Updated: Sep 24, 2021
She was the kind of person they call "larger than life." She used to say, "People either love me, or hate me." That included her children. I was one of the two, of the four of us -- the only one left -- who loved her. Still do, still missing her, going on 40 years since we lost her.
This is my letter to her, which I never sent while she was around to get it. But I take comfort in having learned from her, late though it was, that she knew how much I loved her.
It didn't make the CBC Non-Fiction competition list, but I'm glad I wrote it to her, at last.
Not that I believe in heaven, which I don't; or rather, if only I could believe in heaven, which I can’t--if I think of heaven, which I find myself doing lately, it's like the yoga camp on Paradise Island. And there at the dock, or a bit down the path, where all the elephant pictures and the Om Namashivaya’s started, would be my little mom, just smiling and waiting, and gesturing at me in that impatient way of hers to come on, hurry up! Not to get to heaven; she didn't believe in it, either. But to get going. Get busy!
Busy! That was the only way to be, for my little mom. That's the way I see her there, at the yoga camp, which was all leafy and warm and green and paradisal, just the way you'd imagine heaven. And then, she spent so much time there that sometimes now, even all these decades after she went--I'm talking about to heaven, now, or wherever--I still find myself thinking, when the weather warms up: My little mom's had a long winter at the yoga camp; she should be back any day now. And I start thinking of getting all the things done that I’d put off because she wasn't around to make you Get busy! The things you put off because she took to spending longer and longer there, more than a quarter, closer to half the year, toward the very end. Only coming back when the heat, which she could no longer stand, started creeping in. That's when you'd start getting guilty and busy and thinking, part guilty and part apprehensive and part thank-heaven-she's-coming-to-straighten-everything out; you'd think: My little mom's about due to come back, better get busy!
Not that we thought of her that way: we never called her our little mom while she was alive. Although, seeing more clearly now, the way you do when it's way too late, she'd have wanted us to. How she'd have loved it. Like the time my sister in law Ren just took and put her arms around her, my mom so sick, just put her arms around her and rocked her close, and said, over and over, “There, there, doll. There, there, there.”
“None of you have ever done that with me. Ever. None of you,” she said, later, before the end started to happen. You'd have thought we, her flesh and blood children, might have picked that up, that she wanted to be rocked and cradled and called our little mom and told There-there-there; the signals were there clear as clear, not to mention her actually telling you how her own mother was the only one'd ever do that; the rest of the world, always getting its back up over her. People either love me, she used to say, or they hate me. Including some of my own children.
So: no, she wasn't my little mom to us then. Although little she was, in fact, just barely five-foot-two, and in spite of the weight she was battling--nothing serious, ten, maybe fifteen pounds, but she could never shake it off, her with all her unpitying self-discipline (another time, remind me, I'll tell you about the 4-soup days). And there was a reason for that, too, plain as you like, but again not one of us saw it. She had to come out and say it: it was because the yearning to lose weight was at odds with her terror that losing weight would be a sign the cancer was back.
Anyway, in spite of the weight, and the solid set of her shoulders and calves, she was a small woman. But she didn't seem the least bit little. She seemed foursquare and solid and undauntable: nobody's little anything.
Although your old Ma is touching or nearly touching 50, says the letter to an absent daughter, I've sort of made up my mind, if the doctor lets me go without an operation, your ma has written to some danged college of dance in Connecticut to see if they'd accept her for four weeks, saying I'm 34; they'd never allow me at my age and may even balk at that. The point is, I'm no longer interested in modern dance, but it is another candle-offering–Ave--to ensure an escape from the malevolent gods. And, a few weeks later:
My very dear girl, my sweet-tooth, my own little torte with whipped cream and chocolate nut sauce--and that should give you a fair idea how much mummy loves you--because next to husband & children--you know what I love most.
Yep: your ma is ensconced at Connecticut College--majoring in the dance. I live in this dormitory with some 200 other students--general age 16 or 17. I start dancing at 8.30 in the morning and by cracky I keep it up until 5.15 in the late afternoon. I take 3 elementary technique (you're only supposed to take 2 but I sneak in the third) with Martha Graham, Jose Limon and Merce Cunningham, one Ethnic Dance form-composition with LAMERI and one Composition-Elementary Improvisation with Virginia Tanner. And who had to wander into this kind of set-up but your Mama.
When we were young, when our mother sang, we knew it was for joy. Later, when she sang, we knew it was a bad day. Then, "Sing!" she said. "I always sing when I feel terrible." "Oh, Mom!" One of the things you regret forever is the number of times you said, Oh, Mom, or Oh, Dad. "Sing. Even when you don't feel like it. Especially when you don't feel like it."
You don't feel like it. Like most of the world if you don't feel like it, you yearn to sink into that feeling. She won't leave it that way. She must try to will away, wile away, charm away the misery.
One last thing, she writes me, I have a terrible time getting kisses from this family.
My father is a most loving man. But not a kissing man.
"Oh, why couldn't I have had a romantic man?" she says.
He is the love of her life. She loved him from the moment she saw him, in a dim snapshot sent by a relative from the old country, to her immigrant family in the new.
“Rosie,” she said to herself, when she found out how sick he was, “Rosie, your good days are over.”
Yoga was the final answer to all ills, she desperately believed.
Our father never cottoned to yoga. Heaven knows she tried, but he was not a man to be pushed. There was the night she woke, fretting and tacking eviction notices to all of our bedroom doors.
BLACKEST NIGHT. SOUNDS OF SOMEONE FUMBLING OUT OF BED, STUMBLING ACROSS A ROOM. SOMETHING IS DROPPED ON A BATHROOM FLOOR. SOUND OF TOILET FLUSHING. STILLNESS FOR A BEAT. THEN: BED-LIGHT IS SWITCHED ON TO SHOW:
MOTHER, grim and pale, trying to work up a half-lotus, bouncing one bent knee, trying to get it flat. The bouncing disturbs the man on the far reaches of the king-size bed: the FATHER.
FATHER (very sleepy): What time is it?
MOTHER: Four-thirty. I haven’t been able to sleep since two o’clock. Martin, if you don’t start taking yoga, and you don’t start walking to work, and getting fresh air, and eating the proper food, I’m leaving you. I’m not staying here and watching a man deliberately run himself into the ground, get sicker and sicker, when the right diet, fresh air, exercise, and most important, yoga…
FATHER: Would you say sleep plays some part too, dear?
MOTHER: If you would only do the headstand. There’s no such thing as poor circulation, not with the headstand. Most people, it takes years to get up in a headstand, but not with your brilliant mind. Martin! I’m not going to wake up every morning aggravated because you let yourself go, so that you’re so tied up in knots, so tense. And I have to hear every morning about how filthy the house is, you can’t bear it, and you won’t do the headstand. I’m not going to be here while you kill yourself with tension and polycythemia and lack of fresh air.
CUT TO: THE SOUND OF HAMMERING (LITERALLY, WITH A HAMMER) ON A DOOR.
MOTHER IS TACKING SHEETS OF PAPER ON THREE BEDROOM DOORS.
MOTHER (hammering): I’m fed up! I’m leaving your father because he won’t get fresh air and do yoga, and I’ve had it with all of you bloody kids. This is an eviction notice. You get this place cleaned up by May fourth or you move out. You bloody self-indulgent lazy spoilt…
(Addressing first door) Sensitive! Very sensitive! You know Daddy was aggravated because Johnny’s room is such a pigsty, but do you lift a finger to clean your own? Just because you’ve been away from home!
(Hammering on next door) An eviction notice! If you’re not going to clean this place up! Big deal, you’re going to get married in July and move out! You were supposed to be in charge of cooking and laundry and you always slide out of it by blaming Johnny for not doing his share! If this place isn’t cleaned up by May 4th, you move out!
(Hammering on final bedroom door) And you, the pasha! You need a roadmap to find your way through the piles of garbage in this room! Big deal, you’re going to do the floors every week starting next week! Under the fingernails. Under the fingernails work. Big shot producer! You clean up this room or else move out! By the fourth! Making servants of your old parents! Going into the wintry fifties. And a bunch of lazy lumps of kids!
SHE RUMBLES BACK TO HER ROOM. DOOR SLAMS. DOOR OPENS.
MOTHER: May fourth!
She was at the yoga camp, that night on January 6th, when my father called her. It was their 40th wedding anniversary.
She had been there for weeks because she knew his deteriorating state was beyond her control, and since she could not affect it, she fled it.
“Ma,” he said to her that night, “haven’t we had the greatest time.”
It was the night before he died.
Heaven! Wouldn’t it be great? Oh my, yes, off to this big shining leafy spot, and there she'd be, smiling, but all impatient to get going. Just the two of us, getting so fired up, with the planning and the sketching it all in, you got so high on it, so exhilarated, that it seemed as though you'd already done it: all the worlds had been conquered, the loves had been exquisitely found, the gloried shimmerclad mountaintops tiptoed up so easily. You could almost forget that it was just talk, you hadn't done a thing, at all, not you. But heaven: just us, walking and talking and planning the beautiful eternal universe away; no bosses, no brothers and sisters with their mad babyish faces, no lovers, no kids. Wouldn’t that be something?
Knowing her, though, she’d never go for it.
You up here? Dreaming of wafting off with me? she'd be saying. What the hell are you doing, she'd say, giving me this fierce look, hunching into her man's extra-large Eddie Bauer down vest, tramping harder, with her indomitable fading strength, in those big boats of sneakers. What the hell are you doing here, lolling around hanging around my poor tired heels.
Pfui! she'd say, the way she warded off scary dogs. Pfui, pfui! Don't you slump around up here. Ready just to lie down and go to heaven: did you ever! Under the fingernails, always under the fingernails, that was always you. Get the hell out of here. This is not your place. Not yet. Don't hang around. Get going. Get busy!
Oh, if I believed in heaven….