Essays - Spring 2008

Shipwrecked

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Like Robinson Crusoe after the storm, a daughter salvages what she can after her mother’s death

By Janna Malamud Smith

March 1, 2008


This being within about a mile from the shore
where I was, and the boat seeming to stand upright still,
I wished myself on board, that, at least,
I might save some necessary things for my use.

-Robinson Crusoe

In the days immediately after my mother’s death, as its reality slowly overtook my consciousness, I found myself recalling Robinson Crusoe. Not an association I would have anticipated, since the book holds little conscious meaning for me anymore. Yet, there it was in my mind’s eye—repeatedly, an indistinct image of a stranded, barefoot man, pant legs ripped at midcalf—straining, poling a raft back to his wrecked ship to gather provisions.

Crusoe, desolate and terrified, mercifully wave-tossed onto an island after a storm has sunk his ship, crawls up a tree to sleep the first night. He feels completely unprotected; and some large part of him expects to die before dawn—savaged by a ravenous beast or a hostile human. But when he awakes the next day, sun returned, water calm, he finds that the tide has delivered his lost vessel back from the depths and stranded it within reach. Like the storm-harried Crusoe, I found myself after her death mucking through strange, flickering, opposite states of mind where, at more than a few moments, a seemingly parallel grand confusion of terror and calm, desolation and thin hope, bereftness and bounty all commingled. I felt as rattled as any half-drowned jack-tar; and like Crusoe, I understood that my first labor was to salvage.

Remarkable, really, the way the image from the book came to mind at a grievous time. How it drifted into sight, intact, uninvited, a dense, symbolic representation in the guise of a mental snapshot. A book first read . . . when? Late childhood, early adolescence? Returned years later, in this case to capture some of my complex feelings about myself, my mother, and my circumstance in the aftermath of her death. Praise the quirky mind. Present yourself at the front desk of its repository, request any volume from its stacks, and discover, once again, how the runners deliver up what suits them: “Bring her Defoe.” But from where in the gray matter did they retrieve him? Was the figure on the raft constructed in the moment—in response to my emotional state? Was it borrowed from some film? Or did it linger from when, as a child first reading the book, I assembled my own picture?

Remarkable, too, how words read on a page are translated and transformed by all of us into our own archives. How does my Crusoe resemble or not resemble yours, both in profile and in the intimate psychic purpose each may serve? Of course, not everyone who has read Defoe has kept a Crusoe. (I was unaware of mine until lately.) To stay, he had to fit in, find useful work; brace some part of the psyche, the way a piece of cedar—cut, carved, steamed to curve—will rib a boat. The quick description of why I kept my Crusoe summarizes blandly: he takes care of himself in tough circumstances; he is ingenious and resourceful; his story ends well. As an overprotected daughter of a mother I deemed weak, I longed to be more like him. I borrowed a rib. Perhaps a book becomes a classic in proportion to how broadly its characters can be scavenged; how many readers find within it something they experience as desirable or even intimately necessary.

A shipwreck, now rare, but once a tragedy so common that whole schools of landscape painting prospered in detailing its vicissitudes, seems an apt metaphor for maternal death. However much you equivocate, your mother is the vessel you inhabit. And shipboard death by catastrophic storm—plunging all unselectively—holds within it something true about the strange “me and not me” of intimate loss. Several years ago at the Whitney Museum, I spent a good long time watching Bill Viola’s video loop of a human figure underwater in darkness very slowly surfacing, and then surfacing again, as if enacting my future quandary. Will I stay under, too? Is her death also mine? No, but perhaps, well, yes, if we speak not just of the past when we were one, nor of the future when I, too, shall die; but if we try to capture and describe something larger than influence, something genuinely uncanny. I’m not sure how to name it. The voyage, the direction set, the cargo carried, were my first and most basic world. I looked out through my mother’s portholes. Her assumptions were the sheets I wrestled, hauled, lashed. I was her stevedore, her sailor, her AWOL midshipman, her ship’s doctor, her mutinous crew, her captain—who ever knew for certain? I thought of her as my mother, but rarely of myself as her daughter. When I wrote about her for her memorial service, I was surprised to see how obviously my interests followed hers. Mourning is not just a long goodbye; it is a hard labor of turning away and returning, of swimming free and then poling back.

She died between my second and third visit to the hospital on a Tuesday toward the end of March. After checking with her nurse, who, like me, thought she still had days, I had decided to attend half my evening Italian class. I departed at the break, and arrived back 20 minutes too late. The hand I grasped was still warm. But she was dead, and the conversation between us was over. Eighty-nine years old, she’d had multiple sclerosis for 20 years. For the past eight she’d lived near me year-round, and every Wednesday evening after I finished seeing patients, I would walk the four or five blocks from my office to her apartment and we would eat dinner together. I never found an easy way to be with her. She longed intensely for a confiding intimacy that I wouldn’t offer and that she couldn’t seem to bear when I did. I have not known a more confounding relationship. Yet, we both kept trying, and a good portion of our love located itself within the effort.

We had our moments. I liked best when she passed along news about old friends. “I called Louise.” “What did you learn?” A flat exchange. But not between us, for whom it heralded—like a sun-dapple on the shady dirt road, or a cluster of daisies against white birch—our return to the family home. The beloved summer property, so familiar that the pleasure is in revisiting together, surveying, setting things right; steadying ourselves with the known, and then contemplating the variation a season brings. Louise was my mother’s good friend in Oregon half a century ago. Her son, Peter, an age-mate now prematurely dead, was my first playmate. We named our son Peter partly after him. Louise’s husband, Chester, was my father’s close friend. My mother was attracted to Chester, and on more than one occasion—car out of gas, dead mouse in the bathtub—he rescued her. He had been a paratrooper fighting in Italy during the Second World War, and possessed a resourcefulness in crisis my father lacked. My mother liked being rescued.

Seeing it on the page, I realize this string of associations reveals an aspect of my Crusoe: I early grasped that the surest way to be with my mother was as her rescuer—not dramatically, but in small everyday ways. Childhood was a night watch. My assignment (assumed or ordered, who knows which?) was to stand between her and her self-hatred. Sometimes I gave my all. Other times, I slipped away furtively; I could be derelict, fractious. After she died, the figure returning to the shipwreck was a seaman suddenly unemployed; the part of my own psyche whose long labor has just ended. “My duty all ended,” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote after another death.

What is gone and what remains? The first night, all is lost. But the next morning, the ship lies wrecked within reach, a brilliant stroke by Defoe. The reader shares Crusoe’s relief. He is no longer alone—not because the boat is peopled, but because its appearance domesticates the alien space, offers comfort by placing within it a bit of home. Perhaps oddly, perhaps not, its reappearance resembles the return of an absent mother to her child. She disappears. He fears for his survival, dependent upon her. She reappears, and the hostile world is tempered. Better yet, she carries provisions to sustain him. The ship’s hold, as Crusoe explores it, transforms into a general store absent its proprietor, and he gathers up goods like a lad on a spree. What better way to please a reader, gratify basic fantasy, than with bounty found, not earned—once again, analogous to a dimension of the maternal: the full breast, the free lunch. Certainly, there is something female and mammalian about the ship as Defoe describes it when Crusoe first swims back, a large beast lying on its side, waiting to be suckled. In this case, of that manly sailor’s beverage, rum:

I swam around her twice, and the second time I spy’d a small piece of a rope, which I wondered I did not see at first, hang down by the fore-chains so low, as that with great difficulty I got hold of it, and by the help of that rope, got up into the forecastle of the ship. Here I found that the ship was bulged, and had a great deal of water in her hold, but that she lay so on the side of a bank of hard sand, or rather earth, that her stern lay lifted up upon the bank, and her head low against the water; by this means all her quarter was free, and all that was in that part was dry; for you may be sure my first work was to search and to see what was spoiled and what was free; and first I found that all the ship’s provisions were dry and untouched by the water, and being well disposed to eat, I went to the bread room and filled my pockets with bisket, and ate it as I went about other things, for I had no time to lose; I also found some rum in the great cabin of which I took a large dram, and which I had indeed need enough of to spirit me for what was before me.

At once losing my mother and inheriting from her. I have kayaked places where the wind, current, and tide, the angle of underwater ledge, come together in such inscrutable, turbulent confusion it makes your head spin. There’s no sure place to set your paddle, nothing to do but stroke hard and hope you don’t tip into hammering ocean. The night after she died, I grabbed a bunch of cash from her wallet and took my family to dinner at a nearby bistro. She didn’t need it anymore. I remember the high, so unlikely in the moment, almost giddy, of grasping coin from her purse, the pilferer’s simian bark. Within hours, the elation crumpled into grief. The extreme opposite within her death, the unparalleled tenderness—my mother—the simultaneous liberation and found wealth spun my feelings: the ship is wrecked, yet I did not drown. Her cargo is mine.

I had not understood that after a person dies, her surround, her physical space retains life—the pale blue cotton nightgown clean in the dryer, the custard in the refrigerator, the open issue of The New Yorker, the bills laid out on the table waiting to be paid. Her used tissue dropped, out of reach, behind the chair. She had resisted visiting her doctor for months, but finally, too weak to protest, had been sent by ambulance to the hospital by one of the women who cared for her. I was briefly out of town. She was determined to die, and I don’t know which of us she was sparing by waiting to depart until I turned away. My back to her, she hastened toward death, as if we had been playing some scrambled game of “Mother may I?” or “Red light green light.” I think she knew I would try to save her. So she chose not to tell me what she foresaw—unlike herself, really, tight-lipped, determined: courageous in a way that caught me by surprise, that put paid to all clarity about where between us strength lay.

It fell to me to empty her apartment and distribute her goods. I shared Crusoe’s urgency. The work couldn’t wait. The weather could shift at any moment, and then the precariously resting wreck would again slide into the sea. But unlike Crusoe, I found it hard to judge utility, to know just what to keep. Something undesirable now might become crucial later. I didn’t want to create a museum, even in storage boxes. Yet I didn’t want to leave myself unprovisioned in a future season. The sorting, the boxing, the hauling took three months. I would drive to her apartment (it was when I pulled into her parking lot that Crusoe usually appeared). I’d let myself into her home, so familiar and now silent, and gird myself to look, touch, toss, sell, or give away; brace myself for the grief—the waves slamming the pebbled beach, then sucking back in a roar, the clamorous slush of stones. Except for one small, perfect plate, I did not keep the pieces she still owned of her grandmother’s floral patterned china. I did keep a pair of gray knee socks.

Occasionally, the apartment offered animal comfort, as if it were breathing with her breath, as if it still held her body heat, or more than that, the remains of her enthusiasm, her tendresse. As when you walk on a quiet rural road in summer after a rain, and the humid heat wafts up all around you then drifts away. She had worked hard to sift and order while she still had strength. What she left was so condensed as to hold emotional weight disproportionate to its apparent mass. In four small rooms, her life, remnants of my father’s, my brother’s, my own; time past, piled, pressed dry, gathered into photo albums, into stacks of old pages recording earnings, debts paid, celebrations, bitter exchanges; mementos whose history became the sediment of hers; photographs everywhere of my children, of Italian forebears unmet, of friends now dead. I had to disassemble a universe.

I had no idea how wrenching the labor would be. A space does not die right away when a person dies, and I was unprepared for that discovery. She was gone, yet her being still lingered within her rooms. At one point it brought to mind a story someone had told me years ago after we’d been swimming in a quarry near our summer home—about trapping and grilling the eels that lived in the water there, and the way their bodies squirmed on the grill for long minutes after their heads had been cut off. I was at once Crusoe, comforted by her hoard, a daughter overwhelmed, and some much more violent creature, ripping apart a life; plundering, feeling little of Crusoe’s entitlement. A man saving his own life escapes self-doubt; my mission was more ambiguous. Her correspondence with my father, sold to a library, may update a bathroom in our home. I like the Japanese porcelain figure from her father better in my living room than in hers. A nightmare I dreamt early on captured the psychic torque. I am in my mother’s bedroom at night sitting on her bed while she is lying in it. It is very dark. Something I cannot see is threatening her life. Desperate, I dive over her to protect her. I become aware that I am both the one murdering her and the one wrestling with some shadowy intruder, trying to save her.

It blew very hard all that night, and in
the morning when I looked out, behold,
no more ship was to be seen.

Crusoe disappeared in July—after I had emptied the apartment and called in the painters. In August my husband and I returned to our summer home on an island in Maine, and I began to settle. One afternoon we spotted a merlin hawk hidden in the aspen, waiting for warblers. On another, we kayaked home from an outing with the wind hard behind us and three ospreys above us, circling, diving for mackerel. Slowly, my feelings—my sorrow, my violence, my greed—came to seem less overblown, less grotesque, more like houses back on the shore, or a dock from which one has untied and departed.

I found myself thinking one day about the way people in the wild sometimes press a spider’s web over an abrasion when no bandage is at hand. The sticky mass of threads staunches the bleeding until the body can take over. Crusoe webbed my wound, held my circumstance for me until I could gradually grasp it myself.


Janna Malamud Smith is a writer and psychotherapist and the author of Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life; A Potent Spell; and My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud. Her essay in the Spring 2008 SCHOLAR, "Shipwrecked," was published in Best American Essays 2009.


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