A sketch from memory, written in December of 2000.
My sister Laurie and I, after missing the turn once, circled around and drove into the gray path. It was cold outside; there were many mailboxes. The squat, white buildings on the lot were arranged in an L shape; we were going to the top point of the L, Apartment No. 5. It was Christmas evening and cold.
Since she’d come back to California from Tennessee, things had been hard for my mother. She had struggled for peace at a painter’s house, but the world knows no peace: Winter passed into Spring, Spring passed into Summer, Summer gently dropped its gown of leaves, and all the while the world was transformed. Old clients, the sources of revenue upon which she had depended, had left town, moved on; I, her son, lived with my father and thought of her with shame.
When she moved back, there was no money; her clientele, primarily individuals needing organizational prowess or businesses needing a creative director or clerical specialist, had vanished, and the jobs that were available were either distasteful or impossible to accept.
Desperate, she slept on a couch in the front room of a small house that belonged to a friend from her church; in the days she wrote or worked with charities; in the nights and evenings she could be found in libraries, reading, or in her small car in the parking lots of chain retail stores, weeping. This gray emptiness was the only solitude she could afford.
A year passed.
The gravel that substituted for pavement crunched under the tires of my sister’s car, and its headlights cast rings of light that volleyed between the distances and nearnesses of parked vehicles, small shrubs, dead weeds, and even, for a moment, a small brown cat whose eyes in our invading glare shone as green as the Tennessee tree line. It was my mother’s apartment. Her home.
Her home! To say it it felt like a benediction: where once a Requiem, now pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus – ‘filled are the heavens and earth with glory.’ Mother had finally found a job working as an administrative assistant to a local entrepreneur, and, over a few months, had collected enough money for the down payment and rent on a small apartment just a few blocks up the street from my own place.
Once, my view of my mother was wholly negative, but with increased maturity, and with my concomitant understanding of the chiaroscuro of the heart, I’d developed a more balanced view. Like humanity at large, my mother was noble and farcical, kind and selfish, foolish and wise. And after all, she was my mother. I owed her my time, and perhaps my love, if for nothing more than the memories of wide, bright windows and green, green plants which we ran among, laughing, playing the word and language games which would teach me to read. So the past few days I’d been in and out of her place, helping her move in, lugging boxes, furniture, a radio, a television, books. I’d helped her assemble the mannequin, Monique, who for had served as an uncomplaining and elfin conversation piece, holder-of-coats, and somewhat frightening decoration, and then been put in a storage unit after my Mom’s financial troubles. My petite and comely sister, working in a clothing store while going to nursing school, had given her to my mother almost five years earlier.
“There, sis, that’s it: 5, right there on the door.”
We parked. Mother would have the vegetarian steaks seasoned and fried already; scent rose from them, filled her home, kissed the air outside. My sister had my scruffy, happy puppy, Miles van Ellington, hidden in her oversized black jacket. I held a pie. We crunched our way to the door and knocked, whereupon Miles squirmed a furry ritual of joy. Having Miles was technically an infraction against the apartment rules, but he couldn’t be expected to know that.
There were greetings, warm smiles, and hurried entries from the frigid air.
“Oh! You brought Miles!” my mother exclaimed.
“Is that okay?” asked my sister and I in unison.
“As long as he doesn’t bark. He’s so cute! ”
Miles promptly barked. It didn’t matter: it was Christmas.
Monique was set up by the door and took our coats, as per the days of old. She was in surprisingly good condition after all that time spent in a garage; her hair was frizzed out, true, and her skin needed a dusting, but she was still the model of Western beauty she was created to be: curves, limbs, breasts, lips – all perfect, and all utterly devoid of character. But just then, her artificiality wasn’t repugnant, or even relevant: she seemed to smile.
Since mom had left for Tennessee more than a year ago, I’d been living with my father, and I was happier there than I’d ever been before. I was 16: I had fought depression, addiction, hedonism, apathy, and pain, and had even found the most unexpected and precious gift of all: love, both a growing seed of it for myself, and a flowering exuberance of love for another, a girl named Carolyn, the fire of my heart. And Christmas night I ate with my mother and my sister around a small wooden table with a red-checkered tablecloth, while my dog played with a stuffed animal in the next room, and it was beautiful.
It is a peculiarity of the human species that so much of what we say is never said: the sharing of time and a charming vacuities can sometimes be more eloquent than well-hewn words, sonnets, songs. The mere fact of being, and being together, - that is communication and blessing enough.
Pictures were taken; you can hold them in your hand and in good lighting discern details: here, the soft quilt on my mother’s bed; there, an antique sign from the Christian Woman’s Temperance Union depicting a striking young woman, proclaiming in what one can only imagine is a voice of deflating coquetry: “Lips that touch whiskey are lips that will never touch mine.” On a coffee table a small white candle sits its crystal vase and looks like a chip of light diffracted. Here, I pose in a farcically exaggerated dance pose, chin held high, with white-skinned Monique, accompanied by Dave Brubeck’s jazz. But no amount of studying these details will reveal the essence of the evening, though it permeated the air, rich, quiet, and supple.
It was quite simple: we were home.