I am a small child, somewhere between the time language opened up the world of meaning to me and six years later when my mother died and key words lost their meaning. Words in the dictionary. Words I could no longer comprehend. Forever. Dead. Like elephant, which had suddenly turned from solid sign into a mysterious drifting sound in an extraordinary moment when my mother, perhaps unknowingly, enabled me to see the precariousness of meaning, its constructed fragility.
"Knock, knock," she said, having taught me the routine.
"Who's there?" (I might have clapped in excitement. I was only four or five.)
"Ella." (I think I recall her dark eyes twinkling, or she may have shook her head, displacing her carefully shaped, short dark hair.)
"Ella who?" I whispered, obedient and aroused.
"Ella-Fant," she said.
It took a few moments for me to grasp it. Ella-Fant. What was that? For what seemed a very long time I repeated the words over and over, searching for the double meaning I knew must be there, and finally the strange name slipped back into the image of the familiar animal I saw nearly every Sunday in the Central Park Zoo. I would hold my father's hand as we watched the huge creatures lift their trunks with dark holes at the end that seemed to stretch and constrict rhythmically around peanuts, leaves, the world.
When it was elephant again, I stared at my mother in silent amazement, but she may have had no idea what was happening inside me as I stood there repeating, "Elephant, Ella-Fant..." The long gray trunks, hard and erect and opened at the end. My father's hand in mine. My mother's voice, her laugh-as I stood there falling in love with the indefinite plasticity of words.
After she was dead (but I never said "dead," not until much later, when I was in my twenties; I said died, "she died"; the action suggesting a possible reaction, a lack of definite ending), I kept saying "elephant" to myself -- meaning, I think, that the word dead, which I wouldn't say, might have within its mysterious sound the same magical ambiguity.
I am about four years old, dressed in some ruffled, stiff thing my mother likes. I cannot see its pattern because it is under my coat, which is wool, navy blue, with a pretty indented waist. My defective feet (weak ankles, turned-in toes) are pushed into smart patent leather shoes, Mary Janes. Under a thick, red plaid woolen blanket that reeks of animal hair, I cuddle next to my mother in an old-fashioned open carriage that is being pulled by a tired-looking black horse around Central Park. This is a special date -- "excursion" is the word my mother uses and I have come to love. We are on an excursion together, only the two of us. My father is someplace else. My sister is only a baby, left at home with our grandmother. I notice the weariness of the horse's movements, his mangy mane threaded with what looks like gray dust, a great sadness in his eyes. As with the twin worlds of elephant (in one world, the word meaning something perfectly comprehensible; in the other, nonsense), I imagine twin worlds of a different sort for the horse. I can see he is an exhausted animal in ordinary life. But held in my mother's arms, my aching feet warmed by the stiff wool and my cheeks icy from the cold, I can feel the saliva of excitement gather in my mouth and I am certain the horse is really majestic, powerful, his coat glistening. I see him lift his hooves high off the ground, prancing. His mane grows long and shines like I imagine midnight might if you were alone on a dark sea reflecting a sky full of stars. And that is how I come to remember the horse that pulled our carriage around the park. Years later, when my father takes my younger sister and me for a ride one afternoon, trying to replicate my mother's excursion and, perhaps, preserve a bit of her dramatic nature for her daughters, I will be shocked by the sickly appearance of the black horse and, despite my previous insistence, refuse to go for the ride.
Many years later, I dug out my old books about black horses for my son. He loved The Black Stallion series so much he read all the novels one summer, and I felt a strange thrill. But when I gave him Black Beauty -- the story of a powerful colt who is orphaned, sold here and there until he becomes a carriage horse and is then overworked, whipped, underfed, and generally so mistreated he is eventually retired to a farm -- my son disliked it, finding it too sad, and his dislike filled me with an annoyance I did not understand at the time. I gazed at the illustrations of the ill-used, exhausted horse and tried to push behind my idealized memory to a vague, uneasy familiarity, where I recognized that worn-out animal from someplace in my past.
I started the knock-knock jokes as soon as my sons began speaking words. We moved from Ella-Fant on to more complex ambiguities -- "Ida" becoming "I da know," "Willie" becoming " Will e win the race?" Both boys became fascinated with the magic of the game, which ignited other passions, so each time the double meaning became clear, they would throw themselves into my arms, kiss my neck, and declare their love for me.
Thinking about passion and words, after my children are grown, I begin a novel with the memory of the knock-knock joke. I want to write about a woman writer -- a subject that demands, or seeks, a selfconfident mood -- so I feel hopeful when I realize I am drawn to mirrors. I do not pass them by with a quick glance as has been my habit for years. Nor do I sit and stare into them as I did as a child, searching for evidence of my dead mother's features shadowed in my own. I look at myself -- my face, my body, clothed and naked. I gaze closely at my shoulders, my neck, my thighs. And then I hear my father's voice admonishing me long ago: "Stop admiring yourself in the mirror!"
My father was a storyteller, and when I was a child, about to go to sleep and full of anxieties that had taken hold since my mother's death, he would try to calm me with tales about his long trip by train and foot from the Old Country -- even the Atlantic Ocean months away, let alone the eventual goal of America. But when he finally arrived, there were unimagined riches to behold, and he'd begin the story of seeing an orange for the first time in his life. He would hold up an orange for me to admire, looking at it as he must have years before, and I would imagine the taste of real orange juice emerging from succulent, dripping crescents outlined in delicate, edible white thread, all meeting in his mouth for the very first time. The orange came to represent all the possibilities one might hope for even at the most hopeless times. The story about the orange became a tonic for our grief.
He elaborated on his stories as the years went by. Stories of Ordinary Life, he called them: the day my younger sister learned to pump herself on the swing in the park; our ride in a Central Park carriage drawn by a powerful, beautiful black horse; our Sunday trip to the zoo, where I stood holding his hand at the fenced border of the elephant's cage and watched in wonder as those long, powerful trunks threatened to ingest the whole world.
If my mother's laughter and her death introduced me to mystery, it was my father's voice that taught me how stories might be a railing when the chasm seemed to fall too far and steep below. Of course, he would no more approve of these mirroring sequences of my life I am calling a novel than he liked me looking in mirrors. Nevertheless, he bequeathed the obsession. When Ella-Fant becomes "elephant," it is my father's hand I feel pressing around mine, the hardness of his thigh against my cheek.
During those years of childhood and adolescence when a beautiful young girl looked back at me from the mirror, I was incapable of what he was accusing me of. More than forty years later, I am admiring myself. In a beautiful old Cape Cod house where I stay for a few weeks of uninterrupted writing, I shower outside under a large tree and admire my aging thighs. In my quiet room at night, one small light near my bed casting a soft glow, I stand before the large, mahogany framed mirror and admire my face. Then I return to my bed and open the notebook where I am recording memories of my childhood and my children's childhood; drafting scenes, passages, sentences; making lists of magical words.
Copyright © 1999 by Jane Lazarre
Tales Of Reallife Parenthood
Mothers Who Think
Tales Of Reallife Parenthood
Anne Lamott, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Straight, Jane Lazarre, Nora Okja Keller, Beth Kephart, Ariel Gore, Alex Witchel, and many other contemporary writers elevate the discussion of motherhood above the level of tantrum control and potty training. Irreverent, wistful, hilarious, fierce, and tender, these essays offer an unsparing look at the myths and realities, the serious and silly sides, the thankless and supremely satisfying aspects of being a mom -- and are a testament to the notion that motherhood gives women more to think about, not less.