It is as difficult to write about my mother as it is to look directly at the center of the sun.
Cultural custom says I “should have” separated from my mother by now. If I were a self-respecting human, in good standing with the psychologically balanced, I would have declared independence three decades ago, when age twelve turned ultraviolet.
But I was too much of a light-respecting human to reject her rays.
My mother was my prism, my poet, my long-legged persistence in the ravening dark. When life fired cannons, she dressed me in God’s armor. When questions abolished answers, she stitched me safe under her heart.
When the cat threw up, or my blood sugar blew the night, or every living boy hurt my feelings, she cocooned me in handmade quilts, then raised me from the dead to write and fight again.
Or she spoke in an inscrutable Bulgarian accent that middle-fingered the absurd. (Nobody knows from whence this came. “We pet cat! We take walk! We no have time for Turd Boy!” Oh, yes. Turd Boy. Another time.)
Or she read me the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and restrung the lights.
Or she filled my rose teacup until I saw my reflection.
Or she pointed out and out and out and out all the ways the light gets in and in and in and in, the buds on the trees and the poetry in the pop and the doves that land on the bazaar.
Or she shone sternly on the garden until it grew, her tomatoes and her daughter and her naked forsythia she willed to bloom each February.
She was my prism, so I shredded the script that your parents are your prison.
She was God’s flashbulb, so I did not scowl.
She is my best friend and my compass, my comfort, and my courage, so I can’t write about her.
If all of this makes me uncool, I can live with that from the fireside. I am the alien unwilling to depart the mother ship. I regret nothing.
That’s not quite right.
I regret the years of wilted greens.
I did not intend to separate from my mother when I gave away my name. I never meant to shoot the apple or the willow, the tulip or the thyme. But five years later, I was on a brown planet, soiled with love’s wreckage, torn roots gulping air, filthy and half-alone.
My company was green but grisly, limp life in the service of slow death. I had married a man of the mud, and his plants were many.
His plants were tyrants, slithering over every surface, glued to the walls and my few permissible knick-knacks. His plants were sergeants, patrolling my movements. His plants were untouchable, so precious that I dared not dust. His plants were lovable, sullenly right where I was solid wrong.
His plants heard his praise, curling like adders as they spat sap down our walls.
I asked God to make me a fruitful vine, to feed him what he needed.
He needed me to admit that seeing my mother monthly was “a bit much.” He needed me to grow up. He needed me not to talk to her on the weekends. He needed me to acknowledge that all parents were dotards.
He needed me to learn from him, lean to him, kneel in the mud and see my reflection.
When the tornado came, I had no idea what I looked like.
Naked in prison, I had sent away the seamstress.
Neck high in mud, I had blocked the sun.
Light forgives, and light flashes, and light burns. She incinerated my apologies, unwilling to hear them. She turned full Brooklyn, the accent she came by honestly: “It’s over. Done. Move on. We’re fine. God is good all the time. Next?”
She turned the soil and turned down the quilts and turned up with a Subaru full of flowers. The earth was ready.
After tortured rounds of negotiations, the man had taken the brown couches and the brown shelves and the scowling spreading plants. This displeased him mightily. They were sewn into the walls. They were mine to keep. He would let me have them, let me have the whole unsavory salad.
With a prism glinting off my eyes, I said no.
The walls and the world were empty as Eden when my quilter came, a blank canvas for sun and stitches. My mother took a breath and took over.
She gathered a French country dreamscape. She quilted daisies and hyacinths, arbors of affection over nine hundred square feet. She commanded a rose window, inscrutably defying gravity and physics and her own seventy years to hang it high above her head. (“We hang medallion!”) She scarcely ate or slept, living to re-world my land in flowers and fondness.
She was driven like a prophet.
She was gentle like a poet.
She called forth beauty no condo had ever seen.
She put up a lean evergreen, ablaze with hearts and angels. I was to remember that, when I was a baby, my existence was her constant Christmas. I was to remember that I was a baby. I was to remember.
She called together bunnies and begonias, blue Ball jars and white velvet, crystals and epistles of a woman’s worth, pretty things I’d given up wanting, and a deck prism as green as forgiveness.
She called it The Queen’s Garden.
She called me home to myself.
She damned the plants in language known by mothers from Brooklyn to Bulgaria.
She blessed the buds being born, with a phalanx of hearts and angels singing backup.
She still blesses the buds every morning as we Zoom, me in my garden, she in her mountain nest. She is two and a half hours away, a limp legacy of the wilted years. She is as near as sun.
She is my best friend and my constant and my comfort and my courage, and I am rooted to her heart.
Cover image by Evie Shaffer.