Tuesday, January 10, 2012
The Other Mothers
We made stained glass cookies on a dark afternoon, rolling out with our bare hands small snakes of dough, whose ends we pressed together free-form to make, under the direction of my friend's mother, little windows: lopsided diamonds, divided rectangles, lumpy hoops.
This friend's mother was an artist. She made small boxes - loose vessels or sprung cocoons - out of colored silk and long, trailing lengths of thread. These were displayed, if I recall, in Lucite cases that could be set on a shelf or mounted on a wall. You could look in at them, these constructions, at once elegant and a little wanton, a little blowsy, their saturated hues evocative of yolk and raw tuna and new grass. Although some were impossibly pale, a kind of tissuey pink: they were the color of what it feels like to touch the tip of your tongue to the inside of your cheek.
We laid our finished dough windows on sheets of foil, then filled their centers with crushed hard candy, bits of hammered lollipop. We made sure to sprinkle enough candy so that once baked, and the colored granules had melted and spread, the candy glass would fill the opening, seal it completely - yet we didn't sprinkle it so densely that the light would fail to illuminate fully the colors we had chosen. While we worked, the light outside the real window panes deepened from periwinkle to cobalt, and the distant tree branches framed by the windows grew - we swore! - more gnarled, calling to mind the crooked lace of witches' fingers splayed against the sky.
That past summer, when the seventeen-year cicadas had crawled up through the ground, climbed the trees and molted, littering the streets and sidewalks of our town with their iridescent and faintly monstrous shells, this friend's mother had found art in their discarded skins. She'd gathered dozens of the near-weightless exoskeletons and made a centerpiece of them in a clear glass bowl. My own mother spoke of this with some wonder: a mixture of deep, plaintive admiration and the unspoken question of whether this might be going too far.
Once, this friend's mother gave my mother one of her silk boxes, a flushed, fleshy-blush color whose hue seemed to me for years the very definition of the word beauty. It was given in a kind of barter, an exchange for work rendered, because my mother was an artist too - though she would be quick to dismiss such a designation: no-o-o, she would utter from low in her throat, a little string of crumbs to brush away, and with them any preposterous presumption. Graphic art is the public box my own mother settled into for a stretch of years, a modest box: serviceable, useful. In this capacity she designed, at the silk-and-cicada artist's request, a business card, for which she was paid in silk: a single rosy pouch, its visible seams finely, even sensually stitched. It sat on a wooden shelf in our house for decades, a thing of beauty preserved in its small clear case.
Elsewhere in the house, my mother's art came and went, mostly on tiptoe, mostly mounted with nothing but scotch tape. I loved a pencil drawing of pears, a female nude, and a kind of geometric sculpture made of thin wooden dowels.
The mothers of my friends - the other mothers of my childhood - were by turns generous and mysterious, embracing and foreign. They were kind to me, taught me how to make stained glass cookies, took me to plays and concerts and libraries and teas. They treated me not quite like another daughter, but close enough that I sometimes imagined: what if I were hers? What if I were my friend's mother's daughter? What if she loved me as her own? Who would I be then?
And was it from loyalty that I always recoiled immediately upon risking such thoughts? Or was it from superstition, or a sense of good manners? Or from horror, pure and simple, that I should ever be anyone but my own mother's child?
They were so proximal, so familiar, these women who remain steadily threaded through my memories of growing up, and yet I did not keep in touch with them. They had their own daughters to love, and I my own mother, and such a thing, such a love, is so immense, particular, and puzzling - more: so vexing and venerable and unsolvable and lush - that there was no room really to admit them, these other women, into my girlhood heart. Except that I remember them now with gratitude and curiosity, and in remembering I see that they are there anyway - have been all along - safely tucked there within an ignorant, inner chamber.
On that winter afternoon, after the cookies were baked and cooled, we peeled off the foil backing and held them up to the deepening light, and saw how their centers shone like jewels.
Posted by Leah Hager Cohen