Tuesday, June 15, 2010



The first dramatic
memory of my mother,
from when she divorced
in 1947:
wide black crownless I. Magnin's

hat and gabardine
suit, floating in the open
elevator cage
of the Smith Tower--before
I vomited my breakfast

(just like I did in
my father's Buick on the
way to Seattle)
and the operator told
us to take the stairs, that kids

almost always threw
up in her elevator.
We got out, but my
father got tired of packing
me up to the top of the

then tallest building
west of the Mississippi,
and went away to
Chicago. My mother stayed
with my grandparents and me,

wore her city suits
to keep books in our small town,
and my affair with
the Smith Tower has outlived
all my other love affairs.


My grandparents' house
was an old Victorian
built from lumber hauled
up from The Dalles by ox teams,
put together with square nails.

Winters it was so
cold ice formed in the bathtub;
next to the oil stove
in the parlor, my mother
argued with my grandmother

while I hid out in
one of the unheated rooms
upstairs--twanging a
banjo and tootling a
clarinet to let them know

I was in the house.
When my mother decided
to marry again,
they took turns reeling me in
like a trout onto their laps

while they fought over
who was going to keep me.
I have custody!
my mother shouted, and sent
for the police to take me

to the tiny house
on the bottom end of town
with its apple tree
out back, and my stepfather's
Chevrolet in the driveway.


Three moves in one year
gave me a baby brother,
a scar over my right eyebrow, a sled with my
name on it left inside our

fence by my grandpa
in the middle of the worst
snowstorm in decades
(because my mother forbade
her parents to visit me)

and an apple box
from which the Easter bunnies
escaped the music
of Rimsky Korsakov out
the kitchen door to the field.

My mother made crab
salads and donuts and wore
striped shirtwaist dresses
when my stepfather's college
friends came over with their wives,

and I had to take
the enormous world atlas
down from the table
where I travelled its pages,
memorizing the products

of Bolivia,
the rivers of India
and mountain ranges
of Europe--while my brother
teethed and raged in his playpen.


Once my stepfather
graduated, he was hired
to teach the 6th grade
in another town, and my
mother once again filled up

boxes from the store,
piled them in the living room.
Harry and I went
fishing from the crack of dawn
in a rowboat on Park Lake--

my first fierce sunburn--
and he tried to teach Marie
to drive their brand new
Studebaker Champion
convertible. He went out

every night with
his buddies to celebrate,
and one morning I
came downstairs and found mother
sitting along on the couch;

the sheriff told us
Harry had died instantly
when he crashed his car
into a tanker stopped just
off the Cle Elum highway.

After we buried
Harry, my mother bought an
untrained dalmation,
painted the kitchen cupboards,
signed me up at the nuns' school.


With the insurance
money mother bought a small
house close to my school,
but beginning school brought on
a continuous fever,

and I returned to
my grandparents' house to spend
half the year in bed.
Next thing we knew mother was
a platinum blond and had

moved to Wenatchee
for a stint of bookkeeping
before moving back
home--lock, stock and my brother--
to become a girl again

at 30. She spent
her weekends playing tennis
for expenses and
trophies, read Vogue magazine,
shopped and bought a series of

Ford convertibles.
She had some tennis boyfriends
that came to nothing;
then a turbulent affair
with the police chief that cost

him his job and his
marriage, made him my mother's
3rd husband--and at
35, Marie left with
him for California.


Life among the palm
trees panned out so well that in
I made an upchucking trip
by plane to Los Angeles

and spent the summer
babysitting my brother
in a little house
whose back gate opened into
orange groves and romances

with neighborhood boys--
but my mother and stepdad
objected to boys
from Valeria Drive, said
they didn't mix with white trash,

did not even speak
to any of their neighbors.
That seemed to be true:
my stepdad went out boozing
with his political pals

in another town;
my mother passed her free time
smacking tennis balls
against the patio wall
and restoring French antiques.

I got bored spanking
my brother with a hairbrush
for not learning his
multiplication tables,
went back home ahead of time.


Mother took a year
off from work and made a stab
at writing fiction--
typing up stories for her
course at the junior college

and sending them off
to the Atlantic Monthly
and the New Yorker.
I only read one (and stole
an image from it for one

of my own stories)
so didn't know if
they were any good or not;
but her writing of fiction
petered out to a scrapbook

of rejection slips.
So she gave it up and went
back to keeping books,
restoring furniture and
searching for schools that would not

expel my brother
for taking his stepfather's
revolvers to class.
The short story that I read,

though it was, revealed
nothing of my mother's life;
to me she remained
a mystery throughout my
years in university.


Once I was married
and studying a Master's
in San Francisco,
mother sent us plane tickets
so she could meet my husband

(who was afraid to
fly and numbed himself with gin
and valium for
the one-hour flight), but when we
arrived mother was in bed

with the flu. She spent
the weekend there, getting up
when we were leaving
for the airport to smile and
shake my husband Roger's hand.

A few months later
they drove up with my brother,
announced my mother's
new job as postmistress of
their town, and took us out to

eat in Chinatown.
Before they left, my brother
and I body-surfed
at Stinson Beach while Roger
fished. After that visit, I

began my job search
at universities in
the East and Midwest,
since my mother swore she was
allergic to cold weather.


Mother did visit
us in Connecticut six
years later, and met
her two-year-old granddaughter.
She and I drove to Salem

to an auction, walked
through the fallen maple leaves,
ate Japanese food
in Boston, came back to dress
Renate as a ghost for

Halloween and eat
veal cutlet grinders at the
Italian cafe.
The next spring we went to France
(after I picked up typhoid

en route in London):
The soft grey blur of Paris
gave way to the sea
and sun at Sète, where I bought
incredibly tiny jeans,

then rode shotgun in
the Hertz rental Simca up
into Switzerland
and back again to Paris,
arriving without typhoid

and without learning
much more about my mother--
who ate a burned croque
monsieur at La Fregate and
complained that her teeth were black.


Grandfather died when
I turned 35, and with
that my connection
with my mother became less
than ever. She drifted loose

from the family--
fighting once a week by phone
with my grandmother
or me, refusing to go
to grandmother's funeral,

raging because I
gave grandmother's ruby ring
to my cousin Pat.
By then she was obsessing
about her pug's eczema,

her own hemorrhoids,
her fears about retiring
and breaking the frame
of habits that held her life
together all those years so

Just do it, mother--I said
on the telephone--
it's time to be an adult:
go see a psychologist,

sign up for courses
at the university,
move your business
to France; if not you will soon
become crazier than shit.


After she retired,
mother flew to Santa Fe
for a long weekend;
in the museum shop she
dropped a Badger fetish like

a hot potato
although it was her spirit
animal. I went
south after that, and she snapped
the tenuous thread between

us, cutting me out
of her will because I'd moved
to Mexico, sure
that Mexico's government
would grab her art collection.

One night she called me
and said she wanted to make
amends. Fine, I said,
go ahead and make them. But
by then she was too crazy--

bouncing in and out
of dementia wards until
there was no place left
but her nearly empty house,
remortgaged by my brother--

who sold off paintings
and antique French furniture
and then, finally,
pulled the plug on her life one
day before I turned 60.

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