This essay was originally printed in the Iowa Review.
She liked to walk in the neighborhood on summer evenings, and would get me to join her by saying, “Let’s go look in people’s windows.”
Linda Lee Gosney Brown was born on Oct. 6, 1938; she died on April 8, 1989, when she was 50 and I was 28 and my brother was 23, between the time she called for my father and the time he made it from his recliner to the bedroom, her mitral valve blown out like a flat tire at high speed, gone in a heartbeat.
Nine months and five days after her wedding, she gave birth to me.
One time when I was sunbathing on the deck and felt something poking me in the hip, I opened my eyes and there she was with a spatula, deadpanning, “It’s time to turn you over.”
Once when I was a teen sleeping a Saturday away, she lured me with a cheerful call from the kitchen: “The Red Cross was here, and they brought doughnuts.”
One morning I took two pretzel sticks from a bowl of them on the kitchen counter, looked in the bathroom mirror to arrange them like vampire fangs, headed back toward the kitchen with my hands in a scary vampire pose, and met her coming around the corner, her hands in a scary vampire pose, pretzel fangs stuck under her lip.
One Halloween when I was sick, she trick-or-treated for me; another Halloween she dressed up to answer the door and silently handed out candy enshrouded in my red Sears ribcord bedspread and a cheap devil mask; and throughout the year, she would use my brother’s astronaut mask, which had a pane of transparent plastic over the eyes, when she was cutting onions.
She had cut from a magazine a particularly startling photo of Richard Avedon—cropped so only half his face, only one raptor eye, was showing—and for a while we took turns hiding it for each other to find, until she found an unbeatable place that made me yelp when I found it: under the toilet lid.
She let me read at the dinner table.
She was only slightly exasperated with me the time I got gum stuck in my hair because I had tried storing a chewed piece behind my ear like Violet Beauregarde did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
She dealt gently with me when I called my fifth-grade classmate Midge a bitch.
She dealt gently with me when I yelled variations on the F-word in the basement with all the fury and frustration I had ever hurled into a single word, not realizing the sound would travel through the ductwork; rather than punishing me—the mortification of having been heard by my grandmother was enough—she wanted to learn what had me so angry.
That time in kindergarten when I was trying to play British with Craig Robson and meant to say, “Pip, pip, old chap,” but said, “Tit, tit,” instead, and Craig was worldly enough to know those words and turned me in, she was fascinated to know how I knew British people said that.
For a while she and Craig Robson’s mom, Barbara, (neither of whom was fat) and some of the other neighborhood moms rode together to weekly Weight Watchers meetings, and then to lunch.
At the visitation the night before her funeral, I felt helpless dismay and betrayal when I saw a gaggle of church women in the corner, listening to the one who five minutes earlier had asked me what happened, and whose seeming concern for me now looked like gossip-gathering; and I wanted to choke the insurance salesman church member who had done several unethical things to try to get my parents’ business and who kept standing there in his plaid sport coat talking, holding up the line of people who wanted to speak to us, unable to see how uncomfortable he was making my father; and I wanted to smite the stranger (who I recently learned was no stranger but my father’s Uncle Frank) who thought he was paying a compliment when he called my mother’s body a beautiful corpse; and I was already weary of church people fishing for more when they said they’d heard I was in D.C. when she died—was I there on business?—and telling them I was visiting a friend, which was true, although I had also gone for a pro-choice march that weekend, a march that took place while I made the stunned, disbelieving, desperate drive home; so it was a balm and a benediction and a heart-healing kindness when Barbara Robson (who had also gone with Mom and some other moms to NOW meetings for a brief season in the 1970s) simply said, “So, you were in Washington,” and I simply said yes, and she smiled and said, “I’m glad you were there.”
There was a time when my strongest yearning toward heaven was the hope of seeing my mother again.
Hers is the most worn modern Bible I have ever seen, but outside of church I seldom witnessed her reading it.
I never heard her pray.
When I was 11, after the family had stopped going to church, she started sending me to church camp each summer, and it’s been within the last five years that it finally dawned on me that the flicker of something on her face the year I greeted her and Dad at the end of the week with the news “I got baptized!” might have been disappointment that she didn’t get to witness a watershed she probably had prayed for.
She sang soprano.
She sang to me when I couldn’t sleep: “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” and something by Peter, Paul and Mary, and “My Grandfather’s Clock,” which I would request even though, or perhaps because, it made me cry.
She sang “Hey, babe, wanna boogie?” because she liked John Hartford, whom we had seen in concert at Wheeling College, and because, I think, she knew the gravity-defying magical realism of the line “We could boogie on the ceiling if you think you might be able” (a line she might have made up) thrilled me.
She kept a radio in the kitchen and listened to the top 40 while she washed dishes, and whenever Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire” came on, she would pretend she didn’t notice, until the chorus’s melisma of “Wi-i-i-i-i-ild-fi-ire,” which she sang loud and off-key just to annoy me.
She didn’t cuss.
She didn’t interfere the time Dad beat the breath out of me for something I didn’t do.
TODAY IN SLATE
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Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
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“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.