1. A small tube in which patterns of colors are optically produced and viewed for amusement.
My mother was a laughing woman. She must have had pain most of the hours of her life; still my first memory is her smiling face above my crib. Next comes the comfortable calico sense of her holding and the hum of her voice and the private breath that was only hers, that came up at me from the handkerchief I took from her purse in the bedroom the night she lay stiff, painted, unrecognizable in the long box in the front parloróthe breath that faded at once.
She was a deeply serious woman who could make a whole roomful of people rock with merriment. Everyone knew that. But perhaps only I knew that in the laughter rocking round the kitchen table at the mistakes in my own first story, her hand held my shoulder and its gentle pressure telegraphed the message that it is all right to make them laugh, even unintentionally, because laughter is life-giving. A second secret came to me that night as well: there is always something grave under the laughter, though the jesters are sometimes the only ones who know.
But she was a betrayer, too. She blocked me in my flight from the belt in my fatherís red hand. She held me as his shouting face came down at me and then she yielded me to him. Was she watching when he stripped down my underpants, flung me over his knees, and struck the hot leather strap against my flesh? It has been years of midnight gall (though she comes in my dreams with warm milk and tears) and eons of burning eyes as I probe tomes in dry lamplight (though I find her under the writing on every page) before Iíve been able to whisper, ďYes, I see why you did not stop him,Ē (though my skin still cries out, ďWhy couldnít you?Ē)
The present is full of the past. If I lift my hand to strike my child I feel the sting where my fatherís belt has just left my burning buttocks and I sink into his rage. But then I descend deeper than rage into the terrible thrilling news of birth and my fatherís slap and my first screaming breath that kills me as I feel it swarming into me.
My fatherís hands received me from my motherís womb and slapped me alive, my mother lying sick, spent, and the doctor trapped in a broken car miles away down a muddy road. Why was no one else there? No friend? No neighbor woman? Only my twelve-year-old sister who sprang into instant motherhood as she took the receiving blanket into her small hands and felt the weight and awesome movement of an infant, and thus began her long life of nurturing, while our own mother suffered slowly into a recovery never completed, managing only with sheer will to hold death at bay for fifteen years so that she could complete at least that much of her last childís shelter.
She was always sheltering. Betraying me to my fatherís anger, yet still wanting shelter. Even when she was without substance, even then, creeping though my dreams, she tried to shelter me against the chill seeping through the rips in the fabric of my faith in god, state, work, love.
When the gypsies came and I raced to escape them, she clicked the locks of the doors and put her arms around my shoulders. When they had charmed me with the Babylonian splendor of their attire and the caress of their music and their vivid smiles sparkling with promises, I would have run to them if not for the warmth of her fingers and the small melody of her murmur.
The things shift and change as I try to perceive them. If I turn away for a moment, they become something quite different. Sometimes I do the opposite of what I had intended.
A time came when I thought I would suffocate in the warmth of my home. When my mother heard that, she opened the door. She told me how she had wanted to study music in the city but had been prevented from leaving. Much later when the dream witch invited me to come away, my dream mother said, Go with her.
My son said, ďIím going to Selma, Alabama. Itís the right thing to do, you taught me that.Ē My mother opened my fingers and I let him go out into the murderous night. It was my motherís calico that enfolded me in the cold silence that followed the deaths of the man and the woman who had marched with my son. When at last his words broke through the telephone, it was her voice that I wrapped around him.
2. Mirrors reflect light transmitted through bits of loose colored glass contained at one end, causing them to appear as symmetrical designs when viewed at the other.
Bits of loose colored glass: A chip of diphtheria. A chip of prayer transmitting light through lamb shanks transmogrified into saintís relics, survival lies into martyrís visions and protestation placards on the doors of cathedrals. My rebellious sister crumpled in my motherís arms. Outside the quarantined house, the preacherís shouting at the sky. Inside, a solicitation. Do you take me? said Death. My sister laughed. And lived.
My own infant looked at me without laughter but with a wisdom I could not comprehend. And died. My mother came into my dream holding her.
Then my son said, ďWe donít know how long my child will live.Ē My mother breathed into me and held my hands steady on the phone. And my son took his sleeping bag and unrolled it in the hospital room against the cries of the nurses. And held the babyís hands in his hands, which I held too, because my mother held mine, as in a symmetrical design. And in the morning my motherís great grandson smiled.
3. A constantly changing set of colors.
Blue. Because of her eyes, which mirrored intensely the blue hat and the blue dress that became her death garb.
Or pink and white like the May blossoms around her tomb.
Or red and green like the apples which saved us in the first summer of her desertionófried, baked, sauced, piedóan apple resurrection, Eve apples replete with knowledge of good and evil, life and death, now and never.
Or lilac like those in the vases lining the corridors of the church, hugging her casket, spilling the fragrance of birth and decay along the pews, trailing out into the bell tower and through the door onto the steps where sat those who arrived too late to squeeze into the chapel of her departure.
Empty of color like my thoughts. I could not understand why, if they loved her, they had stayed silent while she fought against corruption. And if they did not love her, why did they close the school, the stores, and the bank when she died? Why did they trail her box to the grave in a parade they never gave her living self?
Black. Like her coffin.
But she will not stay in that blackness. She is white when she comes to stand beside my bed in the night of that first year after her death, when the drought of Nebraska had dried my grief.
Or she is brown, a solid earth block between me and my rage at my father. She will not let me sever the connection. At the same time, she shrouds my gypsy love in a sheltering mist and breathes understanding through my dreams. He was taught he must not spare the rod, she says. Brown, brown is the color of tradition.
Still, she is mostly red; not the color of anger but the blood color, the color of life.
4. A series of changing phases or events.
My mother told me story after story about her father, a glorious man, strong, rich, imposing, magnetic. It seemed as though she had observed his achievements over a long, long life. Much later I realized that he had died when she was only two years old. Was it all her fantasy then? Or her own motherís as she agonized over the absence of the young lover who had already become president of a bank, owner of an estate, lord of a mansion holding seven fireplaces, but who would never be older than twenty-nine because that was when death came, that old seducer.
Or was my motherís portrait of her father the true one?
There were stories she never told. How was it that her inheritance was lost? Why was her fatherís genius forgotten? Why did the energy of that family run out?
My mother was a storyteller. When she spoke, events rearranged themselves. Everyone felt happier.
She was a highly moral woman whose strict code of behavior allowed for survival bending so that she could surreptitiously accept the bag of relief flour that my father proudly refused, and could swear her youngest child to secrecy from that father. God understands these necessities, she whispered.
Tuberculosis curved her spine. Asthma choked her. Yet she was strong enough to denounce the corruption of mayors and elders. Arthritis crippled her fingers. Yet she could still make the piano weep. When there were no more jobs, she found people who would pay her to clean houses, wash clothes, write news stories about those who still had jobs, could still give parties, wedding receptions, even commemorative ceremonies for the dead. When there were no clothes, she accepted castoffs and created fashionable dresses. When there was almost no food, she split apples and potatoes into eighths. And lo, the miracle happened for those who had even greater need. The hoboes of the thirties thanked her by inscribing signs beside our gate.
But when there was no more breath in her, she died. And drought followed upon her death as if she were the grieving Demeter.
I cannot explain the secret of her design, though every mirror reflects her light and my hands are aware of her constantly. Watch them. If there is any sign of caring, even the lightest, most furtive touch, that will be my mother.