Three Embraces by Any Rake
In May of 1961 I was chosen to deliver a poem at a Mother’s Day celebration at school. I was selected not for my particular eloquent way of reciting poems or because my diction was better than most eleven year olds. The Nun in charge of arts had been best friends with my grandmother while in school so she chose me and my sister for all the public appearances where we fitted in.
That Saturday morning was warm, sunny and we the students were all wearing the white school uniforms used for special occasions. Our parents were sitting in the auditorium while we got ready for our presentations.
My turn came. My passionate performance of the sugary poem brought an enthusiastic response from the audience. Some were even standing up applauding. I must be very good at this -I thought – for how else could these people be so responsive? And who the hell was that mother in the poem? That saintly person who with a benign smile takes patient and loving care of her children? Do mothers like those really exist? -I wondered. Following the script I had my eyes fixated on Isabel, my mother, who being in the second row, was easily recognizable among the four hundred parents present.
My mother was five feet nine, highly unusual for women of her generation. Curly auburn hair which she kept fashionably short, well defined brows and long nicely kept hands. In her wedding picture in 1945 her high cheeks stand out as well as the firmly outlined contour of her face. The small brown eyes look at the photographer and the joy of that moment was perpetuated in the picture. Friends from her youth remember her as a happy going, flirtatious young lady, the soul of the party. Mother taught me to read while making the process so entertaining that at three and a half I was reading without realizing it was not just a game. A rich cousin from my father’s side would send glamorous dresses from last season. Some nights before going out she would go to my bedroom and do a little run away walk with these dresses. I was so proud of her looks and believed that among those of my friends, she was the best looking mother. From her I learned to love the sea, the sun, the ballet and to search for creative ways to solve a situation. Isabel was a lot of good things to me but never the sweet tender mother of the poem I recited as a young girl of eleven. I remember wishing for that mother. And hating the one I had when her demons took hold of her and extended to me.
One could not anticipate the breaking of those fragile gates containing the dark powerful shadows that got the best of her. When the dam broke it was so sudden and fierce there was no way of avoiding the tsunami that would involve us in seconds. If an answer of mine was not of her liking, she fiercely slapped me on the face. Or it could be that I did not act or react as she expected. If she was on those explosive days I would find myself at the receiving end of a glass, a metal spoon or a shoe viciously thrown at me. At seven I started to devise ways to disappear from the situation while enervating her. If she got hold of me and pulled my hair until whole locks were in her fist, I did not cry or scream or try to run. I started singing silly little songs that kept my mind distracted from what was happening. I did not understand at that time that I really had two mothers. One who nurtured me and helped me grow into a curious and resourceful person. Another who believed her enemy lived inside me and had to be destroyed. I was always listening, looking, feeling, smelling for potential signs while wondering which one of my mothers would be around.
She graduated from Art History when I was about eight. She later went on to study Home Economics and Family Education. Afterwards she got a degree in Interior Design and explained us why she could never work in decoration. Her logic was that if people needed help in decorating they must have very bad taste and probably be very difficult to deal with. My mother was very interested in current affairs and politics, a splendid story teller with the ability to keep a mixed audience entertained for hours with her wit and love of detail. An avid reader of all genres particularly philosophy and historical fiction, she neither guided me nor censored my reading. I placidly mixed Bouvier, Stendhal, Swain with pink novels, juvenile adventures and the study of the catholic saints.
My mother liked to sleep until very late, at times forty eight hours could go by without her getting up from bed. On those days, I could barely touch the floor or talk out loud for fear of the mood she would wake up in. My heart would throb and my throat close at her violent change of moods, but I was adamant not to show my real feelings. Being deaf and blind to her demons, or making her believe I was, made me feel strong.
She liked to remind me what an affectionate little girl I had been and blank at why I had changed so much. I could not embrace her or kiss her nor get myself to be close to her even in her good days. We did kiss of course at hellos, goodbyes, birthdays, Christmas or New Year’s. I am thinking of the absence of those lovingly embraces I had seen exchanged between mother and daughter just because they liked to touch each other. No, I could not have physical contact with her spontaneously, though I clearly remember the three embraces I gave her throughout her life.
The first was a fake, selfish and well produced and successful affair when I was thirteen. The wire holding together the braces on my upper teeth had broken. I tried to put it back together with scotch tape. No luck. To avoid a furious reaction on her side I tried a different approach. My mother was sitting on my brother’s bed sorting out the boys’ laundry. I stood at her side and looked at her with the sweet insecurity of a docile puppy. She turned her head surprised at my presence. I threw my arms around her neck, starting to sob uncontrollably. Between tears and snot I managed to explain my ordeal and fear. She comforted me kissing my forehead lovingly while telling me I should not worry at all. -This things happen -she said softly – I will talk to your father about it.
Occasionally in my teens and early youth I wished my mother was dead. I wanted her gone to stop the abuse, the drama, the shouting, the chaos, the unpredictability. Growing up very confused by her volatility I created mechanisms to confuse her. Once for example, I threw away a pair of her favourite shoes which she was looking forward to use at a coming event. Another time I quit ballet lessons. Even though we both loved ballet I knew she would be very disappointed. At last I turned sixteen and was almost as tall as her. For some unimportant reason she started going crazy at me like many other times. This was not any other time. I was her size now and I could stop her. When she threw herself at me I held her wrists very hard and looked her fiercely at the eyes. I could almost feel my brown eyes turning black. -Next time you hit me I will hit you back – I said. Holy remedy.
Her husband, my father, was forty four when he died. A few months later she was diagnosed with a vicious cancer that almost took her life one year after turning into a widow at forty one. She told me of her fears of dying and leaving us five children by ourselves. I was seventeen and being the only of my siblings in transition between high school and university, I was appointed to be with her at the hospital, talking to doctors, bringing her things from home and generally nursing her into good health again. She got well in a few months and in her crazy and determined way, never again returned to the doctor for a check-up. Some years later new medicines started to come out in the market that partially calmed some of her darkness and aggression.
Twenty two years went by from the first voluntary embrace I gave my mother until the second one. She had not been seriously sick but suddenly a bad reaction to a blood transfusion was killing her. She was around sixty two. Her complexion was very pale, almost transparent. Liquids came in and out of her body through tubes and plastic bags. Looking at her so exhausted and fragile, all my love and need of her came bursting out and was expressed without restraint. I embrace her softly, placed my chest over hers, kissed her eyes, her chin, her cheeks while saying to her: You cannot go, you cannot go. I need you. This time I cried without thinking or trying.
At sixty nine she accepted an operation to correct a mitral valve defect. I reminded her about the advice she received a few years back to never have open heart surgery. She preferred to die in the operating room than continuing living as a disabled person –she insisted. I did not think she had such a bad life. Swimming in the cold sea of Lima was forbidden for her as were her long walks through the city. But she drove her car, visited friends, enjoyed her grandchildren, went out to dinner with us and had her daily whisky at home. It is true that sometimes she was out of breath and we had to stop and rest because of her gasping. What I believed did not matter, it was her life and her decision.
The surgeon in charge came out to see us when my mother was still in the operating room. Looking at his face, I knew. He was a friend of mine and could not hold back his tears.
My mother was already dead when I gave her the third embrace. After dressing her with my sisters, I brushed her hair and put some light make up on, making sure her eyebrows looked as she liked them. She always placed great emphasis on the importance of eyebrows. This third embrace was a good bye and thank you one. I kissed her cheek and her forehead while caressing her hair. I told her she looked very nice. Which she did. Her demons were nowhere around. I lit a cigarette from my brother’s packet and smoked it quickly. I remembered then I did not smoke.
And I asked myself –whom will I spent my Saturdays with?
© Any Rake