Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.
So it’s like a stone
Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep
I’ve had Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, in my mind all day. Amazingly, one of the things that I liked most about the book—last read over 8 years ago, so my memory is hazy—is never mentioned in any of the current online reviews of the work. After the protagonist has “gone mad”, and purges herself of humanity’s psychosis by reverting to an animal state, she searches her childhood home—a log cabin on a remote island in Quebec—for “clues” (really guidelines on how to live, how to return from a modern life that has gone awry, how to regain one’s self) that she believes her dead parents have left for her. Whether the clues she “finds” were actually left for her, or she is merely projecting the messages she needs to hear onto random objects in her parents’ home, is beside the point. The discovered oracles function in much the same way that tarot cards do: they are keys that provide her with a means of gaining access or understanding things about her past, her psychological wounds, and what she must do to heal herself. I concede that it really isn’t the focus of the story, though I found it the most wonderfully surreal part.
Today I went looking for my mother in this deteriorating house. Not because my own life has gone terribly wrong, but in the hopes of establishing a connection with the individual that she was (and maybe understanding why she had seemed so disappointed, toward the end, by her life?) She was a secretive and somewhat distant person. She spilled a little of herself, here and there, with different people, but no single child, friend, or relative really knew who she was, deep down, nor understood her completely. I remember her as someone who had locks installed on her desk drawers and never let the keys out of her sight; sometimes she used cryptograms to write in her diaries, and locked herself, for hours on end, inside a little room (formerly the housemaid’s) that had been converted into a library and study. I still remember the advice she gave me on relationships when I started living with Kris: She was adamant that “a woman should not tell her husband everything”, that it was “not good for him to know too much”, that “there are some things you should keep just for yourself”, and that it was good to “maintain the ‘feminine mystique’,” —a statement that had me sputtering in disbelief, given that Friedan’s 1963 book of the same name described the feminine mystique as “the widespread unhappiness of women…despite living in material comfort and being married with children.”
These days my mother’s drawers are unlocked, her private room lies open, and her many notebooks and journals (mostly made by me) line two shelves in my father’s room. But I wasn’t looking for anything so blatant as her diary entries…I do not trust the written word. I know only too well how journal entries can be inaccurate, fanciful, censored, or composed for an audience (and therefore a performance). The author/narrator/protagonist is far too unreliable. It would be just like my mom to write things with a posthumous readership in mind.
Instead, I looked for her actions among the debris of her little room, and found her in 7 or 8 rectangular biscuit tins, each one packed with pressed leaves, flowers, and common weeds, organised by kind, each layer carefully spread upon card and wrapped in a plastic sleeve, or interleaved with sheets of parchment. I recognise my own love of humble weeds in her patient gathering, pressing and sorting. I remember how she would stop the car along a busy expressway to harvest the weeds growing on the verge, and explore a hill or empty lot in the hopes of finding something different.
On her bookshelf, the pressed weeds were echoed by the silhouette of a fern on the cover of a leather journal. I made this book for her, maybe 10 years ago.
On the title page she had written: “Things my family should know. January 2012” I turned the page with some trepidation…what sort of secrets did she have, that she felt the need, two years before her death, to set it down in a journal like this?
The next page was blank. And so were all the other pages in the journal. Even at the end, she could not unclench that secret fist. Mysterious till the last. And that is just so typical of her. I laugh. That old devil, the Feminine Mystique.
And so I have found her, in her unwillingness to be found.
It will have to do…it doesn’t actually bother me all that much. She was an individual, I am an individual; blood is the common thing we shared, there is no need to load that simple connection—a fluke product of two humans meeting, mating—with melodramatic emotional baggage. I do not feel the need to know more than this: that her family was not meant to know more.
I tore the page out of what is now a perfectly good, unused journal. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “I do not have much use for the past.”
I, on the other hand, have always been a gabby talker, a blurter of intimate things, a spiller of beans, a revealer of my innermost secrets. I found a box in mom’s drawer, filled to the brim with letters and postcards that I wrote to her, from the different places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve always told her about everything…from dope and crystal meth experiments, to who I was going out with that evening and whether I intended to sleep with him or not. Sometimes she would respond with outrage, but would simmer down again when I asked her whether she’d rather I concealed things from her. Poor mom, what a daughter!
I like the sunny spot in which my rampant, weedy life grows—open to wind and rain, knowing nothing of closets, skeletons, nor locks on doors (within or without). Anyway, I hate the deadweight of a bunch of keys.
*excerpted from the very long poem Intimate Letters, by Rosanna Warren