There are times when she is gentle, but there are also times when she is not gentle, when she is fierce and unrelenting toward him or them all, and she knows it is the strange spirit of her mother in her then.
– “Her Mother’s Mother” by Lydia Davis
Every oldest daughter of an oldest daughter is named Elizabeth. We are all Elizabeths, except one.
I pick her up, the one not named Elizabeth—my oldest—at her apartment in Mar Vista. She’s packed only one suitcase for the trip and when she sees me, asks if she should drive. I am crying again so I say OK.
We stop at the house in Van Nuys to pick up my mother. It’s near the wash and has been remodeled often, the courtyard bricked in, a fountain in the side wall, jasmine and rose bushes and stone steps leading to the back. Every room smells like cigarette smoke and when she comes out, my mother looks smaller, thinner, cheekbones severe, her green eyes dark. I let her take the front seat. It is, after all, her mother who has died.
I watch her closely. She plays with the radio station, one hand over her mouth. My daughter, thank God, has enough sense to put on a cd, to talk about trivial things, like the length of the flight, where we are staying in Binghamton.
On the plane, getting us seated is a hassle. My mother wants to sit by the window and she’s been assigned an aisle. For a moment I’m reminded of our childhood. Her bouts of depression, her anger, how she used to, as punishment for some slight—perhaps the dishes were not completely dry—ignore us for long periods of time. Mom, I would cry. Mom, Mom, Mom—please talk to me. But she would continue puffing on her cigarette, switching through television channels or reading some thick hardcover book. I was wind outside a window.
The plane starts to traffic down the runway, gaining speed. And then I’m right back in my aunt’s house, just a few weeks ago, the house in Carlsbad with the pool and two schnauzers. I’m trying to get my recently deceased grandmother to make a handprint on a card. She has died about five minutes before and my mother has disappeared; my aunt has fallen across her husband’s lap; my sister is crying—the dogs joining in.
And yet this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. We’ve watched her shrivel, her blue eyes becoming so piercing and large that they look as if they might pop right out of her face. For the last several days she’s been in bed, wetting herself and apologizing to her own mother—another Elizabeth, though this one long dead—begging please please do not beat me. We change her sheets, talk to hospice. The only thing to do is wait. We tell her, it’s ok. We tell her, no one will beat you for wetting the bed. Tell her, you’re safe.
And now the moment has come. The idea is to paint her hand in purple and capture its print on paper. It will be something to give out during the Catholic service.
But the rigor mortis is setting in quick. My oldest is there holding the paper, looking horrified. Just hold back her thumb, I hiss. She trusts me because before I met her father I was studying to be a nurse. Even her sister, who does not speak to me often, calls when she has some worrying symptom.
So she does, she separates the thumb and forefinger, getting paint everywhere, feeling the bones click. And I push my grandmother’s fingers onto the paper. We—mother and daughter—do this several times until we get it right. Me, whispering harshly to do it again, both of us looking at the closed door with increasing urgency; my daughter, turning pale, her eyes getting big and dark like her father’s. I can tell she is recording this. When she looks at me, my nostrils flare—I can’t help it. She isn’t doing it right, it doesn’t have to be this morbid thing.
On the plane the stewardess brings soda and some crackers. My mother refuses so I accept them on her behalf. Everyone is feeling low so I ask for extras, We are on our way to burry my grandmother. The stewardess nods, her face understanding. She wants to be buried in Binghamton, I tell her.
Where the other members of her family are. It’s where her mother emigrated from Slovakia—she was an Elizabeth too. The stewardess is paying attention now, she looks at each of us. Yes, my name is Elizabeth, I say. And my mom is Elizabeth—every oldest daughter is named Elizabeth. Except my oldest. She is Liska. It’s a nickname, in Slovakia, an endearment for Elizabeth. It means little Elizabeth—except she is not so little, is she? My daughter plays her part. Stands up, shows how she dwarfs my mother and me. The stewardess brings extra crackers, a small bottle of white wine.
My mother is solemn and quiet, looking out her airplane window. I remember my grandmother telling me a story once about finding her on a corner with some friends smoking cigarettes. She must have been a teenager—in pictures of her from back then, my mother has a very educated look, butter wouldn’t melt. My grandmother is furious—and she tells me this laughing—that she pulled over and put that cigarette out on my mother’s lip. Right there in front of her friends.
Do we tell this story on our trip? No. We will talk about her apple strudel and poppy seed roll. How we are thankful my daughter knows the recipes too. We will drive around Binghamton—a rusting sweaty town, trying not to think how there are only two Elizabeths left—how I am the last one. Because my daughter is Liska.
But we’re more than names. We’re made up of more than just genes, too. We’re made of stories, those experiences that get reshaped and passed down and down and finally to you. Whatever narrative is my mother’s is also my own, is also my daughter’s.
I wonder, who will press my hand to paper after I die? Because it won’t be an Elizabeth. Liska refuses to have children, so there will be no more Elizabeths. There already are no more Elizabeths.