My mother comes to pick me up from kindergarten and is pulled aside by the teacher. “Your daughter doesn’t color between the lines.” “She knows how she just doesn’t want to.” One week later, the same conversation repeats. So, my mother chooses another school for me—my mother, who dropped out of university and married at 19 across religious divides on the eve of a civil war.
Teaching me to color outside the lines wasn’t always easy on her. I was an exasperating teen, just before her cancer made me place an adolescent rebellion on pause for several years. She would throw her arm up, palm open wide, and say: “You wait and see when you’re a mother. I hope you have a daughter just like you so you can see what I’ve had to go through!”
Now, every morning while barely awake, I make my coffee and call her first thing. With the seven-hour time difference, she’s just finished lunch and is having early afternoon coffee at her end. We talk for half an hour. It’s worth waking up earlier. Every day.
“I want to be a mother to play, to have adventures, to open doors, and to watch a child discover,” my partner tells me, “you?” She points out that I only ever speak of our hypothetical future child in the female pronoun. Well of course. I’m waiting for that most wonderful curse to come true. My love laughs at the image of a knee-high little person with brown curls gesturing dramatically, arms swept away and up in an imperious Russian ballet stance, wrist and fingers rotating-twirling open, punctuating a high-pitched and demanding why?
I will have taught my child that, the dramatized version of my mother’s ‘wait and see.’
I search inside myself as we speak of becoming parents. There is a willow tree and an expanse of dark blue water at twilight. There are the skipping stones sunk to the bottom. I’m 40, and it’s not the first time I stand at this shore.
I watch my younger cousin’s one-year-old daughter singing in between the lyrics, in a video sent from England. The child looks exactly like her mother did when I used to pretend that she was my doll. The child’s grandmother –my mother’s cousin, the family standard for sophisticated class — offered me a pearl pendant when I graduated high school. It was the pendant she had received upon completing her doctoral degree in nuclear physics. “I know you’ll get there,” she tells me, “you don’t have to wait to enjoy wearing this.” Her own grandmother passed when the children were infants.
My grandmother was Sundays for me. I would curl up in the reading chair she bought me for my first house and call. My grandfather answered first and giggled briefly. Then Bella would come on. I named my grandmother when I was three years old. She smoothed Nivea cream on her legs every evening, and once I asked her why. She responded in French, “pour me faire belle.”
And Bella she became—to her husband, her children, and almost everyone else. I lived with her as a child; she was both a mother and a grandmother to me. Jade green eyes sparkling over hot chocolate. She passed on a fierce desire for the freedom she never had.
“Don’t fall for a man in uniform, for any man to contain you…. you will have long legs, be a dancer instead, have lovers, be creative – especially create.”
She says this to me when I am 9, 11, 17, 24 years old as she sews dresses for herself and her daughters, dreaming of having her own atelier in Paris. And I do have long legs, and I will have lovers.
My mother admits that she prayed for a long time that I finish school before I fall in love and get married too soon. I break off two engagements and wrap up my doctoral degree at 39. I inform her she can stop her nocturnal wishing now. Two of my great-aunts laugh at this story. Single and cosmopolitan professors in their late 60s, they have chosen outside their generational and cultural lines – their own mother married in a whirlwind at 15.
Each stone represents a hope, skipping out as many times as it can, then sinking. My hands scuffle on the shore, searching and searching for more stones. The women before and around me have taught me how to choose their shapes. The wishes made are for the shinier worlds of their daughters and nieces.
When my kid brother was born, my mother has admitted thinking: how do I take care of a boy?!
I have heard my mother’s sisters and cousins say the same, as they trade recipes, complaints, and deep listening around how to care for adult children. Their mothers gone, they knit stories tight to hold closer. These women are more than an extended network of aunts, they are also godmothers to each other’s children, promising to care as if each was their own, should anything happen.
When my mother was back in the hospital, tubes blocking her speech, my godmother called me every morning to chat. “I can’t replace her,” she said on the first of those ten days, “but I didn’t want your mornings to be completely empty.”
As children, we were sent to our aunts for months every summer. I am the oldest of the seven maternal cousins; the youngest is also my goddaughter. We would wander outside, climbing trees and skating on boards. I would always be behind, counting the heads in front of me. Mothering isn’t about keeping them in line; it’s about knowing where they all are, where they wish to run to, at any time.
So, in my wallet, I have an envelope of cash. The exact amount to pay for my goddaughter’s reading chair. She moves into her first apartment next weekend, amidst dubious budgetary decisions. I dream ahead of what her life will finally be like in this new and open space, and what stories she will share with me on Sundays, curled in her chair.
The willow’s fingers trail in the water. It is not a lonely shore. I imagine diving in, swimming down deep to see what kind of stone architecture has grown beneath the ripples. Is it a palace with gardens? A haphazard ruin? A home to fish?
As my mother’s cancer returns, wave after wave, year after year, she refuses to have me limit my horizons to care for her. She has given too much to set me free, to take it back now.
The women in my family, past and present, echo her wish. I especially hear my father’s sister –the first child psychologist in an emerging third world desert, and his grandmother – a bone healer who was reported to be the first woman to attend the opera without gloves, while smoking a cigarette.
Trail blazers now gone with the wind, encouraging me to keep dancing, to keep traveling, to never silence my voice, and keep seeing the sights they have not.
“Our daughter’s name will be Bella,” imagines my partner, “no matter who births her. A composite of my grandmothers’ names-BErnadette and NoeLLA- and how amazing, after your grandmother too.”
Skipping stones, wishing thoughts. I’ve already chosen so many names before. All my unborn daughters want freedom.
When my mother, my aunts, and great-aunts are gone along with my grandmothers. Then. Then who will the stones skip for?