Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011
In an article titled ‘Estrangement,’ in a summer 2008 issue of AARP, the writer, Jamaica Kinkaid articulates her attempt to come to terms with the fact that she stopped speaking to her mother three years before her death.
Her effort, however, is not full of regret, but incomprehension that she misses her mother, incomprehension that she does not wish to be buried next to her and, also, does not know if she wishes that her own children be buried beside her someday. She ends with the words, “I do not know, I do not know.”
The loss of my mother fills my life with a similar unknowing. My mother was, as her favorite student described her during his heartfelt and perfect eulogy, difficult. And it was her difficulties that my brothers and I, as adults, responded to, not her ease. I learned to dismiss every concern she brought up, about my brothers, their wives, her grandchildren, me, my life, my father, and her health. Her own regrets and sorrow were so deep that I feared that I, too, would fall into that bottomless well and never come up for air, or that my affirmation of those sentiments might seal her forever in that tomb of despair. Had I been listening harder, perhaps, I might have heard the mothering behind what she said, might have assumed, rather, the role that she wanted of me, of a gentle and caring child, of the never-grown-up companion I had once been, of being again the girl whose goal in life had been to wear her clothes and do what she did for a living, teaching literature and Greek & Roman Civilization to armies of devoted boys.
Instead I was the opposite of her. I prided myself in taking no shit from anybody. I was flamboyant where she was conservative, boisterous where she was quiet, and forswore the undying affection of schoolboys and replaced it with the fickle attention of grown men. I frolicked in the man’s world that had circumscribed her life and I laughed when she spoke of devotion, consistency and simplicity, never letting on that in act though not in word, I was all those things. Whereas she had waited, as refined women of her time did, to have her appearance or clothes or work admired by other people, I paid myself compliments. I wrote about politics when all she cared about was the pride felt in seeing her children’s bylines. Somewhere during all those shenanigans I recall seeing both delight and fear in my mother’s eyes.
She seemed to both love the cloak of freedom that I had flung so seemingly easily around myself, and fear for my life. I was not a good woman, I was not a good wife. Somewhere down the line, my husband was bound to leave me. Somewhere down the line, I would need something besides flair and flourish and did I have those other, inner resources? I did, I do, but I was not going to let her see those aspects of myself that were so similar to the strengths she possessed. All I would say in response to her “he might leave you,” was, “and if he does I won’t spend my life running after some man who doesn’t want me.”
In more ways than one, I was trying to define for my mother a life that I wanted her to live. I wanted her to be more like the person I was playing for her. I wanted to rub away the timidity that overcame her whenever she boarded an airplane to America, the kind of thing that would lead airport officials to fling her bags around and deny her compensation for lost luggage and which I could secure on her behalf with no greater skill than a simple steady glare that would leave her full of awe at powers she believed I had; powers she was glad I had, in this strange, unfriendly, place, but whose acquisition she regretted for, as far as she could tell – and she did tell it! – they had exacted the price of tenderness. I wanted to nullify all of her regrets and fears, to drag her into the future where everything was impossibly hard and yet also possible and full of loveliness. I wanted to put make-up on her face, I wanted her to wear the beautiful clothes she owned but never put on, falling back constantly on her worn saris, the old skirt, the tattered nightdress.
But I held that tattered nightdress to my face when I returned home for her funeral, and breathed in not what it showed to the world – its faded, overused fabric – but the sweet perfume it had earned for itself and still held. My mother’s life was full of a doing with which mine could never compare. She had no time for the kind of self-creation with which I had become so adept; she was too busy making a living, staving off hopelessness and, more than everything else, helping the people who came looking for her in a ceaseless stream… People who did not care that she wore no make-up, that she traveled in buses and scooter-taxis in a country where such travel is perilous even for the young and healthy, that she sometimes opened the door to them with a smile, sometimes – quite often – with a scathing, unfiltered criticism, did not care that her home was an uncertain refuge where sometimes the gate was padlocked, and the phone unanswered and nobody could find her, or that she was awash in eccentricities that led her to scream for Brand’s Essence of Chicken as though it was a cure certified by the pantheon of multi-origin Gods whom she worshiped, drive her children out of her house “to go live anywhere,” or hang a sign on one of her precious plants with the following statement: “We are very poor and we have no money for your religious festivities. If you have any money to spare, please leave some here – Happy Vesak, Happy Christmas, Happy Ramazan, Happy Deevali!” That spirit perfumed her clothes, her hair, her life. It did not make everybody admire her, indeed many people – most specially her students – were terrified of incurring her wrath, but it made them love her unabashedly. It made them write to her and come and visit her carrying the cakes and sweets she was not supposed to eat, willing to forgive her moods. That spirit frayed her clothes, splashed them with mud, ripped at their seams.
Over the course of the two days before she died, my mother had hauled a chair to be mended (so the set could be given to my oldest brother), cleaned her house, given her sister money for an operation, called up all her friends, all her relatives, all her favorite students, and all of our friends, and, of course, secured for herself a bottle of Brand’s Essence of Chicken. She had given away much of her wardrobe of beautiful, unspoiled saris and dresses, and most of her vast collection of perfumes. Whatever precious jewelry had not already been given away had been robbed. On the day she died, unbeknownst to any of us, she was so weak she had to ask the woman who worked for her now and again, to boil water for her and bathe her. On that day, after that bath, she used whatever strength she had left to sit down with one of her students to help her with a college application, an application that has since secured a place for her at an Ivy League school. She climbed into a car carrying two saris she wanted to give to the servant of the friend who came to pick her up, and spent most of the journey laughing. She suffered a heart attack right as she was trying to field a telephone call from another student’s tennis coach. She left mid-thought, mid-act, mid-goodness.
I can tell myself a variety of things to stave off the grief that I feel. I can say my brothers were there, their wives were there, she was not alone. I can accept what other people say to me, that a mother does not remember the disappointments, but rather the good times. I can say that she knew, she knew, that though I did not write and did not call, my inner conversations were always with her, that every time I stood before a crowd, or walked down a street or performed some good work or signed a book, or sang to my daughters, what I felt was her presence, her glad acknowledgement that yes, heaven be praised, he had not left me yet, I was still the most beautiful person in the room, the smartest one, the best, in all things the best. In her absence I will never again be that “best” that she saw whenever she looked at me. In a crowd full of women, in my mother’s eyes, I was always more than any of them. On a shelf full of books, mine was better. My words were articulated more clearly, my clothing was more stylish, my deeds were greater, my husband was perfect, my children flawless. I can tell myself stories but they are as useless as my wearing the cardigan that I had bought for her during her last visit, as futile as my attempt to fill it up with her, to feel her around me.
What I remember now is not all the things that I did not affirm in my mother, all the things that I wished she hadn’t done or said, but the things she did do. What I remember is that she brought me music, theater, literature, language, a sense of humor, confidence, strength, joy, and a model of motherhood that runs in my veins as naturally as my blood.
I remember that she found it funny when I placed 38th in a class of 40 students and asked flippantly if I had failed math too, as we walked hand in hand away from the Convent I attended. What I remember is that when I was expelled from that convent for an array of irreverences but subsequently invited back, my mother – though she screamed at me in private and threatened to cut off my hair which, she said, was the source of all my problems – dismissed the offer from the nuns and enrolled me in a “school more suited to (her) daughter’s spirit, intelligence and interests.” What I remember is that she paid for piano lessons when we did not yet own a piano, swallowing her pride and letting us go next door to practice. I remember her voice pouring song after song into all of us, bringing Ireland, England and America to us through lyrics and melodies and that those songs still take the edge off the acts of governments that were also discussed in the house. I remember that she polished the floors of our house on her hands and knees with coconut refuse and kerosene and now and then with polish, that she planted every blade of grass in the garden and pruned her lawn and hedges with hand-held shears that left blisters on her piano-playing fingers and that out of the arid earth that surrounded our city home, she could make flowers bloom. I remember that she gave me a girl-only space in a house that held so many permanent and transient visitors, and that it contained a dressing table, a fan, an almirah, a bed, a table, a bookcase, and the silk bedspreads that had once been gifted to her, and that all of these things made my room magical in a time when magic rarely translated into concrete evidence. I remember that she listened to me read, that when I asked her if she was sleeping, the answer even when it took a while for her to say it was, always, a comforting “no, of course I’m not sleeping!” I remember that she encouraged me to wear my hair short and climb our roof and play French Cricket and run faster than the boys and, also, to steal guavas and skip school to attend cricket matches…
And I remember that she spent a teacher’s salary on buying bolts of fabric that she stored in a suitcase, beautiful cloth waiting to be turned into dresses by the best of seamstresses according to designs I sketched in ballpoint pen. I remember that except for there being no compromising on decency and modesty, she put no restrictions on the clothes I chose to put on, literally and metaphorically. She stood by and let me be everything that she was not. I wish I had done the same for her.
Not long ago, just before I left for a residency where I finished writing my second novel, completing it on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to listen to Jamaica Kinkaid read and speak at Bryn Mawr College. She read from new work, from a story that is told from the perspective of two children who scorn their mother for writing and writing about her own mother, her country of birth. Her answers to the questions posed afterward continued to reflect that conflict. But when I went to introduce myself to her and mentioned that I had used her words to guide me through this new lifetime of grief, she reached out and held my hand. “Oh my dear,” she said, gazing deep into my eyes, “now you are truly an orphan. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that your father is here with you, when your mother is gone, you are orphaned.”
There are things for which we are never prepared. Childbirth is one of them. The loss of a mother is another. It has been said that, as human beings, there are only three or so significant decisions that we make: whom we marry, whether or not to have children, where we choose to work and live; each of these decisions narrows the world a little further, concentrating our attention on the work involved in succeeding at any of this. But the death of a mother, I have discovered, unravels those decisions and the accompanying work. It has set me adrift in a place where nothing at all makes sense, where there are no anchors or guarantees, where even the statement, “you are going to be taller than me,” uttered to a daughter at the bus stop this morning, comes with a shadow sentence which tells me, even if I don’t say it aloud, that I can make no promises: of the return of the bus, of the greeting at the door, of years in which she might grow into a height that exceeds my own. I can only promise that there will be regret and that the world will, one day, become dislocated for them as it has become for me. But it is a promise I cannot articulate; it waits for them as it did for me.
Ru Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After a year of informal study at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, she arrived in the United States with a Parker ink pen and a box of Staedler pencils to attend Bates College in Maine. She completed her Masters in Labor Relations at the University of Colombo, and worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Story Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Kaduwa, Pebble Lake Review and elsewhere. She has been awarded four consecutive writing scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and been a fellow at Yaddo. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, is published by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster in the USA and Canada, by Viking/Penguin in the UK and territories, and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Simplified and Complex Chinese, Portuguese, Turkish and Hebrew. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home and writes about the people and countries underneath her skin.
Read our interview with Ru here.