I was the child of a child, the baby daughter of an ungrown woman. She tried to mother me, but when I was small, when she was drunk, she threw me against a wall, dislocating my hip, so that I was in a body cast, portaged from room to room like an ostrich egg.
Cut out of the cast, the sunlight filtering into our adobe through thin striped curtains burned my skin. I rocked from side to side with bent legs that had been positioned like a frog’s to keep my hip joints in their sockets.
When I tried to rock and half-walk outdoors, she would snatch me back, as if danger lurked in the tall buffalo grass boundaried by the walls of the patio.
She put an unseen collar around my neck, and attached an invisible leash to it, which she held while she drew or painted; I ventured out to the end of the leash like a neonate macaque, trying to learn the world, trying to inhabit our whole house.
I was forced to orbit around her, to be the repository for her tears and the punching bag for her rage. This taught me to be quiet, mute as the dust that gathered in the corners of the dining room from the low, moaning New Mexico wind. It taught me to fear in the ways that she feared: that a woman is fragile and easily broken. That a woman cannot trust her own strengths because she doesn’t have them. That if she was artistic her endeavors were parlor fantasies.
* * * *
It is 1978. My father has died from emphysema, running out of air in the study still on his feet, calling me from the hospital where I am teaching in St. Paul, whispering that he is done.
I rush to the airport to encounter a pilot’s strike. I call my cousin; together we go back to the West. She stays a few days, helping me acclimate to the profound absence of the house. She gathers up all of the utility bills, the chaff from the kitchen table.
In their study I find my poems lying on my father’s desk, his glasses set down on them.
Now that my father has died, my mother has lain down in her room in the psychiatric unit at the hospital and refused to get back up. Nurses stand over her, whispering.
She is moved to a nursing home where she has her own small room.
When I extricate myself from the sorting, the cleaning, the cleaning out of the closet of my father’s suits and worn shirts, when I have ripped the sheets off their bed to discover a cigarette burn in the mattress, had the bed itself thrown out to be picked up, I go to see my mother.
She has not spoken to anyone in days. I sit in a chair, with a cup of coffee.
Finally, I lie down and hold her. She doesn’t move away.
I rent her an apartment, I throw myself into the grueling work of moving her old things, her antiques, mixing them with a new couch, a new table and chairs.
I steel myself to not bring her back to the house of sadness where she would have me take my father’s place at his desk and tend to her all day, medicating her, bringing her wine from the liquor store at the end of the road, patiently dealing with her incontinence and her stupor.
I fill the apartment with vases of yellow roses.
I take her in.
“Why have you brought me here?” She demands.
“This is your new apartment. You need to take care of yourself now,” I say.
I leave, down the elevator, out into the street to my car. I drive north, wondering what she will do in those first few hours.
Shortly, I hear sirens wailing and an ambulance carooms past me up the street. Apprehensive, I turn around and follow it.
They have pulled up in front of her building. As I park, paramedics emerge, with a gurney; my mother is lying down on it.
She lifts her head and looks at me.
“You harlot,” she says.
She is installed then in The Golden West Nursing Home, a place she hates.
One day in autumn, the distant fire of turning aspen in the foothills, I discover she has been ordering chocolates from the pharmacy. I admonish her.
She says to me in a thin and tired voice over the telephone, “Don’t take these away from me. You’ve taken everything else.”
The next day she walks in the heat around the corner to a beauty parlor to get her hair done.
She looks up at the beautician.
“I don’t feel well, ” she says. Her head slumps to her chest.
I drive in, to stand over her in the emergency room, kissing her; she has tears at the corners of her eyes, her hair swept back, as if she has been out in the wind.
I dig a hole and mix her ashes with the clay on our land. I remove a rose from a pot, and plant it, heaping the damp earth around it. I read a passage from the Rubayat of Omar Khayam.
Thirty years later, I lay my hands on a small pile of pink potatoes, slicing them thinly, nurturing myself, after a morning of writing.
For the sake of the yellow rose I have become at 61, a hybrid that withstands fear, dust and wind, and the yellow rose within my mother that she could not bear to tend or see, I live on.