I’ve been on the road again, been teaching and driving, been talking and reading, and finally coming home and settling in to the quiet. This morning, during my sixty-thirty walk I thought about this letter to you and, at first, what I thought I’d write was about silence. Being silenced and speaking, not being able to speak, but the more I walked this morning, the more I came back to that story you told about your mother. About her wanting you to go off to school to find you a husband—to not work, have children, and stay home.
My own mother kept such a shiny house, you couldn’t touch the floor with a shoe and dirt was tantamount to a ferocious god. Dirt was feared, hunted down, banished from my body, my father’s body, her own body. Unlike your mother, my mother did not urge me to go on to school, to seek higher learning with the motive of marriage or even books really, since she never read much except maybe the series Sue Barton: Student Nurse, about a nurse who marries a doctor. Most of my childhood was spent sitting in a chair in the living room (I wasn’t allowed to go outside much, since dirt was out there, lurking) so I educated myself by reading, stacks and stacks of books from the public library. I read D.H. Lawrence when I was twelve. I read Dostoevsky when I was fourteen. Schooling was my escape from fear of the unclean, from a mother who was unhappy in her mothering.
There were other mothers in my upbringing. Women who seldom left the house, their hearts emptied out with deaths, illness, unnamed fears. Women who found their voices via the Holy Spirit. Women who worked hard and long at grocery stores, at service stations. At offices and steno pads. At typewriters and switchboards. I didn’t grow up with many role models for seeking an education, am the only woman in my family who has pursued college. That was the way out, of what, I wasn’t always so sure. Books became my mother. They made me, made me want more, made we want up and out and over and around. The next town. The next better job. The next and finally better definition of myself. As the years have passed, it is the faces of mothers that haunt me and I find myself looking, always, for a way to go back home, a way to seek out a lap, a mother I never had, a mother I never was. Mother me, I say. Teach me to mother.
Then there are these last three weeks of road tripping and conferences and voices and, somehow, a surprising gift.
The first woman I’ve known for awhile. She’s a poet. A former dancer. A teacher. I listened to her lecture about poems that give us a “metaphysical stutter.” I sat in her office and looked at her photographs of a cottage in Ireland. I trekked with her across the wet grass of a campus, seeking the back way to the next reading, listening to her talk about music and where she lives and her cats and the way she reads and reads in the house where she lives alone.
The second woman also lives alone and she invited me for a breakfast of cinnamon biscuits and an hour of conversation. In that one hour we talked about writing and her new home. Her dog sat at our feet and I fed her biscuit crumbs and banana and then we took the grand tour of the house. The rooms. Oh, the rooms. Clear and white walled. Few things sitting on shelves and windowsills. Prints of winged women. Of dancing women. Of women’s hands. And upstairs, a room that I swear was like being on a ship, at sea. Blues and greens. A low bed with a blue quilt. A window like a portal on a ship heading out to the ocean. I stood and listened to branches on the window glass. Watched the dog racing across the grass in the yard, way below.
The third woman was my student in a workshop. This woman had beautiful silver hair and the clearest blue eyes. She’d worked for years with indigenous peoples, on reservations, with the Navajo. She told us stories about caves at sacred sites and skeletal remains. She told me a story about something called acoustic space. She told me about where she was staying during the conference. A camp site with tall trees and the wind moving against her tent walls each night.
The common denominator here is not necessarily mothering, not in the literal sense. One woman is a mother, a birth mother, like myself, and a mother to another child. Another of these women has no children, but mothers her cats, her students, her words. And I have no idea if the third woman has children or not.
My final night in the Best Western where I was staying for this conference, I finally slept deeply and soundly. I dreamed. I dreamed about a long ago lover. I dreamed about this powerful man I know and all the books he was trying to get me to read. I woke at 4:30, and paced around the room and sat down and made notes on something or other. The class the next morning? This letter, maybe.
As I wrote for awhile, I remembered myself a dozen years back, when I was teaching in a small college in south-central Virginia and I had just begun to admit to myself I was a mother. I remembered how I went over to my office about midnight once and did searches on the computer. Birth mother. First mother. Natural mother. I joined a chat room for the first time. I sat there in the dark, looking down at the screen light in the dark and a conversation between other mothers, birth mothers, women who had surrendered their children. I was surrounded by shelves and shelves of books in my professor-self office. I was a mother and I wasn’t one and I was. What did mothering even mean?
All three of the women I met these weeks were about ten years or so older than me. All met my own eyes straight on with a look I can only call earned. An earned calm. An earned patience. An earned sense of waiting and being okay with that. Of bodies that were graceful with their aging. Space that was okay with silence. Generosity shaped with holding on to what has been earned over time. Kindness tempered by a strong sense of flexible ownership. I would say that all three of them knew boundaries, but that word summons tall brick walls for me sometimes, and these three women were, if not permeable in their boundaries, then fluid. I could look at them and float through and beyond and back, feeling I’d been heard. Is that mothering? I think so.
The truth is, these days education is rare for me. A moment on the street. A quiet spell in the early part of the day. These few weeks, learning came in the hands of three women I met and at whose feet I wanted to sit, learning. I’m not sure how yet, but I am learning, finally, to mother my own self, my own words, my own story.