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I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. “I
wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you
can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in
helping.”
“Who needs help.” — Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her
mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen
years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and
there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become
engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do
not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now — loveliness. You did not know her all
those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her
over and over how beautiful she had been — and would be, I would tell her — and was now, to
the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with
all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries
battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.
She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light,
loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the
surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she
was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was
no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer
endure” (he wrote in his goodbye note) “sharing want with us.
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running
as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or
asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not
be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But
it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.
It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to
wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her
father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared
at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone.
She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know
now — the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that
are only parking places for children.
Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was.
It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.
And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it
has curdled into my memory, the little boy hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you
outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if
she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.
She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick, Momma, I feel
sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t there today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire
there last night. Momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.
But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three, four -yearoldness — the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands — and I feel suddenly ill. I
put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost
to her of such goodness?
The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more
when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all
the acts of love.
It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of
care or tightness or worry I turned to them — too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let
alone almost always as her brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she
wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for
comedy on the stage that rouses a laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud
and do not want to let her go.
Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to
me that second time, after I had had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn
to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.
Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough.
“Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a
little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”
The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid
awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and
then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it
away, it scared me — what it talked.”
She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was
delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I
was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.
She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to cat, and night after night she had
nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back:
“You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice,
“now go to sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for
Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.
Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get
up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you
something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”
They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country
where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to
concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society
page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or
decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.
They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic
red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit
“unless otherwise notified” — as we were notified the first six weeks.
Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. High up on the
balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the
boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the
children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated
by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”
There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came.
One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage,” Emily shouted in explanation. “They
don’t like you to love anybody here.”
She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby.
If I write my Ieter nicly I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other
day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read — once. “We simply do not have
room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced
one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to
keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.
Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.
(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold it in my
mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)
It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so
little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.
I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after
a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she
had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down
up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.
She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little
girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple.
The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a
best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.
There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me
how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I
brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’ n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of
question for which there is no answer.
School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness
were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was
an over-conscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too
often.
I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now –

  • strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home
    anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough. I would keep her home from school, too, to
    have them all together. Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would
    fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her
    boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and
    shells, dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and
    Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.
    Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged
    away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurts and needs I
    had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.
    Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting,
    taking — but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment.
    It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden –
  • and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and
    manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes
    clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat
    silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the
    five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.
    I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her
    contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of
    youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every
    other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin…” She tormented herself enough
    about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscious
    of words before you speak, the constant caring — what are they thinking of me? without having it
    all magnified by the merciless physical drives.
    Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of
    motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and
    listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the
    city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I
    carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily,
    Shoogily, invented by her to say: comfort.
    In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I
    mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible,
    growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller
    ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and
    shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches
    packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby
    ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at
    by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was
    one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over the unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in
    her classes.
    There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over
    books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary
    in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to
    Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate
    happenings or types at school.
    I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One
    morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I
    won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”
    Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in
    anonymity.
    She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and
    statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin,
    shy, she almost drowned herself into the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the
    command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience,
    unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.
    Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that — but without money or
    knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied
    inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing. She is coming. She runs up the stairs two
    at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that
    occasioned your call did not happen today.
    “Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker.
    I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights
    and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.
    She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will
    find her way.
    She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought
    you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly,
    “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom — dead they won’t matter a bit.”
    She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that
    compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.
    I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her
    father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or
    I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and
    thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and
    dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love.
    We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a
    distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister
    seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too
    much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too
    late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of
    depression, of war, of fear.
    Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom — but in how many does it? There is still
    enough left to live by. Only help her to know-help make it so there is cause for her to know —
    that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

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