Memories of my mother
by Grégory Gochtovtt
Once in my life, there was happiness. Peace.
I can't remember. But I can't really forget.
My childhood is gone. Or hidden, scared of what I've become.
I remember bits of pieces of my days in France. My earliest memory of my mother was of her sitting on the edge of my bed in our estate in the south of France, Les Agates, and scratching my back lightly with her fingernails to put me to sleep. I would always ask her as soon as I got in bed, "Maman, tu peux m'gratter le dos?" I would lie on my stomach, and her nails against my back were like an ocean of peace washing over me. Sometimes she would massage me. As her soft palms rubbed my shoulder blades and back, I sank into the mattress. Her touch was enough to rub away all my worries, all my fears. But I liked the scratching better. It was more gentle, more light-touched, more tender and soft. I would ask her not to stop... "Non, arretes-pas!" but she would just say, that's enough, cheri, go to sleep, and she would stroke my hair and kiss me.
I found out later from my dad, when we all gathered in the church office around the priest at the conference table to plan her funeral, how they had met. She had first seen him on a plane and he had an unlit cigar in his mouth. According to my dad, she had asked him to “get rid of this nasty-smelling cigar.” They met later at a soirée (party), had started dating, and soon afterwards got married. My mom once told me, “As soon as I saw him, I knew he was the man I was going to marry.” I have been trying to find love at first sight ever since, and have failed miserably.
Even then, in the early days of her dating, she was scared of his driving. She told me once of an incident when she was on a date with him and he was driving so fast that she thought he was being chased by another car. My dad was the crazy American action figure, she was the frail Snow White who would put bird feeders outside our house on trees and throw breadcrumbs to the squirrels. It was because of her kindness to animals that I once took a bird inside our house as a teenager in Florida, put it in a box, and tried to nurse its wing back to health. (I even put a piece of cloth over its shaking body, thinking it might get cold at night.) It died the next day. When we lived in our little apartment in Paris, I remember that she had a canary. She opened the door to pet it, and it flew out. My grandmother and she chased it all around the apartment and finally watched it fly out the window into the streets of Paris.
When I read books of poetry she had written later in life in the States, I remember the passages where she felt depressed, disappointed in life, and wondering what would have happened if she had continued her career as a French singer. Yet when I once asked her if she was happy, she told me, “I couldn’t be happier. I watched four beautiful children grow, I have a husband I love, and my life is complete." Yet I knew, from all the times I saw her retire into her bedroom to “take a nap,” that somewhere inside her, she felt like a caged bird who was witnessing the cruelty of people against each other in the world, and she wanted to escape this world, and maybe she was still running around trying to recapture that freedom and watching it fly out the window.
I try to recall our summer holidays at Club Med in Tunisia, when we still lived in France, but it's blurry, like seeing my life under water. The happiness I had back then might be too much for me to bear, knowing I can never have that happiness again, that I have blocked it out of my mind altogether. It's too painful to remember something you can never regain. Like what the garden of Eden was before you got kicked out. But sometimes I have flashes. Her hands rubbing aloe on my skin, bubbling with heat blisters from the Tunisian sun in our Club Med hotel room because I was making sandcastles near the waves, as I yelled in pain "aille, aille, aille!" Or my brother's light blue djellaba embroidered in front and on the sleeves with while cotton twirlies. (I was always jealous of it because blue was my favorite color). Or snorkeling in the Tunisian ocean, while my father pointed out multicolored fish to us. I remember the joy I had carrying my brand new flippers and mask that my dad bought me, still smelling of new rubber, and the olive green speedo bathing suit I was wearing when we walked from our white stone-Tunisian hotel room to the beach.
I remember the Zorro outfit I got for Christmas in Switzerland, but I don't remember how I fell down the stairs in it, and the only thing that still reminds me how clumsy I am with life is the video of it that my sister still plays to my nieces. I remember the shiny blue ski helmet with the white stripe down the middle, and the ski outfit I wore so proudly on the Swiss snow, my brand new walky-talky in my hand, feeling like I was an astronaut. (I lost it within two hours of taking it out of the package). I don't remember the girl in the photo taken at our hotel in Switzerland with the white turtle neck under the bright orange jumpsuit and her shiny gold hair, or the first kiss I apparently ever gave a girl while we danced in the hotel lobby. But I do remember walking outside with her and giving her my gloves because her hands were cold and she had none.
Words for my love
Sun burning in winter…
Wild perched bird
Clinging to clouds with all its fingers,
Forest filled with music,
Where two people disappear without fear,
and hand in hand.
You must live quickly
What do I know
I say yes but I think no
Listen to the silence
It's mostly the little things I remember about my mom after we moved to America. She always wore a new djellaba in the house and her toenails were always painted. (I brought her some djellabas from Iraq, she loved them, merci cheri.) She would always eat matza and watch Touched by an Angel or Murder, She Wrote. She had a crystal ball on a brass base of three adjoining dolphins on the coffee table in the living room, and little Pierrot marionettes on her antique secretary's desk with the roll-down ridged wooden cover and the brass knob. She would always bring her favorite chihuaha, Gringo, a stuffed toy from the quarter claw grabber thingy machine at the mall, upon which the dog would proceed to either shake it back and forth between its teeth, or hump it. When she drove me back from work at the mall in her red Ford Escort, she would always have a cassette of Native American flute music, or Enya, or dolphin music. She drove too slow because she was terrified of driving on the highway. When my dad drove too fast she would reach out and hold the glove compartment as if she thought we were going to crash, and my dad would make fun of her and say "Oh you're stroking the glove box isn't that nice...good glovebox, gooood glovebox."
I remember the excitement I felt when she and my father would do the Ouija board. This seemed to be one of her little joys. She would light Indian incense. Not the cheap kind, but the real kind that smelled like an Indian temple, musky and thick. She would light candles. And as her small hand lay under my father's big strong bear claw, she would speak out the letters as they were revealed in the little round window of the heart-shaped plastic tray that moved over the shiny lacquered board. As she lay in her bed wearing one of her Moroccan djellabas, her two chihuahas laying next to her on the bed, my brother and sisters all sat around her and my father on the velvet multicolored quilt on her bed. When it was my turn to ask a question, I would always ask questions like "Will lightsabers ever exist?" (I tried to figure out how to build one once by looking at a book in the public library, but gave up when I realized I had no access to lasers, crystals, or the knowledge of basic circuitry); or "will I ever meet an alien?" (because I was hoping one would throw me a superpower suit from his ship so I could fly above New York at night.) My dad always asked when his next contract would be, or if more money would come in, or if they should move to another state where business might be better. My mom would ask if her mother, mammy, was there, and if she had a message for any of us. Mammy, my maternal grandmother, died right before we left France. Mom told me as I woke up in our apartment in Paris, as she was crying and she took me in her arms,"Mammy est morte." Mammy is dead.
Sometimes, we talked to Mammy through the Ouija board, and my mom read out aloud the words that spelled out Mammy's favorite pet name for me: mon trésor. My treasure. That's when I knew it was mammy. And I would exclaim "Mammy!" One day we talked to Napoleon's brother, who said he felt sad for the way his brother Napoleon had turned out. Other times, we talked to an ancient spirit who said he was one of the disciples of Jesus. One spirit even told me I had been a knight who had murdered an evil man with a dagger to free the people from his tyranny, and he saw me sitting on a grassy mountaintop, my thigh-high booted legs crossed Indian-style, my cape behind me spread out on the grass, my dagger in my hand, and he felt how content I was of having liberated them. I had been killed for a woman in a jousting tournament. It was around 1400, in Britain. I knew it, I yelled out, I was a knight. YES!!
I remember, when I was a teenager, all the times my mom and I went to the new Age expos in hotels like the Radisson. She told me a story about how one day she was lying on the beach, on her honeymoon and she had an out-of-body experience and she could see her own body lying on the sand, and she was floating above it. She described the scene as eerie, and she felt free and totally at peace. I think that’s what stirred her interest in the New Age. She was always reading an Edgar Cayce biography, or books about “the lost years of Jesus,” which referred to his years after his childhood and before his ministry where he traveled to India and, according to the authors, learned to “develop his psychic gifts.” At these New Age conventions, she would go straight to the tarot card readers, and I walked around, wondering what else I could waste my money on: shiny crystal pendulums, white candles which, once I lit them, would attract money, or the talismans which were engraved with Solomon's seal so they would attract the perfect soulmate, or the book that showed you the same rituals the Merlin the Druid used. I would always ask my mom to make sure she asked her psychic if I would ever meet a girlfriend. She would always come back and tell me I would have a wonderful life, full of kids, and a wife who would adore me. If nothing else, we shared that in common: our love for tarot, crystals, angels, the Ouija board. But no, so much more...
She gave me my first pipe on my sixteenth birthday, and a nice leather pouch and some pipe tobacco. I thought that was the coolest gift any mother could give her son, and I thought I had the coolest mother in the world. I had often seen her, in our apartment in downtown Paris, smoking her long curved Irish pipe, and it was like now I was part of the secret pipe club, the hip artist club that no one else could understand. It would be the beginning of my days in Irish pubs and coffee houses (back when you could still smoke indoors before the nonsmoking Nazis ruined it for everyone), when I lived on my own, smoking the most exotic pipes I could find on Ebay, pipes from Sweden with hinged lids, or Irish long curved pipes, as I sat by myself doing tarot card readings and hoped that a beautiful woman would approach me and ask for a reading (none ever did.) I always felt like no one else could understand, or love me, like my mother loved me. Sometimes I would do tarot readings for my mom, and she would tell me I had the gift, and how good I was at this. I would teach her new tarot spreads, new ways to read the cards, and I proudly showed her when I came home from college the binder full of different tarot spreads my Jewish tarot teacher had taught me (the same woman who told me I had to "reinvent myself," and almost convinced me to change my legal name to Emrys Navarre (Emrys, the gaelic name for Merlin, which means hawk, and Navarre, the name of my favorite character in the movie Ladyhawke. If it wasn't for the furious rantings of my dad over the phone as I called home, and the pleadings of my uncles and cousins through email all the way in France, begging me not to toss away a family name which dated back to the 1400's, was part of royalty, and even bore a family coat of arms, it would have almost worked. To this day, searches on my public identity still show an Emrys Navarre floating in history.
When we lived in Florida, she was always writing. She had dozens of legal yellow pads filled with her black slanted cursive handwriting, always working on a new romance novel. On the bookshelves in the living room were dozens of copies of the thirteen French romance novels she had already written under her pen name, Chris Gordon. She would sit at her little laptop that my dad had given her, transcribing all her handwritten notes, and I still have copies of the typed manuscripts she had typed, some over three hundred pages.
When she was happy, she had that fierce laugh in which she would throw her head back and laugh without reserve, without inhibitions. She was never one to laugh half-heartedly. I remember getting back from Iraq and finding my mom in the hospital (with the onset of the disease that would kill her later, frontal lobe dementia), in 2008, and being so heart-broken of finding her so weak, thin and feeble under paper-thin hospital linens (bastards), that I broke down and cried on my knees in front of my father, brother and sisters, as she stroked my head and said "Don't worry, I'll be fine, don't cry, mon cheri." I don't remember if I dreamed it or if it was true, but she got better. Later, every time I came back and visited her in the nursing home, we would sit on her bedside. By then her illness was so bad that the words that came out of her mouth were nonsense. I tried so hard to understand. I kept telling myself, maybe if I listen hard enough I'll understand a clue and I'll be able to connect with her on some level. But strained as I might, I couldn't make out any words. The only clue i had that she still loved me, after all the worry and pain I had caused her as a teenager (I remember once as a teen we had an argument. I don't remember what it was about, but I remember she was so mad that she stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. The noise was like a slap in my face), was that she was stroking my hand, and sometimes she would reach out and stroke my head. Once in a while, I thought I heard "mon cheri" come out of her mouth, but I wasn't sure. It's like when you thought you saw something from the corner of your eye, but when you turn your head, it's gone.
Every time I came back from National Guard drill to visit my dad and her, my dear mom, and she would pat me on the back and stroke my hair and keep repeating "I'm so glad you're here, I'm so glad you're here." She would always make sure the bed in the guest bedroom had plenty of pillows and blankets for me. She would make it a point as soon as I came in the apartment to go in the bedroom and check everything. Every time I was over, I would always do the dishes so she wouldn't have to after my dad cooked us dinner.
She would just say, "Merci, cheri," and I would say "De rien." And then we would watch tv on the sofa as my dad would sit on the yellow velour chair she got for him for his birthday. He would snore, the remote firmly clasped in his hand, and when she tried to wrench it from his fingers, and if she could even do it before he woke, she turned the channel to our favorite shows about alien discoveries and UFO sightings. Sometimes that was enough for my dad to wake up with a thunderous halt to his snoring and say "hey why did you change the channel, I was watching that?" (Fox News. Twenty four hours a day.) And I always kissed her good night, even as a grown man.
My mom died in a hospice in 2008. The last memory I have of her is struggling to breathe through her tube into her nose, her hair wet and sticky, her face gaunt. I remember taking the rosary nailed on the wall above her bed, kneeling down and praying for God to heal her. I remember the holy water from Lourdes that she had brought me from her last trip in France with my dad, and how I poured out every last drop on my hands and made a sign of the cross on her forehead, hoping that Mary would heal her. And as I sat on the couch facing her bed in her hospice bedroom, looking at her locked behind those cold shiny hospital bedrails, I fell asleep.
Thus ye have not been able to watch one hour with me?
And there she was, my mother. Not my mother. An empty shell. A dead body, lifeless. This was not my mother. My mother was gone. I would never see her again.
Sometimes I wonder if I killed her. What if all the worry I caused her, all the times I called her from college, crying because some woman had broken my heart, and asking my mom, why...I treated her like a queen, why? What did I do wrong? What if all this worry, all this pain I caused her, was what brought about her frontal lobe dementia? I blame myself for her death, just as I blame myself for mammy's death. When there is no love for you, what else can remain in your heart but hate for yourself?
(Much fear in this one, there is.)
There's not a day in my life I don't miss you, mom. My night prayers, for so long, had ended with goodnight mom and dad, or I miss you mom, I miss you mammy, I miss you dad. I miss you so freaking much. I'm sorry i haven't said it lately mom. I have been so caught up in my financial sludge and buying stupid shit to fill the void in my heart that i forgot to say it. I miss going to New Age fairs with you mom. I miss how you scratched my back. I miss hearing you laugh uncontrollably at the stupid jokes dad said over and over again. I miss you saying merci cheri every time I finish doing the dishes for you. Tears are falling down my face as I write this mom, because I'll never stop missing you. I can barely see through my glasses as my fingers are clicking on my beat up laptop, but I miss you. I will never find the woman that dad had, and I will never find a mother to my unborn children as kind and loving as you. Every day I live without you is like dying on the cross all over again, and sometimes I just want to scream,
ELI ELI SABACHTAMI?