I was very young, and very deluded; I thought I’d outgrown the need for a mother. As a little child I adored her. As a girl I loved her and took her services for granted. As a teenager I sneered at her, deceived her, and swore I would never be like her. I was thrilled to go to boarding school and escape my ignorant parents.
After two semesters in college I began traveling: West Indies, Europe and North Africa, Canada. I visited my family, but my home now was Ann Arbor. My parents were irrelevant, and knew little about my life.
Mother was sick and in a lot of pain for a long time. I was feeding my one- year-old son in the kitchen when the phone rang and my father told me she was gone. I told Eric that his grandmother was dead, and cried just a litte as I packed my bookbag and rode my bike to class.
The memorial service was six weeks later. The night before I was to fly to Washington, Eric got a high fever, and I couldn’t go. I was glad to miss the service; I had no need for a lot of mawkish reminiscing.
I was 40 years old when I finally began to grieve for my mother. I was in a counseling session, dealing with some minor life-glitch, when her death and my loss came back to me full force. I thought of taking bereavement leave, but I wasn’t sure it was available 17 years after her death. Instead I took sick leave and spent three days crying and walking and crying some more.
It’s been 43 years since she died, a short lifetime ago. Through all those years I didn’t have a mother. I go through my resume of law, activism, community work, writing, child rearing, and wonder if she would have been proud of me. I ache to talk with her. What would she have told me as I raised my different sets of children? I want to ask her a thousand things.
Now I have memories, pictures, and a few objects from my mother. The memories and pictures have worn a groove in my mind so that when I try to think of her or see her face, I can only summon up the same few stories.
When I was three she left me behind when she drove to the grocery store, and I ran down the driveway crying, desperate to catch her. When I was twelve, sitting in the car in the dark, not looking at her, I asked about sex, “Does he just stick it in?” I wish I remembered her answer - we were not a bawdy family. At fourteen I was pitiless. I left a letter to a friend in my mother’s typewriter that began “I hate my mother.” She cried. It seemed to me she was always crying, and I despised her.
I called her from Montreal to announce that I was married, and she asked, “Do you love him very much?” “Well, Mom, I met him eight days ago; I hardly know him.” “I always thought I would pin your veil.” Her sentimentality embarrassed me.
When Eric was seven months old, I took him to DC to meet my parents. By then my mother was often in the hospital, and spent her time at home lying on the couch. I put Eric down next to her. He took one look and began laughing, that irresistible baby giggle. She laughed back and it seemed they would never stop. He made her laugh all that long weekend. It was the last time I saw her.
My father lived another twenty-seven years after my mother's death. The memories he shared with us were filtered through his love and ego. Most of them are wildly implausible myths of his mastery and machismo. When he died we found an accordian folder of all the letters he had written to her the year before they married. She was in college at George Washington. He was six years older, traveling in Costa Rica as a coffee buyer. She saved all his letters, but he had not kept hers.
I have very few keepsakes from my mother. One is a Japanese black brass figurine of two turtles. Mother kept them on the back of her desk. The baby turtle is climbing onto the big turtle’s back. I hold it, feeling its weight, marveling at every intricately etched detail of shell and flesh. I wonder whether she hefted them as I do, and what she mused about as she held them, cool and heavy in her hand.
Mother always wore two pieces of jewelry: a gold ring with a large blue topaz, and a heavy Navajo bracelet. She left them both to Luli. After I began missing my mother, I bought myself a ring at an art fair, the silver folded like labia around a small opal. I wear it all the time. In New Mexico Joe bought me a bracelet very like Mother’s, with the same twisted wires. I cherished it for about six months, and then it disappeared. It turned up last summer under the bed, and I have worn it ever since. It fits my wrist snugly so it doesn’t wobble around and get in the way. It’s a bit like a shackle, but it feels like a link to my mother.
I have one of my mother’s books, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie. It is the diary of a Confederate officer’s wife, a vivid account of the domestic life of the Charleston social elite as the war rages just offstage. Mother had southern roots. Her grandmother, who ate rats during the siege of Vicksburg, used to take her to the movies, and mortified her by standing when the pianist played Dixie. Mother wrote her name inside the book, Marcy Gray Eder, in the clear angular script that recalls all the letters she wrote me.
None of her letters remain. But in my father’s things we found her 1923 high school yearbook from Central High School in Washington, D.C. She was in the drama club, and an editor of the literary magazine. Unlike most of the graduates, she smiles in her picture, her face tilted slightly down so her big dark eyes look up at me. The caption reads:
This fetching young person with mischievous brown eyes and remarkable personality is most dramatically and poetically inclined. Besides great literary ability, she possesses a truly enviable scholastic record. As to ambitions, Marceline is going to strive to outdo Bernhardt, ‘the immortal Sarah,’ and those of us who know her are sure of her success. Original, clever and peppy - why absolutely.
1923 YEARBOOK: MOTHER IS ON LEFT PAGE, UPPER RIGHT
The yearbook generated my fourth novel, my biggest struggle so far as a writer. First it was the story of Delia, a middle aged woman searching for the truth about her mother Lillian, and Lillian impatiently responding from the afterlife to all her misconceptions. I spent over a year floundering in that direction, writing quite a lot of it, until I acknowledged it wasn’t working, and decided simply to tell Delia’s story. I had a great time immersing myself in accounts of Greenwich Village in the sixties, but I kept sneering at Delia. Writing is revealing - Delia was more like me than any of my previous characters, and I didn’t like her. My novel is now in its third iteration. It is the story of Lillian’s long marriage. I’m almost certain I have found the right story, and I’m working pretty steadily.
When I read the yearbook caption I wonder what happened to the actress and writer during the forty-four years of my parents’ marriage. Where was that peppy young person with the remarkable personality? If I had known her when I was an adult I would certainly have a very different view, but with my limited vision I believe my father swallowed her up and she disappeared. ‘Aren’t men wonderful?’ she’d say. ‘Marcy, don’t touch that, you’ll break it,’ he’d say. The alchemy of fiction lets me take the glimpses and fragments of her life and their marriage and give them a different story. In my publication fantasies I dedicate this book to Marceline Elizabeth Gray, the woman I search for, the woman she might have been.
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