I’m not sure when I started to notice that I was turning into my mother. Idly checking myself in the full-length mirror one morning, out of the corner of my eye I catch an ever-so-slight thickening. Oh my God, those are my mother’s ankles. Another double take in the mirror a couple of years later: the shadow of my mother’s jowls. A blue pulse on the inner part of my left calf shortly afterward: the beginning of my mother’s varicose veins. A certain interested, encouraging way of saying “Mmm-hmm” when someone was speaking, an entire genetic code—voice box, gestures, character—transmitted invisibly, silently, whole.
I was the oldest of what would eventually be my parents’ six children. The year I was in kindergarten, while my father built our first house in Hampton, New Hampshire, we lived in an apartment in the neighboring town of Newfields. It was in the right half of a cream-colored Victorian, with a walkway from the street and a sharp drop from the front porch to the ground. In the fall, leaves piled high below and all around the house, and my older half-brother and half-sister and the neighborhood kids the Floyds (whose father committed suicide years later) and I would stand on the stone wall fronting the street, our backs to the occasional passing car, and jump: the sweet, smoky smell; leaves up to my neck; the little shock, each time, that I’d let go and hadn’t been hurt.
In my memory, the sensations seem oddly sharpened. Letting go and not getting hurt; leaves up to your neck; the sweet, crumbly smell—that age before you learn what it feels like to have the cold hard ground of life rise up and knock the wind out of you, before you discover that this happens not just once but over and over again.
My next youngest sibling, Joe, was born when we lived in that apartment, and my most vivid memory of that time is of coming across my mother one afternoon as she leaned against the upstairs banister and nursed him. Every passion known to Cain coursed through my 5-year-old heart: bewilderment, jealousy, rage, fear, the terrible unsettling knowledge that nothing lasts. I’m not sure I even understood she was feeding him. What I did understand—the way she held her body, the dreamy, exhausted look in her eye—was that some secret, intimate bond was being formed and it did not include me. I’d been banished from Eden, and, like all of us, I’ve spent my life trying, one way or the other, to get back in.
From my earliest memories, people told me I looked like my mother. As a child, this made me feel singled-out and secure, privy to a world of thrilling womanly rites. The plain blue-gray coat, made of sturdy broadcloth, she laid out on the table and brushed against the nap. The pale pink Pond’s Cold Cream, from a white fluted-glass jar, she dabbed on her lips to make them shine. The gold brooch from Woolworth’s, a spray of wheat she pinned to her blouse.
After the supper dishes were dried and the floor swept and the laundry taken down from the line, folded and put away, she’d sit down at the piano, arrange a few pages of dog-eared sheet music and, with nails-bitten-to-the-quick fingers (the same as mine are now, when I sit down at my own piano), play songs I didn’t realize were old even then: “Nola,” “Blue Indigo,” “Beautiful Dreamer.” I listened from the floor, stretched out with a book, scratching the scabs on my knees, humming.
My mother grew up during the Depression, on a chicken farm in a town called Hope Valley, Rhode Island. Whatever pain she suffered there—and between an emotionally distant mother and a father who abandoned the family when my mother was 13, there had to have been plenty—she learned to bury somewhere deep inside. Around the house, she was quiet, self-contained, uncomplaining. An accomplished seamstress, she kept a scarred cedar chest in the cellar full of patterns and pincushions and swatches of fabric: yards of scratchy red wool for the shirts she sewed my brothers, a square of gold brocade for when the sofa needed patching, odds and ends—purple velvet, pink dotted Swiss—from dresses she’d made for me.
One afternoon when I was 8, searching for a scrap to make the sky in a collage I was working on, I found a piece of exactly the right color: a brilliant, peacock blue. I cut a couple of big, irregular pieces, snipped and discarded and snipped some more, glued on a perfect cloth sky, and ran upstairs to show my mother. “Where did you get that material?” she asked. It was only when she came back down with me and I held it up that I saw what was left of the square neck, the nipped-in waist, the rows of perfect pleats; saw I’d destroyed a fully made article of clothing.
“That was my wedding dress,” she said quietly. She never mentioned it again.
Perhaps part of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that you begin to see your parents as others see them, or how you think they see them. When I entered adolescence, the fact that I looked like or was associated in any way with my mother no longer made me happy. I began referring to her hometown as Hopeless Valley, scarcely able to imagine a more shameful provenance. Suddenly everything about her seemed shameful. She got her hair done down the street at Gladys’s, who ran a beauty parlor out of her ranch house; she went to church every Sunday; she believed in making do with what you had and meaning what you said and letting your natural light shine through instead of hiding it beneath a trowelful of blush and a quarter-inch of black eyeliner.
I graduated from college in 1978: confused, frightened, deeply, deeply lost. Disdaining the Social Service degree my parents had helped pay for, I waitressed at the Seagull Diner, I hitchhiked across country, I moved to Boston, I drank alcoholically for the next 10 years. Through it all I’d come home, where my mother would be standing in the kitchen of the house where I’d been raised, mashing potatoes, sprinkling paprika on a casserole of lobster Newburg, wiping her hands on a threadbare dishtowel.
From my cockroach-infested “loft,” I sent hotheaded letters rehashing old wrongs I insisted she’d done me—eavesdropping on phone conversations, tracking me down at my friends’ houses as if I were a child—drunken rambling self-justifying letters that spiraled, then collapsed in on themselves, leading nowhere. Her own letters, sober, mild, came back written in a hand so firm the words formed a kind of reverse Braille on the back of the page, or typed, error-free, on the Smith-Corona she’d had since her first year in college, telling me that my sister Meredith had just had a birthday, that the irises were in bloom, that Dad had fallen off a ladder.
I didn’t blame my mother for my drinking, but I wanted to be saved, and it took me a long time to realize that no human being could save me. In my increasingly addled state, it sometimes seemed to me, in fact, that it was my mother who needed to be saved. One minute I’d rail to whomever would listen that she was bossy and overprotective; the next, that she was a milquetoast who never stood up for herself. Because I needed so badly to be fixed I assumed she needed fixing, too, and, even after I finally got sober I sometimes continued to offer advice or silently pass judgment on matters, especially family matters, that were none of my business.
When I was confirmed eight years ago as a Catholic, my mother, a lifelong Protestant, sent me a rosary of weathered, sand-colored beads and a tiny white leather-bound book called The Greatest Thing in the World. It’s love, of course, and maybe one of our greatest illusions is that we have to be perfect to be loved, when in fact nobody can really love us until they’ve seen our failures and weaknesses. Nobody knows these better than a mother, and it’s a tribute to mine that she’s so generously, consistently overlooked the failures and forgiven the weaknesses. Kneeling in the pew after making my First Communion, for the first time in my life I didn’t want to change a thing about my past. For one blessed moment I was grateful for every bit of struggle and misunderstanding and pain; grateful because someone had had enough faith to bring me into the world; grateful because, miraculously, all those imperfect days had somehow brought me to this one.
Our one family photo album, vintage 1953, has padded pink covers, thick cream-colored pages and photos anchored at each corner with black gummed caps. Leafing through it recently, I came across a picture of my mother. It was taken when she was about 25, just before I was born. She was wearing a full-skirted sleeveless dress, in a floral print, and dark lipstick, and her hair was curled back from her face. “Mom!” I called from the living room. “You were so pretty!”
She is still pretty. She has a neat gray bob and clear blue eyes; she wears carefully ironed roll-up sleeve blouses, and pants with elasticized waists and a single piece of jewelry: her plain gold wedding band, worn thin as foil after all these years. There have been changes, of course. My father died in 1999; when I come home from Los Angeles now, it’s no longer to the family house in North Hampton but to a condo in Stratham, the next town over; and my mother is not 25 anymore, she’s 77. But the medicine cabinet still holds her Pond’s Cold Cream (the white fluted jar plastic now instead of glass), her tweezers, her ancient bottle of Jean Naté cologne.
When I go back now, I want to hold those things to my heart, want to look at and smell them forever, want to remember all they say about not using more than you need, about beauty being only skin-deep, about what’s important. “Why didn’t I pay more attention?” I think, and “Why haven’t I appreciated her every second?” Part of getting older seems to be realizing that all the things you thought mattered didn’t, and all the things you thought didn’t, did, terribly. It’s going from thinking, “How did I put up with him or her or them?” to “How did they ever put up with me?”
When I called a few years ago to tell my mother I had breast cancer, there was a long pause. When she finally said “Oh, Heather” (is there any sound on earth dearer than the sound of your mother’s voice saying your name?), I could almost feel the pang in her own breast: an electrical connection, like a shorted-out wire running in reverse through a phantom umbilical cord and back up, through the nerves and muscles and veins, toward her heart.
There’s another thing you realize as you age: No matter how close you get to another human being, you remain, at some level, strangers. There’s a part of ourselves we couldn’t reveal even if we wanted to because it’s beyond our own reach. Maybe real love, in fact, takes place in some realm entirely beyond our ken, where the secret, most private part of one person communes, unbeknownst to either one, with the most secret, most private part of another.
The other day I was talking to a friend, describing the way the clouds had looked at a certain moment on an April afternoon in the Sonoran Desert. “They had gold around the edges, and the light was shining through,” I was saying, and suddenly I noticed my hand. It was drifting through the air in front of me, and the dips and turns were my mother’s dips and turns, my fingers were my mother’s fingers, the hand was my mother’s hand. It was if the person in whom I once lived had quietly taken up residence in me: to bring me back into the circle, to lead me home.
Heather King is a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered_ and the author of the forthcoming memoir_ Parched_ (Putnam Penguin June 2005)_.