The phone rang, jolting me out of a haze of French 1 vocabulary. Propelled to the kitchen by curiosity, I glanced from the blameless taupe receiver, now back in its cradle, to my mother’s profile. She didn’t look sorrowful or dazed or even relieved. She looked blank. Blanker even than she’d looked since her return a week ago from her mother’s sickbed in Zurich. She stood in her usual spot at the sink, staring out the window at the backyard.
“That’s that,” she said flatly. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I sat down at the butcher-block table and waited. I have no idea how much time passed. Probably less than I thought.
Eventually, without turning around, my mother beckoned me. I joined her at the sink. Our hips bumped; I was as tall as she was, barely.
Some fifteen yards from the house, a huge blackbird hopped and flapped in a semi-circle. Together, we watched its awkward, lumbering dance. At one point it paused and cocked its head. It had noticed us — or movement, or a glimmer — through the panes.
“Hoi, Mami,” my mother said, and waved. The bird began its dance again, changed its mind, and flew off. My mother turned to me and smiled. I raised an eyebrow.
“Why the hell not?” she said. “It’s probably her.”
* * *
1. The Impression She Made
My mother had a wicked humped nose that embarrassed me as a child. It was so large, and her voice was so loud, and I wished she could just be less there, sit quietly in the front seat and drive without yodeling or imitating a mandolin with her long and pointy tongue with its polyp at the tip. She knew songs in four languages and sometimes, like in Red River Valley, switched from English to German in a single stanza. Some of her songs were dirty and made me squirm, and some of them were about death and made me quietly desperate. She liked playing mournful tunes on the harmonica and stared me down over the instrument when I begged her to stop. I glowered. But I couldn’t leave the room. It would make it seem like I didn’t care.
2. The Games She Played
Sometimes before my father came home she played dead. It would never occur to my best friend’s mother to scare the living daylights out of her child, yet asking my mother to stop was as unthinkable as ratting her out to my father, who I knew would disapprove. I understood instinctively that she would be disappointed in me if I complained, or even mentioned this tick of hers: couldn’t I take a joke? She enjoyed the fact that I got scared, or she wouldn’t have bothered. From my room at the end of the hall I would suddenly sense the quiet: no kitchen noises, no sewing noises, no feeding the cat noises, no cleaning noises, no phone talk. I’d call and search to delay the inevitable: finding her in the bedroom, sprawled across the bed, eyes closed, jaw slack. She was daring me to panic, or not to panic. I always panicked.
3. What She Fed Me
My mother fed me day-old spaghetti fried with an egg, toasted asparagus and mayonnaise sandwiches, cabbage salad in whole-wheat pita pockets.
Sometimes, she popped into my room and served me raw broccoli stalks or red pepper slices or popcorn while I raced through my homework. Once, she handed me an avocado half and a spoon, as if we had been eating avocados all along. Debonair, she spooned the green flesh out of her half and ate it with relish. Of course, I followed suit. My first avocado.
4. What She Sounded Like
When I interviewed my mother for a school project and played the tape back to her she cried. She hadn’t realized how strong her Swiss accent was. “I sound like that Nazi Sigi Lilienthal on Deer Run Road!” Our neighbor probably wasn’t a Nazi. But she did sound like Colonel Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes.”
5. Liberties She Took At Home
Once my mother found my anatomically incorrect Adam and Eve, amateurishly drawn in colored pencils, and corrected them in pen; another time, she found my diary stashed beneath my mattress. Where I had written, “I hate Mom!” she penciled in “But I love my Dansie-girl.”
Once, she found the sanitary napkin I had stuck in my panties to see what it would feel like on the terrible day I’d have to go back into diapers. I had chucked it out the window, where it landed behind the hemlock. She told me to use the wastebasket.
6. . . . And In the World At Large
She taught me to stand in front of the bulk candy bin at the supermarket and deliberate before boldly filching a handful. She reasoned that the manager, if he knew her, would want her to have a treat at his store, and she unwrapped the sourballs grandly in front of the stock boys.
When one of my father’s colleagues wives walked into the house flaunting a Gucci purse, my mother earnestly discussed the high quality knockoffs peddled on the streets until the woman kicked her bag under the couch. My mother despised brand-name pretensions.
If someone exclaimed that she didn’t have time to clip coupons my mother would say she didn’t have the money not to clip coupons and would then go on to discuss her next trip to Switzerland.
If someone confused Switzerland with Sweden, she went on to someone else. That was a lost cause.
7. How She Shopped
She loved buying things on sale but not as much as she loved returning them. She returned clothing as though she were Princess Di, as if her having worn the item had increased its value. She returned my prom dress and my Snow Ball gown, too, though not before taking a lot of pictures. She took pictures because she thought I looked great, or because her daffodils were in bloom, and she wanted to pose her favorite things together.
8. How She Tried to Find Herself
My mother went through a tag sale period (she refused to buy me a Barbie until she found an amputee), an art class period, a sewing and antiques period, a gardening phase, and menopause. She collected buttonhooks and encouraged me to collect marbles so the antique and junk stores would hold treasure for me, too.
9. She Was a Sexpot
When my mother came to visit me at college my friends made a point of being around. Greg Robbins told my then-boyfriend to hang on to me, proclaiming: “I have seen the future, and it looks good.” I made the mistake of telling her, and she dressed down for her visits after that. She liked her glory, but not at my expense, and at the time I was wearing nothing but what she called “baggy pilgrim dresses.” Finally, I bought a fitted grey wool dress with a drop waist at Macy’s basement and practiced wearing it before she came. When she saw me, she got all teary and said, “Oh, Dansie-girl. I can finally see you have breasts!”
Once I was out of college she told me of the two teenage boys who had followed her down a slope at Catamount and chatted her up from behind. When she turned, they stared at her wrinkly face. “Well,” one of them said, “you are an old hot mama!” She skied the way people did in the Alps in the 50s: with an elegant rocking motion and deceptive speed. She could not follow a trail but she always found the coziest hut and made friends with the old guy who ran it. And stayed friends with him for decades.
10. How She Laughed
Sometimes, when I was home for school breaks, we hung out together on the L-shaped couch with its worn beige nap. We liked watching beauty pageants with the sound off and laughed ’til we cried at Miss Alabama mouthing “O Solo Mio.”
When it got late, I would settle my feet in her lap and she would pull off my socks, massage my feet, and ask me my toes’ names: telling me in loving detail how ugly they were, and how wide, and how callused and horny, while stroking them gently, gently, before yanking one toe viciously. This was the successor to the game, “Nice Danie, nice Danie, BAD DANIE!” from my childhood, in which she would kiss and tickle my hand, and then smack it.
She liked surprises — giving and getting them. So when she asked me on the screened porch one day if I knew what was the most important thing to look for in a man, I answered, without missing a beat: “A really big dick.” That was our last fantastic laugh; we already knew she was going to die in a couple of weeks. She loved being my straight man. She loved to think I wasn’t afraid to have fun.
11. What She Knew and What She Taught Me
When I lost my virginity my mother sensed that it had happened just by talking with me over the phone. She reminded me to be safe but she also told me she hoped it felt really, really wonderful. It was because of her that I knew it was supposed to: she had somehow dropped that fact along the way, in the car, as my fuming father tried to change the subject.
12. What She Hid
Before I moved to Paris my mother bought me a short pleated wool skirt, a classy navy blazer, and a navy wide brimmed hat from Lord and Taylor’s. She loved buying me hats, and I wore it to the airport that day because it wouldn’t pack. My father cried noisily as I boarded the plane, but my mother smiled and laughed and waved.
In the boarding tunnel I looked up and saw her sobbing in the closed circuit TV.
13. What She Said Before She Died
She told me: “Don’t ever, ever worry about what you may have said or done that you thought hurt me.” And: “Please remember me the way I was.”
* * *
As fate would have it, I married and moved to Zurich 21 months after my mother died. Today, I live with my husband and three children in an apartment less than a mile from where my mother spent her twenties, before emigrating to the States. So I wasn’t surprised the first time I heard a very un-Swiss racket from the tree off the kitchen balcony.
The blackbird visits irregularly, unpredictably.
My children and I wave. Why the hell not? It’s probably her.