My mother looks like Sylvia Plath in that one photo they publish of the young poet over and over, on just about every book jacket, under every earnest blurb. The photograph that made her into a myth, staring into the camera in her collegiate cardigan, sitting in front of a shelf stacked with books. My mother’s black eyes could stare like that, intense and sure, like charcoals ready to ignite. Both women, in their youth, had the thick, dark, wavy hair hanging around their necks. Both a long slope of Germanic noses with nostrils flared, ready to sniff out the slightest hint of sentimentality. And their painted, full lips — those are exactly the same — shrewdness and deathly intellect underlying the slight upward curve at the corners of their mouths.
Mom and Sylvia would be the same age now, 76, had Sylvia decided to live. Often, I wonder how Sylvia might look, had she survived. Would she look like mother does now, her body ravaged, deep creases slanting along her cheeks, tightening into thin lines at the lips where for all those years she smoked? For so long, I have tried to make sense of these two women’s lives, to make them somehow connect. But now, their art is all that’s left.
Mom rustles under her bed sheets. She shoves the covers off her chest in one gruff motion and then her hands grope at the edge of the down comforter like a child looking for a mother’s finger. But Mom’s fingers are bony as a skeleton, far from childlike. I think of Sylvia’s poem, “Words for a Nursery,” the speaker’s subtle disdain at taking care of a child so delicate, its unfurling fingers grasping. Mom may have had the same disdain for me, the child inside her when my father left her seven months pregnant, forced to care for a needy infant all alone. Now Mom is the one who’s needy. And I, too, feel some disdain.
“Get your worms in, Mom,” I say, just like she used to say to me, and I tuck her squirming fingers under the covers.
I dab Mom’s forehead where it beads at the hairline, the hair so thin now, long, wiry strings of twine. The liver has charge of the hair. Who could have known?
The light in the kitchen turns on. Mom shifts again under the covers and coughs. Jane, the hospice nurse, shuffles across the floor to put tea water on the stove. The water runs, Jane’s shoes rub against the polished wood floor, the gas stove clicks, clicks, clicks as Jane turns on the burner. The sound of mornings here in Mom’s house. The shoes squeak again. Jane wears those white, rubber-soled nurse shoes, all day and all night; they glare like hot irons from under her polyester pants.
Four years ago, Mom came to Cambridge to hear my lecture on Plath’s poem “In Plaster.” The talk was part of a Boston poets’ symposium and the dean of the English department had asked only two of us Ph.D. candidates to speak. Mom sat in the front row, dressed in her tailored gray flannel suit and a black silk scarf tied around her neck. From the podium, I watched as an older woman with badly permed hair picked the seat next to Mom. The woman wore a baby pink sweatshirt and the white synthetic slacks of a nursing assistant. Mom looked the woman over once and then turned her head sharply toward the podium, glaring at me with eyes widened by judgment. The woman was just some anonymous lit lover who’d seen a flier; I felt honored she’d made the effort to attend. But afterward, Mom came up to me and the first thing she said was, “Who wears pants like that to a formal talk?”
I shrugged and couldn’t answer.
“You did very well, dear,” Mom said later, “But your hair was a bit of a mess.”
As we walked out of the symposium, I wondered if Mom had heard a word of my lecture. Or did she only spend the time scrutinizing me while scorning the woman next to her?
After she’d left town, I didn’t call my mother for a month, hoping she’d miss me.
The tea kettle whistles and screams. Jane pulls the kettle off the heat and the screaming finally quiets. I know Mom can hear all these noises from her bed in the living room. But Jane and I agreed this living room, the room where for years Mom painted, would be the best place for us to care for her. The walls in this room are so full with Mom’s paintings hardly any space exists between each frame. But now, her easel leans folded in the corner, and her coffee can of brushes and palette of dry, crusted paints collect dust on that old wooden table.
Mom’s bed is situated to look west out the bay window, toward the old elm tree just coming into bloom. The tree is depicted in at least four of the watercolors around me, each in a different season, each a different mood. The last painting Mom created was two Novembers ago. In the painting, broad golden rays silhouette the dark, barren elm from behind, as if the tree had died. I think of Sylvia’s poem “Elm,” how she describes the brutality of the setting sun, the figure of an elm tree strangling itself. This seeing of a sunset and a big old tree as harbingers of doom is why I think my mother and Sylvia could have been sisters.
Jane enters with a cup of tea and pulls opens the shades. The early morning sky throws shadows from the tree.
My mother never had a suicide buddy like Anne Sexton was to Sylvia, not a real person anyhow, the kind of friend who would say the day she died, “the bitch beat me to it.” Mom talked with no one about her desire to die and she certainly never admitted to anyone that she’d lost the will to live long ago. Before Mom even knew about her two kinds of cancer, I sensed many times after our long distance phone calls, how sick she was, and often I’d place the receiver down and imagine my mother standing in front of a cracked, yellowed canvass, untouched for months at a time. I could hear the ice clinking in her bourbon glass; I could see her wavering before the big bay window, I could smell the tar burning from the end of her cigarette.
So, maybe I’m her accomplice in her death because I never did confront her about her bad habits; I never did ask her to change. All I did was study Sylvia and think about how my life would be different if my mother actually died while I was a young girl, rather than stayed alive in a living kind of death. But even if I had confronted Mom, I know what she would have said: “Lots of things cause cancer, Mavis. This is not my fault.”
It’s hard to think about things like fault when she starts coughing like this, hacking just like when she smoked, but now, this new awful gurgling from deep inside that follows. I’ve never heard anything like it, the cluttered dark interior of a body.
I stand up and let Jane take over for the morning shift. Mom’s collection of unsold paintings stare at me as I walk to my old bedroom. So many flowers in watercolors — moist and lush, lovely paintings really with nowhere else to hang. The blurred petals of poppies, the curled leaves fallen off magnolia branches, the lilacs, spilling over the lip of the vase like a million heartaches.
Robert Lowell once wrote that Sylvia’s poems “translated” all the pain “into beauty, nothing less.” I do believe my mother did the same with her art. But Plath had friends in her process, a triumvirate of friends to commiserate with in her darkness. My mother never had those kinds of friends. Hers has been a lonely, bit-by-bit suicide.
My old bedroom is just the same. The low shelves have barely changed, still filled with children’s books and adolescent mysteries. Here, in this very room, I first read The Bell Jar, when I was just a freshman in high school. My girlfriend had told me that she’d swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and had to have her stomach pumped in the ER. I wanted to understand what it might be like to have a death wish and Sylvia’s book taught me about that desire. For the rest of that year I died my hair black, skulked around the halls of the school, and pretended the morbid contagion caught me, too.
Then, my sophomore year, right after Grandmother died and Mom began drinking even more, I read all of Sylvia’s poems and wrote my own dark brooding ones. I tried to imitate Sylvia, her use of words, her witchcraft syntax, her lines upon lines of ruthless enjambment. But, like the blond hair sprouting out at my roots, all my attempts to imitate turned up forced and silly.
The doorbell rings and I hear Jane’s shoes squeak across the floor to answer it. Voices talk, the door closes. When I enter the living room, Jane is holding a cheap glass vase filled with flowers. Deep red tulips I ordered yesterday in a bout of morbid humor, thinking of the time Sylvia got her own vase of red tulips in the hospital, how she hated her illness and hated even more the people who tried to comfort her. Jane places the vase on Mom’s end table, arranges the flowers and smiles her meager smile, the one that always says she feels sorry for me. Jane doesn’t know, of course, what the flowers mean. And Mom doesn’t even look at them; the bulbs of her eyes move fast under her papery, closed lids as she dreams.
Once, when I was a young girl, Mom received tulips from a suitor. The note said the flowers were “Just between friends.” She stuck them in a glass vase and left them on the sill under the bay window. For a whole day, Mom paced, glaring at the tulips. Late in the afternoon, when the sun lit up the room and Mom cooked us dinner in the kitchen, I went in to peer into the center of the flowers, where black stains ran like mascara inside the red petals. Mom came over to me then and grasped her hand around my upper arm. “Mavis,” she said, “don’t ever let flowers fool you. They’re pretty, but they’re not for free. A man will always want something from you for sending them.”
That next morning, I walked into the living room and saw Mom had been awake all night. The thin blades of her shoulders pierced through her nightgown as she stood a few steps back from her easel, elbow on her hip and the cigarette burning a long tube of ash between her fingers. The canvas showed big red tulips stuffed into a vase, their tight red hearts, in the evening, closed shut.
Mom sleeps all day in fits, her breath rapid and hard. Mid-afternoon, I tell Jane I’m going for a walk.
Outside, there’s dampness and a chill. The sunlight is bright, even though the sky is clouded over; a vast white cloth of early spring drapes over Lake Michigan. The houses on the block are nondescript, brick or gray-blue sided, except one purple bungalow with its overhanging eaves. The houses are so crowded together. Only flimsy chain-link fences separate their backyards. Such exposure and such closeness.
When I was eight, Grandmother took me to the only gallery opening Mom ever had in Chicago’s art district. We walked from the house all the way to the El to get downtown. On the way, Grandmother told me what seemed a hundred times to keep my hands to myself when we got there. We walked fast, against the lakefront’s chill. Grandmother’s breath swirled in frozen vapors around her scarved head as she talked.
“The art gallery,” Grandmother said, her German accent thickening as her breath quickened with the pace, “is no place for little girl to be. But your mother demands it. So it is. Demands it just like her painting. This is not an easy life, Mavis, you understand? Your mother alone with you after your father turns out no good. But she never had sense, your mother, so stubborn.”
Grandmother grabbed my hand tighter and trailed me behind as I tried to keep up. Before we turned west to meet the train, I caught a glimpse of the metal colored water, mute and placid, offering no commentary, no help. Grandmother was still talking away, saying, “Your mother could be happy if she find right man, get real job. But no, this life she choose is hard.”
Before I know it, I’ve walked all the way to the lake. The parking lot at the beach is empty. The beach house is boarded up. There are no other people and it makes me realize I’ve forgotten what day it is. I calculate it must be Tuesday, a weekday. People are at work.
I miss my work, my real job of giving lectures at the university on madness and art. The rooms where students listen and know I have something to say. A place I can express my passion, the respect I have for Sylvia that in her agony she could get her pain down on paper in a way that no woman had before and no woman would again. To turn such pain into beauty, that is what life is for.
The air is cooler down here, damper. Milkweed seeds drift toward the beach, the frozen sand thawing after the cold winter. At the retaining wall, a slush of ice rims the rocks. When I touch an icicle hanging from a boulder, it cracks and breaks off into the water. The skyline of Chicago juts out to the south; I can just make out the top of the Hancock building. And beyond the city, the lake unceremoniously meets the sky, a deepening of gray.
I walk all the way back to the house and open the heavy mahogany door. The house is full of static, the air dry, the gas furnace humming. I walk to the living room where Mom is finally quietly asleep.
“A good long spell,” Jane says. “She’s getting rest.”
Jane stands from her chair and looks for a moment out the window, where dusk has settled and only the outline of the tree lingers in the front yard. She draws the curtains while I pour myself a drink, a bourbon on the rocks, just like Mom. Jane smiles that sorry smile and I turn away to the freezer for some ice. Having a drink like this is a twisted thing to do, I know, with Mom’s liver soaked from her bourbon, saturated like an old rag.
I really don’t know about Sylvia’s drinking habit, what effect, if any, it may have had on her madness, that part is most elusive of all. Plath once said she was so tired out by nightfall that music and brandy and water were all she could cope with. And I know after attending Lowell’s seminars, Sylvia and Anne used to get drunk on martinis and plot their inevitable deaths. But it doesn’t matter to me anymore, the why. I understood perfectly well after Grandmother died that my mother was dying, too.
Grandmother’s death was sudden and dramatic, her big-boned body hitting our floor in a sucking thud, Mom over her mother’s body, pumping her chest to get her back, me still in pajamas, calling the ambulance. Grandmother had just arrived for breakfast, she was still in her overcoat; the day was unimportant.
It wasn’t that Mom didn’t drink before Grandmother died; she’d done her share, especially if she had a show coming on. She’d drink after long hours of painting in the living room, sipping on bourbon and smoking cigarettes, staring at her work. But after Grandmother died, Mom started dying, too. She stuck her head in the oven of her grief and didn’t ever come back out.
My father is what we fought about the most while I lived at home. The final fight was the summer after my senior year, one night when I was setting the table for dinner. Mom held her bourbon glass in one hand and shoved an envelope at me from the day’s mail with her other. The letter was from an old friend of my father’s, a man I’d found from snooping around Mom’s high school yearbook. I’d written the guy hoping for information, an address maybe, or a phone number of where my father might be. I opened the letter and read, the friend was cordial enough, but he wrote he’d lost touch, couldn’t tell me anything. Mom drank her bourbon as she watched me read the letter, watched me fold the paper and stuff it into the back pocket of my jeans.
“What’d you have to write him for? To find your father?” she finally asked, putting her glass down on the counter. She walked across the kitchen with her finger pointed toward me. “Am I not a good enough mother for you that you want your bastard of a daddy, too? Don’t you I know what I’ve sacrificed for you?” Her neck turned red and her voice turned shrill, pinching off at the end of each rhetorical question.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is, Mom. He’s my father; I have a right to find him,” I said, straightening a fork on the table.
She swiped her hand across the tabletop. Flatware flew into the room and crashed onto the floor. “You’ll never understand until you have a child of your own!” Her voice sounded hysterical.
“Understand what? That to be a mother is to be paranoid and crazy?”
Mom’s hand whirled at me, smacking me open-palmed across the face. I staggered but didn’t fall. I held my cheek and glared at her.
“You’re the bastard, Mom,” I said. “And I’m through.”
I left for college a few weeks later, as far east as I could go, my bags packed with scholarships and poetry books.
The light we leave on over the kitchen stove is the only light angling into the living room. I wake up in the chair next to my mother’s bed and I don’t know what time it is. I stand to look at myself in the one mirror on the wall between the kitchen and living room. Sylvia said in her poem “Mirror” that an old woman rises in the silvery glass and I see my face now, wan and pale, breaking the line of darkness in the mirror. I do not look like Mom or Sylvia; my nose is short and flat, my jaw rather square, my cheeks angular. I think my face must be the face of my father, and, standing here, I suddenly understand that for my mother, I was a constant reflection of him.
A rustling of sheets hovers at my back. Mom has turned on her side and faces me, which is not good for her, to put pressure on her liver like that. Her thin, hot hand reaches out from under the covers and I walk back to her, squat down by her bed and take her fingers in mine I squeeze her hand tightly. Her eyelids press open. She’s been awake for who knows how long.
“Mom,” I say, “Are you okay? What can I get for you, Mom?”
She doesn’t answer. A film of white crust has dried on her lips where they meet the wet, pink inside of her mouth. She breathes shallow uneven breaths, each one more ragged than the last. She looks at me with heavy lids that overhang her dark pupils, as she blinks twice in slow motion. Then she fixes her stare on my face and inhales deeply. My mother looks lucid and alive, her eyes sharp as any cutting line break, her life lovely as any desperate stroke of the brush.