Magazine article Tikkun

Shedding Hope

Magazine article Tikkun

Shedding Hope

Article excerpt

Shedding Hope

Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone's most recent books are Close to the Bone (Grove) and Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She will be writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute in the fall.

I'm at my mother's eightieth birthday dinner. For reasons neither my sister, Ellen, nor I can fathom, our mother, Toby, has taken a fancy to a mediocre Italian joint on LaGuardia Place, the kind that serves breaded eggplant with a cape of melted white cheese, swimming in a sea of red sauce. Assembled are my sister and her husband, their three grown kids, and assorted significant others. One isn't Jewish. Toby clutches this germy, frayed blankie of a fact and will not let it go. I sit across from her beside my sister. The meal will not end, though the food, once surrendered to, has the solidity of an aircraft carrier. Toby is not an easy eater to please. Toby is not an easy anything. She bullies waiters and salespeople. She says whatever she is thinking, gaping at wooden legs and blotched skin, sniggering at fat people. When I was young and she would do this, I would slyly make common cause with her targets, and sometimes I would do it openly: tell the slack-jawed young woman or man in the restaurant or department store to ignore my mother--as if she were a blathering lunatic, which at these times she was, though not imbecilic enough to miss my defection.

Toby looks good for eighty. She still has something of her figure, with a little thickening at the waist. Her hair is bleached light blond, her skin remarkably smooth, though gravity has sucked at her neck and chin. She's wearing a silk sapphire suit, bought in the days before my father died when she could still be induced to spend money. Now, the thought of taking a cab or buying an item not on sale appeals as much as chopping off a limb. When she smiles, the beauty that defined her--the Tartar cheekbones and deep-set eyes--shines through. Her smiles are unpredictable. What triggers a moment of antic glee or one of rage is not visible.

At the table, the corners of her mouth turn down. The rolls aren't warm. The cucumbers have seeds. Her portion of veal is too stingy, her potato too cold. The waiters move around as if they are in occupied France and we are the Germans. They want us dead, and I'm on their side. Somewhere around the third or fourth day of this Bunuel movie, I step outside and inhale the summer air.

I walk home later, up Broadway to my apartment on West End Avenue, marching off the calamari and mocha cake I've eaten. Ellen had planned the event. No friends of my mother were there, because she doesn't have friends. There were no other relatives, because she'd broken with her family years before. I hadn't seen much of Toby in the preceding year, though we live only two miles apart. I'd grown tired of being called poison and told I should die. Call me touchy. When my mother would sever our connection, she left it to me to resume. If I didn't call, there was silence, and silence made me feel freakish in a different way. There was no winning.

A few months after the party, I'm knocked off my bike by a hit and run driver. I need knee surgery and ask Ellen not to tell Toby. You don't want to be disabled around my mother. If you have a paper cut, she will scream you are hemorrhaging. Ten days after my operation, I'm home and walking without a brace when I call Toby. She won't see me. She will never see me again. The reason is cryptic, her voice accusing and sandpapery: "You know what you did."

I don't, not specifically. Haven't a clue. She ends the conversation without asking about my leg and doesn't call again. Four months later I call her. She meets me for coffee at Starbucks and tells me that my niece had relayed a remark I made at her party, some throwaway line about her being difficult because she had a crummy childhood. Ellen had added kerosene by reporting that I didn't attend her fiftieth birthday party because I didn't want to see my mother. …

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