that first instance.

My mother asks for a job in my dad’s physics lab at Vanderbilt. My dad says yes. How long before they pass beyond boss and worker status? How long beyond friendship?

The other moment is my mother’s memory. She walks into her mother’s house, a house that is now historic, that was iconic when it was built because it was made to her father’s order in the new style by a rising architect. I hold only fleeting memories of the house, of long hallways, of flagstones in pale colors, of everything angled and squared. The roof is flat. The rooms are white, and the light beams in through cool square windows, straight and hard. But this is not true now. Now the house is surrounded by trees, and everything is softened.

My mother goes into her mother’s bedroom, and stops. Does she hear something that draws her there? Does the air feel different? Disturbed? Does she expect to find her mother, ailing, there in the bedroom? She finds, instead, my father coupled with her best friend.

Where was I? In the playpen on the grass outside, perhaps. In my grandmother’s arms, someplace else? It seems I can hear the dreadful silence of my mother’s cry. She sliced through whatever it was that had kept her loving him at that moment, and sent him off, back to the house on the beach, back to the the windy gray days and the gunmetal flash of the water that she had loved.

There is a shadow over this time. Did my father and my dad overlap? My mother says no, but still, the time is full of confusion. There were letters that Rachel and I found years later, love letters from Dad, recalling the “lawnmower engine” of her little Saab in those days. Recalling me in the playpen or on her hip. Rachel? Rachel was a blacocyst, then an embryo. At some point she was a fetus. At what point? We are 21 months apart. Was my mother pregnant that day in the doorway, standing in the light? Or did that come later?

We will probably never know. It is a darkness that shadows those years, that touched me, Rachel, all of us, in a future we could not predict, back then, when I was a baby and Rachel was still in waiting.

Retrospective 3: 1965 — Reconciliation

We are four, sitting on the grass, in bright sunshine. She wears a pink cotton dress, and her honey-lit hair falls sleek down her back. She turns to him, and he holds me on his shoulders, his hands dark against the pale cream of my baby legs. I smile, toothless still, wispy blond hair catching light. My grandmother, her mother, watches us all, wrapped in a lace and orange dress that is like a sari, that hangs loose over her body, which has been ravaged by cancer. She is breastless but bloated, large. Her dark hair is wrapped in a smooth bun on top of her head, and she carries herself imperiously. She must have one of those deep, commanding smoker’s voices. She looks happy, in the pictures where she holds me, but also distant. There is a time when those who are dying begin to let go, to drift away. She is right there, teetering, fighting for life, and yet somehow, irresistibly, beginning to leave.

My mother looks at my father, smiling, happy. She knows, already, his proclivities. These pictures must have been taken at the time of reconciliation, after she left him to come home to Nashville, and after he followed her, begging for another chance. And she loved him, hard and deep and without boundaries. Oh he drove too fast, so that she clung to me in the car and prayed to the God in whom she no longer believed. Oh he left her alone in her little house on the beach, sometimes for days, and then came blowing in with stories of danger, and lust and loss in Mexico, carrying flowers, or a handful of earth, or a stone from some far-off beach. “I thought of you. This stone is the color of your eyes.”

Carrying a leaf.

In the end, though, his rage, his fits, his acid-dropping hallucinatory nights, the way he drove as though he desired to push the car through into another dimension — to bring all of us with him to that place he longed to find, me crying or quiet, I don’t remember — these things were enough, and she fled.

In the pictures, taken after he followed her to Nashville, there is no hint of the darkness. I reach for him and he laughs. He looks as though he loves me. Everything is green and pink and white and orange and rich and filled with something lovely. But my grandmother is letting go, the cancer spreading through her. My mother is reaching for him, and he is looking elsewhere. And I? I am laughing, laughing, petulant in one of the pictures, spoilt, loved, oblivious.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.

No.

Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

Retrospective 1: 1963 — Hearsay

My mother and my father met in Mexico. He could have been Mexican, being dark-skinned and black-haired, but he was not. He was a suave American with native American filling out a quarter or an eighth of his blood — I forget which, remember only that he lived on the wild side, spoke Spanish and wooed my mother under the big shadowy moon.

She was in Mexico with her mother for the winter break, their annual trip. She was 21, and she had grown thin and elegant after a chubby adolescence. I imagine her, her life a desert right then. She had taken some classes at a junior college, and she was a model, and she was just waiting for the right man, because that’s what girls did in those days. She had learned how to care for a man, how to be wily and sweet, how to be not too smart, but cultured. None of it really fit her. Her older sister, a ballerina, artist, musician, and beautiful too throughout those awkward adolescent years, took all the awards for grace and poise. My mother learned to repress the wildness that got her kicked out of three schools; she learned to walk with a book on her head, and to nod, and to smile demurely. But my father walked up to her one night in Mexico, and held out his hand, and she went with him.

They fled to the Northwest. They made wild love in the trees and on the beach. They found a church, a little white church in a little water-front town. They got married there, when I was already splitting and turning inside her, growing fingernails, my heart beating. But it was 1964 by then, and spring winds blew down the coastline, shook their little wooden house up on its pilings above the heartbeat of the tide.

1963 is the year she turned her back on her family, on her alcoholic mother and the ghost of her dead father, on all the elegance of high society into which she had been born. 1963 is the year she chose my biological father, the acid-popping, drug-running, Timothy Leary-adoring hippie with the wet black eyes and the quick hands. It is the year of the confluences, when my life became a possibility, a time of hearsay, before I was there to bear witness.