(Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a writing workshop, entitled 'Writing for Everyone,' affiliated with the Amherst Writers and Artists. The woman leading the workshop presented us with a poem to read, then asked us to write about a memory, whether taken from life or an invented fiction, in the space of 15 minutes. The text below is more or less what I wrote. But of course, it didn’t take 15 minutes to write, it took 40 years.)
Every year around this time, the same murky memories begin to surface in my mind. This particular set of memories dates back to a distant April, in the late 1960s, when my mother spent eleven weeks in the hospital. It was Spring and I turned three while she was away.
My dad worked each day and, from work, would drive four miles over the George Washington Bridge to the Rhode Island Hospital to visit my mom. My grandmother, his mother, came to stay with us, my siblings and me. She meant well, but her presence exacerbated the loss and confusion I felt.
The meals my Nana prepared smelled strange; her habits odd. She once became so frustrated with my brother, who had just turned five and I think had kicked her, that she threatened to call the police on him. That scared me.
Ever mindful of the Great Depression in which she had raised her own children, she wasted nothing. She would not cut the crusts off the bread. She filled the tub with an inch of tepid water. She eschewed electricity. When the sun set, our little Cape home became bathed in shadows.
Sometimes, in the early weeks, my mother would call to say hello. Inevitably, my brother, sister and I would fight over the phone. Someone would cry. And then, the calls stopped. My mother later said it was too painful for her to hear us fighting and be powerless to impact the situation.
“Your mom is trying to get well,” the adults would sometimes say.
Actually, now that I think of it, we saw few adults in that time. Neighbors stayed away from us, believing my mother’s health issues to be contagious.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, my mother came home. I spent most of that afternoon slunk behind a chair; I only peeked at her from a distance. As the day wore on, I crept a little closer to where she was sitting. And when it felt safe, I crawled up into her lap and began to breathe in a way I hadn’t for the entire time she was gone. That evening, the lights came back on.
The years went by and my childhood unfolded in a way similar to that of others. Except this: the possibility that she would become ill again hung over me like a storm cloud, one that threatens to erupt at any moment. That cloud of fear haunted me, shaped me, shadowed me. And then, some three decades later, on a bittery cold Saturday night in December, she died. It was the final phase of the disease that laid her low so many years before. Her last gift to me was that in dying, she freed me from that cloud of fear.
It should have been a relief to be released from the fear, but I was too busy missing her to feel anything but sad.