Mother's Day, part I

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 5/13/2018

July 2017

Anemoia.

My lipstick stains the rim of my paper coffee cup. Bubble-gum-pink.

It's a normal day of writing, except that my heart feels full of fire and wholeness. I am thinking about a career in a hospital. I want to be closer to my ex. Writing pulls me into the past, makes me remember his heart, full of brimstone and goosedown. I can write as well as The Bananafish, I think. I can be another Salinger.

Maybe not.

Recently, on a day of pain -- either of writing or love -- my friend Daniel wrote to me,

"Let it crack you open so more light can shine in."

"You're my scintillating dazzle of life-giving-electricity," my friend added. "You're my star dust glazed bird of paradise."

I like loving words.

The cafe fan hums. The white noise always makes me think of a womb. It numbs nearby clinks of mugs and spoons. I know there is a world outside, of mountains and Dachau. I see a man in tight jeans, in my periphery. I think about the pumpkins my mother likes to carve. She can make the Mona Lisa's face shine in it: I swear. She can actually shade the gourd, by thinly shaving the flesh with an exacto knife.

Oh, I died of nostalgia, just thinking of her hands yesterday. Thinking of what-could-have-been, if I had been more like her. Thinking how she held an exacto knife. How she carved a stallion. How her hands always looped through leather reins as she rode.

How, when I was fifteen, she added coral paint over Sister Margaret's cheeks -- my portrait -- giving the nun a hint of blush when I was out of the house. When I came home, I was furious -- flag-high proud, with lava on my brain.

"But I didn't think you would even notice," my mother said in shock. "I painted it so subtly." But I noticed, like one notices when a stranger has napped in one's bed, even if the bed is made up again, because it is not exactly the same, and the pillow smells like a foreign shampoo.

After I cooled, I acknowledged that she had improved the portrait. She had livened up the sister's gray pallor, and overall it was a successful trespass. My mother said sorry, and we joked that she had put make-up on my nun. But in the secret marrow in my soul, it made me remember the first time I had collaborated on a portrait with her -- when I was in kindergarten..

In those days we were poor, but my mother had somehow obtained an enormous roll of paper from a warehouse. One night, when the evening was soft and the crickets were chirping and we were both alone, she unrolled this paper roll. It slid all the way across the kitchen floor. She told me to lie down, and she traced my body. She tickled my bare legs with the pencil. Her hands were so dainty, and graceful.

Then she cut my shadow out with shears, and together we colored the life-sized me. She had bought a set of pencils, too: fresh out of the box, they smelled like cedar wood, with perfect points. We knelt on the floor and gave me corn-yellow hair.

What do you want to wear? she asked.

I wanted to be drawn in my favorite nightgown, I pleaded, and my mother said, yes.

She knew which one. I always felt haughty and ethereal in that nightgown -- milky pink. Even at five, I knew both the mystique and allure of silk. When I wore it at night, I became a golden-haired princess, able to dance and command a country and win a king's heart. I would pirouette through the house, forgetting there was a carpet under my toes -- danced across stars in my mind, and through lily gardens.

My mother's fingers searched through the pencils, making musical clinks, as one might float their fingers in a warm tidal pool. She selected a rosebud pink from the box.

When we finished coloring the nightgown, I decided I wanted my facial expression to have pursed lips, like a movie star or a storybook maiden. I had precocious pencil-control at five, and I drew my eyes round and blue like the moon, with arched eyebrows, and a very puckered mouth, like a Valentine's heart. I outlined my cheeks, too, trying to be realistic, but I realized with alarm that the effect was more souring than charming. So I titled my self-portrait Messy Kiss.

Tell me how to write that, I demanded.

My mother obliged and I sprawled the letters deprecatingly across my feet. Even at five, I had a sense of humor. (That, or I was being self-protective: hurrying to make the joke before anyone else did.)

Then we approached the face. She began by putting blush on my left cheek. I watched her carefully massage the pencil over the paper, rounding out the face with a flushed tone. Then she mixed it with peach. And again with pink, until the color glowed.

I interrupted her. "Now I want to do the other cheek," I demanded.

My mother hesitated, and I noticed it. When she handed me the pencil, I felt her indulgence, and I paused, with new self-doubt. "How do you do it?" I asked.

"Just shade it softly," she instructed. "Like this." She waved her hand airily.

I tried to imitate my mom, roughing the color over the paper like I was scattering wildflower seeds.

"Softer," she pleaded. "Go delicately. Like this. Watch my hand. See?"

I tried again. Still sowing.

"Gently!" she insisted.

My pencil lines were streaks, street-lines of pink -- scratches.

"Your aim is to blur it. That's it," she cheered. "There you go, Sarah!" I heard the kind lie in her voice, which meant she had given up on me. "You've got it."

I sat back on my heels and looked at the result. My portrait looked glorious and goofy. Yes, I was dressed in silk -- but I was puckering, squinting. Half a heroine.

"Messy Kiss" was tacked up on my bedroom wall, where it stayed, even after I went to college. As a child, I would look at the poster sometimes in frustration. It was so obvious which cheek I had colored and which side my mother had done. My right cheek looked cat-attacked and splotchy: a railroad of red. The other side was a rounded peach, blurred, with a satiny sheen.

(Expertly-layered Faber-Castel always has a sheen.)

"Do I dare to eat a peach," my mom would sometimes quote, the only poem she knew. She had to paint a plate of fruit in art school and pair it with a poem.

"Peaches for my peaches," she would say, laying down a plate of peaches, sliced sharply, and dolloped with crème fraiche. There was a clank as the plate touched the wooden foot-stool in front of the t.v. -- a high note signalling something. She would also sometimes croon, when laying down a plate: "Sugar for my sugar." Or, "Sunshine for my sunshine," when it was lemon slices with sugar or honey.

And whenever she painted at the kitchen table, I stood at a respectful distance and watched my mom over her shoulder. She had soft shoulders, sometimes rounded with shoulder pads.

I knew the way my mother held a pencil like some people know their mother's voice or hugs. She held the pastel gingerly, almost like it was a June beetle. Or like she was a geisha at a tea ceremony, pinching a breakable china cup, keeping distance between the chalk dust and her skin, and the paper and her hand. Her fingers looked like a flamenco dancer's, but her application was moon-soft. Watching her brushstrokes made me feel such intense admiration it actually hurt: I could never achieve the same. While she minced and feathered, I myself ground the chalk -- got my fingers down in the trenches, joining the color cells, until I could dream I was falling down in the layers of color: that my paper was no longer flat, but mantle, dust, root, and bedrock. I could make a picture look real, too, but in my own way. I smudged until she told me stop, stop, stop before you ruin the whole thing with mud.

My hands became rainbowy. Looking at them now (clean) I see that they are not elegant, with short fingers and blunted tips.

Her hands, though. She had pristine hands. Even after many loads of dishes, she kept her nails filed to an almond shape, with white tips like pearls. The thought of them made me squeeze the bedsheets yesterday in an agony of longing, for some reason. On the back of my mom's hands, her skin is the color of burnt sienna. Or of sandstone from Arizona, red and cracked. And the shape of them! They are shaped like a slim pear, her fingers perfectly tapered, as to the stem. Though we share the exact same arms and legs, she has prettier hands and feet than I do. Mine are both squarish. She would laugh at how the soles of my feet were orange as a nectarine. My palms, too. Her palms are plummy.

And besides our same elbows and knees, I suppose you could say we share the same amount of artistic talent between us. At some points she told me I was better. At many points I told her she was better. But when I was younger, she had the power. She would take the pastel out of my hands, show me how to shade a jawline or achieve those monstrous noses. Teach me about bone structure. Tell me what she had learned in the discipline of art school. I never studied the structural books she gifted me. Books that taught the rules of skulls: how an eye was half-way down the face, for example; too hard to believe. I didn't want geometry in my art. I thumbed and squinted and made my own observations: the tear duct lined up with the eyebrow edge, the ear-tip with the eye, the nostril edge with the tear duct. She knew science, too. Bones and artifacts and how to pronounce the MTHFR enzyme. Cells and the failure of my brother to chelate the mercury out of his body.

I was impulsive, she was exact. A couple times she softly commiserated with me, and told me where we artistically intersected.

"Don't worry about it," she comforted me after a critique. "People always told me I was too primary-colored, too." Also: "People also made fun of me when I drew a horse's full anatomy," in sympathy, when I was mocked for innocently drawing the outline of a baseball player's entire uniform. "You just don't think of those things. An artist draws without thinking."

No thinking, only seeing. You lose your mind a bit, 90% seeing.

Nostalgia for nothing, I thought.

Nostalgia for what could have been.

I knew she had been a tawny tomboy, with tea-colored hair. My hair was somehow like the shining sun. She sneaked into meadows and made rope halters and rode horses bareback, whereas I was timid in touching the horse's nose. She hit baseballs, ran bases, made raspberry skids on her knees, and I could not catch a whale-sized beach ball. When I painted, I sawed my chalk down to the nub, but when I rode, my seat on a horse was high and buoyant. She was grounded in a saddle, and a lightweight with paint. She criticized me, as our car backed away from the barn, when I was thirteen.

"Sarah, you always let the horse do what it wants!" she snapped, turning the wheel. (She handled the steering wheel like she handled chalk and reins: like a preying mantis, delicately, exact. Two fingers up in the air, her pointer and pinky.)

"No, it does what it wants," I countered.

"You have to keep your heels down, Sarah. You're bouncing out of the saddle all the time. That's why you keep losing your stirrups, and why you have no command over the horse. That's how you fall. You have to connect with your body. Are you listening to me?"

I thought: if I had been bolder, stronger, more commanding. If I had needed less baths, took less walks in the woods. If I hadn't wanted to write, too: if I didn't write long letters to faraway penpals, and lock myself in my room to create secret stories. If her husband didn't hand down the literary gene. If she had never married him, she said to me half a dozen times, and it was just the two of us with six horses, instead of six males -- what would our life have been like? We would spend our days drawing and riding, she said. Wouldn't we, Sarah? Wouldn't we? I would answer yes, and sometimes not answer at all. And gardening, she would add dreamily. Cooking and gardening and painting and sewing and riding horses.

"Are you going to cry?" she demanded sharply.

I turned my face away, to the glass window. "No," I said sullenly, watching the houses go by. The neighborhoods blurred as I felt the thickness in my nose and the familiar pinch between my eyes. I poked it all back because --

"You're so emotional," my mother said in exasperation, guiding the car out onto the main street. Because strong girls don't cry. "I don't know why you're always so emotional,"

and then my head swam with dizziness. Because I was so unlike her. Because I was so overcome with the need to be close to her, in that warm car. To have soft words and conversations. But I was discovering, as the years passed, ways to harden myself -- to push away my stomach-gnawing craving for her.

By that point, I could use colored pencils perfectly, by the way.

I had made a ferocious grasshopper when I was only ten -- so realistic the insect was almost monstrous -- twenty times its real size, and scrupulously detailed down to it scythian front legs. My teacher had held it from her with some distaste. But I showed it to my mother with unabashed pride. The grasshopper's shell was green, with undertones of strawberry and olive and menarche-pink and fennel and lemongrass green. I had blended it all, into an impeccable sheen. So smooth.

But the smoothness was quickly draining from my mother. Everything in her was lately becoming blotchy, except for her hands. As she grew older and life burdened her, she became hardened and warped. I laterally withdrew into my drawings and stories. If one of my fantasy mothers was nice, she had light hair, like dried-out heather. Or pale as lemons. If she was cruel, she had ferociously dark hair. My mother characters wore her hair up tight and back, getting meaner and fatter and heavier, and had many babies. Many sons. My mom stopped painting. Our positions were reversed and now she was glancing over my shoulder -- occasionally.

"You have a gift," she commented once.

"It's from you," I offered.

"No, it's your own," she said. "Your painting is. . . it is. . ."

She paused, and I waited -- as she searched -- begging for the honey to fall again from her mouth, to fill me with sweetness. Whatever she said, I would remember. Because I loved words.

"It is exquisite," she said, touching her two fingers together for emphasis.

Exquisite was the word she liked to say. Or maybe I liked to hear it, so I remembered it. I logged that word away in my brain, the way she said it:

ex-squiz-it

I loved those syllables.

After that, she took me to her old art teacher, Mrs. Mazur, who took one look at my portfolio, then looked at my mother and spoke to her, not me.

"I can't teach her anything," Mrs. Mazur admitted.

Heat washed over my face, wondering how those words affected my mother, wondering why I even did art, if there was nothing to learn, no horizon to cross. We wandered in that teacher's back garden, the herbs high to my knees. And told us about her husband's experiences with Auschwitz. How he never saw his parents again, torn from them as a child on a train platform, and I felt sick and lost. There was nothing left to learn, too many eyes were on me, too many expectations.

No family members read my stories, though. This refreshed me, and I hid inside literature, and in the lack of expectations. I was not overly talented; less people praised me, watched me, and I had farther to go.

So, when I went to college, I studied English.

Comments

I'm so intrigued by this and

I'm so intrigued by this and will now be look forward to the part(s) to come! As always, your language is intimate and evocative. It invites the reader in, swaddles them in these beautiful, nostalgic colors. In this piece in particular, you follow threads so effortlessly until the whole thing makes a complete picture, leading up to the why for your English major. Examining your relationship with your mother through an artistic lens is really interesting to me, and especially the way you finally settle into that topic. If I had to make any suggestions, I would say that I'm craving more as you begin to distance yourself a bit from your mother as you grow, as your talent exceeds hers. What else happened during this time? Why was she becoming "blotchy," as you put it? These might be topics best left out of this essay, but I do find myself wanting more.

This is gorgeous! I can't wait for the next part.

Madeline | Mon, 05/14/2018

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

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