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Play Bingo with My Ancestors
For the first few years after my mother died, I would go to sleep at night and dream my mother had come back. There were three versions of the dream. In the first, she would come back for a short visit. She made it clear she was still dead and could only visit for a few weeks. In the second version my mother would come back, again for a short visit, but she wasn't dead, she was alive. After a week or two she would get sick and die again.
In the third version I drove a car, and my mother rode in the passenger seat. But we weren't really on a road. Around us it rained, buildings and trees were on fire; the ground opened up around us; flaming debris fell from the sky; people, animals, and carts were headed in every direction. I gripped the wheel and said: I'll get you out of here. I'll get you out of here. Then I would wake up.
I never dreamed my mother was simply alive. I never dreamed she hadn't really died, or that she had come back from the dead for good and would not leave me again. I wondered then why I never dreamed it this way. If I could have her back at all, why couldn't I have her back for good? Some time in my late teens the dreams about my mother stopped. I haven't had any since.
I was forty before I actually saw my mother again. You can imagine my surprise. I had come home late from the studio and there she was, sitting on the futon couch with her knees together, waiting for me. She was quick to warn me that she was just there for a short visit, but I already knew that. I hadn't dreamed about her in over twenty years, but I could remember those dreams.
In real life my mother never sat on the couch with her knees together. She sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. She wasn't the right age now either. She looked around fifty. She was forty when she died, and she would have been seventy if she had lived. Fifty didn't make sense at all. I asked her about this and she said: I don't make the rules. I asked her if I were going crazy, if she were a hallucination. But she said: Don't be silly, and waved her hand at me. My mother always hated melodrama. She preferred a no-nonsense approach to life. I asked her if other people could see her and she said: Of course, I'm your mother, come for a visit.
But everyone knows you're dead.
We'll work something out.
I asked her if my sister knew she was here and she said no. I asked her if she was going to visit my sister and she said no. But when she finds out you're here she'll want to see you, I said. She said if I told my sister she was there she would have to leave abruptly and would never be able to return.
Mom, this is really complicated.
Indeed it is, she said. She did not appear fazed by this.
I asked her if she was hungry and she said she was. I asked her if this meant she was a real person at least while she was visiting.
Like a real person, she said. I asked her if I could touch her, then. She said: Oh, I'm sorry, and stood up from the couch, as if she had forgotten to greet me. She hugged me and that made me cry, so she held me for a while. That made me feel like a small child, which made me cry more. There, there, she said, and patted me on the shoulder, the way she had done when she was alive.
When I woke up the next day, I remembered what had happened the night before as an interesting new twist on my old dreams. But if I had been dreaming, I still was. My mother was in the kitchen, brewing strong coffee and scrambling eggs. I don't eat eggs! I said, horrified.
My mother gave me a bemused look. They're not for you, she said. She asked me what I ate now.
You don't know?
I'm not clairvoyant, she said. I didn't remember my mother ever using words like clairvoyant before. I wondered how much she'd changed since she'd been dead. My mother asked me if I remembered what I used to eat for breakfast, when I was young and so afraid of everything it made my stomach hurt. I remembered: she'd tempt me with a glass of chocolate milk, and at the last minute, she would whip a raw egg into it.
I sat down at the dining room table, looked out at the bay, and wondered why my mother had come to visit me from the dead. Was she trying to assist me at a difficult moment? This moment in my life did not strike me as more difficult than others. In some ways it seemed easier, now that I had an ongoing job and had finished a body of work. On the other hand, I had just turned forty; for the last ten years I had a back injury that kept me in chronic pain, had ruined my finances and threatened to put me out of work altogether, and I had not yet had a major show of my artwork.
What do you want for breakfast? my mother was asking me.
Rice cereal, I said. I asked her why she was making eggs.
I didn't come alone, she said. The others are in the living room.
I wondered whom she would bring with her. Would they be dead or alive? Her closest ties, or mine? I went into the living room. My great Aunt Charlotte — the most important dead person in my life after my mother — was sitting on the futon couch, staring into the fireplace, where someone had built a nice fire. She immediately got up, hugged me and said: It's good to see you darling, in her southern accent. She was the same in every respect as when I had seen her in Manhattan thirty years before, when she had been an international buyer for Gimbel's and lived on the Upper West Side. She smelled the same — like Houbignant; dressed the same — in her Chanel suit with her blonde hair in the French twist; had the same warmth, the same timbre of voice, the same affectionate nature. She hadn't aged — she still looked around sixty.
My first lover, Elaine, the most important dead person in my life after my mother and Charlotte, was sitting in the rocking chair. When I saw her she got up, said hello in her awkward way, and gave me a quick hug. She too looked about the same as when I had last seen her ten years before: thin, blonde, gray eyes, jeans, t-shirt, around forty. Except she looked healthy — not terminally ill from breast cancer.
So we were the same age — at last. When I fell in love with her I had been a teenager; she was married and in her mid twenties, just out of the University of Southern California film school. We met working on the same film — she was assistant directing, I was a high school intern working with the art director. I'd never felt like I was on equal terms with her.
So the three most important people in my life, all of them dead, were now in my house. I was sure I had gone crazy when I noticed Andrew standing on the porch. He was shirtless, smoking a Gauloise, and cradling a glass of Glenlivet on the wooden porch rail, his turquoise bracelets jangling on his wrist. He stared out at the bay.
When I met Andrew I was a teenager and still in love with Elaine. Andrew was a Los Angeles banker turned furniture restorer who lived in the high desert above Palm Springs amongst pre-Colombian and Egyptian art objects, healing the wounds from his lover Duane's suicide. In the 1970s and 80s, and until Andrew died, I had the distinction of being his only female friend. Wealthy people paid him millions to turn their modern furniture into wormwood and fake marble antiques.
I went out on the porch. Andrew had died of a brain tumor at fifty, bucking the trend of my mother and Elaine to die at forty, but keeping with the general tendency of Aunt Charlotte, and anyone else I truly cared about, to die before I had turned thirty. He turned from the view to look at me. Hello gorgeous, I said.
Hello beautiful, he said. He smiled at me, took a drag on his cigarette and sipped his scotch.
When you're dead you get to drink at eight in the morning? I said to him.
Andrew toasted me and laughed. I'm in heaven, he said. He put out his cigarette, opened the sliding glass door for me, and carried his scotch back inside.
Some party, I said. Aunt Charlotte and Elaine were relaxing by the fire, and talking amiably. When they saw me they got up and went into the dining room. We set the table. Andrew fixed himself another scotch and arranged some orchids and baby's breath in a vase on the table. He lit some vanilla candles. Aunt Charlotte and Elaine brought breakfast to the table: rice cereal for me; bacon, eggs and sausage for Andrew; pancakes for Mom and Aunt Charlotte; waffles with fruit for Elaine.
Needless to say, I had never seen my mother, Aunt Charlotte, Elaine and Andrew in the same room. They were all stylish people — my mother and Aunt Charlotte in the l940s, Upper West Side, Chanel/Houbignant, we've won-the-war-and-dominated-Europe sort of way; and Andrew and Elaine in the l980s, Laurel Canyon, Calvin Klein and Armani, greed-isn't-good-but-it-looks-good sort of way. I wondered if the style and beauty I was familiar with from living with my mother and Aunt Charlotte had drawn me to Elaine and Andrew.
You were never this quiet, Aunt Charlotte said.
I'm stunned, I said, like a deer caught in the headlights. I asked her about her pancakes. She said they were excellent.
Elaine said: Daniella was always quiet, but usually rather sullen as well, and that her waffles were exquisite. She thanked my mother for making them. Andrew also thanked my mother and winked at me.
Why are you here? I said. I must have gone crazy. They laughed and assured me I hadn't. I could be dreaming, I said. They shook their heads. Well then, I said, I must be dying. Since my mother died, I had always been convinced that I would die at forty like she and Elaine had, that I would not outlive them. My sister confessed to me that she had had the same fear.
Of course you're not dying, Aunt Charlotte said. My mother concurred. They both seemed offended.
Then someone close to me is dying, I said. After all, that was the general trend, for anyone close to me to die young and tragically. Of course, I had put a stop to that: no one was close to me anymore.
No one's dying, my mother said.
So, I've just turned forty, I said, and contrary to my own beliefs, I'm going to live through it ?
Bingo, Andrew said.
This is the more germane issue, my mother said. I thought she would go on to explain why she was using words like clairvoyant and germane, and why Aunt Charlotte and Andrew were there, but my mother had always been extremely laconic, and I had always pestered her with questions.
So what happens now? I said.
We'll visit you, my mother said.
What do we tell people? I said. We can't very well tell them this is my mother come back from the dead for a visit.
I could be your aunt, my mother suggested.
What aunt? I said. I haven't seen my family in thirty years and suddenly I have aunts?
I could be your aunt, Elaine said and guffawed.
I could be your aunt, Andrew said, and winked at me. I am in France.
I am your aunt, Aunt Charlotte said. What's the harm in that? She looked around defensively, but no one responded.
We'll figure something out, my mother repeated. What would you usually do now?
This morning? I said, astonished and alarmed.
This very morning, my mother said.
I'd work at the studio, I said.
So right now you go to the studio and work on your art, my mother said. Business as usual.
This sounded strange to me, as if they had an infinite amount of time. How long are you staying? I said.
We'll stay until we finish our visit, my mother said mysteriously. Aunt Charlotte shrugged. Elaine looked at the ceiling. Andrew took out his cigarettes and placed an unlit one into his mouth.
Where will you sleep? I asked.
We can manage our own accommodations, my mother said. They looked at her and smiled, as if they were relieved she was the spokeswoman for the group, as if there was something they weren't telling me.
For the first time in my life, I doubted her on all counts. They must have read it in my expression because they laughed. Elaine and Andrew had often enjoyed a joke at my expense, but never my mother or Charlotte. I thought that they were much more cheerful now that they were dead, except for Aunt Charlotte, who had always been cheerful.
Breakfast was over. I helped Andrew clear the table, and Elaine wash the dishes. No one asked or offered to do anything; no one bargained, negotiated or arranged; they all just did things, as if they knew what to do. This gave the atmosphere a peaceful, soothing, harmonious quality, as if everything was as it should be, and made me feel calm and secure. I liked having them all there, despite the fact that I had lived alone for twenty years, and wasn't accustomed to anyone cooking in my kitchen or washing dishes in my sink.
When the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, they all looked at me, as if I were expected to do what I was supposed to do — go to the studio and work. But I didn't want to go to the studio and work, I wanted to stay and visit with them.
There will be plenty of time for visiting, my mother said. You must go on with your life as usual. Don't let us disrupt you.
Sure, I said. Just some dead people visiting for breakfast, nothing disruptive in that. I'll go right to the studio, breeze in, make a few sculptures. My concentration hasn't been broken. My focus hasn't been challenged.
You have to admit she has a point, Andrew said. He sucked on the unlit cigarette he had placed in his mouth. I wondered why he craved cigarettes. Was there no separation between body and soul? Were bodily addictions so much a part of you that they lingered ten years after your death? Or, when you needed your body back, did the addictions come back with them? After my back surgery one of the surgeons told me that once he started practicing, and saw how the body functioned so mysteriously, and so entirely without our conscious control, he became convinced that we were merely renting out our bodies, inhabiting them. I wondered. I knew body and soul were somewhat independent and autonomous, but in some ways they also seemed inextricably linked. It was a paradox to me.
My mother said: It's like school when she was little. If she'd lived alone as a child she'd have gone off to school every day without a problem. But she had to leave us. If she never had to leave anyone, Daniella would be able to do anything.
I remembered it very well. Every morning my stomach would ache. My sister would leave for school before me. I would try to convince my mother that I was dreadfully sick, and could not possibly even make it to school, much less stay there for six or seven hours. My mother would tell me I was just afraid, which was true, and that once I got there I would enjoy it, which I did. I loved school. In the meantime, I still had to leave her, and my chin would quake and I would start to cry because what she said was true. She would kiss my forehead, wipe my tears away with her fingertips, and make me go. She always made me go.
Perhaps that was why as a child I so liked that story Pippi Longstocking. She was nine and lived alone. Her father had left her some money — a chest of gold coins — which she kept at the foot of her bed.
She could take the day off, Aunt Charlotte suggested. She slipped me a chocolate covered marzipan in a gold wrapper. Aunt Charlotte had always tried to make me feel better about myself rather than insist I face my fear. My clearest memory of it was when I was six years old and supposed to go to a birthday party. I remember the yellow dress and the wrapped present in my hand. I was crying; I didn't want to go. Aunt Charlotte could not bear to see me cry, so she suggested I stay home. My mother insisted I go. I went, and had a wonderful time. I was only afraid of the unknown, of the unimaginable future. If the present came, and I was forced to act, I often acted without fear.
This fear had stayed with me throughout my life. It started before I could remember. I don't know what triggered it. I never knew what caused it. My sister told me that when I was born I was 22 inches long, weighed only five pounds, and they didn't put me in the incubator. Sometimes I wondered if that made me feel unprepared for what was to come.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gauguin's Moon"
Copyright © 2019 Laura Marello and Guernica Editions Inc..
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