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Writing an autobiography and making a spiritual will are almost the same.
All we know of love comes from our mothers. Yet we have buried that love so deep that we may not even know where it comes from. If we have been wounded and have grown scar tissue over our hearts, we confuse the scar tissue with the heart itself, forgetting the wound that caused it.
My first memories of my mother come from the year my younger sister was born. I do not remember ever being the center of the universe, because when I came into the family, my older sister--four and a half to my zero--was already there.
I am four and a half when my younger sister is born, and my mother lies in bed like a queen receiving guests, children, parents, friends. She is beautiful and brown-eyed, with reddish-brown hair, and she wears a padded silk bed jacket over a silk nightgown. The women in my family wear bed jackets only in times of great ceremony--childbirth, illness, death--and we rarely spend daylight hours in bed. We are all so energetic that we clean up after our housekeepers, type for our secretaries, and instruct caterers in how to cook--though cooking is not exactly a family talent. So if my mother is in bed wearing a bed jacket, it must be important. And it is: Daughter number three has just been born.
The baby has a cold caught in the hospital, and four-and-a-half-year-old Erica has ringworm caught from her best friend's cat. She is forbidden to touch the baby--who is guarded by a dragonlike baby nurse. Erica feels contagious to the point of leprosy, so superfluous she thinks no one willeven care if she runs away. At four and a half, she can only conceive of running away to her best friend's house, on the floor below--but that is where she caught the ringworm in the first place. (In later days she might have run around the corner to the candy store--though every time she did that she ended up using one of her sweaty nickels to call home from the musty, cigarette-smelling phone booth. Invariably the adults wheedled her into saying where she was. She wanted to be found so badly she always told. She let them convince her to come home, though it meant crossing the street like a big girl.)
So she stays in the apartment, a rambling dilapidated West Side palace whose double-height front windows give north light--many of the people in the family are painters.
Erica's mother will not remain in bed wearing that quilted bed jacket for long. Pretty soon she will be up and running around, doing a "quick sketch" of the infant in her crib, telling the nurse how to care for the baby, stuffing the chicken to be roasted, and cutting together the butter and flour for the crust to enclose the apple pie she has told the housekeeper to make. Then she will dash to ballet school or the park or the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center with her two "big girls."
But the time--a day? two days? a week?--her mother stays in bed seems endless to four-and-a-half-year-old Erica. Especially after the dragon screams at her: "Don't you dare touch the baby with that hand!!!"
Baby Erica has never forgiven her mother for this abandonment. Pointless to explain that the obliviousness of the baby nurse to the teachings of Freud was hardly her mother's fault. Useless to say that the baby nurse was probably a poor soul who earned her meager living going from household to household, from baby to baby, without hope of a household or a baby of her own. It was an abandonment, and abandonments are, by definition, always your mother's fault. In my grown-up mind, I am strong and successful. In my baby mind, I am an abandoned child.
These are merely some of my memories of my younger sister's entrance into the world. Surely my mother's are entirely different. My older sister's are surely different, too. And as for the baby, what does she remember of those days except what we tell her? But somewhere in the most primitive part of my brain lies the fierce sense of betrayal my baby sister's birth must have provoked. I have never quite forgiven my mother for it. Even after years of lying-down analysis and sitting-up therapy, I still, at times, feel like that abandoned four-and-a-half-year-old with ringworm all over her arms and torso.
My mother and I have long since reached a truce. She turned eighty-six this year, and I have endured and surpassed my fear of fifty, so we are very tender with each other, like glass unicorns who might break each other's horns by kissing too passionately.
Now that I have a nineteen-year-old daughter myself, I understand all my mother's difficulties raising us. I have even been moved to fall to my knees before my mother and say: "You are my heroine simply for surviving three daughters!"
My daughter now rails at me as I once railed at my mother. When Molly monologues, sparing no one with her barbed wit, my mother and I look at each other and smile.
"Tell her you're sorry you were such a dreadful mother," my mother says, her voice dripping with irony. "And apologize." I even listen to my mother now.
"Molly," I say, "I only did the best I could. I'm sure I made plenty of mistakes. I apologize."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," says Molly, impatient. She looks at me with the sheer contempt that is grounded in excessive love. To myself I may sometimes be a four-and-a-half-year-old with ringworm, but to her I am Kali with a necklace of skulls, or the giant statue of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon, or snake-headed Medusa guarding the Golden Fleece. Just wait till you have a daughter, I think. But I am too wise to say it. And my mother and I grin at each other like co-conspirators. Raising a daughter requires superhuman patience. Raising a daughter is definitely tougher than writing.
I recently published a novel about mothers and daughters. In Inventing Memory, I traced the mother-daughter daisy chain through four generations, showing how we are shaped by both our mothers' yearnings and our own desperate need to break free of them. The dynamic between these two powerful forces is largely what molds our lives as women. Yes, our fathers and grandfathers matter, but what we learn from our mothers and grandmothers stays in the bone marrow. It surfaces as soon as you become a mother yourself. And what you sow as a daughter, you will inevitably reap as a mother.
What Do Women Want?. Copyright © by Erica Jong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.