I loved my mother, the first time she was alive, indulgently and deeply. Now that the mammoths are coming back, I love her just as much and at the same time I fear for the future of mankind. I don’t mean just the future of the species. I mean of each person, each life. Each death.
My friend Tom—a Phi Beta Kappa and much more, as I only found out in his obituary when he died at forty-seven of a heart attack—was a hydraulic engineer by profession but a geneticist by fascination. He had a headful of fascinations, in fact. We met after I had given a talk on John Donne’s sonnets at Cypress College in the Texas Hill Country, where I teach. He came over for poetry and Norma’s cookies many a time after that. He never married. We were the closest of his very few friends. I was, I should say, because when she got tired of metrics and metaphors, Norma would head off to her studio—her woman cave, I called it—and sometimes she would burst out of it with one hand still holding a pastel crayon and the other revolving some airy new idea into existence.
Toward the end of the Nineties, Tom saw me moist-eyed as I read my latest poem to him. It was about Mom, who was dying of breast cancer. He said nothing, but resolve practically crackled across his face. He stood up, shook my hand, and left. I did not see him again till several months later, a day before the funeral.
“Gene,” he said then, in his abrupt way, “do you want your mother back?”
“Very much. But it was time, you know. She couldn’t have . . .”
“You can have her, if Norma is willing.”
Of course she was. It was, to say the least, a new idea for her to clap her hands over. I don’t know how much Tom bribed Murphy, the mortician, but after that, Norma and I only needed to follow a few procedures that Tom had listed on a yellow pad for us in his small, tight handwriting. Sally is eighteen now, and I love her very much, as much as I did fifty years ago, when I was ten.
Mom, whose name was Lucille but who was called Seely by her sisters, grew up wringing chickens’ necks, watching their frenzied corpses flop for a moment as if the muscles were trying to revive the dead brain, then cleaning, scalding, and plucking them for her mother to cut up and fry by twelve sharp, when the men came in from the fields. Though she had a degree in history from Baylor, and with high honors, she never tried to “do anything” with it. Along the way, she had dodged all math and science courses.
“Those were for the boys. They were beyond me,” she told me near the end. “I loved cooking and being a mother. Being a woman is much easier than being a man. I wouldn’t have traded for anything.”
She didn’t marry a farmer, though. Dad was a copy editor for one of the Fort Worth papers. His red face may have come from the bottle he kept in the coat room at work, or from his cigars, or from his furies at reporters who wrote “Ironically, . . .” or mixed up averse and adverse. He died in the mid-Nineties. In spite of the liberal-for-then (and for-there) atmosphere of the newsroom, he was as traditional as Mom. The inside of the house was hers. Once in a while, true, if she was sick or exhausted, he would scramble eggs and fry potatoes for the lot of us, and then, till my sisters were old enough, wash dishes. Outside, he did his duty: lawn, bushes, trash, car. He and Mom loved each other. I think both of them looked at what we now call gender roles much as their parents had. They rolled their eyes at my liberal ideas. Lord knows how many times I stomped out of the room, damn me.
A few days ago, when Sally, who of course looks exactly like Mom’s college photographs, had come home from Massachusetts for the summer, she told me in precisely the soft voice I had heard in early childhood that she and some classmates, along with a few “kids from outside,” were organizing a protest of her seventyish Victorian literature prof, who persisted in using the inclusive “he” and “his.” (She is taking the course to please me. Her major is computer science. (Computer science!)
“It’s like he thinks only men count,” she said. “We want him fired.”
“But honey, he doesn’t intend it that way,” I said. “It’s just a convenience. ‘His or her’ takes too much time.” There I was, acting the conservative father.
“Convenience, shit.” (If I had said that to Mom when I was Sally’s age, the floor would have trap-doored me down to hell like an adolescent Don Giovanni.) “It’s sexism. Man domination.” Sally leaned forward. “Dad, guess what Hwei-ru told me.” Hwei-ru is her roommate. “Mandarin doesn’t say he or she. It has a single word for either gender. Or transgender, or whatever. It’s ta, just ta. ‘Everyone thinks ta is indestructible.’ ‘To each ta’s own.’ See? So we’re calling ourselves Ta. Or maybe ‘Students for Ta.’ Do you like it?”
“Sure, honey.” Mom, back then, would have quietly stood by the professor. In most ways, though, Sally is so much like her—like herself—that I have often come close to calling her Mama, not even Mom, which I started using when I was in my twenties. She is sweet, generous, funny, and hard-working. We change with the times, but only so far.
I got up, went behind her, and nuzzled her thick hair. “God, I’m glad you’re back,” I said, for the hundredth time forgetting myself.
“I never intended to spend the summer up there, you know,” she said, reaching back to pat my shoulder. So I had escaped again.
“Honey, do you remember how a chicken acts after you’ve wrung its neck?” I had forced myself not to ask her things like that many times. When I did so, like this time, her eyes went vacant and she said nothing. I could never tell whether she did remember and was frightened or whether she was afraid I was going into dementia. Maybe I was. Maybe I am.
I have many other things to ask her. “Do you remember writing letters on a Royal upright?” “Turning the crank for ice cream made with cream from the next-door neighbor’s cows?” “Listening to ‘One Man’s Family’ on the radio? To ‘Baby Snooks?’ ‘Little Orphan Annie?’ ‘Easy Aces?’”
I don’t remember those things, but Mom did. (Does?)
Science will surely catch up with Tom, will move from mammoths to people. “Death, thou shalt die.” Donne was thinking of souls, though. Souls are out. Cells are in. Will the no-longer-dead remember? If not, what’s the point of immortality?
I was a rebellious son. I must try not to tell her I’m sorry.