"Chosen Girl," Part V

When my ascendant pink turned to anti-imperialist Red (I’d been to jail, burned a flag to protest the Vietnam war, referred to the U.S. as Amerika with a “K” in the middle for KKK, told my mother I despised her nickname, the Bedouin. because it was racist), I sat with my mother one night in the dark of her living room, the deep stain of a huge rug between us. The knobby torso of a ginkgo tree stood outside the open window. She dropped an ash from her cigarette into an enamel ashtray. The light of a passing car picked out her hand, veined and knuckled. A gardenia bloomed, incandescent, beside her. I looked at my mother that night and thought, I hope she dies before the revolution. She can not stand the tumult.

I thought it quickly, chucked it in a corner, and went on. Went on through love won and love lost, dichotomies and hatreds, five years out of New York City, the birth of my children. Returned to Manhattan. Found old friends. Bought myself a gardenia in the supermarket and set it in my bedroom window where the creamy flowers gleamed in the moonlight and gave up their scent to the breeze off the Hudson.


That revolution didn't happen in the 1970's, but my mother did die. I had thought it might be easier to have her gone, perhaps because her quiet lessons were hard to read in the unsubtle time I came of age. I was young and I was harsh and she died when I was still harsh.

I keep the glisten of my mother’s gardenia alive on my windowsill, feeling it in the dark as I feel my mothers’ presence in the full, dark, auditoriums: Deirdre in nutmeg silk, coughing her smoker’s cough, Laurel in Pinny’s featherstitched jacket, her pianist’s hands, tipped in Dusty Pink, folded in her lap. They have not gone away. My mother Deirdre with her fierce life, with her Edna St. Vincent Millay, and with her tales, who taught me, a small child, to imagine. My mother Laurel in her cinched trousers and silk shirts, her webbed hand on piano keys, and her sister Pinny in rustling copper skirt, who gave me the polarized Scotties because I was “beautiful;” Laurel illumined me and taught me of blue shadows, against whose chill Laurel and Pinny had always had one another while my mother had had Laurel only for a while.

Fourteen years after Laurel left, when I was thirty-one, my mother died of lung cancer, eaten alive. The last year of the 70s, when people I loved were in prison and doing hard time for their beliefs, Laurel died. An aneurysm. I had visited her five or six times a year after college and on through my marriage, an affair or two. We were in one another’s address books. Though she rarely saw my children, they have ephemeral memories of her; even now one might touch the driftwood lamp in my bedroom, strum the kalimba or pick up the nut carved into the face of a woman and ask, “Wasn’t this in Laurel’s apartment?” With no legal tie to her, I didn’t learn Laurel was sick until I received a note that she had been shipped “home” to Rhode Island. I do not know the name of the black graveyard where she lies beside her sister, separate from me, her beautiful child. Laurel and I had no papers, only our four decades which began when Laurel had plinked a key on her piano and I had reached up to touch her hand.