Nancy Kline (Ph.D., Tufts U) is Director of the Writing Program at Barnard College. She has published several books, The Faithful (William Morrow, 1968), Lightning: The Poetry of Rene Char (Northeastern, 1981), The Tongue Snatchers [trans. of Les Voleuses de Langue] (Nebraska, 1990). Her work has appeared in Minnesota Review, Colorado Quarterly, Playgirl, Stanford French Review, and others.
My 87-year-old mother is singing me off-color French songs.
It is almost noon. We two are seated on my parents' deck in the late June sun.
"Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman—" she sings, her slim voice as quavery as the oriole's, her feathery hair a fragile shade lighter than the sunlight, palest yellow, white.
"Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot—" sings my mother. "Or there was one, how did it go? In Italian. They always asked me to sing it at parties." She hums a few bars, then sings: "Viva la figa, viva la figa!" She pauses. "I don't speak Italian, I never knew what it meant, exactly. It was a real crowd-pleaser."
I smile at her. "What a character you are."
"Yes," she says, and looks pleased with herself. "I'm so old. People don't know what to make of me."
I laugh and turn my face up into the warmth of the summer day. "Wasn't there one about a fortune hunter?"
"The one who marries the rich old maid!"
And my mother launches into the ballad of their wedding night. She takes off her clothes. She turns off her hearing-aid. She takes out her teeth. She takes off her wig. She takes out her eyeball and puts it in a glass of water.
"I'm becoming her," my mother says.
"No you're not."
"Well, my parts are certainly wearing out. And your father's."
Daddy has driven into town, despite his cataracts, to get the Sunday papers. This late morning moment is my mother's and my own.
"How is he?" I ask.
She doesn't answer right away. Then says, "I'm furious at him."
"I worry about him all the time."
"I'd like to punch him in the nose," I say.
His heart stopped three years ago, for a full two minutes, before they brought him back.
How can somebody you love so much cease to exist?
Despite the doctors' dark prognosis, he seems to be amazingly himself these days, just slower and slower. What isn't the same, what will never recover is how we think about time. We stop to listen to it now, slipping in and out between the shimmering aspen leaves, the dark green holly bush whose branches click on one another, out beyond us, at the edge of the yellow field.
"So," my mother says, "are you still—sitting down?"
I've been meditating, recently. "Yes. Every morning."
Just the slightest whiff of disapproval floats in my direction. Mother is a Marxist, has always been. As such, she lifts her skirts instinctively away from anything that might smack in the least of mysticism.
"I lift weights every morning," she says. She pauses, reconsiders. "Well. One weight. A two-pounder."
She flexes her left arm. Sure enough, a bump is visible beneath the poignant falling folds of wrinkled skin.
"Do you remember," she says, "the time we were on our way to Albany and Ben got lost—"
Daddy always gets lost on the way to Albany, it is inevitable.
"—and drove by accident into the Buddhist monastery? How appalled we all were by that lady who was bald?" She gives me a long, penetrating look. "You're not planning to shave your head?"
"Not today. But Buddhism makes sense to me. I don't know why. I'm an agnostic."
"You and your father," she says. Like some bad gene we share.
"Really?" I look at her speculatively. "I thought Daddy was more—believed more than I do."
"Actually, now that you mention it, he told me recently that he talks to God."
"He does?!" I say.
"He was on his third Rob Roy when he told me."
"What does he say to God?"
"According to him, he says—" she takes a beat, then says in my father's diffident, friendly, optimistic voice, "I hope you're there!"
We laugh, the two of us. The tears spring to my eyes. And I'll bet to hers. But we look away from one another so as not to see. Somewhere down the road the dogs are barking.
"Would you like more coffee?" she asks.
She leans for a moment against the wooden railing of the deck and looks out at the fragile green mountains rising in the distance.
"Daddy and I are both getting smaller," she remarks, scientifically. "Have you noticed?" She sounds genuinely interested in the discovery.
"I have." They are both shrinking, growing down, before my very eyes. My internist tells me you can lose as much as an inch a decade after the age of thirty. A daunting thought, especially when your full height measures four feet eleven and three-quarters, as my mother's does.
Once, she turned to me with fire in her eyes and said, "My whole life would have been different if I'd been five feet tall!"
Now she remarks, "I have a fantasy these days."
"Wouldn't it be nice," my mother says, "if we could all just get smaller and smaller until we simply, finally, disappeared?"
Fifty is coming, my fifty, I am living out my fiftieth year right now, and though I struggle not to feel this as a desert, I do. I feel it as a loss, a starkness: I have lived more than half my life, it's gone, how is that possible? Where is everybody going so fast? Running out of time.
I have no patience with this feeling, but it gusts around the edges of my life right now, like driving across the desert, buffeted abruptly by high winds you cannot see. The car swerves suddenly, unnervingly. I take hold of the steering wheel so hard my knuckles whiten.
One of the knuckles on my right hand is arthritic. I have my mother's arthritis, as she had her father's at my age.
My son asks am I going through a mid-life crisis. Well, yes. But what is that?
He called me on the phone last night.
He is driving across the country this week, back to the East Coast from the West Coast, where he goes to college. He is heading to his grandparents' house, to spend the weekend. By prior agreement, he telephones every two days. On my nickel, of course.
"Hi, Mom," Gabriel said last night. "The Rockies were awesome."
"Where are you now, Sweetie Pie?"
"Missouri," he said.
"Don't fall asleep at the wheel!"
"Be cool," he said.
I took a deep breath. "Oh, all right. I'll let you be a grown-up."
Gabriel said, in my voice, my cadence, he didn't miss a beat, "But. Who will worry? If I don't."
I laughed. "I'm glad we understand each other."
We have the same hair too. At a certain crisis moment in the haircut cycle, our dark curls abruptly spring out away from our heads in exactly the same wild shape and pattern, like a formal hedge gone haywire. We are both known for this. His best friend calls him Fuzzy; mine calls me something even worse. The last time Gabriel came home, before visiting his father's barber, he put on my eyeglasses and smiled a middle-aged smile for the camera. If he'd flashed my passport at the Frequent Flyer desk, they'd have awarded him my miles.
This isn't always easy. Gabriel is majoring in Psych and feels the need to tell me, every time he calls, about his need to separate.
"I'm very angry at you," he explains, in a neutral psychoanalytic tone of voice. "I love you enough to tell you that. I'm really furious at you, for the divorce."
His father and I were divorced ten years ago.
"Still?" I say.
"There's no time in the unconscious."
"How about Henry?" I inquire. "Are you mad at him?"
"No, Dad and I don't have enough of a relationship yet. The day I know he loves me, I'll get angry at him. I'm working on it right now. That's why I have to spend more time with him than you this summer."
"Because you and I like each other."
"That's why we can't spend more time together and you're mad at me."
"You got it."
After conversations like this one, I seek my parents out to apologize for having been so irritating all these years.
"Mom?" said Gabriel, last night.
"Where's the Mississippi River?"
"Somewhere along in there," I said.
Geography has never been my strong suit, nor his.
He will have found it—crossed it—by this afternoon.
Imagine. My firstborn child is driving a car, all by himself, across the United States of America. So he'll have time to think, as he explains it.
It wasn't till we'd hung up that I suddenly remembered I was his age when I sailed for France. I crossed the ocean, I had a life at twenty.
He has a life, my son. Astonishing.
I found myself singing Woody Guthrie:
Passing through, passing through!
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
Glad that I ran into you!
I'm so happy that I met you passing through!
Then burst into tears.
Because it turns out our children are just house guests, visitors in our lives. When they arrive, and for a long time after that, they seem so permanent, all interwoven. An illusion. They prove themselves to be the man who came to dinner. One day, years after we've forgotten how to have a private life, they graduate from high school and they're gone. The population shifts, another room becomes available.
It felt to me last night as though my son had driven through my life and out the other side—like that tunnel you can take straight through the Alps—as though the whole time I was under the illusion he was stationary, he was really moving.
And right on his heels my 17-year-old. Lovely Miranda. Watch her dust.
In another year my daughter will go away to college. This year, she is taking her SATs, and dieting.
"I'm so fat!" she is always lamenting, and believing it. "Just look at me!"
She is gorgeous. She has the breasts I've always wanted, she is tall and slim, her wavy blonde hair falls in a cascade around her shoulders.
"Disgusting," she says belligerently, into the full-length mirror.
Just last week, she managed, one night, right after we'd gone out for Chinese food, to get into the dress she'd worn three years before, to her 8th grade graduation dance.
The dress was a little tight.
The problem is that I'm her mother. There's not one thing I can say to her that won't misfire. So I try to keep my mouth shut.
"Am I fat?"
I was lying on my bed, attempting to digest my moo shoo pork.
"Are you sure?"
"You look great."
"I can hardly close this zipper."
"Maybe that's because you were a child when you bought that dress."
"So?" "So you're not, now. You're four inches taller. You've changed shape. In addition to which, you've just eaten Special Diet Steamed Vegetables with Rice."
"But I have such fat thighs! They're disgusting—look at them!"
"They're not," I said, and tried to banish the image from my mind's eye of my wavery own. I never thought that I'd be jealous of such things, not me. I'm not that kind of mother.
I'm green with envy.
"And my butt!" Miranda said.
"It's just right," I said.
"You're just saying that. Look at it! It's fat!"
"And my calves!"
And then I blew it. "Go for a run, if you feel that way."
"See!" My daughter whirled around to face me. "I knew it, I am fat, you were lying all the time, I'm going on a diet, I'm fasting, I won't eat anything ever again!"
"Miranda," I said, "could you do this in your own room for a while?"
Sometimes, of course, we go shopping together. We stop for a salad and iced coffee. We cross the park to look at the Impressionists. "Cézanne," I say. "Monet," she says. We rendezvous at Van Gogh's sunflowers.
On the other hand, I am sometimes the most embarrassing mother in the East.
"How could you call me 'Snooky' in front of my friends?!"
Slamming out of the kitchen.
"Mother. You're not going to wear those pants. Are you? They're practically bell-bottoms!"
Then there are more complicated moments still, when looking at me she sees some distorted, funhouse image of herself, and she strikes out to smash the both of us. She calls me names, she judges my life. We are both raging, shouting, hurt. We hate each other.
Half an hour later, Dr. Jekyll is back.
She makes a batch of popcorn in her hot-air popcorn popper, sans butter, sans salt, sans everything, and we watch a re-run of "The Brady Bunch" together.
Sometimes I find myself in a such fury of dislike for her—her narcissism, her impatience, her opinions—that I want to pummel her out of existence. Until I suddenly realize it is myself I am looking at, unmediated. Excruciating.
I hope when this part is through that Miranda and I will choose to be friends. Already she knows things that I don't know. Like her brother before her, she is outdistancing me. Impassioned about the structures of government, she reads me essays I don't understand about the Constitution, then explains them. I expect she'll be lawyer. Or an opera singer. She will not be me, that much is clear. Sometimes.
Sometimes, despite our twin confusion, it is obvious to both of us that we are not identical. Then we forgive each other.
What a roller coaster ride, and the two of us hanging on by our fingernails.
A door slams somewhere in my mother's house.
"Your granddaughter must be up," I say.
It is now high noon, which seems to register as early morning on her internal adolescent clock.
My mother turns toward me. "Miranda's very tall," she says, accusingly.
"Don't look at me," I say.
I'm five foot one, my mother's daughter. And shrinking.
"She has her father's height," I say. "But she's really not, you know. Very tall. Her generation is huge. She's only five foot seven."
Out onto the sunlit deck steps a blinking Miranda, still fluffy and bewildered with sleep. She is wearing orange boxer shorts with Princeton Princeton Princeton written all over them and a maroon Wisconsin T-shirt featuring a vicious badger.
"Good morning," we say.
"Hi," she says, and plops into a chair.
My mother's pale blonde skin has leapt me like a forest fire, tree-top to tree-top, to settle on my blonde fair daughter. I have my father's darker skin, but they look alike, my mother and my daughter, except for the disparity in their heights. Two blue-eyed blondes whose chromosomes have floated to the surface in that dreamy milky complexion.
Not that I covet such skin, which has caused my mother such grief.
"Did you put on fifteen?" I say to Miranda, whose groans in response is all.
The damage was done to my mother in her early childhood, when her family lived for four years out in Colorado. There was no fifteen then. The sun burned down around her daily, monthly, four years' worth of fire to make her skin blaze, incandescent, unprotected. And then, at the other end of her life, to make the cancers bloom. Small growths, nothing to write home about, they appeared when she was in her fifties—two on her back, one a few years later on the back of her left hand, then two at five year intervals on her arms. These were removed each time without fanfare, to leave white scars not nearly so dramatic as the other colorful benign bumps she'd begun to sprout, with age.
One day, when she was seventy, she saw a spot that didn't look right, midway up the fine firm bridge of what she called her Alcott nose. My daughter has inherited that too.
"I'll have to have this spot removed," my mother said, but refused to be accompanied to the hospital. "He told me it would take an hour," she explained. "Then I get in a cab and come home."
Had she foreseen the truth, she would still have objected to company. She does not ask for help. Her blood is too proud for that, too Puritan. Her mother, my grandmother, moved out to the frontier in a covered wagon as a child. When she was my daughter's age, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse, where her older students, great big frontiersmen, ruffians, all chewed tobacco in class and spat the juice out on the floor. To protect her long skirts, my grandmother drew a huge chalk circle around herself, into which her pupils were forbidden to spit. Then she taught them how to read.
On the day my mother reported for the operation that she didn't call an operation no one came along.
"Are you okay?" I asked on the phone that night.
Her voice was changed, unrecognizable. "No," she said.
"What do you mean?"
My mother had never told me before, not ever in my life, that anything was wrong with her.
"Mother, what's the matter?"
I heard her in the silence struggling to regain control.
She said, "My nose is gone."
"Half of it. Half of my nose is gone," she said. "They have destroyed my Alcott nose."
They had kept her ten hours in the hospital, then finally released her. In the recovery room, the nurse in charge of home care took her bandage off and had her look in the mirror: "I want you to see what it looks like, so you won't be surprised when you change the dressing."
My mother looked.
"Now, honey, you were just operated on," said the nurse. "It will heal real quick. Here's how you bandage it."
Then she told my mother she was free to go.
"Sue the bastards!" I said. "I'll be right there." "My nose is gone," she said, dazed, incoherent.
In fact, it remained, but twisted. Violence had occurred, visible as a twisted scar with a small red puncture at its center.
She joked, "When I get the flu, it's double trouble."
Small children asked her what was wrong.
She always answered them with careful courtesy: "I had an operation," and explained, so they wouldn't be afraid.
But she was.
When we suggested reconstructive surgery she refused. And though she said, "I'm too old to care about my looks," it wasn't indifference we saw in her eyes.
And it was more than skin that was restored when finally, at eighty-two, she obeyed her family doctor when he ordered her to mend her ways—"It's affecting your sinuses," he said—and permitted a plastic surgeon to take a tiny piece of her left cheek and graft it over the scar.
When the bandages came off, she telephoned to tell me that her Alcott nose had risen from the dead.
"Hurray!" I said. "That's wonderful."
"Although I thought you were too old to care."
"At least I'll be intact for my funeral," she said.
I am always asking her look-alike grandchild if she has put on her fifteen, all over.
"Oh, Mom," my daughter's always sighing. "It takes forever!"
I tell her she might try wearing a bigger bathingsuit.
Because today more of her surface area is covered than usual and the pale June sun seems mild enough, I do not press the point. Warmth filters down around the three of us, the distaff side. The men are out driving their cars.
"Guess what?" my mother says. "I discovered the meaning of second childhood last week!"
"Oh?" I say. "Oh-oh."
"What do you mean?" says Miranda, lazily. Her eyes are closed against the sun. "It's like this," my mother says. "You see and hear and smell and feel the world around you, and in you—without relation to time. There's no past, there's no future."
The Buddhists have a name for this; it isn't second childhood.
"It was the Library Fair," she says. "Last weekend. We were walking up Tinker Street. Beautifullate afternoon, everything sparkling and moving. Throngs, you know. Everybody in shorts: fat ladies, skinny ladies, men with knobby knees. I've never seen so many knees. Kids standing sideways in the walk, transfixed at the sight of other kids' balloons." She pauses. "One little boy stopped right in front of me and said, 'I'm almost as big as you are!'"
Miranda opens her eyes to take a look, blinks, puts a hand across her forehead like a visor.
"Then I saw," my mother says. She looks at me. "How many Library Fairs have I been to—fifty? Suddenly, last week, I saw it was the first Fair I had ever felt, and the last one I would see."
"What do you mean?!" I say.
"It wasn't that I wouldn't live to see next year," she says, putting out a hand in my direction. "There was no sense of doom—it was entirely joyful. I see! I will not see like this again. The sudden sense that all of it was beautiful. And new. And would never be duplicated."
A breeze comes up, to ruffle us.
"The point is," she says, "that the beginning of life can happen even to someone at the end of it. That's the second childhood part."
"Enlightenment," I say.
"That's what the Buddhists call it."
"Sounds very grand," she says, and shrugs it away, then takes the gesture and transforms it into the neck exercise she has been trained to do, throughout the day, for her arthritis.
Miranda, who is an exercise neurotic, watches her with interest. "How do you do that?" she asks. And the two of them launch into a joint training session.
Beyond them suddenly I see a lithe brown deer as silent as a shadow come nibbling into view, at the edge of the woods above us.
"Look!" I say.
The lovely creature raises its head to look—sees us—a frozen instant—bolts. White tail like a handkerchief. Gone.
"That was Florabelle," my mother says. "Have you met her twins yet, Miranda? Deerlet A and Deerlet B?"
Miranda laughs and stretches.
"They are the most charming, tiny replicas. You'll see. They're teaching themselves to bound. We both talk to them, when they come out of the woods for lunch."
"Aren't they scared of you?" asks Miranda.
"Not a bit. They don't have the good sense of their mother. I expect to meet them on the screened-in porch any day now."
"How about the wild turkeys?" I say. "Have they come back?" "Oh yes! As extraordinary-looking as ever."
And abruptly, my mother is up and out of her chair, all four-foot-six of her, and into her world-class impersonation of the passing flock, the male, pinheaded, fatly feathered, magnificent, a-strut, puffed-up with wild turkey testosterone, and then the brood of docile, self-effacing, browny wives, who trail behind him at a distance, coughing every now and then like courtiers.
My daughter and I fall back against our chairs, filled up with laughter.
"Such bounty," Mother says, and straightens out her pale blue blouse.
In the silence that follows, we can hear the brook running over stones. It is not the season yet when all the water has dried up.
Mother says, "Our books are another bounty." She pauses. "Do you know what I found last weekend, at the 3-For-10¢-Table? A first edition of Stuart Little."
"Really?!" I say. "That was my favorite book!" when I was very young and it was our ritual for her to read me a story every night.
Every night, when I was just beginning, when the dark had fallen, Mommy came and sat down on the edge of the itchy brown plaid blanket I had pulled up to my chin, and, when she opened the book and began to read to me, she took me to some other place. Wherever it was that Stuart Little slept in his matchbox and got lowered down the drain on a string to salvage Mrs. Little's wedding band. Wherever it was that Pooh ate too much honey and Peter Rabbit too much lettuce, wherever Captain Hook terrorized the neighborhood and fled in terror himself from the ticking of a clock.
This place my mother took me when she read to me was out of time.
She turns to her grandchild now and says, "How would you like a poached egg on toast?" As if the idea had just occurred to her.
Miranda smiles and nods.
This is their ritual. For two decades now, whenever the children have come to visit, this is the ritual food their grandmother has offered them.
"Orange juice?" she says.
It occurs to me that she has lived on this planet seventy years longer than my daughter. I have been here nearly fifty. My daughter will outstay me and my mother by who knows how many years. Will Miranda remember us, the three of us, out on the deck together in this suspended instant, in the quiet country noon?
I marvel at our intersection.
I wonder will it last, if I record it here.