"We are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme, in syncopated time. . ."
— Paul Simon, "The Dangling Conversation"
My mother sits, her thin frame hunching over a small spinet organ. Bending with age and illness, she is dying with emphysema. Her fingers, yellow with nicotine, wander over the keys, playing "Amazing Grace," a spiritual she knows by heart. I stand next to her, my body a younger version of her same melody. We both share a round face, thin lips, clear grey eyes. I have minor variations, with lighter coloring and a differently shaped nose. I am singing. Unfortunately, she and I are not at the same place in the music.
In the sixty-five years my mother lives, she has three husbands and gives birth to six children. Three husbands — an alcoholics, one mentally ill, then another alcoholic. Six children — three children by the first husband, two by the second, one by the third. Two of the first set of children are dead, one stillborn, the other at the age of four of meningitis. I am the penultimate child, the only girl who survives to adulthood. My brother Jim and I are the children of the insane man.
Toward the end of her life, she decides it would have been smarter to stay with her first husband. "It would have saved me a lot of trouble," she says. I take this to mean she started with an alcoholic and ended with an alcoholic, so why bother with divorces if you always get the same kind of man? My father, the schizophrenic, is lost in the melody of her thoughts. Again, this is typical. To her, Jim and I, products of that union, always seem like afterthoughts, remnants of a forgotten time. We two children are extraneous notes that destroy whatever harmony in her life now.
I am singing while my mother plays the organ. I adjust my song to fit her playing, but my mother changes the tune again and we fall into discord. It has not always been so.
When I am nine I adore my mother. My mother is content to bask in my idolatry because she gets little positive attention from my stepfather. I watch her smooth color on her lips, the lipstick edge flat against her skin. She always wears red lipstick in public.
"You look beautiful," I say.
My mother smiles and kisses me on the cheek, leaving a smudge. "Thank you, Susie. You're my biggest fan."
And I am. As long as I sing this one note, we are together.
My father does not know this music. He is tacit because he is not here. His absence is a given in my life. When I question my mother about him, she always says, "He was a nice man, he just couldn't take the responsibility of having children." She says he was fine until Jimmy and I were born. Then he got sick and was confined to an institution. I feel bad about that. I don't know if my father thinks of Jimmy and me at all. If he does think of us, does he blame us for his illness? I wonder, too, if he were here, would he tease me like Jimmy does when, "Wake Up, Little Susie" plays on the radio? When I finally unburden myself and confess my guilt, our guilt, to a teenage Jim, he pushes it away. "I never asked to be born," he grumbles.
Susie is not my first name. My mother signed my birth certificate as, "Bonnie Sue," but she never calls me "Bonnie." When I question her, she tells me there was a little girl she knew who was cute and she liked the name. She does not even have a picture of this child, which I find puzzling.
The cacophony between my mother and me begins in my early teens, when I have my own thoughts, thoughts not so complimentary of her. When we are in harmony, I see how mistreated she is by my stepfather, how difficult her life has been, how defeated she is and how it isn't her fault. Other times, in our dissonance, I see how she complains about his drinking, his verbal abuse of her, his physical abuse of us children. She never admits knowing the sexual molestation I endured. And she never does anything that might change their relationship for the better. Hers is a dirge. My part is to lend a sympathetic voice. But the more she insists I join in, the more resistant I am.
"Should I leave him?" she asks.
By now, I am wary of her questions. I do not trust her. If I say, "Yes," it becomes my decision. If she leaves, then changes her mind, it will be my fault. She and my stepfather would have a reason to unite against me. I murmur soft noises, signifying nothing.
The week I graduate from junior high, she has a heart attack. She was already in the hospital, in traction for a back injury from her job at the Post Office. I am not sure how badly her heart is damaged, but I know she is scared. So am I. I have about twenty dollars saved from my lunch money and I wonder if that is enough to buy a bus ticket from our house near San Francisco to her sister's house near Los Angeles. If my mother dies, I know it is not safe to stay here with my stepfather. I hope Jim has enough money to come with me if I have to go.
When she is out of the hospital, she wants cigarettes. She knows the woman across the street smokes the same brand she likes, but she doesn't have the strength to climb the stairs of the split-level houses up and back. She hands me a five dollar bill and instructs me to buy whatever the cigarettes our neighbor will sell.
"But, Mom, you know the doctor told you not to smoke."
"I need them," she says. Wheedling, she adds, "If you love me, you'll get them for me."
I look at her pathetic, pleading body, her glassy eyes. Her pale arms are outstretched in supplication, shaking like an addict.
I buy the cigarettes.
She spends a lot of time smoking, watching television, taking painkillers and drinking Coca-Cola. She refuses to give me a taste of soda, stating, "Coke is for adults." When I come home from school, smoke hangs in the air like fog over the Bay. But it hurts my lungs when I breathe it in and makes my eyes water. Words from a Jimi Hendrix song I hear on the radio spring to mind: "Purple haze all in my brain / Lately things don't seem the same / Acting funny but I don't know why / "Scuse me while I kiss the sky." Jimi Hendrix sounds like he's having more fun than Mom.
When I am a teenager, I "get religion." Jim and I go to the Baptist church three times a week — once on Wednesday nights for Bible Study and twice on Sundays. Friends drive us there and back. The hymns we sing in church are deliciously sanguinary. My favorite is "Are You Washed in the Blood?"
"Are you washed in the blood? / In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb? / Are your garments spotless? / Are they white as snow? / Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?"
I beg my mother to come with us. I tell her how much fun it is to go to church, but underneath, with a convert's fervor, I fear for her immortal soul.
"Don't worry about me, I'm saved," she says. But I see no evidence of God in her life. The only time the family prays is before Thanksgiving dinner, when she asks permission from my stepfather to speak for all of us.
The truth as I see it is she would rather stay home with my stepfather and their child. When Jim and I leave the house, I look back and think, "Now they can be a real family" and I know they are happier without us. We're like a forgotten verse of a song, cut for time to fit on the radio.
When we come home from church, I make Jim stand with me a few minutes in front of the door before we go in so I can have a chance to calm down, to make sure none of my exuberance for life outside the house shows. I mold my face into a mask of passivity.
"How was church?" my mother asks.
"Fine," Jim and I say simultaneously as we disappear into our separate rooms.
When I am sixteen, I come home one day to find a burning cigarette dangling off the ashtray, my mother asleep on the couch. I bend over and sniff her empty glass. It reeks of whisky cut with Coca-Cola. I realize she's not asleep, she's passed out. I stand over her, hating her, as I stub out the cigarette butt. I feel like screaming, "Why don't you just do yourself in and be done with it?" I hate this slow death she's putting us through. But I can't say that because I need her to live two more years until I can be on my own.
Once again my mother and I are having an argument. I am being nasty to her. In exasperation, she lashes out to me: "Someday I hope you have children and they treat you as badly as you treat me."
"I'm never having children!" I shoot back, hoping to wound.
Jim leaves at seventeen, an escape for which I both envy and hate him. Vietnam is full-blown and he is eligible for the Army draft. Instead he joins the Air Force. Since he is a minor, my mother signs her permission. A year-and-a-half later, on my wedding day, he is in the Phillippines. My mother, stepfather and younger brother are at the church with me. Jim is not there. It is the weirdest day of my life.
I am eighteen. I am marrying for love, but also to leave home. My husband will pay for my college education. I will no longer have to hear my stepfather's pointed remarks wondering why a girl would need book learning when she is just going to have babies.
When we come back from our honeymoon, my mother's first question is, "Have you had your first fight yet?"
"It's none of your business," I snap.
She chortles with glee, taking my response to mean there is a disagreement. She is happy, thinking we can sing a women's complaint song together. She assumes my war between the sexes has begun. It has not.
At a high school graduation swim party two years later, my younger brother almost drowns. My mother and stepfather take stock in their lives. They stop drinking and feverishly throw themselves into church activities. My husband and I are now Unitarians, beginning a pilgrimage of faith that will take us through many different ways of communal worship. "That's not a religion," my mother sneers. "Unitarians don't pray to God, they pray "to whom it may concern.'" I agree to the last part, because it is true. And it's easier to agree than to argue. Even Unitarians joke they read ahead when they sing to make sure they agree with the words.
At twenty-eight, I am pregnant. My mother sews maternity clothes for me and sends them through the mail from her new home in the heart of the country. Finally, we are on the same page. I sing a lullaby to my unborn baby, one about angels guarding the child. I remember the nursery rhymes my mother said to the three of us when we were little. Her favorite was, ""To bed, to bed,' said Sleepy Head, "No, no,' said Slow, "Put on the pot,' said Greedy Gut, "We'll eat before we go.'" She'd poke us in our fat tummies while we giggled and argued who was the greediest.
Sewing is something she did as a young mother, not for me, but for her first family. Her relationship with my stepfather has settled into an easy indifference and, in retirement, she has time to do things that don't tax her physical strength.
I anticipate a parting of ways when the baby is born. I plan to be a modern mother. Inexplicably, the baby is born at twenty-eight weeks and dies two hours later. It is grief that plants my mother and me firmly in the same song, the same melody, the same phrase, the same key. Because of complications from the birth, I cannot be left alone in case I hemorrhage. She comes out from the Midwest. She knows this grief, the incomprehensible reality that a child has predeceased a parent. She's endured it twice. She doesn't have to say anything, just be with me. It is a knowledge beyond words, an inexpressible comfort. But she says, "I wish it had been me. I'm ready to go." As if God needs someone to die so my child could live. Still, it is a kindness she offers.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. . . ."
I am wretched and, for once, not ashamed my mother sees my sorrow.
Five months later, I am pregnant again, reluctant to share the news. I dream I call my mother on the phone. The line is open, but she is not there. I have the same dream the next night.
After the second dream, I call her and tell her I am pregnant again.
"Was it planned?" she asks with a laugh.
I am immediately angry with her. "Of course, it was planned." She knows I am vulnerable. Why does she look for more evidence of my incompetence? Trying to have another child is life and death to me, not a joke.
We talk a bit longer, but I can't shake my hurt at that question. I can't tell her of my fear that I will lose this baby, too.
Within a week, my mother is dead. A blue norther storm blows through Oklahoma the night before her funeral. My husband and I lay on her death bed. I imagine how she looked when she died, her heart suddenly stopping, glassy eyes staring open at the ceiling, all human desires gone forever. I am afraid to sleep. The wind moans and sighs, pushing snowflakes through the cracks in the door, blowing cold straight down from Canada.
In the morning, at church, the open casket reveals my mother, all dressed up for public viewing, without her red lipstick.
At the funeral, we sing, "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. . . ."
Finally, I think, our relationship is over. But I misunderstand the power of memory and deception.
My brother Jim died at age forty of a heart attack while jogging. He did everything to keep healthy in spite of his high blood pressure, watching his weight, eating a careful diet. His death finally challenged me to discover where I came from, who my father was. My father, the "nice man who couldn't take the responsibility of having children" had spent his adult life in and out of institutions for the mentally ill, even before my brother and I came along.
I was furious with my mother. The guilt I carried around that we had caused his illness had been a sham and she knew it. She had taken him to a mental clinic even before she had gotten pregnant with Jim.
Like an angry child banging on a piano, the pounding sound in my head would not cease. It was then I was truly sorry she was dead, because I couldn't confront her. Now I knew why she never wanted to talk about my father.
Even the name on my birth certificate had been a clue that I hadn't seen. In some family genealogical information, I came across my name, Bonnie Ferron, a child dead shortly after birth, buried in Iowa. I stared at the paper. "There must be some mistake," I said aloud.
No, there was no mistake. She was my father's sister, a sister who died before he was born. To my father, I had always been Bonnie. Although my mother had put the name on my birth certificate, she refused to use it in reference to me, blotting out all connection to my father. My father remains as incomprehensible to me as trying to describe, in words, the music of a song.
It has been years since my brother Jim died. I cannot think of him without thinking of our lives together in the family that was, and wasn't, ours. My anger at my mother has cooled. I can see her choices were to made to survive, physically and emotionally. To keep a man she felt she needed, her third husband. The one who was jealous she had been married before. Twice.
I think of my mother again, sitting at the small spinet organ. Her thin frame hunches over the yellowing keys. By now, I know the music by heart and I know how she plays it. She belongs in the past. She cannot surprise me with a new melody, or timing, or key change. Sometimes, I still sing along.
"I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see."