My mother died when I was seven.
All the years since I have repeated that sentence, again and again, whenever mothers were mentioned, until I began to fear that my mother had been reduced to those words alone—summarized, literally, to death.
I have very few memories of my mother. Fragments only, a few images, a few words. I am envious of my brothers, who are older and remember much more. Still, I cling to these fragments, my only connection to my mother as I knew her. Here may be found, I hope, a trace of her, a means of entry to a woman reduced too often to her exit, death from diabetes-related complications at age 45.
I have so few memories of my mother that I can actually count them. There are thirty-three, and that includes the smallest, most hesitant wisp of memory. I have no clue as to their accuracy.
Here is every single memory I have of my mother. I will not present them in order of time, which would give too much emphasis to her sickness and decline. Of that there has been enough already.
1. I remember I thought all the silverware must have fallen on the floor at once. That was the sound. When my mother came to tuck me into bed I asked her and she said, Yes, that’s what it was, the silverware falling. When I got up the next morning I saw that all the glass in the door had been smashed and I knew that my father must have been angry again.
2. I remember her lifting me out of the crib into her arms.
3. I remember the family on a road trip in the big green car. I decided to count each segment of dotted line as it passed beneath us. My mother said, “Just what we need, a navigator!” This is her only sentence that I believe I have remembered in her own exact words. I studied the sentence because I didn’t know if she was happy or angry or making fun of me. “Just what we need, a navigator!”
4. I remember her arm across my chest as our green car swerved from the road and smashed into a fence.
5. I remember looking at her in the driver’s seat as we drove past the mall. She wouldn’t look at me. I’d been promised that if I was good at the doctor I’d get a present. I hadn’t been good. I wasn’t getting anything.
6. I remember the second time I woke her up she was angry.
7. I remember she came to pick me up from kindergarten and we walked home together through the woods. For Mother’s Day all the kids had made wishing wells out of jars and popsicle sticks and planted them with Swedish ivy. When I got home I saw that the Ivy had fallen out. I was about to get upset but she cut a sprig from the Swedish Ivy in the laundry room window and placed it in the pot.
8. I remember sitting at the table with my father and mother. I asked my father why two men couldn’t get married. My mother said it was time for dinner.
9. I remember her breaking a plain donut and dipping it in sugar.
10. I remember her, when she was ill, beneath the green velveteen comforter. She told me I shouldn’t be so fearful, that I ought to learn to ride a bicycle and swim. She said she was sorry she had never been a better swimmer.
11. I remember I wanted my mother to be waiting for me, sitting on the stoop outside, when the bus brought me home in the afternoon. Other mothers waited, but my mother was always busy in the house. I asked her to do this. She looked at me like I was insane.
12. I remember how angry she was when I left crayons in my pockets and ruined her best denim skirt. I remember sitting on the floor in the laundry room, utterly repentant, picking at the wax in the skirt until she told me to give it up.
13. I remember her telling me what a good kid I was for never terrifying her. Unlike my brother who drank shellac thinking it was chocolate milk. I loved that story.
14. I remember her insisting that she loved dandelions when I picked them.
15. I remember her telling me that eating snot was like eating out of the toilet.
16. I remember bringing her a spider in a green Tupperware bowl. She screamed, Get it out of here! In the commotion the spider landed on my leg and I squashed it.
17. I remember the first day I knew she was ill. She was sitting at the kitchen table wearing a bathrobe in the middle of the afternoon eating Ritz crackers in a bowl with milk and black pepper.
18. I remember her washing my hair with yellow baby shampoo in the steel sink.
19. I remember her standing beside the Christmas tree but only faintly, as if faded beside all those little lights.
20. I remember the way her breast felt, pressed against me, as she held me in the green vinyl recliner.
21. I remember that when she was sick she lay in bed and drank grape soda. She said she liked the taste even though the smell was awful. (Or was it the other way around?)
22. I remember her telling me to pick up my feet.
23. I remember her handing me a glass of milk in a white ceramic cup.
24. I remember the only time I was allowed to see her in the hospital. My father wheeled her out. She was very pale. Bottles filled with colored liquid hung from her chair. She told me she would be home soon. The floor had blue and white tiles. (In my mind, I’m shouting at this seven-year-old, ‘Look at her! Look at her!’. But all I can remember is that she was very pale.)
25. I remember coming home from school with my yellow raincoat draped over my arm, trying to hide the fact that I’d forgotten my lunch box. As soon as my Mother saw me she said, “Where’s your lunch box?”
26. I remember her telling me that the garbage bag under the Christmas tree was for me. I thought I’d been bad and now I was getting trash for Christmas. Inside the bag was an enormous stuffed bear. Not a teddy bear but a fierce-looking bear with coarse hair. She said something like, “There. Now you’ve got your real bear.”
27. I remember driving past the place where the mall was being built. I called it The Big Mess. She laughed, and whenever she mentioned the mall after that, she called it The Big Mess.
28. I remember getting a shot into my big toe when one of my toenails got ingrown. After it was over she told me that she thought I’d handled it better that she had. Then she bought me a Snoopy book.
29. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table in her bathrobe. It was her last birthday. I gave her a timer.
30. I remember I learned to sing ‘Figaro’ from watching Sesame Street. I barreled into the kitchen shouting, ‘Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-RO!’ She laughed and told me I was wonderful and that I should go practice some more—out on the porch. When my father came home she told me to show him what I’d learned that day.
31. I remember watching her through the glass door. My father was standing over her, and she was sitting in the green chair crying. I’d gotten in trouble at school that day and I thought she was crying because of me.
32. I remember coming home from school on the last day of first grade. I was eating an orange popsicle as I stepped off the bus. The door to the house opened and my relatives, who had arrived that day, poured out to greet me, a parade of family, my aunts and cousins, walking across the yard to me with my mother, smiling, in the lead.
This is the happiest memory of my life.
33. I remember my mother bent to kiss me good night and I bit her. She pulled away and walked out of my bedroom without a word. I got out of bed and pushed open the bathroom door. She was sitting on the toilet. Aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight, I asked. Not if you bite me, she said. I said, Dad bit me first. That’s no excuse, she said. I said I was sorry. She told me to go back to bed; she’d be there in a minute. (I don’t remember the kiss.)