A Conversation with My Mother
Minneapolis was not full of anarchists and jobs. After a month, we packed up my futon and sent it with us on a Greyhound bus, both of us thrilled to be back in New York, where I found an apartment in Alphabet City with shattered kitchen windows. The prior tenant had moved out after a thief broke in from the abandoned building next door. But now it was ours, as were its roaches and mice and the bars drilled into every window.
I never told my parents that I lived with the boyfriend, and, if he answered when my mother called, he handed me the phone. She never asked why a man had answered.
Something happened to my mother in the years between her college days—when, according to an uncle, she had created art and been full of life—and her childrearing days. Maybe the pressure to marry and have children—she had four in five years—overwhelmed her. As a single child of Russian immigrants, a child growing up in the Depression era, perhaps my mother had felt lonely and scared; this might be why she found solace in hoarding junk and taking control of money in odd ways.
I don’t remember my mother ever hugging me, or reading me a book, or even listening, really listening, to me. But in my sophomore year of college, I remember sitting with her in our yard. I told her how upset I was about a boy who had just broken my heart. I can’t remember what she said, but I do remember her saying that her family was the most important part of her life. I believe she meant it. But something always blocked her from acting on it.
I don’t have children, but, if I did, I hope I’d have the emotional capacity to nurture my child, to read to her, to hold her when she needed holding, to answer the phone when she called. When my dog goes to the groomer, I miss her. The house feels empty. As I write this, I’m away from home. Yesterday, my dog sitter put the phone to my dog’s ear. I called her name, and my dog cocked her head and licked the mouthpiece.
Maybe this is one reason why I traveled so much in my twenties: On the road, I didn’t have to think about my family, or missing them, or whether they thought about me. I could wander and make new friends, as if they were family, like the sweet Golf Guy. Maybe that’s why I never considered Golf Guy to be boyfriend material, pining instead for a moody anarchist.
It’s thirty years later now, and my mother’s been dead for a good portion of that time. Four years after she said no, a car accident took her life. I was traveling in Italy and didn’t learn of her death until the day of the funeral. I am now the age she was when she said no, when she wouldn’t accept my call.
“All the money in the world,” I tell my therapist, “couldn’t pay for a one-minute conversation with my mother.”
“What would you say,” she asks, “if you could talk to her?”
“We could have traveled together,” I say. “Just us. And eaten all the damn French fries we wanted.”
I fall asleep and dream that I enter the back door of my childhood home and walk up the stairs. My mother stands at the landing and hugs me. And I say, “This is a dream, isn’t it?” and she keeps hugging me. I say, “It’s a dream, right?” She continues to embrace me. I wake up crying.
I imagine the Norwegian operator asking my mother again, “Do you accept the charges?” This time she accepts. She wants to hear everything. “Start from the beginning,” she says. “Tell me about the midnight sun. I’m listening.”