The Things We Carry

In a world of masks, our families -- broken-down, weary, enduring -- connect us to who we really are.

Published July 31, 1997 11:51AM (EDT)

an old friend took a photograph of my mother and me on Stinson Beach last month on the Fourth of July. We are holding hands in the picture, as in fact we were doing all day, because she feels very unsteady walking on sand.

She's in her mid-70s now -- short, round, with big brown eyes and cropped gray hair that used to be black and stream down her back like lava.

In the photo I happen to be looking over at her with enormous gentleness, which is what I was feeling about half the time. The rest of the time, I was annoyed. I was annoyed because she acts older than she is: She is only 73 but she totters along in the sand like a drunk or a toddler. I was annoyed because she gets everything wrong all the time. She's confused in the most incredibly annoying way. I was feeling betrayed because she was not who I would have picked in the Neiman Marcus Mommy Salon. But I am using "annoyed" and "betrayed" in the Mafia sense of those words: Picture Joe Pesci in "GoodFellas" holding something bad in one hand, like a pen, say, or a flamethrower, saying quietly, "Look, I'm a little annoyed here." This is how I come to feel with my mother, my meek sweet mother who tottles along on the beach. And this is why Jesus, thinking about daughters like me, is slamming down a few social martinis with His breakfast.

I remember how revolted I felt half the time that day, holding her soft warm hand on the beach. I secretly wanted to take it and hurl it to the sand beneath the wheels of the oncoming lifeguard's jeep. But oh, God, the trust with which she kept holding it out for me to take! Without someone to take her by the hand, she cannot find her balance. And I guess it's that simple; it's what we do in families: We help, because we were helped.

Now I can hardly bear to look at the picture. My stomach aches with a miserable sort of poignancy.

Sometimes people who've read my work send me photos of their families, and I tape them to the wall in the hopes that they will make me feel more forgiving. Who was it who said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past? The pictures do help sometimes, and I'm gentle with her, more giving, because if I can't even figure out spiritually that she is my Beloved, then I'm definitely going tourist class here. The rest of the time, I go around trying to do my Jesusy best, trying to be His tender hands and eyes. And then my mother calls and says something annoying, has forgotten something that was important to -- about -- me. I begin to fantasize about jabbing her in the head with a fork, like you test a baked potato for doneness.

I love her so much it makes me cry, it makes my heart feel sandy and peculiar, the way your teeth do after you've eaten raw spinach. I sigh a lot around her. I grit my teeth. Sometimes -- and this is the truth -- I growl, like a dog who is warning you not to step back onto its tail. When I'm not with her, I go around feeling like the world is a gigantic baby with AIDS, and I try to bring some humanity to that in my lurchy and imperfect way, like a candy striper with corns and PMS. And I do pretty well until I have to spend time with Jesus in His distressing guise as my mother. Then the whole thing starts to come apart like a two-dollar watch.

So there is nothing more touching to me than a family picture where everyone is trying to look his or her best, and you can see what a mess they all really are. Frozen in the amber of the photograph, you can see all the connections and disconnections, the stress and the yearning. And you can see the pride in their lineage -- in that long broad nose, say, that went from grandma to dad to baby. It's there on their faces for all to see, and you can see how they love it -- that big nose. It is their immortality.

There are pictures of the people in my family where we look like the most awkward and desperate people you ever saw, poster children for the human condition. I like that though, when who we are shows. Everything is usually so masked or perfumed or disguised in the world, and it's so touching when what is real and human shows. I think that's why most of us stay close to our families -- no matter how neurotic the members, how deeply annoying or dull -- because when people have seen you at your worst, you don't have to put on the mask so much. And that gives us license to try on that most radical hat of liberation, the hat of self-forgiveness, the stepping out from underneath one of the fatwas.

The friend who took the picture of my mom and me on the beach is 50 or so, and utterly devoted to her big family. In this one picture I saw, she is eating soup at the kitchen table with her daughter, who lives on the streets in San Francisco, who drinks and is almost feral now and very angry with her mother, although she accepts the $1,200 a month her mother gives her for rent and expenses. The mother and daughter have the same long, wide noses, but different eyes -- the mother's small and light brown, almost amber, the daughter's so pale blue that you wonder if they were darker until all that booze washed the dyes away. "Look at this," says the mother, showing me the photograph.

We study the picture together. "Tell me what you see," I say.

"I see love like she's under my roof, drinking my soup. I see love like she's warm and we're talking like human beings. I see love like we are two survivors on this leaky, perilous ship, together in a warm room."

I used to carry a picture of myself in my purse, taken by my mother when I was 3. I'm all dressed up in my mother's long, fancy gloves, and I seem very spaced out. My mother perfectly caught the soft, inward face of the 3-year-old girl, marveling at her good fortune, in ecstasy over her lacy gloves. I liked to open my wallet and see this child I used to be, who was not used to facing the world, and that sensuous baby face bathed in wonder looking out at me.

My parents had a long, hard marriage; and in our family pictures, all through those years, we look like we've seen sorrow, with faces that are weet and sad and bleak and glazed. Sometimes we are wearing the masks of a family who is moving forward. There are many pictures of my mother where she has made herself as beautiful as she can be, and yet when you study those old pictures, you can see that we look like paper dolls of peasants wearing bright American clothes. Still, my mother has gathered all her pride around her, and her pride is her family. I used to look through our photo albums and yearn to be one of those families who got their family pictures taken on ski vacations, or on the beaches of Hawaii, or even in studios with painted clouds as the backdrop, as if the family got lowered down in front of it and can be lifted up again en masse when the photograph is done.

There's one picture of the five of us together squinting on a porch, as if the world is too bright and we were all dragged outside too early in the day. We're smiling under a lot of shadows. My mother's mother, who was just about to go live in a convalescent home, wears a terrifying corsage, a dark baby opossum that died on her breast. The small girl, who's me, wears a forced smile, and I'm peering desperately up at my mother, like I'm willing to grin for the camera but I really want to lie down in my mother's lap.

My mother, walking beside me on the beach, sees things in the sand she wants -- a sand dollar, sea glass, shells -- and points to them like she's the Queen Mother, and I swoop down like a ballet dancer to pick them up for her.

There are all these pictures of us standing in front of our old cars. There's one of us posing by our sturdy old Dodge, which my father had just bought for several hundred dollars. My younger brother had just been born and is sleeping in my mother's arms. Everyone except my father looks so tired, and no one wants to be having this picture taken; you see the dents and the shame in the car and our faces. But my father really loved this car.

He got a great deal on it, and his visible pride gave you the sense that the big slate-blue Dodge would endure; and that we would too. It's not easy and the sky is dark but when you have this car, you're ahead of the game. The car is like the hard shell of a snail.

My son Sam got stung this past July Fourth by a yellow jacket on the beach at Bolinas, across the channel from where I was walking with my mother. My younger brother, Steve, took Sam out for the parade this year. They were watching with an old family friend, whom I have known since I was Sam's age, eating hot dogs, when Sam, riding on my brother's shoulders, got stung on the arm. He started to panic, but then the family friend split open one of her cigarettes, shook the tobacco into her palm and made a paste of it using her spit. Then she applied it to the bite as a salve, and told Sam it would draw out the toxins. I keep picturing Jesus making mud in his palm with dirt and his own holy spit, rubbing it onto the blind man's eyes, until the blind man could suddenly see. Sam stopped crying right away.

He and his Uncle Stevo hung out after the parade for a while, and then went to wait at the home of the family friend whose daughter lives on the street. She was going to drive them to Stinson, where Mom and I were waiting on the beach. They apparently walked into a pretty stressful family scene. People had reneged on commitments to bring this or that kind of food, and the niece, who had said she'd bring dessert, had brought potato salad instead, and two or three people weren't speaking to each other. But Steve and Sam, without meaning to, distracted everyone with the monsters Steve began drawing to amuse one of the toddlers. And then after a while, everyone started getting along; without using the word, everyone started forgiving each other again. Just like that, from the No of all nothingness, magic. Here you have a big tense mess and out of it comes some joy.

Finally, our friend came along and drove Stevo and Sam over to Stinson. When they showed up, you would have thought they were the Clintons or the Beatles, for the fuss my mother made. This completely drives me crazy: When I had picked her up that morning, she watched me pull up in my car, and then glanced down at her watch as if I was terribly late. She got in, and I drove us up the mountain in a petulant mood. I practiced seeing her through Jesus' eyes until the thought crossed my mind to speed up a little so I could push her out the door of the car. It's hard for me to believe He ever got to that sulky, gritchy point with Mary. Of course, I could be wrong.

I was out of the snit by the time we started down the mountain. My mother has seen me at my worst now for 43 years: It's crossed my mind to leave this county a number of times. But I have just enough visceral sense to know that you don't get away. It's in there; it goes with you.

She is wearing an old sweater in the car, even though the day is warm I find this more annoying than I can say. I see myself tear it off her, toss it out the window of the car. I'm too hot, she should take off her sweater.

"Nana!" my son calls out when he sees my mother. We were sitting on the sand by then. "I got bit by a yellow jacket!" She gapes at him, makes sympathetic noises, admires the bite as if it is a bullet hole. "I didn't hardly cry," he tells her. ("He was hysterical," my brother whispers to me.)

She holds out her hands for my brother and me to pull her to her feet. She is still wearing her horrible cardigan and the day is even hotter by now. But I understand all of a sudden that my family is like an old sweater -- it keeps unraveling, but maybe someone knows how to sew it up; it has lumps and then it unravels again, but you can still wear it; and it still keeps away the chill. Besides, who appointed me the keeper of my mother's thermostat?

My mother turns to Sam. "Let's go for a walk," she says. He doesn't want to. He always wants to race down to the shore and just plunge in. But he likes her; he's glad to be with her. The fact that she's wearing a sweater does not seem to annoy him. I watch carefully. I tell you, families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you forgive the people in your family for being stuck together in all this weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to forgive anyone. Even yourself, at some point. It's like learning to drive on an old Volkswagen bus: Master that, and you can learn to drive anything. I keep watching. Sam takes his grandmother's hand. It's not a big deal. He just wants to help her find her balance.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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