Jul/Aug 2004 Nonfiction

Cloth Mother (Memoir)

by Jane Webster

I am thin and seething beneath the weight of my mother. She is not much angrier than usual, despite her menacing posture, her hands around my neck. Both lurid and sordid, there is for once a basic honesty to our grappling and maneuvering, this violent contact. My head throbs with venom as it hits the floor again and again, and I grit my teeth with each impact. Oddly enough, I am not so much afraid of death as of surviving, of what comes next once we rise from the floor.

I never thought that I would hit my mother, that I would be the kind of daughter who would hit her mother and enjoy it, relishing the minor victory of the memory like that of a good meal years after its digestion, after years of prison food.


When I was seven, I dove into a pool, certain I could swim. The way the light fingered through the rippling water was beautiful, and I thought I heard music and could be a mermaid with enough practice. They said I screamed and flailed while I heaved watery mucus from my lungs at the edge of the pool where they dragged me, but I do not remember this. I remember something more beautiful.


Juvenile hall. Knocked up. OD'd. All possible futures predicted by my mother even though I am an "A" student and afraid of boys. I bring my report card home faithfully, but it is hard to disprove a negative.

Over the years, I parry, spar, and distract my mother to avoid the threatened probings of a gynecologist's latexed hand, fearful of yet another unsubtle invasion. It is important to maintain this fragile boundary, this bit of skin and nothingness, this fleshy barrier. Each day, I look forward to returning to school, its comfortable routines and predictable stresses—and envy those who don't. We live with my grandmother, and I repaint the walls with screams while she pretends to be too busy to hear.

Other kids make their lives in the small spaces of time between after school and bedtime and the fifteen minutes recess they play with Lincoln Logs and cars with silvered plastic undersides, toy-scaled trucks hauling rocks and sand. They live for the hours spent chasing balls and each other until their parents call them home. But I am different, watching their improvised games through one window, my mother through another. I tell myself I don't envy their freedom. I am superior, merely looking down as my mother's cigarette glows.

I draw what power I have from the patterned covers of marble notebooks, the smell of pencil shavings, the way the sun slants through the yellowed shades in English class, my constantly raised hand. I live for school and worry about the classes that could ruin my standing as the smartest girl on my block: gym in the early years, math later on. Smart enough never to tell what went on at home, smart enough to bring enough candy for the class on feast days, to never invite anyone over. I drag a school bag so heavy it might have held the body of a small child, busying myself with invented homework and extra-credit assignments. At home I am a visceral being, a body to be beaten and dragged, face dirt-wet with tears and snot, begging and hate. The Tagari paint their bodies with the dust of emeralds to blend into the forest, a skill unknown to me. I am ill-equipped for hiding between the trees.

I feel stronger in school, a better person, and school air makes me capable of anything while I am on its grounds. There, I skip when I should walk and would fly if I could. The teachers tell me, "Slow down, slow down!" but I cannot, grow dizzy and faint, the ground swelling up beneath me like Dorothy in the poppy field outside the Emerald City. I "awaken" in the car of a substitute teacher who drives me home "to rest," and the words "home-schooling" and "heart surgery" buzz in the house like an insectine threat.

At night I lie in the dark, afraid of the enemy beating within. I lie for long, guilty hours, limbs taut with fright, listening to my heart thud and whoosh like a slack-skinned drum. Perhaps I haven't prayed enough, my fingers twisting in the folds of my shirt, waiting for my heart to slow. But I'd tried to pray. I'd call for help from the hierarchy of angels I remembered from a thrift shop Baltimore Catechism: Powers, Thrones, Dominions, and Archangels, the lowly Seraphim. Maybe I deserve this, this talk of surgery, the jellied connection of electrodes to my goosebumped skin. I dream of scars inflicted by professionals for my own good, remember other supposedly benign invasions and make-work solutions.


My mother hangs over me, beating me with her sharp wings. I have stolen the childhood she abdicated in the backseat and his parents' summer cottage. Two touch-hungry teenagers meet on vacation, months before the inevitable swelling and reluctant confessions. The girl who became my mother is fifteen and looks older, is served easily in bars. They marry secretly with false papers after driving to Connecticut. I am born on the lam; the school year flows through their hands and there are recriminations for all those months of mysterious silences and semantic evasions. She never talks of my father after the annulment. My parents are like Leda and the Swan, touching once and gone. He is almost erased. Photographed in his high school fencing uniform, his hands like lion's paws, I see the attraction she denies. I know I will never be a mother, never hear my daughter say she hates me. I know that this is in some way true and of my own doing.

My mother always claimed she wanted me (or at least someone to love). Years before Roe v. Wade, she lifted her legs before the abortionist as he told her how expensive his services would be. My grandmother made sure I was told everything, showed me the yellowed corpses of canceled checks. I remained unnamed for months in the limbo of an incubator, empty gloves and plastic tubing.

My mother read books bought from the supermarket, novels in which the heroine is raped on page ten and spends the next hundred seeking love and revenge through the instrument of her body. I learned to count drinks to gauge her impending volatility, practiced being an orphan while my mother pretended to be the life of the party with strange men in cars who never walked her to the door.

As a teen, I hid my breasts behind grocery bags and chador-sized shirts to protect me from the scrutiny of boys aware of her local celebrity. I lost myself in work and books. Years later, I saw Truffaut's The 400 Blows and knew what Antoine felt when he raised his shrine to Balzac and set the curtain on fire. I was far too hungry to eat, and I starved and cut myself throughout the long winters.

So much of one's life is spent recovering and remembering, waiting for the wounds to close up, the bones to knit. So much time spent walking slowly backwards, carefully erasing one's steps with the lightest touch of a bamboo rake.

I have faked my own death and started a new life hundreds of miles from the scene of the crime; after a baptism in the red light of the police car, my mother called the day I moved away without notice. Through an intersection of the fates, I am happily marooned on what passes for a desert island, sampling all the strange fruit, gratefully reincarnated in my own lifetime, hopefully raking the past into endless whorls of sandy abstraction.


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