Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine


Ter'ra in'fir'ma, n. 1. Shaky ground. 2. The uneasy shared territory of love and painful separation that defines mother and son. 3. The border between life and death. 4. The precariously emotional place in which we are left after the death of a parent. 5. The mythic terrain a boy passes through on the way to becoming a man. 6. The material from which a writer must craft his story.

"Inside a mother, each of us begins a dream," writes Rodger Kamenetz. Actually, two: a mother's dream for her child, and the dream ...

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Ter'ra in'fir'ma, n. 1. Shaky ground. 2. The uneasy shared territory of love and painful separation that defines mother and son. 3. The border between life and death. 4. The precariously emotional place in which we are left after the death of a parent. 5. The mythic terrain a boy passes through on the way to becoming a man. 6. The material from which a writer must craft his story.

"Inside a mother, each of us begins a dream," writes Rodger Kamenetz. Actually, two: a mother's dream for her child, and the dream that will become a person. For Kamenetz, crossing the terra infirma--the place where the two collide--was not easy: his mother was a difficult woman who had loved her family with a tyrannical passion. Only as she was losing her battle with cancer at age fifty-four could her son begin to take the essential first step toward becoming a man, thereby fulfilling both of their dreams.

Rich with humor and insight, Terra Infirma is a deeply moving account of one man's spiritual passage to the firmer ground of maturity and self-understanding.

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Editorial Reviews

Tikkun Magazine
Honest and moving, this beautifully written memoir shows us how a first-rate poet honors his mother, while at the same time is liberated to travel along his own separate path.
From The Critics
...[A] family narrative in which the major theme is one of silence, of people revealing themselves by what they've kept back....[leaves] us to wonder whether there's more or less to these investigations than meets the eye.
Stephen Clorfeine
In Terra Informa...the burning through of a son's maternal ties allows the author to decode their relationship, as well as to release and regenerate both their spirits....Kamentz's memoir brings us to an intimacy at once personal and open-ended, specifically detailed and yet ultimately poetic.
Richard Bernstein
...[H]ypnotic, cryptically lyrical....not a narrative in the standard sense....It [circles] its main subject in a poetic meandering....Throughout, Mr. Kamentz is tough-minded and tender...sensitive with a quirky, original intelligence and a dry-urbane, self-deprecatory wit.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Poet and author Kamenetz (The Jew in the Lotus, 1994) turns his gaze more powerfully inward than ever before in this slender, emotionally searing recollection of his mother's life and death. His mother died of cancer at 54, ravaged by a typically long and painful battle with the disease. Her son was with her when she died, along with her husband and one of her two twin daughters, and Kamenetz recounts the exact moment of her death in carefully observed detail and strikingly modulated tones.

The rest of his essay maintains the mode of careful observation. The book is most powerful whenever the author draws upon the resonance of objects to convey the pain of emotionsnbut the tone veers, quite intentionally, between the detached coolness of the early pages, occasional dashes of humor, and a more openly agonizing self-assessment. Kamenetz's relationship with his mother was rocky, as she yo-yoed between a smothering affection and a fierce anger. As a result, mother and son seemed to spend much time circling each other warily, like two planets held in a painful orbit by mutually powerful gravitational fields. Using essayist Montaigne as a model, Kamenetz tells his own story in a discursive, digressive style, ranging from mordant and funny ruminations on marriage and the nuclear family to harrowing descriptions of illness. He writes like the poet he is, wonderfully drunk on language and constantly serving up fresh metaphors for familiar emotions and experiences. His love for his mother's difficult, savage, sometimes lapsing into a paradoxically deep distaste emerges clearly. At times a frightening read, but an honest and thoughtful one. (Author tour)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805211108
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, and of three collections of poetry. He teaches literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and lives in New Orleans.
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Read an Excerpt

A Beginning

My mother died in the Church Home Hospice in Baltimore, at the age of 54. Her last words were "I love you." The radio was playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." The immediate cause was respiratory infection, a complication of prolonged medication for pain. My mother suffered cancer for seven years. At the end, a nurse stripped the neck brace, pressed her fingers against the carotid artery, and felt for the faintest sign of a pulse. The velcro made a sound like stitches ripping.

I remember the moment of her death, and in the moments that followed, a kind of wonder at myself, in my own blind efficiency. My father sat stunned as though this weren't something we had anticipated all along. I called my two sisters, and my two brothers, and told them to come downtown and see our mother's body. I called the funeral home, Sol Levinson Brothers. I remember looking them up in the yellow pages, which seemed odd. Shouldn't there be a card, or something, in a hospice? I had all these thoughts. All these practical, cold, abstracted thoughts. Because my mother was dead, and someone had to do something, and I was there to do it.

I felt very responsible for everything that happened. I felt responsible and guilty. I had needed to be there at the moment she died. I was calling the funeral home, and saying "My mother is dead" and saying "Her name is Miriam Kamenetz," and giving a date, an address and a time. All along my mother's body was lying on the bed in the dim lamplight. Her face was crumpled and had lost all its quality. It looked like a rubber mask tossed off on the pillow.

For the next week, I simply rode along on my feeling of mission. The funeral, and the seven days of mourning, coming together with my family, comforting one another, and through all of it, I saw that my eyes were open, and I was observing very carefully, like a son of a bitch, like a writer. I was not cold. I was feeling everything. But back there, way back, I was pivoting around, and seeing, and noting, and remembering.

I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary at the instant of her death. Her last gesture had moved right into me. It was staying with me all through the mourning, there in the place from which I am writing this down.

But I could not put it on paper then. It seemed a violation. I could see her whole life gathering around her last moment. I felt that I could hold its pattern in my hand. But then the fabric would dissolve and I had the gesture of lifting a wave out of water.

I thought I had to let her story go. But three dreams came in the months after she died. They came to disturb, but also to comfort. In the third, very elaborate vision, my mother appeared in a garden to give me a key to her story. I had to write about her then. Just as soon as I began, the dreams stopped.

All the same, I was afraid it would be too sentimental. For what story is more sentimental than the death of a boy's mother--even though Edgar Poe, for one, called it the most "poetical" of subjects? Poe also promised immortality to the author who wrote a simple volume, "My Heart Laid Bare." As though a naive writer could triumph over all the artifices of a master, if only he were sufficiently earnest. But Poe added puckishly, "The title must be true to its subject."

Here is such a volume. But I can be true to the subject only by straying from it. I have read a few books that have been more dutiful. They were all published by the vanity press. Like mine, they were haunted by the loss of a loved one. But their authors make no distinction between history and poetry, as Aristotle does. They tell every detail, in chronological order, as though the reader already acknowledged their significance. They do not see that, at best, history aggregates, only poetry unifies.

I wish to lay my heart bare. But my model is complex, the essay in its radical sense, as practiced by Michel de Montaigne. I admire him because he is so artful there is nothing he cannot say.

Here I must digress, to speak of Montaigne's digression. Only someone constantly aware of his subject could digress so freely. The revelation is always present, not as in the ordinary magic of suspense--but as a barely visible tracing, a pattern of avoidance.

Aggressive writing pursues its subject--a hunting metaphor. Digressive writing flees a painful absence--a haunting metaphor. For Montaigne the hollow induced skepticism, of which digression carved out a warning. For me, the haunting is literal: the dream that comes after death.

Montaigne's project is not always what it seems. If he titles a piece "On Coaches," his subject is not coaches. The title is more like a sign hung outside his construction--WRITING AT WORK. An aggressive reader chasing after the subject, coaches, is quickly outpaced. The coaches disappear at the first or second turn of phrase, and the more determinedly the reader pursues the supposed subject, the more exhausted he becomes, and the more empty the page feels. He has been abandoned by "coaches" and does not yet feel the writing as its own vehicle of transportation. If he lets himself be moved by the prose instead of pursuing the "coaches," then he begins to feel a profound absence of connections and is deeply in Montaigne's skepticism.

I cannot promise that my material is uplifting either. The subject here is death and grief. I am sorry for that, more sorry perhaps than any reader. If I had seen where it would lead me, I might have resisted more strongly. For I have discovered something, apart from the ordinary cynicism that "no one wants to read about death." The subject repulses thought.

Each time I approached the core of feeling around my mother's death, I found my thinking diverted. At first I accused myself of a lack of discipline, or a simple avoidance. I am now convinced, though, that this was at least a complex avoidance. My digression is language turning in grief. Turning away from its subject, to approach it again. This makes for a labyrinthine or spiraling pattern.

This book is part memoir, part biography of my mother, part autobiography. But neither my mother nor I are celebrities. We never committed great crimes. She was entirely a private person, and I am a poet in America, which is the opposite of fame. Yet the pattern of every life is instructive, and an ordinary death may be as tragic as Oedipus.

Every day others will reach the point my mother reached. They will be given terrible medical choices, cures that seem worse than the disease. Many will make courageous decisions as my mother did. I wish this story could be an inspiring one for them, about how defiance won the day, how the doctors were proven wrong, how a fighting spirit confounded science. Some popular books about death have this theme. My mother's story offers no hope. Her defiance did not win in the end.

Yet, if she had read the book of her life, she might have lived. If she had been able to digress, to step away from her own story, she might have seen herself as more than just a body in danger, when she had to decide whether to live or die. Her story, I have come to believe, is tragic. But I did not see this pattern immediately. At the beginning I had only the pain at her death, and three vivid dreams.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Introduction a beginning 1
1 on dreams 6
2 cerebellar poetry 13
3 the piano 20
4 cracked eggs 28
5 on mourning 32
6 an typology 41
7 interior decoration 53
8 weddings 60
9 the will 72
10 terra infirma 87
11 on the meaning of no 102
12 last words 109
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First Chapter

Chapter One

On Dreams

In 1980, at the height of the gold boom, my grandfather came to give advice. His advice was a silent gesture, and so, subject to interpretation. Visualize him: a short feisty man, a silver-haired bantam. "You have to dress like a businessman," he would say, rushing the word businessman with great hustle and bustle so that all the s's seemed to shake at once. He was a dry cleaner. His clothes were spotless.

Of twenty grandchildren, only one listened. he became a doctor. Like the Pierce-Arrow, chocolate soda, and Chinese cabbages, his investments in advice had a high failure rate. Now that he is dead, he gives advice in dreams.

Dream advice seems more authoritative. But it's vaguer. At times I interpret dreams psychologically, at times mystically, but I prefer the school of Joseph. I like the directness: seven fat cattle, seven years of plenty; seven lean cattle, seven years of famine. My dreams, too, have streamlined: simple decor, easy symbols, clear plot line.

When I was eighteen years old and had nothing to write about, I began to write down my dreams. At first they cooperated, short and sweet, clear lovely haiku. But soon my pen was tested by the picaresque, spiky plots with odd characters. Woody Allen would usher in a trembling Richard Nixon who would take me out for a hamburger while the dream took me nowhere. Impossible to interpret, and damned difficult to write down. Still, I persisted.

Then a peculiar thing. Consciously I entered my dreams as though I were taking notes inside them. Psychologists call this lucid dreaming. But for me, it was the dream equivalent of suicide. I was driving uphill. I said, "This is just a dream. I can do anything I want. I can take this car and drive it into the wall." I was driving, indeed, on a street from my childhood, Liberty Road. So I was going to steer that dream at liberty, that is, towards the wall. I grabbed the wheel and turned, but it didn't budge. Some force of equal strength to my own seemed to be fighting against me. The animal part of my will pushed from the other end of the steering column as if the body of the car were fighting the mind of the driver. Finally, with great force, I yanked the car, not into the wall, but over the yellow line. I was now speeding up the wrong side of Liberty with an Exxon truck barreling down upon me. I woke before the crash. I took this as a warning to stop writing my dreams.

As a child I used to dream of falling and always wake before I landed. I had stolen a car. And they were after me. Just they. The owners, the parents, the owners of the world. I had raced the car as fast as I could and finally, crashing through a barrier, the car fell. I would be falling now in space, the car evaporated, falling towards the reservoir, the canyon, the junkyard, the river, the black pit forever. I never landed. If I did, I knew I would die.

That absolute fear has never left me. But it has been made to stand in a corner. I have chastened my dreams, taught them a Biblical sternness and simplicity, values I associate with my grandfather. So I was particularly shocked by his specter. True, he was neat as ever. He was wearing a blue shortsleeve shirt, wash and wear, a shirt I had appropriated from his dresser drawer the day he was buried. I also slept in his bed that night. What shocked me was the necklace. My grandfather would no more wear one than Harry Truman, whom he closely resembled in old age. A pimp's necklace: large gold nuggets. Rays of light emanated from each chunk in a nimbus. My grandfather's finger had also changed. It was coy and elegant, almost feminine, not gnarled and arthritic. It pointed back to the glowing necklace.

"What are you trying to tell me?" I asked. I am a blunt dreamer. In answer, my grandfather stretched his lips and revealed a set of teeth, all gold.

At first, following the school of Joseph, I was simple enough to believe the dream meant I should buy gold. But I couldn't act on a dream. That seemed as fierce a penetration of my life as my attempt to crash the car had been on my dreams.

Anyway, why should his advice be any better now that he is dead? The dead are no wiser than they were in life, although they are surer. I do believe they come back if you make a place for them.

In Mexico, I saw some personal shrines for the dead in a friend's home. Photographs framed in gilt with a black curtain, a drawstring and a handwritten prayer. I have no such shrine. I have a yellowed photograph with a date scribbled in pencil across the back. It is a photo of my mother in 1959 when I was nine years old. She is smiling and that tells you nothing.

Still, when she comes back in a dream, she comes through that photograph. It is her medium. Out of this still shot in black and white, she steps forward in color and three dimensions.

The first time my mother came, I nearly drove her away with my bluntness. I met her at a party. It was one of her terrific parties of the fifties, when everyone was loud and joyous and seemed to be honking and laughing at once. My mother collected people, down-and-out artists, beatniks, insurance salesmen, pharmacists, neighbors, friends, no relatives. She'd mix them up and watch them bounce off each other.

I'd stay up as late I could. The men would flirt with each other's wives or tell loud jokes in the corner of the living room. The women would hustle back and forth to the kitchen or bathroom, heavy rouge, perfume, low-cut dresses. Just middle-class people, but animated. I didn't know what drinking was, but it seemed magical. What was pumping through them that made them -- bigger.

My father was even smoking cigarettes. He smoked them out of little sample packs of Winstons he got from the drugstore. He mixed a drink called an old-fashioned: dark and thick as furniture polish and brown, with an orange peel stuck on the rim. In the morning I'd get up early, sample the empty drinks that were scattered about: on the piano, floor, TV, cabinets. I'd sip the flat pop. I'd eat the maraschino cherries and lick the onion dip off my fingers. The after-party mood was subdued. I felt like an explorer coming upon the scene of a great and foreign disaster. A hurricane had swirled through the house, but I didn't understand the nature of the storm, why Mr. Kovaleski was looking at Mrs. Sachs that way, why there was a fistfight in the kitchen, why they had to call a cab for Benny Freeman. It had something to do with the old-fashioned, but when I tasted it in the morning, I spit it out. It was just bitter.

My mother would dress herself for such a party in something trim and fashionable. In the fifties, her hair was still loose, dark, and wavy. Her dress was red and low-necked. She wore black stack heels of patent leather and rouge on her cheeks. Her bright red lipstick made her smile a bite.

As I came up to her, she was in the middle of a group of friends, had just finished laughing and now her laugh was dropping back. "But Mom," I said, breaking into the group. "What are you doing here? You're dead."

Just stupid blunt, that's all. She looked right past me, didn't skip a beat, as if to say, "fool."

Interpreting that dream seemed so simple at the time. I was having trouble accepting deeply that my mother was dead. Consciously, I knew she was, but the rest of me thought she wasn't. Fine enough. Only now have I come to ask myself, which part was correct?

"But Mom, you're dead." My bluntness. But she wasn't. She was alive, and her putdown, the way she bulled ahead as if my remark were just another foolish drip from my lips, that was her way. Not mine.

It was several weeks later before she would bother to appear again. I was upset to see her and apologized for not getting her a birthday present. She told me that the dead hang out at the synagogues to hear Kaddish prayers, and I felt ashamed because I had not been praying Kaddish.

People say in soothing tones that in such dreams you learn to "accept" death. I don't like that phrase, "accept death." Is death acceptable?

I don't know. I have a dream in which my grandfather told me no one lives alone or ever dies alone. He told me this after he died. He also told me that when I was in a happy mood, my voice seemed bright to him like "sunlight on a ditch." But he said he could see my sad words fall off "the curve of the earth."

My mother also brought me an answer. I dreamed it in Roberval in northern Quebec, the nearest I've ever been to the Arctic Circle. It was the day of the summer solstice, two months after she died. My motel room had photo-wallpaper of a Canadian landscape: bright orange, trees and a lake. Even with the lights off, it glowed. It reminded me of a rug my mother had placed in our living room when I was thirteen. That rug was bright orange, too, a fuzzy round shag. It sat on a floor of dark mahogany that made it vibrate. I'd stare until it lost all color. I'd close my eyes and see a dark blue rug on a white floor, its ghost equivalent. That rug had a history. It was blunt too, like me, like my mother, like a slap in the face.

It could not get dark in Roberval on the longest day of the year. Midnight looked like four P.M. I tossed and stared at the orange wallpaper and didn't fall asleep until dawn.

Her visit this time was so calm and regal, I no longer cared for interpretations. The dream had authority, its own manner of speaking. I'd no more quarrel with it than with an apple.

My mother and I were walking through a French garden, a careful neat garden with fountains at intervals. We were silent, as though under a spell of enchantment, one of those moments that comes sometimes at the end of a long afternoon of walking and talking on a perfect fall day. We stopped and looked back along the way we had come. A goldfish splashed in the water, an oriole flew from an apple branch, a coin dropped on the tile edge of the fountain. Three events, one after the other. A voice, which seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, said, "All these things pass through the spirit like a single wave through water."

I took this to mean that the three events that had just occurred, though apparently distinct, were actually part of a single motion like a wave. And that my mother came from a place where you could see the wave. Then the voice added, "There are two voices. One is continuous and belongs to both of us. The other..." I woke with the sensation that "the voice" speaking with such deep authority was my own.

I remember waking from that dream with great joy. I carefully copied all the details in a small black notebook I'd laid on the night table beside me.

I was enough in the school of Joseph to believe the dream promised me a key -- a way of pulling together the scattered events of my mother's life. I knew now that I had to write about her.

Yet, I was enough in the school of Freud to suspect the dream was my own mind, comforting itself.

Excerpted by permission of Schocken Books Inc. Copyright © 1985 by Metaphor, Inc.

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