Letter To My Mother

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by Barbara Kingsolver

Imagine you putting on your glasses to read this letter. Oh, Lord, what now? You tilt your head back and hold the page away from you, your left hand flat on your chest, protecting your heart. “Dear Mom” at the top of a long, typed letter from me has so often meant trouble. Happy, uncomplicated things—these I could always toss you easily over the phone: I love you, where in the world is my birth certificate, what’s in your zucchini casserole, happy birthday, this is our new phone number, we’re having a baby in March, my plane comes in at seven, see you then, I love you.

The hard things went into letters. I started sending them from college, the kind of self-absorbed epistles that usually began as diary entries and should have stayed there. During those years I wore black boots from an army surplus store and a five-dollar haircut from a barbershop and went to some trouble to fill you in on the great freedom women could experience if only they would throw off the bondage of housewifely servitude. I made sideways remarks about how I couldn’t imagine being anybody’s wife. In my heart I believed that these letters—in which I tried to tell you how I’d become someone entirely different from the child you’d known—would somehow make us friends. But instead they only bought me a few quick gulps of air while I paced out the distance between us.

I lived past college, and so did my hair, and slowly I learned the womanly art of turning down the volume. But I still missed you, and from my torment those awful letters bloomed now and then. I kept trying; I’m trying still. But this time I want to say before anything else: Don’t worry. Let your breath out. I won’t hurt you anymore. We measure the distance in miles now, and I don’t have to show you I’m far from where I started. Increasingly, that distance seems irrelevant. I want to tell you what I remember.

 

I’m Three Years Old. You’ve left me for the first time with your mother while you and Daddy took a trip. Grandmama fed me cherries and showed me the secret of her hair: Five metal hairpins come out, and the everyday white coil drops in a silvery waterfall to the back of her knees. Her house smells like polished wooden stairs and soap and Granddad’s onions and ice cream, and I would love to stay there always but I miss you bitterly without end. On the day of your return I’m standing in the driveway waiting when the station wagon pulls up. You jump out your side, my mother in happy red lipstick and red earrings, pushing back your dark hair from the shoulder of your white sleeveless blouse, turning so your red skirt swirls like a rose with the perfect promise of you emerging from the center. So beautiful. You raise one hand in a tranquil wave and move so slowly up the driveway that your body seems to be underwater. I understand with a shock that you are extremely happy. I have been miserable and alone waiting in the driveway, and you were at the beach with Daddy and happy. Happy without me.

 

I Am Sitting On Your Lap, and you are crying. Thank you, honey, thank you, you keep saying, rocking back and forth as you hold me in the kitchen chair. I’ve brought you flowers: the sweet peas you must have spent all spring trying to grow, training them up the trellis in the yard. You had nothing to work with but abundant gray rains and the patience of a young wife at home with pots and pans and small children, trying to create just one beautiful thing, something to take you outside our tiny white clapboard house on East Main. I never noticed until all at once they burst through the trellis in a pink red purple dazzle. A finger-painting of colors humming against the blue air: I could think of nothing but to bring it to you. I climbed up the wooden trellis and picked the flowers. Every one. They are gone already, wilting in my hand as you hold me close in the potato-smelling kitchen, and your tears are damp in my hair but you never say a single thing but Thank you.

 

Your Mother Is Dead. She was alive, so thin that Granddad bought her a tiny dark-blue dress and called her his fashion model and then they all went to the hospital and came home without her. Where is the dark-blue dress now? I find myself wondering, until it comes to me that they probably buried her in it. It’s under the ground with her. There are so many things I don’t want to think about that I can’t bear going to bed at night.

It’s too hot to sleep. My long hair wraps around me, grasping like tentacles. My brother and sister and I have made up our beds on cots on the porch, where it’s supposed to be cooler. They are breathing in careless sleep on either side of me, and I am under the dark cemetery ground with Grandmama. I am in the stars, desolate, searching out the end of the universe and time. I am trying to imagine how long forever is, because that is how long I will be dead for someday. I won’t be able to stand so much time being nothing, thinking of nothing. I’ve spent many nights like this, fearing sleep. Hating being awake.

I get up, barefoot and almost nothing in my nightgown, and creep to your room. The door is open, and I see that you’re awake, too, sitting up on the edge of your bed. I can make out only the white outline of your nightgown and your eyes. You’re like a ghost.

Mama, I don’t want to die.

You don’t have to worry about that for a long, long time.

I know. But I’m thinking about it now.

I step toward you from the doorway, and you fold me into your arms. You are real, my mother in scent and substance, and I still fit perfectly in your lap.

You don’t know what Heaven is like. It might be full of beautiful flowers.

When I close my eyes I discover it’s there, an endless field of flowers. Columbines, blue asters, daisies, sweet peas, zinnias: one single flower bed stretching out for miles in every direction. I am small enough to watch the butterflies come. I know them from the pasture behind our house, the butterflies you taught me to love and name: monarchs, Dianas, tiger swallowtails. I follow their lazy zigzag as they visit every flower, as many flowers as there are stars in the universe. We stay there in the dark for a long time, you and I, both of us with our eyes closed, watching the butterflies drift so slowly, filling as much time as forever.

I will keep that field of flowers. It doesn’t matter that I won’t always believe in Heaven. I will suffer losses of faith, of love and confidence, I will have some bitter years, and always when I hurt and can’t sleep I will close my eyes and wait for your butterflies to arrive.

 

Just One Thing, I’m demanding of you. It’s the middle of summer, humid beyond all reason, and I am thirteen: a tempest of skinned knees and menarche. You are trying to teach me how to do laundry, showing me how to put the bluing in with the sheets. The swampy Monday-afternoon smell of sheets drowning under the filmy, shifting water fills me with pure despair. I want no part of that smell. No future in white sheets and bluing. Name one good thing about being a woman, I say to you.

There are lots of good things…. Your voice trails off with the thin blue stream that trickles into the washer’s indifferent maw.

In a rare flush of adrenaline or confidence, I hold on, daring you: OK, then. If that’s true, just name me one.

You hesitated. I remember that. I saw a hairline crack in your claim of a homemaker’s perfect contentment. Finally you said, The love of a man. That’s one thing. Being taken care of and loved by a man.

And because you’d hesitated I knew I didn’t have to believe it.

 

At Fifteen I Am Raging at you in my diary, with- out courage or real intention, yet, of actually revealing myself to you. Why do you want to ruin my life? Why can’t you believe I know how to make my own decisions? Why do you treat me like a child? No makeup or nail polish allowed in this house—you must think I am a baby or a nun. You tell me if I forget to close the curtains when I get undressed the neighbor boy will rape me. You think all boys are evil. You think if I go out with my girlfriends 1’ll get kidnaped. You think if I’m in the same room with a boy and a can of beer, I’ll instantly become a pregnant alcoholic.

Halfway through the page I crumble suddenly and write in a meeker hand, I have to learn to keep my big mouth shut and not fight with Mom. I love her so much.

I am a young woman sliced in two, half of me claiming to know everything and the other half just as sure I will never know anything at all. I am too awkward and quiet behind my curtain of waist-length hair, a girl unnoticed, a straight-A schoolmouse who can’t pass for dumb and cute in a small-town, marry-young market that values—as far as I can see—no other type.

I understand this to be all your fault. You made me, and I was born a girl. You trained me to be a woman, and regarding that condition I fail to see one good thing.

 

The Woodsmoke Scent in the air puts me in mind of raked leaves, corduroy jumpers and new saddle shoes, our family’s annual trip to Browning’s orchard for apples and cider: a back-to-school nostalgia altogether too childish for me now, and yet here I am, thrilled to the edge of all my senses to be starting college. You and Dad have driven three hundred miles in our VW bus, which is packed like a tackle box with my important, ridiculous stuff, and now you have patiently unloaded it without questioning my judgment on a single cherished object—the plants, the turtle-shell collection, the glass demijohn, the huge striped pillow, the hundred books. You’re sitting on my new bed while Dad carries in the last box. To you this bed must look sadly institutional compared with the furniture lovingly lathed for us from red cherrywood by your father before he died. To me the new metal bed frame looks just fine. Nothing fussy; it will do. I am arranging my plants in the windowsill while you tell me you’re proud of the scholarship I won, you know I’ll do well here and be happy, I should call if I need anything, call even if I don’t.

I won’t need anything, I tell you.

I am visited suddenly by a peculiar photographic awareness of the room, as if I were not really in it but instead watching us both from the doorway. I understand we are using up the very last minutes of something neither of us can call, outright, my childhood. I can’t wait for you to leave, and then you do. I close the door and stand watching through my yellow- curtained window and the rust-orange boughs of a maple outside as you and Dad climb into the VW and drive away without looking back. And because no one can see me I wipe my slippery face with the back of my hand. My nose runs and I choke on tears, so many I’m afraid I will drown. I can’t smell the leaves or apples or woodsmoke at all. I feel more alone than I’ve ever felt in my life.

 

I Am Nineteen, A Grown woman curled like a fetus on my bed. Curled in a knot so small I hope I may disappear. I do not want to be alive.

I’ve been raped.

I know his name, his address—in fact I will probably have to see him again on campus. But I have nothing to report. Not to the police, not to you. The telephone rings and rings and I can’t pick it up because it may be you. My mother. Everything you ever told me from the beginning has come home to this knot of nothingness on my bed, this thing I used to call me. I was supposed to prevent what happened. Two nights ago I talked to him at a bar. He bought me a drink and told my friends he thought I was cute. That girl with the long hair, he said. What’s her name? Tonight when he came to my door I was happy, for ten full seconds. Then. My head against a wall, suffocation, hard pushing and flat on my back and screaming for air. Fighting an animal twice my size. My job was to stop him, and I failed. How can I tell you that? You met him in a bar. You see?

From this vantage point, a dot of nothingness in the center of my bed, I understand the vast ocean of work it is to be a woman among men, that universe of effort, futile whimpers against hard stones, and oh God I don’t want it. My bones are weak. I am trapped in a room with no flowers, no light, a ceiling of lead so low I can never again straighten up. I don’t want to live in this world.

I will be able to get up from this bed only if I can get up angry. Can you understand there is no other way? I have to be someone else. Not you, and not even me. Tomorrow or someday soon I will braid my long hair for the last time, go to my friend’s house with a pair of sharp scissors, and tell her to cut it off. All of it. Tomorrow or someday soon I will feel that blade at my nape and the weight will fall.

 

Summer Light, Beaurieux, France. At twenty-three I’m living in an enormous, centuries-old stone farmhouse with a dozen friends, talkative French socialists and a few British expatriates, all of us at some loose coupling in our lives between school and adulthood. We find a daily, happy solace in one another and in the scarlet poppies that keep blooming in the sugar-beet fields. We go out to work together in the morning and then come home in the evening to drink red table wine and make ratatouille in the cavernous stone-floored kitchen. This afternoon, a Saturday, a gaggle of us have driven into town to hang out at the village’s only electrified establishment, a tiny cafe. We are entrenched in a happy, pointless argument about Camus when the man wiping the counter answers the phone and yells, “Mademoiselle Kingsolver? Quelque’un des Etats Unis!”

My heart thumps to a complete stop. Nobody from the United States can possibly know where I am. I haven’t written to my parents for many months, since before I moved to France. I rise and sleepwalk to the telephone, knowing absolutely that it will be you, my mother, and it is. I still have no idea how you found me; I can hardly even remember our conversation. I must have told you I was alive and well, still had all my arms and legs—what else was there for me to say? You told me that my brother was getting married and I ought to come home for the wedding.

Ma mere! This is what I tell my friends, with a shrug, when I return to the table. I tell them you probably called out the French Foreign Legion to find me. Everybody laughs and declares that mothers are all alike: They love us too much, they are a cross to bear, they all ought to find their own things to do and leave us alone. We pay for our coffee and amble toward somebody’s car, but I decide on impulse I’ll walk back to the farm. I move slowly, turning over and over in my mind the telephone’s ringing, the call that was for me. In France, a tiny town, the only cafe, a speck of dust on the globe. Already it seems impossible that this really happened.

The roadside ditch is brilliant with poppies, and as I walk along I am hugging myself so hard I can barely breathe.

 

Photo by Georgie Pauwels

Photo by Georgie Pauwels

I’m Weeding The Garden. You admired my garden a lot when you came to visit me here in Tucson, in this small brick house of my own. We fought, of course. You didn’t like my involvement with Central American refugees, no matter how I tried to talk you through the issues of human rights and our government’s support of a dictatorship in El Salvador. Even more, you didn’t like it that I was living in this little brick house with a man, unmarried. But you did admire my vegetable garden, and the four-o’clocks in the front yard, you said, were beautiful. The flowers were our common ground. They’ll attract hummingbirds, you told me, and we both liked that.

On this day I am alone, weeding the garden, and a stranger comes to the door. He doesn’t look well, and he says he needs a glass of water, so I go to the kitchen. When I turn around from the sink, there he is, with a knife shoved right up against my belly.

Don’t scream or I’ll kill you.

But I do scream. Scream, slap, bite, kick, shove my knee into his stomach. I don’t know what will happen next, but I know this much: It’s not going to be my fault. You were partly wrong and partly right; bad things are bound to happen, but this hateful supremacy that sometimes shoves itself against me is not my fault. You’ve held on to me this long, so I must be someone worth saving against the odds. When I can finally tell you that, I know you will agree with me. So this time I scream. I scream for all I’m worth.

 

I’m Thirty-Two, With my own daughter in my arms. I’ve sent you a picture of her, perfect and gorgeous in her bassinette. Her tiny hand is making a delicate circle, index finger to thumb, pinkie extended as if she were holding a teacup. How could my ferocious will create such a delicate, feminine child? This one is all girl, I write on the back, my daughter’s first caption. You send back a photo of me at the same age, eight weeks, in my bassinette. I can’t believe it: I am making a delicate circle with my hand, index finger to thumb, pinkie extended.

 

My Nine-Year-Old Daughter comes home from a summer slumber party with painted nails, and I mean painted. Day-Glo green on the fingers, purple on the toes. We drive to the drugstore for nail polish remover.

Please! All the girls my age are doing this.

How can every nine-year-old on the planet possibly be painting her toenails purple?

I don’t know. They just are.

School starts in a week. Do you want to be known by your teacher as the girl with the green fingernails?

Yes. But I guess you don’t.

Do you really?

She looks down at her nails and states: Yes. With her porcelain skin and long, dark lashes, she is a Raphael cherub. Her perfect mouth longs to pout, but she resists, holds her back straight. A worthy vessel for her own opinions. Despite myself, I admire her.

OK, we’ll compromise. The green comes off. But keep the purple toenails.

 

Photo by Alex Berger

Photo by Alex Berger

At Forty, I’m Expecting my second child. Through my years of being coupled and then alone, years of accepting my fate and then the astonishing chance of remarriage, I’ve waited a lifetime for this gift: a second child. But now it is past due, and I am impatient. I conceived in late September and now it’s July. I have dragged this child in my belly through some portion of every month but August. In the summer’s awful heat I am a beached whale, a house full of water, a universe with ankles. It seems entirely possible to me that the calendar will close and I will somehow be bound fairytale-wise to a permanent state of pregnancy. During these months you and I have talked more often than ever before. Through our long phone conversations I’ve learned so many things: that you fought for natural childbirth all three times, a rebel against those patronizing doctors who routinely knocked women out with drugs. In the fifties, formula was said to be modern and breast-feeding crude and old-fashioned, but you ignored the wagging fingers and did what you and I both know was best for your babies.

I’ve also learned that ten-month pregnancies run in our family.

When your sister was two weeks overdue, I made Wendell drive over every bumpy road in the county.

Did it work?

No. With you, we were in Maryland. We drove over to see the cherry blossoms on the Capitol Mall in April, and Wendell said, “What if you go into labor while we’re hours away from home?” I told him, “I’ll sing Hallelujah.”

A week past my due date you are calling every day. Steven answers the phone, holds it up, and mouths, “Your mother again.” He thinks you may be bugging me. You aren’t. I am a woman lost in the weary sea of waiting, and you are the only one who really knows where I am. Your voice is keeping me afloat. I grab the phone.

 

She Is Born At Last. A second daughter. I cry on the phone, I’m so happy and relieved to have good news for you, finally. I promise you we’ll send pictures right away. You will tell me she looks just like I did. She looks like her father, but I will believe you anyway.

Later on when it’s quiet I nurse our baby, admiring her perfect hands. Steven is in a chair across the room, and I’m startled to look up and find he is staring at us with tears in his eyes. I’ve seen him cry only once before.

What’s wrong?

Nothing. I’m just so happy.

I love him inordinately. I could not bear to be anyone but his wife just now. I could not bear to be anyone but the mother of my daughters.

 

I Was Three Years Old, standing in the driveway waiting for the car to bring you back from Florida. You arrived glowing with happiness. Because of me. I felt stung, thinking you could carry on your life of bright-red lipstick smiles outside of my presence, but I know now I was wrong. You looked happy because of me. You hadn’t seen me for more than a week, hadn’t nursed me for years, and yet your breasts tingled before you opened the car door. The soles of your feet made contact with the ground, and your arms opened up as you walked sure-footed once again into the life you knew as my mother. I know exactly how you felt. I am your happiness. It’s a cross I am willing to bear.


Barbara Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky and has worked as a freelance writer and author since 1985. She lives and works in southwestern Virginia with her family.

From Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver, copyright ©2002 by Barbara Kingsolver, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

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