Tag Archives: Family

Explaining my mother

I’m at my dad’s house. Leah is visiting from across the waters and we are preparing to go on a sightseeing tour.

And suddenly I’m stopped. Can’t write. There’s so much I want to say, and all of it clogs together in my head, a cacophony of words demanding their moment to be heard, to shape themselves into images, to present themselves in the form of recollections and reflections.

What I want to say is that my mother was extraordinary. (Why did I write “is” at first?) Because I’m unfolding the retrospective slowly, and trying to describe what happened without too much explanation or unpacking or projecting forward into the “now,” it might seem that she was a terrible mother in some ways, that she made unforgivable mistakes. But she was not. She was very sick at the time, with an illness nobody could figure out. She was living the dark burden of her own traumatic childhood, trying to overcome it alone, without the benefit of counselors to help her recast her past in a new and more illuminating light. As a child I knew none of this, or at least, I knew she was sometimes sick in bed, but I didn’t know how deeply her illness weakened her emotionally, and I knew nothing about her past.

What amazes me about her is that she overcame all of it, all the horror of her own upbringing, her father’s suicide when she was five, her mother’s raging alcoholism, the dysfunctional society in which her family stood as some kind of beacon of respectability. She changed, altogether. Those who knew her in the last 20 years of her life knew her as someone fully kind and loving, generous to all, always looking for the best in people. There was a lag in how she applied her love to her children, I realize. It started on the outer edges of the pond of her life and rippled back towards the center, where we were grouped. She could not, in the early years, be as unstintingly generous with her compassion towards us as she was towards others. But she did love us. She did everything out of what she believed was the best for us. And in truth, there were good days. There were days when she showed up at school, and the school secretary came to fetch us from class, and we would go to the beach with another family to take advantage of the rare sun. There were days when Dad was home late, and we would sit in the kitchen with her friend and her friend’s kids, and eat biscuits (cookies), and talk and laugh. We went to the pantomime and the opera. We got swimming lessons in Dublin, and stopped off at the campus bakery for fresh-baked meltingly soft rolls on the way home. We went to Bewley’s on the half day at the end of every term for raisin buns and fudge. We marched in Dublin to try to save Wood Quay, the site of a Viking excavation, and she helped us make a placard for our dog, and afterwards we ate in the newly opened McDonald’s, Ireland’s first, with the dog curled under our seat. I tasted my first milkshake then, and laughed when the boy who was mopping the floor pretended to mop up the dog.

We had fun. There was joy. I did laugh. I know I did. It’s just that the dark moments intervened at times, and they shaped me as much as the fun times.

So I have to say, before I continue my retrospective, that my mother was an extraordinary, beautiful, kind woman, who saved herself somehow from her own traumatic past, and in doing so gave us — her four girls — the tools to help us heal ourselves. Two of my sisters have had extensive counseling, one on the East coast and one in Ireland. One should probably consider it. I have visited a counselor now and again, not often, and done what I can through reading and walking meditation and prayer — my mother’s path. It has not always been easy. It will not ever be easy. But it is possible, and every time I breathe deep and feel joy, I think of my mother, who taught me how.

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

Retrospective suprise

So my mother comes out the bad one. I thought I was going to dive into the darkness around my father — and no, it is not so bad, really. Just the distance of another time and culture, of trying to be a father to four girls, one definitely not his own, another born in his presence, and raised from birth as his. Still, Rachel and I have shared memories of that moment at the edge of the Singing Tree, a moment I remember as defining every moment before something is known. How to explain? We had a tree at the curve in our driveway where it split to go around the house. We had a long driveway, a couple of hundred yards, I guess, and then it circled the house, and one branch went off down to the garage and the stables. And to the left of the spot where it curved and headed downhill to go to the back of the house and the garage stood a tall tree we called the Singing Tree. We used to climb it and survey our four acres from its higher branches. Ruth May fell from it and broke her jaw. I stacked hay bales under it every weekend of winter, so that in the early frosty hours of schooldays I could toss breakfast over the fence to the donkeys without having to go all the way down the dog pen where the hay was stacked safely under cover. We loved that tree, the way the wind sighed through it, the way we felt above the world and safe in its tall branches. It was some kind of evergreen, with branches that bounced as we climbed them, and it smelled tart and mountainous. When I remember that it is gone, I feel something resist in me, and turn away.

Anyway, it obscured the back of the house, where Dad parked the Volvo. Rachel and I would run down the driveway after school, waiting for that instance when we could round the Singing Tree and discover what we wanted to know most, at that moment — was the Volvo there? Was Dad home? I think of getting letters from literary journals and publishing companies and agents, those letters that will accept or reject you, and the moment when you hold the letter in your hand, before you KNOW. It might be good news. There is a delicious joy in that moment, in all the possibilities it holds. Then you slit the envelope open, slip the letter out, unfold it, and the words are there, shattering what you’d hoped for. So often rounding that tree was a shattering of hope — the Volvo neatly parked by the kitchen window, Dad home, nothing to look forward to but being sent to our rooms the moment we entered the door, till tea was ready and we could come out long enough to sit and drink it with the silence of the house echoing around us. Then outside to play, or lined up to do our homework, and always the taut, hard silence ringing in our ears, my father’s dark, impenetrable presence upstairs, in his chair in the living room. To this day, Rachel hates silence, the silence of anger that permeated so much of our childhood. She’s rather instigate a screaming match with her partner than sit through that icy quiet.

Sometimes, on rare, beautiful occasions, the car would be gone, and Rachel and I would barrel down the hill and burst through the back door and into the kitchen, the words tumbling from out mouths: “When’s Daddy back at?” And Mum would say, “When will Daddy be back. You don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and we’d stand and jig with our satchels still on our shoulders, waiting to hear whether we should go to our rooms or could fling off our coats and flop down for tea and as many biscuits as we wanted (chocolate-covered, of course), and laugher and conversation till the long blue grumble of the Volvo rounding the corner woke us to the silence once more.

Retrospective Resistance

I think, on occasion, about picking up my pen and delving back into my retrospective. But I cannot do so without a sense of disloyalty. For four years after my mother died, I visited my dad 160 or so miles away every couple of weeks. The past six months have been harder. Unusually snowy weather has frequently shut down the mountain pass between us, sometimes for an hour or two, and sometimes for several days, making the trip longer and more hazardous. Gas prices strain a budget already tightened by huge vet bills that took me months to pay off. Summer is a time with only a small paycheck. I need to be ready to get through it without digging into my savings — Zeke’s college money, gathered slowly but steadily since she was born. She can’t go to Harvard on it, but it will lighten the load if she stays local, and if she chooses a community college for her first two years. Spending a couple of hundred dollars a month driving across the pass to my dad’s and back (gas, plus more frequent oil changes etc. My 4-year-old car has almost 100,000 miles on it!) is too much a strain on the budget right now. I feel terrible when I find myself telling him I can’t make it, when I hear the resigned disappointment in his response. He’s always gracious: “Oh, of course. I wouldn’t risk it myself. There’s no point being stuck in traffic for five or six hours just for an overnight trip.” (The 3-hour drive over the pass easily turns into five or six hours in the winter with avalanche closures and miles of stop-and-go traffic.) But still, I know he’s disappointed. I know having company pleases him, even if it’s just the quiet of another presence in the house. I know he likes the help with fixing up my sister’s old house, and likes that Mum’s roses are still alive and even thriving, because I’ve been caring for them.

“I don’t suppose,” he says after a moment, “It would be practical for you to come across on the 24th. They’re doing the HMS Pinafore at the local theatre, but only for one night, a Thursday.” I feel a fleeting sorrow. Every year in Ireland we went to see a Gilbert and Sullivan show, that and the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety with Maureen Potter. I loved HMS Pinafore as a child, and for a split second I imagine jumping in my car after work, driving across the pass for the show, and driving home at midnight. But that’s madness.

I decline, and he sighs, and I tell him I’ll come over for three days the weekend of our spring holiday in two weeks. But that means I’ll have been to see him only once a month since winter ended. Only three times in the past two¬† and a half months. It doesn’t seem enough, especially since Ruth May is so busy with her baby and her rarely sees her unless he makes the effort to come up the hill and drive across town to the house she shares with her boyfriend.

But what does all that have to do with the retrospective?

I am confused about the past. I am confused about the truth of the past, about the slippery difficulty of it. I cannot reconcile who he is now, my own current desire to help him, with the memory of the man from my youth. If I am to recall what I remember of those years, he will not look good. He will look cold and even somewhat cruel. He will look distant and ominous. He did nothing wrong, nothing overt, nothing like the kinds of atrocities I hear of from students and friends. No, he was a war child, raised in a country in which keeping the upper lip taut remained paramount. He learned to survive, and to brick himself off from pain. And I wasn’t his daughter, so he never did know how to reach out to me, the interloper, the competitor for my beloved mother’s attentions.

Growing up, I didn’t know anything about the situation, about what he took on when he took on my pregnant mother and me. All I knew was that I called him Daddy and that he didn’t seem to like me. What I remember of him is what is shaped by the prism through which I gauged him. It is not what he is, or what he was, only a distorted memory that I fear sharing. I don’t wish to speak ill of him. We do what we can with what we have. He did his best, and ultimately his best was far better than what would have happened had my mother stayed with JD. But as a pubescent child, growing towards the sullen years of teenagerhood, I knew nothing at all about his past, about mine, about my mother’s. I knew only that he didn’t like me, his “own daughter,” and I didn’t know why. So forgive what I say, if I continue my retrospective. It is not about the man I know now, whose roof I patch and whose roses I prune. It is about what I thought he was, in my own lost way, before I had experience to see it all in context.

Confluence

Last night, I dreamed of my father, my biological father, that is — the sperm donor. The alarm woke me, or the dog barking, and the dream fled. I retained a slight sense of disturbance, a sense that I needed to remember the dream, but no details yielded when I probed the darkness of my sleeping memory. But later it came back to me surprisingly, all of a piece, during a student conference. I read a paragraph from my student’s paper, and a single word resurrected the memory, entire, with all its associated feelings. As soon as the student left — not soon enough — I typed the memory into my computer and emailed it to my home address, an unlike-me blurring of the boundaries between work and home. I work at work. And I write at home. Sometimes I work at home, but I never write at work. I never write down my dreams on my work computer and email them to my home address, though as a writing teacher such splits between what is right for work and what is right for home are artificial at best, and damaging ultimately. But that is my life — full of compartmentalization. Until today, when I wrote down my dream at work and emailed it to home. Somehow it seemed important.

Later I came home to find an email from an old acquaintance on the beach. He was my mother’s friend. He knew me when I was an embryo, a fetus, a squalling newborn. He came to my college graduation. I shared a bed with his lesbian daughter when I was 17. I liked her. We lay in the window of the loft bedroom in his beach house, which was glassless, just a six-foot square space that let in the sea-salt night air, and we counted the stars. She is my age now, and a smoker, and her voice is deep and evocative of late nights in bars. We pass on the beach, and I wonder if she remembers that night in the window. Her father, anyway, emails me to tell me that my biological father’s second wife, whom my father divorced the year I met him for the first time since babyhood, had toured the beach that day. He then suggested it was time that Zeke met my “her grandmother,” that the call of blood and heritage was too important to dismiss. But I was confused. Zeke has met both her grandmothers. She knows my ex-husband’s mother well, and sees her several times a year. And she was close to my mother, till my mother died. So who is this grandmother? Perhaps my father’s second wife, a step-grandmother of sorts? But she was never my stepmother, being divorced from my father only months after I met him at the age of 19. Why should she care to meet the granddaughter of her ex-husband’s first wife? It’s confusing, right?

And then I realized he was talking of my grandmother, my biological father’s mother, who is Zeke’s great-grandmother, and I felt a rush of irritation at his assumptions. Zeke has met her great-grandmother. Zeke’s great-grandmother is not interested in her. She said, once, “The first granddaughter to give me a son will inherit my estate. Otherwise it goes to my dog.” It will go to her dog. Rachel is childless. I have a daughter, a miracle child. I don’t care that she’s not a son. I am horrified that my grandmother does care. I have not been averse to the odd email or phone call, but the onus is on her. If she cares, she’ll make the effort. My daughter has heritage a-plenty in her life.

So I emailed back: “I don’t feel Zeke needs to know her great-grandmother any more than she does already. As far as I’m concerned, Dad is my father. He is the man who raised me as his own when JDS was long gone. He has loved Zeke as a grandfather loves his blood kin. Family, to me, is a product of love, not DNA, and my Dad is the only father I care to know.”

And then, on returning home from dinner with Summer tonight, I found a package in the mail: It was the “paperback” I had ordered a few days ago, “In Memoriam,” about my mother’s father. And there it was, the neatly packaged transcript of the memorial service held at Vanderbilt after my grandfather’ death. And within it was a family story — which I always thought apocryphal — proven true.

And I see the links, entwined like the separate locks that twist together to make a braid, my dream of my biological father last night, and then the email reminding me of the importance of blood, of the connection between my biological father’s mother and my own daughter. And finally, that relic from my mother’s side of the family, the booklet recalling the words spoken at my grandfather’s memorial service, evoking a day that fills my mind as though it is my own memory.

My father calls. I am buzzed on gin. Summer grabs the phone: “Let me listen. I’ve never heard his voice and I’ve always wanted to. You invited me over, and then I backed out. Now I want to know him.” We are cheek to cheek in the restaurant, the phone between us. Dad’s voice leaks out and falls away. I can barely understand him. What lingers is the softness of Summer’s cheek, and the restaurant sounds in the background.

Afterwards, I think of the confluences of this day: My biological father, my biological grandmother on my father’s side, my biological grandfather on my mother’s side. On this one day they all crowded forward, demanding their place in my memory, their pre-eminence in my heritage.

But my (step)father is the one who matters. Blood is only one strand in the braid of life, and in my braid, blood is the thinnest strand. What remains, what endures, is love.

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.

It snowded…it snowded!

When Zeke was 20 months old or so, we woke to a white world. She ran outside, crying out, “It snowded, it snowded.” She wanted to stay home from daycare and play in the snow, and although I was overwhelmed with papers at work and hated canceling classes, I decided the occasion of her first big snow was worth celebrating. We made snow people and threw snow balls and rolled around in the wild white world till we froze, and then we drank hot chocolate with marshmallows in it while our hands and feet fizzed back to life.

Today she doesn’t remember. She’s a finicky teenager who says, “yuuk,” when she sees the frosty light of a snowy day. She’s girly, not the tomboy of her earlier years. Something switched in her a few years ago, the thing that happens when you’re growing up and trying not to be like your mother, I suppose. My mother liked looking good and wearing the right clothes, while I fought her attempts to tame my wild hair and polish me up. Now Zeke, the incorrigible tomboy, has to have perfect nails, wear carefully chosen clothes, and spend an hour a day straightening the wild mass of hair she inherited from me.

When she was tiny, though, still young enough to love snow days for the pure joy of playing in the snow, she gave a hint at what she would grow into. I remember her, way back when she was two or three, picking out her clothes every night before “school.” It wasn’t a habit I taught her, or even suggested. It was just what she started doing one evening. I was getting her ready for bed, and she dragged a bunch of clothes out of her drawers and arranged them on the floor. She tried three or four different combinations of tops and bottoms before settling on the outfit she wanted (at the time a rather wild mixture that my mother would not have approved of). From then on, her evening routine included picking out her clothes and arranging them on the floor, so that one might be forgiven for thinking, in the dim glow of her nightlight, that a flat little person was lying on the floor. Sometimes her choices were interesting, but woe betide anyone who suggested she wear something different than what she had chosen. Even as a tiny child, her strong personality and absolute determination were obvious.

“That kind of personality is hard for you now,” her pediatrician told me. “But it’s good later on. Nobody’ll be able to convince her to do what she doesn’t want to do. And that includes drugs and drinking, if she’s set against it.”

Zeke has no interest in drugs or drinking, and she resists peer pressure, just as her long-ago doctor predicted. She still chooses her clothes and arranges them on the floor the night before school. And today, when she saw the world covered in white, she said rather nostalgically: “Maybe they’ll cancel school tomorrow and I can go play in the snow.”

I hope so. If she plays, I’ll play too.

Love thy brother… and thy sisters

Continued from here:

“For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever….you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune….you should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity…. As you have done it shall be done to you.” Obadiah. 1:10-15

My mother witnessed gruesome fights between her mother and her mother’s siblings when she was growing up. I wrote about them in my creative thesis, a novel, turning my mother’s memories into my fiction. My thesis director told me people just didn’t behave that way. “You’ve been sheltered then,” I said. “They do.”

My mother lived in fear that we would fight after she died, as her mother and aunts had fought after their mother’s death. “I’ll come back and haunt you,” she said. “I don’t want you fighting.”

Of course we fought. My mother’s friend, the one who reminded me she had called the heron Obadiah, said on her way out after the party: “Someone should right a book about you four girls. You’re all so different, and so interesting.” Someone did. Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible. OK, it wasn’t exactly like us, but close enough that Mum saw clear parallels. And one of the things that was most interesting, I suppose, was the very different way we dealt with her dying, so different that it caused a rift that threatened to destroy us.

But last week, from the moment we saw Obadiah on Friday night till the moment we saw her again on Sunday evening, we didn’t fight. We had a good time. And the party was wonderful.

When my mother’s friend reminded me of my mother’s pet name for the heron, I wondered what I would read when I tracked down what it meant. Then I found out. Obadiah is a minor prophet of the Old Testament. His writings are short, 21 verses packed into a single chapter. In it, he threatens the wrath of God on Essau and the Edomites. Why? Because Essau fought with his brother Jacob.

Obadiah. My mother knew what to do to bring us together. I don’t know how it happened. I just know that it did.

The Restaurant Heron

“Look,” Dad said. “A heron.”

Dad, Leah and I had just left a waterfront restaurant where, for the first time in the four years since my mother died, my three sisters and Dad and I were all together. Ruth May and Rachel had stayed behind for a drink, while Dad, Leah and I headed for the opera. And then, as we crossed the boardwalk bridge to the sidewalk, Dad saw the heron, not 20 feet away in the water in the dark at 7:45 at night, staring fixedly at we knew not what.

People passing by exclaimed too, as Dad pulled out his camera and tried unsuccessfully to get pictures.

“Oh well,” Leah said. “We saw it. All three of us.” Her words triggered something in me. I ran back into the restaurant and touched Rachel’s shoulder.

“Look,” I told her and Ruth May. When I turned to point out the window, I understood what the heron had been staring at. He was framed perfectly in the center of the window, looking at the table where we’d all been sitting together.

“It’s Mum,” Ruth May said, tears in her eyes. “I wish I had Liam here to see it.”

“She’ll be back,” Rachel responded, hugging Ruth May. “She’s always here.”

We had all been dreading this weekend. Actually, I hadn’t been, and Leah hadn’t been, but then again I don’t worry too much any more about family politics. Getting the four of us together might be a disaster, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble. If we can all just breathe and forget for a minute how hard Mum’s death was, we’ll be OK. But the Rachel and Ruth May? Well…. they dreaded it.

Leah was the one who insisted on the get-together. “I don’t want the next time we get together again to be at Dad’s funeral,” she said. “You know Mum wouldn’t want that either.” And she was turning 40, flying from Ireland for her birthday. She wanted us all there. When Rachel refused, Leah called on Dad, who called Rachel and insisted she come.

Now, looking out the window at the heron, Rachel leaned towards me.

“Even Dad knows about the heron,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t admit it in so many words. Did you know when he called me to insist I come to Leah’s party, he said, apropos of nothing, ‘oh, there’s a heron on the railing.’ Mum was there then, too, making sure I said yes, and he knew it.”

My parents had lived on the beach for nine years when Mum died. In all those years, we’d never seen a heron on the deck railing. Not till the one that showed up when Mum was dying and stayed there, watching her, till she died. And since then, at this time of year, the heron returns to the railing every year. I’ve never seen one on any of the other decks. Why our house? Why, for every meaningful event and moment in life, does a heron appear, sometimes to stay and watch us, as the heron last night did, and sometimes just to fly overhead, glimpsed for a second, then gone?

For me, it’s a sign that this weekend will go just fine. Mum’s back, uniting us again, reminding us that life is mysterious and inexplicable, and that she’ll always be here.

“If you four fight,” she said as she was dying. “I’ll come back and haunt you. You know I will. So don’t fight.”

I’m glad she chose the form of a heron, a flighted spirit, a natural inhabitant of these parts, but also usually aloof and wild. It’s perfect for her. For us.

Changing the dream two

Continued from here:

None of this, of course, is a complaint against my mother. She simply did what everyone did back then, made an association between maths and Latin and getting into vet school. It’s false, at least in this country, at least now. But back then, if you wanted to get into vet school in Ireland, you got high grades in everything, including (especially) maths and Latin. She was saving me grief, saving me from a dream I could never have realized.

But her not believing in me, and my dad’s view of me as not too bright, colored everything. When I told Mum I won the English prize, she told me not to lie. It was impossible, in her world, for someone to get C’s in both the exams (composition and literature), and win the English prize. She only believed me when the picture came out in the Irish Times, me holding the certificate and the check, with two of my friends flanking me. Why didn’t I show her the certificate? Because by the time I had evidence, she had denounced me as a liar. It didn’t seem worth it.

But it’s not that bad, really. A few years later, when I was in college in America and made effortless As in every class I took except English 101 (hah! What irony…), I realized that she was just operating under perfectly reasonable assumptions. No one in the U.S. who got C’s in a class would win an award for that class. C’s aren’t very good grades. A B is OK. A’s, well, even those are often barely deserved. So it made all the sense in the world for her to assume that I couldn’t possibly, ever, under any circumstances, win an award when I’d received C’s in my exams. And when I realized that fact, everything else fell into place too. No wonder I was never good enough. My perfectly reasonable Irish grades looked like failures to her. And because I couldn’t please her, I gave up.

Dad, on the other hand, knew better. Why did he never say anything to convince her differently? I suppose because he went to Trinity and Oxford and worked at CERN and found maths and science easy, because he truly believed “Anyone can do English. It’s a soft option.” Because he was scathing of what I loved. In the end, I gave up trying for him, too. Early on, oh so early on, I simply gave up dreaming.

It’s easy, looking back, to realize how own’s right-meaning and perfectly loving parents (and they were), were simply shaped by what they understood of the world. In Dad’s world, everyone knew that English was a soft option that any moron could do. There was no point being proud of getting a good grade on an English essay, of winning the prize for English. Anyone can do that. Splitting the atom. Probing the mystery of the nutrino. Those are worthy goals.

In Mum’s world, grades of C were tantamount to failure. It’s just the way things were. A “B” elicited, “Is that all?” She didn’t mean to be discouraging. It’s just what she knew of the world, in the same way that she knew me going to a little regional university for my MA in English was a waste of time because it wouldn’t “mean anything.” She had high expectations because she came from a world in which everyone overachieved. Just being normal wasn’t good enough. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me. In fact it was a mark of her love.

It’s easy to say, “Just change the dream.” It’s not easy to do it. Others have changed my dream for me all my life. When I did leave home at 17, and eventually came to the States and went to college, I pursued my own dream, such as it was. Now, in many ways, I have realized what is a perfectly reasonable dream. I have a job I like, my own place, a loving daughter. The dream I can’t change is my family. I love them. It’s true I want to be able to smash the walls down, to assert myself, to say, “Things will be different now.” Some days I make progress towards that vision. But some days I don’t. I can’t beat myself up for not changing the dream because part of the problem is that I’ve always beaten myself up for it. I just have to accept what happened, whatever failure I brought upon myself — once again — and try to move forward.

So I failed, on my birthday, to connect to dad. Norman is right. I’m sure he was thinking “Happy birthday.” He probably mumbled it. Even if he didn’t, we did celebrate my birthday the night before. He made me a chocolate cake using “Mum’s special recipe.” These things mean everything. It’s my own hopeless paralysis that kills me, time after time. But I shake free of it. I take another step. I commit to trying again. That’s what I’ve always done.

A’s in the U.S. don’t mean much to those raised in Ireland. But they mean a lot to me, because they got me here, to graduate school and beyond, to a tenure track job. OK, it’s “only” a community college, a real disappointment for my mother whose father was dean of the medical school at Vanderbilt, for my father who worked at CERN. But I love teaching community college students. I understand my students’ struggles, because they mirror mine — in some slantwise way.

Over the years, I’ve made my working life into my own dream, changed my parents’ dream to my own. It’s a start. Other dreams will follow, do follow, slow though the progress is.