My grandmother’s bay window had a large white sill that was full of small painted pots on matching saucers. Each one held an African Violet. Like dolls posed to sit in the sun all day, facing West. I used to think of them as mine. Violets were my flower, she’d say, because I was born in February and February’s flower was a violet. They had soft furry green leaves, thick and puffy. Forehead high, I’d stand on tiptoe and stare through the violet pots, through the tryptic window decorated with suncatchers made in the oven, colored glass, beveled by heat, one strawberry, one plum, one a star. I’d stare through those Saturday afternoon craft catchers of light through the window with the white sheer lace curtains pushed aside and held by brass hooks, through to the narrow shared side-yard with stone round lily pad steps, across the lone birch tree, over to Mrs. Philes white clapboard house with black shutters, hoping to catch a glimpse of her peering through the sheers.
Mrs. Phile was the Wicked Witch of the West. Childless widow. Stern and tall. Scoldy. I imagined her locked inside her house most days, no husband, no children, no laughter. She seemed dark and sad and disapproving. My mother told me when she was a young girl, she’d call her “Phile Babes” behind her back, and that became a running joke in our family. Even my grandmother, Roro, would laugh out loud, then, catching herself in gossip, stop the giggle with a “sntch” through her lips and teeth that was directed at us and with feathery fingers make a quick sign of the cross just in front of her chin and chest. “Don’t call her Phile Babes, children,” and hearing the name in my grandmother’s Boston accent brought a fresh round of giggles.
That was the time of the cicadas. Baltimore, 1972. They emerged, flew and filled the sky black and loud and then fell again, leaving the backyard a wasteland of empty amber shells, a graveyard.
The money tree plant leaned up the shared chainlink fence in the long backyard. On the other side lived the neighbors who once had a girl my age come visit for a few weeks. We’d play hopscotch in the alley out back, right in front of Mrs. Daniels’ garage. Money trees. Skin like a Bohrain drum, round like a mirror, like the mirror the lady on the television held up at the end of that show to look through and call out names of boys and girls and not once, not ever, did she say my name.
I loved to stomp the crunching carcasses in my patent leather maryjane shoes before church. I loved the word “cicada”. I loved that the “c” was an “s” sound and that some people would mistakenly say a “ch” sound, “chicada,” which was a much less threatening word. In my memory, they covered the gnarled roots and stone steps up the alley so that no grass was seen for an entire summer, like a strange picnic blanket. Magicicada. Supernatural skeletons.
Every 17 years they’d emerge from the damp earth, adults. A storm. I would be old by the time the cicadas came back, I thought. Old like Roro.
When I moved to Nashville in 2009, the Autumn I was 41, I had left a marriage but was still legally tied to a man I had fallen out of love with, or, more accurately, had never loved him as he deserved to be loved. He didn’t know this (or maybe he did and held his tongue) and tried hard to win me, even as we were clearly just an exoskeleton of a marriage, me silent and he with his 11th hour attempts of somber wooing by cooking and cleaning and not asking any questions.
I left finally, and, in the leaving, I kind of forget to get the paper that said we were no longer, but I acted as if we were no longer. It would take me 5 years to remember and by then it was complicated as in Jersey somebody had to blame somebody, you couldn’t just tiptoe backwards out the door and leave the china. I just wanted it over, so I offered my neck on the block.
In East Nashville, I rented a small blue cottage built in 1911, slanted wood plank floors, large windows and a wide front porch with a faded wooden swing held up by rusted chains that squeaked as I rode it each morning, rocking back and forth, sipping my coffee. I had drawn it in my notebook before I saw it. The ad in Craig’s List was a magical paragraph of wonder written by a loving couple moving to China who wanted someone artistic and similar to care for their home. When I knocked on their door, they asked how I’d found them because, as they told me, they had taken the ad down months ago.
I named the house Brigadoon for it’s disappearing act, waiting for me. I’d watch the morning unfold under the large Hackberry tree filled with buzzing cicadas, swooping the scales like a steel guitar, louder than my sadness.
By the time I moved South, Roro was dead. She lived to be 103 and was clear to the last few weeks, still telling me that I should read Proust in the original French someday, as it would never be the same in English. I was the only one in the family who wasn’t present at her passing. But after, she followed me for years, like a breeze, whispering in my ear. I was alone and in love with another man who couldn’t choose me and impassively letting my youth slide away in a wine-soaked ambien haze.
Roro got married in her 40’s and had my mother in her 40’s and lost the love of her life only a few years later and so, spent her entire life talking to the birds and gathering violets and dried palms that were tucked behind the blond, blue-eyed Jesus who hung in her bedroom, in the center, above the two single beds with eyelet lace bedspreads, where she and my grandfather used to sleep and where I, when visiting would sleep next to her, just a breath away as we dreamt. She went to Mass most days of the week and told me she missed the Latin. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.
There’s a picture of my mother from childhood. She stares at the camera in black and white, long brown thick braids on either side of a moonface. My mother in a white dress and white veil, her gloved hands brought together under her chin at her chest her heart in a prayer. Her first communion. She was probably about 7, because that’s how old I was when I wore a white dress and a veil and posed in color outside our Maplewood Lane house on the corner of Route 99, speeding trucks and cars to Baltimore a half hour away, and across from the vast cornfield where we buried Midnight the Cat and where I went looking for the grave with our favorite babysitter Laura Shoda, who also had two long brown braids, and where we stumbled upon 3 gravestones, partially buried in the dirt, with dates from the 1700s.
My mother cut her braids off when she was 13. She had grown her hair all the way down her back and to the curve of her rump. She saved them in a wooden box. I never saw the braids, but I knew of their existence, as I knew of her diary’s existence in which she wrote every day and where one entry was written that year she was 13, in pencil: Daddy died today.
A few years ago, my parents were selling their home, a large log house, a beautiful cabin on 5 acres that abutted a State Park full of hiking trails, deer, eagles, snakes and fallen leaves. Their home backed up to a small creek and my father had built stone landing above the creek with chairs around a fire circle. He also built a wooden staircase down the bank and a curved bridge over the creek. It was an enchanted place for their grandchildren, and my nieces and nephews who grew up near them loved it there. My parents planned to live out their lives there, in front of the stone fireplace you could stand in, looking out the cathedral windows floor to jutted ceiling to the tall pines outside leaning to and fro in heavy winds over the woods of Western Maryland, Land of Mary, where we all come from.
Before they had to sell the cabin, my mother told me she went down to the patio above the water and lit a fire. She said she took the small wooden box that held two pairs of braids tied with ribbon, and she laid all four on the fire.
The other pair was Roro’s. She had cut them off when she was 13.
I never saw my mother or my grandmother with long hair. My grandmother was already old with a Robert Frost face when I was small, brown spots dotting her porcelain skin, her eyes drooped with hanging lids over the outside of the almond, weighted with grief and devotion.
My son’s eyes are almond and blue, bright blue like his fathers. I see the Romanian girl of his egg in the shape of his eyes, none of the Irish of mine. We are baptizing him next month in the Episcopal Church where Jamey took me on our first platonic outing. He sat next to me, the Church of Christ raised man who found God again in this foreign ceremony, led by a barefoot woman preacher. I closed my eyes to take in the frankincence breeze and Roro put her hands on my cheeks, whispered in my ear “Princess,” and I wept for the homecoming.
We braid together our sad pasts, our greying hair, our eyes, through generations, through late-blooming choices to become mothers after our prime. My grandmother, my mother, myself. All of us, braided like bread, woven in the incense that wafts like clouds above the flickering tea lights under the Great Mother, her arms outstretched marble, the blue cape faded in the cathedrals’ sunlight.
On Mother’s Day, 2019