Essays - Autumn 2006

My Mother’s Body

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Just remembering her is not enough; resurrecting her is the ultimate goal

By Mary Gordon

September 1, 2006


 

My mother was one of the afflicted. She was stricken, at the age of three with polio. I wonder if she had any bodily memory of running, of walking without labor, without anxiety: of movement as a joy. There is a picture of her, dressed to the nines in a white lace Edwardian outfit. She is trying to hide her crutch behind her body; if you didn’t notice it, you might think at first she was normal. Until you saw the right leg, thinner than the other, and the right shoe, built higher than its mate.

Two of her eight siblings were stricken in subsequent polio epidemics. The merciful wing of history has brushed over our fearful memory of the terror, each summer, that one would be struck down. No more a commonplace: children in leg braces. Absent from the lexicon, the words so easily to hand, so dreadful: iron lung. Polio is no longer real to my children’s generation, although carelessness or suspicion about vaccines has caused its continuance as a plague in parts of the developing world. My mother insisted that I be among the first to be vaccinated; she woke me at dawn so I would be at the head of the line for the first dosages of what she saw as the sacrament of Dr. Salk.

One of her legs, the right one, was six inches shorter than the other. She walked with a pronounced limp; she couldn’t, for all the years I knew her, walk more than a block at a time. She wore one built-up shoe, really a boot, and she couldn’t take a step unless she was wearing that shoe. Stairs were a difficulty. A fall was a disaster. Her body was misshapen, asymmetrical. A body that was a problem, always. Never, a gift.

Affliction: something suffered, something done to someone from which they have no recourse, no defense. I like it much better than other words that can be used to describe what happened to my mother. Crippled, handicapped, disabled. Because the accent falls not on the body itself but upon its fate. Of course there were other aspects of my mother’s body that were free of her affliction: her beautiful hands and arms, dappled with freckles like the skin of a young apple, her beautiful hair, her large gray-green eyes and high cheekbones, her clear smooth skin without wrinkles almost to the end, never once in my memory marked by a single blemish, no not one. Her enviable skin. It was called her “complexion.” Yes, it was envied. People said to my mother, “I envy your complexion.”

And other things, connected to the body but emanating from it, and desirable, a desirable feature like beautiful breasts or long legs. For example, in my mother’s case, her voice, charming, lively, robust, jocular, persuasive, sure, her laughter, a laugh you could identify in a dark movie house, a laugh that made everyone want to laugh. Women who didn’t like my mother criticized her laugh, called it unseemly, something that drew improper or undo attention to itself, as if she had worn a dress that was too tight or too low cut: revealing something that a proper woman knows well how to cover up.

How is it possible to speak of a mother’s body?

Possible, that is, without betrayal.

And if it is possible, is it permissible?

To speak of it as if it were not a body, but something that could be turned into a work of art?

The body of the afflicted mother. The body of the work of art. The impossible desire for shapeliness, for an intact form. For harmony, radiance, wholeness. My mother’s body was unharmonious. But isn’t it possible to bypass harmony, bypass proportion, in the search for, if not wholeness, then radiance? The daughter, born of the mother’s body, looks at it for information, curses, clues. How can a daughter talk about her mother’s body? Especially when she is a writer.

I know there are a number of ways that I don’t want to talk. A number of ways I don’t want to write. I don’t want to pity myself for being a child born of a body such as my mother’s. And I don’t want to describe my mother’s body. Not anymore. Not now. I did it once. But she was living then. Now she is dead.

In the last years of her life, she was, in her wretchedness, my tormenter. Her body tortured me: the sight of it, its smell. Living, she was a torturer, and now, among the dead, she is entirely innocent.

There was nothing I could do to stop the torment while she lived. While I was in charge of her; in the 11 years I visited her in the nursing home once a week; while I had to supervise her care. Her presence was unbearable. The sight of her blackening teeth, rotting down to stumps, her hair, scraped down almost to her scalp—above all the smell of her—made me panic, made me want to cover my face with my hands and cry out, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t do this.” It made me want to run in some cold wind, some scourging rain until I could lose the sight of her, the smell of her, until I could fall, exhausted. Too tired to think. To remember that the body I once loved was now the source of hatred. Except when I loved her for her helplessness. Then I loved her, to the point of weeping unstoppable, wrenching tears. Now that she is no longer among the living, I can miss her but the tears come lightly; they do not tear me apart. There is only missing. No desire to escape. No punishment, given or received.

Is it only because it no longer torments me that I no longer feel the need to describe my mother’s body? Was my need to describe her body
only a need for punishment? Now I feel a real aversion for the prospect. Now she is dead, the thought of describing her body makes me feel like Ham, the son of Noah, the betraying son.

This is my understanding of the story of Noah and his sons.

After his long labor, toward the end of the time on the Ark, Noah drank. Drank himself unto drunkenness. What was that like? What did he look like before he fell asleep? What was he wearing before his nakedness? Did he stagger, did he slur his words, did he curse the fates, the flood, his nagging wife, his disappointing children? Did he pity himself for his responsibility, for being born a just man in the time of the flood? Is this what enraged Ham: the admired father, chosen by God, all along a fraud? Not really a just man, just someone waiting to turn into a drunk. All along, a beast without the dignity of the pairs taken aboard. I, father, will expose your nakedness. I will look at what you have been all along, what you have always really been. If I don’t look, there will be no one to witness this truth. Isn’t truth telling a kind of love?

He knows that it is not. He knows that it is hatred. Hatred and perhaps desire: the desire of the eyes—is it somehow connected to sex? It could be, but it doesn’t need to be.

He sees what he sees.

He tells his brothers.

His brothers will not look. They enter the chamber backwards, a cloak thrown over their shoulders, covering their heads. Not looking, they fling the cloak onto the naked body of their father.

The good sons.

They have not seen.

They have done the work of not seeing.

Someone had to do that work.

As someone had to do the work of seeing.

But supposing Ham had been an only child. Which work would he have chosen? The work of seeing, or the work of not seeing, the work of refusing to see?

He would have had to choose.

And then he would have had to make another choice: to speak or to be silent.

For the writer, this choice is also possible. Although we tell ourselves that it is impossible, a betrayal of our vocation.

But silence is a perfectly honorable choice. More honorable, because no one knows about it.

The most dishonorable choice: to speak and then to confess one’s own (superior) knowledge of the dishonor of speaking.

I know that this is what I am doing now.

I seem unable to give up the impulse to say some things about my mother that seem to me true. And in order to do that, I must describe her body. Because only in describing her body—as something in space, as something that moved through space (awkwardly, uneasily), as something that was seen in space (misshapen, unpleasing)—can the nature, the effect of her affliction be understood. But for whom is such an understanding necessary? The answer, of course, is only myself.

For a little while, I convinced myself that I would speak about my mother’s body for the good of others. For the good of other children of the afflicted. This new (false) conviction began when a friend of mine told me that her husband’s father was the child of a polio victim and that his sense of his body, like mine, was greatly affected by this. She said it would be an important thing to write about, that no one had written about it.

I will do it, I said, donning my heroic cloak. I had forgotten that I had already done it. Written about my mother’s body. That my friend hadn’t read what I had written is another matter. I simply could have directed her to the book I had already written, the book in which I wrote about my mother’s afflicted body, about being the child of such a mother. I wrote about my mother’s body 11 years ago when I was writing about my father. So I was writing about my father’s wife, my father’s widow. A living woman. When I wrote about her then I said: “My mother is eighty-six and something has broken or hardened and worn out. When she hasn’t combed her hair, when she has lost a tooth she won’t have attended to, when she won’t cut or file her nails or change her clothes she is distressing to look at.”

When I wrote about my mother’s body I used the word rot. Many readers found that shocking. I told myself I used it because it was the truth. Her body was rotting. She had allowed it to rot; she wanted it to. She forced me to deal with her rotting body because she hadn’t taken off her high-laced boots for three months. I found this out when I took her to the doctor for a checkup and he told her to take her boots off. She told him she hadn’t taken them off for three months, and he made her leave the office. He said the smell was not one he could allow in a professional office. In his office, he said, there could not be the smell of rot.

When we got home, I had to take her shoes off; she refused to do it herself. I knelt at her bedside, as if I were saying my night prayers, unlaced her shoes and took them off. The smell was overwhelming. I had to hold my breath so as not to take it in. And the look of them: the leprous flesh I had dreamed of martyring myself to as a pious girl. I told her I had to fill a basin of water and while the water was running, I vomited into the toilet. I came back, bathed and dried her feet. Then I phoned an agency to hire a nurse to tend to her feet every day. I could do it once, but I couldn’t endure the possibility of having to do it again and again. The possibility of that made the idea of life unbearable. Made me literally long for death. The idea of death, for me, was preferable to the task of continually tending my mother’s rotting feet.

Rot is one of the works of death. My mother had made it happen. She had made it happen by not taking off her shoes. She couldn’t explain why she didn’t take off her shoes. She said it was too much trouble.

I used the word rot because it was the truth. My mother’s feet were rotting. Did I have to use it? What kind of daughter uses the word rot in relation to her mother? What is the line between truth telling and punishment? How could I want to punish my mother for something that was so clearly a sign of dementia? Was it simply the victim’s impulse to take any turn that might occur to punish the one who had tortured? For whatever reason, at whatever time.

Now my mother is a skeleton, or ash. All those sites of attention, rage, despair gone now. Where did they go? Were they vaporized into the air? Absorbed into the earth? The details of the bodies of the dead turn abstract once they are no longer in the world. Abstract, therefore no longer a cause of rage. Sorrow, rather, or regret. The burning rash of rage turning to the dull tumor of sorrow.

In the days that I had to think about her uncut nails, in the days when her life consisted of sitting with her head in her hands in a stupor, a stupor punctuated by periods of anxiety, I prayed for her death. But I must remind myself that my wanting her death, even praying for it, did not end her life. I wasn’t even with her when her life ended. I do not now wish her alive. Not the mother who had become entirely wretched.

My last duty toward her was to choose the clothes she would be buried in. Her own good clothes had long since disappeared. I chose an outfit of my own, one that she would look good in. A black crepe blouse with a Fortuny collar, a black silk pleated skirt. Around her neck a string of pearls. Dead, she looked beautiful. Dead, she had got back her elegance. I was glad for my part in giving it back to her.

I do not want the wretched mother back again in this life. But there is another one, desired, and desirable. A body I once yearned to be near. I once saw in the foreground of an Italian Renaissance painting a cup with the inscription “Alas, I yearned exceedingly.” As a child, there were times when my entire body was a vessel of yearning for her. When she would leave me, sending me somewhere, for a day, a week’s vacation, a summer with some member of her family who was meant to be doing us both a good turn by separating us. In the first years after my father’s death, I felt separation from her body like a new wound on top of the old, mortal one of his death. But even before his death, I loved sitting on her lap; I loved putting my head on her firm springy bosom. I was proud of her in her suits and hats when she left the house for work. The mothers of my friends slopped around at home all day in housedresses. Carelessly coiffed. Not a starched handkerchief among them, or a gold compact, or a purse with the clasp in the shape of a snake. This is the mother I want to meet again: the mother that I yearned for. I want to go back where I can meet that mother. Back past affliction, age, disease. This is the trick I want to pull: the trick of bringing the desirable mother back to life. The trick of Resurrection.

But I have no idea how I might go about it. Or if it is wrong to describe a miracle as a trick.


II

As I am thinking about this, I travel to London to visit a friend whose lover of 40 years has just died. In the duty-free shop on the way home, I spot a display advertising the perfume my mother always wore for “special occasions.” Arpège by Lanvin. The young saleswoman is thin, in a short black skirt, black shirt, and black pumps with something called kitten heels. I ask if I can try a sample of Arpège. She sprays it on a little card and tells me to rub the card on my wrists. I do. I walk around with it. To see if I can bear wearing my mother’s scent. To see if I can bear being my mother.

At first, the scent is sharper than I remember, less accommodating, less friendly, less sweet. And yet even as a child I valued it because s a scent it was mature, unapproachable. It was comprehensible, like the Hindu idea of God, only by what it was not: ungirlish, unfloral, unfruity, neither of the garden nor the woodland, an invented scent rather than a discovered one, composed deliberately rather than come upon (accidentally, fortuitously), an artifact, a product and a sign of city life, not worn in the daylight, or worn casually, but something hoarded, brought out for an occasion, the seriousness of which was marked by the very act of its having been brought out.

When my mother wanted to use Arpège she would cover the opening of the bottle with her index finger, tip it back once, twice, then press her moistened finger first to her wrists, then behind her ears. Then she would hold a linen handkerchief against the bottle’s opening and tip it back until a drop or two wet the cloth. She would put the cloth into her special handbag for evenings out, and the more vivid scent that the cloth had absorbed would be taken into the leather.

When she was away at work, or out at a meeting, I would go into her drawer, open her purse and put my nose close, close against the leather, breathing it in, the animal leather smell an undercurrent still against the sophisticated scent that had become one with its essence, with its texture: the absorption transforming them both. So I would smell the leather, then the handkerchief, and then, in a fit of terrible daring, open the bottle to smell the perfume itself. This led, once, to something terrible. I opened the bottle and knocked it over and the perfume ate through the varnish of my mother’s dresser, destroying its smoothness, leaving a pocked, scratched, fuzzy, denuded surface, instead of a varnished patina. The texture of the dresser top was the texture of the skin of an uncultivated peach. In all the years my mother had the dresser (30, perhaps, until she moved into a house that I bought for her and it was given away), nothing was ever done to make the dresser presentable once again. What could have been done? I always believed that nothing could be done. My horror when I saw the perfume eating away at the surface was the horror of despair. A despair at the inexorability of physical destruction. My conviction that nothing, nothing could be done to make it better, to repair it, was borne out. My mother’s fury was negligible measured against my despair. Something in the world had ruined the beauty of something, as polio had ruined the beauty of my mother’s body, and I was its minion, its agent, its stooge. From then on, the notion of the physical world’s inexorability was mine.

But the accident of the perfume did not make me stop loving the perfume. And believing that this was a sign of the best way of being female that was open to me—and worth a tremendous amount, although I had no idea what the currency might be, what might have to be given up.

But I don’t want to be thinking about this, a memory of ruin, of sorrow: this is everything I’m trying to get away from: the sorrowful mother, the ruined mother. I want to reach the desirable mother, the mother who is the site of pleasure. I want an alternative to biography. To history. My own and hers. I want something larger, something outside the circle I have been traveling the circumference of, like a horse with blinders, the horse in Joyce’s “The Dead” who keeps traveling around the statue of King William because he can’t break his habits from being the workhorse at the mill.

I want to be outside myself, and her. Or outside myself but with her and her perfume. So I decide to learn about the perfume as a research project. That will take it out of the cramped domain of my own life. A person familiar with computers in spite of myself, I begin by googling Arpège. Google, a word my mother would never have heard of, that I hadn’t heard of until after her death.

The first site I travel to is offering the perfume for sale. It tells me that Arpège was launched in 1927 as a soft floral fragrance for women. It describes its scent as “powdery floral.” It elaborates: “a luxurious, gentle, floral fragrance, combining honeysuckle, jasmine, roses and orange blossoms, accents of vanilla and sandalwood. It is recommended for romantic wear.” I see that I was wrong about its being unfloral. All those different flowers, hinting of hot climes, tropical even: honeysuckle, jasmine, orange blossoms, but domesticated, familiarized by two of them: the vanilla and the rose. But what do they mean by powdery? Powdery implies a certain dryness, a certain enviable dryness. Absorptive. A civilizing element: it calms things down.

The business of the site, though, is selling the perfume. Whoever created the site must understand that Arpège has been absent from the larger imagination of fragrance for a number of years. They are too smart to try to sweep this under the rug; they make a charming tale of it; the passage of time, its erasures, become something that can be talked about. “This one your grandmother probably wore in her younger days. Naughty thing she is sometimes. Arpège is one of those classic fragrances that have made many a man go weak at the knees. Who says grandma should have all the fun?”

What is this as a marketing strategy? To whom is it meant to appeal, and what might the appeal be? Obviously, to someone younger than I, someone more obviously in the sexual running. My mother wore Arpège. But they’re trying to sell it to someone whose grandmother wore the scent. Someone my daughter’s age. As is so frequently the case now, I see that I am too old to be the target audience.

And what glamour is being invoked? Naughty granny—naughty in the ’20s, the madcap ’30s. White art deco bedrooms, Irene Dunne or Carole
Lombard in lounging pajamas? Secrets kept from the naughty granny’s daughter, the potential buyer’s mother. (Me?) A drama of exclusion. A suggestion that respectability can be kept, that its price is not the price of pleasure. That a daring past is something that can be got away with. That the knees of the powerful man, the man who pays for your perfume, can turn to rubber. And no one will be worse off. You will make a good marriage (maybe not to the man with the rubbery knees) but at least you will have children, grandchildren.

In invoking the glamorous grandmother of the ’20s and ’30s, I am opening a historical gap as large—80 years—as if I had, in the 1950s, evoked a glamorous image of the belle époque. This seems wonderful to me, an encouragement to my plan for finding an alternative to history, to biographical fact.

A second Google site reminds me of the advertising slogan that went with the perfume: “Promise her anything, but give her Arpège.” What did the admen have in mind with this one? That the purchase of this scent would allow, encourage, validate false statements? That as long as you gave this bottle to your honey, you could swear to marry her next month, leave your wife next year, give up men, or booze or horses? Clearly, the message is pitched toward the man, because who would want to be deceived? What woman longs to be a dupe? In failing to understand this, am I failing to understand something important in the history of women? The acceptance of deception. The faked orgasm. The faked pregnancy. Perfume itself covering the animal truth. Does my inability to enroll myself in this ancient brigade mean I have no right to wear the perfume? That I should count myself instead as part of the unglamorous sisterhood: bluestockings, do-gooders, unembellished, not a drop or particle of makeup on their natural skins, content with whatever God gave them, out to do God’s work, to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. A life without glamour. I never wanted that. Even when I thought I would be a nun, I imagined myself glamorous in my habit. My mother, buying her suits, her face powder, her Arpège, insisted on being a part of the duplicitous world of female pleasure. As do I.

After a while I get it: it’s not that I’m against deception. But I want the deception coming from me. I don’t mind deceiving, but I don’t want to be deceived. I don’t want anything promised to me. It’s not that I want nothing. I want something. Many things. But not anything. As If I had no choice. No scent, however desirable, is worth that. Especially when I could get the perfume for myself. Because of my mother, I always imagined myself a wage earner. Never dependent on a man for necessaries or for luxuries. No, never that.

Simultaneously proud and self-pitying, I buy the perfume for myself. When I turn to the site called “Fascination Perfumery” I feel a shock; it
tells me something I ought to have known but never knew, that the symbol on the bottle of Arpège is a symbol of mother and daughter.

I go to my own bottle. There it is; a mother and a daughter. The mother in an extravagant robe and turban absolutely dwarfing the child. Who kneels at her feet. Why did I never notice this? Perhaps because it isn’t an obvious mother and daughter; the mother, so huge, so exotic, and the daughter, so insignificant, not on her mother’s lap, not in her arms, but at her feet. Overwhelmed.

I determine to track down the history of this image. Where did it come from? Whose idea was it? What was it meant to evoke, to represent? I turn once more to Google; I look up Jeanne Lanvin and find a French site, untranslated.

I am astonished to learn that her career as a couturière was derived from her life as a mother, from her adoration of her daughter, Marguerite. I am told this even before I am told the details of her life, even before I learn that Jeanne Lavin was born in 1867 (in America, the Civil War is only just over). She was the oldest of 11 children. Her father was an unsuccessful journalist. (So we have something in common, Jeanne Lanvin and I.) At 13 she became a milliner, but her career took off when her clients saw the extraordinary garments she had made for her beloved daughter, coveted them first for their daughters, then for themselves. Adapting the lavish details—broderie anglaise, exotic fabrics—that she had used for her daughter’s clothes made her one of the most successful couturiers in Paris. It’s almost as if she didn’t mean it; she was just trying to express her love for her daughter. Her brief marriage to Marguerite’s father, an Italian, is barely mentioned. As if everyone knows it didn’t really count.

As a gift for her daughter’s 30th birthday, she created the perfume Arpège, the name created by the daughter, a singer herself, who upon
smelling the perfume said, “on dirait un arpège.” It’s like an arpeggio. The site goes on to say that despite her passionate but suffocating love, “amour passioné mais étouffant,” mother and daughter were in the end, “éloignées”—estranged, distant, separated.

I am desperate to learn more about the Lanvins, but the well of the Internet has run dry. Or not quite: I go to Amazon and find that I can order from Paris a biography of Jeanne Lanvin. I wait six weeks for the book to arrive.

How did it happen that the mother and daughter ended up éloignées? When, on the back cover of the biography, we are told that “Le nom de Lanvin baptise un bleu mythique et orne l’image devenue célébrissime, de la femme à l’enfant, image que les flaçons précieux d’Arpège multiplient à l’infini.” A new shade of blue, baptized, the image of the mother and the child, gilded, multiplied into infinity. The infinite multiplication of maternal love. Sold then, not bought though, by the daughter, who will flee from her mother, returning only after her death to head the corporation, the House of Lanvin.

But even before the estrangement, the daughter rejected the name her mother gave her, changing herself from Marguerite to Marie-Blanche. Marguerite makes a glamorous marriage into a noble family: she becomes the Comtesse de Polignac. The count takes his place in the history of impoverished noblemen, supported by the wife’s money, earned through commerce. Only this time, it is the wife’s mother, rather than her father, whose business sense turned straw to gold.

Marguerite’s husband was not the first Polignac to trade his title for money; his uncle married the ugly American heiress Winnaretta Singer (sewing machine heiress: the machine Mme Lanvin started her career with), who was one of the models for Proust’s Mme Verdurin. Marguerite had a minor career as a singer of baroque opera; she was involved in bringing back into vogue the works of Monteverdi. But most importantly, she was a patron of the arts, a generous friend to artists. Most especially Poulenc. And she commissioned her other good friend Edouard Vuillard to paint both her portrait and her mother’s.

I see Vuillard’s name and I get a shock as unsettling as the one I got when I discovered that the symbol of Arpège was a mother and a daughter. For many years, Vuillard has been my favorite painter, the one I think of as mine. I have written about him; I have made pilgrimages to see his work. I chose one of his paintings to serve as the jacket art for my novel Men and Angels. My legacy to my children: a Vuillard pastel, an extravagant expenditure made before I even had children, an expenditure that some people I knew considered foolish. My Vuillard, whose blues and whites are the sign for me, the map for me, of everything I want to accomplish in my work, this painter who appears in Proust, Proust whom I begin each day’s work by reading, how can it be that he is connected to Arpège, therefore to the body of my mother?

The web of accident, the web of association, a web spanning years, class, circumstance. Is it a web or a stream? Or a path that I have discovered, or have I just invented it? If there is a stream, or a path, in what direction does it lead? I think it is a stream, taking up whatever falls into it, whatever borders it. A stream with leaves, weeds, Proust’s water lilies that approach the shore, stretch out, retract, return again. What is the source of this stream? Does it begin with the body of my mother, perfumed, with the artifacts (handbag, handkerchief, saturated with the scent) my mother carried into the world as she entered it on my father’s arm?

Yes it begins there, but where is the next step? Because I know what the last step is. A desire to be reading, writing, looking at (but not living in) the world suggested by the smell. The world of Vuillard, of Proust, of Poulenc. A world not quite ready to give up the 19th century: the complications, the embellishments, the difficult, elaborate forms. A world not quite ready to take up the modern world, the one perfumed by Chanel, Mme Lanvin’s rival and nemesis.

The first step; the love of my mother’s perfume; the last, the desire for the world it suggested. But what about the second step out of my mother’s arms, the one that allowed me to imagine that I could approach the world of Proust and Vuillard as a fellow creator? The world not just of the apprehension of art but the creation of it. Because I am not the subject of the portrait but its creator. Both my father and I have written poems to my mother. No one has ever written a poem about me.

Vuillard and I are joined here, here in this writing that I make, because of a connection forged by something that he made: portraits of both Jeanne Lanvin and her daughter. He paints Jeanne Lanvin in her office at her desk, a worker, an elder (she is 66). Her ledgers, her pencil holder are given the same loving attention as the fabric of her dress, the jewels around her neck, the bust on her desk, the dog at her feet. He says that in this painting he wanted to get les vérités, les sévéritiés of green and gray. Verities, severities. Is a kind of harshness the only way to a kind of truth? The working woman’s styptic refusal of romance. If someone wanted to paint a portrait of my mother, he would have been wise to paint her at her desk. Where she was happiest. Where she was most at home.

The portrait of the Comtesse is much less satisfactory, and Vuillard was much less satisfied with it. Marguerite is sitting on her daybed idle, pampered, a figure in a drawing-room comedy: her face unformed, so unlike the face of her mother: the face of a tragic Roman emperor. Vuillard was working on the painting of La Comtesse de Polignac when he got the news that his mother was dying. He put down the brush that was creating, on canvas, the face of the daughter (whose body is on the bottle my mother tipped to fragrance her body) and ran to the deathbed of his mother. He described it in his journal:

find Mama in her armchair. . . . Ever more painful moments, “it’s too much, it hurts too much, it’s in my back”; soaked under her towel, let me lose consciousness, moans; long wait while Marie fetches Pantopon; drowsiness at last calms her; sit beside her hold her hand under the sheet; squeeze it from time to time; feel the pulse beating, then lose it, same state remainder of the day; cold sweats, wipe her forehead; eau de cologne; handkerchief on her head; asks me to put some scent on my beard; my good little mother; says I’m not good I’m wicked; convulsion, responds less and less to kisses; afraid to move . . . she’s very bad; she’s going to die; her back turned; I see her glassy gaze fixed sightlessly on the ceiling, the mouth twisted to one side; hand clenched once more over her stomach; and I hold her head still, my fingers near her eyes which I gently close after Parvu has raised a lid. Acceptance.

Vuillard said that his mother was his muse. He painted her over and over. She was the mother who made the boiled beef that the exhausted artists came to at the end of a hungry day. When he took photographs, he left her in charge of his negatives; they would sit, stewing in a soup bowl and she, vigilant, would turn them (as she turned her marinating beef?) at the proper time. Dying, she wants perfume. On her son’s beard. The fragrant body: not the mother’s but the son’s. Many people believe that after she died, he considered his life over.

In my family, my mother was the photographer. There are only a few pictures of me and her; many more of me with my father, my grandmother. I remember the little red dot at the back of the Brownie; the excitement, the anxiety: don’t open the camera: the film might be exposed. Exposed. To light: therefore ruin. At the end of her life, Vuillard’s mother’s degeneration was exposed by her son. Disturbing images. In the last photographs she is toothless, bald. She is washing her feet, paring her toenails. Did he have the right to photograph her like that? Vuillard and I, the exposing children, Noah’s bad sons: saying that art is an excuse for exposure.

Was Vuillard enraged at his mother as I was enraged at mine? But for what? It would seem she never failed him. How I envy Vuillard saying “My mother is my muse.” How I envy Vuillard the mother who was always cooking the boiled beef so that his house was the one friends wanted to come to. How I envy Vuillard a mother who kept an eye on his negatives, turned his negatives in a soup bowl.

But Mme Vuillard: Did she have wit that crackled, sparkled like champagne? No, she was always an old woman.

Could she have made anyone go weak in the knees?

Not as her son painted her: the only mother we know.

But there is another mother, another life, the life of the woman not a mother, a woman who had a life before she was a mother, a life lived apart from the artist child. We have no knowledge of that life. Because the mother is known only through the artist child. And he or she sees only what he or she wants to see, tells only what he or she wants told.

The mother as victim of the artist child.


III

I spray the perfume on my wrist. I put my nose to it: by it I mean both the scent and my own skin. It is always a shameful thing to be doing, at best a foolish thing: smelling yourself. Usually you are checking to see that you don’t smell bad. It’s nothing you ever want to be seen doing. Yet I want to be doing it all the time. Walking down the street, in order that I can smell the flesh of my wrist, I pretend I am looking at my watch. But I am looking for my mother. For my desired mother, my desirable mother (the one who made my father go weak in the knees?). I can be with her again: the one with the beautiful skin and hands and arms. The mother I never want to leave. The one I can’t bear to be separated from for one second. The one I yearn for when I’m not with her, the one whose proximity I weep for: at school, at the houses of my relatives. My beguiling mother.

With a good smell: there is the desire never to stop, but not the conviction that smelling something good is enough to be doing with one’s life, one’s day. But why? We think that looking at a beautiful painting or landscape, listening to beautiful music, the sound of the wind or the waves, is a fine thing to be doing with our time.

But smelling?—no, it doesn’t seem to be a good enough thing to bedoing with time.

Is it because it is too animal?

The worst thing you can say to someone: you smell bad. You stink.

The animal in paradise. Peaceful. Among good smells.

Paradise is peace. Is safety.

But with the added ingredient: stimulation. But a stimulation that isn’t
frustrated. Not satiation: Rather, a stimulation that never loses the edge of its desire, its desire for more, but there is no fear of disappointment. With a good smell: no disappointment.

A good smell is paradise.

A bad one is Hades.

Paradise: the desired place. Never to leave.

Hades: the compulsion to escape.

Always present in paradise: the fear of leaving, of being forced to leave, banishment, the angel with the flaming sword.

And what is the way back into the garden? It is necessary to believe that the banishment is final, even if the banishment was self-imposed.

Must it be the way of language, or the flesh? Can’t it be some way that is beyond time, beyond words? The way of the beautiful smell.

I can do it. Whenever I want I can open the perfume. I can put it on my own body. I can be with her in the smell. But what is a smell? Rousseau says it is the sense of the imagination. My imagination turns a smell into a place, a place where I can be with her.

But how can it be a place? There is no place to put your foot. Nowhere to step, nothing to step down on, nowhere to sit or to lie down. Nothing to swim through. To fly through. It could almost be a place of flight, a place of falling. But flying to where? Falling from what? To what? To the past? From the present to a future paradise, dreamt but ungratified. A smell is of the body, but if it is paradise it must go beyond the body. But to where? When you are in the place that is the smell, you don’t believe that you will ever be anywhere else. Because to be in a smell is to be in an eternal present. Like the mind of God. Eternal desire, eternal horror. In the presence of my mother, or my mothers—the beguiling one, the repulsive one—I believed, fully, that time held no sway. I would be always where I was.

Trapped. Eternally. Or in paradise.

At the end of her life, my mother’s scent was a combination of a powder—called Shower to Shower—and the urine that she tried to cover up with the powder she sprinkled between her legs. From the elegant handkerchiefs and purse to the stained drawers. This was the trajectory of my mother’s life, if you trace the trajectory of scent. The trajectory that moves from beguilement to recoil, from desire to horror.

In one of the more scientific studies of fragrance that I pursue, I am told that in perfumes, the top notes are floral, but the middle notes “are made from resinous materials which have odours not unlike those of sex steroids, while the base notes are mammalian sex attractants with a distinctly urinous or fecal odour.” So is it really the same thing, the smell of urine, the smellof perfume, only we are, unlike animals, over-refined: unable to trace the common source? When I try to type the word urinous, the computer automatically changes it to ruinous. It is true: when my mother’s dominant scent was urinous, it was ruinous of my love for her.

I want to go back, beyond that. Through the sense of the imagination.

To that old place. The garden.

The paradise of with. Of a yearning that is satisfied and yet never used up: there will always be more, more yearning, more scent, and you will never go hungry, or be disappointed, sent away empty. Never enough, how could there be enough of this happiness? This is the paradise of the good smell. But the words—smell, nose—are comic. And the comic is the sign of falling short of the ideal. Paradise does not fall short, though. You fall into the good smell, you fall and fall and the fall is wonderful, there is no end to it, you fall, but you are carried, together. As a child, there was no desire for me to be apart from my mother. In her last years, I could barely bring myself to be with her for half an hour a week. The smell in the nursing home, urinous, ruinous.

I put my nose to my wrist. Arpège. The music: the arpeggio. I can follow the scent, like music, beyond the body, beyond words. I don’t need to be in the ruinous place. I can be in the paradise with the mother I desire.

Mother, I want to be in the place where I was with you and you smelled so beautifully of the large world, of glittering cities, of furs and laces, of drinks in sparkling glasses, of candlelights, mirrors where women with piled hair are reflected from the funnel-shaped darkness of formal rooms.

Where are we, Mother?

I can ask that question, but of course I will hear only silence. My mother has no voice. No words. The words must be mine. I must do the talking. I must say where we are.

We are in a room. We enter it, leaning on each other’s arms.

My mother is not limping. Or her limping doesn’t matter.

Is that applause? Are we greeted by applause by the people sitting at the glittering tables? Are they saying, At last, you are with us, you have always been one of us, we have been waiting? You are the most glamorous, the most shimmering, the most radiant of us all.

In our ears, at our throats, jewels sparkle. We are dressed for the ball.

Beautiful mother.

Beautiful girl.

Where are we, Mother?

Or is there no need to name?

But why not name it; there is nothing to be afraid of here.

Here where we are:

Paradise.

Europe.

Paris.

Home.

Where we belong.

If I had been able to speak like this to my mother, words rooted in the body but beyond the degraded and degrading flesh, would it have changed anything? Prevented anything? Rage, humiliation, stupor, degradation, or despair? It doesn’t matter; I was never able to speak to her like that. With that kind of love. As it was, the love I had for her, love mixed with hate, the words I could speak to her, words of love and hate, were attached to the body that degraded rather than evaporated, like the scent of her perfume. And so nothing was prevented by my love. My impure love. I couldn’t prevent her fate, or ours, any more than I could have prevented the perfume eating the varnish of her dresser. Something was eaten, eaten away. There was nothing I could do about it. My love prevented nothing. Not one thing. But if I speak of her, if I write about her, it is possible that I can prevent her disappearance. She will not evaporate, like a scent that is absorbed in air, into a nullity. My mother will not be nothing.

But no, it isn’t words that will perform the miracle I need. There are no words that I can use to call her.

I put my nose to my wrist. And she is risen from the dead. She is risen indeed.


Mary Gordon is the author of seven books of fiction, among them the novels Final Payments, The Company of Women, and, most recently, Pearl.


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