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Excerpt: 'Circling My Mother'

Circling My Mother Book Cover

In the year 1908, Pierre Bonnard painted The Bathroom and my mother was born. The posture of the young woman in the painting is that of someone enraptured by the miracle of light. The light is filtered through the lace curtains, and its patterning is reflected in the water that fills the tub into which she is about to step. Even the floral spread on the divan from which she has just risen is an emblem of prosperity and joy. Bonnard is famous for painting bathing women; in all her life my mother has never taken a bath. At three, she was stricken with polio, and she never had the agility to get in or out of a bathtub. She told me that once, after I was born, my father tried to lift her into a bath, but it made them both too nervous.

Ninety years after the painting of The Bathroom, ten days before my mother's ninetieth birthday, I am looking at the works of Bonnard at the Museum of Modern Art, a show I've been waiting for with the excitement of a teenager waiting for a rock concert. I was not brought to museums as a child; going to museums wasn't, as my mother would have said, "the kind of thing we went in for." It is very possible that my mother has never been inside a museum in her life. As a family we were pious, talkative, and fond of stories and the law. Our preference was for the invisible.

I can no longer remember how looking at art became such a source of solace and refreshment for me. Art history wasn't anything I studied formally. I think I must have begun going to museums as a place to meet friends. However and wherever it happened, a fully realized painterly vision that testifies in its fullness to the goodness of life has become for me a repository of faith and hope, two of the three theological virtues I was brought up to believe were at the center of things. It is no accident, I suppose, though at the time I might have said it was, that I've arranged to meet two friends at the Bonnard show at the same time that I'm meant to phone the recreation therapist at my mother's nursing home to plan her birthday party. Fifteen minutes after I arrive, I'll have to leave the show. The therapist will be available only for a specific half-hour; after that, she's leaving for vacation.

Am I purposely creating difficulties for myself, a situation of false conflict, so that I can be tested and emerge a hero? There is the chance that I will not be able to leave the dazzle of the first room, to resist the intoxication of these paintings, so absorbing, so saturating, so suggestive of a world of intense color, of prosperous involvement, of the flow of good life and good fortune. There's the chance that I will forget to call the therapist. I do not forget, but my experience of the first paintings is poisoned by the fear that I will.

My mother has no idea that her ninetieth birthday is coming up. She has no notion of the time of day, the day of the week, the season of the year, the year of the century. No notion of the approaching millennium. And no idea, any longer, who I am. Her forgetting of me happened just a few months ago, after I had been traveling for more than a month and hadn't been to see her. When I came back, she asked me if I was her niece. I said no, I was her daughter. "Does that mean I had you?" she asked. I said yes. "Where was I when I had you?" she asked me. I told her she was in a hospital in Far Rockaway, New York. "So much has happened to me in my life," she said. "You can't expect me to remember everything."

My mother has erased me from the book of the living. She is denying the significance of my birth. I do not take this personally. It is impossible for me to believe any longer that anything she says refers to me. As long as I remember this, I can still, sometimes, enjoy her company.

The day before I go to the Bonnard show, I visit my mother. It is not a good visit. It is one of her fearful days. I say I'll take her out to the roof garden for some air. She says, "But what if I fall off?" I bring her flowers, which I put in a vase near her bed. She says, "But what if they steal them or yell at me for having them?" She asks me thirty or more times if I know where I'm going as we wait for the elevator. When I say we'll go to the chapel in a little while, she asks if I think she'll get in trouble for going to the chapel outside the normal hours for Mass, and on a day that's not a Sunday or a holy day. She seems to believe me each time when I tell her that she won't fall off the roof, that no one will reprimand her or steal her flowers, that I know where I'm going, that she will not get in trouble for being in church and saying her prayers.

I have brought her a piece of banana cake and some cut-up watermelon. There are only three things to which my mother now responds: prayers, songs, and sweets. Usually, I sing to her as we eat cake, and then I take her to the chapel, where we say a decade of the rosary. But today she is too cast down to sing, or pray, or even eat. There is no question of going out onto the roof. She just wants to go back to her room. She complains of being cold, though it is ninety-five degrees outside and the air conditioning is off. It is not a long visit. I bring her back to her floor after twenty minutes.

On my mother's floor in the nursing home, many people in wheelchairs spend most of their days in the hall. There is a man who is still attractive, though his face is sullen and his eyes are dull. Well, of course, I think, why wouldn't they be? He looks at me, and his dull eyes focus on my breasts in a way that is still predatory, despite his immobility. I take this as a sign of life. It's another thing I don't take personally. In fact, I want to encourage this sign of life. So I walk down the hall in an obviously sexual way. "Putana!" he screams out behind me. I believe that I deserve this; even though what I did was an error, a misreading, it was still, I understand now, wrong.

In front of the dayroom door sits a legless woman. Her hair is shoulder-length, dyed a reddish color; her lips are painted red. The light-blue-and-white nylon skirts of her dressing gown billow around her seat, and she looks like a doll sitting on a child's dresser, or a child's crude drawing of a doll.

My mother was once a beautiful woman, but all her teeth are gone now. Toothless, no woman can be considered beautiful. Whenever I arrive, she is sitting at the table in the common dining room, her head in her hands, rocking. Medication has eased her anxiety, but nothing moves her from her stupor except occasional moments of fear, too deep for medication. This is a room that has no windows, that lets in no light, in which an overlarge TV is constantly blaring, sending images that no one looks at, where the floors are beige tiles, the walls cream-colored at the bottom, papered halfway up with a pattern of nearly invisible grayish leaves. Many of the residents sit staring, slack-jawed, open-mouthed. I find it impossible to imagine what they might be looking at.

It is difficult to meet the eyes of these people; it is difficult to look at their faces. I wonder if Bonnard could do anything with this lightless room. If he could enter it, see in these suffering people, including my mother, especially my mother, only a series of shapes and forms, concentrate on the colors of their clothing (a red sweater here, a blue shirt there), transform the blaring images on the TV screen to a series of vivid rectangles, and, failing to differentiate, insisting on the falseness of distinctions, of an overly rigid individuality, saying that we must get over the idea that the features of the face are the important part — would he be able to create a scene of beauty from this scene, which is, to me, nearly unbearable? He once told friends that he had spent much of his life trying to understand the secret of white. How I envy him such a pure preoccupation, so removed from the inevitable degradations of human character and fate. So he could paint wilting flowers, overripe fruit, and make of them a richer kind of beauty, like the nearly deliquescing purple grapes, the visibly softening bananas of Bowl of Fruit, 1933. "He let the flowers wilt and then he started painting; he said that way they would have more presence," his housekeeper once said.

The people in the dining room are wilting, they are decomposing, but I cannot perceive it as simply another form, simply another subject or observation. I cannot say there are no differences between them and young, healthy people, no greater or lesser beauty, as one could say of buds or wilting flowers, unripe fruit or fruit on the verge of rotting. It is impossible for me to say that what has happened to these people is not a slow disaster.

And how important is it that when we read or look at a painting we do not use our sense of smell? The smells of age and misery hang over the common room. Overcooked food, aging flesh. My mother is kept clean, but when I bend over to kiss her hair, it smells like an old woman's. And there is the residual smell of her incontinence. My mother wears diapers. A residual smell that is unpleasant even in children but in the old is not only a bad smell but a sign of shame, of punishment: a curse. I cannot experience it any other way. My mother's body is inexorably failing, but not fast enough. She is still more among the living than the dying, and I wonder, often, what might be the good of that.

. . .

It is the day of my mother's birthday. Two of my friends, Gary and Nola, have agreed to be with me for this day. They are both very good-looking people. They are both, in fact, beauties. Gary is a priest; in another age, he might be called my confessor, not that he has heard my confession in the sacramental sense but because he is someone to whom I could tell anything, with no shame. Nola was my prize student; then she worked as my assistant for four years. We are proud that we have transformed ourselves from teacher/student, employer/employee, into, simply, friends.

When I thank him for agreeing to come to my mother's party, Gary says, "This will be fun." "No, it won't," I say, "it won't be fun at all." "Well, it will be something to be got through. Which is, in some ways, not so different from fun." "It is," I say, "it is." "No, not really. It isn't really," he says, and we both laugh.

Gary's mother is also in a nursing home, in St. Louis, Missouri, a city I have never visited. She accuses his father, who is devoted to her, who has been devoted for years, of the most flagrant infidelities. All he says in response is "I didn't do that, I would never do that." When we speak about our mothers, of our mothers' fears and sadnesses, particularly about the shape his mother's rage has taken, Gary and I agree that if we could understand the mystery of sex and the mystery of our mothers' fates we would have penetrated to the heart of something quite essential. We very well know that we will not. This is very different from Bonnard's secret of white.

Gary's father visits his mother in the nursing home every day. The end of Marthe Bonnard's life was marked by a withdrawal into a depressed and increasingly phobic isolation, so that the shape of a large part of her husband's life was determined by her illness, finding places for her to take cures, and staying away from people whom she feared, who she thought were staring at her, laughing at her. In 1931, Bonnard wrote, "For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely antisocial [Marthe étant devenue d'une sauvagerie complète] and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people. I have hopes though that this state of affairs will change for the better but it is rather painful."

Did this forced isolation, in fact, suit Bonnard very well; was it the excuse he could present to a sympathetic world so that he could have the solitude he needed for his work? What is the nature of the pain of which he spoke? What was the nature of her "sauvagerie complète"? In the painting in which he suggests Marthe's isolation, The Vigil, although she sits uncomfortably in her chair, in a room empty of people, alienated even from the furniture, unable to take comfort even from her dog, she appears still young, still attractive, still someone we want to look at. In fact, she was fifty-two, and someone whose misery, if we encountered it in person, might have caused us to avert our eyes.

I do not shape my life around my mother's needs or her condition. I try to visit her once a week, but sometimes I don't make it, sometimes it is two weeks, even three. If life is pressing on me, it is easy for me to put the visit off, because I don't know how much it means to her, and I know that she forgets I was there minutes after I have left, that she doesn't feel a difference between three hours and three weeks. If I believed that visiting my mother every day would give something important to my work, as the isolation required by Marthe Bonnard's illness gave something to her husband's, perhaps I would do it. But when I leave my mother, work is impossible for me; the rest of the afternoon is a struggle not to give in to a hopelessness that makes the creation of something made of words seem ridiculous, grotesque, a joke.

Excerpted from Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon Copyright © 2007 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Mary Gordon