NOTES FOR A MOTHER ESSAY

First a portrait of her. Physical: her face, figure, posture—smiling, petite, strained. Habitual moods, routine gestures these features express, encode. Belie. What of these I inherited from birth and those which evince themselves as I grow older.

 

Though the resemblances are slight if there at all. The shape of our eyes, she says. Our foreheads, our hair. Our hands, except our fingernails. Our teeth, but not our whole mouths.

 

How I wished, as a small child, gazing up with my arms wrapped around her legs, to grow exactly to her height and no taller, to her dismay. No, no, you have to be taller. But it came true.

 

You cut your hair again, she says, I thought you were growing it long. Never said this. But you looked so pretty with long hair. The painful way she brushed it out, always knotty, and pulled it into perfect braids. Never learned to do this.

 

A black skirt with white polka dots, a t-shirt with a faded print of van Gogh’s blue irises. A square glass bottle of custard-yellow lotion knocked and shattered on bathroom tile.

 

Taking me on her back, through the snow, to the lab. Her work, her grudge, her belief in what must be endured to earn life. Anxiety that I should live by a different paradigm; inability to gesture to alternatives.

 

Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary: to make a practice of remembrance. Tracing and retracing Maman’s absence both reinscribes and keeps it at a distance.

 

Mother’s mother—a studio portrait in a frame on her dresser (where is it now?). Brown tweed, matte halo of a perm, face neither smiling nor unsmiling—some emotion I cannot read. Neither pleasure nor resignation;  the emanation of something withheld. Perhaps a lesson. In all those photographs taken during those first weeks of my life, she is standing next to her daughter, dazed and beaming, and she wears the same muted expression.

 

How I learned to smile on by watching actors on television, not knowing how to turn up the corners—just baring my teeth.

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