By Alison Hicks '82
She is “Nanna,” my mother’s mother. This visit to Inglis House in Philadelphia, when I am three or four, will turn out to be the last time I will see her and the only time I’m capable of remembering.
Two images will convince me that the place called “Philadelphia” is real and not made up like the places in nursery rhymes and songs: Nanna wiggling her nose and me standing with my mother outside the zoo, the green iron gates arching above our heads. But the second memory ruptures and shifts, becoming entangled with yet another, later, image, of standing outside another zoo, in some other city, on a street corner. My parents have bought me a balloon, attached to a fine, pliable wire. Tired of holding onto it, I have hit upon what I think is a brilliant solution, sticking the wire between my two front teeth. Standing on the corner of the street, a balloon emanating from my mouth, I endure my parents’ frantic bending over me, the torrents of worried, angry words.
When I stood in Nanna’s room at Inglis House, I didn’t know what to make of her. What I do end up making will be my interpretation of my mother’s creation, put together over years from shards and scraps. Since my mother’s stroke two years ago, what is held in her mind becomes less predictable, and I feel the imperative to record, even though it’s more often the recent past, not the distant, that she has difficulty retrieving. But I am nearly paralyzed by dread. Neither the years that I relied on her to speak for me, nor learning to speak for myself prepare me to speak for her without fear of retribution. Not so much from her as from a universe whose very order has been shaken. Trying to tell this story now, I feel like a bewildered child with a balloon coming out of her mouth.
The luxury of fear
Growing up, I saw my mother as intrepid. Brave. Fearless, even. I knew she had learned to fend well for herself on her own. Her life read like a storybook. She told me about her early childhood in Philadelphia, her father bringing home rabbits and other animals from the lab for her to adopt as pets, his taking her on fishing trips. (My father is not a fisherman, and consequently I was especially envious of this particular experience.) When she was in grade school, her father died suddenly from pneumonia, only a few years before the discovery of antibiotics. My mother and Nanna moved to Hershey to live with Nanna’s parents, but then Nanna began developing the symptoms that turned into multiple sclerosis. My mother was shipped off to live with relatives in Los Angeles for her high school years, then returned east to Wellesley on a scholarship. After that, graduate school, my father, marriage, me.
By contrast, as a child I was shy and desperately afraid of facing new situations alone. With people I knew, I was expressive and verbal; with strangers I was aloof. The time I spent among adults as an only child was further lengthened by periods spent abroad. Adults were always telling me how lucky I was to have the chance to travel, but I would have gladly given up that chance to someone hardier if it meant I could stay home, in one place that I knew. For years I wondered what was wrong with me that I should feel this way. Now I know, because my mother was with me, I had the luxury of fear.
When I was in college, my mother gave me a different photograph of Nanna and a letter she had written home during her junior year at Penn State. Nanna’s older brother had died in childhood, and perhaps because of this, my great-grandfather pinned his hopes on his remaining child, never mind if she was a girl. When he sent her to college, my mother tells me, his relatives in Fox Chase thought he was out of his mind. Nanna was expected to major in home economics, but she chose chemistry.
The letter is dated just after Armistice, November 13, 1918. She describes the celebrations, and mentions an engagement to a fellow student, not my grandfather. She tries to write about titrations and finding unknowns, but finally gives up, concluding “I can’t explain it any better for you wouldn’t understand the chemical terms.”
The photograph shows Nanna surrounded by 14 men, the other graduating chemistry majors. Vulnerability coalesces around her eyes. Had her disease already begun its inexorable march? Did she have a premonition, somehow, of the horrors to come? Looking again, I see my mother.
An educated, unmarried woman, Nanna went to work in Philadelphia for the public health service. There she met my grandfather, the baby in a large farm family from Calvert County, MD, who had been trained for the war but was never sent overseas. When they married, she was the one with the college degree, but also the one to leave her profession.
“After my father died, she wanted to go back,” my mother explains. “But she hadn’t kept up with the developments in her field. She’d fallen too far behind.”
Though my mother worked part time for some years when I was small, and suffered professionally for it, she never let herself be distracted from her intellectual interests. Even today, officially in retirement and post-stroke, she labors nearly daily on her life work, a highly technical literary study of the New York Edition of Henry James.
A habit hard to shake
My mother always seemed to know what she wanted. It seemed easy for her to make up her mind. More than once, she rolled her eyes at my timidity. She would become exasperated at my embarrassment at asking for things in stores, my reluctance to take the initiative in meeting people and making friends, my waiting for others to make decisions for me. (My father and I agonize over decisions, the smaller and less consequential, the greater the agony.)
Rather than shrinking as I did, my mother presented herself as eager to experience new places, new things, and for many years there seemed no reason not to take her enthusiasm at face value.
At the age of 10 or 11, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, a story about a family of children in New York City who each go off alone on “adventures” to visit a different place each Saturday. My mother suggests this might be a good plan for me and a friend to emulate. It is an ambitious and also slightly absurd idea. We live in a rural area miles outside a small New England town with no public transportation save the school bus.
I wrack my brains for a way to make the plan work, feeling guilty and defeated when I cannot. My friend and I go back to our usual routine of tromping through the snow to work on the lean-to we are building near one of the nearby reservoirs, then tromping back to pick up our continuous game of monopoly and warm ourselves by the fire. And yet, some years later when my friend gets permission from the Water Department for us to spend the night at the site of our former labors, my mother, willing at least in theory to consign me to the contingencies of the New York City subway in the 70’s, categorically refuses to let me do so.
This was the essential contradiction in my mother’s expectations for me, that I stay safe and close to her and at the same time launch myself out there to face the world, as she had done. Nevertheless, through her pressure, I gradually trained myself to see new experiences as adventures instead of occasions for fear and worry. I pretended I was an independent being. When I found myself wobbling, I conjured up her example. And as it had been for her, so it was for me: once acquired, the attitude becomes a habit hard to shake, a posture.
When my parents first retire to California, they store some boxes in the basement of another property. There is a fire in the building, however, and water ruins everything in the basement. During one of my visits, my mother discovers that among the items stored had been a single, small suitcase containing the only pictures she has of her father and the few remaining mementos of her childhood. It’s particularly the loss of mementos of her father, reviving the loss of him, that tortures her.
For days she can hardly stop crying and remains unconsolable. “I’ve betrayed a trust,” she sobs. “It was my duty to hold onto those things, and I didn’t keep track of them. I failed.”
I become impatient and angry at her grief. I lecture her about writing down what she remembers, about memory residing in stories more than in pictures, not in the physical world. I am playing intrepid, but it is a bad act, bad faith. Stories are not always an easy way to store your past if it has contained a lot of pain early in life.
Once, when I was about six or seven years old, I asked my mother point-blank how long she had cried when her father died. I must have also asked what her mother did, meaning (I think) how had her mother comforted her? Though I don’t remember her literal words, I remember clearly the terrifying scene they brought to my mind, of a household in chaos, mother and daughter crying for days, where there was no routine, no bedtime, no meals cooked and served, where time passed unnoticed, unmarked, undifferentiated.
The loss of the suitcase must have opened back up, after so many years, the void that had threatened to swallow her. It takes me a long time to understand this because I have been fortunate. When my parents die, I will have a surfeit of memories and physical mementos. They will have been alive, I will have had them, for most of my life.
That momentary clear, terrifying glimpse down through the accumulated layers of her life was unusual. My mother’s narratives are often elliptical, not easy to follow. She has the tendency to let her sentences trail off and to jump quickly from one thought to another (characteristics I have picked up from her, my husband tells me.) Details beyond the simple facts of her childhood come out in small bursts that are often only partly intelligible. Interruptions and asking questions distract her, sending her farther afield. Over years, these signals teach me that her childhood is half-taboo, all right to mention, but not to probe. As a young girl, I take this personally, suspecting that she does not consider me a worthy listener. Later, I understand her reluctance stems more from a desire to protect me, and herself.
Gradually, though, over years, I put together small moments of revelation, and begin to imagine the landscape that lies below the person I have always known her to be. One day my mother explains, “I was a Daddy’s girl. I didn’t like my mother.” Another surprise: she tells me that, contrary to my image of her as gentle and soft, Nanna could be challenging, and perceived as confrontational. For herself, my mother says, “I always tried to be different, the ‘hearty fellow well met.’” Before this, I have never once thought of my mother in any way approximating these terms. In the threesome of our family, I realize, my father claims this role.
“When my father died, my mother missed him sexually,” she says, another time. I imagine them as young lovers, then marrieds, still hungry for each other.
At still another time, I learn that it was my mother’s choice to go to L.A., that she was eager to leave the house in Hershey. “It was an adventure. I’d read books about going away to school,” she explains.
How she could have had the courage to leave her mother was one of the hardest things for me to understand as a child. But later I read about the experience of multiple sclerosis, Nancy Mairs’ books of essays in particular, and what it does emotionally as well as physically. I can only begin to grasp the rage of a vital, passionate young woman losing her lover and then trapped in a desperately failing body. I can only begin to imagine how my mother must have witnessed that rage, how she must have, at times, borne the brunt of it.
Driving along City Avenue, sometimes I turn down Belmont and pass by Inglis House. One time I pull into the driveway. “A wheelchair community,” the sign proclaims. I think of how much has changed since that visit in the early ’60’s. When the solicitation from the Multiple Sclerosis Society comes, I pony up. I think Nanna would like the changes in technology and treatment that, had they been available, might have kept her more active or mobile, at least for a longer period of time. And the changes in attitude, too.
As an adult, what I find most incomprehensible is the courage my mother found to defy Nanna when from her bed at Inglis House she begged her to leave Boston and come back to Philadelphia. “I had to be true to what she really would have wanted me to do, deep down,” my mother explains, emphatically and intently, no ambiguity this time, her eyes locked on mine so she can be sure I’m getting the message. “I had to be true to her and not listen when I knew it was just the illness talking.” When she tells me this, I tremble for the time I will, in turn, be called on to defy her. For surely, this is what she’s telling me she expects me to do. My desire to please her is so strong, I’m not sure I’m up to it.
A winding descent
When I am about to enter graduate school, I drive west with my mother from Massachusetts to Arizona. I have been unable to find another driving companion, and she will not hear of me driving such a distance alone. As a young woman, driving through the desert, my mother fell asleep at the wheel. The aftermath of the wreck left her with some missing teeth and a whacked-up elbow, alive but shaken. Since then, though, long stretches of driving, particularly in a desert landscape, make her nervous.
I steel myself to her rising anxiety as we head south from Colorado into New Mexico. From Santa Fe, we have cut across northern Arizona and are beginning a winding descent into Salt River Canyon, northeast of Phoenix, en route to Tucson.
I am driving. The road is not familiar; the turns are sharp, the lanes narrow and the drop-off is steep. I am concentrating on the pavement in front of me, taking only furtive glances as we pass down the climate zones from ponderosa to scrub and desert. Though I feel the stimulation of adrenaline, we are in no immediate danger.
My mother’s face, however, is contorted, her right arm braced hard against the dashboard, as if she can single-handedly hold off the moment of imminent and inevitable impact.
This is more than a parent’s normal nerves when a child is driving. My mother has just traveled some 2,200 plus miles with me, and I have driven half of it. Moreover, she’s been on countless roads more dangerous and worse than this, roads in foreign countries, where driving habits and proclivities are unpredictable, where the rules of the road are subject to variations and differing interpretations. She doesn’t bat an eyelash at driving Highway 1 from Carmel to Big Sur, which gives me the willies even from the backseat.
Anticipating an accusation my mother does not voice, I scold her: “The only reason we’re coming this way is because I chose this route for you. Dad said that you’d love it.” Though the second sentence is true, the first is an exaggeration.
But the name I have spoken releases the sub-text. For I understand my mother’s fear has more to do with my father’s absence than with my driving. And this is what makes me furious, what I cannot stand. I see in her eyes a desperate plea for protection. It would not calm her any if I offered to let her take the wheel. Only the person who is not here can comfort her. She is desperate because I can find no compassion or respect for her fear. I know no words to bridge the distance between the person she reveals herself to be in that moment and the person I am used to her being and still want her to be. I do not want to protect her, I do not want to have to, and she knows it. The feeling is new, the sensation frightening. Perhaps she’s not so wrong to cringe at the power I hold, to run her and myself off the road or bring us both down to safety.
The stroke has ripped through her like an earthquake, pulling aside the tamped-down earth to reveal a deep channel of fear and sadness. Looking into her eyes, you can see straight down to a very old fear revived, of being alone, undefended, in a hostile, unpredictable and uncomprehending world. The earthquake has also thrown aside the roles so carefully scripted over many years. In its retreating rumble, I hear a warning—step back, step back. I will save whomever I can, but all the same I’m standing on the edge of the cliff.
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