Read The Year My Mother Came Back Online

Authors: Alice Eve Cohen

The Year My Mother Came Back

THE YEAR

MY MOTHER

CAME BACK

Alice Eve Cohen

ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL 2015

ALSO BY ALICE EVE COHEN

What I Thought I Knew

For

my mother

and

my daughters

Author's Note

As this is a memoir, my telling of the events in this book is filtered through the lens of memory and emotion and has been altered by the passage of time. I've changed names and identifying details of some individuals to protect their privacy. Conversations and dialogues have been modified by memory and sometimes intentionally compressed and reshaped for narrative purposes. I have also included the dreams and fantasies that were an integral part of my experience, which took place only in my imagination and on these pages.

One day, my brilliant, beautiful, complicated mother appeared at my kitchen table, thirty-one years after her death.

This is a story of mothers and daughters. My mother, my daughters. My mother's daughters, my daughters' mothers. This is the story of a year.

PART 1

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as a memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

—
WILLIAM MAXWELL
,
So Long, See You Tomorrow

ONE

She pulled the blue-checkered dish towel off the mixing bowl. The dough was twice as big as it was an hour ago. My mother was amused by my open-mouthed astonishment. Her smile was beautiful, colored with bright red lipstick.

“Punch it down, Honeylamb.”

The dough was warm and elastic, deflating under my tiny fists, exhaling a sweet, earthy smell. When it was back to its original size, she emptied it onto the floured board, and it surrendered to her confident hands.

“Your turn, Alice.”

I jabbed. I poked.

“Like this.” She stood behind me, reached around my shoulders, and placed her hands on the dough. I put my hands on hers. She pushed forward with the heel of her palm, folded it back, forward, back, we kneaded in unison, like rowing a boat, like our purring cat scratching the sofa, like Daddy waltzing me around while I stood on his feet, like Mommy giving me a backrub at bedtime. I basked in the euphoria of her touch.

I wipe my tear-streaked face with the back of my hand, surprised and embarrassed to be crying in the schoolyard on a hot Friday afternoon, waiting to pick up Eliana. One more week of school. A sparrow takes two staccato hops toward me on the green wooden bench. A gust of wind blows my long hair in all directions. The sparrow flies away.

Why am I crying? Why am I thinking about my mother so much today?

Oh, yeah. Because it's June.

I don't think about Mom anymore. Well, not much. Once in a long while, in fits and starts. I sometimes find myself writing about her, my fingers typing her onto the page, unbidden. On the Jewish High Holidays, the two days in the year I go to synagogue, I think about her while reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which I read phonetically, having never learned Hebrew. Sometimes I dream about her, but I rarely remember the details.

And every year in late June, I suddenly get sad and wonder why I'm crying, until I remember that Mom died in June. Thirty-one years ago. June 29, 1977. My summer-solstice mood swing takes me by surprise every year, even though it's as predictable as the days getting warmer. By the start of July, it's over.

Thirty-one years is a long time. My mother has become a character from a story I used to know; a face from an old photograph, the colors faded, her features blurry. Sensory fragments emerge—the smell of her hair, the warmth of her hands, the melody of her voice, the sound of her typing and typing and typing.

I used to think about Mom all the time, the good parts and the bad parts. After she died, my thoughts would reflexively turn to her. I'd have an impulse to pick up the phone and call her, catch up on the day's events, tell her when I'd fallen in love, invite her to my performances. In darker moods, I'd want to summon her to our old battlegrounds, to demand explanation and apology, or offer my own.

Over time, I stopped wishing for her. With great effort, I stopped thinking about her. It hurt too much, too closely resembled the angst of unrequited love. Now I can't remember what I tried so hard to forget. I exiled her, like banishing an errant ex-boyfriend from my thoughts; burying my memories of her as deep as I could, so my unrelieved longing for her—and my anger at her—would go away.

Except in June.

Every June she's in my thoughts, whether I want her there or not.

I picture my mother the last time I saw her, when she told me, “This is the first time in years that I am truly happy.”

The school bell rings. I look for Eliana's third-grade class in the sea of children streaming out the doors into the sunbaked schoolyard, giddy in anticipation of summer vacation.

TWO

Eliana approaches the finish line, her long braids swinging from side to side as she runs. She looks unmistakably like Michael's daughter—same light brown, wavy hair, fair complexion, and slightly crooked grin. No trace of my Mediterranean looks, dark straight hair, dark eyes, olive complexion. Eliana's luminous green eyes, which change color depending on the light, are hers alone.

Her gait at the end of three miles is slightly off-kilter, a dancerly step-leap, step-leap, step-leap. She puts less weight on her right foot, which is not as cushioned, because of the inflexible shoe lift. Her right leg is three inches shorter than the left. Her head tilts slightly to the right, compensating for the shorter side of her body, something she does when she's tired or when her muscles are tight, a distant echo of her infant scoliosis. When she was born, her tiny, asymmetrical body was curved like the letter
C.
The doctor said she might never walk. Today, she ran three miles!

She runs under the arch of purple balloons and joins her team, ten ebullient girls jumping up and down in a group hug. Today is the culminating event of the citywide after-school program, Girls on the Run. We head over to celebrate with a team breakfast on the pier, which the city has recently transformed from an abandoned wreck of rotting wood into an idyllic park with a sublime view of the Statue of Liberty.

This was an extraordinary year for Eliana. When she was younger, she couldn't keep up with other kids. Now, she's one of the fastest girls at tag. It took Eliana's determination and the joint efforts (pun intended) of her gifted physical therapists, from the time she was two months old, to straighten her curved spine, overcome the physical challenges of asymmetry, and—like personal trainers coaching a diminutive Olympian—maximize her athletic potential.

For the first time in her life, she's as tall as other kids her age. Since kindergarten, she has taken a daily injection of growth hormone to compensate for her growth disorder. Even more impressive than these physical gains, with the attentive guidance of her third-grade teacher, she's evolved from an insecure and shy seven-year-old into a socially and academically confident eight-year-old. At the beginning of third grade she hated writing and said she was terrible at it. Last week, she wrote:

Poem about Poem

1 cup of starting and a half a cup done,

3 cups of creativity, and 2 cups of fun,

3 cups of friendly, and 2 cups of mean,

2 tablespoons of king, and a half a cup of queen,

3 cups of faraway, and 2 cups of home,

and all that's a recipe, for one tiny poem!

The girls sprint ahead of their parents, making a beeline for the sprinkler. Michael takes my hand, and I get that same adrenaline rush I felt when I fell in love with him twelve years ago.

This past year has been a period of relative calm in our marriage, now that our worry about Eliana has subsided. At our wedding, Eliana was six months old and Julia was nine: we jumped directly from fiancés to stressed-out married couple with kids. Ten years younger than me, Michael was like a kid himself when we met, but he grew up fast in order to keep our family in one piece, giving up freelancing for a more stable career in corporate communications. His bio now reads, “Michael used to create comic performances for corporate audiences, where he portrayed, parodied, and spoofed business executives—before becoming one himself.”

For me, this past year was about seeking absolution from my most unforgiving judge: me. I'm making slow progress toward assuaging my maternal guilt. The onset of that guilt was nine years ago. Michael and I had just gotten engaged, when I started to feel sick. My doctor said it was menopause, but I kept feeling worse. After months of doctors' visits and tests, I was raced to an emergency CAT scan for an abdominal tumor, which turned out not to be a tumor at all. I was six months pregnant.

I desperately didn't want to have a baby. There was evidence that the fetus had been injured—by X rays, CAT scans, and my daily dose of prescription hormones, known to cause birth defects. I was in shock—it was fourteen years after I'd received a diagnosis of infertility, with no chance of ever becoming pregnant; it was nine years after adopting Julia. I felt trapped and
terrified
. My suicidal thoughts made late-term abortion a legal option, and I scheduled an appointment in Wichita, Kansas, one of only three clinics nationwide that provided abortions in the third trimester. I had exactly one week to make an impossible decision. At the eleventh hour, I chose to have the baby.

After giving birth to Eliana, I plummeted into the purgatory of postpartum depression. I was sure her shorter leg and other medical problems were my fault. I was guilty of prenatal neglect: unintentional, but in my depression-addled mind, unforgivable. I was so confused and full of remorse—for wanting to abort, and for injuring her in utero—that I kept all of it a secret.

I've recently begun to share the story of my terrifying pregnancy. My friends don't judge or despise me for it, as I'd feared. But one day (a day I dread), I will have to tell Eliana the harrowing story of her birth—a conversation I hope to postpone for as long as possible.

THE GIRLS DASH
from the sprinkler to their mothers' laps, soaking wet, teeth chattering, exhausted from the run. We wrap our daughters in colorful beach towels and hand them water bottles. They sleepily drink from their bottles, lying in the sun, curled up in our laps, like when they were babies. The wind picks up. Eliana is shivering. I wrap my arms and the yellow towel around her more tightly, and her wet body begins to warm.

The wind picked up, whipping my long hair around my face. Mom led us across the seaweed-strewn wet sand at low tide. Madeline was twelve, Jennifer was five, and I was eight. My sisters and I were dressed in matching blue one-piece bathing suits. Mom was wearing her yellow-striped sundress. The foamy waves rolled over our feet, tangling our ankles in long strands of seaweed, and sculpting ephemeral footprints, which disappeared with each new wave.

“ ‘Private Property, No Trespassing,' ” Madeline read aloud.

“Ignore the sign!” said Mom.

“Won't we get arrested?” I asked, with equal parts trepidation and excitement.

“No. We're below the high-tide mark, so we're not breaking the law. The point is, girls, that all beachfront should be public access. That's what we're fighting for. It's unforgivable that rich people are the only ones who get to enjoy this glorious coastline. That's why we're protesting. Do you understand?”

I nodded. Madeline shrugged her shoulders. Jennifer chased a fiddler crab.

We kept walking across the low-tide wet sand, tossing stones into the surf, chasing seagulls and terns, skirting barnacle-encrusted rocks, till we got to a secluded area marked by a wooden fence and another sign:

PRIVATE BEACH. KEEP OUT.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.

CHILMARK POLICE DEPARTMENT

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSSETS.

A palatial beach-house sat above the dune, the sea and sky reflected in enormous picture windows. A weathered, wooden stairway, overgrown with sea grass and beach plum, led from the beach over the dune and up to the sundeck, where two women in bikinis and a man in plaid shorts were having drinks. The man stood and waved his arms, shooing us away.

“This is where we stop, girls. Right here.” She ignored the man and sat down on the wet sand, facing the ocean.

“Not cool,” said Madeline under her breath. The four of us sat side by side on the sloping shore.

“Isn't it beautiful here?” said Mom.

“I'm cold,” said Jennifer.

“HELLO! EXCUSE ME,” shouted the man on the sun deck, competing with the sound of the wind and surf. “THIS IS A PRIVATE BEACH!”

Mommy turned to face him, and shouted back through the wind, “NO, SIR, YOU ARE MISTAKEN.”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

“I SAID, WE'RE BELOW THE HIGH-TIDE LINE, SO THIS IS NOBODY'S PROPERTY.”

Mom was brave, the way she stood up to him, and really smart.

The man threw his hands up in exasperation and went into the house. The ladies in bikinis continued to sip their drinks, smirking.

“You sure we won't get arrested?” I asked.

“Absolutely not! We haven't broken the law.”

“I'm cold,” Jennifer said again, shivering in the salty spray.

“Then run around. But don't swim, because there's no lifeguard. And watch out for sharks.”

“Aw, I wish I could go swimming,” said Jennifer.

“Sharks need more than three inches of water, Mom,” said Madeline.

“You can't be too careful when it comes to sharks.”

Jennifer collected shells and seaweed. Madeline waded in the waves. I sat next to Mom. It was exciting when she fought for things like this. I loved when she took us on adventures. I mean protests. You never knew how it would turn out. It made me feel important to sit on the sand beside her. We were fighting for something together.

After a while, a tall, thin policeman walked down the beach toward us. He looked out of place in his uniform. The man in plaid shorts came back out onto his deck with his arms folded over his chest, watching us.

“Oh, no,” groaned Madeline. She and Jennifer watched from a safe distance, while I inched closer to Mom on the wet sand. I was a little scared of the policeman, in case he arrested us.

“Good afternoon, Ma'am,” said the policeman.

“Good afternoon, Officer. Isn't it a gorgeous day?”

“Ya see that sign?”

“Yes, Officer, we read the sign.”

“Do you know what trespassing means?”

“Of course. But we're not trespassing.”

The policeman was confused. “This is a private beach. Belongs to that man up there.” He pointed to that man up there.

“No, it doesn't. We're below the high-tide line, so this isn't private property, his or anybody else's.”

“Lady! The high-tide ordinance is for boat-owners. You're allowed to bring your boat up close to a private beach, for fishing or whatever, as long as you're below the high-tide line.”

“Alas, we forgot to bring our boat with us today. But whatever the intent of the law, my daughters and I are within our legal rights, and we intend to stay here until the tide is high, which is hours from now.” She smiled at him, friendly as can be, and a little bit flirty.

The policeman glanced at Mom's cleavage. He looked up at the man on the sundeck and shrugged his shoulders, then wagged his finger at my mom. “You better not cross the line,” he said, pointing behind us at the uninterrupted ribbon of blackened seaweed, pale driftwood, shell shards, desiccated jellyfish, and other flotsam and jetsam separating the wet sand from the dry beach.

“I'll be back.” He turned and sauntered back down the beach.

“Do we really have to stay here till high tide?” I asked, when the policeman was out of earshot.

“No. We just had to make a point,” said Mom. “Come here, girls. Now listen, if you never question the rules, nothing will ever change. That police officer will never think about waterfront access the same way.”

“Yeah, never,” I agreed.

“Maybe,” said Madeline.

We played by the shore a while longer, chasing sandpipers and scuttling hermit crabs, till the tide began to rise.

“I'm freezing,” said Jennifer, jumping from foot to foot.

“Me, too.” I was beginning to shiver.

“Let's go, girls. Good work.”

“That was fun,” I said.

We retraced our steps, jumping over clamshells, stranded jellyfish, and foamy surf, back to the crowded public beach.

Jennifer's teeth were chattering. Mom wrapped her in a big, yellow towel and cuddled her in her lap.

The Girls on the Run picnic is winding down. Eliana snuggles drowsily in my lap. In one week, she finishes third grade, and Julia graduates from high school. Last Saturday was Julia's senior prom. In two months, she leaves for college. (College! How did that happen?)

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