If you live long enough, you’ll start seeing your mother everywhere. Mine’s been dead for well over a decade, but she’s awfully reluctant to let me have my mortal coil all to myself. More and more frequently, she is showing an unseemly interest in the things of this earth.
In itself, this is not news. Everybody over the age of ten knows that the best way to make sure people remember you is to up and die unexpectedly. My father managed this by dying in his twenties, virtually hours after conceiving my younger sister, Clara. My mother’s no different. But where she’s broken away from the herd of dead mothers is in her current transmogrifications. She’s no longer content to be any short, elfin-faced white woman of a certain age (fifty-nine, if you must know) who walks by me on the street. Now she’s happily crossed over incidentals like race and years. All of a sudden she’s a Mexican, or a young German girl, or even a middle-aged Indian wearing an actual sari—something my mother would never have floated around in, not even in the privacy of her own living room. During a period of my deepest, most juvenile heartache, she did make me laugh by dancing around her bedroom with a tiny lampshade on her head, but primarily Mom was a strong believer in foundation garments: she held onto girdles well into the seventies, and never wore anything but control top pantyhose. She would not be (forgive me) caught dead in anything that didn’t suck, squeeze, or hoist, but there she was last April, right on Church Street, a vision in peach gauze. Now, I’m used to this sort of multicultural behavior from my paternal grandmother, who by the time she died resembled nothing so much as an elderly black woman of some long-ago royal connection: a strong crooked nose that flattened towards the tip, high cheekbones, generous lips, and dark skin. It’s what I’ll look like if I live so long, meaning that young women of sundry racial backgrounds will start calling me Grandma. Maybe not such a bad thing, provided I am suitably old by then and not, say, forty-seven. But Mom had been reliably Caucasian for nearly ten years after she died. More important, she’d kept to the same species.
My sister Clara and I are your ideal orphans. Our loyalty is unwavering: we’d do absolutely anything to see our mother again. In a few years I can imagine us, running up to strange women on the street, asking, like the baby chick in that old children’s book, “Are you my mother?” This is adorable coming from a baby bird. It is threatening and a little sickening coming from a couple of grown women. We trade pictures of the young Lillian Hellman, with her expanse of forehead and her serious nose; the resemblance is astonishing. We send each other magazine pictures of laughing white-haired women at retirement homes, though Mom hated the idea of joining a book club let alone an old people’s commune: “just get a gun and shoot me the minute you see the drool.” And at commencement last spring, as I sat on a hard little folding chair at the university where I’ve taught these past eight years, a former college president showed up to grab some honorary degree—and there was my mother. Seeing her small red-cheeked face bobbing atop one of those voluminous doctoral gowns was heartening, especially since Mom had never gotten past her first semester at some junior college in Brooklyn. As an academic, I suppose I should find that empowering: from college dropout to college president, and all you have to do is die.
The worst case was two years ago. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and at the house were Clara and her two girls, my last unmarried cousin, and my year-old son, Peter, who was chewing on my hair and crawling from lap to lap. My nieces were in their teens, beautiful and tall and sweet in that way that teenaged girls are when they’re not hissing “Fine!” at you or opening doors just so they can slam them. Because there wasn’t room for all of us in the kitchen, we were sitting at the dining room table, poking shreds of dried-out turkey and pumpkin bread around on our plates and listening to my cousin finish describing her latest allergic reaction to a cat. Entirely out of the blue—and with no sympathetic noises about the cat—my sister asked, “You know who really looks like Ma?”
She stood up, ran into the kitchen, and came back clutching a coffee mug. Everybody has seen mugs of this type. They’re all folksy and whimsical, with either a girl, a boy, a sailboat or a little seaside cottage painted on them in blue and pink by a woman named Hadley, and the words “the End” painted inside, so you earn this verbal pat on the head after you’ve finished swallowing your milk or juice, whatever your mother (see?) has forced down your throat.
This mug woman had a nice little round balloon of a head, a lot like the college president’s, and surprisingly strong eyebrows.
“Your mother looked like a coffee cup?” My cousin peered up at the mug and shook her head as she finished the pumpkin bread. “I don’t see it, Clara. The woman had a waist, for God’s sake.”
“Hope, can’t you tell?” Clara asked me. “She’s got that same shy little smile. If she had teeth, I bet they’d be just as tiny as Ma’s, with that little gap in the front.”
“Holy moly, you’re right,” I said. I wasn’t certain about the teeth, though. It’s easy to have a shy smile when you only have a tiny dab of glaze for lips. Still, until recently it was one of my more disarming moments. Here I’d been living for years with this mug right on my kitchen windowsill, stuffed with pencils and left-over twist ties ever since it sprang an unfortunate leak, and I never noticed the likeness. So now she’s moved onto dishware, as if Mexicans weren’t disorienting enough.
When the nieces exchanged the sort of look that a wise parent chooses not to see, Clara shook the mug at them. “Watch it,” she said. “Your turn’s coming.”
The finale—my God, I hope it’s the finale, what else will there be, a sunset with her rosy smiling face smack in the middle?—is what I’ve come to call the Skunk Incident. Not only does this incident contain an actual skunk, but it reminds me of a poem by Seamus Heaney called, funnily enough, “The Skunk.” The poem’s about a writer who’s off on a trip to California, long enough that he’s got a desk all set up and is writing these letters to someone who is or will soon be his wife, when one night he sees a skunk right outside his porch. Over the next several nights, the skunk reappears, until the writer finds himself waiting for it on a regular basis. Maybe he’s lonesome, maybe the writing’s going badly; who knows? At any rate, he finally goes back home, so no more letters, no more skunk, till just at the poem’s end, there it is again, only this time it’s just like my mother—not the actual skunk, that is, but something like a skunk, a skunk-reminder. This time it’s his wife, head down and rump up, rooting through a dresser drawer for a sexy black nightgown.
This is a poem I keep teaching to groups of more or less enraptured students. A few years back, one of them was a junior, a girl named Honey Shaver, poor thing. Most likely over-sensitized to any intimations of ridicule, she had come to feminist literary criticism via outrage, and she had issues with this poem in particular.
“Here’s how I read it,” she said. “It’s all about humiliation and sexual conquest. Probably even rape.”
“Rape?” A number of expressions perked up. Maybe this quiet little poem might be worth some trouble after all.
“Sure. I mean, he may not actually commit the act of rape, but he’s sure thinking about it. By the end of the poem you see him looking at this defenseless figure of a woman, her back to him, and fantasizing about attacking her.”
Give me a classroom discussion and I’ll give you a game of hot potato with a loaded diaper. “Well,” I said, just before Brittany’s hand shot up. Brittany was an English major who told me on the first day of class that she was far more comfortable (her words, her italics) with Shakespeare and Chaucer, and I told her she was welcome to them. Or at least, I wanted to. It was sucking up of a particularly misguided sort, since my specialty is the twentieth-century.
Leaning back in her chair now, she simultaneously raised her eyebrows and lowered her chin. She liked to rear back at an opponent. “I disagree about the notion of rape, Honey.” (Brittany always disagreed.) “The tail,” she said, “is a pretty significant symbol in this poem because everything circles around it. It’s the final image, right?”
We nodded. We had to; she was right.
“Well, isn’t it meant to be beautiful? Isn’t it an emblem of a love so, you know, deep and pure that everything in the world reminds the poet of it? The love, I mean?”
Honey said no, it was not beautiful, deep or pure. The love, she meant. “It’s just too awkward. I mean, look at her. She’s not even bending her knees. What woman wants to be immortalized in literature with her butt in the air?”
Fortunately, we moved away from the notion of rape fairly quickly, since everyone but Honey agreed that the overall tone of the poem was more affectionate than violent. We (meaning I) decided that one idea worth kicking around was how animals might be all the time speaking to us and we just don’t hear them. Again, I’m hardly the first to say this, and really, if you want to be cute, you could say that whenever you have two or more people in one place and they’re moving their lips, you’ve got animals speaking to each other. But what I mean are those animal-animals, the ones without opposable thumbs—not even the primates—animals like skunks and emus and star-nosed moles. Ever since the day we humans woke up on a rock and realized that by God we have language and they don’t, we’ve been taken with the idea of animals' sending us messages one way or another. Granted, the class didn’t find this idea as thrilling as rape or, as one lacrosse player startled everybody by tossing into the mix, potential bestiality. For me, though, it’s the bridge between poem, mother, and chat with my own personal skunk.
This whole business is absolutely as true as anything else I’ve said here, and here’s how it goes: I’m standing in my backyard one night last June, it’s nearly midnight, and everybody else in my house is sleeping. It’s so quiet that I can hear the dried leaves rustling up against the stone wall that runs along the east length of the yard, from the house all the way to the woods where deer venture out to leave tiny cairns of poop by the azaleas. Then, right by my side, a skunk appears. Before I can think fast enough to move away, it opens its mouth and I hear—no, not my mother’s voice. What I hear is a perfectly ordinary man’s voice, if a little on the high-pitched side. So I know this is a boy skunk, or a man skunk, or some quavery combination of the two.
“Have you ever thought,” asks the skunk, “how many sudden ways there are to die?”
This is a stupid question to ask a person like me. A woman who’s lost both parents by her mid-twenties is fully aware of how thin our life-threads are. One of the last arguments my mother had with me was about a pickle. Three times I asked her if she wanted the last one in the jar. Three times she said no. Then, just as I was about to bite into it, she sighed. A small sigh, but I heard it, as I was meant to.
“You want this pickle?” I asked. You understand, it was practically between my teeth.
“No, no. You keep it. I shouldn’t have the salt.”
“Ma. I’ll split it with you, okay?”
“No, it’s all right. I’m a grown-up; I can buy a jarful of pickles anytime I want to.”
We were in my apartment. Right now, this was the only pickle in town.
“Please,” I said. “Take half.”
She smiled at me. “When you were a little girl, you never wanted what I was fixing until I started eating it. A sandwich, an apple, a bowl of soup—whatever I had suddenly looked good to you. You’d sit on my lap and grab the spoon.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. What else could a person say under these circumstances?
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You were just a baby, really. Besides, we had plenty.”
This wasn’t true; we didn’t have plenty. We had two kids and a widow in her thirties with a lousy clerical job. And the widow wasn’t always so easy-going, either. If you said you didn’t want something, it got whisked away into a wrinkled square of re-used tin foil or wax paper until the next meal. It was years before I learned that not everybody washed a plastic baggie until it split at the seams. At any rate, the discussion ended with both of us refusing the rest of the pickle. It went back into the jar, coveted and untouched, while we blamed each other: I was always turning the simplest issue into a melodrama, while she always made me feel guilty about the smallest things. I had a couple of pithy examples to toss out, so did she, and our goodbye hug was a trifle forced. This was maybe a month before she died—first thing on a Tuesday morning, on her way to work. Believe me, had either of us known what was coming, we’d have watched our big mouths.
So, understanding how easy it is to go—not wanting to, mind you—is one of the things I do best. Do I realize how many ways there are to die suddenly? I say, “You bet.”
“Car accidents,” says the skunk, clearly not listening to me, which is annoying but not surprising. Who, after all, is the more miraculous of these two carbon-based organisms out here: me, or a talking skunk who even without my mother’s voice should rate as a natural wonder? “House fires,” says the skunk. “Avalanches. Train wrecks. Floods. Tornadoes and hurricanes. Wars. A sudden brain aneurysm. Heart attacks. Spontaneous combustions. An exploding appendix. Surprise blood clots that travel up to your heart in half a day.”
Even though I should worry about saying something rude to an animal that could take offense in one seriously resolute way, I say, “You’re not really telling me anything new.”
“But I’m not telling you anything new,” the skunk continues. At this point I start to wonder if yes, this skunk can talk, but can he listen?
“No, you’re not,” I say. “Even if you are a skunk.”
“Don’t be so smart. I’m the smart one here,” says the skunk.
“So now what?” I ask. I’m up for anything at this point. I’m game for a conversational good time here.
“You’re an English teacher,” he says. And this too is true, though how he knows it is beyond me, unless he’s crept up to the window at night and early in the morning, watching me grade papers. Still, history and Latin teachers have to grade papers too, so perhaps he’s also got this phenomenal skunk eyesight and can actually read through the window what the papers are about, in which case maybe he can grade them in the future. Two miracles? Why not three? I’m ever hopeful now. “You teach all that death and sex stuff,” the skunk goes on. “You know the drill.”
This is also true. My students, just like all students of English teachers everywhere, think my mind needs to be heaved up out of the gutter or the grave. Whatever we read, they complain, is about sex or death, death or sex. Both, if you’re lucky and the writer’s really got it on the ball, I reply. One Hundred Years of Solitude? Hamlet? Beloved? “To His Coy Mistress?” Any of the carpe diems, in fact. As any high school senior can tell you, that’s the whole point. On the whole, the carpe diems are the most cheerful of the lot, since they assume that seizing the day will, for at least fifteen minutes or longer, make us forget that we’re all just a bunch of fussy skeletons.
And really, what else is there to think about, I ask my students. Now, they don’t mind hearing about the sex aspect so much, because most of them are only a scant year or two beyond experiencing life as walking gonads, and orgasms beat death rattles any day. Still, they’d prefer that I not be the one talking about desire. Desire is happiest in their own elastic-limbed, wrinkle-free realm, and who can blame them for thinking so? For my part, I’m grateful that they don’t while away the classroom hours imagining one after another of their professors in panting, heedless dishabille—a word which, it might amuse you to know, also means negligee, and this is how I find myself right back at the circle’s beginning, where Heaney’s letter-writer moons out the window to wax eloquent about his wife. The poem may end with her backside, but it begins with absence and longing—prime ingredients for lust, sure, but also the defining flavor of my post-twenties.
And then there’s my mother’s own special understanding of love and yearning. A girdle wasn’t the only restraint she favored. She was extraordinarily tight-lipped about sex and especially about sex with my father, thank God, but she once told Clara that she always remembered the strange look on his face the night he died when (as she put it) “you were started.” Mom never could drink, and thanks to two glasses of dessert wine Clara and I were able to piece together that he’d probably suffered a heart attack right after what Victorians and professors like to call the climax. Talk about your carpe diem! What if Mom had gone to bed with a headache that night? What if she’d just wanted to finish the last chapter of her library book, or pluck her eyebrows? She’d never have forgiven herself for turning down her last opportunity, not to mention his. Or—and this is just too awful to think about for long—she’d never have had to, because maybe Dad’s heart would have been grateful for a day’s rest, and wouldn’t have gone and seized up when it did. You can say all you like about ticking time bombs in the chest, but if this isn’t an open-and-shut case of the sex/death continuum, I don’t know what is.
Naturally, I don’t use this particular example with my students. I simply repeat what everybody knows: sex and death go together like a horse and carriage, you can’t have one without the other. All anybody’s really doing is producing future corpses.
“Gutter and grave. You think it’s just alliteration?” says the skunk.
“I surely do not.” I’m willing to hear him out, especially since it sounds as if he might be leading up to an inventive response to this tedious problem of mortality. I hope it’s not going to be something old-hat about taking simple pleasure in simple things, like sugar in my coffee, which I would hate because I trained myself at an early age to take my coffee black and unsweetened, just as my mother did—and there she is again! You do see how difficult it is to lose her truly, don’t you? It’s not that I don’t find joy in small places—I do, and conscientiously—but so far as I know, I get to die just like everybody else, even the least bitter, most sunny and resilient of us all.
“Well,” says the skunk, “what other response is there to death but sex? Close your eyes,” he says, and I do. What the hell, right? “Imagine that we’re standing here right underneath a big full moon. You could throw your arms around my neck”—and here his voice grows deeper, less viscid and more insinuating, sinewy, too, like a warm, well-muscled hand moving up the inside of my arm, beneath the sheer sleeve of my t-shirt and right up to my armpit, where my arm and my trunk meet—a pretty intimate place when you think of it, maybe because it’s really just another crotch.
“You might,” the skunk continues, “pull my head and shoulders closer to your own”—and here I’m just a little sorry he’s said head and shoulders, because they are always paired like that, as in the dandruff shampoo, or the beginning of the children’s song, “Head, shoulders knees and toes”—but he keeps on talking and it’s the sound of the voice that gets me out of my own sorry head, not even precisely what he’s saying, though I suppose that’s compelling enough. “You might pull my face against the hollow of your throat where I could stick my tongue out and lick your collarbone,” says the skunk. “I like collarbones. I could lick your jaw, too, and deep into your ear. You might wrap your legs around my hips like you were holding on for dear life. You could lean deep into me, and let me press your back against the smooth bark of a beech tree. I could push and push against you, against your hips and your thighs, until I was inside you. We could rock ourselves against that tree, firm and unyielding against your back as I pushed deeper inside you until you couldn’t tell the difference between the tree, or you, or me.
“You get the picture,” says the skunk.
I am, I’m ashamed to say, a tad breathless. It must be one of those peak times of the month, when a woman is nothing but a soft touch inside and out, and when the more intuitive males can somehow sense it, and they follow her around whether or not she notices or even, come to think of it, whether or not they do. There are, as you can see, lots of variables here.
“Hold on there,” I gasp, and open my eyes to remind myself just who’s talking to me here. It’s a relief and a regret to see the same old skunk next to me. How quickly the miraculous is rendered ordinary! The slightest hint of sexual disappointment, not to say frustration, and boom! I’d rather a good old-fashioned, red-blooded male with real horizontal shoulders and biceps in the right places and narrow hips right where they ought to be, not the extraordinary reality of a talking skunk. Still, I’m a married woman. I’ve already staked my own claim to a big-shouldered mate who is even now lying upstairs in our bed, snoring away in domestic ignorance just fifteen feet over my head. “For an animal with over-active scent glands and no true friends, you’re pretty goddamn intimate.”
“Got you to close your eyes, didn’t I?” says the skunk.
“So you don’t have an answer, either,” I say. It figures, really. Maybe a bigger animal could offer a real solution. Maybe an animal whose stink didn’t require one’s bathing in vats of tomato juice, though I suppose this could be, if one were the right sort of person, in itself erotic. Certainly an animal that wasn’t the prototype for something as inane as Pepe Le Pew could think up something more dignified than the admittedly convincing fantasy of rutting against a tree in the moonlight.
“Of course I don’t have an answer,” says the skunk. “Why should I? Or maybe that’s the answer itself. You know, something circular, something Taoist. There is no answer but the question.”
“Please please please don’t be a Taoist skunk.”
“Isn’t it enough,” says the skunk, “that I just saw you standing over there, under the stars, and thought to myself, Hey, wouldn’t it be nice to have a chat with that girl?”
Now nobody, not even my husband, has called me a girl in some years. This is the sort of thing professional women are supposed to get all excited about, and I do: in my heart of hearts, I wriggle with pleasure. Being called a girl is almost as heartening as being called someone’s daughter—which, you would remember if you’ve been paying any attention at all, is precisely what I am not anymore. Clearly, this is a skunk that knows a thing or two about flattery, not to mention seduction. Still and all, he hasn’t added a thing to my understanding of Why Things Are.
Then I yawn. It’s beyond late now. I’m tired and satisfied and a little bit disappointed: the usual way my days end. My child and husband are both fast asleep in their respective beds and I want to fix the blankets over one and curl up around the other, my leg thrown over his in a pantomime of comfortable lust, the only good destination for the long marriage-haul.
“I’m gone,” I say. “Good night.” I stretch my arms over my head—really, just to stretch my back, not to look all coy and lithe and chest-ful—and turn to see the little light over the stove in the darkened kitchen. It’s the only visible light in the whole house outside of my son’s nightlight, which you can’t see from the backyard but still—like whales and integrity and, for some of the lucky ones among us, an omnipresent god—you know it’s there. The light above the stove is the last one in the house to be turned off; it reminds me of things left undone, of worldly responsibilities and our inevitable failures to meet them. But like the nightlight, it too holds its own glimmering measure of domestic comfort, and I start walking towards it.
“Before you head in,” says the skunk, “I got a message for you from your mother.”
I turn back. I turn back as though I had no choice—and, of course, I don’t. The skunk waits a beat. “C’mere,” he whispers.
All the tricks of all the junior high school boys flash into my head: the way they tap your clavicle with their index finger so that you look down and they can flick you on the chin; the way they snap your bra if you’re wearing one, and announce it to the general public if you’re not. But this skunk is too slick to be a junior high school skunk. His tricks should be a little subtler, and if I end up humiliated, at least it’s too dark for him to see me blush.
I walk back to the skunk slowly, thinking about what my mother would say if she’d heard that earlier business about the tree. Most likely what she always said: “I don’t want to know the first thing about it. That’s what you have girlfriends for, not your mother.”
“What is it?” I ask.
Without making a big deal about it the skunk stands on his hind legs, like an otter, and somehow nearly reaches my ear. I hadn’t realized how tall a skunk could get, but then again, I hope to hell this is no ordinary skunk. He leans closer to me. His breath tickles my neck, smelling pure like grass, like celery, and vaguely rancid like the center of a dandelion. His voice is wholly unchanged, but he uses the one endearment my mother ever allowed herself, and only in times of grief or great need.