There is nothing that does not remind me of her and the things she gave me. The things I never knew were important until she no longer had them to give.
There was always jazz playing on the stereo: we had stereos back then, fancier versions of the record player I got for my bedroom when I was 15 and on which I played Jethro Tull while I rolled around on the floor with boys with improbable names like Mack, Doug, and Tony, names you don’t hear much anymore. Stereos were for the good music, the real music, the serious music, and my mother was nothing if not serious. I listened to the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner. A dozen others. Many of whom I would actually eventually see in concert.
We had built-in bookshelves: wooden masterpieces that reached nearly to the ceiling. They were packed full of those record albums and books and books. My mother’s bookshelf was my first library. There were stacks of magazines, too, which piled up on the coffee table and two daily newspapers; an endless supply of education and information. All mine without censor. We went to the theater, even if it was only a community one in which my parents and their friends (and then my sisters and I) acted. We had real paintings on the wall and years before my mother could afford what she called “good” furniture an ebony baby grand piano sat in the living room.
I learned about beauty from my mother: how to arrange flowers, grow vegetables, appreciate art and music; how to identify the real from the fake, the shabby from the glossy, the modern from the cheap. Every time I look around my house I see what she gave me. The concrete in the things I have arranged around the rooms, things taken from her home when she got sick and could no longer keep them; and the more ephemeral, the way those things are displayed, the colors I have chosen, the pristine sleekness of the space I inhabit. Each of the homes I have lived in—from the shoddiest apartment to my condo by the water—has felt her imprint but none more than where I live now, with the collections of my mother’s life now collected in mine. She has never seen this home. She never will. But she is here in it, all around me. There is nothing that does not remind me of her and the things she gave me. The things I never knew were important until she no longer had them to give.
For the first and only time in my memory I ache to talk to her. The need to speak to her is sometimes enough to wake me up out of sleep and more than enough to bring me to tears at the most banal moments. The years she could talk to me, listen to me, visit me, are gone and with them the brutality, the pain, the loneliness, the misunderstandings that permeated each and every syllable. But suddenly in the first real throes of my own mortality I long to sit with her on the couch, show her around my rooms, take her for a walk on the beach. I want her to see the evidence of the things she gave me in the way I live my life, in the things that are important to me, in the daughter, who, like the mother, gathers beauty around her as a cloak. I want to just talk to her.
My mother has said very little in the past half dozen years; she can barely react, can no longer process what I say, isn’t sure sometimes even which daughter I am. She is a hologram of her former self. For a long time I was all right with that, I even felt a sort of relief. Gone was the woman, who angry and drunk, pulled me down next to her on the couch and said: Listen to this, as the music surrounded us. Gone is the woman who pushed me into ballet lessons, piano lessons, art lessons, who tried to mold me into the kind of girl she wished she had been. Gone is the woman who refashioned her own self by sheer will, who tried to push back against her own demons but so often lost. Gone is the woman who lived for love and sand and water and flowers and music and books and paintings and beauty. Gone is the woman who never listened and was so very, very furious at things I could not then understand. Gone, gone, gone is the mother I had, the mother I got, the mother who tried and failed, the mother who I hated for too long and never really forgave.
But if even before her illness I had given up all hope of a rapprochement, of truth-telling, of protestations of love, of apologies for past misdeeds, now I wish I had gotten to this place I am now but with my mother still intact and not gone. Then we could settle into this last old age of hers, these last years as mother and daughter, with a fragile peace we could never ever find for more than a few moments. Her mind is lost and I miss it in all its complexity.
And all I have left is what she gave me.