For some reason John heavily annotated my twelve pages [of memories of and thoughts about our mother].
I began impersonally:
Shocked by his mother’s suicide, Peter Handke decided to write his memories of her. He thought that such a sorting out would make her more real to him, that he could learn to know her better, that he could save at least her memories by writing about her. He began confidently; but the more he wrote the less he understood his mother. . . . As the book progresses the paragraphs grow shorter and finally dwindle to fragments. At the end Handke writes: “I’ll write more exactly about her later.”
John ignored the theory. His first note is an answer to my question about place: “Junior Sunday School. Montpelier, Idaho. Or was it Paonia, Colorado? Sunday after Sunday she stood in front of us and taught us to sing. Filled with her warmth, basking in her love, bursting with pride that she was my mother, I told myself she was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Montpelier, John wrote.
I mentioned a few memories from Montpelier, including acting in some play or pageant, an ignominious role that required lipstick. John wrote: it was in Farmington for me, living at Grandpa's. I didn't go to school, because it took soap to wash the lipstick off. I'd already had my mouth washed out with soap.
I remembered feigning cramps to avoid swimming lessons in the freezing water of Bear Lake. John noted: never knew you pulled the same stunts. You were my idol. I wrote about ice skating, and John commented: frozen hands, no ability, too young, not as good as you -- ever, till manhood.
I mentioned “early, happy memories in a less-than-pleasant physical environment (our little house out of place among the warehouses butted up against the railroad track): Mom gave meaning to those early, potentially destructive years. What I don’t remember from that time is a sense of shame.” John drew a line from the word “destructive” to the margin and wrote: for you, no! for me, yes! For some reason he crosses out the word “shame” and writes no humanity.
John placed a cryptic “NS” after a paragraph about a photo of Mom as an object of desire. Did my mention of our parents’ sexuality please him? Disturb him? Or does NS stand for a sarcastic “No Shit!”
Beside a paragraph describing a long family hike around Shiprock and the sleepy ride home made electric by the sight of my newly captured bull snake crawling up Mom’s leg, John wrote: I remember this. I didn't want to go. He often didn’t want to go. There were times when the sheer size of our family made me wince as well.
I wrote: “Kneeling around the table for family prayer.” John filled the margin with: Remember when Carol was saying the prayer and the phone rang. She hurried her prayer, jumped up, and grabbed the phone. "Heavenly Father," she said, and dropped the phone. Even Mom, next to the phone, was laughing and coughing so much that she could hardly answer the phone, which was for her.
I recounted a fond memory: “One night I awoke to find Dad shaking my shoulder. He hurried me into Sunday clothes and rushed me off to the Elk’s lodge where he and Mom had gone to hear an Australian boys’ choir. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the program; but my strongest memory is of gratitude that they went out of their way to share the experience with me.” John commented, with an interesting choice of prepositions: Never did this to me.
I described Mom hobbling around the house with a broken toe, the victim of her temper, and asked “How did the sides of her mouth survive those vicious chewings?” John's comment is Ya!!
Then there is my statement about “the tender new mother (for the eighth time) with baby Jeff,” to which John affixed the words: Another brother. A year after Jeff was born John did a science-fair project nicely related to those family population pressures: “The Effects of Different Amounts of Space on the Number of Fruit Flies (Drosophila melanogaster) Produced in the F1 Generation.”
Next to my memory of hiking trips with Mom and Dad, John noted his own memory: Mom a Cub Scout Den Mother while pregnant with Jeff. Pregnant lady followed by ten cub scouts. Very humorous.
There’s a paragraph about picking up Paul from his mission in Zurich, about the testimony meeting at which Mom emphatically described her visit, just a week before, to Christ’s garden tomb: “I can’t help but think of Sesemi Weichbrodt’s words at the end of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: ‘It is so!’ she said with all her strength and glared at the others. She stood there – a victor in the good fight. She had fought her life-long against doubts from her school-teacher rationality – bent, tiny, shaking with conviction, a small, fierce, enthusiastic prophetess.’” John wrote: She, as Mom, are victors!!
After my description of Mom as a fine and strict first-grade teacher, ending with “I wonder how the children view Mrs. Abbott?” John noted: An invigorating teacher like Mrs. Anderson, my 1st teacher. Teaches from love, not $. They viewed her as I viewed Mrs. A., a Goddess. I've seen her students introduce her to their parents. I've seen parents thank Mom for being their children's first grade teacher. Mom's a teacher like Dad was. Mom, they need you.I praised Mom’s grit after Dad was killed: “The determined Mother and provider, back in school again at a ripe middle age. Surely an act of courage. But then again, she enjoyed it so much. No one would ever choose that route, but Mom positively flourished.” John expressed regrets I recognize: I disappeared for quite a few years. No help. No compassion. Nothing. Thanks Mom. I love you.
I criticized Mom’s frenetic walking habits, antithetical to contemplation and conversation, and John again defended her: No, she thinks more as she picks up speed. Give the woman credit. She's good at being a friend, even if she's herself. Scott, did you give her a chance to be herself? Probably not! Just you as her son yet intelligent? I spent 2 months with my mother. She won't accept what I do, but we finally became friends.
John, how could you become friends if she won’t accept what you do? You argue here for accepting her, for letting her be herself; but what if “herself” is antithetical to “yourself”?
Then so be it, you answer back. She took me in for two months when I needed a break. She is my mother.
I referred to Mom as a grandmother. John wrote: I've never seen Mom as a grandmother. I guess it's because I have no family but the one I grew up with, except for Carol's kids.
John had advice for me when I admitted that it’s best for me not to talk politics with Mom: You're afraid!! I spent 2 months with Mom. You have to make her be honest, and you have to be honest in discussion. It's not easy, but it works!
In one entry I tried to analyze difficulties I have talking with Mom: “Those phone conversations when Mom asks: How are you doing? Always an awkward silence because I know she really wants to know. And doesn’t. No matter how well I am doing, an honest response makes her worry and sets me up for an even more searching question the next time she calls. But if I don’t tell her the truth, we don’t communicate either.” No!! John wrote. Scott, what's a mother to do? She loves us. We don't let her accept us and we don't accept her as her. We have to accept each other! Mom's a person herself. Share her right to believe! Are we friends, my brother?
This question undoes me every time I read it.
“It’s a pleasure to see how proud Mom is of us,” I wrote, and John noted, with his trademark double exclamation points: She's even proud of me!!
My fragmentary essay ended with the words: “Merry Christmas, Mom. I love you dearly.”
John added sentiments that quicken my heart: Love you too my brother!
It is a conversation of sorts. One text engenders another. The disturbed man who told his sister she was dead defends his mother and expresses love for his brother. The man who claims to have no desires reveals how he values his mother’s pride.
Precious words, heart-rending in their fixed paucity.