By Leanna James Blackwell


True Story, Issue #22

In Greek mythology, a sip from the River Lethe offers oblivion to newly-perished souls. Braiding together the story of her parents’ whirlwind romance and memories from her troubled childhood, Leanna James Blackwell considers the lure of denial and the costs of remembering.

On March 28, 1941, the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse in Sussex until the cold water covered her head. Her body was discovered three weeks later by a group of children playing near the Southease bridge. They took it for a log until one of them waded in to get closer. It must have looked like a strange, matronly mermaid beneath the surface of the water. A fur coat billowing, a woman’s body inside it, wispy hair rippling like weeds.

She was fifty-nine years old. She had written more than a dozen books, had been hailed, celebrated, loved. But Woolf was convinced that she was “going mad again,” she wrote in her goodbye note to her husband, Leonard. And this time, she felt she could no longer fight it.

I’ve often wished I could go back in time, pull her out of the water in time to save her.

• • •

In the underworld of Greek mythology, there are five rivers—the River Styx, across which the souls of the dead must travel, and four others, one of which is called Lethe. Flowing through the cave of Hypnos, Lethe (rhymes with “leafy”) offers forgetfulness to all who drink from it. One cupful, and everything carried over from the mortal world—every face, every name, every moment of the life just departed—is dissolved. In this way souls are cleansed, made ready for the next life. Other myths tell of a companion river, Mnemosyne, known only to initiates of mystery schools. For those anointed into the secrets, a choice presents itself after death: drink from Lethe and wash your memories away, become like a night sky scrubbed of stars, or drink from Mnemosyne and fix a lifetime of moments in your mind. Remember the faces you saw every day and the thousands you saw only once; remember the first gulp of air as you slid from the womb and every breath you took until the last.

Of course, you have to die first to reach either river. That’s what the myths teach, at least, but I wonder.

• • •

Three years ago, my mother had a surgical procedure to fuse two deteriorating discs in her spine. She was sent home afterward with bottles of powerful opiates—and an equally powerful infection that went undetected until she went into septic shock. Frantic phone calls from my siblings across the country filled me in. Our mother was back in the hospital receiving blood transfusions, massive doses of intravenous antibiotics, a second emergency surgery to scrape out the infection. I called the surgeon daily for updates, leaving messages until someone managed to track him down.

“Dr. ——.” A harried voice vibrated through the phone with unmistakable masculine medical authority.

I gave my name again. “I’m the daughter of your patient—”

“Yes, yes, yes. Your mother will be just fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“But I heard—are you sure?” He was quite sure. No, I should not visit now but wait until my mother’s recovery period at home. That’s when she would need me. In about a week. Or maybe two. Or three. The hospital would let me know.

I heard it in his voice. The undercurrent of stubborn ego. A refusal to admit the possibility of defeat. Five minutes after hanging up, I booked a flight from Massachusetts to California. The older of my two younger brothers—the relatively dependable one—picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the hospital. We didn’t make it in time to see my mother conscious. Instead, we joined the vigil around her hospital bed along with our sister, born after me, and our other brother, the baby of our family—all of us stunned into muteness when an elderly priest materialized into the room to perform last rites. We bowed our heads obediently, the ritual making real what our minds could not. Our mother was being borne away by a flow of infection inside her body that had poisoned her bloodstream and caused a stroke. Her organs were shutting down. Soon—in minutes, hours, days?—her heart would stop too.

That night, the phone rang in the hotel room I was sharing with my brother. He handed the phone to me, unable to speak. Then it was time to throw on clothes and roar down the freeway to the hospital to look at our mother’s face one last time.

Date of death: March 28. I would never see my mother again. What difference did it make that Woolf had died the same day seventy-three years earlier? And yet there she was, blazingly alive in my mind, wearing her coat and sensible shoes, watching as I tried and failed to hold the pen steady enough to sign my name on the hospital paperwork.

I’m losing my mind, I thought, as the floor began to tilt.

“Do you need to sit down?” The nurse extricated the paper from my fingers. I found my way to a chair, forced myself to breathe. Hospital. Walls, windows, floor. There was no coat, no long pale face floating toward me.

The fact remained: my mother, like Woolf, had gone underwater and would not return. I could not drag her back from death.

• • •

Back at the hotel, I lay awake at three in the morning, trying to stop the thoughts blowing like a cold wind through my brain. The endless forms had been signed, including one granting permission to donate my mother’s eyes to science. “Now,” my brother had said, wiping his own reddened eyes, “someone will be able to see the world through our mother’s eyes.” No one had mentioned an actual transplant, but I didn’t correct him.

My mother’s view of the world—shadow-free, everything covered in gold—was certainly appealing. Clouds were banished. Nighttime never came. My brother, the firstborn son and a problem child when he was younger, who, as an altar boy, sneaked gulps of wine from the priest’s chalice before Mass, who wouldn’t stay in his seat in class and who lived in perpetual disgrace, had always wanted to share this rosy vision. To believe that flashing a smile was a simple ticket out of trouble.

But for me, the darkness was back, sleep as far away as the moon.

I snapped on the bedside light, pulled out my dog-eared copy of To the Lighthouse—I had grabbed it on the way to the airport, knowing I would need it—and joined Mrs. Ramsay in the drawing room of the family’s summer house. There would be an expedition if the weather was fine tomorrow. But they would have to be up with the lark.

• • •

A hand, shaking me awake. The room was still dark, but I could make out my mother’s face, floating ghostlike over mine.

“Get up,” she whispered. “Hurry!”

She woke my sister next, then my brothers. We fumbled for our clothes and made our fuzzy way downstairs. My brother’s shirt was on backward, and my sister’s shoelaces were untied. Normally, our mother would no more let us leave the house like that than go to school naked, but this day was different.

“Get in the car,” she ordered, still whispering. We obeyed instantly. Whatever we were doing, whatever secret we were keeping, it was thrilling. One by one we tiptoed past our father. He lay on his back on the couch, fully dressed and dead asleep. There was no reason for the elaborate pantomime of sneaking and hushing each other. I knew he wouldn’t wake if we danced on the piano, played baseball in the living room, splashed coffee in his face. His titanic stomach rose and fell with each window-rattling snore. Seeing him like that, hands folded on his belly, one shoe on and the other flung across the room, I felt a rush of pity, an alien emotion that took me by surprise. No one feels sorry for the thundering giant. Not in any myth and not in life. But the giant was asleep now, innocent of his family’s escape. He would wake up and find the house empty. My mother pushed us out the door and down the front steps to the waiting station wagon, where our bags had been thrown into the back.

“Where are we going, Mom?” We bounced up and down in our seats.

“To the beach!” My mother rolled down the windows and turned up the radio. We flew down the highway, singing along to Ike and Tina. There was no mention of our father, and we didn’t ask. By the time we passed the highway sign for Beach Cities, he had vanished from my mind.

A motel with a neon sign in front, flashing a hot-pink flamingo. Rooms by the week, a mile from the ocean, color TV and a pool. This was the place! Out we tumbled, into the blue sizzle of the June day and the promise of unimpeded joy. We never once made it to the beach, but we didn’t mind. Life was good. We ate takeout fried chicken on the king-size bed, wiping the grease from our chins with beach towels. We swam for hours in the warm green motel pool while my mother, in caftan and sunglasses, made fast friends with other mothers in pool chairs. Their conversation floated over the pool in little sprays of laughter and words. “So then Harry said . . .” “You won’t believe this . . .” “Not so much ice . . .” “Nixon, that idiot . . .” “Sure, one more . . .” “And then she came out wearing the tiniest . . .” “Oh, I get mine done at . . .” “Will your husband come on the weekend?” Husband. That meant my father. I paddled closer, muscles tense, listening. My mother’s tiny laugh told me everything.

He still didn’t know. We still had time.

That night, sprawled on the carpet in our damp bathing suits, we watched an old vampire movie on TV and munched animal crackers out of the box. My mother sipped rosé with ice and read a drugstore paperback.She didn’t touch the phone. My brother and I did, once, when Mom was down the hall getting ice. Our one chance to dial an 800 number that flashed during a TV ad for Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits—our favorite band in the world. We gave the motel as our address to the dubious operator, and why not? We were living here now. God would see to it if I prayed hard enough. At night before bed, I muttered on the toilet in the pink-tiled motel bathroom, the only private place I could find and a good enough stand-in for a pew.

By the third morning, I had stopped praying and started plotting. My sister and brothers and I could go to the school down the street. We’d driven by the low concrete buildings, the swing sets and slides, on our way to the motel. It wasn’t a Catholic school, but that could be turned to advantage: we’d save on uniforms! And I’d get a weekend job. Babysitting was out until I was ten or eleven, but I could help at the check-in desk. I’d carry luggage and show people to their rooms! “Welcome,” I would murmur, unlocking the door with an elegant twist of the wrist, “to your deluxe suite.” Then I would bow and pocket my tips.

My mother would get a job too, working in an elegant clothing shop. Dressed in her sea-green linen shift and gold earrings, she’d help fussy ladies find the right summer dress and the perfect bag and kitten-heeled sandals to match. I worked out the details, crunching handfuls of dry Froot Loops, and made lists of “things to do next” on a paper towel.

We stayed five glorious days. On the sixth, we woke up to our mother packing our bags. The wailing began instantly. “What are you doing, what are you doing?”

“Get dressed. It’s time to go.”

“Why why why why why?”

Our mother was silent, her lips pressed tight as she corralled us, shrieking, into the car. No explanation. But what explanation could be given? Why does Persephone—the stupidest, I thought, of all the goddesses in my illustrated world mythology book—eat the six seeds that will keep her in the underworld half the year? Why does anyone do what she knows she shouldn’t? We were returning to the dark castle, to the realm of the rampaging giant. There was no why.

My heart burned as we drove back down the highway. The radio was silent. My brothers kicked each other in the back seat, and my sister whipped around and slapped them. I closed my eyes and fingered the crumpled paper towel I’d stuffed into my shorts pocket. My list. I would tear it into pieces when we got home. Then I’d steal my father’s matches and set the thing on fire. We pulled into the driveway, our legs sticky with sweat, and met our father at the door. He was quiet, wearing a look of contrition on his freshly shaved face.

My mother sailed past him into the house. “My, what a hot drive!” She disappeared into the kitchen for a glass of cold water. After a moment, he followed. I rushed upstairs and lay on my bed, my sunburned skin the only evidence we’d been away.

My father wouldn’t punish her right away, but the punishment would come—to her or, more likely, to us. It would come as surely as the sun would singe the grass that summer, as surely as the Santa Ana winds and sudden brushfires would follow, filling the sky with smoke.

I pulled a pillow over my head, but it was no time for sobbing. For everything, a season, and this was my season of war. A lipstick could be lifted from my mother’s purse and smashed. A bottle of cologne could be poured down the drain, a few pages torn from a favorite book. Sinful acts. But since God was too busy to listen to my prayers, I reasoned, chewing furiously on the end of my braid, he wouldn’t notice when I buried the evidence at the bottom of the trash.

I kept the list, though. It stayed in my bedroom drawer for years, folded up and tucked into a corner beneath my pajamas.

• • •

In a moment he would ask her, “Are we going to the Lighthouse?” And she would have to say, “No: not tomorrow; your father says not.” Happily, Mildred came in to fetch them, and the bustle distracted them. But he kept looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out, and she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the Lighthouse tomorrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life.

Four in the morning. My bed in the bland hotel room with a minibar and desk, my brother passed out in the next bed, had disappeared. I sat at a dinner table in the Ramsays’ summer house, sea air drifting in through the open windows. Lily Briscoe, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Augustus and Charles conversed, their faces lit from the glow of the candles. Topics were tossed lightly around the table: Voltaire and Madame de Staël and the character of Napoleon, the French system of land tenure, someone with the delicious name of Lord Rosebery. The boeuf en daube had just arrived. And I knew every private thought, every lurch of their hearts, every flicker of mood and emotion. I was as deeply immersed as the first time I’d read the novel, spellbound in the college library, at seventeen.

To the Lighthouse was sitting on a table there one afternoon as I was returning another book. I picked it up, attracted to the title. The quickening I felt after the first few pages, the recognition. A consciousness that looked so deeply at people and things that it penetrated their mysteries down to their molecular structure. When the library closed, I took the book with me. I’d forgotten about my classes. Reading the novel was like entering a recurring dream I’d had for years. The Greeks believed that dreams were portents, messages from the gods. Ancient texts reference common dreams: the wave that swallows a village, the coiled snake on the path that strikes before you can run. In mine, there was a hidden door. Behind the door, a room empty of everything but light, windows looking out on an impossible expanse of blue water. Stepping inside, I understood. This is what it is like to see. And: I am home, I am home, I am home.

Home. Jesus, I remembered now. My mother had been calling, leaving messages with my roommate. What was it this time? I had graduated from high school early; I thought that by moving away, I could leave childhood behind like a doll dropped behind a dresser. But escaping had been harder than I expected.

When I finally returned her calls, she picked up on the first ring. There was nothing wrong. She just wanted to hear my voice. I told my mother about the book, the words tumbling out so fast I didn’t stop to breathe. Oh, yes, she knew all about it. She had read the novel in college too.

“Did you love it?” I waited for my mother’s answer, the receiver suddenly slippery in my hand. I pressed it harder to my ear. Why was my heart pounding?

“It’s funny. I don’t remember a thing about it. Just the cover. A pretty blue, with seabirds on it.”

• • •

Seven in the morning. The sun in my face, a harsh announcement. Put the book down. Get up now. Make coffee. In the shower, my thoughts buzzed like agitated bees. Call the relatives and friends. Plan the funeral. Figure out what to do with my other two siblings. Oh, God. My sister still lived at home and hadn’t held a job in decades. When the ambulance had arrived to take my mother to the hospital, the EMTs thought at first it was an opioid overdose; her prescription bottles were empty. They didn’t know where the drugs had gone until they got a look at my sister, stumbling into the driveway. My other brother lived in a tiny house across town with dark blankets tacked over the windows. No one had been allowed to enter for years. He kept a dog on a chain and piped in gas from the house next door through a garden hose. Both of them, my mother had always insisted while I screamed inside, were doing wonderfully well. Both depended on her living forever. What the fuck were they going to do now? The older of my brothers, the functional one, would be my ally in figuring it all out. It would be hell, and we knew it.

Time to pray. Pray hard.

• • •

The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. . . .

. . . Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw.

I believed in magic as a child. Not only because of the stories I devoured in my books—genies and elves, fairies and charms, gods and goddesses storming the sky. I believed in it because I saw it. In our house, objects came to malevolent life. Humans changed shape and became monstrous. There was no way to prepare. But I did have one power. Just take the cup of forgetting from my mother’s hand and drink it down.

Forget the leather belt springing to life. Forget the sound of it cracking through the air on its way to your body.

Forget the kitchen table overturning with a roar, dishes and glasses flying.

Forget the fist punching a hole in the wall.

Forget the muddy boot kicking in your bedroom door. Forget diving under your bed with your sister, trying to become invisible.

Forget the unfortunate remark you made at dinner. The feeling of the kitchen’s cold tile floor as you skidded across it.

Forget the time your brother, mid-beating, squirmed free and fled to the orange grove across the street while you and your sister screamed, “Run!” Scrambling up a tree, he turned himself into a motionless branch. The monster stormed up and down the rows of trees, kicking up clouds of angry dust, shouting at the leaves. The boy watched, laughing under his breath.

Later, he would be sent away. The stiff uniforms he wore in Catholic military school, the marching drills, the leg he fractured in soccer practice and dragged around for two weeks, unable to convince the nuns he wasn’t faking it—we never spoke of those things. My brother was finally taken to a doctor and got a cast. Then he was sent right back. When the cast came off, he ran away, scaling the fence with his friend Goldblatt, the two of them headed to Disneyland—Disneyland!—which sparkled and shone only a few blocks away from the school. They presented themselves at the gate, hoping to be hired as a Mickey or a Goofy. At nine years old, they figured they were the right size.

When I heard about it, I ached to join them. I’d be Snow White, taking tickets at the entrance to Fantasyland.

The magic of forgetting was powerful for a long time. Put on some music and stop pouting, sourpuss! Life is a lark, a song, a walk in the park. My mother insisted on this version of the world. In this, she was as strong as any mythic hero, her hands a wall that withstood the flood of reality. Nothing happened. You must have dreamed it. The bumps and bruises, the screams for help—maybe you fell out of bed. Maybe you should just be quiet.

Make up a better story, and learn to believe it.

Years later, I told the story of the orange grove to a therapist.

“Why did you laugh just now?” she asked.

“Did I? I don’t know. Because it’s funny?”

A pause. Then her gentle voice. “No. It’s not.”

• • •

Virginia Woolf was thirteen when her mother died in 1895. Her first depressive episode followed not long after. Nine years later, her father died; Woolf, suicidal, jumped out a window. She was taken to the home of a family friend, where a doctor and team of nurses cared for her. Her episodes marked a pattern that would dominate her life. She began to hear snatches of what sounded like voices. At times, excruciating headaches robbed her of the power to do anything but lie in her bed. And then there were days when her mind was alight, flooded with beauty. The world shimmered; understanding and insight cascaded over her in waves. She wrote through it all, through euphoria and through bleakness. Her writing, she believed, kept her alive, tethered to the world. Traveling across decades and reaching me at my loneliest, her writing helped me live too.

I have never heard voices or suffered headaches like Woolf’s. I’ve thought about dying but never once bought the rope, took the pills, climbed over the guardrail of the bridge. Maybe my fury saved me. Instead of sinking too far down—a temptation after the worst of the assaults in my father’s house—I burned, and turned to words as my salve. A diary with a tiny gold fairy-tale key and novels I read and read again, lying on my bed with the cat at my feet and the door locked.

Once in a while I would receive an unexpected gift, a morning when I’d wake up to a world unfolding itself in brighter colors and dazzling detail. As though a little god had embedded a pair of magnifying glasses behind my eyes, enlarging what had been invisible before. Those were the days I waited for. But once I discovered Woolf, I no longer had to wait. I could open one of her books and plunge into light.

I tried to talk to my mother about it once. She was surprised. She wasn’t sure what I meant. My mother herself was never unhappy. Every day was a new day. Every day, life began again.

“I’ve always been up at first light.” She smiled. “As soon as the birds begin chirping, I’m out of bed and ready to go!”

Maybe that explained her fondness for bird figurines. Ceramic, silk, porcelain, cloth, and glass birds covered every surface in the house. Their tiny eyes glittered as you walked by. The birds’ silent, flightless lives troubled me as a child, but they cheered my mother greatly. Maybe they came to life for her alone, singing when the rest of us were gone. Maybe at heart she was one of them, able to fly when no one was looking.

How, how, how did she do it?

• • •

My mother, Sue, grew up in a small California town near the San Jacinto Mountains. Her father was a doctor who bought her a horse named Trixie when she was twelve. He took her to the horse races at the Santa Anita racetrack and taught her to place bets, to fancy restaurants in Los Angeles where they had lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee, on a cruise with the family to the Panama Canal, on a jaunt to Hawaii. That was the last adventure. He never made it home. A lifelong smoker and drinker, he had a heart attack on the beach and died in a Honolulu hospital a week later. My mother was fifteen. There was no one to help her. Her older siblings had already left home, and her mother had taken to her bed, so devoured by grief she couldn’t move.

Time passed. The days kept coming. Eventually, my mother and grandmother had to choose: live grimly or cheerfully. The world offered nothing in between. “Your troubles can’t be as bad as all that,” sang little Shirley Temple, my mother’s childhood icon. “When you’re sad as all that, no one loves you. Be optimistic!” My mother made her choice. She got a boyfriend and cheered him on at basketball games. After high school she went off to college and majored in music. She joined a sorority and dreamed of the perfect diamond ring. All the best girls had a sparkler on their finger before graduation. But my father showed up early. The ring was on her finger by her junior year.

Earl was a rough-spoken man eight years Sue’s senior. He had joined the navy at sixteen, lying about his age, and fought in the South Pacific. After the navy, he spent years wandering. He jumped freight trains, rode motorcycles, worked in rodeos and rode the bulls. A good dancer, he soft-shoed his way across the stage in vaudeville shows in Reno, where he once met Liberace. When my mother met him, he was working for a pipe company and dating her college roommate, whose name I never knew. Let’s call her Sharon. One night, my mother walked into the room as a handsome, dark-haired man was helping Sharon with her coat. An introduction, smiles and small talk, and off they went. An hour later, the phone rang in the little apartment. My mother always giggled at this part in the story: it was my father, calling from a phone booth during his date. He had to see my mother again. Tomorrow, if possible. Meanwhile, back at their table, Sharon sipped her martini, unaware she was about to be replaced.

My mother liked this man, so different from the men she had known as a girl. My father had grown up in a German family on a hardscrabble farm during the Depression. He believed in the value of hard work, a strong drink, and a reliable truck. He was a Catholic who didn’t go to church, a Republican who had no use for the rich. He believed he had Basque blood. He spoke in a fake foreign accent at bars. He told good stories and dirty jokes. He knew how to replace a car engine, fix a leaky faucet, lay pipe, make a mean chili. His eyes were the color of cornflowers in May. He was ready for a wife. My mother was twenty when she dropped out of college to marry him. Her father had been dead for five years; there was no one to walk her down the aisle.

She had never boiled an egg or written a check. The youngest in her family, she had never held a baby. She gave birth to me nine months and two days after the wedding.

• • •

Virginia Woolf never had children. She had her work. Children would have made her books impossible. And yet her writing shows she knew them, knew their magnificent, savage souls. Six-year-old James, cutting out pictures from a catalogue, would have gladly taken a poker and “gashed a hole in his father’s breast” when Mr. Ramsay confidently predicts bad weather. They will certainly not be going to the lighthouse, the man implies, pleased to crush the spirits of those foolish enough to hope. Woolf records every beat of the boy’s heart, propels us back into the past where we find our own child heart, still beating, frantic, in the body of memory. Our own wild nature, beneath the polished metal surface of manners, roles, and rules. A man looking at a cloudy sky, a life shattering, all happening at once.

I didn’t plan on becoming a mother, and then, at thirty-eight, I married a second time, a good man who cherished me, and had a daughter. She changed our lives. We loved her fiercely. I lost my writing for years; I didn’t know how to reconcile motherhood with the time needed alone to think, to woo the distant parts of the self that writing demands. I knew only that I had a chance to give my daughter the gift of a home lit not with terror but with love.

My mother made gestures of loving her too. She would embrace her granddaughter with elaborate joy when she visited, pull gifts out of her suitcase like a magician, exclaim over her height and hair and face for a full five minutes. The effort exhausted her. It’s hard to be enchanted by a competitor, hard to give up the warming glow at the center of attention. But my daughter was generous-hearted. Every time, she forgave her grandmother for treating her, after the ritual of gifts and hugs, like an annoying puppy that ought to be kept outside. For waving her away to “go play” when she tried to come near.

I was not so generous. But I kept that a secret from my mother. My job as a daughter was to adore her, and I wanted to do a good job. She needed so much, and so badly.

• • •

The shock of it all. With each child, a fresh shock. By the age of twenty-eight, my overwhelmed mother had four. My father was no help to her. But once in a while, he could be fun. He came to life during the magic hour, that glistening slice of time just after the second or third drink, before the fourth or fifth. We loved the magic hour too.

“Play ‘Got a Date with an Angel,’ Mom!” It was one of my father’s favorite old songs. My mother sat at the piano, her manicured fingers rippling over the keys. At the sound of the first notes, my father leaped out of his chair and started to dance. Then we were off to the races.

“Play us another tune, sweetheart,” he barked, grinning as he shimmied around the piano.

“Tooon!” my baby brother screamed, delighted. “Toooon!” We were all on our feet now too, hopping, bopping, jumping, trying to imitate our father’s smooth moves. A burly man who ran a sewer construction company, he moved with grace when he danced, his face lit up like a reddish sun. None of us could dance like him. But we loved to be part of the electric fun, the excitement that shocked the house with a powerful current of giddy, goofy joy.

The parties were even better. My mother loved them, and there were many: pig roasts, pool parties, barbecues, picnics, cocktail hours that never seemed to end. My mother was a bottle of champagne in human form, the effervescent life of every gathering, and people flocked around her. And while the adults laughed and played games in the living room—pass the orange to the next woman in line without using your hands; guess which shoes are your wife’s while you’re wearing a blindfold; do the limbo!—down the hall, in the back bathroom, my sister and I made our own drinks. We scooped our mother’s scented dusting powder into glasses of water, watching the liquid turn cloudy. Cocktail! We smeared on red lipstick and clinked our glasses: “Down the hatch, baby.” Then we guzzled our concoction and practiced the tipsy dance, weaving around the bathroom floor with fluffy towels on our heads.

From the living room, a hot blast of horns. Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass kicked into “Love Potion No. 9,” and now the adults would do the real tipsy dance, pushing aside the furniture, kicking off their shoes. They would dance all night while we listened, giggling and spinning outlandish stories about them, in our beds. “Mrs. O’Brien has three boobs!” “Mr. Conti is a werewolf with a secret werewolf wife!”

The next morning, my mother wiped the lipstick off our faces with a rough washcloth, cleaned up the mess in the bathroom. Drawers banged open and shut. “What were you doing in there?”


A few hard smacks against our heads, then it was over. We were okay. In a little while, we’d have pancakes with blueberry syrup for breakfast, and we wouldn’t have to go to church.

• • •

Ten o’clock, a bright spring morning. The helpful brother and I sat at the kitchen table in the family home, planning the funeral. An untouched box of doughnuts sat on the counter. The hometown newspaper was spread out in front of us. It had just printed our mother’s obituary, so there she was, sharing the page with a huge photo advertisement for a ZZ Top concert. (Couldn’t Tony Bennett have been playing that day? Or Tony “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” Orlando? Anyone but goddamn ZZ Top—she hated everything about them.) In a photo from her college days, my mother wore her hair teased high, ’50s style, her smile sorority girl bright. We read the obit aloud. It was filled with typos, and our late father’s name was misspelled. Eral? My brother dropped his toast on the kitchen floor. Earl was too difficult? E-A-R-fucking-L? Eral it must forever be now—and we laughed, spilling coffee on the paper as the phone rang for the hundredth time, and this time no one answered, we couldn’t. Not while we were laughing. Maybe not ever.

Oh, Sue. Oh, Eral. I hoped they were happy together now, happier there than they ever were here. They would have laughed at the obituary too. I saw them for a moment, my parents, dancing together on the other side of this world to a ghostly version of my dad’s beloved Dixieland jazz. My mother in her sparkly jacket and black velvet skirt, short auburn hair frosted and fluffed, mouth Revlon red, ears adorned with diamond earrings. My father in a sharp gray suit and silk tie, shoes spit-polished, smelling of bay rum and Winstons. I prayed the band was playing their song. I prayed it would never stop.

• • •

Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way.

My mother knew how to make herself safe when the earth heaved and the ground gave way beneath her feet. When the man you married changes his shape after he’s been drinking, when he morphs into a charging bull, a bear, a wolf leaping out from behind a tree, you die just a little inside. A little death will trick the gods long enough to buy you a moment at the river. To drink from Lethe before your time. Not enough to forget everything. But a few drops can dissolve the parts you can’t bear. It’s a trick you learned as a young girl, when your father died so suddenly. Kill off the pain, don’t speak of it and don’t look back. Soon enough, the unwanted images are wiped cleanly from your mind, the dreaded feelings scrubbed from your heart. Soon enough, you don’t even have to wait; you can forget what is happening to you—or to your children—the very instant it begins to unfold. You can steal away to Lethe at the sound of heavy footsteps at the door.

But when the footsteps are light, you can stay. You can dance.

• • •

From trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.

The pastor had never met her; the church was a place we’d never been. More than two hundred people came. Gigantic flower arrangements had been arriving at the house for a week. The family took turns speaking. Poems were read, beautiful stories told of my mother’s life. I sat listening, legs trembling. My husband gripped my hand. My teenage daughter gripped the other. She knew some of the stories. But not all. I didn’t want her to know.

What story would I tell? How could I stand in front of all the people who adored her, who thought she was the most marvelous woman who ever lived, and tell the truth? They were united in their grief. And what did I mean, “the” truth? It wouldn’t be their truth. It wouldn’t be anyone’s, not even my siblings’, who had gratefully followed our mother’s lead. They liked her story better, and why wouldn’t they? No one wants to hear the tale of a mother who blinded herself to violence visited on her children, who stood without moving on the shore as waves of rage crashed over their heads and dragged them under. It wasn’t stormy every day. There were clear days too, don’t you remember? I could hear her soft voice in my ear, pleading. And I did remember. There were birthday presents and heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s Day candy and trips, now and then, to a glorious beach motel.

When it was my turn, my legs stopped shaking. My voice was steady, and I told this story: once, when returning from a visit to my grandmother’s in a neighboring town, I lost my doll in traffic. I was about four or five. My mother was driving, and I was in the back seat, the windows rolled down, dangling the doll out the window so she could feel the breeze as we drove. I slept with that doll, took her everywhere, told her my secrets. But I don’t remember the name I gave her or much about what she looked like. I remember only the moment when I realized my hand was grasping air, and the scream that rose from my throat.

“What on earth is the matter?”

I continued to wail. My mother jammed the car into park and jumped out, dodging cars as I watched, astonished, through the rear window. People were rolling down their windows to yell at her—“Lady, what’s the matter with you?” “Hey lady, get out of the street!”—as she ran, snatching up the doll from the road just before a tire rolled over her plastic head.

“Whew, that was close!” My mother jumped back into the car, tossed the doll over the seat, and drove on, ignoring the honking behind her. I clutched her, stroked her stiff hair. My mother had saved her, she had saved her, she had run through traffic to save my doll!

No other mother would do what she had done. No one was as brave and wonderful. And no one loved her more than I did.

That was the truth too. She couldn’t save me; I would have to do that myself, and it would take a long, long time. But she saved my little doll. It meant something, then.

And I am still grieving her. I don’t think of Woolf anymore on March 28. I think of my mother.

• • •

Once, my mother was young. Once, she saw the world in all its brightness. She loved the color yellow. She thought the sun was made of honey. My mother sang to me, told me stories, let me lick from the beckoning bowl of chocolate batter. When I cried over being called an ugly freckle-face, she hugged me. Why, freckles were only the marks of little fairies called brownies. At night, the brownies visited my room and covered me with tiny kisses. Each kiss left a mark, a remnant of the brownie’s love.

“But you don’t have any freckles. Didn’t they love you?”

“Oh, but I do. They’re just so tiny you can’t see them.”

Her smile, her manicured hands, her sparkling eyes. She made it to Lethe at last. She dipped in her cup and drank her fill. I close my eyes and imagine her there, the river as wide as the sea and a lighthouse on its bank, illuminating the path to the next world so she doesn’t have to make her way in the dark. She remembers nothing of me now. I like to think I’ve accepted that loss. Long before she died, from the time I was old enough to tie my own shoes, I had taught myself to live without a mother to protect me. But I know I’ll keep walking when I reach the river of forgetting. I will find my way to the other one, and when I get there, I’ll bend down. I’ll make a cup with my hands, and I’ll drink.

About the Author

Leanna James Blackwell

A former theatre artist from California, Leanna James Blackwell is a writer, teacher, and editor. She directs the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and co-founded its Narrative Medicine/Trauma Writing program.

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