That old rage for order: how my father drove a square mouthed mower
over-and-back, over-and-back, each row of neatly trimmed grass
cut just like he told his barber: boy’s short, regular. O pioneer, taming
this joke bit of prairie, no bindweed or dog shit on his verdure.
Mother, meanwhile, absolved counters of crumbs, paired two dozen
socks to matching mates, hummed some half-remembered Sinatra
song as she dusted the porcelain figurines and never-used, quaintly
painted China plates. In the antic business of having nice things,
the obligation of display: a furnishing. Each squat house in our street’s
orb eyed the other, envious of another’s paint job, carport or owner.
Left alone, I built model planes with my torn-pocket parachutes. Rode
a blue scooter in dizzying loops of the prescribed circle. Adults
acted as if living here were preferred or exalted. But I had looked it
up: I knew it meant bottom of the sack, the fate of drowned cats,
a sickly child or rabbit. Gathered up, held head-down in a satchel
or bucket. When the hands closed in, I’d make a run for it.
We were viewed as some species of rare, flightless bird.
—Maxine Kumin on her friendship with Anne Sexton
I cradled the phone in one hand, poem in another,
schooled by years of reading while babies nursed:
book, breast, and a baby’s fawn head forming
a triptych: feeding in the dark. When Anne
and I got serious, we split the cost of a private line,
calling to read each other drafts between lunch
and laundry, each attempt a petty theft from
the ordinary. Homemaking, in all its glory.
I took my master’s at Radcliffe eight months along,
and they made me promise I would not continue:
from Stendhal to diapers. I still hear Anne’s voice
on the wire—she whistled into the receiver, when
she was ready—half lullaby, half cigarette cackle,
teasing me to venture beyond the known and tidy.
To make stories of our lives, of what we saw and
knew: somehow, this was revolution, and we were
each other’s invented freedom, the best we could
have or hope for in a mother or lover, a comrade.
For once, I had enough. With Anne, I was infant,
unable to speak in dumb delight beside cry and suckle,
mewl and hard greedy draw—but by law of what
is female, she woke in me a wail and we fed each
other, growing books and names like the strangely
misshapen hero vegetables of suburban gardens,
dim with soil and sublimation. In the antiphon of
call and answer, we learned to put it all on the line.
We left the bland art show as if it were on fire, fleeing a painter
who refused to imagine anything he had not seen, his version
of realism rebuking color and angled light. No wonder, you said,
he killed himself. All that skill stuck in a scornful eye, a fly
in ointment, no out. We spill from a side door into September,
college crowds of nubile bodies, bright sea of pheromones.
Leggy, listless, your daughters fuss in bored hunger as you steer
them to the minivan cocoon, as safe and warm as a living
room, a velour-and-chrome wheeling womb. At the restaurant,
Julia posits that ketchup and mustard, mixed together, form
metchup: specie of vinegar and stored seed. Annie, ever the older
sister, one-ups with “What to Do in Your Natural Disaster,”
instructions she gives us with the gelid calm of a newscaster.
Sisters, sharing the predicament of parents, glacial crises
of female bodies. It will draw them together, cleave them apart
in the veteran fight of the umbilicus wanting its one mouth
tethered, without rival, to the breadbox of blood, its frayed edge
a flower from a fallen world, a Victrola horn cut from
the music box of mother. Annie taps my shoulder, “In tsunamis,
you follow the animals, inland. In tornadoes, you climb into
a cellar or ditch. In landslides, hold your breath, go limp. Don’t
resist.” She slumps a hard-angled frame against my softer
own while Julia stirs her apple juice worriedly with a French fry.
“These things don’t happen in New England—” you interject.
“Or very rarely,” you add, qualifying the fable with fact for your
eldest, who will take you to task. Years ago, as a scientist,
an expert in the optics of fish, you wagered it better to give your
daughters faith in an earth equal parts theft and gift, more
rapture than rapine. The girls confer, ask to be excused. We watch
their haphazard cartwheels in the grass, downy legs milling air,
long hair grazing ground. To bear them, you left the lab, the blue
green vision of the Arctic cod that has evolved not to see red.
You chose marriage, a job with “mother’s hours,” as each woman
drives a bargain, hoping it won’t cost her the joy of her life.
Your neighbor spots us and stops to say hello. “Are your kids here?”
he asks, and I shake my head, wondering if I have lived too
much for myself. When he leaves, we are again two women, friends
taking stock of their chosen. Twenty years ago, shy, bookish
tomboys drunk on possibility, we stayed up all night at the library,
stumbling out, come morning, dazed by the rawness of light.
We were not yet midlife mammals, hunting haven. Not women,
wary of their own extinction. Not a painting, unimagined,
of unspent color and light. We are creatures entering the waters
of remaking, grown in gills and grist: we swim in the dark
downward kingdom of purblind fish, dreaming a fata morgana
yet to appear, yet to exist: land of the unbartered wish.
It was the summer of plague. I walked the same circuit each day, as if a repeated landscape might yield a self-portrait, a clock-face for uniform days. Transcendentalists, not far from here, claimed a right to loneliness, furnished it as solitude, wary of the telltale cough, bright blood and labored breath that signaled death, the slow consumption.
The city, quarantined, looks sleepy from the hilltop arboretum between the Hebrew College and a Home for Memory Care, between the compulsions to remember and forget. Elm, oak, red and sugar maples—acer rubrum, acer saccharum—the Latin pinned to their doughty trunks in a naturalist’s sacrament of name: each tree a minister of air, an evangelist of light.
I peer into the library windows of the Hebrew College: rows of books, aligned, their tattooed spines a catalogue of knowledge trawled from deserts, desertions, cattle cars, and chambers’ slaughter, names made numbers made names. Acer rubrum: what flowed red is now read. Acer saccharum: from trees in Eden and Canaan, if not the barracks of Buchenwald.
I turn back, up the path, toward those unlearning themselves. The mid-afternoon shift drifts across the parking lot: nurses return to their own lives and privacies. But those forgetting— one idiom, one gesture at a time—are not allowed to leave their high-fenced yard: they cannot look in, from outside. To be a voyeur requires a theory of mind, a storied desire.
I pass the solarium, filled with ferns. An older woman fights with a window shade, shaking its
plastic shoulders, confronting an adulterer or unruly child, someone who ran after the pleasure ball without looking both ways. Without looking at all. Who has dressed her in a smock of faint blue stars and left her dimpled legs bare? Who hasn’t combed her winter hair?
I stare at the woman I fear becoming. Or forgetting. I force my gaze downhill, tracing along
the seam of the city to my room where the door handle and lamp are habit to my hand, allowed to open and alight. To saunter, wrote Thoreau, is to be sans terre, without land, equally at home anywhere. Tall trees, behind me, rustle and nod like sage altitudinous gods—
those made to govern
rituals of incanted
song and oblivion.
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