An excerpt from my memoir-in-progress
I called her Mama. Mama gave me Findhorn and fairies, guardian angels and lullabies. She hummed a tune in her strange falsetto that came to her when I was a baby. A lost tune. She told me stories about a little girl who lived out in the woods, and who pretended she lived by herself. She produced rainbows in pencil and pastel and acrylic and window stickers and prisms and cut crystals dangling, casting their tiny spectrums in disco sparkles on log walls. She cooked millet for breakfast, with honey and butter, and baked hard, bland cookies that were very healthy and always burnt. She showed me her art-school tricks, drawing spheres and cylinders and cubes that flopped themselves inside out on napkins while I drank hot chocolate. She taught me how to divide a face into proportional sections and make reflections in eyes, and how to shade a lock of hair. She showed me how to sit like a lotus and breathe like a lion, and she told me to close my eyes and imagine a peaceful place, in the woods near a stream or a crystal clear pool with a rainbow in its waterfall.
Mama was a goddess with long brown legs and Dr. Scholl’s sandals klop-klopping on linoleum floors. She smelled of roses and sweat and organic oils she rubbed into her skin. Her lashes were curled and mascara-ed, and her lips a shiny chocolate. Her breasts were hefty and tan from the long hours she spent basking on sunny days, even in the chill of early Spring. Her hair was a long chestnut mane of soft frizz, never hindered by clips or products. Her nails were long, almost claw-like on her narrow hands, with dark, chipped polish.
Mama concocted a baby formula with goats milk and brewers yeast and kelp and fish oil that I drank without question until one day at five years old I tasted for the first time what I had been drinking for years. She let me eat raspberries off the bush that should have gone into the bucket we paid for by the pound. She read Alice in Wonderland aloud to me until I could read it aloud to her. She hung bells from her door knobs to chase away evil spirits and bought me a tiny deck of tarot cards identical to her full-sized set, which had to be wrapped in silk to prevent other people’s energy from getting to them. She gave my my own set of sticky oil pastels and let me sell my works alongside hers at the summertime art fair.
Mama concocted carob smoothies and gave me chocolate-covered espresso beans. She took me to the all-night cafe for hot chocolate to watch the sunrise when I couldn’t sleep, though the uncooperative sun remained a blank orb behind white clouds. She hoisted me into a seat on the back of her Schwinn long after I’d outgrown it and hauled me across town to the college campus to buy pink pens or a pencil sharpener at the bookstore. She brought me along for walks in the woods to sketch early Spring flowers while we took turns trying to guess what color the other was imagining.
Mama played cassettes on a little mono tape player: John Lennon and Yoko Ono or Fleetwood Mac. But mostly she listened to the Rock station and sang along, always off-key with most of the words missing or mumbled. She played relaxation tapes before bed at night, with a baritone voice speaking slowly over a backdrop of forest sounds, telling her she was becoming very relaxed, or sometimes simply babbling brooks and pan-flutes with unheard subliminal messages that would make her quit smoking. She dropped floral essences onto my tongue and rubbed stinging tiger balm into my eczema. She gave me chewable vitamin C by the dozens rather than antibiotics and declined to allow the yearly vaccinations.
Mama illustrated children’s books about mice in old-fashioned clothing with new age ideals. She bought me every single ‘Serendipity’ book and read them with me. Her favorite was about Patti caterpillar who could not imagine how she would ever become a butterfly. She took me to the library and checked out any books and records I wanted from the cozy upstairs room for kids. We may have stolen the library’s copy of Free to Be You and Me. Mama played the Un-Game with me because she didn’t like competition, but she did like to ask personal questions. I tried to avoid the Fearful Forest.
Mama’s laugh was like the bells on Santa’s sleigh, and her sobs were deep, wet, hoarse and filled with unfathomable grief. They came on late at night and sometimes lasted for days. They woke me up and drew me blinking into the cold front room in my long flannel nightgown. What’s wrong? She wanted to die, she told me often enough that I stopped asking why and started telling her exactly why NO, she really didn’t. What she wanted was to live.
I tried to teach Mama to roller skate, but she lost her nerve after a few minutes and then marveled as I glided around the room without a hint of fear. She thought I was graceful enough for dance classes, but when I tried to follow the steps I was confused and awkward and refused to go back. She let me adopt a charcoal gray French Lop-eared rabbit, that was almost immediately killed by the Afghan Hound she had been given but never groomed, so she became a mess of silky hairballs. She found me a tabby kitten we named Cheshire in homage to Alice in Wonderland, and when the cat brought a live songbird into the house I tried to nurse it back to health, but it died of shock.