There is no better time for an epiphany than the holiday season, and this year mine was about how the world is divided into those who ‘do’ pastry and those who don’t. By doing I mean making their own. And by making your own pastry, I mean I don’t. These polarities abound. Those who beep at traffic lights and those who don’t. You either eat before noon or you gag at the thought. There is never a sometimes. You run, or you Zumba (fool!). Succulents. Love them or hate them. There is no in between. I’m not one of those moms who sits in the sandbox with her kids. But there they are, and here I am. It’s not the kids who put me off, it’s the other parents in there, and nothing short of a miracle can move me.
Thomas Pynchon, in his ironically titled 1984 collection, Slow Learner (Pynchon was 26 when he published V), describes a miracle as the ‘intrusion of one world into another.‘ Over the recent holiday season, my mind often flew to my own mother, a sandbox hexer like me, but a whizz with a pastry brush and gallivanting as we speak around Varanasi with her 27-year-old male companion (it’s complicated). My mother, that woman furthest from the sandbox and closest to the dry sherry, was a tireless nursery school volunteer, Brownie leader and faculty wife. Her Indian dinner parties were legendary at a time and place before the subcontinent was sexy, and she used to hold them in a shamiana, an Indian wedding tent, set up in the backyard of our house by the lake in a tiny Eastern college town where you either held key parties or wiener roasts and nothing in between.
A living breathing study in contradictions, my mother became a brazen street photographer too shy to sell her own work. Her portrait photography is astonishing, especially of her children and grandchildren. She sewed us matching dresses by hand, thwarted the Wonder Bread generation at every turn (oh, the embarrassment of those dark rye sandwiches), yet slept as late as she could to avoid making us breakfast. So no, I won’t go pious on her ass, but let me tell you that when the divorce lawyers came calling she sold her mother’s diamonds just to keep a roof over our heads.
So, you either graduate phi beta kappa or you don’t (she did). The only daughter of doting Viennese refugees, she dutifully enrolled in a masters degree yet dropped out as soon as she found a husband. Married young, she was cuckolded by forty and orphaned by fifty. She has survived two bouts of cancer and her lifetime battles with migraine, CFS and goddess knows what else have left her as scarred and robust as a cadavre exquis. Well, you’ve marched on Washington or you haven’t, and you remember doing it or you don’t. She does, kind of. A disenchanted, alienated American, my mother got off the plane at Delhi in 1967 and felt for the first time in her life as though she’d come home.
I think about the instability of polarities, how to be at our most human and alive is paradoxically to resemble an exquisite corpse. Remade at every turn, scarred and burned, and fuck you very much, here I am. I think about my mother skyping us from Varanasi at Christmas, with her rickshaw man by her side. How we took the laptop and propped her up like a Futurama head at the long table from which her daughters and sons-in-laws and grandchildren raised their glasses. To a miracle. To our mother.
This piece is for her.