My mother’s lists
A mother makes a wish for her daughter to be less like her. The wish comes true… until it doesn’t.
This essay begins with a list. It’s not the best beginning, I know this, but to start this way means tapping into something deep and primal, the part of myself which either has nothing to do with who I am now, or everything. This statement is not mere hyberbole; list-makers, even the most benign among us, are extremists who see everything if not in black and white, then at least as either things to do, or things which, in having already been done, no longer exist.
For some time I was a messy person, but I was not supposed to be. I was supposed to be like my mother, a woman who lived her life in lists. Every holiday there were many lists: a list of meals to cook, another of errands to run, dishes to watch, decorations to unearth; a list of presents to buy, cards to send and people to call; a list that said who was responsible for each dish and chore—no matter the holiday, this last list was dominated by one name: her own.
I was supposed to be like my mother, and I was, until my mother made a wish for me to be different.
My mother made the wish because she was concerned that I was demonstrating obsessive traits. I would not play with my toys because I was too busy organizing them. I would not play with other children because I was too busy sizing them up. I was not connecting, I was only categorizing. And so my mother asked my grandmother to pray to the patron saint of crazy Italian grandmothers to make me less obsessive, less obsessed with lists, less like her.
Perhaps my mother believed my grandmother had the power to alter fate. Perhaps she was trying to humor her superstitious mother-in-law who, whenever introducing her to her side of the family always found it necessary to whisper (loudly) by way of apology: She’s Irish. Perhaps she was just at her wits’ end about a daughter who would cry when a crayon broke or when numbers did not add up to even or who ordered the other children to perform in the plays she wrote and wailed when they got distracted by shiny things or things that barked and mewed. All I know is that one day I was as neat and obsessive as my mother, one day I was not, and somewhere in between, my grandmother prayed.
The list that begins this essay was made by the shaking hands of a 27-year-old woman who has just been told by her father, “I have bad news,” a sentence followed by a torrent of weeping. Actually, blubbering is the only way to put it, and I put it this way not to disgrace my father but because it was so primal, so shocking, so unexpected. I have seen my father cry many times, but always at beautiful things or sentimental things or things that were both. Things like O Holy Night at Midnight Mass, or William Wallace’s impassioned, if poorly accented, call for freedom in the movie Braveheart:
Tony Rainone: “I’ve always kind of envisioned myself a modern-day William Wallace.”
Tony Rainone’s adult children: hysterical laughter.
I’d seen my father tear up, I suppose, when his mother died, too, but never had I heard this kind of unhinged despair. I knew this was it, the moment we had all somehow convinced ourselves that we were not waiting for.
I shut the door to my office overlooking the Hudson (Did I really have an office overlooking the Hudson?), put my back to the wall, and slid down to the floor knowing full well as I did this that I was doing it because that is what people did in movies.
I want to tell you many things about my mother—about her kindness, her intelligence, her sense of humor—but for now you should know that in the years when she and I were not getting along, she was ferocious in her silence. The messiness I’d been granted had not simply resulted in the pile of clothes on the bedroom floor that was a recurring point of contention, but also in oversized emotions that not even my mother’s serious collection of heavy-duty Tupperware could contain. I wanted to talk things out, lay our knives on the kitchen table, then when all that needed to be said was said (or shouted or wailed), have a cup of milky tea and go to bed.
But this was not the way of the Irish. My mother could stay angry for months, passing me in the kitchen with not even a scowl, just a… nothing. She was clearly inhuman, how else could she be so cold in these private moments when her daughter begged for forgiveness or understanding or… something… anything… only to put a smile on her face if there was company coming over?
Easy. She was a monster. And as a monster, she was not subject to the laws of human sickness and death and when I got that call from my father, though part of me thought “This is it,” another part realized this was all a big misunderstanding that would surely be resolved. This kind of thinking was also something I’d seen in movies and or read in books. I was doing what a human should do, feeling the way a human should feel. I was not like my mother at all.
I remember now it was sunny, the sky bright blue, the clouds perfect and cumulous, and I am reminded of a dream I had—it must have been before she died—of looking out that same window and seeing a plane about to crash into the Hudson. This was a post-9/11 dream, a pre-Sully dream, but whether it came before or after her death, I don’t know because while I never really stopped making lists, they were for many years the chaotic scribblings of a writer, concerned more with what already happened or what might happen than what should. I only remember how important dates are in retrospect.
The list was made in the cab ride from my office on the West Side to my apartment in the East Village because every second counted. I was productive in that cab ride—my grandmother’s spell was by now losing its shimmer. I remember calling my husband and asking him to head directly to the train station, I would go home to pack. It would not take me long, I had made a list. When I think about it, I had been sketching rough drafts of this list for decades.
Do you care that I fought with the first cabbie who would not wait for me as I packed because his shift was ending? That before slamming the door on the way out I told him my mother was dying and if he had any compassion he’d have driven away with a hundred percent tip? Do you care that I calmed myself for the second cabbie, gave him the outrageous tip instead, though he’d done nothing different except picked a different shift to work? Do you care that the Amtrak conductor saw me crying all the way to Rhode Island and gave me two pieces of good chocolate for my troubles?
Maybe not. I don’t care myself anymore, though when I sat down to make a list of everything to include in this essay, it seemed important to include such details, and though I know they are not thematically connected, I cannot bring myself to excise them. This is the problem with lists. They can tell you where to begin, they can give you an idea of where you want to end up, but after that you’re on your own.
This is also the problem with mothers.