Where did it come from? Where will it go?
By Sara Beth Jonassen
"Listen," my mother says on the telephone. "Just because you've moved out don't mean you can't come and visit once and a while. You don't got to be a stranger."
I cannot bring myself to stop by my mother's house.
The four plastic jugs I filled with water as a favor to her sit in the footwell of the passenger seat of the station wagon that she bought for me from a loan on her pension when I graduated college in May. The jugs sweat and drip. My mother, Elizabeth, boasts that her sulfur well makes for delightful showering but I think it serves as a stinky, rotten-egg reminder that Elizabeth has to buy fresh water for eating and drinking, unless I fill up the old jugs for her, as a favor, of course, and to save her money and hassle. But I just cannot stop by.
It becomes harder, ironically, as I grow older, to be a good daughter. I thought that growing up was the hardest part. But in truth that part was harder for her, not me. Back then I had teeth, nails, and the force of the argument on my side. Allowing Elizabeth her mothering is an unfortunate result of maturity, and so is compassion. Compassion is like a bird that flies up from deep inside of you and makes your relationships complex. It is this bird that gets caught in the back of my throat whenever I look into my mother's round, hazel eyes. Imploring eyes. Eyes like those of a dog that tremble at my departure.
"Listen," she says. "Just because you've moved out don't mean you can't come and visit once and a while. You don't got to be a stranger."
My lover, Dana, has a big, red dog of uncertain breeding named Hercules. Sometimes he looks like a rottweiler when he is threatened. His hackles go up, he paces from the two of us on the couch to the door, then back to us two. Most times he looks like a big, red dog of uncertain breeding. But always he is a delicate, emotional being.
Today is Labor Day and it is early and gray. Dana is already halfway up the mountain to work the holiday at the ranch. As I leave the cottage to do the chores, I sense the anxiety of school-fearing children all over the country. Sense them biting their hangnails and wishing for summer all over again. Hercules is anxious too, wondering how long I will be gone and if I intend to truly abandon him this time. It is difficult to walk out the door without first reassuring him by patting the top of his broad, soft head.
Today I have chores to do. Wash the bedspread, pillowcases and sheets that Dana and I make love on top of and sleep underneath. Grocery shopping. Uncertain as to whether or not I will stop, I fill the four plastic jugs with cold water in our sink and put them at the feet of the passenger seat in the station wagon where they begin to sweat.
Beyond that, there is nothing I can do. On Labor Day almost everything closes, forcing busy minds to close too. On the road, driving, I am in a perfect capsule of motion and purpose. I realize (strangely as the mist on the windshield obscures my vision) that there has been a cloud over the mountains and the valleys of New York State for days. It clings; vaporous and sticky with humidity. Low to the road. I cannot see far ahead of me for the fog. But I know the road precisely, and I have done these same chores as precisely since Dana and I moved into the cottage three months ago. The familiar routine gives clarity to a foggy perspective of the world.
On the face of the road, dark triangular smudges turn into crows at the moment they see my vehicle coming. They alight into the fog. I am relieved that they fly. The West Nile Virus produces dead crows, and we have numerous mosquitoes outside our cottage by the pond. Moving crows mean we will not fall ill. This week, anyway. Still, at the back of my mind I know that we will all fall ill eventually. That we will all end up frail, helpless and dependent -- if only briefly -- before we fly up into the fog. It is this thought that makes me honk my horn twice (as you might honk to a friend passing in the opposite lane) at the birds on the wire. The mist slung over the Catskills creates a gauzy backdrop to a string of birds like black beads on the wire. They weren't there an instant before and then suddenly -- BIRDS! I had hoped the honking would cause the intensely perched mob to take off in synchronized flight. But no. A couple swooped down to the grass at the foot of the telephone pole, and those two appeared to have been headed that way for breakfast anyway.
Inside the laundromat there is heat and humming but I am the first paying customer which relaxes me. I always put too much soap into the machine because I like to think I am making things clean. So many things cannot be made clean. Like dead crows, emotional dogs, and broken childhoods. I relish the process of making clean the things that I can. After the sheets and bedspread go into the dryer I consider driving over to my mother's house in the valley. The plastic jugs are, after all, filled up in the car. But I cannot yet consider it. Instead, I sit in a scoop bucket orange chair and allow my mind a foggy space to fly off in.
And at once I am back there. Where did it come from? Where will it go afterwards? My mother is a tower before me, a tower of anger, which concentrates itself into her one pointer finger, the one pointing at belligerent me. She recites, in her schoolteacher manner, my wrongdoings. Using elevated language that I do not understand. The language is not the point, anyway. Her anger comes in loud and clear. I cannot look at her face for fear the force of fury will knock me right off of my feet. I stare straight ahead, into her stomach. The place she tells me she wishes I had never come from.
The laundry smells good. I pull it out of the washer in tight, damp knots. It looks like the roots of colorful trees. Last month I ran over a large root in our backyard with the lawnmower. It is surprising, really, that I even had a chance to mow at all, what with the incessant rain. In New York it rained enough even for a rainlover like me to resent it, even though it was badly needed out West, where the fires raged all summer, eating up the timber and acreage like so much kindling. Who is in charge of dropping down the moisture? I wonder, shaking wrinkles from damp pillowcases and tossing them into the drier. And why don't They ration it around a bit?
Today the mist sucks and laps at the juicy earth. Much as it did yesterday and the day before. There is mold growing in our closet from the dampness. I noticed it yesterday. In out-of-proportion panic I pointed, hysterical, telling Dana,
"Everything is covered in mold! Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" It seems that there is always something popping up which takes away the cleanliness of things.
But Dana takes the moldy closet with a grain of salt, as she does everything, keeping the small things in perspective and only allowing the big things a moment of astonishment. Big things like shooting a broken horse in the head for compassion. Or the fact that I love her despite her 37 years of age, her poor paying job, her simple tastes. Sometimes I wonder at that too. But what difference does it make? What difference does it make really so long as you are not lonely anymore? Or worse, living with your mother.
Dana says, "Oh, well. We'll fix it with some pipe insulation. We'll fix that," and this is exactly why I love her.
I'm a cleaner. She's a fixer. Home Depot is her favorite place to be. A toy store. Fixing things must be a lot like cleaning things. She fixes furniture on her days off, which are rare days. Refinishing. Usually this makes me jealous, that Dana's spare time must never be idle. But the way Dana works the furniture, I sometimes have to sit next to Hercules and admire her working. The cracked and yellowed paint flutters down around her as she sands. And then the slick, naked wood sings out under her constantly moving hands. A sort of poetry, if poetry is to be found in paint-stained jeans and T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show biceps.
Dana is handy, I'll give her that. She fixed the aluminum screens around the porch, screens that Hercules -- in his Herculean anxiety -- sliced with his nails and teeth. She fixed the lawnmower the day I ran over the protruding root. She fixed it so that I cannot live without her. And every winter, during slow season at the ranch, Dana takes on a project for her mother up in Albany. Cheerfully she picks up the telephone, dials up her mother, and asks, "Can I come up next week to paint the house?" And the way Dana says it, you know that she will feel wounded if her mother isn't agreeable to the idea. But why should her mother disapprove of such a good, daughterly gesture?
I am back in my mind to the water jugs in the car and my limitations. Some things grow too big to size up in one misty morning, that is all, so I fold the laundry and proceed to the supermarket.
Nobody here has had a summer for the rain and the cold. They gripe about it in the laundromat. They gripe about it in the supermarket. "What happened to summer?" "I want summer to do all over again." "Where's the sun been hiding out?" But we are told that life goes on. There is no one voice that is saying this. If there were only one voice then I would know who I could complain too. I would know who to tell to go screw themselves and then I would float in a swimming pool inside of an inner tube sipping margaritas all through September, even as the leaves--pastel yellow, red, orange -- lilt down to break the surface of the blue, blue water. Still I know, and they know, we all know it somehow. It's all our own doing. Summer has ended. And tomorrow we're all expected to appear at school, at work, at life -- the same as every year, tan or no tan, vacation or no vacation, fun or no fun, summer or no summer. We all feel cheated. By whom? By the sun? The wind? The rain? The Earth? Who cheated whom here? Anyway, Labor Day morning is thick with fog and silent mourning. And I'm supposed to be a grown up now. So instead of crying I do chores.
My three sisters and I are no longer children. Funny, really, that your childhood can end so suddenly in one cold, rainy summer.
Last summer our mother was too sick to come upstate. Downstate, in a Brooklyn surgeon's office, portions of her big toe were removed due to complications with diabetes. Meanwhile my sisters and I enjoyed her absence at the country house. There was hot sunlight that tightened the skin and all of us sisters swam in the pool and danced ridiculously on the newly mowed lawn. The tiny bits of grass clinging to our bare ankles. We were idle, irresponsible, goofy or flamboyant, if that's what the mood of the day called for. Sometimes we were fiery with anger and fought over trivial things, like who would mow the lawn, do the dishes, make the phone calls to mother. But we could scream at the top of our lungs the worst profanities and nobody was there to tell us that we were wrong, uncivilized, lazy. We baked pizzas, ate ice cream, drank suitcases of beer. Late afternoons were spent cracking up dry wood for the campfire and picking blackberries as fat as our ruddy cheeks. Evenings we swam and warmed up by the fire in turns; dried out our underwear on long sticks of wood held over the fire; schemed about tomorrow and yesterday and the present. One day we scored some pot in Woodstock and basked in the hot sun, giggling and winged, like perfect birds. Even the sun and the moon cooperated; we had long, hot days and clear, star-studded nights; the occasional rainy day to keep things green. Mostly we laughed from the gut a lot and got back to being children. Got back to playing games. Got back to the mystery.
We did so, unknowingly, for the last time.
In late August, we all drove downstate on the Thruway, convened at our mother's hospital room, smiled and shifted our weight from foot to foot. Mother was dramatic. The general assumption was that she would die, even though we busted our chops to smuggle in some real food for her from the greasy cafeteria. Raising up the bagel with salmon cream cheese she says,
"You girls are such brilliant, magnificent young women now. When I'm gone from this Earth you will all have to take care of each other." Then she sinks her dentures into the pink cream cheese and emits an enthusiastic, "Mmmm!"
Yet, I cannot imagine the woman, my mother, ever letting go of anything. Not pride. Not indignation. Not her daughters. Much less her life. And I am right (at least for now). Another year passes, she retires from the Board of Education in her own big way; celebrates with colleagues at parties held in Brooklyn diners where the food and the accents are heavy to digest; spends money lavishly from her pension; buys a $1,000 telescope too complicated to use, buys an $800 dollar guitar that she doesn't know how to play, buys me a car for my college graduation, buy herself one too; moves up to the country and plants a garden, fiddles with my personal life on a day to day basis. And her professed physical demise is once again postponed, at least a year. Like our childhood dog, Silky, who we were warned was dying for five years before Elizabeth paid the vet to stick her with the needle and crumple her down into her own feces.
Last week I stopped by to pick up my mother's empty water jugs. My mother, too, seemed like an empty receptacle of sorts.
"Oh, my gosh!" she said, delighted to see me on the other side of the screen door. "What a surprise! Come in, come in!"
"I really can't stay long." My usual defensive maneuver: I kept the screen between us.
"Well, I don't see why we have to continue this conversation through a door, sweetie!" she said, offended, the 'sweetie' tacked on with a patronizing tone.
"Oh, just for a minute," I say, "I have to work today." Thank goodness for the job. One excuse that leaves little room for argument.
My mother is old. Much older than her sixty years. This summer it hits me for no particular reason. Her round hazel eyes are surrounded by puff and wrinkle, her hands are swollen and impotent. They no longer have the power to threaten my well being. Her stomach is large, sagging and battered by the countless jabs of insulin syringes. When we were growing up, that big soft stomach was her power. It was what she pushed our faces into when she hugged us (what was lying pliant under her polyester nightgowns, what yielded against our faces to console us) -- and it was also what we stared at from a distance as she scolded us, afraid to confront the eyes. Sometimes she cited her fat powerful belly as the unfortunate result of all her pregnancies. "You made me this way," she once accused. And then my tearful defiant thoughts: How could I make you anything? Didn't you make me? I never asked to be created! I never asked to be born! Believe me, I was a lot happier inside your fat belly than out of it. My mother and I were at war with each other then. But as the years were spent the war became a recital, then it graduated into tradition. Eventually it was simply dismissed. Shrugged off. No apologies, no understandings, it was just a bad age to be a daughter to a mother. Which means that, by extension, now was a good age to be a daughter to a mother.
"Can I fix you something to eat before you go to work, sweetie?" she asked hopefully. "I've got fresh, delicious cantaloupe the size of your head!"
My mother looked so old, shuffling around the kitchen in search of her medication and the supersized cantaloupe. Diabetes had made its mark all over her body but so had a hard approach to life. During my adolescence, hers was an approach that stretched anger out until it could no longer be restrained… and then finally let it snap with stunning force. One time I grumbled a curse word as I went outside to unpack the groceries from her car. She waited for me, ensconced from view behind the front door, with a large sneaker held high above her head.
Well, that's it, I decided, lifting two empty jugs in each hand with my forefinger. Her missing anger is what makes her empty.
At mid-day a cold, sharp wind swaps places with the hot, humid one and resumes pushing the misty fog around the valley. The plastic jugs in the station wagon resume their sweating in response to the shift in temperature. On the major routes, driving five miles over the speed limit through the fog on Labor Day, it feels as if nothing at all can catch me, not even time. I do not want to stay inside today. I stop home briefly just to put away the food and laundry, to reassure Hercules that he hasn't been forgotten and to promise him of my inevitable return. Then back in the station wagon with a sweatshirt zipped up to my chin, cowboy boots on my feet. I head up the mountain to see Dana. I'm imagining her on ranch property: sitting atop her papered quarter horse and winding through the misty mountain with a cigarette in her hand. That is how she looked when I met her for the first time. I like returning to the ranch because it reminds me of where my departure from Elizabeth began.
Dana, pleasantly surprised to see me, makes sure I get to ride the best horse on the farm. I ride the big smooth-gaited chestnut who responds just fine without a bit in her mouth at all. Just a gentle tug of the hackamore reins.
It is remarkable the way the misty vapor decorates the mountaintop. All the rocky, muddy trails I'd ridden hundreds of times over the years seem new and surreal. A cold blast of wind and the mist rushes down to meet us causing a momentary lack of equilibrium and a drop of the stomach. Horses know, thank heavens, where to put their feet (even in the dark) so I just sit back and look up at the trees appearing -- like apparitions -- all around us. And the webs.
Startling and lovely, the branches of the forest are all full of jeweled spider webs made white by the drops of mist caught in their threads. I examine each one breathlessly: their perfect geometry, resilience and design. Some are tossed over the muddy ground like tattered pieces of tissue paper one-cell thick. Others are comprised of haphazard, sloppy strands, which coalesce into cornucopian funnels. If they were in the cottage, I would be possessed with the urge to clean the webs away, wipe out their beauty in the name of cleanliness and order, stretch down their dainty designs with brooms and featherdusters. Clean it up. Fix it. Make it right. But out here on the mountain, on this horse, it all seems right. The mess is all part of it. Bright and wispy in the breeze, the webs look like little souls caught in all the fingers of the mountaintop. Breathtaking enough, I know that this image alone will sustain me through the cold, sudden change of seasons.
"In addition to working privately with Laura Marello (winner of the Aniello Lauri Award for Fiction from VIA and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant), I have also studied fiction with the Writer’s Studio and the NYS Writer’s Institute fiction workshop with Doug Bauer." E-mail: sbjonassen[at]juno.com.