List Essay

 

  1. My mother’s peach-paint colored fingernails curved like the back of a hard-shelled insect downward, downward. At my mother’s memorial, a woman I had never met said those curved fingernails were the result of a lifetime of chain smoking.
  1. My mother was an anti-nuclear activist.
  1. A lifetime of chain smoking. She coughed endlessly, a painful wheezing cough, the smell of smoke.
  1. After she died, I would smell smoke at odd times. I’d wake up in the middle of the night. Smoke. For years after her death, that smell. Was she visiting me?
  1. I hated my mother. I thought I did, anyway.
  1. My mother was a civil rights activist.
  1. I remember her holding me in the swimming pool, in the warm water, singing and humming. I was an infant or toddler. Blue chlorine Florida water. I don’t remember her holding me again after that.
  1. Languages were easy for her. She spoke French, Hebrew, Yiddish. She understood Russian. She could get by in German.
  1. My mother studied French at Merritt College in Oakland. That’s where she met the Black Panthers and brought home the song Oh Happy Day / Oh Happy Day / When Jesus Washed my Sins Away.
  1. My mother always had friends, wherever we were. She had friends in Paris, in Israel, in Miami, in Berkeley. She took us to live there, near Paris, and these friends expanded. She took us to Israel to the Carmel on high. It was there she almost killed herself, while my father drank red wine.
  1. It was my job to save her.
  1. She loved to throw parties. Political parties.
  1. My mother was a peace activist. She ran the Berkeley Peace Center and taught civil disobedience to Mario Savio and the students at UC-Berkeley.
  1. She wore a scarf to hide her neck. I thought everyone aged like that. A loose chicken neck.
  1. My mother’s last job was with Planned Parenthood. A volunteer. No one would give a seventy-two-year-old woman a paid job.
  1. She could have gone to law school. She could have done anything.
  1. Her bookshelves—Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, John Updike, Grace Paley, Rachel Carson, Doris Lessing, Richard Wright, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, Herman Hesse, J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Helen Caldicott, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Bachevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Medgar Evers, Mahatma Ghandhi, Ernest Hemingway, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Turkel, Eldridge Cleaver, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison—were her college education. She read everything important.
  1. She recited Edna Vincent Millay: “We were very tired, we were very merry–/ We had gone back and forth upon the ferry.” Only, she said “drunk” not “tired” “on the Staten Island Ferry.” As if my mother had become Edna or Edna my mother.
  1. She was fluent in Latin. I forgot that. She was fluent in Latin.
  1. The Great Depression was her playground. Harlem jazz. The Lindy. Artists gathering in the Village. The Cloisters. George Washington Bridge. The Library of Lions.
  1. She was the daughter of Russian-Jewish Immigrants. Socialists. In Washington Heights, New York, New York.
  1. Her sickly parents ran a laundry shop. She was the only girl in her high school calculus class.
  1. They ate potatoes. Only potatoes. And listened to Frank Sinatra on the radio.
  1. My mother was never warm. Her coat was thin and her shoes had holes in the bottom. Her legs were bare. Girls wore dresses then.
  1. My mother joined the Young Communist League against her father’s wishes. They argued. Joyfully. He had red hair.
  1. My mother played baseball at The Young Communist camp in the Catskills.
  1. My mother supported her family. No, my mother had to support her family. She became a secretary at 16, and was harassed by her bosses.
  1. She put my father through law school. He became a lawyer tyrant and a philanderer.
  1. “YOU BASTARD,” she would yell. The tolling bell in our house: “YOU BASTARD. YOU BASTARD. How could you?”
  1. I thought I hated my mother. For her weakness. For giving up her life for others. For living through me. “Get your own life!” I would shout.
  1. “Why would you stay with him?” I would shout.
  1. After she died, my mother’s friends told me stories about her, how she was strong and courageous, a member of Women’s Strike For Peace. She helped stop aboveground nuclear bomb testing. She marched. She fought.
  1. My mother danced with Black Panthers.
  1. I read books on mothering and feminism. Adrienne Rich. Susan Griffin. Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. Audre Lorde. Virginia Woolf. These writers taught me: What do we really know of our mothers? These mothers who are taught to be the mules of the world, who are taught to blame themselves, who are taught to shame themselves.
  1. My mother was frail when she died. In another time zone. 1968. The year Martin Luther King was assassinated. Skin, dry and peeling. Her heart and lungs were hardened with smoke and cancer.
  1. I paid a deep debt of shame for not loving her. I wept from inside my post-mother chemo-ridden body. My head was bald. Burned and scorched.
  1. I see her now in the eyes of other women, other mothers.
  1. I see her now in the eyes of the Hiroshima Survivor at the UN convention for nuclear disarmament.
  1. I see her, via Skype, in the eyes of Japanese women anti-nuclear activists after Fukushima.
  1. I see her inside my classroom in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the eyes of women talking about Chernobyl.
  1. I see her in the eyes of the Indigenous Dine anti-uranium activist women.
  1. I see her as I sit across from her heroine, in the eyes of Helen Caldicott and other women who draw an invisible string that crosses through time and space and cultures.
  1. I spend my life poring through studies of radiation, mothers, fetuses, butterflies, and birds. Soon, I will fly to Japan in a big metal bird and visit the Hiroshima memorial and remember the fatal year my parents met.
  1. At last: I will see you, my mother.

(For all my mothers)

 


Prox_Obit_Pic_HUTNERHEIDI HUTNER is associate professor of English and Sustainability and Director of the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Book University. She teaches and writes about environmental literature and film, environmental justice, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, and media. Her writing includes academic books, popular magazine articles, narrative nonfiction, and memoir. At present, Hutner is working on two environmental memoirs, Inspiring Green Minds: Memoirs of an Eco-Professor, and Nowhere: Memoirs of An Atomic Family. (@HeidiHutner)

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