Mother: An Aggadah
by Sarah Marcus
“an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother’s stomach, like a frog in a jar” –Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
Kirsten strokes my hair and says,
_____maybe you were put on this earth for your mother.
Do you know the story? A stream, and the scorpion
_____asks the frog for a ride across.
I cant, the frog says, you’re a scorpion.
_____I won’t hurt you, the scorpion says, because I need you
to get across the stream. If I sting you, we both drown.
_____So the frog lets the scorpion get on her back.
She swims hard against the current. They almost make it
_____to shore when the scorpion stings her.
The frog looks backs to ask why. Says, as they begin to sink,
_____because I’m a scorpion.
“Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.” ― Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution
Two days after I called off the wedding my mother needs to talk to me. Kirsten had driven up from Louisville that morning. The three of us at the kitchen table. My mother drinking scotch. My face swollen with grief. Kirs’s hand on mine.
There are some things I need to say to you, my mother says. The heaviness of this circle. Worse than giving the ring back. Your life, she continues, crying, it doesn’t have to be so painful. I ask her if this can wait. If she thinks this is a good time for her to get some things off her chest. I see Kirs’s lips part in shock at my composure. But it’s not composure. It’s disbelief. It’s loss.
I’m worried about you. Your life… your ability to… the men you choose. It doesn’t have to be this hard. I have to stop myself from bursting into laughter. My mother drunk-crying again. From the table I can see into the living room, the picture of the old Hassidic man who is in deep prayer, covered in the privacy of his tallit. I make eye contact with my father who is drying dishes in the corner. I smirk. This scares him. He leaves the kitchen.
There’s fruit painted on my mother’s kitchen table. Apples and pears and grapes connected by a green vine that I trace with my finger. The same green is painted as Venetian plaster on the walls. There are three still-life paintings, also of fruit, hanging behind my mother. The ice in her scotch has melted. Kirs’s hand is a darker shade of olive than mine. She has small fingers. They are cool on top of my burning hand.
I tell my mother that she’s hurting me. That I’m feeling angry. She becomes more hysterical: Do you want me to lie to you? I just love you so much. Kirs squeezes my hand hard. Why are you doing this to me? I just want you to be okay. It’s so typical. I don’t know why I expect anything else.
In the dining room adjacent to the kitchen, my mother has displayed grandmother’s teacup collection in a beautiful antique cabinet. I want to hold one of the cups. Grandmother used to mix blackberry and bergamot. I try to remember the smell.
Kirs lost her mother to cancer when she was ten. Motherless is without protection, unparented, not having. Which is worse. I walk to the sink to bring my mother a glass of water. Drink this, I say. Kirs’s hand still in mine, we leave an absence.
“because a woman’s body/ is a grave; it will accept/ anything.” –Louise Gluck, Dedication to Hunger
No one is sadder than you.
My sister calls and says,
I feel terrible for mom—
she’s so miserable. I should be
home, helping. And I say,
we all have a choice.
You taught her this guilt.
When I was eight, I stole cigarettes
from your purse. One at a time.
Virginia Slims: long, thin menthols.
At night, on the roof, smoke wafting
into your open window.
They weren’t yours, you said.
A friend had left them there.
I took full packs, grew bolder,
took entire cartons.
A friend replaced them.
You wanted to say something—
One night, your hand reached through
the open window, pulled me off of the roof,
and said, one of us has to leave.
Read Sarah Marcus’ Damage Ready
Or more poetry in our current issue