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I had a therapist in my early forties who said I remembered too much, that it wasn’t possible to remember that year in such detail.
“You don’t forget it, a year like that,” I said.
She was the same therapist who believed it was my family’s religion, Mormonism, which caused my instability. She said that I had not yet grappled with the repercussions coming from leaving such a rigid, conservative faith. I wanted to tell her I thought it was more elemental than that. But because I knew she would want to know what I meant by that, what “elemental” might mean—I did too, for what it was worth—I did what I usually did: I said nothing.
Why had I never married? she asked.
“Because I never married,” I said, shrugging.
Her office was on the ground level of a house in Berkeley, California. Her little dog—I forget its name—kept running in and out and sometimes sat on the therapist’s lap. She stroked the dog’s head. The dog closed its eyes.
It was my sisters who went on to marry, to have homes and husbands, gardens and kids. These days they are grounded by their families and their jobs in the wards—Carrie now is a counselor in her Relief Society; Shelly was just released as Young Women’s president—and they are busy with all that church and family entail: the arrival these days of glowing grandbabies who are handed to me for the purposes of photographs, then scooped away. I have, by contrast, remained a vagabond, geographically and otherwise, moving around, from Nashville to Chicago to St. Louis to Spokane, and most recently to Berkeley, California, floating in and out of odd jobs and academic programs that don’t quite fit.
Still, I am like anyone. I would like to be known. I guess that’s what I wanted to tell the therapist with the dog. That there were others questions she might have asked, better ones. Like: What did you have for breakfast today? Like: What do you do with your days? I would have told her I work hard to hold onto routines.
Morning coffee. Dry toast. A book in my bag for the subway ride home. Before going to sleep, I leaf through a stack of catalogs by my bed, studying objects—clocks, sweaters, slipcovers for chairs whose patterns I find strangely soothing—that I have no intention or means or desire to buy.
When I think of my father now I think of him as a man who flew planes, dropping bombs in a war. I wonder: do I mean the planes did the dropping or that my father did?
My mother died seven years ago. My sisters believed they saw the first shades of dementia beginning.
Her death, one of our uncles from Oregon said, may have been a good thing. He said this at the viewing, an event my sisters insisted on, along with an open casket, one that I was sure my mother would not have liked. My uncle put his hand on my shoulder and spoke softly but authoritatively. “A blessing.”
I nodded, then left the room.
In the months that followed, I took on the task of cleaning our mother’s house, each day of work yielding many finds: our father’s military uniforms, stiff and neat; Carrie’s old ballet slippers with their worn satin bows; Lanz nightgowns we each got every Christmas except one; a scrapbook with two napkins from our mother’s first date with our father where they had written down how many children they each wanted one day. My father wrote six. My mother wrote two, then crossed it out and wrote a question mark next to two exclamation points.
I found evidence of my mother’s nerves: nine small fire extinguishers in all, each tucked into a cabinet in a different room; six in-case-of-earthquake emergency kits; four hammers in her car, the kind that allow you to crack a windshield open if the car is submerged in water. I found the little orange notebook where I’d recorded Gabe’s visits and dozens of other almost-diaries, the strange recordings of a private little girl.
In one entry dated June 7, 1972, the little orange notebook lists what my mother, titled “M” here, did at precise times throughout the day: watered dead African violets on the kitchen windowsill, folded laundry, told “C” to take the garbage out, ate toast at the kitchen table, threw the dead African violets out, made ravioli for dinner, wore Chinese silk robe before bed.
Throughout the list, I misspelled “violets” as “violents.”
In another list, I see that by “M” I must not have meant Mother but me, since the list involves finishing a report on Booker T. Washington and naming the longed-for new cat that never came to be. The choices of names, according to the little book, included Sally Egg, Casper, and Small Louise.
I also found photographs I’d never seen before, one of my parents’ marriage in January of 1946 at Portland City Hall. Their civil marriage would be followed by a second one a year later, after my mother had been baptized a member of the church. That’s when they were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple on May 11, 1947, a date we all understood as their real marriage date, the one binding them for all time and eternity. Photographs of that wedding, the second one, were plentiful. We all had copies of one or another of these: our parents standing on the stairs to the temple, the spires behind them heaven-bound, our father in his Air Force uniform, beaming as if the sun and the moon and the stars had all been bestowed, our mother smiling if more subdued.
But in this picture, taken outside City Hall, they look different. My father looks nervous, my mother stricken. He’s frowning. She’s wearing a plain white suit. Her arm is linked through my father’s uneasily, her right hand bound in a tight fist.
Each day after cleaning, I slept in my mother’s bed. Or tried to. When sleep failed, I watched films, dozens of them, the videos my mother had bought and the videos we’d given her over the years, all on an ancient, wheezing VCR. Some of them did the trick and put me to sleep right away, some made me cry.
There is relief in watching those predictable movies, isn’t there? To cry in a movie feels good, genuinely good, yet I don’t think anyone is fooled. You know as you’re crying you are following a script, that you’re responding to the swell of the music in the background, to the trick of lighting, to the length of close-ups and all the rest. Maybe that’s where the relief is: to be able to follow someone’s sturdy script, to respond on cue, to join humanity in steady, predictable, cathartic tears.
What I am trying to say is that it is entirely possible my father saved my mother by marrying her, that the script marriage provided afforded her some measure of relief, that the goodness she believed she saw in him was for a time a vital and elusive prize.
And when that ended? When my father died, she had a difficult time but then recovered. That’s how my sisters see it. That’s how I would like to see it too. But I am unconvinced. I am not sure there is always something to reclaim.
When I see her now, I see her long before my father died, staring out the kitchen window, holding a glass bottle of milk above the sink. Her back is to me. When I call out to her, before she turns, without seeing her face, I can see her: cold and hard and determined and blank.
That image, I know, is not a story. That memory, I know, would not make a very good film. To be frank, it isn’t the memory I would like to have. Where is the movement in that? The satisfaction of a beginning that leads to a middle, a middle that prefigures some gratifying end?
All I know is what I know.
“Stay here,” my sisters said when the house in Utah was finally emptied.
But I did not. I cannot.
I am my mother’s daughter, forty-nine years old.
Time is the sour milk of mother’s blood.
My days are my days and like my mother, I wake at night and walk, head down, in bracing, unconsoling air.