On not having a daughter

Something beyond life or death lingers of the girl I didn't get to mother.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A son will leave and take a wife;

a daughter's a daughter all her life.

I'm a kid, drying dishes for my mother. On summer evenings a slow caramel light plays across the yard and dapples the narrow two-lane out front. Cows stand in the north corner of the hilly field across the macadam, leaning up against one another in a velvet shamble and scratching themselves on the barbed-wire fence. All day the shade of a giant somnolent oak casts shadows across their broad, dumb faces. Evenings they stand as though sensually stunned, in light so thick and sepia gold they can't move.

In winter it's pitch dark by five and the cattle huddle in shelter on the other side of the hill. My brothers are wrestling across the twin beds in their room at the end of the darkened hallway; I hear their metal bed frames lurch on groaning wheels. We have a Maytag dishwasher but my mother prefers to wash dishes by hand; she says she gets them cleaner than any machine. And besides, this is our time to talk. It's when I hear all the stories about high school, her boyfriends and suitors, our town and everyone in it. I hear all she knows about my father's people and his other life, the one he led before he met her in 1948. I hear about her eccentric father, wealthy before the Depression ruined him, her much older sister and brother and the three siblings born after them, all dead before she drew breath: stillborn twins and a toddler who died of diphtheria. I hear about the woman who lost those babies and feared in the beginning that she would lose my mother as well. She was nearly 40 when her last child was born, as the Depression came on and the money was gone; the infant was scrawny and sickly, and her much older husband increasingly eccentric. I used to worry so, my grandmother told my mother, and the neighbor woman would tell me, "Don't you fret, she'll be the joy of your life." And it's true, you were.

My mother refers always to my grandmother as Mother but the term seems neither formal nor distanced. The word is her comfort. I learn early that a woman who loses her mother aches. Much happens in life and miracles unfold, but that central absence of voice and image persists. It's as though a room of the spirit remains just as it was the day my grandmother died, the day her long illness was over and my mother had nursed her through it into the mouth of time. In that room possessions are undisturbed and the August air smells of roses. The town stands still; the hour, closed like a bud, pulls softly shut. You only have one mother ... As Mother used to say ... I don't know how many times Mother told me ...

I know her through words. She died when my mother was three months married, but her story is my mother's story. Together they chose my name when my mother was 12, and referred to me as someone who would exist. Their story is so complex and layered and shot through with luminous sorrow that I will exist and become a writer to make sure the stories don't vanish. I grow up believing that I too will have a daughter. After all, a woman with no mother or daughter is a woman alone on earth.

I'm 20, finishing college in a world my grandmother wouldn't recognize, but the sprawling house I live in with assorted others is circa her era. The generous, sagging porch and bay windows have seen better days; next year it will be razed for a parking lot, and the landlord gives us free rein. We fill the place with antique odds and ends in various states of repair, plant a big garden, cover the torn floor with remnant linoleum. My lover, a recent Harvard grad school dropout, has come home to work construction and play music; he's one of those men who is so charming and vital that he's slept with every woman he knows. In fact, when my roommate and I moved into this house, he was sleeping with the woman who sublet to us, in the big first floor bedroom. Now he lives on the second floor, with me. When he isn't living with a woman, he lives in his van. He keeps his belongings in milk crates, which are quite portable; he stacks them in our room on their sides, like an open shelving system. I'm crazy about him, though I've had numerous liaisons since leaving home, two or three a year, not counting spellbound one-night encounters, and I know enough to recognize we're completely dissimilar; he's a politicized extrovert musician, I'm a reader and scantly published poet. When we're together three months or so, I find that I'm pregnant, despite my IUD.

I remember locking myself in the bathroom, bathing in the big tub, sitting in hot water with the tap on full and loud, and sobbing. I make the appointment right away, glad I'm only six weeks along. Abortion is illegal here; we drive out of state to the nearest big city, walk into an anonymous brick building. At first we get the wrong office -- a roomful of women in various states of pregnancy look up from their magazines. We exit quickly, as though someone's played a bad joke on us. It's the third time my lover has impregnated a girlfriend, but I'm the first he's actually accompanied for the consequent abortion. He feels it's a simple thing. Still, he leaves the building as soon as I'm checked in; he'll wait in the car or take a walk while I go through the obligatory counseling process and have the procedure. I'd like to go with him, but I sit in the waiting room and calculate my approximate due date on a conveniently provided paper dial: January 28th, his birthday.

I'm an articulate, composed client during the interview. Yes, I'm certain; no, I don't wish to consider other alternatives. Then I'm in the gown and on the table. My counselor is holding my hand. The nice young doctor comes in with his female assistant. I realize they're volunteers; we're all volunteers here, acting on our convictions. My mother has told me not to have sex before marriage. I've rejected her dictum; I'm a responsible sexual being whom technology has failed, and my mother would be horrified at any option available to me now. Here at the beginning of my life, my option is escape. A twinge, and the IUD is gone. The doctor explains what will happen next, adjusts the machinery and begins. An appliance-like sound immediately swallows the room. The counselor takes my hand and says to squeeze as hard as I like, then locks gazes with me and keeps talking. I'm wondering how many times a day she does this, then thought abruptly stops. I go completely blank, as though I'm floating through my own astonishment. I've heard the phrase knowledge beyond words but I've never been inside it, or known it was real. Independent of my motionless, abandoned self and the sharp, manageable discomfort, there opens some field of time in which sentience begins or floats or waits, both death and life; into it something separate from cells and blood withdraws, some ineffable breath, deeply whispered, withdraws.

It's done. Across a vast divide I've heard phrases, almost over, just another moment. Then the women help me sit up, into the doctor's open gaze at the end of the table. He's so startled and alarmed by the look on my face that he steps toward me and says quickly, What's wrong? I burst into tears, my face in my hands, and he leaves immediately.

In the recovery room the others read paperbacks and I continue weeping, a strange gasping distant from myself, lacking even tears. Nurses come by and take my temp, my pulse, inquire about my "support system"; they're surprised I've taken this turn. My lover has been here three times to retrieve me. "She's resting," they've told him. When I finally stand up I'm dry-eyed and increasingly relieved, a body freed from a trap. I'm hungry, ravenous: I realize food has not occurred to me for days. On the way home we stop at an inn along a country road, under a bower of dark trees, and have a wonderful meal, holding hands across a table like two glad, weightless voyagers. I don't tell him about the due date, or about anything; all of it disappears into the space between us, bridged in our fingertips. Together, we hold on.

The abortion doesn't separate us. That happens about a month later, when he sleeps with another girl and I won't adapt to a more open relationship -- not with him. In love, I revert to my mother's passionate need for contact and protection. I won't be tortured, I hear her say, dispensing with some irritation or weighty annoyance. It's the phrase that occurs to me as I turn away. I'm not a modern woman. I sleep with men only in love, or convinced of its possibility. When possibility ends, there's nowhere to go and I step out: a single soul. It's almost a religious stance.

I take up the solitary life. On a lark, my friends talk me into coming to see a psychic. She's a working-class, middle-aged woman who comes to town, stays with friends, does readings for 50 dollars. I'm told she asks to hold a bracelet or a ring, then describes pictures -- things that have happened or may happen occur to her in disconnected images. She sits alone in a room and we enter one by one. I go in first, but she doesn't ask to hold anything. She looks at me before I even sit down and says, "I see you've lost a child, a girl." In response to my silence, she adds, "They stay near you for a while. There's a shadow in your aura, an essence that's female." Still I don't speak. She admits she doesn't know how it works, she mentions incarnation and karma. "Maybe it's like a knock at a door," she tells me. "You can answer the door, or not. Perhaps the visitor will return, and perhaps not." She opens her hands. I put mine inside them. Then she tells me other things.

The dreams start in a month or so. I graduate and leave, travel cross-country, live in New Mexico and California. The dreams, little guilt dreams, regret dreams, keep pace with me, repeating in a cycle of their own. Something's misplaced or missing. Alone, like any pilgrim, I'm looking through long, disconnected hallways of houses and apartments I've lived in. The houses are all mixed up, or have wings of rooms not obvious in life.

By January I'm living in Colorado in a gorgeous cowboy town, waitressing in a Greek-owned greasy spoon that serves mostly eggs and fried potatoes, food familiar from home. Late one night I fall asleep with a candle burning, and dream I'm walking into the yard of my childhood home, through the pines, onto the wide lawn in front of the house. The house has been turned into a home for mothers and babies, and my lover and his father greet me as though I'm expected. I understand that I live here, and my lover's father embraces me, lifting me up into the air as though I'm a child. Buoyant, I float above him, then I'm in the house, walking down the long hallway. This is the room my brothers shared, but it's small now, just wide enough for a narrow bed with a cardboard box full of puppies at the foot. I look away and the box is full of kittens. I look away again and the box is fluffed with sheets and pillows; inside stands a baby a year or so old. I see her clearly, her face, her dark curls. She reaches for me and I lift her into bed. It's as though we've been separated a long time. She kisses me on the mouth. They are strange kisses, sensual, unhurried, but not sexual or probing. I awaken, instantly alert as though the dream has broken some spell, and open my eyes to see the flame of the candle opposite my bed lick the air in a high thin column. There's a faint burning smell, and I see that a book sticking out from a high shelf is smoldering. It is my grandmother's old clothbound copy of Gibran's "The Prophet," the one she requested my mother read from at her funeral. The book is so old and dry that the heat of the candle has burned a hole through the cover. I know, without looking, the last words of the text: A little while, a moment upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me. Beneath these words, my grandmother, who died five years before my birth, has written my mother's name, my cousin's name, and my name, each with a question mark.

I open the windows. The faint acrid scent of seared paper mixes with the drifted cold of a heavy, blowing snow. Somewhere near home, snow blankets the rumpled cattle, the graves in deserted, separate glades, all that was offered and refused. A moment of undisputed presence holds steady in the blinding fall, like evidence, a live promise in a cloud that moves.

By Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of four acclaimed works of fiction, the novels "Shelter" and "Machine Dreams" and the short story collections "Fast Lanes" and "Black Tickets." She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA fellowships and a 1997 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her new novel, "MotherCare," will be published in 2000 by Knopf.

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