Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I spoke with my mother this morning, me calling her back after she sent a card and left a voicemail. It was my turn. Our last conversation two weeks ago had been ragged and I wondered if I would feel I should apologize. That would be an easy way to move things back into smooth waters, but really I had nothing to apologize for.

“I’m sitting here trying to identify a leaf,” my mother said right off. “I think it’s a Live Oak. I have the tree book that you gave me – do you remember? You gave me a tree book when I moved to the Catskills.”

I didn’t remember.

My mother describes the tree – an evergreen, but not a fir – and I Google it on my phone as I talk to her. She describes the leaf she has brought in from outside and I Google “Live Oak images” and together we agree it is a Live Oak, except Live Oaks, Google says, have acorns and my mother doesn’t remember seeing acorns.

“I’ve asked people around here what that tree is,” she says. “But they don’t know.” She laughs. “They don’t even notice them.”

I picture my mother in her low-rent one-bedroom apartment in a small northern California college town. She doesn’t belong there, but she is there.

“When you first started that yoga,” my mother says as the conversation shifts, “Dad and I went to a therapist. We thought you were getting into a cult.”

“Oh,” I say. “What did the therapist say?”

“Not much,” my mother says. “Dad blamed it on me. He always blamed things on me. Like when Liz did her suicide attempt he blamed that on me.”

This is unusual material. I am listening.

“He was always down on you kids,” my mother continues. “We’d go out to dinner and we’d spend the whole time talking about the children and he’d be so worried you were becoming drug addicts. You know, he wasn’t American, he didn’t know. And I always thought you kids were doing all right. I mean, you all worked and made your own money right from high school on. But he’d always bring up some other kid who’d been sent to some high-priced college. Until one day I just said to him calmly – like they taught us in Al Anon – that I’d only eat dinner with him if we didn’t talk about the kids. And he looked at me in utter astonishment, and then he changed the subject and we never went through that again, and I thought, wow, this Al Anon stuff really works.”

I want my mother to keep talking. She is dipping back 30-40 years. But I can’t chat here. I feel my own discomfort. I can’t talk too close with my mother.

I change the subject.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Lying in bed alone at night, my parents somewhere downstairs, it is black night and my eyes are closed. Whether my eyes are open or closed I can see tiny particles dancing, as if sand is pouring down on me but never arriving, and I wish the screen would go blank, but there is no way to erase these tiny particles pouring and moving like a universe of stars that will not go away. And I can’t ask my parents what to do because I cannot describe it.

I take a nap on the same bed in the afternoon, a single bed along a wall under the slanted roof of the attic. My mother takes her nap downstairs. I look through a book that my grandmother has sent. I can’t read, but I look at the pictures and tell myself the story as if I were reading the words.

My father says that on Saturday mornings I must clean my room. I dread this time. I don’t know what to do, I don’t see what is wrong with the room that needs correcting. My father’s rules weighs on me like stone. Every day of the week has a different color. Mondays are blue. Tuesdays are yellow. But Saturday is brown.

There is one time when my mother is sick. She is in her nightgown and robe and it is Saturday and she offers to help me clean up my room. It is sweetness, this offer, a cool breeze that lifts the stone.

Like the time I come home from school. My mother is in the kitchen. She shows me how she has written my name in icing on a piece of wax paper. She puts the paper on the kitchen table so I can see it. This has never happened before, something unexpected, sweet, easy, for me.

In the kitchen my father cooks one time. He cooks the dinner because my mother is sick, sitting in the living room in nightgown and robe. She is never sick, but it happens this one time and makes everything different. My father is in the kitchen, laughing, pouring red wine over beef and adding shiny green peas. I am with my father in the kitchen, watching, knowing this will be the best meal I have ever eaten, my father laughing a if cooking is fun.

My mother doesn’t laugh like that. She pulls a leaf off a tree or plants we are passing and chews on it. She talks about the plants as we pass – this is an oak, see? you can tell by the leaf -- oh, look at the skunk cabbage! Sometimes she takes me walking in places where the signs say No Trespassing, and I am afraid. These are always scary woods or old orchards. She says everything is fine and I must keep walking, but I am afraid. Sometimes she stops the car to go into some old abandoned church or old-fashioned school. Sometimes there are old-fashioned books left behind on the floor and my mother picks them up and looks at them. I am afraid we will be caught in this place where it is clear we are not supposed to be, an abandoned old place where the people have left. Sometimes my mother digs up a plant she likes. She see it while we are driving. She pulls over, digs it up, something from the side of the road, and puts it in the car for her garden.

This is what my mother and my home are like. Something is rougher than I see in other places.

My father though does not have this roughness. I know when he takes me somewhere it will work out. We will not get lost. Nothing will go wrong. We will dress up. And when we walk it will be on paths, or even actual roads. And he will have his walking stick to swing and point with.

Sometimes he shows me how when he was in the Hungarian boy scouts they were told to put a stick behind them, held in the crooks of their elbows and to march like that, with their backs straight.

My father wants my back straight. He wants me to use a handkerchief and not sniff. He wants me to shine his shoes and has bought me a kit of polish and brushes and rags. He wants me to correct the words I mispronounce, to color inside the lines and to paste the postcards my grandmother sends from Budapest into a special book with black paper pages.

He sits me on his lap in the kitchen after dinner and points to his eye, his ear, his nose and I try to remember the Hungarian word. Don’t ever be a bubblegum person, he warns, and I know what he means, not in words but because I can see what he sees. Don’t be ordinary, he is saying, like the people in the supermarket and the hardware store. Be like the people in the concert hall. If you are not careful, you will become the wrong kind of person.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The house was white with a peaked roof. It overlooked the road from a slope. My mother had dark green shutters put around the windows. She planted the Christmas tree on the slope. You could walk down the slope to the road, but there wasn’t a real path. Later, when there was a paved driveway, that’s how you usually went down, and walking across the slope, on a diagonal, past the dark almost black branches of the short Christmas tree firs – two or three of them, planted randomly – felt like something from the past.

The door to the basement opened onto the slope, a wooden door with two panes of glass, set inside the stone foundation of the house. It was a dark cold damp basement, the furnace in one corner, the washing machine and dryer side by side. There were steep steps leading down into the darkness of the basement from the dining room.

This house that seemed part of us, a member of the family, as if we all came from the same gene pool, making room for each other, invisible to each other because we were all of the same cloth – house, sisters, me, parents. All part of the same club.

My father brought a flowering azalea bush in a flower pot to me in the dark the evening of my fifteenth birthday, him coming home late from the office in the city, me already in bed at the top of the stairs in the attic room, he climbs the stairs, still in his overcoat, leaves the flower pot on the floor at the top of the stairs, leaves it without coming all the way up, says, “Happy Birthday.”

My mother planted it later, somewhere near the old Christmas trees, on the slope that overlooked the road. I did not see if it flowered again.

Part of the house too was the sprawling maple tree that stood just a few feet away. When we first lived in the house and I was very small, my mother hung a swing from one branch, a plain board hung from two fine chains. Later, when we returned, and left, and returned again, the swing was gone, but I felt the presence of the tree, its branches reached to my attic window, and it too was part of us. Like the stone walls that criss-crossed the other slope, behind the house where the woods were.

We lived in other houses over the years, but they were other people’s houses. The white clapboard house was the one we returned to, the one that was ours.

It didn’t look like other people’s houses. It didn’t look like the houses of other people in my school or the places where I babysat -- houses and homes that their inhabitants took for granted. But I knew I would never live in smooth places like that, places that seemed to come out of a mold – appliances and wall-to-wall carpeting and ease and comfort softening every rough edge. Those places did not look beautiful to me, but they marked their inhabitants, defined them as people who had been included, people who were part of something I did not think anyone in my house could possibly ever be part of.

Monday, January 09, 2012


Yonkers. Like Hungary and Canada I used to think these were places that only we had heard of. These were our places, places that other people didn’t know about.

Yonkers was the first place. You stepped into a space without windows – a table and chairs where my father drank coffee in the morning, and further back, away from the door, a kitchen counter, the stove. My mother hovered there like a shadow. 

The living room had the windows, windows that I knew looked out towards a river. I heard them say so. I could sense we were at a height and that there was space beyond those windows, and light. That was where my father went during the day, somewhere into that big space and light. My father, who brought home a briefcase in the evening, a hard rectangular one that opened with the snap of two gold clasps.

My room -- farthest away from those windows. A crib with bars. And this room too is dark though it has a window that looks out onto the walkway that brings you down from the sidewalk to our door.

We move to the white house where my mother and father do work like painting – things with paintbrushes and ladders, hammers – because this is an old broken down house, with broken glass in the dirt around it and splinters in the floor. My mother says you can tell it’s an old house because the floor boards are wide.

Workmen sit together at lunch time away from the house, down by the road where my parents park our yellow car that they call “The Rambler,” and the men unwrap thick meaty sandwiches that I wish I could taste.

I sleep at the top of this house, under a pointed roof against a wall. My parents put a bar along the side of my bed because they say I fall out at night. They tell me not to draw on the wall.

Now I have a sister, a baby. “Watch she doesn’t roll,” my mother says, leaving me with the new baby as she takes the dirty diaper down the short hall to the bathroom at the end. I watch the baby who lies on her back watching me on the big bed where my mother sleeps at night.

My mother washes my hair with Breck shampoo in the bathtub. She pulls my hair and it hurts. She says it’s nothing. One time I resolve to not make any noise the whole time. Just to see if I can do it. I make it through.

The next time my mother says it is time to wash my hair it is after lunch and my father is home. We climb the steep stairs together. The first room at the top is my father’s room where he watches the news in the morning as he gets dressed. I invite my father to come watch me get my hair washed without making any noise. But he says he needs to take a nap. I don’t try to accomplish my feat a second time. It is too hard.

Next to the bathroom is my mother’s darkroom. I know she has trays of liquid in there. She takes a lot of pictures. She has two or three cameras and a square brown leather camera case with a long strap. You can sit on the camera case. It is like a little bench.

My mother holds the oval light meter in the palm of her hand. It has a white plastic dome and dials she moves back and forth.

She sells myrtle out of the garden. She puts an ad in the paper and people drive up and my mother hands them clumps of plant and dirt in newspaper.

Myrtle: this is something else that is only ours – the plant, the word.

My mother shows me how there used to be a road behind the house. It is an open grassy lane and we walk down there to where there is a clothes line – a pole, like a tree with strings for branches. My mother hangs things up and takes things down.

If you keep walking you get to the Kaisers’ house. I slept there the night my sister was born. They are old people who live in a white cottage. I can go there by myself. I sit in their kitchen and they give me hot sweet milky tea. I ask my mother to make it for me, but it doesn’t taste the same.

My mother tells stories about being a girl in British Columbia on a farm. She speaks of animals and plants and six brothers and sisters, an English father, a mother with a Spanish accent.

My father speaks of hiding from the bombs in the basement during the war in Budapest, about the fruit trees his father planted that the rabbits ate, of the 18 boys who asked his sister to marry them.

When my parents tell their stories I picture the farm, the basement. These become places I know.

Grandparents are people who live far away. One grandmother sends a big box of wrapped presents every Christmas. The other grandmother sends stiff picture books and things you don’t want to play with. A family is the people in your house.