My Mother’s House has Many Rooms
August 24, 2012 § 2 Comments
I retire for a rest and computer drift in my not-large bedroom at my mother’s house in Lompoc, California. There are two single beds with carved head and footboards, once in my grandmother’s guestroom in Texas, with their original pale peach silk and lace spreads. I never slept in them visiting my grandmother—there was a less fancy room for children—but my mother slept there and I remember admiring the contrast of dark wood and pale coverlets as we talked while she dressed for dinner. I luxuriated in the hour that it took her for make-up, hair, clothing…my father was dead by then…I was both clingy and detached…
Single beds were what married couples on television used, and they still retain a whiff of the original mystery: what was the meaning of that separation, each adult in their childish pajamas needing their own private craft into dreams? I learned the answer probably as soon as I framed the question but even then it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t as if TV would ever show people having sex.
On the dresser facing me, under the cloudy & scarred gilt-framed oval mirror, in which it is just possible to apply lipstick, are a Santa Claus figurine, a Christmas tree coaster, a lamp in the shape of a tree with a twiggy bird’s nest—in which my mother has put three tiny egg-shaped stones—a pair of china showgirls doing their hair, and a photograph of my grandmother in her 30’s, wearing a flower on her bosom, a light-colored dress and short pale gloves with rolled cuffs. She’s not a beauty but she has a face you want to keep looking at: wide, calm, her features not bold but large, promising a person with secrets, kindness, sense and sensibility. I wish she’d lived longer. She took me to Mame when I was 12, and taught me to play Gin.
There’s a narrow, dark red oriental rug under the one window with its amaryllis curtains (a color I came across today looking online at dresses I can’t afford) and a small sheepskin rug between the beds that the poodle likes to sleep on. A vase on the night table brims with yesterday’s lush garden roses; a cream and sepia painting of a bride on the far wall (my sister painted it in high school and wishes it would disappear) perfectly mimics the wistfulness of the antique bedclothes. Several more paintings, drawings and photographs by friends and family adorn the walls, as well as framed, faded 19th century flower prints—those languid sexual shapes, frills and bells….Since I left New York I’ve been assailed by desire, though assailed is the wrong word: a soft pummeling, a reminded of skin and kiss, of possibility. It hardly even makes me sad anymore (though I dreamed last night that I was masturbating while my mother retrieved from my head—from a distance—souls I’d saved from the Devil. Charles was there too, vacuuming his grandmother’s oriental rug.) But back to the real bedroom—a three-tiered table holds a couple of dolls and painted china cats, and other curios; a striped hatbox rests on the closet shelf, a stuffed pink pig lies on the floor…
The room opens into a dim and spacious bathroom, which in turn leads to the library, the most in-use room of the house (during waking hours when there are no visitors). I don’t use it because something about it makes me want to go to sleep, and regardless of the fact that my mother spends so much time there, I fear that if I fall asleep in that sun-faded red leather chair, I’ll never be found. There are too many books, and few of them are new. Some were new when I was a child; some were bought in recent years: the set of Dickens and other classics that my mother originally read in other editions. There are histories of Greece, Rome, The British isles (pre-Christian), The United States; books on magic and mythology; lots of fiction and poetry; art books and dictionaries.
Random titles: The Bedside Book of Beasts, The Subtle Knife, Obama’s Wars, The Passion Artist, Bloomsday, Kontiki. Flowers of Evil, The Last Place on Earth, The Travels of Marco Polo, a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Herzog. Other than books there are more family photographs, mostly recent; various shawls (my mother gets cold); a little desk covered with papers; a map of the Arctic Circle and one of North Carolina shipwrecks. My mother reads for hours every day and the poodle watches her. He knows she’s escaping to far realms without him—moors and glens, wind-whipped seas, battlegrounds, Victorian drawing rooms. He would also like adventures, and so perhaps he and I—no, I hear my brother’s voice, “Let’s go see what Margaret’s doing.”
I go with them on errands: returning a ladder to friends (an older lady who resembles a large, hesitant, tangerine-pink grasshopper) then stopping by the bank and CVS, where we buy paper towels, some household fixit, and two bottles of red wine. I can’t get over that: the greeting cards, the feminine necessaries, bandaids, booze. No reason why not. It’s just so West Coast.
Home to tea and my bed again, my twilight burrow. You’d like it too.
from A Woman of a Distant Land
In this country, we do not bury the dead. We enclose them like dolls in glass cases and decorate our houses with them.
People, especially the cultivated ones from old families, live surrounded by multitudes of dignified dead. Our living rooms and parlors, even our dining rooms and our bedrooms, are filled with our ancestors in glass cases. When the rooms become too full, we use the cases for furniture.
On top of where my twenty-five-year-old great-grandmother lies, beautiful and buried in flowers, we line up the evening soup bowls.
We do not sing in chorus. When four people gather, we weave together four different melodies. This is what we call a relationship. Such encounters are always a sort of entanglement. When these entanglements come loose, we scatter in four directions, sometimes with relief, sometimes at wit’s end.
I wrote that we scatter in four directions, but I did not mean that we merely return home, scattering from one another like rays of light radiating from a single source.
When there is no more need to be together, we scatter in four different directions, but none of us ever breaks the horizon with our tread.
Because people are afraid at the thought of their feet leaving the earth, we turn around one step before reaching the horizon. After thirty years, those faces we wished to see never again enter our fields of vision.
In this country, everyone fears midday. In the daytime, the dead are too dead. Bathed in the sharp view of the sun, our skin crawls, and we shudder.
When the nights, vast and deaf, vast and blind, descend with size great enough to fill the distances between us, we remove our corsets and breathe with relief. When we lie down to sleep at the bottom of the darkness, we are nearly as content as the corpses around us.
The sight of fresh new leaves scares us. Who is to say that those small buds raising their faces upon the branches are not our own nipples? Who is to say that the soft, double blades of grass stretching from the wet earth are not the slightly parted lips of a boy?
In the springtime, when green begins to invade our world, there is no place for us to take refuge outside, and so we hide in the deepest, darkest recesses of our houses. Sometimes we crane our necks from where we hide between our dead brothers, and we gaze at the green hemisphere swelling before our eyes. We are troubled by many fevers; we live with thermometers tucked under our arms.
Do you know what it means to be a woman, especially to be a woman in this country, during the spring?
When I was fifteen, becoming a woman frightened me. When I was eighteen, being a woman struck me as loathsome. Now, how old am I? I have become too much of a woman. I can no longer return to being human; that age is gone forever. My head is small, my neck long, and my hair terribly heavy.
—Tada Chimako, translated by Jeffrey Angles.
Born in 1930 in Kita-Kyūshū City, Fukuoka, Japan, Tada Chimako spent most of her youth in Tokyo, during the tumultuous years of the second World War. Tada authored over 15 books of poetry in Japanese and was also a prominent translator of French literature. Her work frequently referenced Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Japanese classical literature, and concerned itself with the psychology of women in both mythology and the modern world. She also published several books of essays on cultural theory, ancient thought, and mythology.—From Poets.org
Margaret — Love this. I too saw Mame when I was 12, Ann Miller at the Pantages in Hollywood. Any chance … ?
I saw it in New York, so I don’t think so. But it’s a good shared memory anyway.