25 January, 2008


A memory:

Lunch time at 6206 Ash Cove Lane. 6206 was the open little ranch where the majority of our innocent, happy childhood was spent. Lunch time was a regular routine and it changed only slightly over those thirteen years. This is how it went: We took a break from school and the five of us sat together at the long beaten cherry table. Mom always sat at the end closest to the kitchen. (I was usually sitting at her left-hand side.) While the four of us kids were eating and telling stories and bickering over the last slices of apple, Mom would occasionally—just for a minute or two—slip away from us. Her sandwich suspended in her hand, she would stare blankly into space, focusing on nothing in particular, seeing nothing. She would enter into this temporary trance and would not seem to hear us when we asked her questions or demanded another half of a sandwich.

I remember, as a child, looking at her and wondering where she went, wondering what on earth she could possibly be thinking about. (Even now I have no idea.) It was as if she was not there with us. Now that I am older, I can finally understand why this happened. Lunch time was the only precious moment that she could “escape” from us. She needed to escape not because we were monstrous children or because she was miserable with us, but because all day long she was not an individual with her own desires and needs: she existed only to take care of us, feed us, grade our science tests, vacuum the rug, wash the clothes.

And so at lunch—the one moment during the whole day where she could sit down for more than five minutes—she would slip away; now she could be “alone” with herself for just a minute. And it was only a minute. Because then we would jar her out of her solitude, begging, teasing, “Mom! You’re doing that thing again!”

It would take her a few moments to hear us. She would blink slowly once or twice and look at us like a dreamer rudely awakened. “Oh… what? What thing?” “You know—that thing where you just stare off into space.” “Was I?” She would say, shaking her head. “I didn’t realize.” She would put her sandwich down and look at us. “Does anybody need anything else to eat?”

This memory was induced by my reading of Lyndall Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. The chapter about Virginia’s relationship with her mother (and, subsequently, how Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse symbolized her mother) made my mind turn in this direction. As Woolf noted with Mrs. Ramsay, there are innumerable moments when mothers are simply invisible. Mom’s brief retreat at lunch time was an extension of that unnoticeable quality of motherhood. Two minutes—a luxury!—to think her own thoughts.

I think I’ve quoted this once before, but it illuminates so perfectly what I’m feebly driving at. Virginia can always say it better.

“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless.”

-- To the Lighthouse

Something unrelated: I saw this last week on PostSecret and had to save it because it was such a perfect description of what I feel:

So I straightened my hair today.


Anonymous said...

Really? Abby, I love your hair. I love its curls, I love its deep color. I think your hair is absolutely gorgeous. Sue me. Don't straighten it unless that's how you really want it. Your strong individuality is why you're such a beautiful person!

Brittany said...

I second anonymous' opinions. And I was reading and children's book the other day about a woman and her individuality amongst household/wifely duties. You should check it out sometime if you don't already know it. It's called Piggybook.