Saturday, November 7, 2009

The silence of the grave

"I come up against the silence of the grave. The impossibility of knowing what happened to or with the dead . . . [The dead] ensure that we will be, in relation to their lives, incapable of distinguishing fact from invention. They guarantee the falsity, the partiality, of our witness."
---Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man (1996) (as cited in Lynn Davidman, Motherloss, 2000).

My brother and I were walking down the street from my father’s house when we were hailed by a strange woman. She ran across the street, calling our names, and I thought, “Who is that woman? How does she know who we are?” It was several minutes before I realized it was my mother. She had changed her hairstyle in the months since we had seen her, and I didn’t recognize her at first. I don’t know what it was that cued me in, finally, to who she was – her voice, her face, her gait – but even after I knew it was her, I stood still, staring at her. I think I just didn’t expect her to be there and wasn’t sure how to respond. Then I ran across the street to her and we hugged each other.

As I go through my mother’s letters and photographs, I keep having that same feeling – that sense of seeing a stranger, someone I hardly recognize. I know it is my mother, but she seems so utterly unlike the woman I remember. Her face is somewhat familiar, to be sure, and I remember some of the stories in her letters. Yet in a very real way, she is a stranger to me. I didn’t know my mother as a person in her own right. I only knew her as my mother.

Women are so often defined by their relationships. We are daughter, sister, wife . . . even our last names are often not our own, coming as they do from our fathers and husbands. Add to this the egocentrism of a child, who cannot imagine that Mommy has a life outside of motherhood, and it is not surprising we don’t really see her as a separate entity. If my mother had lived until my adulthood, I think I could have come to know her more as a person, and less as my mother. I’ve seen that shift in my relationship with my father as I’ve gotten older. He’s still my dad, but I know him more fully, in arenas not related to his role as my father.

But I didn’t have that opportunity with my mother. I want to know who she really was, beyond her role as mother. Who was she to her friends, her lovers, her family . . . who was she to herself? So I stare at the pictures of this elegantly dressed stranger and read her letters. I attempt to put aside my own preconceptions about her, to see beyond the mirror of my own wants and needs. I try to piece together who she was. But I can never be sure whether I’m seeing her for who she really was, or whether she is now a creation of mine, as I am a creation of hers.

Amsterdam, 1968