What I hide by my language, my body utters.
—Terry Tempest Williams
When she teaches me, I am six or seven, afraid of letting go of her hand, but with her gentle push I finally find my balance on those two metal blades, alone in the middle of the ice, everything spinning around me.
My mother claps her hands for me then circles wide, taking flight. One foot over the other, her skates scissoring madly, the breeze blowing back her bell-bottoms, her arms swaying freely at her side.
She is light, beam first then scatter.
I learn fast. I take steps then let myself glide a little more each time. There are people talking all around me, maybe there’s music, but what I hear is the sound of my skates scraping the surface of the ice. I look down at the parallel lines I am making, the friction of my blades on the frozen pond.
Outcome: A change in direction or motion.
I begin to gain confidence, try crossing one foot over the other. But I’m not as steady as I think I am. When I fall and split open my chin, it is the first time I remember seeing blood. Such bright red pooled there on the ice. My blood. This is perhaps the first time I feel separate from my mother. Apart from her, inhabiting my own body.
It is my pain. Thread is stitched through my skin. She holds my hand.
Analysis: The solid and liquid phase exist in equilibrium.
By mid-March, a sign is posted on the pond: Danger. Thin ice.
My mother never has the talk with me—the birds and the bees talk. What I come to know about my body, I learn from my friends and from reading Judy Blume.
Everything about the body—mine, hers, everyone else’s—seems forbidden, something unmentionable.
Principle: The point at which an object is no longer balanced, and adding even a small amount of weight can cause it to topple.
It is high school when I learn there are ways to control the body. Junior year, something inside me shifts. I stop eating. I want, at the same time, to both disappear and be seen.
At sixteen, I secretly want my mother to see the changes in my body. To note its sharp angles: jutting rib cage, hipbones and spine. I want to hear her call out across the swell of silence.
For two more years, I write my own history of self-destruction. It is short, to the point: I am lightweight. Light on my feet. Light as a feather.
Until, finally, I crash. Figuratively. Literally. Mind first then body.
Evaluation: The moment of crisis in a situation.
And so begins a pattern of recovery. The half-ruined parts of me heaped into piles I have to sort. To name. To carry.
At least another two years go by before I find what begins to sound like my own voice.
I let go.
In the backseat of a car, I have sex, but more as an act of curiosity—or defiance—than falling in love. I want to know my body beneath someone else’s, to know the friction of their skin against mine.
At first, I tally the number of times. Then I stop counting. Still, I think touch has something to do with shame.
It will take years of unlearning.
In college, I fill sketchbooks with charcoal studies from figure drawing classes. I am in awe of the models who pose for us, how they so easily step out of their clothes and sit or stand in front of our class for hours, their bodies so matter-of-fact to them.
I begin with quick sketches of noses and eyes, hands and feet, careful to avoid the torso, the parts I am uncomfortable studying too closely. The shape. The contour. The shadow. From far away, inside a classroom, I can sense my mother’s disapproval.
I am not my mother, but I am.
For a while after my first daughter is born, my mother spends a few hours with us each morning. Us: Mother. Daughter/Mother. Daughter. This new pattern. How we persist.
She teaches me how to swaddle my baby in soft blankets, how to bathe her, how to hold her against my body when I need her to sleep.
I want these hours to stretch into endless days, the steady rhythm of my mother moving through the rooms of my house, sometimes reaching for me.
She is light, sparkle first then flare.
Methodology: To observe the disappearance rather than the formation of ice.
On the day I turn forty, I stand on a glacier in Alaska. An intentional plan: not just to take in the beauty of this place, but to situate myself and this number that has been haunting me beside ice and bedrock more than three thousand years old.
I am wordless, though I know later I will want to somehow note the scale, to describe the color blue. To make certain the mind remembers it all.
A chill in the air catches, takes hold of me. I recall my mother telling me so many times how the cold bore its way into her hands and feet. I feel it, too. The years adding up, accumulating. How the body becomes a bounded system of memory and bone.
As the helicopter lifts off, hovers above the glacier, I tip my head toward the window to look down at where I had just stood. With my eyes, I trace the edges, the stark outline, imagine its continual shift, its slow retreat.
A mother and daughter are a land mass, its periphery.
Theorem: The intersection of parallel lines in space.
Two days after my mother dies, I return to the pond where she taught me to skate. The ice is full of gouges and scrapes—the scars of winter.
It is midday now and no one else is around. Just a gathering of geese.
In my snow boots, I slide out to the middle of the ice. I imagine the sound of my skates, the swish of my body. Tilting my head back, I look up at the pale sky and raise my arms. All at once, the geese fly away, their wings flapping like applause.
It is the first week in March. Soon, the warning sign.
I keep a photograph of my mother on my desk, a head-and-shoulders portrait in three-quarter profile. Every day, I notice the way a single curl falls onto the nape of her neck.
She is light, flash first then glow.