Tim Vrtiska CC
Dedication Page // In Loving Memory
Each winter as leaves crisp and the days become short bright bites I find memories of my mother closer and colder. Recently, I feel as though I have endless hollow words to say about her. About her absence. And I cannot help but wonder when this will end. When will I write stories that aren’t about my mother? The guilt and confusion of her legacy lingers in the bones of my sister and I and I wonder when I can put it behind me.
This week was her yahrenzeit. It fell on my father’s birthday. She’s been dead 15 years and he’s been alive 59.
I’m not certain of this. I’m always mixing up the years, making up the moments, and confusing life with my dreams. Several months ago I did the math and realized she died at 45 years old; somehow I’d convinced myself she died at 42. It was startling to realize that I too had cut her life short.
Her early exit convinced me that behind each goodbye was forever; each farewell funeral. So I find myself saying goodbye three times to stretch the moment into sweet honey. A moment to hug later on, just in case. When I was younger and my father was late coming home from work, I waited tensely for a phone call to say a car accident was fatal, my father and sister were gone, my home was not my own. My eyes darted to the closed front door. I smelled gasoline and twisted metal and broken glass. The worst was always the truth.
I think back to the moment he closed the front door on the way to the lawyer’s office, my ringlets bobbing and my round face peering at the closing slice of summer. He was changing his will, rearranging guardianship. I could see the lawyer’s deep brown desk, large and imposing, in a curved room with looming windows. The lawyer was larger than the desk, taller than my father, bigger than the world. The will was curling beige parchment, smelling of age and tattooed with swirling cursive letters that roped me to other lives. My father’s signature was in black ink, scratching across the paper like leaves in September. The will seems significant because it justified my 7 year-old fears, that your world could collapse but somehow the world continued on.
I’ve never told anyone this memory because it might not be. It might be another fabrication of an imaginative and shy child that I remembered into existence to understand a situation that still baffles me.
I rub and rub my thumb over a white worry stone with a red cardinal carved into its smooth surface when I look for sleep, consumed by lists of what ifs; the repetition makes it true, makes it prayer.
I’m running out of words to talk about my mother; I feel like I don’t have enough material, enough life with her. The few memories devour me, strong because of their infrequency; the guilt of misusing the time I did have with her. I am nauseous with shame when I remember 7 year old me turning my mother away when she came to sit with me at lunch in the tiled school cafeteria. The tables stretched from end to end of the long hall, buzzing with kids laughing and trading crackers for cookies, carrots for alliances. I was embarrassed by my mother coming to visit me, singling me out from the other kids when I just wanted to be one of them, trying so hard to be grown up. I didn’t know that soon I would grow up, distinctly and distantly from my classmates.
I told her to leave, to go home.
There is a deep, aching sadness that catches my breath and tightens my stomach when I consider this moment like a dandelion that has been picked and puffed away. I denied us time together. I still wish on stone altars, on anyone’s gods, on a bursting meteor shower to have those moments back, to be her daughter in this life. That would be the most delicious divine magic I can think of.
The pull of shame and guilt is one I’ve been struggling with for years. It echoes back to me in odd moments from cold corners. I’ve never told anyone this memory because it strangles my breath, my words. The silence let’s me forget myself, but not forgive. The possibility of forgiveness has never crossed my mind; I’m not sure why, it seems easy now when I think on it, a child being childish. But the guilty knowledge that I let myself be ruled by the perception of the crowds hurts, shames me as consider how little time we had together.
In between 7 and 8 I was sweeping up short strands of my mother’s brown hair as it fell in chunks from her head; the small, 1950s-green dustpan fit snugly in my tiny hands. I watched her lie on the low living room couch, propped up with all the pillows from my and my sister’s beds.
Recently my father got rid of the pillows, in a house I no longer live in, and I cried because I was afraid of losing her imprint and the shallow memory I hold closely and quietly. In the winter my mom died, when bones froze and trees snapped from icy exhalations, they brought a white hospital bed with metal railings into my parent’s room, arranged by the foot of their real bed. Each time I unfold a memory the creases spread, the paper smoothes and pulps. I wonder what’s worse: to sink into the memory or forget it and flail.
Eight year old me was pulled aside by the teacher for a whispered conversation. The class remained sitting on the blue carpet, talking and laughing about red and yellow playground drama. I pushed my purple headband back, matching my purple shirt, my purple jacket. My sister was in love with the color a few years before and now I bore the brunt of it.
Mrs. M spoke quietly, kindly, in dry words: Was it okay for the class to celebrate Mother’s Day? All things considered. The words never seemed to capture the enormity of space left behind, the subtext seething just below surface. Will you be okay?
I was surprised and flattered as a shy child is, wrapped up in attention like baby fat. I agreed immediately. I thought it would be selfish not to: to disagree would be to loudly point out differences I didn’t yet understand but nevertheless felt when my classmates and family members twice my size and five times my age said I’m so sorry, You’re so brave, I miss her too. Pressed hugs and crumpled tissues and red-hearted Beanie Babies on me. It was disorienting to be singled out in school, in temple, in the grocery store for something so terrible, so sad. I wish I’d known to ask what the other option was. The in-between for you and me. Kids in my class asked, what’s it feel like? as we walked on red lines taped to the floor to music class.
It feels like everything.
I miss her I miss her I miss her. No matter how many times I write her death it never brings her back. I think that’s all I’ve been trying to do. Have another moment with her. Instead I write myself in circles like looping letters criss-crossing the page spelling the same word wrong again and again and again.
Today my father’s house remains only subtly changed, newer pictures of my sister and I in Mexico and small painted elephants from India. Next to the elephants are photos of my mother laughing in Boston, my parents dressed in draping maroon and boxy 1990s outfits: at parks, at wedding parties, in our home. A self-portrait in gentle shades of blue and brown acrylic painted by my mother sits on the far corner of the mantelpiece, discreet but watchful, with her eyes unsmiling, her mouth slightly open. It’s not light and tender, not beautiful like she was; it’s honest and mournful, like the past. I wonder if she liked it, if the blue eyes followed her as she sank into the couch, laid long fingers across out-of-tune piano keys. If she judged herself and the work favorably; if she loved her body. I’ve stood in that room and felt short of breath as I looked around, trapped by the reflected images of her on canvas, between frames, under my skin. Her ever-presentness and total absence is overwhelming, is silencing and incomprehensible like clouds reflected on the water, rippling and tumbling below and above.
Writing is always easier than talking. When I speak I tangle myself in what I’m supposed to say, what I think I should feel, and the result is a performance. To write about my mother is habit by now. To talk about her is secret relief, her death an unintentional secret I keep. The poems, the essays are cathartic; they come from moments when I’m too filled with her death to live. I don’t understand the memories until I see them as stories. I don’t understand my reactions until I editorialize them. When I comb through them again and again, slicing the run-ons and burning the gratuitous metaphors, I know I’m closer. When I start to cry mid-adjective, when it hurts to think it let alone write it, I know it’s true whether it happened or not, it hurts. And there is a reward in finding what these painful adjectives and anecdotes are, a little thrill in rereading and knowing I’ve found something of me buried underneath. The reward is knowing myself and my past despite my youth and my initial instinct to repress and trivialize.
I haven’t corrected people when they say that my parents are divorced, because they only ever heard me talk about my dad, not my mom. I’ve laughed along conspiratorially to descriptions of the tumultuous mother-daughter relationships and listened to the advice of other mothers to other daughters.
My silence is a self-imposed rule turned habit that I picked up from quiet evenings in my home, the hush of afternoons in my grandparent’s sunroom, saturated with sun and half-moon cookies. This was family, this was home, and while no one actively made a decision not to talk about my mother I somehow got the idea in my head that we shouldn’t. I assumed talking about my dead mother would make everyone feel uncomfortable or upset; how could I hurt people who had lost like that? I watched my father grieve and I didn’t know it, I saw life moving on in pieces and I felt responsible for bringing them together with lightness and sweetness and I thought that meant not talking about my mom. For people outside my home I felt it would be an exercise in mourning that I didn’t think I deserved. I assumed no one wanted to listen. I’ve always been ashamed to be sad, felt guilty and unworthy of grief like I do with food sometimes
It feels rebellious to say parents because I don’t think of myself as having them, but I agree anyways with my silence, my hesitance to correct people; I think of my father who I don’t love doubly, but differently, a little more fearfully perhaps. With him the fear of loss is greater because I know it happens and I know the weight of grief is destructive in its airiness. It becomes forgettable in its constant presence, a lens through which the world is seen. Suffocating. Recently parents slipped out from my mouth in conversation and I realized I hadn’t used that word for myself in years and I didn’t believe it. I think if I had more memories with her, lived with her longer, than maybe I would feel her presence as a parent, as a mother. She remains a mythical creature.
I spent my adolescence hiding: pretending not to cry, trying not to show the weakness that I felt riddled with, lacking secret feminine knowledge I was sure was only passed down mother to daughter. I laughed during death scenes in movies; sang song lyrics loudly in my head at my grandparent’s funeral, disavowing further grief. Believing that tears were weak; sadness was weak. I tried to push her memory and the haunting questions away away away until somehow they were all I could think about; I couldn’t see the high school track without her face in the reaching branches of oak trees. I was looking for reasons to cry, ways to fold myself into smaller and smaller triangles to slide between the cardboard and steel frame of a family photo. I felt the tightness of spending 18 years in the same place with the same people who more or less knew exactly who I was, or so it seemed. I assumed that school-wide email in second grade informing everyone of my mother’s death infiltrated the minds of my peers, grew in theirs like it grew in mine. Deep green ivy leaves twisting and climbing. I felt perpetually pitied; it felt like a label and a story and a life that was already told. I thought pity was everywhere and I was furious at the notion. I wanted someone to say: Yes, this has been difficult but you’ve done it.
You’re doing it.
One day I felt a breathless distance between my experiences and those around me that I found could never be overcome. Do you know how often the world talks about mothers? The conversation circles endlessly back. The world is covered in pictures of mothers; plastered over each other, peeling, competing. Someone at college picked up their phone and called their mother and I was overcome with a sudden desperate desire to call my mother. I wanted to hear her voice her stories her laugh her love. I wanted her silence on the other end as I finished a stupid story about a bad party or the ridiculous thing I said in class. I could never have a living mother and I cried because it hurt like she died again, this small silly hope burning away in early morning spring wishing. I was woefully nostalgic for a relationship I never had, hurting for someone I never knew.
I spilled words and sobs with hands tearing at my skin because I realized that I wanted a mother, any mother, my mother. I vomited poems and stories of my dripping longing, my angst for the unknowable. I felt like no one had ever lost like I had, no one grieved like I had, and so I held on to that grief for its novelty. I clutched onto it like a lifeline; I blamed an eating disorder and social anxiety and burnt toast on her goneness, on my inability to control the waves of the world. I thought my silence was my grief, but it was just silence. I pined for that phone call. A hug. I thought I had a monopoly on grief and its taken writing countless essays and sinking into calm moments of empathy to understand, to know that, like breathing, I do not. That no one does. That we each carry these opal tears in our pockets.
This is in loving memory of my mother, of all mothers. Even though I don’t know my own very well, I have been exceptionally lucky to have bits and pieces of motherly affection from many women in my life. I still have a penchant for sad tear-slimy poems— who doesn’t? Rhymes and rhythms of melancholy that sound like grief but look like a mossy riverbed, heat rising after a summer rainstorm. This is a protest of holding on to grief too long and a promise to try not to. To let the sadness roll over me like ocean waves but know that the tide recedes and the seagulls circle, looking for half-eaten hot dogs and spilled lemonade; to stop holding my head under these green waters when the sky is just as beautiful.
It’s been 15 years and here I am starting to cry. Part of me thinks it’s important to simply lean in, to stop denying myself the tears I thought were weakness for so long. Another part of me is worried that if I lean I’ll fall. I’ll sink down, pockets brimming.
I’ve been mothering myself for a long time, nurturing my green and gray heart for longer than I can remember. And I don’t notice until I can’t cross the divide that I forgot was there, rubbed in like charcoal on paper. Sometimes, though, I feel like the responsibility is too much; I feel the weight of being my own keeper before I knew how to do it or how to do it right. I’ve made mistakes in the name of survival. Promising myself sunlight when I couldn’t see it. I’m forgiving myself for decisions made in earnest even if they hurt then and now. For some decisions I feel like I need someone else’s approval, like my own authority, as myself and my nurturer and my own parent are too much responsibility. I turn around to ask her. But I only notice these things when I can’t explain whose permission I’m waiting for, but I’m here stuck, hoping, looking, searching, for her blessing. Permission to live.
I remind myself that I can’t keep waiting silently and thoughtfully, I must grow: in the pattering rain, the sweet falling snow, the divine unshakable sunshine.
Put in a good word for us Judy.
Simona Zaretsky is a a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and a new New Yorker, perpetually late and lost. She attended Sarah Lawrence College where she studied English and History. Her work was recently featured on the podcast The Literary Whip and the online journal Digging Through The Fat. She’s always looking for another book to add to her stack and she has a passion for seashells and historical fiction.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.