Beginning Dialogues

On the way, he said, “When you visit the cemetery, you do it for yourself. They don’t know you’re there.” But maybe some part of me believes she will know, that she’s brought many good things to me after her death, that she’s taking care. Maybe I visit her grave because she would have visited the grave of her mother, because she taught me to send thank-you notes and be a good girl. Maybe I’m going to find signs of whether she’s still there; maybe she hasn’t blown open the ground, and we’ll find an angel lounging on her gravestone, saying, “She’s not here. Go and find her elsewhere.”

I don’t seem to suffer the pains of anguish that many women whose mothers have died feel. Last night, a group about my age, all in that midlife past midlife, late 50s or early 60s, ate dinner and talked about our mothers’ deaths. It’s not a new conversation; women whose mothers die always talk about it. They did even when I was in my 20s. Yet, here, no one is hearing these stories with expectancy; everyone has faced that which at one time was unthinkable. It’s as if we’re all in the same club, as if we have all finally arrived, as if we could all look back at those women on the other side and know we are totally new.

One woman talked about that inconsolable stabbing in the heart when she realized she wouldn’t buy a Christmas present for her mother again this year. I’ve wondered about it, about perhaps having grieved the separation between my mother and me in my early childhood for, in a way, I truly do not miss her like that, do not feel that irreversible moment of no return, as I did when she would go into the bathroom and shut the door, the ache that breaks the heart and has no answer. I felt the goneness of her then, as if the center of me was gone, and I tried to bring it back by peering under the crack at the bottom of the door, trying to see anything, even her feet.

I said this to the women who talked last night about their mothers. One woman, who said that her mother had died a few days after she was born, had always struck me before as cold, contained, and, now, as she spoke, I noticed she was squeezing the fleshy part of her cheek near her mouth, making a little fat bubble of flesh between her ring and baby fingers. I have seen that before, a kind of clumsy, unconscious pinching of the self, and it makes me feel great pity. Her fingers seemed squat, doing an act whose purpose I couldn’t imagine—perhaps a partial holding to signify that she could not hold the whole of what she needed held. Now, clumsily, here was her body (was it her clumsy body that had killed her mother, ungracefully slipping out?)—her liveliness covered by a dreary cape, her hair dreary, her face unmade, as if who would care?—speaking about her mother’s death (we had never heard of this, though we had known her for years!), without tears, just those two fingers clenching and opening, pinching a clump of cheek, letting go and clenching again, moving slightly, as if she couldn’t find the right spot and, since the cheek is larger than what those two fingers can grasp and, since the two fingers form a small vise and take in only a slot of flesh, it seemed she was stopping the flesh from moving, clamping it in place. It seemed inadequate, incomplete and ill-chosen; in literature, the small thing signifies the whole of something we can imagine from the reference to the small thing, but here, the small reference did not convey. It was a clumsy effort, as a child might pinch the breast. Or perhaps it was an effort to make another mouth, to pucker the face, as the lips of the child might pucker for its mother’s breast.

At my mother’s grave, I tried to imagine what I should do. My partner had taken my picture at the grave and a picture of the inscription. He was sitting in the car. How long should I stay? My mind didn’t know what to settle on. No particular feeling or idea carried me. I became lost in nothing. Just me, stuttering over an immensity that I couldn’t absorb, the way I used to feel guilty for not feeling enough happiness at Christmas, after my mother’s great efforts. I guess I felt that I was incompetent, too broken to hold. I sang her favorite song: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” I wanted to give her a promise; I wanted to change my life because of her, just the way I did before.

I am struck with my own inability to feel grief. It feels like a refusal to face an end. I know I have great trouble facing boundaries, my own and others. So, instead, perhaps there is this magical thinking built on my own inadequacy to face the truth: I say I get messages from my mother that she is still in my life, and, now, perhaps even more, she is reaching me, since her destruction is out of my way.

Once, when I called a friend to say I couldn’t go on teaching at the prestigious workshop I was visiting because I could not stand the torturing voices in my head, 24 hours a day, saying I was no good, stupid, not as smart as the others, not as respected or loved, that I had no value, that I was only there because I was black, that I had done or said the wrong thing, that I was not really a poet, my friend said, “Why not ask the torturing voices from where they get their information?” I did, and, without hesitation, they answered, “From your mother.”

Things had changed by then, so I flipped back, “You haven’t got the latest information!”

Just a few months before she died, my mother turned the universe of an unloved daughter around with one sentence. Instead of screaming at me when I asked her not to come to one of my readings because I might read things that would make her uncomfortable, she said, “Oh, dear, would you be uncomfortable? I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, so I won’t come.”

I’ve written a lot about messages from her—I won’t repeat them here—just to say my conversation with my mother isn’t over, and I think it isn’t over for her, either.

In the manuscript of my mother’s book, I read about the women in her childhood—her mother, aunts and grandmother—who helped each other beyond the bounds of the imaginable. Because of their hard labor, our family succeeded. I read this manuscript, which she put into my hands to publish only two days before her death, and I think that, although my mother began writing after I did, after I was published, she was a writer before she began writing. Though she is dead, our stories are in dialogue: my writing has been against her writing, as if there was a war between us. It is more than our writing that is in dialogue; it is our lives.

When I was 7, she told me how, when she left the house of the rich white people her mother worked for, the white kids were waiting to beat her up on her way to school, and, as soon as she crossed the line to the black part of town, the black kids were there to beat her up, too. Why would she tell me that story? Why would a mother tell a 7-year-old such a sad story, such a defeating one? I thought it was her way of saying, “Trust no one but your mother,” a way of binding me to her by making me fear.

It’s a question—what she said and did that I didn’t understand, what she did to hurt me. It is not over; it is still a riddle being solved. I do not need to be held, and so, therefore, isn’t my mother free, too? Is that why she told me those stories? Was I to be the mother who freed her?

My partner and I have just spent a delightful weekend together, a sunny, windy, fall weekend with the trees half shredded, the bright blue sky both miraculous and unavoidable through the nude branches and their silence. On the drive home, my mind comes to how my life has changed since my mothers death: slowly, I have been loosed from those heavy, nearly inconsolable fears like Houdini’s chains, lock by lock, as if some magician part of me occasionally appears, from some unseen and undetectable room, with one more chain gone. Finally, I am gloriously undrowned.

Everyone says that I changed for the better, as if, when my mothers slight body, not even 100 pounds, slipped into the earth, the whole world suddenly belonged to me. The first year I stopped jogging. People said it was grief, but whatever grief felt like—except for the first few days after her death, especially the burial day, heavy lodestar—it was too indistinct for me to grab onto. Two years later, I bought a house and found a man in my life like a spectacular hat-pin in just the right hat. The simple explanation would have been my mother’s narcissism—the way she pushed me toward independence, screaming, “You’re weighing me down,” and yet, when I was 16 and came in late one night, slamming the door, she was behind it in the shadows, like a burglar, and her hand went around my neck while she screamed,’ I’ll kill you!” Who hasn’t wanted to kill the one she loved?

But there was so much unaccounted for, so much in my mother’s past that I couldn’t fix, not ever, or make up for. Maybe my mother never had such a weekend of happiness with a man as I have just had, though a former lover of hers once told me, when I asked about the affair, how much she had loved to make love to him. Perhaps he told me because he loved me and thought I should know that aspect of my mother, because knowing might help me put a necessary piece in the puzzle. Perhaps he had sympathy for me—in spite of the fact he had loved my mother—and didn’t feel the need to protect her. Perhaps he thought it was better to give a daughter that important piece than to keep still about a dead woman. And perhaps he was bragging a bit when he said it.

My mother had slept alone, in another room, in another bed, for 18 years of her marriage, until my parents divorced. I never saw her kiss my father, and the only touch was the time I heard him smash her against the table. My mother always gave abundantly with one hand and pushed you away with the other. The mystery of a beautiful woman. Perhaps in some reciprocal way, my unhappy, angry, guilt-producing mother had also been a planter, had been planting the seeds of my happiness with an invisible hand, the hand I didn’t see. She left me enough money to buy a house. She told me all my life she loved me, as if she completely forgot the hundred slights, humiliations, threats and insinuations. Of course, she loved me; why would I think otherwise? She loved me more than anything. Sometimes she’d scream, as if my doubts were another evil, another proof of my unworthiness. How exasperating my complaints must have been when, all along, she was planting seeds with that invisible hand.

The women of that generation, my mother and aunts, counted their blessings: Chinese food and beer on Friday nights after work and fried chicken breasts, twice-baked potatoes and broccoli for early Sunday-afternoon dinners. And there were parties with bounteous tables; polished glasses and silver, a chandelier, every bauble ammonia shiny; and heat’s seven coolnesses, the little cups of rice turned over and decorated, each small, white breast with a nipple of parsley. Polished floors, shopping trips, lunch at Hudson’s—these were the good things, the punctuation marks that held back despondence, that danced away despair. No hardship was unredeemable to women who had one endless belief: Bread on the water always comes home. It wasn’t until I was in my 60s that I realized it did, but not necessarily to the ones who cast it. I am eating bread from hands that are no longer there. I cannot reach back to touch their actual bodies. It is good that they are gone.

My mother helps me. She sends me signs: Her African violet bloomed for the first time on my windowsill three years after her death, on the first day of her death month. She says, “Remember me. My miracles are still there for you, still becoming apparent as you have eyes to see.” I love my mother now in ways I could not have loved her when she was alive, fierce, terrifying, unpredictable, mad, shame-inducing, self-involved, relentless and determined by any means necessary. When she was a child, she would hold her breath until she was blue and pass out to get what she wanted from her mother. Even if she had to inflict the greatest pain—making me see her suffer, making me fear her death and that I had caused it—she would do it without thinking, without hesitation. That worst threat was always between us—that she could take herself away, that she could hurt herself in my eyes—and it was out of my control to stop it. She was the hostage of an insane government, her own body. And so I revoked my love: I took away, as much as I could, the only real currency between us. I would not count on her to save me from her death. And, therefore, I saved myself by cutting the part of my heart that was in her heart; I cut it off as if snipping a pigtail. It is only now, when I am at a safe distance, that my heart begins to grow again, as if a surgeon has inserted a little, gray balloon to open it up to blood. There begins to be an invisible cell, a chamber, a thumping like the thump inside the embryo shell, tissues paper thin, of hardly any substance, except that, somewhere in it, it still knows what it is, what it will grow up to be used for.

About the Author

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte's most recent book is The Undertaker's Daughter. Her honors include the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement and the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award fro Poetry. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, the Paris Review, the New Yorker, and Poetry.

View Essays