There is a certain dignity associated with giving birth. In some ways, the newborn child finds it easier to carry that dignity, not having to spread its legs and grunt to produce itself. I have been dignified since birth.
My mother, on the other hand, gave in to the process with unexpurgated agony, her curses bouncing off the white hospital walls like rubber bullets. They were the first sounds I heard as I popped warily from the womb. I was already familiar with her sentiments, since they’d been filtered accurately through the uterine wall for months preceding the delivery.
By the time I was old enough to decode the actual meaning of her expletives, I had become blasé. “IF YOU ASK ME THAT QUESTION AGAIN, I WILL CHOP OFF YOUR HEAD AND FLUSH IT DOWN THE TOILET.”
I laughed. What else could I do?
At bedtime, it was different. She would read me terrifying tales from Hans Christian Andersen and stroke my head, her bloodshot eyes traveling between me and the text to make sure of my attention, her voice rumbling on like molten molasses. After the mermaid died, or the little boy froze to death in the snow, she would kiss me goodnight with moist, full lips that smelled of sherry, and tuck me into my bed with hospital corners so tight it was like being in a straightjacket. Then she would close the door behind her and leave me alone in the darkness.
So I became religious at an early age, despite mother’s relentless atheism. I knew all there was to know about Joan of Arc by the time I was ten. I even knew exactly how much it hurt when she was burned at the stake. You might say I was fixated on exactly how much it hurt, since I needed some kind of scale to measure things by.
My mother had straight brown hair which didn’t reach her shoulders. It was cut an inch or two above them with garden shears. You could see the hickeys on her neck when she had them. You could see anything you wanted to, since she never wore clothes around the house before noon. Early one morning she carried the garbage cans out to the sidewalk, stark naked. We lived in suburban Virginia, and it was 1957. I guess she’d forgotten where she was.
As I grew older, my dignity and my mother began to part ways. I might have left my dignity behind if she hadn’t been so insistent on being who she was. She was like a knife in the belly of everything. She had perfect timing, and was so articulate when a moment of weakness or indecision presented itself, it was hard to believe she had Haitian blood. Weakness and indecision made her mad. I learned to recoil in mortal anguish before I learned to tie my shoes.
Yet I worshiped her. She had grown elegant and sparse. Her ability to distinguish between things knew no limit. She was an absolutist, which vastly simplified the world, and made normal communication with her impossible.
Daugther: Mom, the ice cream truck is outside, can I … ?
Mother: The answer is NO.
Daughter: Why can’t I have ice cream?
Mother: Because ice cream is evil poison sold by fat rich men who want to rot the teeth of young children.
Mother: Because the fat rich men are also dentists.
Daughter: How can ice cream be evil? Are you evil?
Mother: Yes, I am. HA HA HA HA …
Aside from my private concern that I was being raised by a madwoman, a concern which still haunts me today, mother was becoming harder and harder to control around my friends.
One day I came home from 4th grade with my best friend Kate, eager to relate to mother the fact that a boy in the desk behind me had dipped one of my braids in his paint box. I thought she would be thrilled that a famous incident from American literature had actually happened to her own daughter. It made me feel important and desirable, in a childish way, though I was far too tall and scrawny to pass as a “frock” like Becky Thatcher.
“Sit down,” my mother said.
So I did. She took a pair of pinking shears from her sewing table and cut off my braids just below the ears.
Twenty-five years later I managed to reestablish contact with Kate, who had married a Methodist minister and moved to Denver. When I called her, the second thing she said to me was, “And how’s that virago, your mother? I still have your braids, you know. I picked them up off the floor when your mother chased you upstairs.”
Kate sent me one of the braids, and I marveled at the precise zig-zag cut at the top of it, still obvious after all those years.
As I grew older and boys started following me home, I used to lead them to somebody else’s apartment and talk to them on the front stairs until they went away. But when they grew old enough to have odd jobs and privileges with the family car, mother insisted that they show up before the date and have a bull session with her before they could take me away. Few of them survived the ordeal, and the ones that did were too stupid to be terrified. Then Moriarity came along.
He showed up one evening after dinner, smoking cherry tobacco in a Briar pipe. At the time, mother had half-inch scarlet fingernails filed to stiletto proportions, and she greeted him at the door in purple mandarin pajamas with chartreuse clasps. I waited upstairs to make a late entrance. Mother told me that keeping a man in suspense was half the battle. The other half was surviving her seduction, thinly concealed as motherly concerned.
Moriarity was mature for 22, which gave me reason to believed he’d survive, and he already had more units in college than mother did, when she was kicked out of Hampden College for Women for writing “FUCK” in the new sidewalk of the History Department in 1945. She was a history major.
Mother curled up close to Moriarity like a day-glo cat and they chatted about various usurpers of thrones, Chinese Nationalists, and a few Gnostic saints for an hour or so. I sat crouched at the top of the stairs in the darkness waiting for my cue, which never came. Finally, as mother announced her intention to play a game of cribbage with him, I came teetering down the stairs in the high heels she’d lent me and stumbled, bumping down the last eight steps on my rear end.
Moriarity was non-plussed. My mother was sanguine. There were no words to describe what I was, splayed on the landing like a broken pumpkin.
That was the night after I’d managed to lose my virginity; no small feat for a dignified adolescent. In this, I found both a strange source of strength against my mother, and a source of kinship. The exuberance of her sexual life had often been transmitted to me through the thin plaster walls of our adjoining bedrooms. When I mimicked these complex sounds with Moriarity it seemed to excite him, to goad him on to greater heights of whatever it was he was experiencing. Many years later, I found out what it was he was experiencing, and I wondered if my mother had ever experienced the same thing, while she was making so much noise.
I don’t know how mother knew that her daughter was no longer a virgin, but she did, just as every woman knows when her lover has been unfaithful. I think it has to do with the sense of smell, our animal nature. When she kissed me the morning after it happened, she saw the reflection of herself in my eyes, and it was unbearable. So was I. Like every good teenager, I’d become adept at causing as much pain as I was given. Like my favorite grandmother, I learned how to do it “without one’s bowels coming out through one’s mouth;” not so much with dignity, but with precision. It’s not how you survive, exactly, though style is the mark of the professional.
Up until this point, I assumed mother knew what she was doing. Then one rainy October afternoon she told me in passing that the Tiber River was in Saudi Arabia. Even though I’d flunked the fifth grade, I knew the Tiber River was in Italy. I looked it up in the dictionary and there it was, in black and white: N, a river in central Italy, flowing through Rome into the Mediterranean. 244 mi. long. Italian, Tevere.
From then on mother tried to cover her ass, and in the process began to make more and more ridiculous pronouncements. So I began to follow her around with the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia. One day she tore it from my hands while I was looking for proof of Napoleon’s participation in the French and Indian Wars, and threw it over the back fence into a neighbor’s bird bath. She said it didn’t matter what the encyclopedia said, SHE KNEW SHE WAS RIGHT. It was many years after that before I too began to question the authority of history.
Since my stepfather was always at work, and my brother was always hiding in his basement room, the house was pretty much left as a pristine battleground for Mother and me. I painted my bedroom purple. She made me eat seaweed for dinner. I brought home a dog. She had the cat exterminated. She turned my dates away at the door. I painted a 45-square foot crucifixion scene on my bedroom wall. I drank a pint of her Drambuie. She put out a thirteen-state alarm before I came home 24 hours late from a party.
Mother, I must admit, was the first to tire of the Old Testament approach. She let me off the hook and joined the NAACP, because she had an unusual opportunity to make her mother, who was visiting us in the summer of 1963, hit the wall. After all was said and done, Nana did not hit the wall, because she did not hate Negroes, she tipped them.
One sultry July evening Mother sponsored a big Civil Rights Party at the house, and invited a small group of black ghetto coordinators over to spike up the occasion. They arrived in a beat-up panel truck, because mother told them she was going to donate a bunch of stuff to the cause, after one of them made a speech. For most of the party, three black men and one black woman stood in the kitchen, and 11 white women and two white men stood in the living room. One of the black men finally went out and gave a three-minute impersonation of Medgar Evers, and mother gave them the loot, which consisted of a library of Greek, Egyptian, and European history, first editions of poetry by Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley, two dictionaries, two tablecloths with matching linen napkins, a few Picasso prints from the blue period, our baby clothes, and ten cans of anchovies. She wouldn’t let me go to the march on Washington the following month because she thought it would be too dangerous.
Regina the First, my great grandmother, Nana’s mother, made two, and only two, visits to our house. The first was on the occasion of one of Nana’s visits, because the four Reginas had never been in the same place at the same time, and we wanted to see what would happen when the blood ran thick. Our ages were 76, 56, 36, and 16. Regina the First, as one would expect, had an immense, almost overwhelming amount of dignity and authority, and because the primary law in our family between the generations was to speak when you were spoken to, she did most of the talking, which wasn’t much. The old dowager was born with a flawless pedigree on both sides of her family, and didn’t have to make a dent in the world by any other means. Her statements were simple and uncontroversial: “My, that’s an exquisite vase”—or— “I would be most grateful for a pot of tea.” She aspirated her consonants perfectly, but she didn’t drink and she didn’t smoke, so it was a great relief to Regina the Second and Regina the Third when she left after four hours, ushered quietly out by her middle-aged son, who might as well have been deaf and dumb for all he contributed to the conversation.
After Regina’s departure, Nana poured herself a shot of cognac and returned to her Ellery Queen. Mother drank a bottle of sherry and wept loudly, because she had just drunk a bottle of sherry. Regina the First, me, jumped out of her bedroom window and met Moriarity on the corner.
The last time Regina the First showed up, she was in an urn, which was placed for an afternoon on our mantelpiece by her son, who stopped by on his way to the family cemetery in Richmond. Mother and I were the only other Reginas in the place, and neither of us was able to summon anything resembling tears, but the idea of the old lady’s charred bones sitting there was especially significant to me. I’d been told that her last words were a plea that I name my daughter Regina, if I had a daughter, which I did. No one in the matriarchy has not had a daughter, first thing. I promised myself that I would pass the name on, though I didn’t, denying the world a legacy it never asked for.