Roses and Rocks
I was never afraid of the bees. They were my intimates as a child, familiars developed over the long hours my mother and I spent wading in the dark green, rose hedges on the dunes. We only had a couple of weeks to collect enough petals from the riot of pale pinks, pure whites and abundant, serious fuchsias. It was a painstaking endeavor. The ingenuous wild rose helped settle us into the first refrains of summer. Their frilly, five paneled skirts in the masses, heralded the arrival of the best season of the northeastern coastline. Laden with the pollen, the yellow and black, Bumble, Honey and Carpenter bees, often unable to fly straight due to the weight of their golden dust cargo, careened toward me. It made me laugh and I knew they meant no harm. Those hours working side by side with my mother, in the sun and sea breeze, surrounded by the scent of roses, were some of the happiest of my childhood. My sister, two years my junior, however, was always terrified of the bees even before the incident. She was following me through a field about twenty feet behind me, when she started yelling and flailing. “What’s wrong?” I called back. “It’s a bee, it’s a bee, it’s a bee!” She wailed batting her arms about her. “Stop swinging your arms, stay still, it won’t hurt you, a bee dies when it stings, so it’ll only sting when it absolutely has to. Stand still! It’ll go away.” Unfortunately my sister listened to me. Once she had stopped swatting at it, the bee landed on her nose. She began screaming. “Stop screaming! It doesn’t want to hurt you. Be calm, it will just fly away.” But it stung her on the nose instead. Her face rapidly began swelling grotesquely, turning first a bright red and then a sickly yellow in the following days. I got in big trouble for that. After a full report from my sister, my mother turned on me, furious, her face almost as red as my sister’s. I should have taken better care of her. I should have made wiser choices. I was irresponsible. I wanted to point out that I was ten. I was grounded for a month from my favorite TV shows, and the fruit juice popsicles that we made every night in plastic popsicle holders in the freezer. I believed my mother had, as usual, unreasonably high expectations of me. How could I have known that would have happen? I had spent hours with her and the bees, harvesting to make our batches of rose lemonade, always my favorite, rose jelly, rose petal sauce for chicken, and to steep in liquor for rose vodka. But we never encountered any difficulty with the bees. Collecting the petals was only the first part of the work. Together my mother and I, carefully rinsed and picked over the tissue thin foliose preparing them for future recipes. Each further project then had its subsequent steps; for jelly, washing, and coring apples, boiling them, adding the roses, straining the flowers, fruit, sugar and pectin through cheese cloth in a large jelly funnel, sterilizing jars, pouring the pink liquid into each glass, securing the mason lids. In the grayer, damper seasons of Long Island, rose jelly on crisp white toast or biscuits conjured summer ease. My sister never chose to join us in these efforts. They were held just for my mother and I. I undertook these labors with great joy. But I also believe I was forever motivated in an attempt to dispel the haunting feeling that my mother was permanently displeased with me. An indelible imprint from my youth was a perpetual striving to make her happy. We also found communion in her favorite past time, shell and rock collecting. In truth, her forages on the beach were to gather any object she found worthy; sea glass, interesting strands of sea weed, drift wood, blue crabs, and of course sea shells and rocks of all sizes. I gathered items like a retriever bringing them back for her approval or dismissal. They had to be perfect. I breathed in the thick, pungent air as we carefully made our way along the beaches that were strewn with debris, eschewing the pristine stretches of sand. We would walk the rocky stretches together, peering silently downward looking for loot, and haul it with us, in plastic baggies, for the smaller, delicate items and stretchy, brightly colored, expandable string bags for the larger, indestructible items that my mother always kept in the car. Upon returning to the parking lot we piled these treasures into the way back of our silver Volvo station wagon. During the summer our vehicle always smelled powerfully of sea weed, old shells, wet Golden Retriever and Basset Hound, and the stale woolen aroma of horse blankets. My sister said driving around in our car was like being trapped in a giant box of hair, a fishy, giant box of hair. But I loved it. The long afternoons spent harvesting from the rose bushes, and treasure hunting on the beaches held my relationship with my mother. It was through these past times that we found a bridge, a compatibility, an easy movement in each other’s company. In all other attempts our mother daughter bond was pulled taught, as our souls were pledged to separate paths, heading in opposite directions. Coming home from school I would sit on the kitchen counter as my mother prepared dinner and chat away about my day. My mother could never recall a single word I said, and she readily admitted this. She always claimed a poor memory but at a very early age I understood that she just did not listen. This awareness left a mark. It left a deep trough of a mark. Maybe it left a trough of such depth and permanence that I have spent an entire lifetime trying to fill it with stories someone might want to listen to. I had no idea as a young person that my relationship with my mother was pushed back into a tight corner by the mass and intensity of so many of her other relationships: Her relationship with her own mother, a fierce Italian immigrant whose family had made it through the wars by their grit and aggression, a hard woman who carried that propulsion into life, making her way in America, ultimately sending her children off on a trajectory that propelled them all the way through the Ivy Leagues and into an utterly new identity. Her relationship with her friends at the Junior League, and the need to be perfect. Her relationship with my father and his drink. One day my mother and I were driving home from the grocery. It was during my middle school years when I was just beginning to wonder if boys would ever look at me at all, and if they did what their assessment might be, and I decided to ask my Mother if she thought I was pretty. There was a long silence. There was a silence long enough to add new depth to that trough in the center of my self-identity. After that long emptiness, which I readily filled up with fear and self-doubt, came a question. “Well, do you think you are pretty?” My Mother asked, her tone giving away nothing. I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to shout, ‘That is not helpful at all!’ Turning my head back toward the passenger window I internally glared at her and seethed. Maybe she could sense this covert rebellion. Maybe my parents could always sense this. But instead I tried to answer her. I struggled with the answer. This was precisely why I was asking her the question. Slowly I responded. “Well, I guess I like my eyes.” I paused for another space thick with doubt and fear. “And maybe my hair. I guess I kind of like my hair.” And my mother promptly said. “Good then. That’s good.” Those four words formed a pit in my stomach, which has only just recently begun to dissolve as I settle into a more complete understanding, a fuller context for who my mother is in my life. The way she loved me was shaped by the way she was loved. The stretches of time we spent together sharing in things we both enjoyed so deeply, created a space for our connection to exist beyond the limitations of her mothering. For my mother and I, our love for each other was best translated, quietly, transcendent through the simple, holy things of life. I am deeply connected to the fuchsia beach rose and the smooth, pewter and black rocks spewed up by the Atlantic, because they are an adhesive that secured us to each other. I am bonded to them, the beach roses and rocks, the sacred iconography of my childhood.