I was never very kind to my mother. “You’re going to die young,” I used to say. “Cancer, probably, or some freak accident.” And I was not alone in my cruelty. She lived in our little town from the time she married my father, at twenty-four, until the time she died, in her sixties. Early on she developed a number of friendships, but over the years those friends began to decline all of my mother’s invitations for a walk or tea, and to never offer any of their own, either. “You’re not a funny person,” one such friend told her. “You always talk of the ways you’ve been wronged,” another said. Though these things were true, I know my mother’s friends could have helped her to be otherwise. My mother wasn’t easy to be around—she was nervous, over-talkative, hovering. Her movements were jerky and abrupt. She was forever sure that all that went wrong would be blamed on her, that her intelligence would never be appreciated, and that she would be left alone. Some kindness may have lifted my mother back up. But it never did, and on most accounts my mother turned out to be right; she was left unappreciated, she was left alone.
“Leo,” my mother would sometimes say, slowly, and with that name a glimmer of real, true laughter would fall from her lips. Next she would begin to hum. This typically occurred as she stood at the kitchen counter, a faded red apron tied at her full middle, one hand moving a wooden spoon slowly in the bowl of cookie dough, the other turning that bowl in lazy circles.
“Mom,” I would snap. For something unfamiliar was wrapping up my mother’s big thighs and falling down the length of her back. “I’m sick of sugar cookies,” I would say, or, “You dropped eggshell in the batter.” Perhaps I was keeping my mother in my control. When my mother thought of Leo, I believe she came into herself, her body. I believe she became a woman far away from anything that had ever so much as dreamed the idea of me.
* * *
My mother was a New Hampshire girl, but her parents sent her to the college they could afford, which was in the flats of Illinois. I’ve seen pictures of her as a young girl, standing outside her grade school or sitting atop the swing set, and I know she was large as a child—not chubby but somewhat overgrown, and this size ingrained awkwardness in her. By the time she got to college she had grown into herself, but she was still the same—capable of speaking up if she saw no other option, but generally afraid of herself and her worth.
I know that a couple terrible things happened to my mother in Illinois. She lived in a girls’ dormitory but boys were allowed there in the daytime. She never was a stylish woman, but briefly she tried, back then, to fit in and to look good. That was how she ended up with a pair of light yellow linen pants. They were hip-huggers, more fashionable than anything she’d ever worn. My mother was used to hand-me-downs, but for college her mother purchased the expensive pants, telling her daughter their shape accentuated her womanhood. After studying in the lobby—my mother studied science, and studied it hard, intent on teaching the men that she too was capable—she walked back up the stairs and down that long hallway. It was early in the semester, and though other people in the dorm had formed groups already, my mother was still on the outskirts. I can imagine the way her journey down that crowded hallway must have felt endless. So many eyes were cast upon her, but that, I think, may have felt normal to her. What was not normal was the moment when one young man pointed at her, and let out a small, skittering laugh.
This part of the story fills me with pride: My mother stopped sharply and turned to him. “Am I funny to you?” she snapped. She held her chin high and her back straight. As I said, my mother was shy and insecure, but generally unafraid to speak up for herself. This combination was somewhat mystifying, yet seems to me to be what would later attract Leo to her. No one answered her question, but suddenly my mother knew the problem. She dropped her science book on the floor and hovered between picking it up or leaving it. She left the book and ran to her room. I’m not sure how she didn’t feel it earlier—perhaps because she’d been concentrating on walking through the crowded hall. She never liked to be noticed in public. Regardless, my mother had bled, and in the linen pants the blood was striking. No woman would be comfortable in her situation, and particularly not a shy one, but I believe this event was even more terrible for my mother than it may have been for another. Those pants were perhaps her first attempt at looking like a woman. She never wore any makeup or jewelry. She never did her nails, and always she pulled her hair back into a ponytail at the base of her neck. The act of dressing oneself up humiliated her, and though it is not true of all women who are most comfortable in worn jeans and a large sweatshirt, I know that for my mother these things were the result of the insecurity she held about being a woman, and about women in general. No one returned the book to her room. Later, in her pajamas, my mother snuck into the hallway to find it in the exact same spot.
That was the first terrible thing that happened to my mother in Illinois. She missed the woods and hills of home, but of course she wouldn’t tell her parents that. My mother claimed to have never fought with her parents, and beyond that to have never even said one cruel word to them. I always thought this untrue, nothing more than her attempt at convincing me to be a kind person, but I believe now that it was not a lie. She was kind, and ill equipped.
A musician she was not, but when she found no friends in her dormitory or classes, my mother began to frequent the junkshop in town, an activity she used to do with her own mother. She spoke to the old man who ran the place—in fact it was he who gave her her first cigarette. Though smoking is what would one day kill her, I suppose it is also what saved her; cigarettes stood at the center of her friendship with the man of the junkshop, and it was he who would eventually lead her to Leo, that great happiness of her life.
My mother and the old man would sit in the corner of the junkshop amidst typewriters and pottery and dust, smoking cigarettes until the smoke hovered like a ghost over their bodies. They’d drink black coffee, and I don’t know what exactly they spoke of, but I know the man’s wife had died, and his son had joined the war and been killed, and I also know that together they laughed. And how I love that image of my mother: reclined, legs crossed, a long cigarette held between her fingers, which, in this moment alone, were finally relaxed. Strands of her laughter would weave itself in with her smoke, and within this cloud she would be happy.
My mother was always more comfortable with a certain type of people. Mostly people who didn’t dress well. Of course she taught me manners for the dinner table, but it truth she more enjoyed her time with people who didn’t adhere to those manners. “She’s not concerned with style,” was one of my mother’s highest compliments. She was a woman who gathered, chopped, and split the wood by herself. She liked hard workers. Always afraid to be judged, I believe my mother felt at ease with others whom she assumed suffered the judgments of a higher, more well-dressed class. Thus the old man in the junkshop who spoke too loudly, wore grease- and dirt-stained clothes, and blew his nose on the sidewalk simply by holding one nostril shut.
“Mary!” he said on the day he came across the wooden recorder. “Just for you!”
“You’ll be sorry if you let me get my hands on that,” my mother told him.
“I have a feeling, Mary. I haven’t told you yet about my feelings.”
My mother must have laughed, started another pot of coffee, lit a cigarette.
“It’s not a joke. Premonitions, Mary. If you’ve got the time I’ll tell you about my premonitions. If you don’t, at least you can trust me and take the recorder.”
It was a Saturday in late fall, bright and brilliant, the world a storybook. In addition to going to the junkshop, my mother had also found a spot on the river where she spent afternoons. There was a giant tree on the bank with branches and roots twisted into a maze, and my mother could scoot her body up one such root, duck under a branch, and emerge in a cradle of the tree above the dirty, wide river.
That day the man at the junkshop, Martin was his name, told my mother about his premonitions. He’d had one about a car crash just before a vehicle hit him. He’d had one for a split-second when he held his son, and never could he shake the feeling that he would outlive that child. Which came to be true. Once he’d had a premonition that his house was going to burn down. He went home to find he had in fact left the oven on, and opened. This one my mother argued over—it wasn’t a premonition, she said, it was that he could remember in the folds of his mind that he hadn’t turned the oven off.
“That’s not the point, Mary,” he said. “The point is I saw this recorder under a pile of junk and suddenly it came to me. MARY! It screamed. MARY!” He jumped around, allowing his large, loose belly to bounce freely. “Mary,” he chanted as he danced. My mother took the recorder and book that went with it.
In that tree over the river, my mother learned some notes. Her progress only ever developed as far as Row, Row, Row Your Boat, but she liked to play it, and I like to imagine my mother doing so. Though when I envision it, I see her sitting against an old birch on the banks of a lovely river. Across the way, rather than the paper factory that was truly there, I like to see a small stone wall, beyond which stretches an impossibly green field bordered by maples. In my imagination a cow occasionally walks or dozes, and though the sounds that emerge from my mother’s recorder are still those of a child’s song, mixed in with it is the quiet persistence of water in and over rock, and the calls of morning doves and chickadees.
Neither my mother nor I could ever hit a note with our voices, and both of us tried our hands at the piano, but we were not skilled in that department. I wasn’t always mean to my mother; she used to claim that as a young girl I was the kindest person she could have dreamed. Back then, my mother did buy me a recorder, and she taught me to play her song. I used to sit out behind the barn, on the bridge she had built over a small stream, playing the music, never knowing where it may have taken her. As I grew she would ask me if I didn’t want to play the recorder with her.
“That’s not a real instrument,” I would snap.
Though I always took them for granted, my mother had premonitions too. A painting hung in our hallway of a little girl with blond hair, blunt bangs, and large blue eyes. The skin of the girl was soft and light. Also in her bedroom was a photograph taken of me when I was two or three. The girl in the painting and the girl in the photograph were strikingly similar, and I once asked my mother if she made the painting before or after she took the picture. In addition to a teacher of science my mother had been a painter, and she also made sculptures of people out of old wire found in the barn.
“I painted the picture first,” she said. She was taking clothes off the line, putting the pins in her bin and trimly folding each article.
“Why did you have the picture taken of me?” I asked.
“I didn’t. Your great-great aunt wanted the photographs done.”
“Was it hard to paint me?” I asked.
“The painting is not of you.” She lifted the laundry basket. The smell of mock orange filled the yard.
“Who is it of?”
“No one,” she said.
“It looks just like me.”
“You weren’t born yet,” she told me.
But that painting surely was of me. And part of what strikes me about my mother’s foresight is that her own skin was quite olive, where mine is soft and light. If I were to paint a picture of the child I might someday have, surely I’d paint it with the same skin color as my own. But my mother knew not to.
My mother sat in her tree playing the recorder on that Sunday when she heard a whistle. She put the instrument down and brought her fingers to the corners of her mouth and blew—this whistle was one of my mother’s talents. The man whistled back once more, though his call was not nearly as skilled as hers. She could see him now, emerging from the bushes, his shirt half-tucked and dirt on his knee. He couldn’t see my mother though, and she knew it. Perhaps unseen she was given to a certain amount of bravery. Perhaps she knew Leo would become her dearest friend. Anyway, my mother began to play her bumbling child’s song on the recorder, and because of that song the man found her in the tree, and that man was Leo, tall and thin with a great plume of hair, and that man loved my mother.
“Oh,” my mother would sometimes say while she kneaded bread. In the kitchen she tried to be close to me, her daughter, tried to share the things she wanted a mother and daughter to share. “That Leo Lightfield sure loved your mother.”
“You should have married him then,” I would say, in my cruelest tone. I knew that if my mother had married Leo I would not have existed. I also knew that my mother hated my father, who had left us. I knew that if my mother had married Leo, and some other version of me instead of me existed, she would have had a better life.
I can’t clearly imagine their time together. They took walks, I know, they studied, they must have made gentle love. They were both simple people, uninterested in trying the drugs my father was trying back then, not uninterested but not impassioned by the music or the poetry or any of the uprising of the times. My mother and Leo liked to play cards. They liked to go out for a burger. They watched movies together and, at the library, under the table, their feet rested on one another’s. “We never worried about what would become of us,” my mother said one time. “We just lived,” she said, and I knew not to counter her. My mother’s time with Leo was the only time in her life that she hadn’t been afraid.
* * *
Dear Mu Mu, the letter in her jewelry box said. I found it when I was a girl, and knew it was from him because my mother had told me that she’d only had one nickname, and it had come from Leo Lightfield.
I’ll tell you again to your face but I can’t bear to say it without telling you now first.
My father raised me a certain way.
Each line was broken like that. As a girl, I thought that meant it was a poem, so I memorized it. At night, as I squinted my eyes at the hallway light, breaking the stream into singular strands, I recited Leo’s poem in my head.
I don’t believe in war.
I believe in our country.
I don’t know what I believe.
I believe in you, Mary.
That’s all. Please. My mother knew what it meant, and I can imagine the way she folded the letter back into the envelope and filed it with her other letters, and opened her science book, and began to answer a question, and lit a cigarette, and I can imagine the way she would have wanted to cry, and maybe my mother did cry then, but I don’t think she did.
Leo came to her room later and told her that he’d joined the army and was to catch a bus the next day. He asked my mother to see him off, which she did, and she must have seen herself off too. “There he was,” she said to me a number of times. “Gone.”
He wore navy blue slacks with a crease down the front and a light cardigan sweater. In his hand he carried a small green duffel bag, upon which my mother had written his name in black magic marker.
* * *
Sometime later, the other terrible thing happened to my mother. I don’t know if she was walking alone at night, or maybe at a party where she drank something she shouldn’t have. I don’t know if it was a stranger but I imagine it was—a rough, terrible man, just the kind of man a person thinks would do that sort of thing. And I imagine it happened in just the way a person might think it did—a man emerged from behind the low hedges, my mother was thrown down and held. Other than telling me, simply, that it had happened, my mother never uttered one detail.
Once, in the crawl space behind my bedroom, I found Leo’s letters from Vietnam. They were in a box, surrounded by mousetraps and dust. Loose insulation hung from the ceiling. I opened one letter and found a picture of him, standing camouflaged under the jungle’s canopy. He smiled without fear or shyness, a pure smile given to my mother alone. I put the letter away and pulled the cord to turn the attic light off. I never read one of those letters.
* * *
In the last year of her life, my mother began painting again. Her paintings were large and very realistic. They were all of girls and women. Some pictured the figure from the back, some from the side; some had the figure sitting, some standing. But the girls and women were never doing anything, and nothing ever occurred in the background. Pale brown, black, sometimes a steady blue—these colors hung plainly behind the figures. One painting was of a woman not unlike my mother—dark haired, dark skinned, her brow a plate of scowl. She faced forward, directly, full of purpose. Behind her was a field of white.
“Do you name your paintings?” I asked her.
She said no.
“Would you name this one?” I asked.
“No,” my mother said simply. “There is no name. They are all a woman nowhere.”
* * *
“Weren’t you scared Leo would die?” I asked my mother once.
She shrugged her shoulders. She must have said “No,” or, “Once in a while,” but it wasn’t her words that mattered. It was her voice. She could have been saying it was a beautiful day. She could have been saying she had just seen a rainbow. And it was then that I understood: Leo had entered her mind. And suddenly, with Leo there, the world and all that was in it was just as it was.
* * *
Leo did come back to her. My mother had graduated from college in Illinois and taken a teaching job in Hawaii. It seems this would have taken a great amount of bravery. She packed two small suitcases. The headmaster and his family, whom she would live with, greeted her at the airport a day later. That headmaster came to her room one night. She heard the door of her room creak open, and she saw his naked form standing in her doorway. In Hawaii, my mother ate food with ginger and pineapple and cayenne. She wore a two-piece bathing suit and she went to parties with fires on the beach of the Pacific. She looked over the edges of volcanoes. When the headmaster came to her room, my mother may have done one of two things. As he reached her bed, she may have sat up and slapped him, her hardest slap, across the face. At which point he would have left her alone. The other thing my mother may have done is lie back and give in. Because I know what it could have done to her, that one time in Illinois, and I know what she could have lost. I know what Hawaii must have been for her, and rather than the result of courage, more often I see the trip the result of a hardening, a movement far, far away from herself.
But Leo came to the island. He bought a moped and he wrapped his arms around my mother and he swam naked in the ocean and he kissed my mother on the neck and the thumb and the knee, over and over again, and my mother returned to herself.
* * *
I used to look through my mother’s drawers, lifting up a folded shirt, moving a small box of single earrings to the side. I was always careful to remember exactly where everything had been. But my mother always knew. “Did you find what you needed in my drawers?” she would ask. If I woke in the morning thinking I’d like to go for a walk in the woods, she’d say over breakfast, “Going for a walk in the woods today?” Once, when I pierced my own ears with ice and a sewing needle, I put my hair down to conceal what I had done. I walked into the kitchen. “What did you do to your body?” my mother asked before she even turned from the counter. In the summers we camped together on a peninsula on the ocean, and once as we stood on a cliff my mother said to me, “I’m afraid to die here.” I was young and reached for her hand. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We won’t fall.” My mother was afraid of heights and I was accustomed to it. But she went on, “I’m not afraid we’ll fall.” Her voice was even and cold. “I’m afraid I’ll jump.” She squeezed her rough, cracked hands against my cheeks. “Don’t worry,” she told me. Soon after, in the camp store, on the front page of the paper we saw that a woman had fallen, or jumped, but nonetheless had died, from that very same spot just a day later.
Maybe that’s why, when Leo left the island, it happened simply. He was just gone, as she knew he would be. My mother cut her hair off, finished her year of teaching, and returned to Illinois to earn her master’s degree.
“I was in McDonald’s, having some dinner and studying,” my mother told me. That image of her, alone in the fast food restaurant, made my heart grow. Just another person, eating and trying. When the falling sun cast a light too bright for her to read the passage in her book, she looked up, out the window. She squinted. There at the stoplight was Leo Lightfield. Leo Lightfield, in search of my mother.
“Oh,” my mother would say. A calm, happy mother. “There he was.”
He stayed in her small apartment. The way my mother would have it, he kept his arms wrapped tightly around her in the single bed, holding her so she wouldn’t fall. Standing naked, he squeezed grapefruits and oranges for juice in the morning. Sometimes, after they made love, he went to the second-story window and he peed out of it, right there, under the moon, down onto the lawn, majestic.
“That Leo,” my mother would say. “He sure loved your mother.”
And that’s the end of my mother’s story with Leo.
Or, almost the end. My mother married my father. She settled into Kettleborough life, and gave birth to me. Our father left her and she learned to speak in dramatic terms about the course of her life. “I built this entire house with my own two hands,” she would say, though in truth the house had been built more than a century ago. “I carried this woodstove on my back all the way from the store to home,” she’d say. “I made you all by myself.” She also spoke often of her own death. “Come here,” she’d call, in a sickly voice, from her bed. I’d rush to her. “I want to die,” she’d say. “I have no reason to live.” She’d grasp my hand so firmly it ached for an hour afterward. And then she’d pull my entire body onto the bed with her, and hold me there until I had trouble breathing. “There’s you,” she’d tell me. I was the reason for her to live.
But once, when I was a teenager, my mother rolled the pie dough on the counter and stirred the blackberries on the stove, and laughed, and said, “Leo.”
“He’s probably dead,” I told her.
“He is,” I said. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t think I wanted Leo dead—he was just a story to me anyway, so even if he did die, he would remain. But at that moment I wanted the Leo in the story to die.
“He’s not,” my mother said, and just then a car pulled in the driveway. I went to the window as two tall, sun-kissed boys climbed out of the backseat. They stood in the driveway on that bright afternoon, gazing lazily upon our big old house and barn.
By then my mother had begun to warn me about boys. One time, when a boy came to pick me up for a movie, she met him in the driveway and stuck her head through his truck window. “I have a gun, and I know how to use it,” she told him as she shook, her knuckles clenched tight around the frame of his window.
“You have to understand the difference between love and lust,” she would say to me. But when I looked out the window at those boys climbing out of the back of a car with license plates from California, I didn’t want to. I wanted their tongues in my mouth. I wanted them badly. I wanted those boys and I wanted that to be love. I stood in the window and I watched those tall, lovely creatures, and I chose one of them, the taller one, with longer hair, and when he stretched his arms up high enough for his t-shirt to lift and reveal a naked stretch of California skin, I decided we would marry. I stared at him, casting my spell. He would marry me and together we would lust.
Of course we didn’t marry. I met him that one brisk fall afternoon, and we shared nearly nothing. But I did marry a man like him, a man I lusted for. And, it turns out, a man who lusts for others. We married in a rush. My mother warned me.
They were Leo Lightfield’s sons, of course. The mother got out of the front seat, the woman he had chosen, and I knew right then that this woman he had chosen above my mother. Maybe he had met her in Illinois. Maybe my mother had known her. Maybe Leo had gone to Hawaii to tell my mother he was sorry. Maybe he tracked her down in Illinois to tell her he’d be married. Maybe my mother and Leo never shared the same bed those days after the war.
Though perhaps Leo hadn’t met this woman yet, but still my mother wasn’t good enough. I knew it had to be that—somehow, my mother wasn’t good enough. Because when Leo got out of the car, tall like his sons and thin, curly hair and a yawn, his arms stretched above his head and his hard stomach revealed, he looked across the hood of his car at his wife and it was as though he’d seen her for the very first time. Toward that woman Leo walked with the easy, sure, determined walk of a man. His wife’s head fell back and light danced upon her hair as Leo put his hands on her hips. He leaned in and I leaned back, dreaming a body pressing into mine as his pressed, dreaming the urgent and slow touch of a man’s rough lips.
By then my mother had run to the window closest the door. “Leo!” she had yelled, though when she saw them kissing my mother froze, and instead of greeting him in the driveway as she did all other guests, my mother waited for their family to come to the door.
I decided in that moment that Leo was like me. Like me, Leo wanted lust. And my mother had tried to teach him otherwise.
* * *
His family had come from California to see the fall leaves of New England. The six of us took an afternoon walk. We stopped at the top of the hill in the field, beneath the blighted apple tree, and as the rest of them looked down toward the house, I looked on at our small party: Leo’s family and my mother’s broken life.
“His marriage isn’t good,” my mother said after they left. That was all. She took cookie dough from the refrigerator and baked a dozen cookies. “Let’s have some tea,” she said. “Do you want to play cards?” But I believed I could see through my mother. That I knew her more than she knew herself. Of course, I believed, my mother was sick with jealousy. And, of course she had ruined a life with my father in the same way she had ruined a life with Leo.
My mother wanted to talk. She could have used some kindness. I was all she had, and I was nothing. “You’re pathetic,” I told her. When I went upstairs, the dull sounds of the radio and the smell of her smoke drifted up through the heating vent.
* * *
After I grew up and left home, my mother took to locking the doors while she was home alone, even though we lived far in the countryside. Also she kept the radio on, always, even through the night.
* * *
My mother heard from Leo only one more time before she died. Remarkably, he wrote to say his marriage wasn’t good. “I hope he’s all right,” she told me. She had wanted to hear more from him after that. But she didn’t, and I suspect she sensed she wouldn’t. I suspect she sensed she would die soon, too.
* * *
Lately my mother has come to my dreams, but she has come in another form. This form of mother, I believe, is the one who knew Leo. Her hair is down, and she is beautiful and full of woman. She laughs, and when I wake I am calm, rested. I am able to think, for a time, that I can love my mother with no bitterness. She has Leo inside of her, and she is unafraid. A part of her body, and a part of it all.
But I am still angry. Because where was that woman in my lifetime? Where was the woman who could sweep her hand across her brow and say, see, my dear? The world is wonderful. She could have said that. She could have gone on. She could have taught me how to go on.
* * *
I think of writing a letter to Leo. I have drafted a few. I think of asking him to describe to me the mother he loved, the mother I never knew. My version is flawed, I want to tell him. Was it the war? Or was my mother really the one who was too broken? But none of his answers would be right. Leo loved my mother. I understand that now. Now that I am married and tired, I understand that love is washing the dishes, that love can be a slice of toast whose burn is scraped from the edges. I wave my hand lightly across my brow. “You’re welcome,” I say. I won’t write that letter. I could go to the junkshop in Illinois, introduce myself, bring the recorder, let old Martin guess whether or not I’m the daughter of Mary and Leo. You’re wrong, I could say to him. It didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to. But I won’t do that. He’ll be long dead anyway. But even if he were alive, I wouldn’t have him guess like that. The story went nowhere, I would say instead.
Here you are, he might respond.
And there we would be.