This would have been my mother’s 105th birthday. It’s a dreary, cold day not unlike the November day she died nine years ago. It’s a day to think of the ancestors and perhaps do them the honor of a story.

When she was born in 1912 in Flatbush, Brooklyn to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, the streets were still unpaved. The Flatbush Avenue Trolley Line had come through over the Brooklyn Bridge just four years before. Horse-drawn wagons, trucks, and buggies were still common, along with the workers whose job it was to scoop their manure, day after day.

Her sister, Betty, had been the first child to arrive in the young family not long after the marriage.  One imagines a nurse or a midwife might have been in attendance. It was unlikely she was born in a hospital. 

My mother, Pearl, was the second, maybe two years later. These details are lost in the expanse of time. She was followed by three more sisters, Edna, Lynn and Gus. The five Jewish sisters, adored by their doting father who earned, somehow, an honest living, grew up valuing culture, education, and music.  In their Brooklyn neighborhood they were surrounded by extended family. My mother’s uncle was a “butter and eggs man” and kept them well supplied with those good things that, in Kosher combinations, became ingredients in her mother, Fanny’s, prodigious and marvelous cooking. My mother often spoke to me about her loving father, who bounced them all on his knee. When he was asked whether five daughters was perhaps too many females, he always responded that his only sorrow was there were not more.

It was this the warmth of the family and Fanny’s cooking that drew a constant stream of visitors and family boarders. The five sisters were constantly moving around in the small apartment to make space for mattresses for cousins, uncles, aunts newly arrived or traveling from other parts of America to the city of opportunity. Her mother took to hiding food as she cooked it so it wouldn’t somehow disappear before she could lay it out on the family table. The sisters were constantly finding roasted sweet potatoes, kugel, covered dishes of soup or tzimmes under mattresses and shoved in the caves under dressers and forgotten. Though money did not flow freely, there was always more than enough food for everyone. The important things were somehow provided. When my mother had wanted badly to play the violin when she was twelve, her mother had somehow found the money to buy one. They had well-made stylish clothes, sometimes made by their mother, repaired frequently and shared between the sisters, sometimes generously, sometimes with peevish reluctance.

It wasn’t until she was in her nineties that I asked I decided to ask her again what the Great Depression had been like for her and her family. Until then I’d gotten only a piecemeal impression. Time had claimed much of her short term memory and was beginning to encroach on the long span. She replied they had hardly felt it. They had always scraped along, surrounded by extended family protecting and caring for each other. They were happy. They didn’t think of themselves as poor. In the summers, they spent many days at the Jewish community clubs at Brighton Beach, swimming, playing tennis, sunning and socializing. Sometimes she and her sister went to the Yiddish Theater on the boardwalk to see a play put on my the Jewish community for the Jewish community. The theater had been built in 1918 to allow this vibrant expression to breathe. Life for the sisters just continued, circumscribed by the boundaries of the city within a city.

She was seventeen when the crash came. She had been accepted to Vassar College, but the family’s resources would never have come close to stretching that far so, instead, fighting her enormous disappointment at the opportunity of prestige, she decided to become a policewoman and bring in an income.  Without telling her sister, she borrowed her good skirt and good leather shoes and went to take the exam at the Police Academy.  The examiners were surprised at her success on the exam. Not many women even tried. But, on discovering her plans, her mother forbade her to take such a dangerous job. Her sister wouldn’t talk to her for days. She had had a date that day and had counted on her skirt and good shoes.  When she came home after work to change and realized what had happened, she raged for hours at her mother.

Determined to move forward, my mother passed the rigorous entrance exam for Hunter College (known for decades as the Jewish Girls’ Radcliffe) which trained teachers, tuition free, for the City of New York’s demanding public schools. She went to classes at night, working as a librarian during the day and studying on the subway. She ate little and worked or studied constantly.

Sometime in the early ‘30s, a cousin had come to stay at the family’s apartment in Brooklyn. They discovered soon after that he had tuberculosis. My mother, tired and thin from her rigorous schedule, contracted TB soon after. As she was recovering, her mother was diagnosed with TB.

Within the year, Fanny had contracted meningitis as a result of the TB. She died fairly quickly, a woman in her mid-50s.  TB had been one of the most significant causes of death, particularly among the young, for at least 9000 years of human history.  It is likely one of the first species-jumper diseases that humans encountered as a result of their agricultural expansion. Our species recent horrific experiences with HIV and Ebola are not new kinds of events. Yet when my mother was young, the knowledge that this ancient disease was, in fact, contagious, was less than fifty years old. Since the time of Herodotus, it had been thought to be inherited.  The antibiotics that proved to be a cure were not discovered until 1944. In the 1930s, public health efforts to reduce crowding and improve sanitation had improved the odds of avoiding TB and cholera in urban areas, but crowded immigrant areas still had higher instances of these diseases than more affluent areas of the city. My mother felt lucky that she’d escaped with just a remnant spot or two on her lung. 

After she was fully recovered, she resumed classes at Hunter, completed her studies and passed the difficult exams to become a teacher in New York. When she began her teaching in the ’30s, work must have been hard to come by, but she managed to hold on to her library jobs and begin teaching high school English and French in the city. In the challenging, crowded city schools where she found work, she remembered as we talked about those times how she sometimes had to intervene in fist fights and, from time to time, to confiscate packets of heroin being passed from desk to desk. Teaching has never been an easy profession. Growing up with her after-work stories of principals and school boards, I did whatever I could to avoid following in her footsteps.

The war was on. Relatives were dying in concentration camps across the ocean. My mother never spoke to me of these times. Perhaps life just went on.

In her twenties, she was courted by young Jewish intellectual men, one or two of whom she found delightful. She played tennis with them, went to the ballet, to the opera, to Broadway plays.  She evidently wasn’t swept off her feet, although she looked back on at least one of these relationships with regret. Perhaps she was jilted.  But she had lots to keep her occupied and, as it does for women today, time went by.

At the age of thirty, a vivacious, smart, attractive woman with waving, lush mahogany hair, she met my father on a blind date set up by a friend. After being talked into this risky business, she learned through a mutual friend he was not Jewish. But he was a writer, certainly an aphrodisiac in the eyes of a young, intellectual woman in New York. She and her older sister were part of the New York Intellectual scene–readers of the Partisan Review, Alfred Kazin,  Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Dwight McDonnald, John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Virginia Woolf, Norman Mailer… Despite the fact she heard her prospective date was barely making a living by editing for a publishing company in Manhattan, the prospect of a career in the great cerebral profession of writing seemed to overcome all else for her.

Having gotten over the obstacle of his shegetz status, she took up the dare of the blind date. It turned out he was a charmingly handsome and gallant young man from a Polish coal mining family in Pennsylvania, self-educated and extremely bright, with a head of dark, wavy hair, combed back like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, walking with a limp from an accident in his childhood. Despite the limp, he was athletic and slim, played tennis and baseball and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge every weekend to come and see her. He could recite poetry and quote Shakespeare, despite the fact he’d never been able to attend any college except the free socialist college in New York. By the time he’d graduated from high school, having missed most of the classes due to multiple surgeries on his leg and acing all the exams, he had read every book in his small town library, starting with the top shelf near the librarian’s desk and progressing to the last book on the bottom shelf in the dark alcove at the back. 

Her family thought she would be marrying beneath her. He was not from the intellectual class. His blue-collar family thought that Jewish women were stuck-up, shrewish snobs. They probably suspected them of somehow being implicated in the death of Jesus. Their parents had both immigrated from parts of what was known as Poland at the time, yet their cultures were as different as if they had come from different worlds.

My mother eventually took the risk and married him. She was in love.

For the times, she was practically an old maid. They were married at the registry, accompanied by friends and a bottle of champagne. My father continued to write when he could and work for a publishing company to make money. His family, with the exception of his mother, never really accepted her. It was two years before V-Day. My father spent part of the war working in the shipyards as a 4F deferral due to his crippled leg. Like my mother, he never spoke of the war days.

They lived in Flatbush in a small apartment and were probably fairly happy. They went to rent parties to raise money for friends also struggling to make ends meet.  She kept teaching, but was hungry for more intellectual challenge. Sometime in the ‘40s, she began a Ph.D. at Columbia, again attending classes at night. She completed a thesis on the Abbey Theater of Ireland, a copy of which I have in the papers I can’t figure out what to do with before I move to France. 

And meanwhile, they tried to have a child. She miscarried twice and was told she was now unable to carry a child to term. Who knows how this would have shifted had she been a woman today, but at the time, adoption was the only route. She knew she was already too old to qualify as an adoptive parent, even though there was an ample supply of babies in a pre-legal abortion world. She was already forty. Her solution—she lied. She began dying her hair that had begun to have strands of gray, and she lied on the paperwork. She was still dying her hair red when she was ninety-six.

It didn’t take long. They looked good. They were middle-class, educated, with professional jobs. They found an agency in New York where there was a good supply of babies given up by women who were in sticky situations. They were babies who had been placed in foster care days after their birth, dressed in lovely clothing to charm the families who cared for them, and were waiting, all unaware in their babbling babyhood, for eligible adults to claim them for their own.

My mother and father were shown several examples of babies that could be a “fit”, matched for genetic background by socio-economic status of the biological and adoptive parents, for similar ethnic profiles, for similar physiognomy. Babies were brought to the agency for display in the bassinettes set up for these occasions. They were eventually attracted to a baby with blond hair who smiled at them and cooed. All my Jewish mother and atheist father had to do was to sign on the dotted line that I would be baptized in a Methodist Church. One Saturday, the social worker called them and told them I was ready for them to come and pick up. Perhaps my foster mother had had it with me. Who knows.

They went to get me up on the subway. I was nine months old. They had a crib and a high chair, blankets and some baby clothes, but they had no baby food. My father went out on the Sabbath in the neighborhood and found a Goy butcher who was open. He bought some filet mignon and had him grind it fine. He brought it home to the apartment in a brown paper packet. He had no baby spoons, so he fed me my first meal in my new home from the tip of a clean tablespoon.

Pearl continued to teach for more than twenty-five years after that day.  All her life she had many friends, mostly a generation or two younger than she. She eventually taught what were then called “Gifted Students” and invented wonderful curricula for her small and eager classes. Many of those students returned to see her as successful adults, full of gratitude and love.  Wherever she was, she approached strangers and interviewed them with curiosity.   As an old woman, walking with me along the street, she would often stop young people, ask them a question and end up in a long conversation. She gave advice freely and mostly wisely. Her interest won her friends in every circle of life. She knew the families and aspirations of the cab drivers, the bus drivers, the checkout clerks, the bank tellers, the professors on our street, the famous figures at the University. She encouraged them all. They were all her familiars. Her one regret was never finishing her Ph.D. in the Irish Theater, but by the end of her life, she had resolved even that loose end. Wherever she went, she would extend a hand and say “Hello! What degree do you have? I have a Ph.D. from Columbia.”


More About Grandmothers

My grandmother’s home was at the top of a two-story wooden stairway in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. When I visited, I was always a small child, starting at the bottom of an endless stairway leading to a landing I could see only when I reached the tenth step. My father would follow me, laden with suitcases, my mother bringing up the rear. When my foot reached the landing, my grandmother would be standing there, stout legs bound in some sort of black cotton hose, her round softness leaning down to engulf me in a tent of pillow and fabric, smelling of sweat, something a bit acrid and something that smelled like the moment you pull a carrot from the earth.

There would be hugs and wafts of conversation above me, some in a language I didn’t understand, some in the language I did but that sounded mysteriously like the language I didn’t. This mass of movement, weight and flow would go through the old screen door, smelling of dust and wood without paint, my grandmother’s hand, sticking in my memory, pushing on the aging gray wood around the ancient screen, and we would be suddenly inside in her kitchen, my father taking a bag up the stairs at the back near the stove to the rooms above.

My mother would sit for a moment in a cracked, padded chair at the kitchen table, with its red oilcloth hanging over the edges. I might lean against her, absorbing the smells of the house, the blackness of the huge coal stove that dominated the back corner of the kitchen, cold at the moment, patient, the counter taking up the whole of one wall, lined with objects covered with patterned dish cloths, still sending out muffled odors of meat cooked with potatoes, onions and carrots, warm pastry, vinegar, and the rich smell of cakes made with filbert flour. I waited, breathing, while they talked about the trip and the health of Mr. Djingalevski, the storekeeper who lived below.

I waited patiently, fully at peace, for my grandmother to come over to me and take my hand. Then she would lead me across the kitchen, up the narrow stairs and into her small bedroom. There I could see on the feather bed a new, small stuffed horse, always the same simple pattern, made of colorful fabric, mane, tail and eye made of the same yarn. I climbed into the bed, boosted by my grandmother’s softly fat arms, to take possession of this new member of a growing herd. With my gift clutched to my chest, we would go back down the stairs where my grandmother would sit heavily in her wooden rocker and pat her lap for me to come up as my father came back down the stairs to join us.

There I would stay while she rocked with one arm around my shoulders, my head between her bosoms where I could hear the hollow reverberation of her Polish-English and breathe in her rich, earthy smells as she talked with my father. He would be unpacking, with some ceremony, the bag of gifts we’d brought her. He’d first pull out, with dramatic flair, the old blue glass face cream jar he always carefully re-filled with white Jergen’s face cream, offered as a new jar of some now unattainable favorite. Then a bottle of vodka, maybe a dress my mother had picked out for her, meat, some fresh vegetables if they were in season. After the ritual, we’d sit and talk as she left me in the rocker to get plates of sweets from the sideboard, with milk from a bottle that always tasted so different from the milk I drank back at home, and coffee and maybe a vodka for my father. She arranged it all on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Always more food, there would be sandwiches and fresh cucumber pickles with dill and sour cream until we couldn’t eat anymore.

Then she would take us down the wooden stairs to the back yard to see the garden. As we walked, she would stoop once or twice to pull something from the grass, always a four-leafed clover she would reach back to hand me, with a slight smile I could catch only quickly as she turned away. If it were still late summer or early autumn, she would pull me a huge orange carrot, break off the leaves, rub it on her apron and offer it to me to eat, the smell of earth and taste of earth and orange sweetness mixed with the pungent fragrance of turning leaves. Over the houses in the next yard, over some trees in the mid-distance, loomed glowing mountains of black stones, smoking and steaming, sending up some strange smell of rotten eggs and smoke. Sometimes I remember a crow, calling from the tree in the back corner of the yard, somehow part of the background of misty emanation, the voice of the slag heaps with their steaming fumes.

This afternoon I stood at the kitchen sink and watched several small mobs of birds fly around over the field, back and forth, up and down, each individual a part of a whole guided by wind, following the movements of their nearest neighbors, swooping up and down, back and forth in patterns of unison. As I watched, I knew it must generate a kind of ineffable and inherent joy.

And now I’d like to tell you another extraordinary ordinary thing. Many, many years ago, I spent a summer in Ithaca, NY, caring for the child of a Pakistani woman, Saadia, who was studying for her Ph.D. at Cornell. I lived with her, her three-year-old-son who had named himself Sana, and her auntie, Bibijon.

The three months I spent there was for me a kind of retreat, a pause. When I arrived, I knew little about this small family other than Saadia had known a man called Samuel Lewis, a Sufi master and great teacher who had died the year before in San Francisco. In the days that followed, Saadia told me more of their history, how Bibijon, although an aunt just a few years older than she, had taken on her guardianship, care and protection when Saadia’s parents had died suddenly when she was still a teenager. She told the story of how, when Bibijon herself was three, she had fallen from a second story window when her Ayah was distracted. She had barely survived and was left with a partially paralyzed left arm that became withered over time and a limp on her left side. As a grown woman, she was like some beautifully made marionette whose puppeteer held one side slightly crumpled in against her body with a skillful twist of his hand. Then, around the age of six or seven, she had fallen into a well whose cover was accidentally left partially open. With her functioning arm, she managed to grab a cross bar inside the well as she dropped. She hung on with that one arm for over an hour, yelling for help, before she was finally rescued. For all this, she never complained, only took care of those she loved.

Saadia had been a young girl, maybe nine years old, at the time of Partition, the British solution to the problems they had created during the process of leaving India. Muslims and Hindus who had lived together amicably for millennia were whipped into incredible acts of violence against each other. She and her family had been among those Muslims hastily packed onto trains so overcrowded that people rode on top of the railway cars. They traveled this way for several days, through dangerous territory, where Hindus were killing and raping Muslims and Muslims performing equally violent acts against their former Hindu neighbors. They were being driven away from their home in India to the newly created Pakistan, to the city of Lahore. Like so many, they did not want to leave their ancestral home. They, too, had had their role to play in achieving Independence. Meanwhile, millions of Hindus were leaving their ancestral homes in what was now Pakistan to move in the opposite direction, sometimes with moments’ notice. Most people left behind everything except what they could carry in a small bag. It is often called the largest human migration in history–an estimated ten million altogether. More than a million people probably died during the violence that resulted from Partition, some in their ancestral home, some on the trip. Saadia spoke little about it.

I imagine the family must have settled well into their new home over the years. They had always been highly respected, devout, well-educated and generous to the community. They built a fine new home which they named Bhallah House. It is clear they resumed their position as respected community members, probably contributing to the creation of a new government in this new country. It is an era of her history, the time she had spent with the parents she’d lost too soon, about which she never spoke. She did speak, however, without vanity, of her beauty as a young woman and her pride in the fact she had been the first Pakistani woman to marry a “foreigner”. She had married a handsome American man she had met during her years of study. He had converted to Islam and they had a wedding of great extravagance and beauty in Lahore, publicized throughout the country. They returned to Ithaca soon after so Saadia could complete her studies. It was there she began to realize with increasing clarity that her new husband suffered tragically from manic depression. That summer, a year before my stay, he had managed to purchase a gun from a local gun shop despite Saadia’s attempts to alert the community to the possibility and shot himself in the head in the woods near their home.

That summer when I was twenty-three, they were continuing to hear this shot echo through their lives every moment of every day, although no one would be able to tell looking in. Bibijon spent her days in the small student housing apartment near the campus, cooking, cleaning, praying and talking quietly and intimately with Saadia. She was a tiny woman. I could embrace her whole frame between my shoulders and gently fold her in as if holding a bird in my hand. Even though Sana was now getting bigger, with a round head of dark, curling hair, and she could not carry him, she would sit with him on the bed when he cried, her good arm around him, thumping him rhythmically on the back with her paralyzed hand, sometimes singing quietly in Urdu. I would watch him respond with his whole body, calming, sinking deep into her chest, his sobs becoming sharp in-breaths. Very soon you could hear the relaxed breathing of near sleep. When mothers visited with colicky babies, she walked them, holding them closely and tightly to the soft part of her shoulder, thumping their small backs in a surprising way, always quieting them when no one else could.

One night a week or so into my stay, Bibijon made a soup based on a rich broth made of lamb livers from the Hallel butcher, seasoned with a mixture of spices only she knew, some variation on the infinite combinations that make up the concept of Curry. Its aroma had filled the house since lunch time, incredibly enticing, inducing embarrassing stomach rumblings even when no hunger was possible. Finally, dinner time arrived. On the one small patch of floor with no furniture, Saadia spread, as usual, a beautiful flowered cloth reserved for meal time. As she and Bibijon laid table settings (I was forbidden, still treated as a kind of guest), I sat cross-legged next to the cloth. Then the brought heaping bowls full of soup and plates of cooked greens from the tiny kitchen area and, laying them on the cloth, came to join me, chatting companionably, pulling their saris around their legs. Sana perched on a bed with a small plate of finger foods near him, Saadia and Bibijon taking turns feeding him broth from a small cup, he smiling and making sounds of satisfaction. After dinner, he was put to sleep with singing and Saadia, Bibijon and I sat talking, comfortably arranged on the beds grouped together in one room, Sana’s breathing like the presence of a small, warm animal.

A sense of completeness, of perfect comfort and peace, had settled with the evening, a feeling of another time, another culture. After talking for a while about their lives in Lahore, Saadia asked me to talk more about my own life, to know each other better she said. What they had spoken to me about their lives had been frank and straightforward. It would clearly be ungracious and ungenerous not to reciprocate. Their lives together had been full both of wonders and of horrendous grief. I was a young woman, raised in the privilege of the American middle class who had taken risks in ways only the secure can take. There were things that had happened in my life in the last year—events that had left me shamed and devastated—I had spoken of to no one outside the circle of my family and my closest friend. With these women from a background so sheltered, so distant from chosen risks, I had kept this world in me hidden, as if it might defile them. But in that moment of infinite capacity, I was conscious for the first time of my thoughts filing past through my mind as if on a ticker tape and for the first time of innumerable times to come, I instructed my mouth, despite its reluctance, to open and speak whatever it would. The words formed themselves and somehow burst their bounds. The story, the details, the emotions, I observed as they emerged as if a story from someone else’s life. As I spoke, Saadia translated softly for Bibijon whose English was rudimentary.

As I told it, the narrative became increasingly clear, and again for the first time, I recognized the volcanic aspect of the experience, how it had vomited forth the entire collection of building blocks I had carefully arranged during my adolescence. Here I was then, without justification, without defense. Bibijon nodded again and again as somehow she began to understand the reason for the tears now running down my cheeks and onto my shirt. Touching her paralyzed hand to the middle of her chest, she motioned to me with the other, patting the edge of the bed beside her.

“Come. Come.”

As if magnetized, pulled, I went to sit close to her, and she, taking me with her strong hand, pulled me gently to the floor, pulling my head against her knees. As I had come towards her across the room, I had seen some light in her eyes, not quite of sadness. Her eyes held me with a penetrating clarity as I had approached her from across the room, only seeing, nothing else. Surrounding my shoulders with her paralyzed arm, she now began to sing softly, holding me firmly against her and patting my back solidly with her other hand. thumping as if pounding some certain note into the enclosure of my body. Saadia, too, began to sing. Any sense of self dissipated as a fog disappears in a light wind. There was nothing to do but sink into the enormity of this stillness as grief opened itself like a dark blossom.

One bird called from some tree in the darkness. All others had roosted for the night.

Sing! Sing Forever!



Before I go on, I have to tell you something about my granddaughter.

No, no! I know, but I really have to tell you!

She sings opera. No, not like the kinder whizzes on the internet who stun you by singing ‘O Mio Bambino Caro’. She sings about the things happening in her day, the things she likes, what she feels, what she sees. She improvises. It’s a kind of arioso (“a light airy melodic commentary”), like a recitative but more musical and without the repetitions. We sing together or take turns. And she dances.

She has danced since she was only able to sit in her infant seat, rocking her body and waving her arms to the music of the French children’s songs her mother sang to her. When she could stand and then walk she danced to anything with intrinsic music—music itself, the rhythm of a dishwasher, the light dancing in the pool at the rose garden. All of life’s rhythms inspire some joyous response in her bones, in her cells. At her grandpa’s sixty-fifth birthday, when she was not yet two, she danced for hours in the middle of the living room, first to the guitarist playing in the corner, then to the recorded music, then to the rhythm of conversation and laughter, a spirit delighting in herself and the elation of music and movement. Now at three, when, yesterday, she was invited to a rock music fest, she danced with everything she has, swaying her hips, moving her feet in time with the music, ignoring everything else. Then she sang about it all the way home.

Her mother called us last night to pass on the joy of it all, her father and Lina playing in the background. Lina got on the phone and we talked about the apples, grapes and plums we had sent home with her a few days ago. She reported she had eaten them all. Then she asked, “How are you doing, Baba? What did you do today?” A rosy heat suddenly glowed like a wood stove fire being lit in my chest, the same sensation I remember from so many moments when my daughter was little, the sense that laughter, barely suppressible, was bubbling up from somewhere deep in my chest, driven by the delight that springs up from surprise, fed to some ridiculous degree by love. I told her about writing and working in the garden. “Wow!” she said. “I love you,” we told each other. She

A rosy heat suddenly glowed like a wood stove fire being lit in my chest, the same sensation I remember from so many moments when my daughter was little, the sense that laughter, barely suppressible, was bubbling up from somewhere deep in my chest, driven by the delight that springs up from surprise, fed to some ridiculous degree by love. I told her about writing and working in the garden. “Wow!” she said. “I love you,” we told each other. She asked “What are you doing now?” I explained we were sitting at the dining room table and Grandpa was trying out his new Fitbit that told him how fast his heart was beating. “Why?”, she asked. Walter replied, “Because he likes to.” She said, “I want to talk to Grandpa.” “What are you doing, Grandpa?” “Why do you need to know about your heart?” By this time, all four of the adults on both sides of the phone connection were feeling something like the people seated around the tea table in the scene in Mary Poppins when the table rises with each new crescendo in their laughter. Somehow we were managing, just barely, to keep our faces composed. We knew that if we didn’t use our best

By this time, all four of the adults on both sides of the phone connection were feeling something like the people seated around the tea table in the scene in Mary Poppins when the table rises with each new crescendo in their laughter. Somehow we were managing, just barely, to keep our faces composed. We knew that if we didn’t use our best grown-up restraint there would certainly be a stern, “Don’t laugh at me! It’s not funny!” which we would have to then say was true, even though we knew her entire being points directly to the real source of laughter.

Walter handed me the phone with a shrug and a smile and I, to distract her from her vigorous line of questioning which we struggled to make out over the phone,  asked if she could sing me a song.

“Which song?” she replied.

From the room on the other end of the phone I heard her mother say,

“Your own song. The kind you make up.”

Prompted, she began her opera. It went on for some time, about the dancing, and the apples, and her mommy and her daddy, playing soccer (she can already dribble down the field and kick a ball dropped onto her feet), her grandpa and everything. I wandered from room to room for awhile on speaker phone so Walter could hear.

We had to distract her again to end the song or it would have gone on and on into the night. It would have been a wonder, but even flowing brooks need to come to rest for awhile in quiet pools.

Tomorrow I will tell you stories about other grandmothers, connected as they are.

With My Daughter

In honor of today, my daughter’s birthday.


When we arrived at the wonderful old hotel, the weather was perfect–a bright blue, buff and green summer afternoon with a light wind off the ocean which was just the other side of the three story, wooden, green-painted Sylvia Beach Hotel. It had stood there calmly near the Yaquina Light House since 1913, its big wooden framed windows taking in the surroundings. Now it was a literary themed hotel, each bedroom designed around a different author.

Years before, we had been travelling around the coast and had peeked in to the hotel. I was intrigued. Around my daughter’s tenth birthday, thinking of places I could take her for a weekend all to ourselves, I had remembered the place with fondness, imagined the walks on the long stretch of beach, collecting shells and rocks, and decided it was just the setting.  The E.B White room was even the cheapest room, and thus the one we could afford. This had made me especially happy. As a kid of eight or nine, I had read every one of his books for children.  Then I had read them all aloud to my daughter— Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan—both of us reveling in his wonderful language and his beautifully drawn characters.   White was an icon in my childhood home, growing up with a father who was steeped in the world of literary editors, contemporary authors and the craft of writing—E.B. White, the eminently intelligent staff writer for The New Yorker, essayist, humorist and generally the model for clear, sparkling direct language with wit and wisdom. I associated him with my father’s old Royal typewriter with its solid black letters sitting in each of the huge white, round keys on long curving metal stems.

The host took us outside and around to the corner of the building where she opened an outside door and let us in to our room. As I lugged our old bags and a big plastic cooler through the door I thought “We’re here for two whole nights! We have all this time just to ourselves to do whatever we want!”  No mouths to feed, no work to go to, no places to run the kids. There were the two beds in a small, cozy room with a shelf full of White’s complete works, including “The Elements of Style” and his books of essays. There was a model of a trumpeter swan and a stuffed Stuart Little.  And then there was the old, black Royal typewriter, just like my father’s, sitting on a small wooden writing table.  I had found my heaven.

We put our clothes in the painted dresser and decided on a short nap after the long drive. We snuggled into a bed with lots of pillows and I read most of the first chapter of Stuart Little aloud before putting it beside me on the bed and closing my eyes.

When we awoke, the sun had gone up the dome of the sky to the other side of the hotel. It was late afternoon with the sun’s rays beginning to slant across the hotel, casting its biggest shadow. A perfect time for a walk on the beach. We put on bathing suits, shorts and salt water sandals and took a canvas bag with snacks and camera and headed around the side of the building to the path through to the beach grass. The smell of the salt and of fish made us skip, holding hands until the sand got too deep and we stumbled, laughing.

We ran down to the water, took off our sandals and waded into the cold, cold Pacific water, waves sucking in and out over the rocky sand, the smells of brine and seaweed rushing up our nostrils, the wind catching our hair. We didn’t go in very far. Too late in the day to attempt a real swim, but it was our baptism, splashing water on our faces and tasting the salt as it clung to our lips. That night we ate in our room, read aloud and chatted in the dark till we slept. After I no longer got answers to my questions, I drifted into that twilight before sleep, watching inside to see who this was in this moment, outside of the routine of life. There resting in my chest was kind of warm rosy light. I sank into it gently, as I would into the embrace of a lover.

The morning brought sun in through our southern window. I woke up early as usual, full of the kind of anticipation I’ve felt traveling in a foreign country. She woke more slowly, rumpled with sleep, smiling. Even on our tight budget with the extravagance of a hotel, I decided we would go out for breakfast and buy ourselves some special picnic food for lunch.  We sat together in a little beach town café, she eating pancakes and I eggs, toast and bacon, talking about this and that, the new school she would be attending, her little brother, looking forward to a trip to the aquarium. What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jump suit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. .

What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jumpsuit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. At some point in our sitting there together, I felt myself take a deep breath, as if reawakening to my surroundings, a café with windows looking out on a sunny street, families walking by, looking for their next enjoyment. I  paid the bill and we got into the car to drive to the aquarium.

What I remember is the cylindrical tank in the middle of a big room where transparent jellyfish, the size of the largest glass mixing bowls turned upside down, hung suspended in the salty brine. We stood transfixed, pointing out the intricacies of the light gleaming through each sack of protoplasm, bouncing off their long dangling glass tentacles, puddling in spots in the dusky water. Then there were the astonishing symmetries of their internal organelles, rings of transparent circles as if a glass blower had worked magic and put glass forms suspended inside glass spheres. The dance of the light and form enchanted us and we stood, moving around the tank slowly to see them in the different angles of light and perspective as groups of people came and went through the room, looking, commenting, ooing and ahing, laughing briefly with delight. \

We watched the sea otters in their large rocky pool, diving, swimming around each other, floating on their backs. We made eye contact with several, entering for a moment into a consciousness that experiences the world as if filtered through a smile. Their sense of humor permeated even the act of eating a clam. We saw sharks swim, drew in the brilliant colors of tropical fish and walked in the sparkling sun and dappled shade of the gardens of native plants outside. Hungry, we went back to the car and broke open our picnic of bread, cheese and turkey, sitting at a picnic table, laughing about what we’d seen.

I think we went back to our room then and took a nap, getting up soon to get out to the beach while it was still hot enough to dry out after a cold swim. My daughter and I both were creatures of ocean. She had learned to swim as a baby in our town in Southern California, underwater paddling with eyes wide open and bright. She’d loved to swim around in the warm water of the bay, where I swam out with her, side by side. I spent my earliest summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, in and out of the waters of ocean and lake all day, for a couple of summer weeks each yer. We swam now, the water piercingly cold, sputtering, laughing, challenging each other to swim a little longer. When we couldn’t take the cold another second, we walked out delicately over the rocky bottom. Spreading our towels, we lay for a bit in the hot sun, warming, relaxed.  The itch to explore the beach soon overcame me and we pulled on our shorts and tops over quickly drying bathing suits, gathered up our towels in our bag and set out.

The long spread of the sand, the expanse of water to the horizon, the dark rocks and cliffs within reach at the limit of our view, the smells, the warm air with barely a breeze, the patterns made by swarms of sandpipers running in groups in the surf, the sounds of sea birds, an occasional hawk screeching, children laughing, all combined to open some experience, some realm of perception so expansive that nothing was external. Both absorbed by this mysticism of ocean, we walked barefoot through the water, feeling the waves tickling back and forth over and under our feet, finding rocks of colors that exist nowhere else but under water, taking our time.

We finally arrived at the curve of the beach covered by a large, brown and gray rock formation, dotted with pools now at low tide, a rock cliff rising on the landside. Down the cliff thin streams of water tumbled, making a shower of  cold water beneath.

We each found our own pool to study, one that drew us, so we could sit as long as we liked to observe the world of water bugs, sea stars, sea urchins, feeding barnacles, mollusks, sea weeds and tiny fish for as long as it took to grasp the sense of this infinite network. Then, ready to shake ourselves, she took off her shorts and tee-shirt and, full of sheer delight, walked under the trickling shower from the stream above. I followed, both squealing. We lay down on the warm rocks to dry again, looking up into the sky above the cliff where a tall beach pine curved up from the grassy area on the cliff-top.

I watched as a Peregrine soared up above the tree on a current of air rising over the ocean. Then another joined it. I called to my daughter, absorbed by something in the pool beside her, to watch. Resting on air streams  between earth and water, gliding with wings spread perfectly, balanced and still, they came closer together with imperceptible movements, flying in tandem as if two fighter planes. As we watched, they both turned upside down in formation, spinning over in parallel, once, twice, miraculously, joyously. Propped now on our elbows, eyes riveted upwards, it was as if the exuberance of their joy transmitted itself directly through the molecules of air separating us. We flew with them.

It lasted for a brief moment or two, then they were gone, flying up and beyond the stretch of the cliff. We turned to each other in our astonishment, having shared something so rare and precious we knew it to be unbelievable. The afternoon had created an opening neither of us had imagined.

That evening, we ate in the little restaurant in the hotel, windows overlooking the beach, our one restaurant dinner. As if we were two grownups on vacation, we ate fish, I drank wine and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, warmly, gorgeously.  After dinner, we walked in the moonlit dark on the beach, playing with the water as we went. As we strolled, feeling the weightlessness of such atmosphere, she asked if she could tell a story. “Of course!” I said, and she began. She told her story for a while, perhaps of horses in the water, maybe unicorns, given her age. It was a story woven directly from her imaginings as they unwound into the night.

She stopped walking, stopped her story and said, “You tell it for a while.”

I picked up the story. It shifted, new characters emerging, lives developing.  We went back and forth like this for some time, until we began to realize we’d come quite a way down the beach and the sleepiness was beginning to overcome us. The story was losing its life. Before we turned back, still in the mood of going into the vastness, she asked me, “Could we do this again?”  I replied, “Oh yes. Maybe we could even write a book together.” “Oh yes,” she said. “Let’s do that!”

Those moments are imprinted in the memory of what I know to be the thread of this self, this one I inhabit still, joined by that cord of energy to this other self who has become a woman. She carries the same imprint somehow within her, stamped somewhere in the vastness of the interior.

Traveling Up The Coast

The day before yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of my daughter’s wedding. It was a hot day in Portland that year as it had been twenty-one years earlier when my daughter and I arrived in our new home in the Northwest in another July. On that day, we had traveled together for a week from Long Beach, California, up the Pacific Coast Highway all the way.

She was three at the time, just as my granddaughter is now. The sides of my abdomen were just thickening with the pregnancy that would be my son. Her father had gone ahead to start his new job and we had said good-bye to all our friends. I hadn’t wanted to leave. Life had been good in the warm weather on the bay with plenty of families around us with young children.  But life turned on its own events.  I decided to make the best of the time I had alone with my daughter. We would have a long road trip, wandering up the coast, stopping wherever fancy lead us.

Our household belongings had gone ahead in a moving van so I packed our bags for the week into the back of our Nissan and pulled out of our driveway in the old part of town for the last time. We were on the road! She was excited, in the back in her car seat.  She yelled “Bye everyone! Bye house!”

The trip started with familiar landmarks, the road out of town, then taking the long way through San Pedro and Seal Beach with the roiling landslide-heaved roadway, the two of us yelling the usual “Whee!” here and there as the road dipped and pitched. The sky was nearing blue as always in July before ten am, day after day, when the low morning clouds rolled off. The temperature was climbing, but not yet hot. We stopped to take a walk down the path to the beach where we came often to play in the sand and look for shells in the water. She ran ahead with her bucket down the wide trail, wispy hair blowing in the same rhythms as the sea grasses rasping in the breezes.  It was still morning. Plenty of time. No rush. Nowhere to be. We might just get to Morro Bay that day or maybe we’d find something else to woo us.  She ran to the water’s edge, the waves hissing in at her feet, and stood for a moment, pail at her side and shovel lifted as if in unconscious salute. We walked through the water for a while, side by side, splashing the moving water with our feet, then sat on a towel and had a bit of snack.  We waved good-bye to the beach with its odd old concrete wreck of a building, surrounded by a few crumbling concrete tables with shredded old fake bamboo umbrellas leaning this way and that.  I felt as if we were leaving some secret ruin we had discovered, still unexplored by others, our special spot where we’d told stories and made things up, now to be left for others to defile.

We travelled for just a few hours that day, taking Route One all the way around the big airport, up through Santa Monica, past Will Rodgers Beach, singing Raffi songs and pointing out things along the way.  Around Santa Monica, I’d decided to stop at my favorite restaurant for lunch at a place in Topanga Canyon with decks arrayed around a stream and “whole food”.  It was a splurge. We were doing that.

We had a leisurely lunch, with me even sipping a glass of white wine, until she began to get a little cranky. Time for a nap. We head off up the road. After she’d fallen asleep, I pulled over in a spot near Malibu that smelled of eucalyptus and had one of my own short naps to take the edge off.

I’m not sure I remember how far we got that day, but I remember the road trip games, one spotting animals and earning points based on the different species. Camels and elephants were one hundred points. We saw both that day. She got one and I go the other. I think she got the camel, the most exotic by our count. We laughed and maybe I cried a bit to myself, I’m not sure.

I’m pretty sure we stopped for another look at Hearst Castle the second morning, spending the most time looking at the swimming pool and the strange plants. We indulged in everything we wished, ice cream, beer, lingering over things that made sense to no one but us.


We meandered. We stopped when either of us saw something that drew us.  “Look at that, Mommy!” she’d point. I’d slow and if there was anything I could identify and we’d pull over and take a look. We walked on the beach at Big Sur and felt the wind and got absorbed by all the life in the tide pools. We drove the famous drive in Carmel and stopped at the Lone Pine to take photos.  We went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco and spent a few hours doing almost everything that could be done. We may have flown a kite in the Golden Gate park. That night, I think we made it to my friend Stephen’s in Palo Alto where she ran around and had a swing with me in the elevated chair he’d built that could be pulled up to the clerestory in the ceiling. We swayed back and forth getting a little woozy with the height.  My friend and I stayed up late talking while she went to sleep in the cozy nest of the loft.  The next morning, he rode her on the seat his wooden home-made bike and we left after breakfast, waving to him, his wife and stepson as we pulled out of the drive.


We went to the beach at Point Reyes as we’d done in the past. She had eaten sand there as a one-year-old. Now we joked together about it. We stopped at the Monterey Aquarium to admire the otters for at least an hour.  We stopped at gift stores, at any roadside attraction that didn’t look pornographic or crassly commercial, we picnicked and had an elegant dinner here and there, she sipping Shirley Temples. We were road companions of the best sort, forging our friendship further, she a novice at life and language and I on break from profession and the prescribed activities of parenting.


As we got into the woods of the northern California coast we stopped at Trees of Mystery, playing together among the weird forms despite the other tourists. Then we stopped in the Redwood State Park. I saw again how actually tiny in stature my road companion was, there among the huge Oxalis leaves that looked like a giant’s clover, she stood, head tilted back, round blond head, pudgy arms hanging at her sides, eyes taking in the sheer enormity of it all. “What do you think?” I asked. I don’t believe she was able to answer, totally dazed as she was. An old couple wandered through. The woman stood and looked at her for several moments before looking at me in the eyes, straight, deep, with a smile more in her eyes than on her lips. She turned and joined her husband as they wandered slowly, engulfed in the same awe.

That night, we found a small motel by the river with little log cabins and a swing set. We took a wonderful, cold refreshing swim together in the river where it slowed and eddied along the banks. Others were there, bathing in the evening sun filtering through the great trees pushing in towards the water. We ate sandwiches and climbed into the big, high bed. The movie “Gandhi” was on. We snuggled and watched it together, she asking questions as Ben Kingsley led the salt protest march to the sea and spoke to hundreds at an ashram. She fell asleep after a bit and I clicked off the TV, lying beside her in the dark, cool evening, listening to the river.

We explored the Sea Caves where the mad barks of seals echoed through huge rooms in the rocks like halls of an ancient castle, smelling of urine and seal feces. We stood by the ocean in Oregon and listened to the waves crash on the rocks.  We both still remember the surprise of finding a roadside “State Site” created especially for the Darlingtonia Carnivorous Plants that grow only in that one limited bog, their bright green hooded bulbous forms creating a perfect water trap for insects and adapted with leafy structures that resemble fangs or a serpent’s forked tongue, making them look beautifully like a hooded cobra.  We stopped at light houses and climbed at least one, wondering at the people who had lived there, tending the motion of the huge reflecting light. We stopped at a petting zoo. And finally, about a week after our good-bye to Long Beach, we arrived at our strange new suburban house in Vancouver Washington, over the river from Portland, in a place where there was no ocean to bathe in of an afternoon, no eucalyptus or palm trees, no hot sun beating down, and no friends to walk to in the evening. We would see.


There is a spacious sky always. It is vast and silent yet filled with the sounds of innumerable birds, clicking and humming insects, mummerings and songs. It is infinite and empty yet filled with the movement of countless particles of life. With our stories, we refer to it. We know it, yet never speak of it. We forget it easily and without care. It is often at the comings-in and the goings-out that we find ourselves living there, in that vastness, and are awed.




Our neighbor down the road brought rescue cows with her from the dairy farm in Massachusetts where she and her husband had worked.  They had inspired the owner to allow a small rescue operation, calves with medical problems that would, on any other farm, have led directly to their slaughter. My friend learned to nurse cows through all kinds of ailments and spent such long hours with them her thoughts and emotions melded with theirs.

When her husband died suddenly a couple of years ago and she had survived the engulfing grief sufficiently to be able to sleep just enough, she put four of the rescue cows in a trailer and set out for Whatcom County, Washington, to live with her brother and sister-in-law, pulling the animals behind her in her big, old, brown Ford Excursion.  A very quiet and solitary younger man who had worked with them diligently for years at the farm drove the rental truck, filled with hay.

They made a detour to pick up her son in California. When she arrived, the cows had not been out of the trailer for the twelve days of the trip. They stayed in the trailer for two more days while she and her son built the fences and modified the stall in the barn.  When finally the cows were able to leave the trailer for the relative comfort of the pen and the barn, my friend told us how they had demonstrated their ecstasy, rubbing their cheeks against her side and mooing with sheer exuberance.

Driven by all their pent up energy and the excitement of a new space, they managed an escape from the barn that very next morning. The largest of them, a steer of some four years, galloped past my friend’s bedroom window where she slowly unpacking.  Seeing him through the window, she dropped what she was doing, called for her sister-in-law and ran out the front door. By that time, he had run around the rows of lavender her brother and sister-in-law were farming and was headed back at a good clip down one of the aisles.

Fear in her bones that he would trample the precious lavender plants, she paused, trying to anticipate and guide his flight, but he turned and took off up another aisle before she could intercept him. On the far side of the lavender field he stopped, lowering his head to munch some clover.

“I sauntered up to him,” she told us, “walking a little in this direction, a little in that, looking at the lavender, lulling him into thinking he had all the time in the world.”

“When I finally got to him, we rubbed cheeks. I took hold of his halter and led him easily back to the barn.”

Her sister-in-law had already managed to lead the other cows back, she related, since they had docilely gone only a short way into the grass.

This steer who had gone on this nice run had been born with a hole in his heart. His name was Mason. My friend had nursed him intensively through for his first months, almost constantly at his side. He had survived.  The vet had told her he couldn’t make it past six months, never having had the experience of someone saving such a cow from the butcher. He had reached his sixth year and a weight of fifteen hundred pounds.

“We had such a connection. I know it sounds silly, but I could read his thoughts from across the yard. We would look at each other for long moments and understand.”

My friend had come to dinner one night. As we ate and drank wine, she told us about his death the day before. For days, she had been working with the vet to figure out what was happening to Mason, who was in pain and unable to stand. The vet had no experience with cows surviving with a damaged heart since they are all slaughtered soon after a defect is discovered. No domestic steer live past the age of two when the maximum “return on the dollar” is reached.

They tried everything they could think of—both curative and palliative medications, deep beds of hay to cushion his pain. She sat with him throughout the last days and nights, his great head resting on the crook of her arm, eye to eye, nose to nose. They had looked deeply into each other’s eyes, she talking to him about what was happening, reassuring him she would do whatever he felt he needed. As he breathed out, she breathed his breath in. As he breathed in, she gently blew her breath in through his nostrils. He could no longer sustain his weakness and discomfort. They had decided together to put him down the next morning.

She had given him the shot herself and ushered him through the letting go of life, friend to friend. For her, she said, it had been a profound ending of so many things, a loss of so much that was so loved.

“He knew what was happening.  We saw each other. We felt each other. I felt his letting go, his relaxing into what we had acknowledged.”

For many days after that night at dinner we didn’t see her, perhaps lost in the meanderings of emotion, until the other day she broke her head through the waters and pulled her big Ford up into our driveway once again.



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Several years ago now, they called me during a formal benefit dinner for the social service agency where I was a supervisor. My mother, they said, had just had another in a series of heart attacks which, at ninety-six, were usually barely noticed, multitudes of tiny capillaries having formed around her heart to share the load. This one, however, seemed to have been the final blow.

She was clearly leaving. The hospice worker, they said, was there, making her comfortable with morphine. Lyle, the companion I had hired to take her on outings, happened to have been there visiting another woman, and had gone immediately to be with my mother.  When my mother had moved from the east coast to be in an assisted living near me, she had been lonely during the days I couldn’t visit. I had tried to get her to hire someone to take her out but she was adamant she could find a friend herself.

One day, the director had called me in a panic to say they couldn’t find my mother. I was on my way over when they called again to say they had found her a few blocks away down the busy road. She hadn’t wanted to come back with them, saying she was just taking a walk to Times Square. They were ridiculous to think such a familiar trip was dangerous.

So I’d tricked her. I told her Lyle was a retired woman I’d met. She was bored, I told her, and looking for company, for a new friend. After just a couple of lunches with her, she was totally captivated by this woman who was lively, excited about life and let her teach her French.

Despite the deception and the money I paid her, a genuine friendship had grown. This was a caregiver who cared from the heart. I had watched her cradle my mother tenderly in her arms when she had become inexplicably sad. She’d hugged her and consoled her one day when a caregiver had accidentally died her hair a neon purple-red. She’d taken her for a visit up the road to Mt. Baker and turned back when my mother was overcome with panic at the site of the mountain looming larger and larger around them. She’d danced with my mother in the spring tulip fields. She’d learned to speak whole sentences in French.  When I walked into the room, she was there with my mother, stroking her thin hair, helping to pull on her nightgown and talking quietly in her ear.

As I’d gotten into my car at the hotel, I called my daughter in Seattle to tell her it was time. As I’d clicked off my cell, I thought how like a birth this seemed—calling someone to say the labor had truly started.  There on my mother’s bed, with her head cradled softly on Lyle’s shoulder like a child, we talked, all three.  I was still in the long black dress and scarf from my fancy dinner and my mother said, as she often did when I first walked into her room,

“You’re so beautiful!” exaggerating, as if discovering something for the first time.

We kissed each other’s cheeks, lingering a bit more than usual.  As Lyle was helping her settle back on her pillow, I said,

“You look so nice and comfortable.”

“Yes”, she said “Delicious,” with a little sigh.

“How was your day?” I asked.

She paused to think for a moment. I thought she had drifted away. Then she said, with certainty,

“It was good. I accomplished.”

Savoring it, she repeated, “I accomplished,” and smiled to herself as she let Lyle settle her back on her pillow and her eyes, with heavy lids, closed.

I called my husband to tell him the state of things. He had chosen, long before, to stay at home at this moment and allow us our intimacy.  My daughter called to say that her husband, someone my mother could somehow remember when she forgot everyone else, would drive her.  Since my mother was sleeping deeply, I thought it was a moment to prepare the celebration we could share with her as drifted.

Across the street, I bought a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream–my practically-tee-totaling mother’s only indulgence–some French cheese and some bread. I walked back with it and set out the sherry glasses she’d preserved from her wedding seventy years before on the round glass and metal coffee table she’d bought in the ‘60s as a sign of her avant-guard tastes. I pulled over the box of photos I’d salvaged from the mice two years ago at her home three thousand miles away and began the wait for both my daughter’s arrival and my mother’s exit.

While she slept, snoring lightly, I began sifting through the scores of black and white photos I’d left for her as a project she never remembered she had. Memories of emotions, both painful and warm, ran through the thread of these moments in time. We had fought so hard for so many years. I had felt so much exasperation, desperation to be away from her, even years after I’d gone to college. Then the last years of warmth and intimacy, she fighting to maintain every shred of autonomy possible.

Even though Harvey’s is much too syrupy for my taste, I poured myself a sherry glass full and sipped it, beginning to feel the reliable warmth spreading through my veins.  I settled back on the sofa, feeling the fatigue in my chest, and closed my eyes. There, in the resulting dark space was the image I’d just seen in the photo I still held in my hand, too tired to put it away–my mother with thick, long dark hair pulled back with pins, a thin, lithe attractive young woman with lively, challenging eyes, her knees bent, a tennis racket balanced in her hands as if to receive a back hand shot from my young, handsome father on the other side of the net.  I watched this for a while in my mind’s eye, noticing the drape of the tennis skirt and the tenseness of the muscles of her arms and shoulders.

I must have dozed for a while and was awakened by the hospice nurse opening the door quietly to check in. She nodded hello, saw my mother was resting peacefully, lifted my mother’s arm to take her pulse, turned toward me and whispered,

“She’s doing well.”

I nodded.

“If she wakes up and seems uncomfortable, give me a call. I’m sleeping here in an empty bed tonight.”

So like a midwife, I thought.

I pulled over a chair next to the bed to sit beside my mother’s head. The skin of her face was like translucent rice paper, splayed with darker patches. I noticed how it stretched gently over her convex cheeks and folded over in soft waves down her neck. Through the opening of her nightgown, I studied the bony ridge of her shoulder-blade and the beginning of the familiar valley that was her mastectomy scar. I had seen it first in the weeks after her return from the hospital when she, who was always up and busy from early morning, lay in her bed, day after day, recovering.  I remembered the empty feeling in my gut when, at ten, I first saw the angry red and purple jagged lines around the indentation in her chest.

As I sat, looking, my mind a bit blank with fatigue, a fast series of deathbed scenes from old movies and TV shows flipped by behind my eyes. I smiled to myself. The triteness of such moments. The reality of this. The stale-ish smell of her skin, the present quiet of her soft breathing, the sense of calm, sitting there together. I went back to the sofa and pulled out the album I’d started.

“Look, Mom.” I said.

“Who was this person standing next to you and Uncle Abe? Looks like you were at Cape Cod. I think it’s the light that makes me think that, and the pine tree in back of you.”

“And this one. Your friends around the swimming pool, and me, fifteen, sitting there on the white chair, playing the guitar. I must have been playing that folk song I’d just learned. You look happy and I look like I’m trying to be Joni Mitchell.”

I picked up one after another, talking about each one with her from across the room.  I knew she was listening from some remote, amicable distance, just as she’d done when we sat together at the kitchen table, so many mornings, with the light coming through windows, sometimes cool, sometimes warm, above the worn café curtains, she half-listening, always following other thoughts of school, of worries.

Sometime during the flow of this conversation, my daughter was suddenly at the door with her husband behind her. As I got up and we came together and hugged, my daughter, so young, her skin cold and fresh, taking off her coat, kissed her grandmother–who continued her sleep–very softly on the cheek.

I invited her husband to stay, but he declined, saying he’d go back to the city and work in the morning. He found the hospice nurse who was still up and brought a cot into the room for me. We made up the sofa for my daughter and the cot for me and we settled in, drinking a bit of sherry, eating bread and cheese and talking about times with my mother, both of us aware she might be listening, pitching our memories and the tenor of our voices to include her, talking about the difficult and the joyous—so she would know we encompassed it all.  The moon was full and bright outside the window.

We lay back and continued to talk intermittently, like a sleep-over party where one friend had slept early, all the while listening to my mother’s breathing. We fell into light sleep. Each time the breath paused, suspended, I came awake, aware my daughter was also suddenly alert. We’d wait together for the next breath and then drift back.

We had both fallen into a deeper sleep, when, opening my eyes a bit, I noticed the moon was gone and there was the beginning grey light of dawn. Quickly, I woke myself fully, realizing my mother had taken a breath just as my consciousness had begun to open. I waited for the next, holding my own breath, suddenly aware my daughter was doing the same. It didn’t come.

“I think she’s gone.” I heard myself say, immediately feeling the choking of unexpected tears in my throat.

“Yes”, my daughter said, “Yes. I think so!”

We both jumped up, pushing off blankets and pillows. There I was, the mother myself, crying and saying “Mom! Mom!” putting my head on her chest, hugging her, my daughter behind me, hugging me and touching my mother’s hand. I, the adult who had remained calm in front of this daughter for all the years of divorce, kept the most intense for the darkness and my friends.  Coming from the calm of the night, such a wave of intense emotion had not been imaginable, yet here it was, like the scenes from the movies, the best and the worst.

We stood back in awe of the force of what had just happened, looking at her face and then her body, covered in a sheet and a light blanket.

“Look!” I said, inhaling sharply with the choking of tears in my throat.

“Look how there was something there one minute, fire, warmth, thoughts, and, as soon as the breath left, it was gone. Right away. Like a switch turning off. Boom. Gone. Just something left that looks like a pile of clothes and paper.”

The breath itself had done its time moving through her body. This breath had not gone.  I, for instance, had caught it in that moment of balance in waking, in the pause waiting for the in-breath. My daughter had caught it in her moment of attention. All those who had passed through her life, talking, looking, breathing, had breathed it and were passing it constantly, back and forth, in and out.

We leaned over her, embracing that empty form and each other.  As the first intensity of emotion began to die down like a wave receding from the shore, the last thing I’d heard her say, so mundanely, came back to me.

“I accomplished. I accomplished”,

She had not been reviewing just her day, as she had every day, but her life.  And it was good. She had recognized in that wide-open moment, that the thing most important to her life had occurred. She had accomplished things. Important things. She had taught well. She had raised a child. She had fought political fights. She had helped friends. She had accomplished. And she was done.

I remembered how, a few months before, as we sat together in a doctor’s office after a heart attack, she looking vulnerable in her medical gown, I asked her if she were afraid to die. She’d said, after a short pause in which she seemed to savor the answer,

“No. Not really.”

I asked her how she would like her death to be. She’d replied,

“I’d like to just disappear one day, drift away like a cloud. One minute I’d be there and the next, people would say, ‘Where’s Pearl? I thought she was just here.’ “

“I don’t want anyone to be sad. I don’t want anyone to cry. They’d just notice, ‘I guess she’s gone’, they’ll say.’”

After a while, we smoothed her blankets and stroked her cold head.  I went to tell the nurses she had died. The motions of practical life began again.  Breakfast was being served. The sun was high in the sky. My husband and my daughter’s husband were on their way over to help. The coroner would come. We would figure out the arrangements for her body and her cremation. We would spend the next two days moving her furniture, talking to the funeral home. It was all about movement. Life. Breath.




And then there is the moment of the first breath. The ushering in.

Nearly three years ago, my granddaughter came in to life one early morning. Each birth is a birth, a commonplace occurrence. It seems somehow trite, tinged with narcissism to tell it, what young women do together when they are in the throes of young motherhood, excited they have participated in something so complex, so fraught with dangers and seeming miracles. Yet each birth stops time in its tracks and opens into the depths of experience so little traveled.  It is a story that reaches down into the well of the real things we have told each other for thousands of years.

My daughter called that Saturday when things were beginning to settle at the end of the day. She sounded a bit tired. She told me her waters had broken and the contractions had started at least a bit. The midwife had told her to come in to the birthing center. It was procedure.

It was late in the day. I’d been waiting for this moment for many days. Even so, it was somehow unexpected. As I hung up, I thought of how many births happen late at night or early in the morning. Get there soon, I thought.

It came back to me as I dressed–the trip to the first birth I’d witnessed so many years ago as a woman of twenty-two.  How time seemed to stop as I drove to my friend’s house after getting the call labor had started in earnest. There was a sensation a hole had opened in the fabric of time. Lights had turned green for me as I drove, focused.

I threw some things into a bag, said good-bye to my husband, got in the car and set out to Seattle, thinking as I drove of things to talk about with my son-in-law to keep him at ease.  His culture had not prepared him to be at his wife’s side during labor and birth, but after long and quiet self-examination, he had determined he would do whatever he could to care for his wife and be present for the birth of his daughter.  I could be there to distract him with conversation and hopefully some laughter and wisdom.

When I arrived at the birthing center in Seattle, I parked and made my way through the wandering halls, finally finding the group of birthing rooms arranged around a circular nursing center. It was already late at night. The midwives directed me to the room lined with windows where my daughter was resting on a birthing bed, smiling, dressed in a bright flowered yellow and rose loose Khabyle house dress. She had spent months with her husband’s family on the north coast of Algeria, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and the shore of the Mediterranean, working on a visa for him. She had worn this dress at home with her many sisters-in-law and had kept the custom when she’d returned.

In a few minutes, a woman dressed in a blue hospital gown with a gauze mask walked into the room. I recognized her as a close friend of my daughter’s. I’d met her once or twice and knew her as a young woman who exuded competence and calm, a woman with a steady, gentle gaze. She had attended a Master’s program with my daughter and was, in addition, a nurse. She had volunteered, without hesitation, to be a doula at my daughter’s birthing. My daughter had been overwhelmed by this offer, knowing how skilled she was and particularly how well she was able to draw the truth from the arcane language spoken in the medical world surrounding a birth. An interpreter and mediator as well as a firm support.

She had arrived, she said, shortly after my daughter, coming from the end of a double shift at the hospital where she worked.  Matter-of-factly, she told me that the morning before she’d started that double shift she’d been at her son’s soccer game and screamed her head off. When she’d gotten my daughter’s call she realized she had a scratchiness in the back of her throat whose cause could be one thing or another.

“I can’t be sure, so I put on a mask. I really, really didn’t want to let her and the baby down.  I wanted so much to be here. It’s a small thing.”

She wore the stuffy mask for the next thirty hours.

We chatted together a bit, the four of us, in the quiet space before a contraction.  There was joking and laughter, my son-in-law lightening the mood. He’s good at that. A mid-wife wandered in, introduced herself to the two of us who had just arrived and checked on my daughter’s progress.

So began a long night, followed by a long, long day that stretched into a second night. What I was to remember afterwards was the sense of women together, totally focused on the energy of moving life from inside a woman’s body to the outside, a sense of knowing each other and the needs of the moment without question, of observing the reality of each of those moments and digesting its emotion, its signals, its demands as if we were all breathing one breath, riding together the waves of an ocean, ignoring fatigue. And the warm companionship and deep, quiet emotion of my son-in-law, working within the flow of all this.

Since she had begun the long day just ending without having slept the night before, we tried to let my daughter rest as much as she could. Between the times she had to be awake to meet the rising pain in her abdomen and back, we reminded her to close her eyes, but she never was able to sink into real sleep.

As they do, the pains became more and more intense with passing time. We took turns kneading and pushing our fists into her lower back to help her bear it.  She stood now with her forearms bracing her on the bed. Her husband, being the strongest, took many turns. The doula, being the most skilled, took even more. The midwives wandered in and out, seeming unconcerned.

As the hours dragged on, she became more and more tired. She took long turns in the warm whirlpool water, relaxing as much as she could while we massaged her through contractions, sometimes alone with her husband, forming a space where her anxieties could be heard.  As she began to look more and more like a limp, wet rag doll, he visibly fought harder and harder to bear his own anxiety. He left the room from time to time. I could see him through the windows, walking in the street below, smoking.

The midwives, now different women after the change in shift, clearly were beginning to be concerned as they talked together quietly.  The doula had been trying to coach my daughter as much as she could, not wanting to usurp the midwives’ authority. She tried to help her visualize how to use her muscles to push with the natural force of her uterus’s contracting muscles.

But as she became more exhausted, it was increasingly clear she had not found a way to work effectively. She was confounded and confused. We asked the new midwives to help her figure out how to push with more efficiency. They tried at last, but with each push there was still little movement of the baby down the birth canal.

As if seeping into the air itself, a draft of fear was creeping into the room. It had an ancient smell. Somehow, as the puffs of emotion went through me, they suddenly uncorked a memory of giving birth to my daughter, this same daughter who was suffering now, beginning to struggle with her fear. My body, without urging, remembered a distinct sensation, the sensation of my midwife’s two fingers, pressing painfully hard down on the floor of my vagina while she said,

“Push right here! Push where you feel that pain! Focus it right here.”

This was the moment when, bordering on the same rush of fear my daughter must now feel, fear that something might go seriously wrong, that somehow no baby would be born, my mind and my body had organized themselves as one. Now, there in the room with my daughter, a grown woman, I took the midwife to the side and explained what might work.   She looked at me skeptically. I quietly insisted. “Try it. Now.”  Recognizing there was no alternative but to listen, she went to my daughter and told her what she was going to do. She helped her climb back up on the birthing bed.

Standing at my daughter’s head, I whispered in her ear, feeling the reverberations of voices of women’s voices through the millennia, “This is what helped me when you were being born. It works.”  The midwife pressed with her fingers and my daughter cried out with the pain and pushed. The baby’s head moved!

By this time her energy was at such a low ebb she was too weak, even with this new help, to push hard enough with each contraction.  A few hours earlier, the midwives had put a monitor on my daughter’s abdomen to monitor the baby’s heart rate. When there was less anxiety in the atmosphere, my son-in-law and I had rested on the window seats talking a bit together and listening. As my daughter rested between contractions, the beeps of the monitor sounded like a little horse trotting down the road. As the contraction started, the horse would speed to a near gallop. We would say,

“There she goes! Running, running! Go horse! Go!”

As the contraction progressed, it would slow to a languid walk, like a heavy plow horse. As it slowed, our pulses clearly quickened, our attention focused acutely on helping the horse make it down the lane. We commented to each other about the little horse, imagining its color and the look of its head. Now, the whole room was focused on the pace of that horse. It was clear its plodding, tired pace was leading it down the road toward darkness, just as its spirited gallop was clearly filled with the exuberance of life.

Soon, another woman walking tall and confidently was ushered into the room. The midwives introduced her to us as the obstetrician on call. They explained they had called her in to help them assess the progress and look at options. Her eyes in a slim, olive-skinned face were clear and her glance direct and penetrating.  She looked into my daughter’s eyes.

“I’m going to examine you and see and see how far that baby’s progressed. We may need to help you out some more.”

As she said this, another contraction gripped hold. The doctor reached in, skillfully easing the opening, helping the head to move further forward.

She said, “That was good. There was more progress. But I’m concerned, I have to say. You’re so tired and have clearly worked so hard and there’s still a significant way to go. It could happen, but you might well not have enough left in you to push as hard as it takes.”

“Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go prepare for a C-Section. It will take a little while. Meanwhile, if you end up pushing that baby out while I’m gone, I wouldn’t mind a bit.”

They agreed together to do whatever was necessary, two women deciding calmly in the midst of it all.

She and my daughter exchanged a slight smile as she walked away.

As the door closed behind her, my daughter came to life as a contraction hit.

“Ahhh!” we heard.

“Okay. Let’s do this!”

Her friend and I went back to our respective places at her left and right sides, bracing her with our shoulders under her armpits as she rose to a sitting position and bore down with real strength. We found we were all screaming together, “Ahhhhh!!!!”

It was as if she had somehow tapped into the strength and freshness of a full night’s sleep, pulling strength from deep within her spine. The horse’s footfalls slowed to a lazy, slow, slow walk as if it were impressed by the force of the waves it felt as they washed through, over and over.

“She moved!  She moved!” my daughter yelled.

As the midwife at the end of the bed checked, she said,

“Yes! Definitely a good one! Keep doing that.  Whatever you were doing, keep doing that!”

For the next twenty minutes or so, an eternity expired. Each time she pushed, we were all stupefied by the energy she pulled from somewhere well beyond the capacity of her physical body. In all this, we noted in the peripheries of consciousness that the father was no longer in the room. I thought briefly “He’s terrified of losing her. The intensity. The screams, The blood.”

As the three of us working together, somehow persevering through each wave, saw the baby fully crowned in the mirror the midwife held, the doula went quietly out of the room, bringing him back saying,

“Come. You can be here to see your daughter born.”

He came quickly with her, and though he could not watch, he stood by his wife, touching her, reassuring her as she pushed until the midwife said,

“You can come and help catch her. Come now!”

He stepped around as his wife began another push and the head slipped out and back. With the next and final push, the baby slid out with a gush of fluid into the two sets of waiting hands. As excited tears welled in his eyes, they were reflected around the circle of women. The mother, oblivious to everything now except the baby and her husband who held her, called to him across the bridge of their intimacy to bring her. The midwife gently took the baby from him and they walked her up together to the mother’s waiting arms.  Two sets of hands, masculine and feminine, lay her with ineffable gentleness on her mother’s chest, where she met her mother’s hands for the first time.

If you have ever been in the presence of a birth, you know what expansive joy and nearly explosive relief were present in the next moments as the women and the father worked together to position the baby, greet her, birth the placenta and cut the cord and, as the agony of the afterbirth was passed, how calm began to descend. As the midwives wiped and weighed the baby, I heard one say quietly to the other,

“I wish all the dads were as wise as this one. I wish they knew how to respect their own limits like he did.  I was truly impressed.”

Culture meets culture.

Much later in that first day of her life, as we had all slept a bit, the parents alone with this new life, I held my granddaughter against my shoulder, wrapped tightly in her swaddling blankets, feeling the heaviness of her sleep and the fragrance of her.

“When I saw her there on your chest, her eyes looking out,” I said to my daughter who was resting on the birthing bed,

“I thought, ‘My God! Look at that. Not only is she alive and breathing and moving, she’s beautiful!’ and I realized all along I’d been rehearsing the possibility she was likely as not to be as ugly as a plug–or deformed. But I knew I would still love her enormously. After all, my great aunt Bella was an ugly son-of-a-gun and was an amazing woman with huge intelligence.  But, ‘Miracle of miracles,’ I thought as I had looked at into her eyes for the first time, ‘She’s actually beautiful!,‘ “

“Not that it matters!” I added, smiling.

“Oh no!” my daughter laughed. “You did?”

“Me too! I thought that same thought as I looked at her face as I held her. I thought ‘How could it be?’ But I knew I must be the only one thinking that–a mother’s fears!”

As tears squeezed out of our eyes, we laughed as if we might not stop. I thought of my own mother, the one who had adopted me after years of trying and never had the same opportunity for that anticipation.  And then the mother who had, before such pain of separation.  In the expanse of this overwhelming joy, I ached for them both.



The Turn of the Season


Yesterday afternoon, as I was weeding the strawberries, I got a call from my only remaining mother. Her name is Toni, one of the very few women in the universe with my name. I got it from her. She had thought it would be a faint thumbprint on my forehead, to inevitably be washed away by the flood of love from new parents when they adopted me. It stuck, maybe from a sense of gratitude, maybe compassion, maybe unknowing, but my new mother recognized it as my name.

It was right about this time thirty years ago that I met her.  My birth father had made the voyage out from upstate New York to Vancouver, Washington, a few weeks before. He had wanted to give her some time to absorb the impact through him. He had wrapped us in his large warmth and generosity, sealing the bonds all around, and had gone back to move forward with a life that included five children now instead of four and four grandchildren instead of two and to weave us into his life with Toni, his wife.

The anticipation of her arrival was immense.  When I was a child, I had looked at my mother knowing that, unlike other children, I had not come from inside her body. A sense of vertigo would overwhelm me, like Alice falling down the yawning hole. I had sung to this first mother, connecting to her love though the sound of my voice, wandering out in search of her.

Preparing now for her coming, the house was as immaculate as I could make it. There was a basket of primroses on the table. In addition to being a history professor, I knew she was a master gardener, so the garden was weeded. I had gotten a haircut for the event and the kids were all bathed and brushed.  We went to the airport early, I with my new camera in hand.  As we waited, I sat with my eighteen-month-old son on my lap in one of those molded plastic airport chairs of indeterminate brown, watching the sky and the clouds drifting by over the waiting airplanes.  I stood up, thinking I saw her plane taxiing into the gate.

As I turned back to gather my coat, I watched in a frozen moment as my son held my camera over the stairwell behind his seat and let go of it. An infinite moment later–the slight crunch. There are no family photos of my first mother’s arrival, of her first hugs, of the grace of her movement and the laughter, of standing next to each other to compare our heights, of looking for the similarities of eye color, chin, hair—of sweeping up her things and swirling to the car in a kind of awkward dance in which feet seemed to have difficulty making contact with floor and sidewalk. 

The next scene is at the house where I sat across from her at the wooden kitchen table with a glass of white wine. As we talked in rushes, full of questions, we looked at other furtively yet greedily, periodically lowering our eyes as if to shield from too much sun. Her speech was so familiar, yet new, like some perfected, more patrician version of my own.

As I watched her talk, I felt an uncanny sensation of familiarity that one sometimes has when seeing the face of your child or your spouse after a time of separation, and then the dizzying sensation of looking into a glass. As if watching myself in a shop window, seeing only some of the image but catching the reflected movement, I saw she moved her hands when she talked just as I did, with the same expansive gesture and the same gaze. Later, as we sat in the living room, I watched her sitting close to my son and daughter, with her arm draped over the back of the sofa.  In the way that arm found its comfort was the incontrovertible evidence of the ineffably subtle information passed on in the DNA. Her turn of phrase, her love of language, the music of her movement all emerged from the same place deep within those twists of adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. Somehow those things had persisted even through the immense force of the ocean of experiences that had shaped us.

As we stood in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, kids underfoot, she said,

This sounds really odd, but do you mind if I smell the top of your head? When each child was born, I smelled their heads and each time the fragrance was so deeply familiar, so sweet. It was such a treasure.  My grandchildren had the same smell. I would recognize it anywhere. Let me see if you still have that fragrance, even faintly.”

As I bent down to let her take in the smell, something passed between us.  She said,

Ah yes! That’s it.”

And then,

Do you know, ever since you were born I’ve felt something connected us like an umbilical cord of energy that extends from somewhere around my solar plexus to that same point in you.  I remember being struck that Jane Eyre spoke of the same kind of channel. She described it as a cord of connection that began from somewhere under her left rib and tied to a place in Rochester.”

We stood for a moment, feeling the warmth in that place where the ribs come together, over the heart.

Yes. I know it,” I said.

I have never dared to speak of the next part of this passage in which she expresses the fear of the bleeding within that would happen if he were to leave her. And then the terrible abandonment of his eventual forgetting. It was not just I who was abandoned.

It had become a forbidden love for her, I thought.

Now, after we have churned through all the years of initial joys and family complications and my birth father has died, we speak as friends who are still somehow a bit shy of the deep connection, who know where the hurts lie. We skirt around them, delicately, sharing our passions for politics (just to the edge of divergence), gardens, and most important, family, still connected by a vibrating cord of energy, fueled perhaps by those nucleotides of DNA and the empathy they have lent to all the movements of life that have worked to pull us apart.




A Trip to Indiana (Part 2)

Returning from the voyage to my son who will turn thirty in a week, I watch the images of our last hours together drift across the sky outside the window.  After having coffee that morning, he drove me to a spot in the outskirts of Bloomington where suburban houses gave way between to woods. I’m no longer used to deciduous forests.  The twisting black forms of the oaks contrasting with the lighter ash and the understory trees, clinging to their brown and whitening leaves is extraordinary to me now.

My son was driving and we were bathing in the kind of comfortable companionship we haven’t been able to experience together for many years. We had spent hours together relaxing in his rented house with his girlfriend and without her. Unwinding the time, there were the right moments to ask questions, the right moments to say things long unsaid, the right moments to dive in to answers long unarticulated, to cry some, to laugh some. We talked about the way we experience things. We even meditated together. There was enough time for it all.

It was my last morning with him. After we went for coffee and pastry at his favorite coffee shop, I suggest there’s time for a walk before he drops me off at the bus to the airport. He thinks a bit and says he knows a place he’d like to show me, a place nearby he hasn’t been to yet. That was why we were driving now through these forests of twisting dark winter bark.

He thinks we are close. We see a wooden sign with colorful letters saying “Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.” He explains he had heard about this place from a friend, with its peaceful walks on the grounds. Some sense like the quickening of pregnancy touches me–that this man, my son, the economist, the rationalist, would chose this place to come with me. A curious tickling thing awakening somewhere inside the vastness of my mind.

We drive in slowly past a shrine in the trees and prayer flags draped through the woods.  As we park in front of a brick building decorated with dark red, green and yellow paint and with golden figures perched on the roof, we look at each other briefly, seeing reflected a bit of surprise and wonder. Getting out of the car and walking towards the entrance, we take in the surrounding grounds, with stupa, grass and walkways.  In a state of unknowing, we wander in through the entrance. As we look at the displays in the hallway, a young monk, dressed in maroon robes, passes by into the gift shop. We follow, nodding hello.

My son is captivated by the sacred paintings and artifacts in the shop. As I look around, I find he has lingered over a wall of prayer beads.  He says “I want to buy something. I feel like contributing to this place.”  He lifts a set of black beads off the wall and asks what I think.  Somehow, clearly, he has made an important choice. Something had drawn him to these. My son has recognized something. The connection is evident as he holds them in his hand. He pays the young monk who makes the transaction quietly.

We leave the building and to take our walk around the rest of the center. We examine the prayer wheel and spin it together, walk around the Stupa, feel the calm. At the far end of the stretch of grass is the temple, topped by golden figures. We take off our shoes in the entry hall and walk into a room of splendor, walls painted orange and covered with Tibetan sacred paintings, topped by intricate green and maroon designs. A golden Buddha presides over a large alter with paintings, flowers, a photo of the Dalai Lama. Icons of other religions are placed around the hall. Abundance. A spontaneous mood of generosity, of bounty.  We leave donations in the envelopes, wherever they go. Again in calm, we retrieve our shoes in the entrance hall and walk out together, connected by fronds of silence.

We take photos of each other against the background of the bare forest and the prayer flags, forgetting the rest of the walk we came for.

Now I am at the airport again, watching the sky through the large windows, feeling the presence of my son who hugged me, got back into his car there in front of this airport and returned to his home and his computer, and later to make dinner with his girlfriend, following out the threads of a life hidden to me, like the lands beneath the clouds.


A Trip to Indiana (Part 1)

I had decided to go see my son in Bloomington, Indiana just before his thirtieth birthday. There I was, waiting for two hours at the airport for the flight to Chicago. In the large airport hall in Seattle people were seated in almost every seat, waiting for flights all over the country.

As I settled in to a seat comfortably spaced between groups of travelers, I began to notice a loud, sharp barking sound from the corner of the huge space. A small dog, I thought, caged and panicked. “How could someone inflict that on a dog?” I thought, and buried, in that place where self is stored, “Why would they inflict that on a crowd of people?”

It repeated, over and over, becoming an annoying random break in consciousness.  The most remarkable thing was that no one else in the large space appeared to notice. No heads turned, no one turned towards a companion to remark. Perhaps there were one or two furtive glances in the direction of the sound that were quickly modified, as if they had really intended to look at the planes taking off or at the reservation desk.

As it continued and no one else seemed bothered, I began to question my interpretation. Under cover of walking to the restroom, I turned to look in the direction of the sound. In the corner where the sound seemed to originate I could see nothing but a woman and maybe a child or two. No sign of a cage or a dog on someone’s lap.

The barking continued intermittently when I’d returned to my seat to continue my wait. As I sat, looking out at the sky through the endless windows, it began to dawn on me that it must be a person making these sounds. As my interpretation shifted, the sounds seemed more and more like human utterances, though wildly sharp and piercing.  A child with a severe case of Tourette’s? A person with autism?  The lack of response from the waiting crowd was now a gesture of compassion, of empathy or perhaps of embarrassment mixed with a desire to avoid the shame of being the first to acknowledge. Maybe the cries are becoming fraught with the anxiety of being in this strange, stressful place. Perhaps it’s an expression of what we all feel. Perhaps as this person settles into some acceptance of the difficulty, as we all have had to do, the yelping will begin to subside.  One of the cries takes on more shape. “Aiy! Aiy! Fuck you! Fuck you!”  No one turns towards the sound.  I look at the weather in Bloomington on my Smart Phone and think “Who is this human? What is the story?” not asking, not acknowledging, experiencing the collective mind of all those gathered in this waiting space.

Later, as we fly, the clouds below are a continuous floor of cotton, like the rolls that come in a box.  An occasional rent in the fabric reveals, almost equally white, mountains and then squares of fields. These places are receiving the sun. The unseen are not.

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The Reunion (Part 2)

The voice of my father. This is the voice of my father.

There is no distance in space now between us despite the weight of the receiver in my hand, the recognition of three thousand miles. His voice is sitting right inside me, the intensity wiping away everything else. There is no wall of separation. The wind of this energy is passing through us both.

“Yes, you’re my daughter!  It’s you! We’ve been waiting, hoping for this call for years. But we didn’t really dare think you would want to contact us; would find us. It was too much to ask.”

“Tell me about yourself? Where do you live?” he asks.

“I live in Vancouver, Washington…”

Before I can go on he says,

“Oh, yes! That’s marvelous. Washington State! Marvelous! Are you alright?”

“But of course you are! I can tell. Wait, let me tell you about you!”

“You’re tall. You’re blond with brown eyes. You’re beautiful and intelligent.”

Relishing this paternal embrace in a way I had never anticipated, I hear myself saying, “Yes! Yes, that’s right”, inwardly blushing at the “beautiful,” almost wanting to stop him.

“You were born at Lenox Hill Hospital. Your mother—her name is Toni—just like you — I can’t believe it — held you for three days. This didn’t usually happen if the baby was being given up, but the nursery was being painted. She was heartbroken to give you up.”

“How did your parents keep that name? How did they know? How did they have the generosity?” are his next questions.

“I don’t know. My mother said that it was just something she just knew, something she knew was essential to keep. She insisted, even though my father thought she was crazy to keep it. He bowed to her.”

“What an incredible act of intuition, of pure resonance! Your mother, Toni, gave you the name as a tiny thumbprint of her love for you.  She never expected your adoptive parents would keep it. Never. That was unthinkable.”

My God, I think, they’re married. They’re still together. These are my parents, together.

“And you have four siblings, three brothers and a sister. They all know you exist and they’ve been worried about you ever since they found out you existed. Your mother told them on your eighteenth birthday since we knew you were old enough to have access to records and could try to contact us. We talk about you. They’ve worried that you were out there and we didn’t know if you were alright.”

A molten volcano has been smoldering in my chest. Now I feel it begin to reach my throat, my eyes, the top of my head. I had never dared to imagine brothers, sisters, some kind of genetic compatriots.

“Let me tell a little more about who you are.”

He is rushing ahead, as if he, too, has thought out all he would tell me if he had the chance, as if the connection to my mother and history must be established immediately. We’re both a bit giddy with the silliness of this rampant story.

“Your mother’s family is pure WASP. She’s a Robinson. They go back to the Mayflower, for God’s sake.  Your direct ancestor was Cotton Mather, which may or may not be a good thing!”

Here began the surreal.  I already had had connection to a grandmother who was Polish, warm and fat and smelling of coal and butter from the kitchen–a peasant, whose lap I could sit on in a rocking chair. This new family seemed more foreign to my experience than if I were told they were Sami with a herd of reindeer still grazing back in the old country.

“And then there were the Knoxes of Knox Hats. You go back to Charles Knox who came over from Ireland in the early 1800s and started his own hat factory. They started with beaver hats and then came up with the stove pipe hats that became all the rage in the nineteenth century. They made a fortune. Abraham Lincoln wore Knox hats!  Their daughter married Hannibal Robinson who went off to the wilderness selling hats. And then somewhere along the way around Civil War times there was American Flag Knox.  You’re just swimming in WASP-y history. You could even become a member of the DAR! My God! I hope you don’t mind!”

Somewhere along the way I had begun to laugh. Now we both were laughing. The absurdity of it all. His voice, deep and rich with a foundation of unwavering confidence, left no room for disbelief, just overwhelming joy at having found this man of such fluent intelligence, such wit, such generosity of spirit–qualities not unlike those of the father who’d raised me. It was a moment splitting with things to come, like a ripe seed pod with seeds ready to fly. But at that moment, the laughter gave me more of a sense of freedom, the headiness of delight. My senses were alive.

“And then there was my family,” he is continuing.

“Somehow, none of the kids look anything like them, thank God! You probably don’t either. They were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to this country in the early 20th century. They lived in New York and my father managed to buy a small grocery store he ran till his death.  My aunt (your great aunt) immigrated to Israel at the end of the war.  She ended up starting the first Kibbutz there — Kibbutz Don. She was quite a powerful character, with a face like a catcher’s mitt. The kids have all been to Israel at different times.”

Here was the upside down history. My adoptive mother’s lineage—Eastern European Jews coming to Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century—setting up small businesses, getting through the Great Depression—this was also in my paternal genes, somehow hidden. What a funny man this was, de-ordering all I knew.

There was a pause just long enough for me to think of what else needed to be said. “You have two grandchildren.” I say.

“Oh, God! Really?  Tell me about them!”

“There’s a girl aged four and a boy a year old.”

“You’re kidding! We have two granddaughters about the same ages!  Your brother Evan’s girls. The youngest brother. He dotes on them. What about yours? Are they healthy? I would imagine you’re a wonderful parent.”

I told him a bit about each – my daughter’s pre-school, my son’s yellow curling hair. He asked about a marriage and I told him, yes. We talked a bit about my husband.

He proceeded to tell me a little about each of my siblings, three brothers and the youngest, a sister. Brothers. A little sister.

“They’ll all want to meet you as soon as possible. You will love them all. They are all unique, sharply smart and sensitive in their own ways. I’m sure you’ll find you have things in common. ”

It begins to dawn on me that I am actually being invited to become part of this family. Ah!

I ask, only partially in jest, “Will it bother David as the eldest that he suddenly has an older sibling?”

“God no! He’ll be so relieved to give up the position. It’s not an easy one! He can tell you.”

“It’s been a difficult stretch for your mother. This will cheer her no end. You don’t know what a wonderful thing you’ve done by calling.” Again, I blush and stammer something about how it was a force rather than a matter of choice.

He continues, more soberly. “You don’t know how long I’ve been trying to make up for your loss to your mother. All this time. So many ways.” There is a short pause on the line. A breath.

We began to discuss how we would be able to meet. He quickly insisted he would be the one to fly out to see me first, as the forerunner, as soon as he could arrange it.

“It will give your mother time to absorb things. I’ll be able to tell her what I experience and she will be able to absorb it first through me. Seeing you will have such an enormous impact for her.”

“Likewise,” I say.

This was the man I had sung to as a child, whose image I had created out of bits of story and intuition–whose love I had conjured up for myself.  It seemed in some way he was this man and not this man. There certainly was the experience of a powerful love, the importance of family.

I recognized, as my mind began traveling back from this intensity of moment to the practicalities of life, of children to be fed and retrieved, I had always shied from imagining my mother as deeply.  Now I had a mother in whom I might see something of myself. What was that?

As we gathered ourselves, made a plan for Toni to contact me later that day and, as my son began to cry in his bed where he was waking, I breathed in the impact, gathering my sense of self into my body, settling my mind, getting ready to move through the rest of the day. Something of great moment had happened. Something that was not only a shift in my own life, but a bigger shift.  We said goodbye, he adding,

“You don’t know how good it is to hear your voice. This changes everything.”

I wondered and then I thought, “It may. Yes, it may.”