my mother/myself

mirror

Conversation after my mother read my first novel:

Me: So, what did you think?
Mom: I don’t like the mother. She made me feel bad.
Me: Not all mothers are you, mom.
Mom: I hope not. The mothers in your stories are always a bit rough around the edges.
Me: Did it ever occur to you that I’m a mother, too? The mother in my story could be me, right?
Mom: I guess so.
(…loaded silence…)
Me: All my characters are reflections of me, mom. The young men, the old women, the antagonists, the side characters, they’re all me. Me, me, me.
Mom: If you say so.
(a few days later, on the phone)
Me: Okay then. The mothers are you and me and all mothers mixed together. It’s a subconscious thing, archetypes that keep crawling in from my dreams. I can’t help it. Okay?
Mom: Okay, I think I can handle that.

*

When I look in the mirror, I don’t always see my reflection. I mean, I don’t see clearly: I see the teeth I’m brushing or my new earrings or a or a giant zit or the sixteen year old girl I was or today’s to-do list or stray droplets that dried on the glass, leaving a white sediment, but I don’t examine the face that ignores my gaze.  Sometimes I don’t feel like looking.

At my mother’s house there’s a mirror that hangs in the bathroom, one of those magnifiers that enlarges your pores to the size of manholes and makes your wrinkles look as deep as dried-up riverbeds. That mirror is a portal to an alternate reality, a shocking Cindy Shermanesque freak show where I’m the scariest clown. When I visit my mother, no matter how hard I try to resist I invariably get sucked in. Spend five minutes with that mirror and you’ll never see yourself the same way again.

My mother’s mirror is a test of strength. It’s an optical illusion, a gom jabbar, the minotaur’s maze, a test of mind over matter, and when I look in that mirror it subtracts every illusion of youth, adds a generation, and I invariably become my mother.

I can’t talk about my mother without talking about myself without talking about my mother. The older I get, the more this is true.

In the 1980’s when my brother and I were off in college, my mom was free to take professional risks and opened a boutique for her hand painted silk clothing. In 1989, she and I took a trip to Shanghai, where she had a factory to produce her designs. I took a semester off school at UC Berkeley to work in the office. In Shanghai, there were few inexpensive housing options for foreigners so we lived in a tiny, dingy dorm room on a college campus: We slept side by side in two twin beds, got up before the sun to make a breakfast from the mini refrigerator, bathe and brush our teeth with tepid, rusty water, mount our bicycles and pedal to the factory. After work we’d go back to the dorm room, grab our decks of cards, sit on our own beds facing each other, and play solitaire for hours, not together but not apart either: tandem amusement, parallel play. She’d smoke her Marlboros and I’d smoke my Indonesian clove cigarettes and we’d talk in half sentences and go for long stretches without speaking, letting words hang in the air and the room fill with smoke and the soft slap of cards. Some evenings there’d be a banquet to attend or the expatriate community would put on a party or we’d visit the discotheque of one of the new hotels. She’d borrow my white blouse and I’d wear her black stockings and we’d take turns in the comfortable shoes (since we wear the same size) or kick them off and dance together since the Chinese men were far too reserved to dance with us.

My mom can dance. If a song moves her, she claps her hands, humming along to the music, feet moving in a loose, vestigial Lindy Hop, arms swinging free as Woodstock with a little James Brown thrown in. She likes a partner but she’s happy to dance alone.

The trip to China solidified a friendship that had always been there, buried under the mother-daughter thing. During my childhood, I usually called her Gail. At 12 I was working at an ice cream parlor, and after she and my father divorced, she got no spousal support so, in order to support my brother and me, Gail stopped painting canvas and started painting houses. She was the only woman on the crew. I moved away from home at 17, went to Europe alone at 18 and traveled around the world by myself at 20. Gail got her contractor’s license and started her own house painting business, the only MFA contractor who’d mix custom colors for her clients while I worked my way from a junior college to a UC to grad school.

For most of my life, and certainly by 1989, we’ve seen eye-to-eye. In 1989, I was 23 and she was 46. She was the age I am now and when I look at pictures, I’m astounded by how she looked, although at the time I didn’t see her in terms of young or old or beautiful or any other external measure, I was too close to see her: maybe I’m still too close. For me, looking at my mother is like looking into a magnifying mirror: she’s too near for focus. I can see the contents of every pore and the tiniest flaw but I can’t take in the larger picture. The boundary between us blurs and warps: she’s me but not me, the past and future, cause and effect all at once.

After the divorce, Gail experimented freely to discover what kind of life felt right for her and I eventually did the same. She taught by example and hid very little: she let me watch and learn and if there was a lesson, it was an implicit directive: Try Everything Until You Find the Thing That Feels Good. You won’t know until you’ve tried all the classes, groups, jobs, styles, men, movements, dance moves, philosophies, gurus, gestalts, weapons, and substances. Put it all in your mouth. If good, swallow: if not, spit.

When I was 3 and snuck the bowl full of chocolate pudding from the refrigerator up to my room to decorate my bedroom walls, I could sense a muted pride in her exasperation. In elementary school, she dressed me in overalls with a wimmin’s lib patch on the bib. She didn’t brush my hair or buy dresses because she wanted me to be more than a pretty girl. When I ran away from home, she always let me. In my teens, the experiments got explosive and for awhile, I kept looking at Gail to see what she was going to say about it. What do you think about these neon green ripped fishnet stockings and my spiked ankle boots? How do I look with skunk streaks in my hair and eyes blackened with thick eyeliner? How do you feel about cocaine and LSD? What would happen if I didn’t come home at night or if I went to live with my father and his new family in his big empty mansion? What would you say if I moved 500 miles away at 17 or posed nude for a magazine or fell in love with a jerk? But the authoritarian thing was not Gail’s style: control and judgment, of self or others, were not components of her reality.

But always, always, I have felt her watching from the middle ground, a benign and constant patience, an intense and burning interest peering over the horizon, waiting to see what I’d do next. After awhile, I learned to stop looking outside for answers when the only reaction that mattered was my own.

We look to mirrors to see ourselves, after all, and I have learned what feels good to me: My daughters, my man, my home, my friends. Writing and reading. Working hard, polishing a thing until it shines. A hot bath, a sound sleep, dancing, riding a bike, cooking good food, driving fast with the windows down and the music up, my garden, telling the truth, and my mother.

The more clearly I see myself, the more I see her: distinct, individual, and strong. I see how anger conceals her tenderness and the tough layer covering her pain. I recognize her exuberant, muscular joy and the true meaning of beauty, how my eyes delight in the look of her and how, by letting me see her true face, she has allowed me to be myself.  Sometimes I don’t feel like looking at myself in the mirror, but thanks to my mother, I can.

Alice Walker said it right: “Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”

Leonard Cohen

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

50 comments

  1. Beautiful and I love Leonrd Cohen….he’s from my hometown!! 🙂

  2. Anna…Knowing you and knowing Gail for nearly a lifetime makes this piece even more a treasure to me than it already is on its own. You elicited tears from me again- in celebration of this timeless, unique and beautiful relationship and all its fruits, in celebration of your masterful expression and ability to capture tangibles and intangibles so fully and richly, in celebration of the tender place in me you touched. I love you, GITH.

  3. Anna, this is incredibly inspiring. You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    xx

  4. Thank you Anna. I was swept up in your beautiful and insightful gratitude.

  5. Amazing writing. Love the whole passage and mirror metaphor. There is a lot of truth what you say and can be applied for many mother daughter relationships. I have a daughter who is 21. I wonder what she would think?

    • Gail’s mirror is terrifying. The idea of having an adult daughter is terrifying, too. But it could be really, really fabulous too, right?

      • I LOVE it! In general, my generation has very open and honest relationships with our daughters. I was always close to my mom, but still can’t tell her everything. My daughter is one of my best friends, although I have to be careful not to unload on her. She comes to me for advice about everything!

  6. Hello!

    I hope you are well.

    I liked you post much. And the video. Have you listened to Leonard Cohen’s latest album, Old Ideas?

    Have a happy life Anna!

  7. A mesmerizing portrait. If I looked in the mirror and saw what you see, I’d never look away.

  8. All I can say is that this is so beautifully rendered, so poignant and so…YES!

  9. Beautifully written, as always. And your conversation with your mother sounds a little like talking to my sister after she’d read my novel.

  10. Oh Anna, submit this somewhere. Such a beautiful compelling essay.

  11. Todd

    Very nicely written. Your mom will have to bake you some cookies for this one. Wow, more parallels. I traveled to foreign lands by myself at 19 , smoked, experimented with drugs and sex, parents divorced at 12 (it was the “in” thing to do in the 70’s), Mom had her own business, and Dad also wouldn’t pay child support so we all got after school jobs. But there the trail splits and I take the low road. My mom and I have the polar opposite relationship. When we’re in the same room, I’m the board, she’s the fingernails and every glass shatters from the screeching. You’re lucky!

    • I do feel lucky, Todd. Not that we always get along perfectly, but there is a bone-deep connection and rapport. It’s amazing that with all that divorce and drugs, etc., that we turned out okay. We’ll have to watch our own children carefully to ascertain which produces more balanced people: coddling or unconsciousness.

  12. Anna – you have a gift for getting straight to the heart of the matter. Your writing is joy to read as it conjures forth so many pictures and emotions. Funny thing was I was thinking I had better go looking for a post from you this morning – and here it was. Thank -you.

  13. MSB

    What a beautiful picture you draw. I think i would die a happy woman if any of my children wrote about me like this.

  14. …when I look in that mirror it subtracts every illusion of youth, adds a generation, and I invariably become my mother.

    Just gorgeous writing — all of it.

  15. This thing you just wrote.. This intense explosion of life so crystallized, so pure, so authentic and unafraid.. The power of its truth! The force of it, I mean it what exactly just happened to me anyway? The internet did its thing and brought up your blog when I clicked on the words to read stuff you’ve written and BAM! this magic comes careening through the screen of this insignificant technological device just to bitchslap my soul back to life. With a soft sensual kiss. Your mind has mojo.
    All semantics aside, this piece is the most beautiful thing I have read in a really, really long time. Engaging. So totally engaging. I related deeply, found myself dying to both meet you and be you and happy just as well to be here living like this vicariously through you.

    You once wrote about the way an author can romance you, about the connection they make so deep with your soul through words they wrote as if only for you… You have this power. And I know I’m not the only one who sinks into your
    Boom boom pow.

  16. T

    Absolutely lovely. The mirror, as both metaphor and image, is well used here. Your mother, here, is a force. You are lucky to have each other.

  17. What a wonderful tribute to your mom. I hope THIS is a mother character she can get her head around!

  18. Chère Anna,

    Giant sigh. My heart is swollen, my eyes are filled with tears. Your writing, the stuff that always seems to flow so effortlessly from deep inside of you, touches me so profoundly. And from all of the comments here, it touches everyone lucky enough to read you here. Thank you, once again, for opening up, for putting it all out there, and for continuing to inspire.

    Looking so forward to being on the same coast as you, and in the same time zone. Soon I will be able to see your beautiful face & self.

    Until then, big hugs & bisous from Provence,
    Aia

  19. “I can’t talk about my mother without talking about myself without talking about my mother”. Wow. This says everything about the complexity of mothers and daughters. But I love how you go on to illustrate how very real that is for you and your Mum. The pictures you paint are so captivating!

    What an incredibly beautiful ode to her. I’m yet to write about my mother. I’m not sure I even can. xo

  20. Ahh Leonard Cohen… cried many tears to his songs in my teens and early twenties … sigh

  21. Reblogged this on girl in the hat and commented:

    Reposting this for mothers day. Cheers to all moms and everyone who’s had a mother!

  22. mums + time = non-produced wisdom

  23. Beautiful, timeless piece, I am deeply touched. Thank you for reposting.

  24. Beautiful. I bet all readers see a little of their mothers in your words. I know I do–and yet in many respects mine was as different from yours as night and day.

  25. Thanks to my father who stated to me regarding this weblog,
    this weblog is truly remarkable.

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