Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I remember his fingers pressing my throat, me standing up against the wall of the bedroom – not our bedroom – none of that place was ours – it was his and it was night and he was naked and it was dark and I wasn’t really frightened that he would kill me, knew that he wanted to hurt me very much and I was surprised how close this felt to having all my air cut off forever. I heard myself heaving in air with a rasping sound, but not fighting back, this all so expected, an evening with the lawyer boss – I’d gone because I was flattered to be invited – he an utter grown-up, in his forties with a Porsche and a divorce – me with a temp job and a few papers away from graduation and it’s winter, the December in 1977 when it snowed so much that day that all the offices closed early and people were cross-country skiing on Fifth Avenue, he drove me home – his car a romantic bubble inside the snowstorm – though it wasn’t my home – I didn’t have something as difficult to establish as a home – he drove me home – me the temp, he the lawyer I was just supposed to type for, he drove me to the big expensive apartment building where my boyfriend lived – the boyfriend who called this place home without hesitation – and where my boyfriend’s father lived – sometimes – during the week – though for him it was more of a holding pen, the result of some huge fight with his volatile wife, this their solution, the father would sleep here during the week on a four-poster bed in an otherwise bare room except for the TV – this apartment that had held so many scenes of harshness, bleakness that I had decided were part of being in love with someone, months -- by now it had been years, of Jeffrey talking about having other lovers – after all, what difference would it make really? – and then him finally going out and getting one – all fall, his delight in having someone else to go to, someone else to send him artistic postcards – he has someone else who knows him differently than I know him – and there is not a drop of fury in me just the black sheets of suicide always falling thick and fast because she is better than me, she must be – and so it is easy to say yes to everything the lawyer suggests – the lunch at the ultra posh restaurant where I don’t bother with food, just the margaritas or was it wine, and then, another day, I go to his apartment. It is not a secret. I don’t go on the sly. I remember only the hash, damp and dark and sticky, and the sex – not the whole nine yards -- I’m afraid to take all the freedom I supposedly have – but enough to make my point. I have somebody’s interest and he is interesting enough to have good hash, he’s not a little high school punk. Jeffrey has his published author with young child. I have my upper East Side lawyer with good hash. But I don’t spend the night. “I don’t like to sleep with two people in one night,” I say. It’s a line from a movie or a book I read once. It has nothing to do with me, and I go back downtown, back to the spacious apartment where Jeffrey’s dad sleeps away off in one bedroom and Jeffrey slams me up against the wall in the other, his fingers pressing against my throat.

Friday, March 23, 2007


I sit in Phil’s narrow kitchen at the small half-circle wooden table that is pushed up against the wall. I face the window down at the far end of the room between the sink and the refrigerator. It is afternoon. Nobody else is here. I am thirteen stories up and the wind whistles through some tiny space between the window and its frame so that sometimes I think the kettle is whistling, but it’s not the kettle. It’s the wind off the river.

I am reading the book I bought two days ago, a new hardcover memoir, my latest favorite way to spend money. New hardcover memoirs. When I finish one I place it next to the last one on a bookshelf that long ago ran out of space. I have begun pulling out books that don’t seem to belong there anymore, books that I want to keep only because they are part of my past. My yoga books, for instance. They’re going now, historical relics, valuable only for that, but not valuable enough to be in the set of bookshelves that I consider mine. There are some bookshelves that are all Fred’s and some that are starting to mix. But this one set of shelves I like to keep for myself because when I look at this collection it’s like looking at myself, a small piece of my history. I say “a small piece” because for a long time I didn’t have any books. Even though almost every book I’ve ever owned has been precious to me, I’ve turned my back on them, given them all away or even thrown them out at certain times when something else seemed more important than owning anything. I have sworn never to do that again, and so I covet my books, and I like making space for the new ones on prime real estate, the shelves at eye level.

It is so nice to be sitting in this kitchen utterly in repose, reading this book that I am just deciding I like very much. I wasn’t sure for the first few chapters. I am very aware of being at peace, at ease.

I am proud of the big jug of environmentally sound laundry detergent I managed to find this morning in Phil’s not very hip neighborhood. It sits on the small kitchen table and I think Phil will be surprised and pleased to see it when he gets back. This morning I found the laundry room in his building and managed to wash and dry the sheets we’d used even though to use the machines it turned out you had to have a special tenants card, but I negotiated my way through and now there are clean sheets back on the bed, ready for Phil’s next houseguest. I’ve stayed here with Fred many times and always only got as far as leaving a pillow case full of used sheets for Phil and Andrea to deal with. I really like that I’ve managed more this time. Usually I make sure to bring them food – a jar of jam, some cheese, apple cider -- but last time I did that I felt just like my mother when she comes to visit me, and besides, Phil and Andrea are away for four days now so food didn’t seem like the best idea, nor tulips. I liked my clean sheets and environmentally friendly laundry detergent solution. I had seen a jug of their laundry detergent at the bottom of a closet, had noticed they had a health food brand, not some crap from the supermarket that I still get because it’s cheap. I bought a big jug for them and thought it might please them too because they do all their grocery shopping on bicycles and this would be damn heavy to have to drag home on a bike.

Later, in the street, I have too much to carry and have to plan my carrying strategy carefully, what fits into one hand, what fits into the other. The day has turned springtime warm and though I’d hoped I could wear the coat with the buttons undone, within two blocks I stop, put down my bags and violin and take off the coat, and find it a place amongst my carryings.

I will take the bus across 23rd St., but first I will stop at the art store. I want to buy another notebook for my violin teacher to write down her notes and suggestions for me. The notebook I brought to her last week for our first lesson was too small and precious. She needs something with big pages and no lines. I could get something probably at the Duane Reade, but I’m crazy. I want a nicer notebook than that for my violin lessons, and I struggle the extra two blocks to the art store, find something not quite as beautiful as I want, but it will do, and then the bus and then the subway.

I arrive for my lesson ten minutes early and stand outside on the sidewalk. I don’t mind.


Somebody left me a message on my blog a few days ago, telling me that I am blind to my mother’s innocent, well meaning love and that I am acting like a sullen teenager. It was the longest response I’ve received to any of the almost fifty stories that I’ve posted. She – I assumed it was a woman ~ it had that voice – ended by saying that I wrote well.

That part mystified me more than anything else. I can’t imagine liking the writing of someone who appears in the writing as an utter jerk.

Anyway, I called the message my first hate mail, as if I had accomplished something.

It also felt like a letter from my own alter-self.

I have often treated my mother as if she were a sweet innocent person whom I should do my best to take care of. And it worked perfectly. The only parts that didn’t work were the huge headaches I got sometimes, and how I never felt at ease to talk about myself with her instead always listening and the way that often after visits I’d feel empty, like I’d been used up though I hadn’t noticed the siphoning.

While I lived in the ashram my mother lived in a garage apartment on the property of family friends. The main house was almost two hundred years old, a small farmhouse with low ceilings, slanted roofs in the small upstairs bedrooms, dark wide floorboards and rambling roses outside. My mother’s apartment above an empty garage filled with ancient farm tools had a nice rough edge to it. It wasn’t a smooth plastic place. I liked visiting there, watching videos and escaping the asceticism of the ashram. I liked the giant sunflowers my mother grew and the morning glories that blossomed on the railing of the steps leading up to her door where, in the fall, a pumpkin always sat.

I came down to spend the weekend once to celebrate her birthday. My two sisters lived a few thousand miles away, my father even further. It seemed that if I were not there my mother would be alone and I could not bear that. When she woke up that morning I had decorated the kitchen table with a small forest of marigolds -- plants she could add to her garden – and I had brought her special tea and a tea pot for brewing it because she often said she couldn’t taste tea the way she used to.

I haven’t called my mother since she visited ten days ago. I’ve lost the card I wrote to her, saying nice things about her visit. I knew my sisters are amongst those who don’t think I’ve behaved well.

It was one sister’s birthday yesterday and I did nothing. I had a few mild plans of things I might do – a small gift (which I ate myself), an email I never wrote. Everything I thought of ended up feeling like a cover-up I didn’t have the energy for.

I think about the other sister who for awhile fifteen years ago or so was accusing my father of having molested her when she was a baby. For a few years there she didn’t talk to any of us, except my mother, of course. She never cut herself off from my mother. I was thinking how this sister returned to the fold pretty quickly and more than thoroughly. Now she sends money to my father every month, asks him to write down his memories of childhood, traveled to Europe to visit him.

When I was in Budapest last year I saw a photograph collection she had made of her trip there. The last photo was a close-up of her and my father, looking perfectly satisfactory as a friendly loving father-daughter portrait.

I think my mother handles the big scary monster of life by – by what? I grew up hearing her tell me stories about how her brothers and sisters didn’t like her. “They used to run away from me,” she told me many times. I always saw her as someone people didn’t like very much – including me and my father – not because she was mean, but because she couldn’t take care of herself, because she had sort of anti-charisma, no strength, no belief in herself, no ability to really support another person.

One thing I can say for sure is that my mother does not ask for much. She doesn’t expect much. She is happy with her little home and her routine of getting up early, manual tasks, low-paying jobs. This smallness of hers drove my father crazy. I think he felt her always pulling him down—she who didn’t want life to get too big.

Natvar would accuse me of the same thing and I had no defense. It sounded right. Like my father, Natvar would talk big as if he had big plans and just needed to be discovered. And he thundered at me when I couldn’t keep up with him, when instead of rising to greet him on this wave of enthusiasm, I was numb. “You want to sabotage me, don’t you,” he’d say, and I thought he had to be right. I was always afraid of becoming my mother and it did not surprise me when it seemed to happen.

Natvar is dead. My father is crumpled and pretty much out of sight. My sisters obey the conventions of family obedience. My mother plays innocent child, the one you can’t find a way not to like. She sends my father $100. She tucks a $20 bill under my soap dish before she goes home.

The person who wrote the nasty email tries to explain that my mother is just trying to tell me she loves me. That explanation is actually already a very familiar one. I know that interpretation. It’s a very small explanation though, a ready-made one. It’s like trying to cover a big bowl with a small piece of Saran wrap, stretching and stretching, saying it fits, but there’s that big gap.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


My father and Natvar are the two people I have known who tried the hardest to civilize me in the name of culture and civilization and sadism too, I suppose, underneath it all.

Natvar was an expert on everything correct. Not that he wanted to be ordinary. He wanted to be superlative in every way like I thought I had to be.

Natvar was a yoga teacher on Eighth Avenue whom I met because of an ad for a free class in the Village Voice in the very early 80’s. He was tall though not much taller than me. He didn’t have a dancer’s body. In his late thirties, which seemed advanced to me in my early twenties, his body looked well exercised, gleaming with health. He said that before yoga his body had been stiff. It was hard to imagine.

He’d been an acting student in Athens, had run away from Greece and his own history to live in London which had seemed to him the pinnacle of civilization. He described to us as we sat on the couch and on the floor of the tiny carpeted lobby of his little but perfectly appointed yoga school how he had walked into the fanciest mens clothing store on Bond St., pretended to be experienced, and got a job behind the counter, selling suits of fine tweed, silk scarves and crisp cotton shirts.

He told us how he practiced his English accent over and over at night by himself so that no one would guess he was a poor, uneducated Greek boy. He told people his name was John Phillips instead of Yanni Philippoussis and as he told us these stories he made them all sound grand and heroic, like a movie where everything goes exactly as it should and the light is always bright.

We began as a happy family, a bunch of renegades. It was easy to hand over the reins to Natvar. He was eager to take them, starting with loving suggestions of what to eat when you didn’t feel well, rising to impatient corrections on how to clean a floor – don’t you people know anything? Fill the bucket with hot water and what is this tiny scrap of a rag you are using – here, let me show you – and he takes a large fresh cotton cloth, folds it neatly in two, dips it into the hot water and wipes the floor in long strokes, going into each corner, under the baseboards – there, you see, that’s how it should be done – while we stand and watch, we who thought we were grown up because we didn’t live at home anymore, but look, we know nothing, can’t make the brown rice so it isn’t sticky, look how sloppy we are and careless – Mark used eighteen inches of dental floss last night – spoiled Americans, no consciousness, that’s what it is.

I labored to get it right. Why did I listen so hard, that’s what I want to know. Why was there not the smallest cell in me that pulled away? Well, there were a few cells that wanted to pull away, but I fought them as if they were rebels who had to be put down. I knew how to do that. I knew how to say no to urges for pleasure, to think the grim way was the better one.

By the time we were in Greece, I was taking slaps in the face. I was accepting that I was fit only to be the maid. I was believing that, as Natvar said – furiously – I was psychologically damaged. I began to feel like an invalid, someone others had to tolerate and care for, who could not participate in the world as other people could.

There was a day when we were running out of Athens, running away from Natvar’s wife who had shown up the day before, waiting for Ariadne, their seven-year-old daughter, when she came out of school. Following Daddy’s orders, Ariadne had ignored her mother, and climbed into our friend Edianna’s car as usual. Edianna had risen to the challenge, driving at high speed through back roads to shake Neysa off her tail and preserve the secret of our address. It was the closest we’d come to being discovered.

After putting Ariadne to bed with extra cuddles, Natvar had been up most of the night, on the phone, talking in rapid-fire Greek to Edianna, to Irini, to Gelly, to Katina – all women who could always respond to his impassioned voice with matching Greek verve for hours and hours. When he spoke at dinner, pounding his fist on the table – his dilemma, his cunt of a wife who, like all women, was a scrap of pathetic slime – I found nothing to say that could possibly satisfy his rage. I, who had once thought we were best friends, sat there as I had by now a thousand times, mute, trying to force my brain into ideas of what could be done, how I could help. But nothing came and it seemed to prove that I did not care, that the human nerve of compassion was dead in me.

The next day I volunteered to go down and bring a cab back to take us to Piraeus where we’d catch a boat that would take us out to the small island of Aegina where Edianna said we could stay at her summer house. No one would find us there.

I volunteered always for the jobs I thought I could do: getting taxi’s, going shopping, which meant walking to the supermarket every other day and buying for our family of five, spending the money as I anticipated Natvar wanted it spent and shoplifting to fill the gap between what Natvar demanded and how I could stretch the drachmas. Mark was smart enough to share Natvar’s bed and help with manly things like strategy and management. Meredyth was the pretty one who Natvar said could cook, do his hand laundry and share his daughter’s bedroom. I got the leftovers: cleaning, errands.

So I went down to the big road, flagged down a yellow cab and brought it to the front door of the three-apartment building on the shady side street on which we lived.

I went upstairs, confident I had at least managed this. Natvar met me at the front door and hit me hard in the face. “You bitch,” he shouted. “You fucking cunt. Are you blind? Do you want to get us all arrested? You do, don’t you? You want to turn me in like every other fucking cunt in this world.” He dragged me to the window overlooking the street below. “That’s not a taxi,” he hissed. “I could see from here what you could not see even as you sat in the fucking thing. Can’t you see that’s not a taxi? What’s wrong with you? That could be a cop for all we know.”

I held myself together, went downstairs in my narrow navy blue skirt and leather heels, a costume that was supposed to make me look like a sophisticated executive who had it all together. I apologized and told the man to leave. He shrugged and drove away. He too must think I’m a crazy person.

Okay, okay. It goes on from there, but what I’m asking is why on earth did this all feel acceptable in its own strange way? Acceptable to feel like a psychological invalid? Where were the friends that when I first met Natvar might have pulled me back and said, oh, come on, what do you see in him? Natvar seemed much better, much more worldy and experienced than any of my sorry friends. Again, when I met Natvar I had nothing that I wasn’t willing to give away, nothing I wanted to hold onto. Life with him would be more counter-cultural and interesting. I went for it, and as I fell deeper and deeper there was nothing to break my fall.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Tamar starts to bark. I hear the squeak of the screen door and my mother’s voice, “Yoo hoo.” She’s here.

I have set out three chairs in the small room off the kitchen that I call the library. I’ve planned it in advance. We’ll sit there. “It’s a good room for appointments,” I said to Fred. “If I start a fire and we sit in the living room it’ll be hard to have a short visit.” My excuse will be that it’s warmer in the library, which is true.

I have lots of cookies left over from this week’s workshops. I have filled the kettle. I will make a pot of organic Earl Grey tea. I have thought through all of this.

I open the door. My mother is small, one step lower down than me and leaning forward with bags in her hands. Her grey head is bare. She has a silk scarf of bright colors – greens, reds, blues – loosely around her neck and shoulders. She steps in, the dog is barking and I am saying welcoming things and she comes in, into the kitchen, unloads her bags onto the counter – there are the salted nuts I wrote about, the chocolate, a tin of coffee. “All from ShopRite!” she says. We haven’t really looked at each other yet. She unwraps a beige squash. “I know you don’t like them,” she says, “but I thought maybe you could use it,” and I say something about how it’s great while part of me thinks I’ll cook it, I know they’re good for me, I should eat more of these things and part of me can’t believe she’s bringing me another butternut squash left from her garden when she knows I don’t like them.

She goes back to the front door to take off her boots and takes them off without having to sit down. I’m impressed. I ask if her feet get sore without any shoes – that mine do – but she says she’ll just be sitting and she’ll be okay.

And she sits and I’m at the stove and Fred comes and we sit and I pour tea and my mother talks like a stone skipping across a lake. I think she must be nervous. Fred asks her how she’s been and she says pretty much the same – that she doesn’t like change too much – and she describes her day, when she gets up, how she warms up her car, how her cat steals her chair, how she goes to bed at 8:30, what she does on Sunday.

I don’t say much. I feel tired. I have no energy for this. My mother says she’s supporting Hillary because Hillary’s a woman and Fred goes on the attack, talking about Hillary’s support of the war, firing a dozen facts at my mother. I shrink a little, but just let them figure it out. My mother says something about how Hillary has a lot of experience, or should be given a chance, and I can tell by the expression on her face that she is copying what her friends are saying. And I picture my mother in her small community of delusional ashram devotees, cut off from so much of the world.

I move to the floor and start to brush out Tamar’s thick black fur. Tamar lies on her side and appears to fall asleep. She is often not in the mood for detangling and lets me know by baring her teeth, so I am grateful for her current cooperation.

My mother says something about how Obama is too young – something that people who haven’t heard him speak say. I tell her about the speech we listened to from Selma – how it was so inspiring it almost sounded like a prophet. This is something I am interested in saying. “Well, maybe,” my mother says, as if the things that have been working fine back home don’t stand up when she brings them to Woodstock.

She asks about the workshops. I say they’re doing great. I never feel like saying more. I have never enjoyed talking about my life with her as if all that occurs in another language and I don’t know how to translate. And she asks about my violin and again I answer briefly. There are a few periods of silence that I don’t rush to fill.

She says she talks to my father every Saturday these days and that he is unhappy and that he hopes someone (meaning one of us girls) will come visit him. “He says, ‘I never meant to be so cut off from my family,’ but he never cared much about us when he was here,” my mother says with a little laugh and a glance at me and I instantly am sure that she is trying this line on me because it always gets a laugh from my sisters, but it’s an old line and I don’t rise to the bait.

I ask if my sister Esther and her husband are still planning to go to Budapest in the Spring. My mother doesn’t look at me. I’ve been getting the feeling lately that I am not allowed in on information about my sisters, but she nods, says Esther has been too busy to pin it all down (I have visions of Esther running about her corporate offices, doing “real” work), but they’re planning to go. “They’re due for a visit,” my mother says. “It’s been two or three years.” I didn’t know there was a quota.

She says she might go with them, and later adds the detail that Esther, hearing my mother was interested in seeing my father probably for the last time, had suggested that they go together. “We both could imagine him, standing on the balcony, with his bags all packed, ready to come back with me if I went alone,” my mother says with a half-hearted laugh.

I don’t want anything to do with my father right now, but I don’t want anything to do with my mothers and sisters despising him either.

“I wanted to bring you some logs,” my mother says, “but they’re stuck under a tarp under all the snow, and the snow’s frozen solid.”

My mother leaves soon enough, and for the rest of the evening I feel I should have done more. I am beset with these feelings. And I don’t know how to reconcile the little old lady with her bags of ShopRite groceries who I will miss when she is no longer able to make these trips with the often vicious woman I’ve been writing about – the mother of my childhood.

When she hugged me at the door yesterday it was a longer hug than usual, and I felt like she was really trying. I just don’t know what she is really trying. I just feel, I guess, her yearning for something, and part of me feels I could assuage it all, make it so she was absolutely content, and I don’t. I don’t step forward to fill the gap.

I wrote her a card that night, saying how nice it was to see her, but then I didn’t have a stamp and it’s still sitting here, written but not sent.

Friday, March 09, 2007


My mother will come to visit this Wednesday. She will drive the fifty miles here, spend one hour or until I “kick her out” (her words), then drive back. It was her idea and I said okay.

Then I had misgivings. I shouldn’t make her drive all the way here. I should meet her halfway. But that would take up most of my day. I didn’t want to do it. If she just showed up here and stayed an hour, that would be fine, but she’s eighty-two. I should be protecting her. What if she had an accident. She wasn’t a great driver forty years ago.

I go to get my haircut. The hairdresser asks me questions like “What’s your favorite car?” and I just don’t have the energy to banter with him. Luckily there are other people there he can talk to. I’ve seen him three times now, but I’m never sure that he remembers me. He’s never called me by my name. I feel like a stranger every time I go there.

My mother originally wanted to come up last Wednesday, but I had this haircut appointment. I told my mother I couldn’t meet her that day. I said I had “an appointment.” I didn’t say more and the absence of explanation pushed at me a little, but I pushed back.

My mother has probably started to fill up her trunk with logs. I know she has logs she can’t use that she wants to give us. And she will probably bring some mixed nuts from ShopRite for Fred, some cheese, some chocolate. Maybe some tea. And most of it we will use.

I begin to think if there’s something I can give her when she comes. I should have something. A sample CD came in the mail a few weeks ago – a college lecture on literature or history. My mother has often said she’d like to study those lectures they advertise so I sent it on to her. When I do something like that I feel like I buy myself a little time.

I remember the first time my mother and a sister visited me here in Woodstock. I just went into visit mode. I acted with my mother and sister the way I was used to: non-stop talking, dumb jokes, teasing. You know, the stuff you have to do with these people. I didn’t even notice it. I thought I was being warm and friendly. I remember Fred’s expression. He was mad about something. Why couldn’t he just get into it? Looking back, I imagine he thought I had disappeared. I hadn’t noticed I had disappeared.

On the phone Sunday evening I call just to say yes, this Wednesday will work. My mother tells me that she’s watching a man on 60 Minutes who says the economy is going down the tubes, that she hangs up her wet laundry now to help global warming, that my sister’s daffodils in Santa Clara are blooming –

“Let’s not talk now,” I break in gently. “We’ll talk on Wednesday.” And the call is done and the visit will happen and it will only be an hour and I will still feel like the day is mine and not somebody else’s.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


In high school, sitting up alone in my attic room, I said I wanted to be a writer.

I liked books. Words, the right ones, moved me more than anything else in the world. In other people’s words I found a confirmation of my own inner reality. I didn’t find it anywhere else. For me, only writers knew how to communicate what being alive really felt like and I thought the greatest thing possible was to put into words what was otherwise never talked about. I wanted to do it.

I thought I would sit at a desk somewhere and do it. And as I dreamed in my attic I imagined myself being good at it, that I'd like what I wrote and other people would too.

"You don't make the art you want," writes the painter, Odile Redon.

Now I really am a writer and it is not like this at all. It means becoming completely vulnerable. It means reaching into my inner world much more deeply than I was prepared for. It’s not fun. I can easily imagine a life not doing it. I could go get a job, bring home a check, become one of those people who pays her bills and lives in a moderate way. But I have done that. For years I did that and I was bitterly miserable. I thought the misery was because I wasn’t writing, because I was stuck in a meaningless 9-5 job. But the misery came from somewhere else I am realizing now. Because I am not doing the 9-5 job anymore and, lo, I am often as miserable as I ever was. And as I write my way back into the past I had forgotten, I think perhaps I am uncovering the roots of that misery.

I can imagine stopping this process. Going out and getting that job. Putting aside my violin because it is so difficult to play even the simplest melody. I imagined doing these things just yesterday. And what came crashing in is how I’d feel a few years from now, a couple decades from now. I’d be wondering what I would have managed if I hadn’t given up these things, if I had kept writing, if I had kept up my violin. So I can’t stop writing or playing. They are such difficult things. I wish life was easier.

“The older you get the harder you work,” my father said the last time I saw him. I don’t know what he meant. I don’t go to my father for information anymore. But the phrase has stuck in my mind. Maybe because the more I write, the harder writing gets.

Friday, March 02, 2007


There was an afternoon. My mother had said we would go to a puppet show. It was just her and me and my little sister who was more or less a baby. It’s a grey kind of day, overcast, but I am excited. We are going to a puppet show.

We put on our coats and walk out the modest front door onto the narrow porch, down the steps that are on the side and begin to walk down the steep hill to the car parked down near the road. My mother stops at the dark basement door that stands underneath the porch. It is a dark, built-into-the-earth kind of basement. The door has a glass window in it.

Something happens. Glass breaks. My mother says she has cut her hand. She has to put a bandage on it. We can’t go to the puppet show. I don’t cry. I don’t remember saying much of anything, but I do remember being deeply disappointed. I hadn’t expected this disappointment. I had been so excited. How could my mother say that no, we weren’t going to go?

This is the kind of thing that happened with her. Things did not succeed. I could not count on her.

And my little sister was like her. She just was. The grown-ups were right. She was like my mother. Not a winner. She fell and hurt herself a lot. She fell down the steep uncarpeted stairs more than once. She broke her nose while crawling under the coffee table. She cut herself so badly on the tricycle that she could not sleep that night because it was too painful to urinate. All this before she was six. And then after six, she cut herself horribly on the rusted metal bands around an old wooden barrel, and then again on a bicycle doing down the hill we rode down many times.

The one time I heard my mother say “darling” was when she went outside, hearing my sister calling, I was right behind her, and she saw my sister’s knees, I saw them too, deep cuts, the skin sliced into. “Oh darling,” broke out from my mother.

I didn’t like either of them, my mother or my sister. I didn’t like the way my mother looked. I didn’t like that when she dressed up her clothes were like a man’s – the same stiff fabrics and formal cuts. She had a square bottle of perfume that my father had given her. It sat on top of her plain wooden bureau and lasted for years and years until another little sister poured it into her bathwater. My mother had a soft zippered case, dark green an d quilted, that held her jewelry – two or three pairs of earrings with tiny screws, a string or two of pearls. I liked to finger the jewelry in the daytime when it was put away. The perfume and the jewelry were things set apart, not for everyday, zippered away just for those times when she went out with my father in the evening.

I didn’t like my mother, did not like her severity – the way she could get angry so fast, her hand flying out with a slap or harsh words out of nowhere, “Don’t be such a spoiled brat.” The words hurt. I did not feel like a spoiled brat. I didn’t like going for walks with her in the woods. My sister liked it. My sister liked looking at plants. I didn’t. Too slow. I got scared in the woods, behind barbed wire fences, under signs that said Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted, a word that sounded the same to me as “electrocuted” and “executed.” Those signs really frightened me, but my mother shrugged them off. Don’t be a baby, she said.

I didn’t like her plainness, did not want my friends to see her, her plain brown hair pinned up with bobby pins. It was like she didn’t know how to be a grown-up the way other grown-ups did. She made me nervous, the way she could not talk to other adults, did not enjoy being with them.

My mother made a dessert once called Floating Island. She told us it was special, that she’d had it as a child or something, that it was impossible to make, so difficult. She tried it once. I knew it would not come out well. She could never make anything look nice. She made me think it was impossible to do anything difficult. Her cooking remained basic – anything with any refinement was something only other people could do. I knew when she sewed something, it wouldn’t be quite right. It just went into my bones, that these things could only be done well by other people who had something we did not. I hated my mother for being always deficient, and for having to pretend that she was not.