My Mother's Island

My Mother's Island

by Marnie Mueller


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In Marnie Mueller's My Mother's Island, Sarah Ellis must tend to her dying mother, Reba. This moving story of subterranean conflict between a mother and her only child explores the tension between duty and commitment-how to honor one's parents even when one feels damaged by them. With sorrow, rage, empathy, and touches of humor, the story reaches its irrevocable conclusion in a death scene where Sarah is shocked to find a simple truth that has always evaded her.

This novel is played out against the lush ambiance of the Caribbean and the embracing involvement of the people of the working class Puerto Rican community where Sarah's parents settled twenty years earlier. Sarah, who has always taken care of her mother's needs, has steeled herself to single-handedly provide support to her dying mother, but gradually allows other to help her-Lydia Rentas, the girlfriend of a local heroin user and the foster mother of a child whose own mother has AIDS; Estela, a neighbor across the street, whose carport is overflowing with orchids; Inez, whose four-year-old daughter has become the granddaughter Sarah has never provided her mother; Pearl, a former sports writer who is Reba's bridge partner; and Dr. Gold, a New Yorker who thirty years earlier married a Puerto Rican and has taken on Latino attitudes toward the process of dying. With their support, Sarah comes to terms with her mother and with her own past.

"My Mother's Island is a daughter's death watch: loving, angry, remorseful, and profoundly revealing of our lives as adult children. Marnie Mueller's honest and unsentimental novel helped me fathom the meaning of my own mother's recent death and should similarly serve other readers in negotiating the strong currents and unpredictable eddies of this milestone of primary loss."-Wally Lamb, author of She's Come Undone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781880684825
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Marnie Mueller was born in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, described in her second novel, The Climate of the Country. Her first novel, Green Fires, based on her Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, won the American Book Award, was a B&N "Discovery" choice, and a NYPL's Best Books for the Teen Age choice.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Day One

My mother sits on the couch, waiting for me, done up like a little doll in one of her brightly colored cotton dresses; this one is pink and tangerine. Her skin is jaundiced and her face is strained and beaky with the effort of remaining upright.

    "Dear one," she says, beaming warmly, creasing her worn skin. "How did you know I'd need you?"

    How did I know? Because I've always known what my mother's needs are, and because Lydia Rentas had called me in New York City the day before and insinuated that my mother was beginning to die. "Tu mami no está comiendo, casi nadita," Lydia said in her low, muffled nasal tone that I've learned to understand over the past month of our telephone calls. My difficulty in comprehending her is not because we converse in Spanish to keep our discussions from my mother—I'm fluent in Puerto Rican Spanish—but because Lydia has a badly mended harelip that distorts her words.

    This afternoon Lydia sits in the chair by the telephone. The wall behind her is an orangey-gold, a few shades more muted than Lydia's own carrot-bleached hair, and the wall behind my mother is green. Those two bright fields of color come together at the corner by the window where my mother always sits to talk with me, those phone calls when I can hear the bell-like serenade of coquís in the background. "Ko-key!" the ebullient frogs sing as we labor through our conversations.

    My mother has painted these walls. My mother has painted the wallsof every apartment or house we've ever rented, in whatever city, town or village we happened to have settled in. Each summer when she got off from teaching high school, she would say, "I think it's time to start," and we'd go out to the hardware store and buy the necessary gallons; in the early days we used oil-based paint and the house stank for a week even though we'd leave the windows open. Before beginning, she'd slip her slender body into dungarees and an old shirt of my father's, the collar of which she'd turned one too many times. She'd tie a bandanna around her curly black hair, secure paper bags over her shoes, and smear a skim of Vaseline on her glasses. "Paint makes all the difference," she opined in the stillness of those humid afternoons as we swished the wide brushes, and later the modern rollers, down one wall after another. "It conceals a multitude of sins."

    My mother is dying in Levittown Lakes, Puerto Rico, an urbanización near Cataño, the town where one gets the ferry to go across the bay to Old San Juan. Her little house, a flat-roofed boxy structure, white with a hot pink front door, is on a cul-de-sac of other modest, pastel, cement block bungalows. My mother's street is Calle Maruja, the number AE 5. Everyone but my mother and the Haitian family across the street is Puerto Rican. The pink door is open now as I stand in her living room, and the tropical sun bakes my back. Life goes on behind me. Joey Rios, who picked me up from the airport in my mother's car—he is Lydia's draggy boyfriend—straddles our front fence, sitting there waiting to see if he will be needed. Salsa music pulses loudly from next door. Children ride their bicycles up and down the sidewalk before our house, seeking to find out why the señora's daughter has come again. Lydia watches me with a host of emotions in her pinched expression: proprietary protectiveness of my mother, concern for me and for mi mami, all-knowingness.

    "Hi, Mom," I say in my most upbeat voice. "You look good."

    "Do I, dear?" My mother smiles, but the way her black eyes dart warily tells me she knows better than to believe what I say. My mother is too smart. Her emotions shift like quicksilver through her intelligence—weighed, measured and packaged—to emerge in what she thinks is an appropriate response.

    "Thank you, dear. That's very sweet of you."

    "It feels so good to be here again," I say too loudly, flopping onto the Danish Modern couch, its brown-striped fabric scratchy against my sweaty skin. The wooden legs scrape on the terrazzo floor. "It's not as hot as it was in September."

    "You know, dear," my mother sighs, "your energy fires me out. I think I'd like to go to bed again."

    Lydia and I help her walk into the bedroom, Lydia giving me knowing glances over my mother's bowed head, glances that say, You see how bad she is. I feel the bones of my mother's back as I cradle her. Her arms are deceptively fleshy so I hadn't noticed how much weight she's lost. I help her out of her dress and take off her underwear while Lydia tidies the room, and am shocked anew by the wide purple zipper of stitches down my mother's belly, from beneath her small breasts to the thinning hair of her pubis. The tumor has grown back. Her stomach is distended to the size of a five-month pregnancy. She raises her arms like a dutiful child and I slip her pink gingham nightie over her illness.

    "I am so tired," she says, lying back in her narrow bed against the pillows Lydia has plumped. "I've been waiting out there in the living room for two hours for you."

    "I'm sorry," I say, old anger and guilt building. "I couldn't get the plane to fly any faster."

    "I'm aware of that, dear." She sighs and closes her eyes.

Here I am.

    Lydia has gone back across the street with Joey. Joey, the junky, is in his late thirties but still lives with his mother Estela in a house directly opposite my mother's. I noticed as soon as I got into the car at the airport that Joey has put on twenty pounds since September, a good sign; he's staying off the stuff. That's what Lydia told me during one call, but I didn't believe her even though I said, "That's great, Lydia, ojalá he stays off." "Ojalá," she answered solemnly, and then giggled as if to nullify her hope. Lydia, who is fifty but can look and act like a teenager, comes to stay at Estela's on the days she is looking after my mother. I think Lydia saw the job as an opportunity to keep tabs on Joey, to stop him from scoring and make sure he doesn't land back in jail for dealing.

    So, here I am again. I spent the month of September caring for my mother in the hospital in San Juan. I returned to New York once I'd settled her back in the house on Calle Maruja with a full-time nurse and with Lydia to do the housework and to check on the nurse. Estela had said, tapping the sagging skin below her left eye, "You can never trust an outsider to do the job, you must get someone you know to oversee." I don't think Estela meant Lydia. The last person Estela wants in her house is this woman she claims, "wants my bebé Joey, wants him to marry her. She's too old for him." Estela doesn't seem to realize that Lydia is the best thing that ever happened to her handsome, weak, skaghead son.

    It was Joey who recommended Lydia to me, which made me have grave doubts about her, but then I met her. I immediately liked this tiny, fit woman with her carrot hair tied in a high ponytail. Her face was ruddy and freckled, suggesting that her hair might actually have been red once. Her teeth were false, so they were as white as a youngster's, and except for her harelip, her face was fine-featured and cute. She was born in Brooklyn and came to P.R. as a teenager when her mother was dying. "My heart was broken," she confided to me at our first meeting. "You know what I mean. I stayed here because in P.R. I felt like I was with mi mami. It's the worst thing to have your mami die." She had looked at me with such compassion that I couldn't tell Lydia that I didn't think it would be the same for me, that I was certain it wouldn't be. How could I tell her I was afraid I'd be dry-eyed at my mother's funeral?

    Today, just before Lydia left with Joey, she gave me a big hug. "I'm your mommy now, Sarah. I'll take care of you like a mommy through this. I'll come every day to take care of you," she whispered in Spanish into my ear, even though my mother's air conditioning was on the highest setting and her door was closed.

    I turn on the television and its blare melds into the rising clamor of early evening in the neighborhood—radios blasting, pots and pans clanging, cocks crowing off-schedule, and children calling. There are no real windows in this neighborhood, only louvers that can be cranked open and shut to the outside air. In my mother's bedroom, sheets of thin plastic cover the windows at night to keep the air conditioning in. We live in each others' homes in Levittown Lakes. On this evening in November, the proximity of our lives makes me less lonely as I flip the channels and settle on the Classic Movie station.

    The sun streams deep gold through the open front door and across the chalky, cracked terrazzo floor, reaching the dark teal blue chair that we've had since we lived on Long Island. My parents moved down here twenty years ago to retire; after six months my father couldn't stand the idleness, or maybe it was the constant company of my mother that weighed on him, so he went back to work and, a little later, so did she. My father died twelve years ago. My mother is going to die here too, very soon, though right now she's sleeping. How many times in how many different homes I've waited while my mother slept, taking her long stuporous naps through the afternoons. Today it's different. I am here waiting for her to die.

    We have lived in so many places, my mother and I. My father, too, but he was rarely around, was either on the road or out late working, "coming home soon." My mother and I, following my father from job to job, settled for a year here or two years there, five years was our longest, in California, Washington State, Chicago, Ohio, Arkansas, Vermont and Long Island, and in those locales we changed apartments on an average of three times per town. Whenever the rent was raised above thirty-five dollars a month, we had to pack up our belongings and move to a cheaper neighborhood. Here we are again, she and I, alone together in Levittown Lakes. This place costs her one hundred dollars a month in mortgage payments—comparable, I'd say, to what we paid in the 1950s.

    I have always been my mother's best companion, while she has too often been my enemy. I wonder if she knows how much and how vividly I hate her. I wonder if she knows that I haven't had a child because I don't want another human to hate me as much as I hated her. I dare myself to have these thoughts even though she is in the next room, dying. And then I begin to cry. It is a deep, gut-wrenching weeping that I don't understand, but I do know that it has to do with her dying in the next room and my sitting out here alone in November in my shorts and tank top, watching an old black-and-white movie on television while other people's vibrant lives go on just outside our louvered windows.

Excerpted from My Mother's Island by Marnie Mueller. Copyright © 2002 by Marnie Mueller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Marilyn Webb

This carefully crafted and unforgettable book is a must-read for all daughters S. I couldn¹t put it down!
— Marilyn Webb, author of The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life

Jean Baker Miller

A profound and nuanced look at that most powerful of relationships, the one between mother and daughter.

Wally Lamb

..a daughter¹s death watch: loving, angry, remorseful, and profoundly revealing of our lives as adult children. Marnie Mueller¹s honest and unsentimental novel helped me fathom the meaning of my own mother¹s recent death and should similarly serve other readers in negotiating the strong currents and unpredictable eddies of this milestone of primary loss.

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