Tag Archives: infidelity

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.