Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.

Coffee with Mamma

Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.

And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.

A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.

And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips.  But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.

I want her back, but she’s right here.

I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.

A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son.  And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.

edinburgh coffee

How Not to be Depressed

Don’t tell anyone. Smile through it and look okay. Put on mascara while wishing you were asleep again. To not be depressed, tell it to stop, even though you know that fighting only feeds the long shadows. To not be depressed, stop crying every day, just stop.

Or try this. Try telling it in words. Try writing it out as clearly as you read out a favorite poem, as slowly as you search a lover’s face. Try lacing up its shoes while it sits on the bottom step, late for school, again. Try telling it You don’t have to go. You can stay here, while remembering with every breath:  this is not me. This may not have me.

On Thanksgiving, try sitting up and letting a shaft of morning sun hover your pen over the page. With a lump in your throat, watch the light land on the coverlet. Trace its brilliance across the wrinkles of blue fabric heaped around your knees.

Try spinning in reverse up a hill you coasted down in summertime.

Try not caring. Then, tell the weight that heaves inside your chest and marbles onto your belly to be welcome, to have another cookie.

To not be depressed, do not see the fur of the cat standing needle bright in that same ray of sunshine. Slow your breath to the pace of the dog’s dark rib cage, and imagine inside its cave the pure beating of her heart. Accept that one day she will die, and you will die, and the planet will die. And today? Today. Today’s mug of coffee rests on the winter belly. Today’s fresh notebook sits wrapped in cellophane with her sisters, three sets of blank pages sealed together. Try cutting through the clear plastic, pulling one away, and beginning.

To not be depressed, think of calling the kind therapist of decades, but don’t. Think about sleeping through the afternoon dusk. But don’t. Think I understand why people give up. But don’t. Don’t give up.

IMG_9730Stand near a sunny window and look at the succulent jade. Think of your mother, and try shopping. See her lines on your face. Love them into deeper grooves.

Try remembering that you might miss this depression when it’s gone. You may long for this very morning, and crave the comfort of warm animals on your bed.

Fighting Woman

Mamma

We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.

Mamma

When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply:  Mamma.

So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly.  She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.

Ragnhildur:  Fighting Woman.

My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.

She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.