The moral sense in mortals is the duty / We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty

At eleven thirty my mother calls my name from the living room. The rise and dip of the E resting into the guttural peace of the A, this Emma, Eeeeeeeemmaaaaaaa, Eeeehmuhhh, if anything, this name means home to me, but only ever when taken from her mouth.

I go and find a room lit by a television screen, and my mother sitting on the blue couch in her nightgown, knees close to her chest in the manner of children. Her back, she says, hurts, and so I take a tube of Bengay and circle the offending area with my hands, very carefully at first, then progressively harder. She does not swear at me for being too rough, a bad sign. She must be in quite some pain, perhaps more than she has been in for a long time.

It occurs to me that often I treat my mother like a baby, but she is not so very young, not anymore. She mentions that it might be the weight of her purse that’s causing her the pain, and I agree, a little too profusely perhaps, to avoid her coming to more dangerous explanations. That afternoon I’d had to spend a while convincing her that she didn’t have cancer, though there was no way I could be sure myself. But I can talk big if she is comforted, it is never a one-way cycle, after all. The oxygen I dedicate to her is always returned to me, when I am scared and require all the usual consolations: that I am strong enough, kind enough, smart enough, capable enough.

One of the loveliest things I’ve seen in my life was a photograph of my sixteen-year-old mother. I saw it once in a moment of idleness and have not seen it since. My mother is in profile, sitting on a bed with her back against the wall, and her long hair is unbearably exotic to me, I, who have only ever seen it cropped close to her jaw. Perhaps I find this photograph so striking because it depicts a time when my mother was close to me in age, something I have difficulty imagining. Will I feel the same way at fifty, looking at pictures of her taken now, and will she seem so wonderful to me as her teenage counterpart does today?

When someone mentions an attractive woman, or I am inspired to think of beauty in its female form, I think of a small kitchen with the doors wide open, and a little balcony where wet blouses hang, and a girl peeling fruit in a plaid dress, standing by a cheap counter made to resemble marble. This girl does not have a face, but her hair is always long.

A tangent that is related, but not by very much:

School starts in five days, and I am frightened, but for one of those reasons difficult to explain to anyone but your mother. We have spoken, and I have partaken of the normal solace, but now that this continues to worry at me I think: maybe I need to carry my own weight sometimes? Maybe it is time the daughter learn to take leave of her mother.

(title from Lolita by Nabokov)


  • “…small kitchen with the doors wide open, and a little balcony where wet blouses hang, and a girl peeling fruit in a plaid dress, standing by a cheap counter made to resemble marble.”

    We’re reading Chekhov in my short fiction class. In between complaints to Michelle about its bits of redundancy, I’m fascinated by his thriftiness with details.

    Little INNOCUOUS things! So tiny! Stuff I would gloss right over. But Chekhov picks them out, and strings them together, and it rolls out into this reeling one-sentence tapestry.

    Pure craziness. How do you guys do it?

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