It could have been last week. Or maybe it was a year ago, I’m afraid to admit that it could have been much, much longer (10 years, 15, the day after she died 35 years ago) when I stopped hearing my mother’s voice. It’s not that I’ve forgotten some of the things she may have said, it’s that I can’t hear the sound of her voice.
When I think of her voice the word that comes to mind is clarion, but even that seems impossibly strong for a sound I no longer hear. She laughed a lot or maybe she liked to laugh and used that sound as punctuation; I think of her voice in a lower register (but not gruff, still feminine) and I certainly can see its fury when she was angry (that one time I hid out of her sight line as she called me into the house over and over and over again, each call her voice rising in exasperation, anger, fear, desperation and when I did appear — like an apparition emerges from the fog — she shook me, she yelled at me, I can see her lips moving but it is a silent fury and when she knew that I had willfully ignored her, she spanked me, making me bend over the washing machine, my shorts and underwear tangled at my ankles; the sting and slap of my leather cowboy belt the sound that remains.)
We spent so much time together that to have lost the sound of her voice is an embarrassment. How could it have dissipated? A wisp of smoke from the chimney caught in the western wind, the silvery, feathery ether torn and shredded, you watch it scatter ahead of you, only its scent (if there was one) left lingering, falling to the ground, the ash of the dead.
I can see us together (an image not goaded into being by a photograph) but that sense too, has become blurred and cataract clouded, one that I’m only able to see if I look at it sideways from the corner of my mind’s eye. The shape and form of her body is shadowy & indistinct, although some color leaches through. I’ll admit that color is not unwelcome, but it has a bilious quality to it (mustard yellow, swamp green, baby shit brown) that seems in counter-point to who she was, the woman I want to remember.
When she walked she led with her belly, even when she was rail thin, before that middle-class stomach started expanding (“I’ve been thin my whole life and I don’t care if I have a stomach,” she proudly claimed.) I see that movement, but not her, I’m unable to conjure her face, her arms, her feet, the individual parts that made up the whole without having a film reel past me, clackety-clack, and I know those are only moments and not her whole being (the whole is what I want.)
We held hands when we walked, even when I was older and no longer needed to be in contact with her for my own safety and I know we did that, but I can’t feel her hand in mine—gloved or not, dry, moist, palm against palm, her fingers tapping out a beat against my own (maybe.)
We would sit next to each other, often, and her weight, mass, and nervous energy would radiate through my body (and mine to hers), but now that sense of touch, communion, has been swallowed, digested, excreted, flushed, refined, and expunged. Only its idea a remnant that I grasp onto, desperate not to lose it as well (as a young child will turn and grab onto a parent’s leg in shyness.)
Before I grew too tall, she would throw a protective arm across my shoulders and with her hand grab the opposite arm tightly and we would walk and talk or she would face me and put her hands on my shoulders and look me in the eye, “tell me everything, son,” her blue/brown/hazel eyes steady, serene, searching. Now, though, the feel, the weight of her touch has flown; it does not matter that I try hard to conjure it; always I’m left empty-handed, no amount of legerdemain able to bring that sense of touch to me now.
Her scent may have been the first sense of her I lost (and perhaps the first I remember.) She smoked Marlboro’s, she rarely drank (but when she did, she could knock them back with the biggest and the bravest. It was always fun and a little scary as a child to see her drunk. The smells I think I should remember have less to do with what she smelled like than they do with what she liked. The foods: vinegar & spinach, avocado & asparagus, canned meats (to this day it’s hard for me to even open the dog food can for the smell), beets. The beauty products: talcum, lipstick, rouge & mascara, face powder, lilac & roses, Pond’s cold cream, mayonnaise in her hair (a conditioner), sweat.
Because I can list these things does not mean that I can smell them on or about her. It does not bring her to life (even for a universe’s lifetime, in other words, no time at all.) It’s just a list of organic items that somehow define her, but do nothing to make her real again. I have lost that immediacy, that feral knowing, the indescribable essence of her.
It’s true. I obsess about my mother. Because now, now when I am filled with questions that an adult with 60-some years behind him can ask another adult, I may not. Not that those questions would have been answered, but the very act of asking them would have freed me from the not knowing, the emptiness of ignorance. They would be out there and answered in their time and in her way and would have, perhaps, been discovered like a star or a solar system when I was standing in the darkness looking up at the sky.