Return to TauZero.comReturn to Brenda LaurelReturn to Brenda's rantsA Daughter's Tale
A Daughter's Tale
10 May 2003

The November night I started this essay I was a year older than my mother was when I was born. She was twenty-six, and in the snow-blurred photo of our homecoming she smiles as if utterly amazed by my bald, puckered self. All my mother's mothers delivered their daughters in winter. I am pulled within by images of the soft surprise in their newly-mothered faces, and I feel a perpetual wonder building in my cells. What is written? Fragments of my legacy blinked awake like distant lights in that November nightfall.

My mother's best friend was named Elaine. Mother spoke of her infrequently, but with such singular devotion that I knew their friendship had filled all her summers. I imagine Mother, her black hair pulled back with combs, riding her bicycle down the heatwavering road to Elaine's, past the fields where my grandmother had ridden an old plow horse along the fencerows in the endless Indiana summer.

The German farm people who adopted Grandma held precious bottom land - a wide, flat swatch of field dwindling into woods along the contours of a shaded creek. Her memory later uncrowded with the common incidents of childhood, Grandma returned in all her stories to her tenth summer, when she was allowed to collect rags to sell to the rag man to go to the Middletown fair. The old horse she rode, immense and sagging with the labor of too many summers, plodded through the corn oblivious to her bouncing, jabbing, impatient industry. So they ambled, a walking contradiction, up and down the windward side of wire fences through all the daylight hours of two shimmering August weeks. On the final day the rag man came, his wagon flapping and glittering with the blown-away treasures of a whole county.

She laid the weather-stiffened scraps solemnly over all his sparkling bottles. He ruminated in the silent sunlight, beat the dust from his cap, and said at length that he reckoned fourteen cents was fair. She turned and walked the white dust road all the way to town, out of the bright stillness into the dry goods store, and bought ten cents worth of chintz to make herself a blouse. She would by God look her best, even if she could only afford to bob once for the wooden ducks that floated in the gypsy booth with a prize spelled out on the lucky belly. On the day of the fair her adopted father softened, matched her rag money with new pennies, and granted her the use of the horse and wagon. Grandma went to the fair in style.

Twenty years later Elaine's family was living in an old white house two miles farther down the road; their land bent along the same crooked creek. Mother remembered a June afternoon when the creek ran swift and sighing with late rains. Grandma would surely have forbidden their adventure if it had occurred to her that two young ladies would roll inner tubes from the barn door to the creek to ride downstream. I can see their open faces, flushed and smooth in the green-apple light, as they rode with billowing skirts past the root-tangled banks, over pools silver with minnows, irate turtles splashing from the rocks, awakened in their sunlight hour. As she spoke of it years later, Mother turned the memory in her hand like a hollow eggshell. It was one of the few images of her youth she gave me in mine.

In the end there was some betrayal, as vague and poignant as my pictures of her summer afternoons. Elaine went away, forgot, let time and distance grow like weeds between them. In my mother's voice there was a quiet finishing, a giving over of childhood. It was as if she had learned, simply and fully, of a shadowy end to all things. Sometimes the memory would light up in her years later, with longing on the cutting edge of joy; sometimes there was just the quiet relenquishing. In the flickering of her heart I found my first meaning of friends and time and the helplessness of love.

It was the deep blue hour on that late November night. I pictured fat, wet snowflakes swirling, Daddy and Grandma passing the night over cigarettes and coffee in a solitary cube of hospital light, waiting for my birth. I tried to see my future self, spent and triumphant, a child beside me, writing her name in the window frost. Would all the threads be broken? I wondered, did I have a daughter within? What story would I tell her?

And now, my darling grown-up daughters, I cannot tell you any stories, not today, not tonight. It seems I've told them all. You know it too, you used to laugh behind your hands when I launched into the 37th rerun. I've been a good mom and a bad mom; I've been a passionate mom. I've been angry and self-centered and stressed and not present. I've also baked cakes and cooled fevers and cried with joy when you danced and watched you while you slept. You are everything I always dreamed of - smart, talented, independent, brave. You are my daughters. And you are not mine, but yours - your own selves. I have to let go. I can't go with you through the twisting ways. I can only tell you, when you love, keep loving. And when a love moves on, keep the garden ready. Turn the earth and plant the seeds. Remember. Love comes again and again. And when you come through that second mysterious tunnel I hear so much about, when you emerge into full womanhood and might consider liking me again, I'll be here and I'll be so glad. My eldest Hilary counsels me to be gracious. I see colors swirl as she emerges from the wormhole.

Love is like a light. It illuminates particulars - a curving branch, a smooth little hand, a bend in the creek, sparkles on the snow, a young woman dancing. Love is everywhere, surrounding, mangifying, making things visible to the heart. It lives inside us and around us and it makes everything shine.

I love you, young women, Hilary, Brooke, Suzanne, Elaine, Kari, Catherine, Leslie. I love you, mature women, Barbara, Lillian, Carmel. I love you old women who are gone, Rosemary and Helen and Augusta, and old women I never knew who were the mothers of my mothers. I love you, friends of the heart - Lucinda, Candace, Linda, Chris, Vicki, Barbara, Louise, Sally, Abbe, Kristee, Meg, Amee, all of you, all of you, and your mothers too. Happy mother's day to us all.