“I can’t wear anything too tight cause it’ll show off these rolls of fat,” she said loudly.
My mom smiled graciously, saying “Oh, well.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got these great big rolls of fat –“ she drew the word out, “rowels.”
“Oh, well,” interjected my mom, “we all have those, don’t we?” The voice steamrolled her.
“But mine! Mine are different. They just bulge out, great big rowels, I’m tellin’ ya. Do you dream about being young?” she asks. “I do. Yup, every time. Remember how I used to have long, beautiful hair? In my dream, its always long and beautiful like it was. My face isn’t rubbery either, like a Barbie doll’s. Now it is. I don’t know why its so rubbery. And in my dreams I’m not fat, none of these big rowels of fat sticking out!”
My mom finally laughs, but politely. “Oh, your face isn’t rubbery!” she exclaimed graciously.
“Oh, its rubbery alright! Rubbery and smooth, just like a Barbie doll’s! Here, feel it! Isn’t there somethin’ wrong with my skin? And every time I start to wake up I’m so depressed I don’t wanna get up – the long hair’s gone, the nice figure, the face. And its just this big –“ she sighs, “Letdown, I wake up and there’s these rowels of fat. . .” Candy stopped a moment, agitated.
“But how do you know those dreams are only about the past?” asked mom, “Don’t you think it might be a dream about the next life? The scriptures say we’ll be reborn in the prime of our life.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Candy. “The resurrection! I never thought of it that way! So you mean it could be the Lord’s way of saying ‘Hang on. You can have all this back again.’!”
“Could be,” said mom, pulling out several 20 dollar bills. “Well, here’s 45 dollars. And can you figure out how much is 10 percent?” Candy took the bills and furrowed her brow. Her eyebrows were darkly pencilled over, and had been that way ever since I could remember. Two heavy black arches, almost meeting in the middle.
“Lets see, that would be five dollars.”
“Mm, not quite,” said mom.
“I’m rounding it up,” said Candy.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, “4.50 is ten percent.”
“So that makes five dollars for the Lord,” said Candy demonstratively, decisively. “I’ll just take it out right now so I won’t forget.” When I was little Candy was the short woman at church with the name that seemed to fit. She wore big shiny bows or raspberry-colored hair clips and cherry bomb lipstick. Her shoes were Lifesaver plastic. It has been 25 years since then, and now she is back – in mom’s house. A couple years ago she was here at Thanksgiving dinner regaling us with tales of her parakeet, Tweetie.
“Oh, she doesn’t like the vacuum cleaner, that Tweetie,” she said, a scowl on her brow and a coaxing in her tone as if her face were showing us both Tweetie’s part and hers. “’Tweetie doesn’t like that sound, do you?’ I say to him. ‘Oh, that makes you mad, does it?’ And Tweetie gives me that look that I know.” We laughed at the picture of a petulant bird brought to life.
Now mom needs help cleaning the rooms. And she knows Candy’s pension barely covers expenses.
I don’t know how Candy came to be in these suburbs. It is as if she had wandered out of some blue-collar neighborhood of the ‘40’s, or off some noir movie lot where she had played the naïve but opinionated prostitute’s mother, and forgotten it was an act. She is out of place in these leafy lanes, undemonstrative snobbery, and ski trips. She marvels when mom demonstrates the use of a cell phone. She is hesitant when she calls and hears a voice that is not mom’s on the other end. When I answer, she is at a loss, not knowing how to ask for her; she wavers, confronted. If she were not so isolated, she would seem to be part of something, some larger world or culture. In fact, it was she who was here all along, before the yuppies and housewives and technology. It was they that fell from the sky, not she. The highway brought them, pouring in richer every decade, until people like her – working people without college degrees, and especially her, puzzled when confronted by a calculator – were washed out to poorer towns and cities, making way for the salaried class. But she stayed, caught on a snag. Her dad had given her his house, all paid for, and so there she lived after her divorce, with Tweetie, feeding the gulls with “doggie food” every afternoon out behind Ocean State Job Lot, coaxing a chipmunk up to her porch with crumbs, working for a wage at the Pond’s Cosmetics plant, collecting her things, the washing machine slowly rusting out. Mom was the one who told her it was no good anymore, the one who broke the bad news. She was the one who told her I or Dad would come over sometime and cart it to the dump.
I think how odd it is that mom responds with such equanimity to such an invasive deluge of talk. I sit at the computer trying to think but all there is is Candy’s voice saying, “But three and nine are the most powerful numbers! I always watch out which numbers I get on my grocery receipts cuz you never know. You’ve gotta be careful with receipts these days, people have all kinds of strategems. And the Lord might be tryin’ to tell you something.”
Uh-huh, murmured mom, Is that so? Looking as complacent and pleased with numerology as if someone were praising her granola, already knowing full well how good it was. The word strategem drums into my head. Candy will usually hook onto a particular word, a word with a certain percussive power, often elaborated with her own pronunciation. “I’m not good with the moderen phones, no sir. All those buttons. And Tweetie can’t stand ‘em either. He hates ‘em, Tweetie does. The moderen things are different. You can’t just pick it up and talk, you’ve gotta be trained. But me? Hoo-boy. Moderen things aren’t my cup ‘a tea.”
I sit there, back to her, annoyed at her proclamations, her unmodulated speechifying. I sit there, tickled to no end, savoring the original way of her words. Now she is uneasy with me because I ignored her once when I came down to make a sandwich, mom stepped into the bathroom, and she switched her talk to me practically mid-sentence, not missing a beat. “Maroon’s a mental color. Its more calm, uh –“
“Subdued,” said mom as she headed to the bathroom.
“yes! That’s the word,” she continued, “This hairband is a livelier shade of red. You ought to wear that only if you really wanna let go, otherwise it can throw your mood off. I realized last year I wore too much maroon. But 2002 was a green year. No wonder I felt so rotten.” I wasn’t in much mood to talk, especially not when my ear was so aggressively assumed. Her manner is not in line with the joyless courtesy of the suburbs.
Why does mom need her? Why has mom always needed her and people like her from the fringes? It is not only that the nest is empty, and she fills it with paying guests. Even that is not enough. She bakes the granola, washes the sheets, turns on the light the exact moment they enter the dining room. She asks, “How did you sleep?” her tone at once inquiring and conveying that hoped-for comfort. For five years that has been her daily show.
She had nine children before that, and even that wasn’t enough. As soon as the 4 older girls had gone to school or married she decided to begin taking in foster kids. She seems insatiable in retrospect – a desire for a mothering affirmation that goes beyond the bounds of nuclear and extended family. But perhaps it is not simply “more and more,” a single desire never fulfilled. I wonder whether it is not something superficially similar to child rearing, but transgressive anyhow in being unobligated, excessive. Like the outraged reaction of New York Times readers to the charity gone mad of the man who had donated one of his kidneys and was offering the other to someone whose life would contribute more to humanity than his own, I find in myself a perplexed wonder at mom’s capacity and need to mother. But is this dynamic so alien to myself? During my hardest, and final, semester of coursework at Columbia I felt a craving to take a language course outside of school. It may have seemed simply a further heavying of the burden, objectively. But in my mind the Persian class was, in being purely extra, a sort of relief, or freedom despite seeming like “more of the same.”
I wonder if mom, oscillating between flawless hostess and mother to face-fallen picture of dispirit, found an affirming energy in caring for those she was not obligated to care for, thus revving her up with the fuel she needed to survive the intense burden of motherly servitude in caring for us. It gave, and still gives her, a secret source of agency -- the more genius for being disguised as something wholly in line with a mother’s duty, albeit a duty taken to an extreme ideal. Only now does this boundless, indiscriminate hospitality make sense to me. And in reflecting on my own seemingly endless appetite for wandering, no matter where I am, have I not unwittingly inherited this secret form of transgressive pleasure, using an extreme version of masculine independence, a lauded ideal, to undercut the aggressive force of that very ideal? For in those other places I am forced back to an infant’s state linguistically, forced into the arms of strangers for survival. In this ordeal I become more aware than ever of the fraudulent claims of the ideal male image pretending to self-sufficiency. In taking the ideal to its extreme, my view of the ideal itself was radicalized. Not that this was my intention. My aim, as is my mother’s, is to seek security in a total commitment. But this type of servitude is so burdensome that both of us find an odd, unexpected space of freedom in out-idealing the ideal and looking back at it from a position of superiority.
Occasionally she collapses, overwhelmed. The day they sold our old green house on Hickory Lane, Dad had some commitment and Mom was left alone to give the buyers the final look-through. The power went out, the pump in the basement stopped, and the laundry room filled with water. I was in Korea then, but Dad told me about it later. She felt humiliated, at a loss. Her well-modulated warmth, which depends on having everything in place, fell apart in the face of the embarrassment of rising water and the vulnerability of a husband unavailable, along with his authority in dealing with others.
I see her restlessness all the time. She isn’t collapsing, she is gasping under the oppressiveness of being tied to the home – even though hours earlier, with the guests contentedly eating, she had beamed at the smooth completeness of her hospitality. What she gets a high from she is dependent on. The performance of hostess, mother, wife gives a charge like any other addictive performance. But one must also come down. One must also confront the daily routine of discipline. One must rehearse lines, scrub spots off pillow cases, adjust the stage props, vacuum the floor, put on makeup. On Sunday mornings when I stumble out of bed she is in a high bustle, in and out of the gold-glowing dining room with final instructions or English muffins or to bask in compliments, coming out aglow in her red dress. She smiles a “good morning,” disappears into the bathroom, and sweeps out to the car with a royal gust of perfume. But everyone must come down. And she does.
She is aggravated to no end when a guest does not show up at the promised time. She frets and wonders. The frying pan she had asked me to clean becomes suddenly an intolerable nagging, which she passes to me. She sighs, “I guess we’ll never find out where that missing pillow case went,” challenging our male, paper-reading nonchalance with the fact of real binds. She is trapped, waiting for them. If they have not come by 11, even if they are checked in, she will not fall asleep. She will lie awake, listening. She is plugged into the timbers of the house and can not unplug. Every stray squeak travels through beams that she uses as nerves and makes her wonder. When the door opens downstairs she listens for the pause that means they are reading her note and writing when they want breakfast and whether they take coffee or tea. Then their shoes are on the stair, and walking past her door, and finding their room. If they did not pause upon entering she will wonder when they will eat and when she will be able to sleep. She feels with those nerves a long time after that, knowing when they are in the bathroom, when climbing into bed.
It is after such days that she disappears for many hours. She is not shirking, of course. She is at Costco buying 48 bars of soap, a new detergent she has a coupon for, frozen lasagna. She is accompanying her “friend,” a woman almost incapable of managing her own affairs, to the doctor’s office to coax her into making an appointment. She is at the Family History Center at the church, listening with happy attention to a patron explaining how she tracked down an ancestor to tax records in 18th century Lithuania. She is at the post office. Running errands are another of her releases from one duty in the name of another, like a debtor paying off one credit card debt with a new card. She has shuffled things around. She returns smiling, recounting all that she did. “This cleaner works on tile and wood floors; it should really help with room one,” she says holding up the bottle for me to see, a fifties television commercial come true, a model of conviction.
It is hard to accept that this model of motherly propriety and contentment, my mother, embodies a hidden craving for chaos. When the older girls had gone she brought in lost souls. My father went along dutifully, as did I, but she grasped the call of charity with the fervor of a soldier grasping a battle flag. In came gap-toothed Jessica, by turns affectionate, wild, and sulking. In came little Maryann, a peaceful bundle of a girl, also of a Puerto Rican mother, who learned to smile at us. I remember mom held her in her arms as if the girl had come from her own body, an overwhelming tenderness in a patois of coos and questions never meant to be answered. In came Alfred, gangly and grinning, whose rare comment was a variety of jokes with only one punchline. “Know what I saw at school?” he’d ask. “A dead rat,” and he’d grin. I’d laugh. He stretched the word “rat” out into a nasal provocation to laughter, and to this day I can hear him say it. We never knew what gaps or losses that verbal fixation hovered over. His idiot’s grin hangs in me, a Cheshire cat mystery left behind after his disappearance. In came Jasmine, a slender melancholy girl who seemed to be fading away in our living room. She had some weakness of the heart or liver, and she pined there on the sofa, sallow-skinned, eyes drifting off. In came a boy named David whom I hardly remember, so raucous and aggressive he was too much even for us. He was taken back after a few days. In came Belinda, the oldest of them, 13 or 14, streetwise and rather fat. She took my lonely sister K under her wing, and ran off one day with her new camera. It was Ks’ belated anger at this episode that eventually awoke me to the fact that there was something special about mom, an unusual hunger blind to its own satiation, a desire to inhabit the word mother so perfectly that it could undermine her actual mothering.
We put up all manner of bachelors; rootless men: Jim, Leo, Franklin, Mike, Bucky. This cemented K’s resentment. In her eyes mom was blind to the needs of her own family, so eager was she to embrace all comers as family. I heard that at least one of them set his eyes on K. But I too was complicit in this will to chaos. I too revelled in the righteousness gained from charity, in the sense of total competence. But underneath that proud satisfaction lay the real pleasure: the pleasure of battering apart the oppressive walls of the family home. There was a release in seeing strange faces at the breakfast table. It was a release from the entrapment of an absolute obligation, the entrapment of our sullen collective adolescence. As the oldest son, I was as embedded in that sense of propriety and duty as was she. I was truly my mother’s son. Both of us were stifling; I see that now.
I too subverted duty through extreme application to it, rejecting the confines of the family and church by going beyond them, to an embrace of a global family. I became a wanderer, a condition not yet cured. After college I spent 6 years abroad. But my real family, left behind, haunted me. And I grew more isolated the more nations I embraced. In 2000 I returned, in time to collapse emotionally, in the arms of my family.
Postscript 2007: Mom tells me that Candy stopped getting out of bed, stopped eating. She was taken to the hospital, given medicines. But I know the hospital is not going to cure her loneliness.