From a distance
My mother’s words at night, through closed bedroom doors, from below, from the dark kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, my mother’s words; angry ghosts, chasing each other above the slamming of cupboard doors, the clattering of pans.
Later, years later, my mother and I would travel together, our one special trip of my adulthood. Through the closed bathroom door of our room in the little Inn on the coast of Northern California, above the crashing waves, after long years had passed I would hear again her whispering, hear the muttering, again the familiar, almost forgotten sound. So many years under separate roofs, of course the sound was strange at first, and then, oh yes. I remember.
What could be wrong, I asked myself then. Was I thoughtless about some detail of my planning? Did I say something at dinner that was hurtful, that was foolish? Did I not consider her? She was happy, she seemed pleased that we had this time together, pleased at the beauty of this place. What could have caused this anger, this frustration?
I would ask her, I had determined. I would be braver than I had been able to be as a child. I would acknowledge that I heard her, that I cared about what was troubling her. I would no longer pretend they weren’t there, those angry words thrashing about, pounding the air.
But how to phrase it, how to approach it, that was the challenge.
I remember she came out of the bathroom, and I went in, to get ready for bed. I noticed her freshly laundered lingerie hanging on the rod of the shower curtain, where she had hung it to dry. Maybe the whisperings were just her way of musing, of thinking out loud while she did some simple task. I would ask her. She was my mother. I could ask her and she would tell me.
But the whispers are clearly not musings. I hear them again, coming now from the bedroom, through the bathroom door. They are angry now, they are complaining. They force their way out of her head and into the air, they are adamant, insistent. Had we had some conversation at dinner that upset her, had she not been able to express herself to me? Was she incensed over some political question, had she some dissatisfaction about me, about who I had become? As before, the child inside of me made the assumption that whatever it was, it was my fault.
When I walk back into our room, she is smiling, she clearly seems to be enjoying this holiday, the two of us, the lovely Inn, the little luxuries, so rare in her own life. I finally ask hesitantly, “Mother, is anything wrong? Are you upset about something?”
She seems almost shocked at my question, denying immediately that any problem existed. Why, she asks me, why do you ask?
“Because” I reply tenuously, “when you were in the bathroom just a few minutes ago, I heard you talking to yourself, and it sounded like you were angry, or upset.”
She smiles, and laughs a little bit, incredulous. No I wasn’t, she tells me… I wasn’t talking to myself.
Now it is over twenty years later. I am standing next to the washing machine. I am in my own house, my grownup house. Not the one where I lived for so long, the one with the sad ending, but a different house. I am starting to make a new home, to make new memories. Maybe that is why I am thinking so much. Recollections of past moments creep back, triggered by the strangest things.
My mother died during the same year we took that trip together along the coast. That was the last thing I would have expected on that weekend, that my mother would die soon. That she would become ill with cancer, and that she would die. The faith she had clung to all those years, the teachings of her church which stated that there was no death, there was no evil, there was no matter, that promised us all that these things would not happen. But there it was in her body, which proved to be material after all, a tumor of great proportion, attacking her wellness and her spirit, draining her. There was evil, in the form of this dark thing which would overtake her sooner than we prayed and in spite of those prayers, and ultimately would take her away. There was to be in our experience,
in the very literal sense of the word, such a thing as death. It ended things. It parted people who tried to love each other.
So now, I am standing next to my washing machine, and I am sorting laundry. I am putting lingerie into the warm water, and my thoughts circle above my head and crash–land back into that evening, above the pounding waves.
My mother talked to herself all the years of my childhood, and, I learned on that trip, beyond. Suddenly this day, the possibility struck me. Why had I not thought of it before? My mother really didn’t know. Perhaps her selves had split off from each other, like selves do when there is unbearable emotional pain. I have heard of this, and believe it to be true. We create a stronger self to cope with our pain, to protect us, to shelter us.
I have the papers from the foundling home, The Children’s Home Society, in North Dakota. The papers tell the painful story of a little girl, taken to an orphanage when she was four years old, and left there. I’m sure there were reasons that had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t her fault. But she didn’t know that.
Then some kind people took her into their home, and later, when she was ten years old, they officially adopted her.
What went on in her mind, and in her heart all those years in between? Was she on trial? Was all of life a test, to see if she qualified to be someone’s little girl? To see if she qualified to be?
She had to doubt herself. And she certainly could never have expressed anger, or hurt. They might return her. She would have to be very, very good. Then maybe they would keep her.
I try to imagine that little girl, four years old. I picture her laying in the dark, longing for her mother’s arms to comfort her. I try to imagine how frightened and lonely, and sad, she must have been. That would be enough emotional pain to cause you to conjur up another self.
Lizzie was her name, her birth name on her birth certificate. Elizabeth was the name on her adoption papers. Lizzie wasn’t good enough.
This is bizarre, this story I have conjured up. I wonder if it is far from the truth. I wonder if Elizabeth left the room, and Lizzie raged, trying to settle the score, trying to address the issues, the injustices. Lizzie must have been pretty sad, and pretty angry about not being good enough. There were a lot of disappointments over the years that Elizabeth might have needed Lizzie’s help with. Life didn’t get a lot easier. It looked like it was going to, from time to time, but then it didn’t.
I looked at those papers from the Children’s Home Society of North Dakota not long ago. The tears come easily still. I wish I could put my arms around Lizzie. I wish I could put my arms around Elizabeth. But she only lives now in my heart and in my memory. Sometimes I think about the fact that she lives inside me too, in my genes, in my cells, in my sad and darkest moments. Sometimes still, from a distance, I hear her whisperings as if it were yesterday and they were coming from just there, on the stone path in the darkness beyond the closed door. Or from just down the hall. But there’s such a distance now. Farther than the end of the yard, farther than the top of the stair. If only I had understood then, so I could have tried to make it better.
I am still trying hard to understand, so I could make it better, for us both. But you can never fix things from such a distance.