Archive for October, 2013

26 October, 2013

Honesty


There’s a Billy Joel song that I learned to sing when I was home in Sri Lanka and when I began to write this, the lyrics came back to me. It’s a song about people in relationships, I suppose, but it could be said that this quality, honesty, is what we seek from anybody we meet.

Lies are good enough, useful feeding the imagination. Santa and the Tooth Fairy are special beings in my life, pieces of magic that I hope never disappear. Still, what I value most from anybody it seems is that they tell me exactly what is on their mind. Airbrushing has never appealed to me; more than once I’ve pointed out to people who are yet to meet me that I will attempt to look like my author picture but that I’m likely to fail!

Enter Mom. I first met Mark’s mother when I was a freshman in college. When we walked in the front door at 185 West Norwalk Road, CT 06850 (funny how I’ve never forgotten that address, particularly the zip code), Mark got a real embrace and warm greetings before his mother turned around to say hello to me. I remember thinking she is more committed to making sure he knows she loves him, than she is to making me, a stranger, feel welcome. It was the first of many cultural differences that would rise up to create distance between us. (Burgers for dinner? Where was the full-out spread that one would produce for first-time guests?)


And yet, this is also what I have come to love the most about her. She is always who she is. What she says is truly what she means, and she is always right. I’ve been furious at her for asking me the difficult questions (why, instead of complaining about having to move to the middle of Maine in deference to Mark’s desire to work there, won’t I find a job I like?), but I have grown to understand the wisdom behind her words. The best piece of advice I ever received about marriage came from her. I was describing a moment during the early days of my relationship with Mark, an altercation with a student worker at the library, where I felt he had not defended me even though I was in the wrong (ish). She said, pay attention to those things for they will be the things you will come back to repeatedly over the years ahead.

Her words have reminded me also to remember myself, who I am. Upon returning from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time, looking at my photographs, listening to my euphoric tales of my time there, she asked me what it was about the conference and that place that made me so utterly happy. That person you are in such a place – a place that makes you happy – is the person you are, she said, because happiness comes from being affirmed for being most truly ourselves.

I recall that during a visit from her to the apartment we shared in sin one summer while I was still in college and Mark had graduated, I happened to be reading a book that I had picked up off a bargain table titled Men Who Are Good for You and Men Who Are Bad for You: How to Tell the Difference by a Dr. Suzanna Hoffman. I kept looking for Mark among the three (yes, I think there were only three), good ones, but he wasn’t to be found. There were elements of him in each of them, but no one composite “good” label could be applied to the guy I was dating. Mom looked through the book very quickly, dog-earned one of them and handed it back to me saying she had found him. I opened the page to read about “The Secret Manipulator: The One Everybody Loves But Who Somehow Always Gets His Way.” It wasn’t so much a condemnation of the less worthy aspects of her own son, but a reminder that being less than perfect does not make us less deserving of being loved.

I am always inclined to see people as children, to identify in the faces of adults, traces of the child they once were, those qualities that remain long after we are suddenly colonized – often against our will – by the expectations of Real Life. But it stands to particular reason that over the years when we’ve gone through tough times, the person I think about most often is Mark’s mother. When he is beyond being lovable I see him through her eyes. Mom’s son, I think. How much she loves him, how much good she wishes for him, and, despite all shortcomings (all of which she recognizes and has pointed out), how much she must hope that I will be kind, forgiving, and see my way through the difficulties and back to love.

Such lessons aren’t imparted by people who are afraid of looking reality, even grim reality, head on. Sure, it might be her >180 IQ or her Mensa membership that allows her to be who she is, but I prefer to think that she is gifted with emotional intelligence, the kind that operates without filters. The only kind that allows for the filters that should be used in the aftermath: to see what is so we can figure out what can be.

Ours isn’t a rosy relationship. More than once I have got under her skin with my demands for re-arranging the seating around the Thanksgiving table, my refusal to stop talking about Palestine, or bringing completely random people to her house and expecting her to put them up, and so on. And I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over being referred to as “the tiger by the tail,” with regard to her son, or her not-so-subtle alluding to the idea that I might run off with the Latin/Ballroom dancer, or start cavorting overmuch with too many big-name male writers, but I can honestly say that I love her deeply for who she is, and that among the compliments I’ve received from her son, the one I treasure the most is that I was someone he thought his mother would really like. And the addendum: she is very smart and very hard to please, but you, unlike the other girlfriends who were intimidated by her, can stand your own ground.

Happy birthday to the long cool woman in a black dress!

13 October, 2013

My Mother’s Sweet Death

Some days I forget the exact day on which I lost my mother. Some days I remember that we lose and find people when they are alive, and some days I can forgive myself for having lost her so often and for not finding her when she was still here. Other days I am aware of her here, ever present, never lost. And almost every day I can find my mother in the words written by my brother in the newspapers back home, in articles that affirm her gifts and absence by demonstrating how she lives on in his own world view.

Over these past years I have written about my mother in different ways. The first year, so full of grief, the second so full of reconciliation, the third, wordlessly but for what I posted on Facebook. I have written of the poetry she brought to me, the way she raised me, and the way her wisdom found me in words I needed to hear on the very day I needed to hear them.

My mother exists in a physical way among my belongings here in this study where I write.

– In the one complete cross-stitch tapestry I made in my life, a gift to her that she never hung up.

– In the framed picture of her above my bookcase where she sits, one of only two female teachers at the top boys’ school in Sri Lanka, young and soldiering on.

– In the photograph of her that sits behind my desk beside which I have placed a photograph of me as a very young child, something to remind me that, though I tormented myself with concern for her, my lapses were rooted in the fact that I was the child, not she. In the twisted gold metal flower that one of my daughters, the artistic one, made, resting delicately against her photograph in homage to the mother she was, in the twisted gold metal heart made by the same daughter resting equally delicately against that photograph of me in acknowledgement of the fact that she, too, deserved to be loved.

– In the tissue-bag that contains the many cards and the book of condolences written by those who came to her funeral among which is this note from a sister-in-law with whom she wasn’t always on the best of terms, but whom she cared for as she cared for everybody, giving the best of herself: Thank you very much Indrani Akka, for teaching me to sing songs and also teaching me to dance the cha-cha and waltz. We had a great time at Kandana those days. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

– In the package I discovered just a few weeks ago, the last one I had addressed to her, still addressed to her, a gift of a book of poems, Eruipedes’ MEDEA (Oxford University Press, 2006) translated by Michael Collier that he had signed for her that year at Bread Loaf. I had chosen this as a gift from someone I love unabashedly for someone who did not always understand the shape of my love for her, this mother who taught both poetry and Greek literature. In it, he writes: For Ru’s mother, with gratitude for the gift of your wonderful daughter. I hope one day to meet you. I read those words and I think about the fact that she never heard those words of praise for me, but Michael had met my mother in me, for a great part of the strength and resilience and warmth I have came directly from her.

When I returned from Sri Lanka after her funeral in 2009, I brought with me a suitcase full of her papers and journals. I intended to sort through them when I got home, to give her something she had always craved but never received from us: a curiosity about her interiority. But, four years on, I have only opened it once, and that, to pick up one journal from her time as an undergraduate where I read only two entries. One, about visiting home and helping her mother by bathing her youngest sister, and washing and ironing the clothes of another, a second about a visit from my father. Beyond this, I have been unable to go. I look at that suitcase as I open the front door each day, glance sideways imagining its contents, but I have not opened it. I don’t know when I will, though I am glad that somehow “her things,” these paper-based things that she most cherished, are with me. The one thing I returned to Sri Lanka were the letters that my father wrote to her, things he asked to take back with him. I don’t know if he has read them, whether in reading them he has found some insight into the person she was before she became his wife, our mother.

This time when I was home, I came across a few last papers of hers, letters written from her mother and father to her. In their letters I find a girl who felt responsible for the family from which she hailed, a deep love for the entirety of it, including the far extended family, a girl happy in her accomplishments at college, involved in studying English literature, playing tennis, and learning ballroom dance. A gay soul, a spirited, happy person, a person I only saw in glimpses, and usually when we were alone together. Those letters and these, her collection of “little books,” the ones in which she wrote down the innumerable names and phone numbers and, later, email addresses of her hundreds of friends and students, many in Sri Lanka still, most abroad living the lives they thank her for making possible with her teaching, encouragement, affirmation, letters of reference and excuse, and prayers. Among all her writings, these little books tell the story of a life marked by attention to people, to the connections made, the bonds forged and kept unbroken, no matter how long the absences, how infrequent the visits, how great the distances. My mother’s world beyond our home was a web of infinite possibility and connection, a vast tapestry of generosity and love. If we, her children, sometimes failed her, if her expectations of us were too great, our long-ago grievances seem so insignificant in the face of all that she was to so many other children.

My brother, Malinda, wrote a reflection today about a grandmother he met, in memory of my mother. This lady, after spending time with him, had exclaimed that she had found a son. It made me smile to read that, knowing how most older women who meet this particular brother want to keep them for their own as son or grandson. And it made me smile also in remembering my mother, the way in which she flung her arms around the world, taking its daughters, but mostly its sons, for her own. Remembering also that, despite all that is forgivable and all that can only be forgotten, the three names and addresses that don’t appear in these little books were the ones that meant the most to her. Wherever she is, I hope she forgives me for sometimes forgetting that simple truth.

Tomorrow I will plant flowers for her. No alliums among them, this year, but others chosen for similar reasons by her grand-daughters. Because she would like these particular colors, they say, as if she will be here, come Spring, to see the flowers bloom. They are nothing like the flowers she planted in her lifetime, but perhaps she will visit.

But maybe more even than the flowers this time around she might like to know that her grand-daughters remember her sweetness this way, recalling the times that she would state her longing for sweets, disregarding the orders of various doctors, declaring that on her gravestone (a gravestone that she, a Buddhist, would never have), should be inscribed the legend, she died a sweet death. Whether she knew it or not, none of her children, not those thousands, nor us three, ever wished her less when her day came.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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