You Again

My relationship with my mother improved greatly after she died. While she lived, there were a few outright gifts she gave me: the Egyptian hip-shimmy when I was five years of age, my Aunts Pat and Fae, my twin, the way she laughed without defeat when it all fell to pieces, and a really nice ass. (I’ll show you in a minute). She was a freckled-face red-headed Irish woman and a full-blown Egyptian cabaret style belly dancer. At five, other girls were perhaps learning to read. “The most important thing to know—is a good shimmy.” We would stand side by side in front of the dressing mirror, hands and arms turned upwards, feet hip distance apart. Legs slightly bent. Our focus was on moving our hips quickly and methodically, so that the invisible coins of our imaginary costumes would become our instrument. She would start slow—her shake would grow with her grin that managed the cigarette as well—until the frenzied encouragement would explode, “ATTA GIRL, MOVE THAT ASS! MAKE THE COINS STICK RIGHT TO YEH!”” The jutting hips would punctuate a crescendo, “ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR! THAT’LL come in handy someday believe-you-me!” Though she knew the traditional dances, came to dance the whirling dervish, and travel throughout North Africa learning dances and dialect, making her way into an import business, she was also an unabashed coin and tassle jiggler. And there I was, practicing my French conjugations at twelve in a hashish den in New York City on an embroidered camel hassock while sweaty male dancers tested my gaze as they pounded the floor until I blushed and they delighted and it was time to head home to the suburbs where I would be up for school, first period, front and center. I learned a kind of flexibility. Where abandoned, there is hidden abandon. For the first part of my life, I believed that my mother had found the most inventive ways to make me miserable out of her profound wounds and jealousy. The way she was fabulous to everyone else and even kind to me in front of them; the way, in private, she called me names like, “Little Fucking Princess” and, “The Little Hitlah”, because I would do things like get my homework done on time or take a bath. That the more I succeeded, the more she lied about me to others and mocked me, poisoned the waters for me with friends and family, until I became constricted and angry, proving her to be accurate. At those times, she would occasionally turn her light on me and I would run to her, desperate, willing to be close. As an adult, I learned that these strategies are commonplace—no, literally, there are thousands of people nodding saying, “Oh, yes, that’s the way it was.” The humiliations large and small are rote. It is the way we rise that is endlessly creative. On the crystalline August days before she died of lung cancer, I would hold her as she howled in pain, rocking her and humming into the crown on her head. She was defenseless and she allowed me to love her. “It never seemed right. You were always like the mother and I was always like the daughter. I didn’t know what to do with you,” she complained. Then she swore at me, and I held her. The observing hospice nurse told me, “You are ready to be a mother, you know. All I see is unconditional love.” Many years later, when my daughter was first walking, she walked into the little cottage on my dad’s property that my parents had built for my mother’s sister, my Aunt Mariah. Grandma Brennan had made my mom promise to take care of Mariah. There, Aunt Maria had lived until after my mom died. Aunt Mariah had moved away to be closer to her daughter, and she herself died not long after. After her first steps in the cottage, my daughter looked around and then turned to me. Her face crumpled and her knees collapsed as she sobbed. I held her as she moaned, “Mariah, Mariah, Mariah.” Over the next few years, she struggled from time to time. She would go through my jewelry and dance costumes, left to me by my mother and shout, “These are mine! What are you doing with my things? I am the mother! Not you!” I would hold her and rock her, “No, sweetie. I am the mommy and my job is to love you. I am the mommy.” This time? She set up her store in our solarium and invited me in. “This is my dress shop. I am a dancer, but I also sell dresses. I will give you two….no, I will give you one…but… you have to give it back.” She started drawing pictures of a red haired lady and dreaming of her. She ran into my room in the night, crying, “I dreampt I was the red-haired lady again and I was so mean and I could not find my way out!” Other days she would wander around the house with a pencil in her front teeth, bumping up and down as she spoke, “See me smoking!” And did my daughter have a temper. A house afire. By six, we had a big sit down and I laid it out for her. “Look, I can help you learn to be happy, but you have to choose it. Do you want to learn to be okay with making mistakes? Do you want to learn to be angry without hurting people? Do you want to learn to celebrate other people’s success? You are six. You spent the first two years basically learning to eat and walk and go to the bathroom. So, you’ve got maybe four years under your belt at this relationship thing and I have got FORTY-THREE. I have had more time to learn things, if you want to learn them from me.” Her eyes flared, “I am going to stay unhappy for my whole life and you can’t stop me!” I agreed, and I waited. And then, because she was six, because she was tired, because it was sunny outside perhaps and everything was new, she sobbed in my arms, “I am ready. I am ready to do it all differently.” And she has done. When my dad was on the edge of death, (he didn’t go) he told me that once when we were visiting, my daughter was lying on him on the couch in the living room. She’d fallen asleep on him after he had read her a book. He looked down and for a whole minute, my mother’s grown-up sized sleeping body lay there. When he told me this story, I suddenly remembered the night. I was across the room on the other couch. I happened to look up to see him pale and crying and unable to speak while my little daughter lay there sleeping. I had said, “Was it Mom?” and he’d nodded. I never speak to her of these things. Have I condemned her to a life of therapy? Truth is, that I do not know what these things are, and what they mean and I don’t really care. All I know is that I love her endlessly and that I always have. She is my daughter. This morning my brown-eyed dirty blond haired and tan girl, who looks the spitting image of her dad, “Poppy,” told me she had a dream she was a red headed lady-dancer with freckles, blue eyes and a bunch of sisters. “I was very excited that I’ll be getting braces!” she rejoiced, and they gave me a big hug.