(Essay originally published in Thema Literary Magazine)
This was my first published short story, and it came about from a contest. Every few months, Thema offers writers a prompt. The prompt I saw, though I forget how I came upon it, was, “It must be here…somewhere.” Immediately, I thought of a story involving my mother. The essay came out pretty much in one piece, in a single sitting. Responding to writing prompts can be a great way to circumvent the conscious mind and touch its hidden places. It was my first experience of that shock a young writer feels when she realizes that there are stories inside her looking to get out.
My mother spent the first year of our lives breaking light bulbs. We never ate well enough, it seemed, and to get our mouths open she would crush these light bulbs and the sound of splintering glass was shock enough to make us gasp, at which point she would shove the food in.
Shoving in, or purging out—that’s mostly how I remember my mother. There was a time in 1963 when she made me vomit my lunch of tuna fish, having heard on the radio that a can out west somewhere was found to have botulism.
We humans were less than a speck of nothing, that was the message all of us—my brother, my sister and I—heard loud and clear. The world could kill you in a flash, like a giant crushing a nut with one knuckle. I always thought it had to do with being Jewish, since my grandmother had, apparently, seen the giant in person back in Russia, during the pogroms. But when, at the age of nearly eighty, senile and widowed and poor, my grandmother lost her little boarding house to upstate city planners with ideas for an airport, it seemed to confirm that hostile forces had little to do with time, place, or religion, but were intrinsic to the very state of being alive.
Which is how, I guessed, these same bugaboos made their way to Hartsdale, New York. And which explains, at least partially, why as a small child I would not eat my sandwiches at nursery school and why I did not like the blood red eyes of the white rabbit that all the other children found cute. And it explains, too, why by the age of five I had a definite tic in one eye, as if to blind myself to the world’s terrors.
But this isn’t the whole story. It’s not the whole thing that made us endeavor to get away from home just as fast as we could. It was rather her belief that she, and she alone, could protect us from this hostile world. Long after we had grown up and moved away she would still, walking across the street with us, crush our hands in a vice-like grip. Long afterwards, her phone calls would rouse us from our beds to whisper premonitions and warnings, because if only we listened to them we would be protected. Our mother could read the future and steer us clear of its hazards, all the way to our deaths. According to our mother you probably didn’t even have to die at all, if only you were careful enough.
Five years ago, my sister’s older daughter was killed in a car accident down in New Orleans, where she was going to school. According to the coroner, it was a split second’s somnolence behind the wheel that did her in. Flown right out of the convertible and hit her head on a street lamp. Six months earlier, she had been in another, minor, incident. This time, though, she didn’t live to tell us about it. She died, right there by the side of a lonely road.
“I saw it coming,” was the first thing my mother said. Or maybe not the first thing. The day the news arrived she pulled at her hair until it fell out in whole clumps. It was at the funeral, or the day after when she said, “I saw it coming, but I kept my mother shut. I’ll never keep my mouth shut again.”
It’s a promise she’s done her best to keep.
Sometimes I think it must be a heavy burden to have the fate of all your children in your hands. But of course the alternative, the worse thought by far, is to understand that you didn’t. That you can predict nothing, control even less. That you have outlived even your small usefulness and, for everything you had done, were scarcely even loved.
I say scarcely because I think my mother is, for all of it, loved. I can’t speak for my siblings but I know that it is in a tiny place coming out here, in the only circuitous route it knows how to take. It is in that tiny region of lovability in her, too, that small place where she loves as opposed to fears or controls, which I know for her are all pretty hopelessly mixed up. And this place, where love and loathing are not hopelessly mixed up, is so odd that one would never think of looking there.
My mother began collecting antiques when I was a small child. She had been a mother for what seemed like forever, and at a certain point she decided to become something else. She went back to school for her decorating license, and my earliest memory of this time is of her sitting up late at our dining room table, putting together an enormous book of pictures for her final project. For months we had to eat in the kitchen; she guarded that table as if her whole life were spread out upon it.
As it turned out, this Jewish farm-girl had the eyes of a connoisseur. She could tell American Chippendale from English, an original Ming plate from a fake. She acquired a taste for originals that would never, after that, go away.
My father, on the other hand, who grew up in a Bronx apartment building and unlike my mother had only acquired a lusty appetite for kitsch, looked with suspicion, if not downright hostility, upon my mother’s sudden yen for antiques. He was comfortable with things that had no ambiguity to them: clean Formica, sofas covered in plastic, solid acrylic carpets. My mother’s dusty Shaker boxes, chipped china plates—such things threatened his world almost as much as the unseen world threatened my mother.
“What now, Fran, what have you got there this time?” he would shout at her as she pulled her little green Volvo into the driveway after another early-morning expedition to the local garage sales. “Don’t you bring that into this house!”
In she’d stride, green eyes shining, happier than any of us had ever seen her. She got things, too. Some of it was junk, to be sure. But for the most part our little suburban house gradually filled up with lost treasures. I was a tiny seven-year-old with a budding collection of my own, not of antiques but of stamps and coins and first-day covers. Sometimes I would get up early and go along with her to the sales. Like a miniature of her, I would run through the doors in search of priceless envelopes as, in another room, she filed through the artwork.
Looking back now I see that my mother had distinct Ages. There was her Pewter Age, which I think was her earliest. Pewter spoons, pitchers, pewter mugs and tea kettles. After that there was Iron. Iron fire stokers and andirons, an age that quickly became supplanted by the more precious Bronze. Along the edges of our bookshelves there grew whole civilizations of bronze statuettes from Africa, China, and even Early America. My mother has a silver pitcher that was made by Paul Revere, picked up at a garage sale for twenty dollars.
Then came the Shaker boxes—her Paper and Straw Age. Chotchkes, my father called them.
“We don’t need more chotchkes,” he’d utter nervously.
“Harold, you’re just a boor,” she’d retort, angling her way past him with her arms full.
Straw baskets, jewelry boxes. By this time my mother was going to several sales a day, getting up at the crack of dawn to be there before they had opened. The dealers got to know her. They all lined up on the darkened street of the sale as dawn broke, waiting patiently, like cops on a stakeout.
As soon as the front door opened my mother, a small, short-legged woman, would propel herself from the car and shoot across the manicured lawns like a bullet. Once in, it was everyone for himself—she would swoop down on the junk and fish out the little Renoir etching or Daumier lithograph before the dealers’ eyes even had a chance to focus in the artificial light.
After a while, my mother settled into a few specialties. Painting, silver, Oriental carpets. Our house got so full that my father reluctantly agreed to build a shed out back to house things. They fought about what would go in the shed and what would stay in the house. My father seemed quite happy to throw everything into that shed helter-skelter.
“Look at him” she told me, “look how he treats them. He won’t be happy until he’s broken every last thing.”
And indeed my father did seem particularly clumsy with Mom’s treasures, always chipping a vase or denting a painted lamp. Then aghast, we’d find him in the garage with the wounded item, just as clumsily trying to fix his mistake with heavy-handed paint, glue, or scotch tape.
I could not have known then how their whole sad romantic life was played out in this removed way, expressing the love that they’d misplaced somewhere between his extramarital affair and her passion for collecting. All I knew at the time was that somehow my father had become the antagonist in my mother’s private drama. She was saving the world, saving everything that was being trampled upon and destroyed in modernity’s blind march forward, and it was in this capacity that I found myself in strange, passionate alliance with her. To me it was magic how these things traveled across thousands of miles and centuries to find their way to a safe haven in our little split level house. And to me, in this small way, my mother was nothing less than a sorceress.
“This is Bonnard,” she would say, placing some giant painting in my small arms. “This is a real lithograph. Do you see how the paint is raised? Feel, feel it.” She would open the glass and press my fingers hard against the picture. “This is not a print,” I heard at least a hundred times. “Don’t let anyone tell you these are worthless prints. You’ve got to know the difference so that when I’m gone your brother and sister won’t give them away.”
My parents were always on the verge of dying. According to my mother, they were just a step away from the grave. She always had “a lump” and my father’s heart was perpetually out of beat. For nearly seventy-five years now they have had these lumps and skips, but as a child you believe what you’re told. And so my mother’s collecting became infused almost from the very beginning with an elegiac quality. By safeguarding my mother’s trust I was, in a sense, securing her destiny as well.
So this is how I became a collector, too, the self-appointed executor of my mother’s artistic estate. But while I could probably tell you the value of each of her artifacts in dollars and cents, I could not recount their stories. All that will be lost when my mother is gone. Because, as it turned out, my mother had a feel not just for art but for its creators, a compassion for them that seems almost inexplicable in a little farm-girl who spent most of her fatherless childhood running from drunk and vulgar workmen. How, I have always wondered, did she come by her tears for Van Gogh’s later years? How did she come to understand George Innes’s dark canvases, those careless strokes in the trees’ leaves made during a particularly onerous time of depression?
Later, when I was already a teenager and a goner for collecting myself (not stamps and coins anymore, but books), my mother began to take her possessions into New York City to get them appraised. Museum of Modern Art, Park Bernet, the Metropolitan: in she would walk, a tiny speck of a woman, tidily dressed with makeup a shade too dark for her complexion and hastily applied rouge. She’d be holding a small figurine in the nest of her hands. Or sometimes she carried a black leather portfolio, bigger than she was by half.
And she would sit down and become very quiet before these grand directors, these experts, and await their verdict. Sometimes my mother would return to our house a little sad but not daunted. She would shrug and get this humorous look on her face, not embarrassed exactly, but knowing she’d been duped, and knowing that the world was like that sometimes. Sometimes, it fooled you.
But then there were the times these same formidable men would begin to scurry around, call in their curators, scrape at the edges of my mother’s canvas and peer through tiny monocles, and after these trips my mother would gloat for months afterward.
“Matisse offered me five hundred,” she’d say, “and if he’s offering me five hundred, it’s worth fifteen.”
My mother never sold to the museums, not once that I can remember, anyway. When she did sell, it was usually out of pity. Once she sold a rug to an old dealer, straight off our living room floor. Apparently, the man’s wife had just died.
“He looked so down in the mouth,” she told me. “He needed that rug.” To my mother, selling was an act of generosity, not of barter.
So then how do we get from here to my story, which I haven’t even begun to tell yet, about the time I nearly tore the house down in search of Tamerlane? It’s a difficult transition to make, because I have the feeling that the real story is neither in my mother’s collecting nor my own—the story about the priceless book—but somewhere lost between the two.
It began one day long after I had moved out. I was sitting in her kitchen having my morning coffee, and I was reading through a new Antiques Price List when something caught my eye.
“Look at this,” Mom,” I said. “There’s a book in here that’s worth nearly two hundred thousand dollars.”
“What book is that?” she said without much interest, going about her business by the sink.
My mother didn’t care about books. She would occasionally drag home a 19th century edition of Henry Van Dyke or the yearly almanacs from the Good Fellows Club, because of their guilt covers. Sometimes, if the price was right, she would buy a whole box of “throwaways” for me.
“It’s a collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Tamerlane and Other Poems. Now that’s a book I’d like to have.”
I was lost in my imaginings and it took a while for me to perceive that my mother was leaning down over the counter with a puzzled look on her face.
“Tamerlane?” she asked. “Well, that rings a bell somehow.”
“No, really, I think I’ve got that one. I remember there was an inscription. To a Bostonian, from a Bostonian. Now where did I put it, that’s the question.”
I forget when exactly the heat of my book collecting passion came upon me in full force, but I think it was sometime after I met my husband and before we married, several years later. It’s probably no accident that the frenzy took me on when I was leaving girlhood once and for all, as if I were endeavoring to bring to married life some hastily sketched portrait of who I thought I was.
I was, I decided, the unrecognized progeny of stern-faced forbears. I was not spawned from the murky waters of the Russian shtetl but from the crystalline New England streams of the Early Americans. Gabled houses, spires and sailboats and Martha’s Vineyard. Poe and Hawthorne and Melville. I loved these things in a way people can only love things that are unlike themselves: with a tenderness, a wistfulness untainted by familiarity. The New Englanders of my imagining did not pay morbid heed to their own illnesses and the inevitable decay of the body. For them, life lay beyond all that. It was in the grass, or the sky. And it was especially in the mysterious light that surrounded their gabled houses.
Of course, to read Edgar Allan Poe is to know at once that my picture is false. Crypts and crumbling turrets of the soul, priests whispering behind closed doors—looking back now I can see that it was precisely their morbidity, their dark vision, that captivated me. But it was not the monochromatic Jewish vision I had always known. It was even darker and more despairing, but set off against a blinding twilight light that throws every detail of a landscape into agonizing relief.
For years I could read only the Early Americans, and dreamed of owning those original editions. I wanted Melville. I wanted Hawthorne. But most of all, it was that tiny alcoholic sufferer, Edgar Allan, who I wanted, motivated perhaps by the belief that if only I could hold him in my hands, it could somehow complete my adoption once and for all.
“Now where did I hide it? It must be here, somewhere.” Her rear end was sticking up out of the crawl space behind her bed. This was no Puritan rear-end. This was my mother’s. In a moment her head emerged, glowing with fiberglass insulation. “If only I could remember where.”
My mother remembered everything. She remembered her farm in Swan Lake, winter of 1925. She remembered Clarkie, the hired hand who chased her lustfully through the snow that winter, and many other times as well. Her two older sisters, Molly and Gertrude. She remembered the time her mother unearthed a pouch of gold doubloons from the yard, and sold them for a cow—a story that galls me each time I hear it. And she remembered the hospital ward where rats scurried along the walls and where, at twelve, she would watch her father slowly die. He was a tall, handsome man, she told me. He’d been a traveling troubadour, had left his true love behind in Europe to die of some romantic disease. Only much later did he send for my grandmother to help him out on the farm.
His heart just gave out, like a sigh. My mother was always bitter about that crowded ward with its other gaunt, dirty faces surrounding her beloved father. He held her tiny hand and closed his eyes. The next time she came to see him the bed was empty. She remembered many things like that.
But she did not remember where she put my book. I call it my book—why? Is it what she owed me? Had I, like some petty miser, kept count of all my losses? I don’t know.
But clearly my mother thought it was my book, too—if only we could find it. We tried the attic, the basement. We tore up the wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room. My father nearly had a nervous breakdown watching us; he finally peeled out of the driveway in his big old Thunderbird, warning us that the place “had better be fixed up” by the time he returned. That afternoon my mother turned up more than fifty floorboards, stuck her bare hands in the fiberglass insulation until they bled.
But we didn’t find it that day, or the next. Once, though, a few years ago, we had a scare. We were up in the attic again when my mother uncovered an ancient-looking brown book. It was hardly bigger than a deck of cards.
“What’s this?” she said, handing it to me. She didn’t have her glasses on and couldn’t read the words. It was a second edition of Webster’s dictionary, dated 1814. Inside it, a few pale green four-leaf clovers were all that remained of its original owner.
My mother took it from my hands and eyed it suspiciously.
“I wonder if this is what I was thinking of,” she asked quietly.
“Oh, Mom, all that for nothing?”
“No wait,” she suddenly thrust out her arm. “The inscription.”
She removed her glasses from her breast pocket and peered closely at the book’s inside cover.
“This has no inscription,” she confirmed. From the glare of the single light bulb above her head I suddenly noticed how old my mother’s face had become. Her cheek and chin hung down all in a piece, like folded drapery. But I don’t think she felt old just then at all. She had not found Tamerlane. And this juxtaposition—joy and death in one face—worked upon me a familiar feeling. It was the feeling of my adopted ancestors, the feeling you get when the dying sun comes up over the horizon and for one brief moment illuminates life with an absolute clarity.
“Thank God,” I thought I heard her say.
After that dark day we went about our business just as if that little dictionary never came into our lives at all. For nearly a decade now we have been looking for Tamerlane. We look every time I come home which, now that I have a family of my own, is less and less. Usually we look when things begin to get tense, as they inevitably do. She will begin to blame me for some failure and I will shout like a teenager and not a thirty-four-year-old woman with a child of my own.
And then I will say, “Let’s look for Tamerlane,” and all of a sudden her old owl-like eyes will change. They will get that green gleam in them that makes her look young and pretty again. She will get a flashlight from the basement and we’ll go hunting. And for just a little while I can, in this way we’ve invented, be my mother’s daughter.