Poem to Start the Week #27: The Portrait

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

 

 

Stanley Kunitz

Remembered: First Friendship and Other Sailing Vessels

When Dana was four, her mother turned into a Siamese cat.

She’d been one good looking lady, her mother, but just a lady, you know. Long hair, lipstick, high heeled shoes. No hint of magic. No promise of how she was going to make her sudden, high heeled exit and subsequent soft pawed entrance into their lives, changing everything.

Because things really change, you know, when your mother is suddenly a pet. Pets don’t need raincoats and dresses and their own half of the family king size bed, they don’t cook you dinner or check your socks for holes. And it really seemed that Dana’s mother had used all of her magic on growing fur and whiskers, and had no special powers left at all. She was just a cat, and that’s what she was fated to remain, a quiet creature by the name of Mama, who sometimes came when you called her, but most often just looked your way from a distance and decided she had better things to do.

In time, Dana’s father gave away his wife’s dresses, threw away her lipsticks, and took to sleeping in the middle of the bed, his limbs stretched out to form a snoring human starfish. He had no magical powers of his own either, and found he couldn’t possibly keep up with his daughter’s curfews, homeworks and tattered socks. So Dana came to spend her days in her grandmother’s house, chasing her mother through tangled forests of living room table and chair legs. It was there I met them both, the morning my parents too gave me away.

– Come out from under there, child, say hi to your friend.

The old woman leaned towards the patch of darkness under the dining table, her hands reaching wide. She was a big lady, thick legs wrapped in wool stockings under a dark skirt and white apron. Her hair, a dust coloured braid reaching down to her lower back, ended in a green ribbon which looked pressed and starched six times over, and like it could cut your finger off if you weren’t careful. I’d never seen anyone looking so neatly dangerous. Or anyone wearing an apron. And I’d definitely never met anyone named after a small cloud. Had it rained the day she was born? Had her parents fallen in love over weather talk? Did she have any other siblings named after meteorological phenomena?

As Tanti Norica’s presence was slowly sipping into every nook and cranny of my frightened body, two pairs of eyes made their appearance from under the table, and Dana and her mother entered my life with a smirk and a hiss. My own mother, high heeled and lipsticked but clearly devoid of any trace of internal magic, squeezed my shoulder and I automatically blurted out a faint hello, and offered an open, sweaty palm. The cat hissed again and the girl held her tighter, grabbing her stretched out paws in the cup of her free hand.

– I’m Dana. This is my mother, she doesn’t like strangers.

Daddy’s Girl

My first ever memory is lying in bed with my mother on a winter morning. She’s trying to get back to sleep but I’m wiggling around her, holding my stretched palm an inch above her nose and mouth, to make sure she’s breathing. I’m at an age when their death is a constant worry. I beg for hours, late into the night, to be allowed out of my cot and into the grownup bed, where I then restlessly spend the night alternatively pinching them to check that they’re still alive.

On the morning in question, my mother’s breathing is regular, abnormally hot in the barely heated bedroom. The widows have frozen overnight, and filter the morning light into a milky mass the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before. I must be around four. There’s a poster on the wall opposite the bed, a blonde blue eyed toddler reaching for the hand of an invisible grownup. My eyes are neither green nor brown. They’re nothing like my mother’s or my father’s, in fact, which is probably why random grownups sometimes stoop to my level to ask, in squeaky voices they never use among themselves: “Whose baby girl are you, huh?”

Somewhere deep in the heart of the apartment, my father is getting ready for work. Drawers open and shut, water flows down the drain towards the river and that lovely, magical place where all sick goldfish go to get better. I listen to the sounds of his morning rituals, finding comfort in the fact that he’s alive too, well enough to slam doors and clink spoons in coffee cups, and that I’m not alone in the world like that poor blonde poster child.

He walks in and kisses us goodbye. His lips make brief, soundless contact with the top of her sleepy head, then loudly smooch my eyebrow, the tip of my nose and my bandaid wrapped pinky finger. He smells like something, something other than the smells I’m used to, and I breathe it all in and file it somewhere in the spacious place my memory still is back then, to bring back and inhale at a later time, voluntarily or less so, with joy or sorrow.

“Ciao”, he says, and I realise I’ve never heard the word before, that it might just be another name they’ve got for me, they always seem to be calling me something new, baby, bear, dumpling, pumpkin and another million snacks I can’t possibly keep track of.

“Ciao”, I say back for some reason, and he leaves soundlessly shutting the door behind him, while I whisper a short prayer to myself that he doesn’t die in a car crash on his way to and from the office.

*

My father and I never really talked. He never knew my friends’ names or my favourite ice cream flavour. He never took me camping, never told me stories of his childhood, never said anything of his dreams for me. He worked long hours, seven days a week, ever since I can remember, and ever since I can remember I’ve been praying for his safe return at night, exhausted and not really in the mood to hear about my day, but there, close enough to hold on to if I lost my balance.

He drove me and a classmate to a Cambridge exam once, and when we got back from the four hours long road trip, after we’d dropped my friend off and it was just the two of us in the car, he looked at me gravely in the rear view mirror and said:

– You laugh a lot.

– I’m happy, I guess.

– Sometimes happy is not the safest thing to be.

I was sixteen, there was nothing in the world I was afraid of. Except for my father.

He turned me into this independent, somewhat on the manly side, guy magnet. I can talk boxing, football, handball, tennis, Formula 1, I know how to paint a ceiling, use a fire extinguisher and dress a wound. The day I was born, he planted an apple tree in my grandparents’ yard, then another one a couple of years later on my sister’s birthday, and every year since we’ve been picking the apples together, loading them into his truck and lining them on wooden, dusty shelves in our cellar, an inch in between unlike the pile of random apples you see in supermarkets, because, he says, those people know absolutely nothing about proper fruit care.

*

When I decided I’d be moving to London, we had our one and only fight, a terrible affair we’ve yet to recover from.

We seldom really talked before, but after that we stopped talking altogether, and every time we met we ended up slamming doors, fists against table tops and words to be later regretted into each other’s chests.

He retired this year and spends most of his time at home these days, painting and repainting ceilings and fences, planting and replanting trees and hedges. I can’t help feeling relieved. He’s safe. Thirty years of secret prayers have kept him far from danger, and I’ve still got a father to lean on, even if it takes me half a day to get to him these days, and he never says I laugh too much anymore.

It was his birthday this week.

I’d been worrying about the phone call for days in advance, rehearsing three or four safe phrases in my mind, imagining that infinite moment when neither of us had anything else to say, and we’d just wait for a saving something, a natural disaster of biblical proportions to erase everything in sight and deliver us from discomfort. And then I called.

He was rebuilding our back yard fence. We talked about Belgium vs United States, about how this World Cup is so unlike the ones before it. About our young girl who’d made it into the Wimbledon semifinals, and how she for some reason reminded him of me. He was worried I worked too much, worried too much, while I should just try and be happy, and I laughed, thinking about how happy had suddenly become, fifteen more years into our life together, the safest thing to be.

I put down the phone and stood for a while in the middle of the hallway, no stable furniture to lean on. There was dust in the air. Stupid filthy city, I’d only just dusted yesterday. Stupid filthy humans, shedding skin flakes everywhere for the rest of us to breathe in. Nothing really leaves your lungs, you know. You end up carrying it all around, dirt, other people’s skin cells, smoke, everywhere, until you die.

I coughed. Up until recently, they were my favourite thing in the world, coughs. I’d hide everything behind a cough.  Anger, embarrassment, tears. Everything used to tear me up, it must have been hormonal or something. My baby making imprinted body trying to make its baby making cravings heard. Could I have involuntarily coughed my way out of it, the baby making dream, I wonder. Because nowadays I rarely ever shed a tear.

Instead, I just laugh a little sometimes, when no one’s looking. I love my father. I understand love.

Ciao.

642 Things to Write About #3 – Back to the Future

Write your own Back to the Future moment: Describe how your parents met and how those tiny details set the stage for their relationship and your existence.

She’d picked the curtains herself. They didn’t have many fabrics to choose from, and she’d have liked something classy, something in a colour with an exciting name. Ecru. Fallow. Metallic Sunburst. I simply adore your curtains, her girlfriends from the hospital would exclaim the moment they’d walk in and she’d reply, a hint of a smile on her lips: Oh, those old things? Just some Fallow velvet I had lying around.

There was no velvet on stock anywhere. Nothing Ecru either. So she settled for four meters of light pink, white heart patterned cotton. More fit for a doll’s house, she thought, checking and rechecking the fabric parcel in her carrier bag after she’d left the shop, testing its softness with the tip of her index finger as she was waiting for the lights to turn green, picturing the folds she’d meticulously arrange every morning as she’d draw the curtains open, unwilling to settle for anything less than the perfect amount of sunlight, perfectly falling on her perfectly dusted new shelves.

She sew them and hung them up the same day. Hours later, nestled in her only armchair, a dusty flowered tapestry affair she’d inherited from her parents, she was sipping her afternoon coffee, a bullet sized orange crayon scratching away at the Microbiology course book in her lap. Every so often, her eyes would slip away from the page, only to rest on the pink curtains again. This was it. This was her home. She’d finally fled the nest and was really alone now, absolutely alone, but the world was brand new and shiny and she wasn’t afraid.

They met that very evening, the thump of his fist on her door frightening her to the bone. The world was a dangerous place really, and even more so for a young woman like herself hardly prepared for a life on her own, she thought, silently making her way down the corridor to spy through the peep-hole. A young man, his eyebrows plunged into a dreadful frown. Treacherous creatures, she reflected, determined to pretend she wasn’t in and get back to her reading.

For a moment there, it seemed like her life would go on along its safe, pink curtained path. She could almost see herself doing just fine, growing old there in her hand me down armchair, filtered rosy light digging wrinkles into the skin around her eyes.

Open up, I know you’re in there!

Now she was scared. He meant business, this man. He’d kick the door down and burst into her home, grab her by her shoulders and shake her. Her mind flashed back to course book anatomy prints. Everything meant to protect her seemed so uselessly fragile when up against this man’s fists and nails. What difference could a couple of ribs and layers of bloody tissue make in the face of a man’s wrath? He’d just reach inside her chest cavity and pull her heart out, there was nothing to it really.

I’ve got water pouring down my walls, do you hear? Open the hell up!

Water? What on earth was he talking about, this savage, violent killer of women, who’d picked her of all people to rip apart. And then she remembered. She’d planned a long, cinnamon scented bath in celebration of her new curtains. She’d even poured the salts in the tub, a pinch more than she normally allowed herself, but it was a special day, it really was. She’d turned the tap on and it was probably still running, a couple of hours later, dripping cinnamon scented bubbles down the walls of this dangerous man.

She opened the door, her heart thumping like a bird in a cage. The sudden draft made the curtains flutter, messing up their perfect folds. Steaming water was slowly flowing from under the bathroom door, spreading down the hall like a badly kept secret. Years later, I’d be cutting up the heart patterned fabric into a million Barbie doll summer dresses.


642 Things to Write About is a book of writing prompts lovely V got me a couple of years back.

All About My Mother

For me, life began when I was in my twenties.

I remember it clearly, the moment the membrane cracked and I pushed my finger out. The kitchen table, mother’s hands pressing it down like it was just about to take off and start floating around us, complicating things even more. Every shadow on the walls, every speck of dust in the air, every word. I stood up, half expecting everything around me, chairs, pots, kitchen appliances, to open mouths I never knew they had, and bite at me.

Nothing happened really. No earth trembling, no tentacles reaching out from under the counters to tie my ankles down in a million sticky knots. I took one step, then another. She was still yelling by the time I reached the door. I didn’t slam it, but it felt like I did. It felt like I punched and kicked it and smashed it to bits, and the violence of the thought scared me. Perhaps there really was something wrong with me, I thought, but that possibility frightened me even more, so I quickly blinked it away, checked my watch again, and left. 14:06, a Sunday. Life begins.

My mother is a wonderful woman. Funny, well read, a brilliant doctor. She grows roses and has a beautiful singing voice. She cooks the best lasagnas and bakes the best ginger bread cookies. She has friends who love her and colleagues who admire her. She’s survived several life threatening episodes, a difficult marriage, and my teen years. I love her. I love her in a complicated way, and that’s fine, because I’m told all families are complicated, and all loves are complicated, and I’ve never pretended to be special in any way.

I’ve never written anything about her. I’ve rarely talked about her, in fact, so even my closest friends know very little about what growing up was like. Does that make me dishonest? I suppose so. But in all honesty now, though I have a million hopes and dreams and want countless new things from my life every day, there’s nothing I want more than being friends with my mother, and that makes me sad.

For the longest time, I didn’t want to have children. I’d launch myself head first into arguments on the subject, I’d serve my female friends and various boyfriends the speeches I’d rehearsed countless times before, I’d be relentless and perfectly convinced of the validity of my reasoning. It took me years to realize it wasn’t that I didn’t want, like, need children, but that I was terrified, obsessed, certain that I wouldn’t be a good mother.

I had no idea what being a good mother meant, of course. I’d only known one mother and I knew I didn’t want to be like her.

Seeing these words typed in a line here sure makes me feel like a horrible human being. Ungrateful. Guilty.

I mean, my mother was an amazing mother in so many ways. She never left my side. She watched over me during my many convalescences, she kept me clothed and fed, she bought me toys and books. She put me through my studies, she sent me on holidays. She taught me how to tie my laces, walk in high heels, cook, use a map. She taught me I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t funny. Hardworking enough, smart enough. Anything enough, really. I’d never have friends, success, a lover. I’d end up alone. Homeless. Begging for her help.

My mother taught me not to smile too much. My teeth were not my best feature. Not to talk too much. Girls like me would better know their place. Not to wear what I thought looked good on me. My “good” was everybody else’s “slutty”. Not to trust anybody. No reason why anyone would like me, surely they had some hidden agenda if they wanted to hang out with me. Not to hope, dare, try, want. They were for other people, these things. For prettier, bubblier, wife material girls who never slouched and never frowned and always listened to their mothers. All I could do was work hard in school. Get a job. Be grateful for her guidance.

I’m almost 30.

I no longer spend every waking moment wondering about everything. Second guessing every other decision, imagining hidden scenarios, looming dangers everywhere. I can look at myself in the mirror and be OK with not just the face, but the person looking back at me, and that’s a little miracle in itself. I’ve learned how to talk to people, how to say what I want, how to not burst into tears every time someone tells me I’ve done a good job. I’ve tried everything I’ve wanted to try. I say everything I want to say. I’ve turned into someone. An imperfect someone, of course. A someone my mother would have to knead into the right, perfect shape, if I was to make anything of myself in this world.

I took away her last chance to mold me into perfection when I moved to London.

Months later, she’d still be calling me in the middle of the night, crying. I’ll die, she’d say. I’ll die if you don’t come back right now. They’ll find me dead on the kitchen floor and you’ll learn of it over the phone, from a stranger. You’ll be happy then, won’t you. You’ll finally have killed me.

I’d hardly ever say anything. My cheek would sweat against the screen of the phone. When we’d hang up, I’d just sit there for a while. Sometimes V. would come and hold me, though it would be late, and we’d both be really tired and he’d have thought she’d have stopped calling a long time before anyway, but she hadn’t. I wouldn’t cry, I wouldn’t even blink. Maybe something really was wrong with me, I’d think, afraid I didn’t know how to even begin to live this life.