We know ourselves by our relationships, by the predictable magnetic pull of their names, like mother and daughter, or adult and child. But when you go home again, as a grownup, the compass whirls, meanings change or become ambiguous. Being my mother's caretaker changes a lot, but not everything. Underlying power struggles are reconsidered and rearranged, but they are there, none the less.
My mother has never asked anyone for anything, which has been her source of strength but also prevents a certain intimacy. My mother is vulnerable now in ways she would never willingly allow herself to be, and while she's frustrated, I think I see her delight, new, miniscule and guarded, in this simple ability to ask and receive. Her delight, as much as her vulnerability, make caretaking a source of pleasure for me, even when I'm tired and cranky. Especially then. Her openness is my inspiration. But I can't imagine how I'd feel (or react) if she openly resented my presence in her home. That's always the question mark swirling darkly in the background.
Privacy, for all of us, is a thing of the past. My son, Omar, just looked over my shoulder and disapproved of my title.
"What the hell do a broom, a laptop and a buddha have in common? Is your blog like some kind of fortune cookie and you're a wannabe Asian--? Oh, that's right, you can't be Asian, cause you can't do math and you don't have a job..."
In all fairness, 15 is the age when he and his friends are all about what my generation meekly referred to as "appropriating the language of the oppressor"--he calls his Asian friend who struggles with math a "wannabe Asian" and that friend tells Omar, "Shut up, terrorist."
I've been attempting to seize Omar's attention for the past five minutes so he'll take out the garbage, but he responds right away to Leila when she says sweetly in pig Latin, "Hey, UpidStay, Mommy's talking to you."
We're all sitting around the tiny, ultra-mod Saarinen tulip table my mom's always had in the dining room, where I used to sit down for countless dinners with my father and uncle and grandmother--all dead now. Gathered around the white table are my very own childen: my laptop's bumping against Leila's and Omar's elbow is in my face whenever he flips a page of his magazine. We're awkwardly reestablishing our family narrative within this tight, new setting, which was also the ancient theater for my own uneasy role as The Child.
How's it going, so far? A bit feral, actually. We're like animals in a zoo, attempting to adapt to a weird new habitat that approximates our own, but doesn't quite cut it. And that's just us humans--my mother's aristocratic Siamese cats, Boris and Zelda, are aghast at Pablo, my enormous tabby cat who eats their food and sprawls in front of them while they hiss and grumble. He's twice their size but still a kitten and doesn't know to hiss back, just how to roll. Or maybe he's just playing the big galoot to ingratiate himself, while our other cat, Mia, hides under the bed all day. We all have our coping strategies as we struggle for position.
We know who we are, too, by our possessions--by what we hoard and what we discard--and we are always in a relationship with our things. Among the things in my mother's dining room were an old sewing machine in a dirty plastic case and an old dehumidifier with dusty coils (both acquired from garage sales and never used), a broken chair, two cardboard boxes of photos which the cats use as a scratch pad, piles of newspapers, and stacks of empty frames. All this I banished to her living room which, since we are forbidden to enter it anyway, is serving as storage space. I cleaned away cobwebs and thick, greasy dust motes, the inky soot clogging the gills of the old air conditioner are now scrubbed clean, the rug has been vacuumed, windows shined, each tchatcka washed and dried and put back into its exact place: yet neither of us is satisfied.
My mother paces through her dining room on her daily exercise route, back and forth from her bedroom, like a caged creature, looking neither to the right nor the left. I sense that my presence in the room has diminished hers. By cleaning I took something of her away, or implied criticism; by removing some of her nonessential objects, I made bits of her nonessential. Did the unused sewing machine represent the possibility of perhaps making a dress for the first time in 40 years; what might those empty frames have held some day? Surely, she would have gotten around to cleaning her own dining room when she wanted to, in her own time, when she felt up to it.
I'm mortified by the giant framed arts nouveau poster of two bare-breasted nymphs that hangs in the room that Leila and I are sharing. Not because of the breasts, but because it was a gift from my father's lover, as a reminder of her breasts. (My mother isn't bothered by such details; she likes how its sunset palette matches the room's decor and, she says, "it has some value.")
The room belonged to my grandmother and the bed is where she died many years ago, when I was 21 and she was about the age my mother is now. I had been calling my grandmother down for dinner, over and over. We were having lamb chops and creamed corn, her favorite American food. When I came upstairs, the door was shut and no light came from underneath. I yelled at the door, waiting for an answer; I yelled over and over. Each time, the silence was deafening. Then I yelled for my mother. That silence meant death I must have understood--there was never really any question--but I wouldn't open the door to it. When my mother opened the door and turned on the light, my grandmother was lying on the bed with her eyes slightly open, as if she was on the verge of waking.
The mattress is so soft that to sit upon it means one's ass sinks nearly to the floor. For two people to sleep on it requires desperate clinging, even in sleep, because the sides sag like a pitched roof. Leila woke this morning with one foot already on the floor. I woke up gazing at Justin Bieber, whose face is on the calendar Leila hung up.
I miss the open flow of rooms in our house. You can see from one end of the house to the other and outside to the forest through big windows that stretch up to high ceilings; I used to complain because our house had no privacy. This house was built in 1910 and each small room closes off, yet the walls seem constructed to transmit sound from one end of the house to the other. Every window looks out on another house, impinging itself on us. And I don't remember the toilet seat being so low, or the doors not being able to close shut.
When I woke up last night clinging to the bed--I don't know what time it was cause I don't know which bag my clock is in--I remembered a game I used to play with my friends. The game was supposed to reveal your true nature by pinpointing what you value most.
Say you're stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue--name three things you'd want to take with you. They can't be practical instruments of survival--no fair calling knives or matches or a generator--the objects must have personal significance for you.
Omar brought his X-box, his entire collection of manga, and Axe Twist (cause the smell attracts hot chicks). Leila brought everything but the kitchen sink, but the first things she placed around the room were framed photos of her and her dad and one of me holding her infant self, there's also enough makeup to sink a ship, and assorted Bieber paraphernalia. But what did I bring?
The first thing I brought into the house was my broom. You see, my mother's broom is taller than I am and the bristles are made of straw or boar bristles that fall out as I sweep, so in the end, I have to fetch a little dustpan and squat to brush everything up. My broom is shiny and white and light, with uniform synthetic bristles that are angled for optimum sweep, all this and it fits into its own dustpan with a long handle for maximum efficiency. If I can control the dirt--and control it on my own terms--then there is still at least something I can control. This broom, then, is my most coveted object.
I do sweep a lot, but come on. I must have brought something else. I brought my iPod, but couldn't find the headphones and didn't want to take the iPod dock because I still go back to feed the plants in our own house and I love to be able to crank my music at will, which I can't do here. What else did I bring?
I brought my laptop. It's been with me since the beginning and I made sure we had internet connection before we moved in, but I haven't had time to write. Of course, I shouldn't be writing now; there are easily 15 important things I should be doing right now that trump blogging. With the laptop, it's a bit like my mother's sewing machine, it's more about promise than fulfillment.
Since nothing else of significance came to mind last night as I hung on to the edge of the bed, I recognized a golden opportunity to define myself by whatever I chose to bring next. One of the first things I've seen every morning for the past 15 years is a Japanese wood carving, a masklike sculpture of the Buddha. Made of a soft, green-gray wood native to Japan, it has a dusty suede patina, which the shopkeeper told me could be polished to a high sheen, if I preferred. Buddha's eyes are half closed and his expression is serene, the lips almost curved in a smile, but enigmatic, like the face of Mona Lisa. It was carved by a novice monk as a form of contemplation. When the monastery burned, the Buddha was salvaged, but there is a black, heart-shaped scorch mark on his temple, beside his left eye. That's how I got it cheap. What others perceived as an imperfection alludes to a mysterious, sublime truth I can discern now.
I always mean to meditate. When I look at my Buddha every morning, I'm transfixed by his enduring tranquility, even while he's on fire. His eyes are on the point of opening, his smile is on the point of breaking, and he's on the point of burning. This has always been his secret and I want to know it.
So today, my Buddha is beside the pitching bed, on a defunct antique sewing machine table that's covered by a torn paisley shawl, under the light of a bulb that's partly exposed by a torn lampshade in the room where my grandmother slept and died, where there is now a picture of Justin Bieber, and a graphic reminder of the lovely breasts of my father's mistress and everything else in the world I can't control.