I began this piece over twenty years ago and returned to it in 2014. I re-read it recently before sending it to a cousin, the namesake of my grandmother who is curious about the woman for whom she is named. I decided to post it because it remains true. As I visit with my mother, now ninety-one, sometimes we speak of her mother and sometimes we just play cribbage. Inevitably, my gaze travels to the photos of me on her living room wall from decades ago.
September 7, 1996
I open my grandmother’s journal and as I read, I feel this life before me, palpable for the first time. Fay Frank’s parents emigrated from the Ukraine at the end of the 19th century. Far less dramatic than the diary of Anne Frank, Fay’s penciled entries record a woman isolated by her own emotions, walled in by fear and self-doubt. Whatever joy and youthful hopefulness that might have burned in her as a girl falls ashen across the page.
In contrast to my birth, noted with joy in an illustrated baby book, my grandmother recorded my mother’s birth as follows:
On this day was Taya Ann born at 4:26pm in the New York Infirmary Rm. 211, a Dr. Dembo baby and Jane MacIntosh was nurse. The nite was long and ghastly and the nite nurse a pain in the neck.
The starkness of the prose haunts me. I grew up thinking of my grandmother as the woman who made my mother cry, who loomed over her cold and distant, who left her empty and alone.
On January 30, 1931, she writes:
I am losing the admiration I once had for [mother]. I can see that she is only pathetic. I know I am being hard, but that is what I feel and I wish she were more normal. I wonder if Taya and Lee will think likewise of me when I am fifty.
Fay died at forty-six. I do not know if her daughter and step-daughter thought her pathetic, but I am drawn in by her fear, and the wish that her own mother were more normal. I am struck by her question because I have described my mother as pathetic. Pathetic as Kitty Black, a scrawny black cat with huge green eyes in an alley, depicted on a cheap laminated wall plaque my mother bought and hung on her mirror. I don’t think of her that way anymore, but I still feel tremendous sadness when I think of her losses and how she reckoned with them.
She used to call herself Kitty Black as she pushed herself out of her cocoon of fear. At forty-two, she found herself on her own with her children. I remember my mother talking about that time in her life as it happened. How she got a family friend to help her get a credit card in her own name and a savings account. I remember the week she set off each morning from our suburban apartment for the department store less than a mile away. Long days at a cash register that baffled her. Not a good match for a woman who could out-talk a horse trader but never quite master the television remote control.
I have memories of my mother clouded by adoration. She was the good parent then, when I was fifteen, sixteen, living at home, not rebelling like my friends. I never went through the typical early adolescent mother-hatred phase, that all-important period of individuation where the teenager realizes she must break away in order to develop autonomy. I stayed tethered, loyally defending my mother, angry at my father. Mostly, I did not know what was going on. Her sexual encounters. Desperation. I cannot help but think now our apartment was filled with it.
I imagine my mother a proud woman, prideful at times. Full of her pride as a mother lion protecting and thriving on her young. She is so many things—my mother. Bright, literate, sometimes sharp-tongued.
In the same January journal entry, my grandmother writes about my grandfather Jae, returning from a trip to Grand Rapids with Lee, his daughter by his first marriage. His first wife Pearl died of cancer. Fay writes how excited she is that Jae is coming home the next day. He is her only confidant.
I do not share my real thoughts with anyone else therefore when he goes away I miss him terribly. I see no one and just wait from the moment he goes till he comes back.
The next day as she unpacks his bag, she discovers a gift he has brought for her.
…a lovely evening bag…how sweet he was to remember my latest request…I was very touched…and then I went on unpacking and I found a packet of letters from Pearl and something in me went snap and everything went black…wondering why I could not die and she live so that the past would not forever pop up to hit me in the face to mock me for my love to laugh at me because I, the living, am not enough for Jae…and no one shall know of this but it hurts all the time …
A woman desperate to be loved more than the wife who preceded her, who hopes her daughter and step-daughter will not find her as pathetic as she finds her own mother. These pages are my legacy, brimming with the desperation that filled my house. At least that’s how it felt to me.
At fifteen, I tape recorded an interview with my mother and took notes as well. I lost track of the cassette, but the handwritten notes were tucked in my grandmother’s journal. There I found my mother’s account of her kindergarten graduation.
Everybody’s mother would come and bring a bough of roses….we lined up for assembly and my mother wasn’t there. And there were no roses…It came so close and there were no roses…and it was just as if there was no mother. Somehow they were so symbolic no mother, no roses, and someone had to fill in…they handed me someone else’s roses. And when I went out it was okay because I looked out in the audience and there was my mother and so I knew it wasn’t the same no mother, no roses because Mother was there in the audience. But I guess sometimes when you are little, a few minutes can be a long time. And you suffer.
She came late, without roses. Too late for a little girl waiting, agonizing, wanting enough from a mother who withheld warmth, affection, maternal touch.
At nineteen, my grandmother married her boss, my grandfather, a thirty-five-year-old widower with a two-year-old daughter. At twenty-one, my grandmother gave birth to my mother. She left the marriage twice. The second time, she sent my mother, age eleven, this note:
I have decided to stay at a hotel in New York City for a week or so in order to get a rest and think over the kind of life I want to have for myself and my children. I shall telephone every day and you have nothing to worry about. Here is the receipt for your watch. It is ready now and there is no charge. Be sure to get it or rather have Daddy get it for you.
There was no watch, only years of intermittent sightings. Fay thought it best not to attend my mother’s wedding. She declined to come for the birth of her grandson, my older brother. When she was dying of cancer, a few years before my birth, my mother flew to New York to be with her.
January 18, 1997
It is the day after my mother’s sixty-eighth birthday. I stand in my kitchen about to cook dinner, thinking of the book I have been reading all afternoon, a memoir by a gay man from Kentucky. Sent by my mother who lives there, a story of love and loss and its lessons. It is a beautiful book, Fenton Johnson’s Geography of the Heart. As I mince ginger, I realize, eyes filling with tears, how fortunate I am. For years I have struggled to disentangle myself from my mother, who has loved me too fiercely, too closely, too much. Tonight, I am simply aware of having a mother who would read and appreciate a book about a man who celebrates the love he shared with another man.
As ginger and garlic sizzle, I call and thank my mother for the books she has sent. I try to express my gratitude for the person who selected them, who is inclined to read them, who reaches out across a thousand miles of missing me, and says, without saying, Here, my writer-daughter, takes these books. Enjoy them. Feast on them as I have filled myself with your words.
For all the books my mother has given me over the years, the most valuable remains her mother’s diary; for it is in that slim volume I have found clues to lives I have less than fully understood. I only knew of my grandmother what my mother told me, and I only saw in my mother what I could view from the perspective of the child. But scanning the lines, studying the conditions that sculpted my mother’s earliest years, has reframed mine. Now I see a woman who reads many of the books I do, a woman who has had to re-adjust her own longing, who is coming to accept a relationship with me that I define. To the untrained eye, understanding reads as forgiveness. But there is nothing to be forgiven anymore.
Next week, I will ask my university students to research the decisions their parents and grandparents made which have shaped their lives, and the conditions in which they made them. Reading my grandmother’s life—long past—informs mine now. It enables me to thank a woman I never met (but whose absence I have felt) for the gift of a journal she left behind. And it frees me to accept the gifts of my mother, her hand open, heart extended, tucked respectfully between the words on someone else’s page.
It is 1935. I am not yet born but I am traveling back rounding the corner with an armful of roses arriving on time for your kindergarten graduation bearing a bouquet elegant and fragrant as the mothers themselves. I am running breathless down the sidewalk weaving in and out. Wait! I holler my voice too small to persuade the latch on the gate. It is 2008 and like your mother I am late but you are not waiting for roses anymore. You're waiting for me to save myself— to gather handfuls of velvety petals strewn from the tumult of my life—to lift them one by one into a potpourri. You round the corner to the scent of roses, the fragrance of your daughter—redeemed. It is 2014. You call me worried that I am sad. Much as I want to name the cause I can't find it—not at first—no, not until I think of standing in your apartment: the photos of me on your wall a testament I will place in a box when you are gone. We have come so far: you—the mother who always arrived early, flowers in hand and I—now fifty-five, fingering petals pressed and dusted as butterfly wings— to whom, to whom when I pack that box with my palm full of roses will I belong?