Once when I was seven, I saw my mother on her hands and knees in a bed of snowdrops.
Not beside it. In it.
The snowdrops were in the backyard of the house we grew up in, on the Upper East Side, in New York. That neighborhood, just south of the 96th Street divide, was cheap, then, with dilapidated stores along Lexington specializing in the repair of bikes and shoes, and warehouses on Third Avenue that moving companies used for storage; their big dusty windows were crowded with yellowing philodendrons and the contents of vanished living rooms. Jacob’s Brewery, a brick pile that used to take up four blocks between Third and Second, had only recently been pulled down. The brownstone we lived in, like others on those blocks, had been built for brewery foremen in the 1890’s, when backyards were used for clothes lines and privies.
Our backyard had been fixed up a little when we bought the house. It was north-facing, shaded by two big Trees of Heaven as well as by walls that hid the neighboring gardens and their occupants. Sometimes I’d hear children on the other sides of those walls, but I never saw them, even when I watched from the upstairs back windows.
Nothing much grew in our yard except ivy, but in early spring, before the trees leafed out, we always had a drift of snowdrops in a dank crescent of earth near the back door. That’s where my mother was when I came down one morning for my breakfast. She was on her hands and knees–and this was at a time when women dressed, even for a day at home; she would have been wearing a girdle and stockings under her dark, knee-length skirt, and I remember worrying that her hem would get muddy, pressed under her knees in the snowdrop bed.
Once I’d absorbed the shock of seeing her on her hands and knees, I had to take in a shock a good deal sharper: I saw, almost in spite of myself, the expression on her face.
Now I wonder how I could have seen her face, buried as it was in the snowdrops.
A seven-year-old, especially a small seven-year-old, as I was then, has a different angle of vision on the world, literally and figuratively. I know I saw her face because the shock I felt could only have come from observing the absolute strangeness – to me – of her expression.
Years later, I would name it.
But then, at that moment, which was brief, before she got up, rather clumsily, brushed off her skirt and came inside to fix my breakfast, I only knew that her expression was one I’d never seen before. It seemed contrary to what I knew of her, with the certainty of a small, well-loved daughter.
I’d watched her pull up a fresh pair of sheer stockings when she was dressing to meet my father at a mid-town restaurant for dinner; I’d seen the dark, drooping triangle of her pubic hair. She’d allowed me to clean her wedding and engagement rings with ammonia and hot soapy water, and when her mother, my grandmother, had died, she’d let me see her cry, lying face down on the geranium-colored coverlet on her bed, which normally she would have turned back. And I’d heard her scream at the boys, my two older brothers, when they’d driven her to exasperation. But I did not know and had never imagined how she looked when her face was buried in flowers.
My mother was a pleasant, pretty woman. She came from a long line of prosperous gentlemen farmers in the Roanoke Valley. Everything about her seemed exquisite to me, even the perilous triangle from which, in some vague way, I knew I’d come. Her clothes hung on white satin padded hangers in her closet, her high-heeled shoes were perched on a wire rack, her scant jewelry was arranged in her dressing table drawer – all was orderly and as it should be, as it seemed all her habits were.
Every morning, she cooked hot breakfasts for my father and us three children, allowing us to chose what we wanted: scrambled eggs with bacon, fluffy biscuits oozing butter, porridge with thick cream, brown sugar and raisins, or corned beef hash, sliced out of the can into a pan of sizzling grease and served with a dollop of Ketchup. Breakfast kept her in the kitchen for close to two hours, from my father’s toast, marmalade and coffee at dawn – he worked on Wall Street and liked to get to his office, he said, before the telephones started ringing –, to my breakfast at seven, and the boys’ rushed feast at nearly eight. Then she washed and put away every plate, glass and utensil before hurrying out the door to conduct the three of us to our three separate schools, fortunately all located within a few blocks of each other down near the East River.
We could have afforded help, we certainly could have afforded a dishwasher, but she had a view of her life that didn’t permit those luxuries. She wanted to be needed, and of course she was.
From those breakfasts, I formed a notion – to the degree I thought about it at all – of the rest of her day. She would have many small chores in the house, the yard, and the neighborhood – she always kept a “To Do” list running –, and these chores would absorb her time and energy until it was two o’clock, when she’d put on coat, hat, boots, scarf and mittens (in my memory, it is always winter in New York), shoulder her massive purse, and set out to fetch us at three different times at our three schools. (There was a theory going around then that children close in age should have their individual characters nurtured at separate institutions.)
Nearly always, we stopped on the way home for pizza or ice cream, depending on the weather. The pizza parlor was warm, its windows steamed up, while ice cream came from a vendor in the park, Mr. Paul (Mother insisted on the mister) whom we knew almost as well as we knew our father.
There was one detail of her routine that seemed to contradict the rest. I’d noticed a book, a novel, I realized later, lying spread-eagled on her bed, which hinted at an indulgent nap. At some time indefinitely before the scene in the snowdrops, I’d had a hint of something else that didn’t fit, but it was years before I pieced these clues together.
Earlier that same year, I’d fallen sick at school with one of those swift, searing childhood fevers. When the nurse took my temperature, it was already 102, my throat hurt when I swallowed, and my left ear, always vulnerable to infection, was beginning to bang – that’s the way I thought of it, as though the pain were strokes on a tin drum.
The nurse called home to tell my mother to come and fetch me, but the line was busy; this was long before all the devices that have made telephones about as private as backyard privies. In those days, a busy signal was a wall, only broken through by the operator to report an emergency. The nurse didn’t want to frighten my mother by resorting to this measure – after all, I was only a sick child.
I was installed on a cot in the nurse’s office – the canvas smelled of urine and vomit – while she tried our number again and again, with increasing exasperation. There were the other children to be considered, after all; flu could rage through the school like an attack of head lice, seriously disrupting academic progress. I knew, even in second grade, how grave that threat was, and I felt ashamed as I huddled under the tan blanket. Now and then, in a habit left over from babyhood, I pressed the frayed nylon binding to my nose.
After a half hour or so of the busy signal, the nurse gave up, with some remark about “Your mother being an awfully talky woman.” Other figures in authority decided to send me home with the school secretary in a cab.
Cabs were a luxury in those days – we rode the bus when the distance was too great to walk –, but I was too sick and too embarrassed to enjoy it. I fingered the house key pinned inside the pocket of my snowsuit, trying to remember which way to turn the key once it was in the lock. I blamed myself for never having paid attention when the grownups opened the thick green front door.
Fortunately, the secretary held the cab while I struggled to get the key the right way into the lock – it felt like threading a needle – and then slowly turned it. At last the door opened, the cab drove away, and I fell into the front hall.
I must have lain on the checkerboard floor – not marble, but linoleum, for practicality – to cool my hot cheek, because the first I saw of my mother was her feet, in her sensible everyday brown boots, at my eye level on the bottom step of the stairs.
I looked up and saw, through the haze of fever, that her face had changed. Had I somehow brought this about? Her eyelids were swollen and red, her beautiful green eyes were stained with red, and her pale skin, powdered that morning, was painfully blotched.
She came to me quickly, crouched down to lift me and carried me upstairs. The reassuring routines of illness were at once put into motion: the agitated call to Dr. Stevens, who promised to drop by at the end of the day, the rush for the thermometer, briskly shaken down, sweet pink baby aspirin, ginger ale on crushed ice and a hot-water bottle wrapped in a hand towel. There would be no other medicine until Dr. Stevens dropped by, with his big, soap-smelling hands, and prescribed something (or, more commonly, did not, since bed rest and lots of fluids were the acknowledged cures.) If there was a prescription, it would mean I was “really sick,” and my mother would put on coat, boots and so forth and rush out to the drugstore on the comer, promising me she’d only be gone fifteen minutes and placing the clock where I could see it– and I don’t believe she was ever gone a minute longer.
But this time, something was different, and I brooded on it as I lay in bed hugging the hot water bottle. I had no way of knowing what blotches and swollen, red eyelids meant, since I’d never seen them before; her crying at the news of my grandmother’s death and been discreet, almost pleasant.
At some point during that hazy afternoon, when the hot-water bottle had cooled to an unpleasant lump and the crushed ice in my glass had melted, a word in my father’s voice floated back to me. The word was “upset.” He’d applied it, once, to my mother, telling us to leave her alone. Perhaps the word was attached to the only time I’d seen him at the stove, his suit jacket hung on the back of a chair and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. (He favored blue-and-white striped shirts with crisp, starched buttoned-on white collars.) He’d been fixing some kind of meal.
It came back to me, then: “Your mother’s upset. Leave her alone.”
The adjective had only a literal meaning then. Small tables were sometimes upset when my brothers roughhoused in the long, dim living room; cups could be upset by an abrupt jerk of an elbow; once, years earlier, my stroller had been nearly upset by a lunging dog.
So I thought my mother must have been knocked topsy turvey, or tumbled to one side, and might need someone to set her upright. My father’s expression, which was really an absence of expression, warned me not to ask.
But did she, I wondered in my fever, have swollen eyelids and blotches, then? Later, she’d come down in her chenille robe and plaid slippers and made herself a cup of tea before taking me on her lap for a bedtime story. By then she’d somehow been righted.
I’ve wandered quite far from the sight of my mother with her face in the snowdrops, but I can only tell this story at the slow pace of a pondering child. After finally linking these two experiences, it took me even more time to add the final incidents to the chain.
On two or three occasions that winter, my mother sang. I’d heard her voice on Sunday mornings in church, but then it was obscured in a forest of grownup voices, with us children piping alongside: “For those endangered on the sea,” “Your huddled masses yearning to be free,” and so forth.
Now her voice strode out alone. She was in another room in the house, perhaps the kitchen, and once she was on the landing, looking out the long window at the street (almost no cars were parked along it in those days, and the spindly trees were dog-poisoned); and once, I’m quite sure, I heard her through the door of her bedroom – so rarely closed, even at night, when it was left open a crack in case one of us should call her –, singing, perhaps, to the geranium-colored coverlet she prized (and which I’ve just sent to my niece, her namesake, in California). It was an old ditty she must have learned in her country childhood.
I can hear it now, her clear voice shredding on the high notes: “The cuckoo, he’s a pretty bird, he sings as he flies, he brings us glad tidings and he tells us no lies, he sucks all the pretty flowers to make his voice clear, and he never sings cuckoo twil the spring of the year.”
Perhaps it was already spring, then, in New York, the spring of the snowdrops, at some time indefinitely before the swollen lids and the blotches.
“A-walking and a-talking and a-wandering go I, a-waiting for sweet Willy, he will come by and by. I’ll meet him in the morning, for he’s all my delight; I could walk and talk to him from morning ‘twill night.”
I crouched down on the hall rug to listen, conscious, perhaps for the first time, of breaking an unspoken rule. I didn’t know the word, eavesdropping, but I knew what it meant. Later, when I did hear it, I imagined a man letting himself down on a rope from an eave, then dropping to the ground.
What I heard then, and had no right to hear – although it would be years before I knew words for it – was the voice of my mother’s hidden life, that had begun in her country childhood and continued underground to that day, and beyond: the life of the girl she’d been, not really left behind when she escaped the farm – a plantation, really – and my crusty, jet-hung grandmother to move to New York and marry my father. That life connected to the recent past and the present and the far-off past and even to the future, binding those pieces together with a twist of farmyard twine. Strong, ordinary, the song continued – I’ve forgotten most of it, now – until she sang, “The false-hearted lover will lead you to the grave.”
Her voice marched triumphantly down those descending notes, triumphant, I know now, with clarity and acceptance.
“The grave will consume you, and turn you to dust.
Not one in ten thousand that a poor gal can trust.”
Now it is time to knit that past to this present, to this year of the new millennium, the year of my mother’s death.
It was cancer, found too late in her uterus, fate’s jab at a woman who had stoically bourn (she was an early advocate of natural childbirth) and devotedly raised (breastfeeding each of us for an entire year, long before it was fashionable) three children, and who’d later resisted a hysterectomy, refusing to lose what she called, proudly, “A piece of my equipment.”
Now her three children are all in our thirties, more or less successfully hatched. Tim is an attorney practicing in the Bay area, married to an attractive, bright woman, with one daughter. Anthony (who can no longer be called Tony) lives with his partner, Steve, in Columbia County and does quite well as a cabinet-maker, and I am following in my father’s footsteps on Wall Street.
We all gathered for her dying, which was mercifully quick, and at home. I remember focusing for some reason on the geranium coverlet, now a bit faded, that rested in peaks on her frail, raised knees. I wondered why she’d never replaced it. The old house was almost unchanged from the years of our childhood, a quarter century earlier; still dim and cool, with long, bland windows looking into rather than out of rooms more high-ceilinged than wide, with fussy old gas sconces, long since converted to electricity of the bare-bulb variety, and corridor-shaped bathrooms that still reeked slightly from Mother’s daily scrubbing with ammonia.
She was gone by then, with my father on his knees at her bedside – a pose I’d only seen him assume in church. Her face looked as it had that day years earlier when she was down among the snowdrops.
And I remembered how jauntily she’d sung the final verses of her song, standing at the landing window, looking at the street:
“The grave will consume you, and turn you to dust.
Not one in ten thousand that a poor gal can trust.
They’ll hug you, and they’ll kiss you, and call you their own,
Perhaps their other darling is a-waiting at home.
Oh the cuckoo, he’s a pretty bird, he sings as he flies…”
This is the end of my story, or of my mother’s story, as I’ve chosen to tell it. But for the sake of accuracy (surely more important to my reader than to me), I must relate an incident from her funeral.
We were turning away from her grave in one of those great rookeries of the dead that line the Long Island expressway, not wanting to see wet clods of earth strike her coffin. It was an early spring day – again, with a marbled sky, brisk wind, and the sun glaring out from time to time. Our shadows on the shorn brown grass looked insubstantial as we walked slowly away; it would have seemed wrong to hurry. In front of us was the limousine, and a reception of sorts for about twenty of her friends at the old house where my father now would begin to live alone.
I must have fallen a little behind the rest of the family, and when I felt someone touch my arm – actually he plucked my sleeve – I expected one of the bright, birdy women who had been my mother’s final friends.
Instead, it was an old man I hadn’t seen before – he’d escaped my notice at the service – with a high bald head circled by a long fringe of cottony hair.
He was plucking at me urgently and I stopped in my tracks while the others plodded on ahead.
“She was beautiful,” he said in a cracking voice, and he stared at me as though he thought I would understand.
“Yes,” I said, embarrassed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that my mother had been beautiful.
He peered at me closely, and I saw the deep lines that bracketed his mouth. “I broke her heart,” he said.
I wanted to dispute him. It seemed shameful, his trespassing on her death with his accusation. For isn’t a broken heart always a sort of accusation? I’d thought her heart better defended, but then I remembered her face when she was down in the snowdrops, and her voice, singing on the stairs,
“The cuckoo, he’s a pretty bird…”