My Mother’s War (part 1)

Before the war

Again, an older piece. My mother is Dutch, was in a Japanese POW camp in WWII as a girl. She wrote about this in a book called the Flamboya Tree (published in 2001, right around when my youngest child was born, has been translated into fourteen languages and received some critical acclaim.) I wrote this feeling guilty about my first thought when she was published, “It was supposed to be me.” Over that now- the world has room for lots of stories. People ask sometimes how/why I started using. Not sure there is anything causal at root- just made that way. That said, I am long acquainted with the idea of more…

I think the beginning might be rooted in my mother’s war, the one that wrapped itself around the leg of my childhood, like an undercurrent you know you can get out of until the last minute, when the rush against the sand leaves you bloody lipped and grated, gasping and blinded by sun. A war, even an old one, can reach out if you are not careful. Ankle grab, quick tug and there you are again, tucked around a swollen lunch (too much, all ways) with your brothers and sister, the unremembered children she watched for pocket money tucked between you at lunch time like junk mail. The warm bowl of orange tomato soup hypnotic, impossible either to choke it down or leave it, hunger and lack the constant reminder of her own girlhood and the camp. The keeping quiet because a meal is, in wartime, nothing to be savored but a grim, toothy march to the future. Scarcity is common to war. Nothing is ever enough if you once ate grubs culled from a post-monsoon rain track. It sounds almost fake, to eat grubs. Better to say old canned food or a soup made from some leftover Russian potato. But grubs it was. My Oma would try to make it a game, the spearing them with sticks, the gush then the chew.

My mother named her book the Flamboya Tree for a painting her mother took in the one suitcase they traveled with. This painting of a single red and exotic tree and a road in the dust still hangs on my parents’ wall in Bellingham. It hung on the colonial wallpaper of my suburban Massachusetts home, was the image I stared at twirling the phone cord, laying on the bench, newly deepened voices at the other end. It hung on the walls of apartments I cried in and will hang somewhere after I’m gone.

It is a surprising story, this, the way her words were taken and made into a book, the one thing I have ever wanted, paraded in front of America via Rosie O’Donnell (who lost her mother as well, though differently.) How the hardback came to me in treatment for “opiate dependency,” such narrow words for a time defined by too many young children and not enough friends, the frantic calling and late taxis’ to Walgreens for another fill.  Her war played its part, too, laughing in the cracks of the stone walls when I lay in the basement of my first college boyfriend and let him (no — asked him) to slide the needle into the careful crook of my own arm, the way the room spun for a moment until I realized just how at home I felt, beyond the vomiting and the spin.

My mother still cannot bear the bombs bursting in air on the Fourth of July, would in fact hide in the back of our Impala with her ears covered as we sped around Pomp’s Pond before parking to watch. By twelve, I had read too much Judy Blume and had impossible dreams of romance, tossing at night, the FM radio down low. Wanted Bobby P. to stop blowing shit up and put his hands on me where they belonged. When the fireworks were over, my mother would always say with irritating relief, “Well, there’s that for another year.” I’d lie awake hungry for more. Always. More.

Vashon Revisited.

To establish some kind of narrative order, I’ve been going through old notes/writing from the last few years… much of what I wrote then was journaling, or lines from songs or prayers that made a particular kind of painful sense. The following was written sitting at a friend’s kitchen table on Vashon Island, Thanksgiving week 2009, waiting for his ferry to dock and the knock on the door,  narcotic in my anticipation.The children and I had stayed at the beach house earlier that year when M was Hawaii with his wife and kids, trying to see if they could right their situation. I needed to get mine somewhere, anywhere, for a few days, just to stay in motion. I remember that the cherry trees on his street were in incredible bloom that spring, and how much even the sight of a single blossom on pavement somewhere else in the city felt piercing- I was still new to the feeling of everything reminding me, a phase that– though not past– has lessened mightily. Or maybe I have grown in my ability to be past the hurt and (as my yoga teachers would say “the story”) into the day that is, the big universal love.


The last time I was here, at this table, the tide was out and I ran mercilessly on the wet sand, over logs and ahead of my children, hoping they’d never be stuck the way I was stuck, knowing it would happen to them someday too, this beautiful bloom, this truncated flower, this hopeless longing, the veritas of being human, of having a heart. I am back at the table now, and mirable dictu, his divorce has happened, and I have no idea of what he suspects is true for me in this.

I –who thought  I’d done everything- have done nothing of this particular sort before, this much hushing of what wants to come out of my mouth, what messages my breath could carry if only I felt that gate open, what riches lie in the field beyond silence.

Yet. I know better. One thing these forty years have given me, slim chance to play the cards correctly, risking the immediate for dignity and a measure of patience. Never could wait well. Waiting now, waiting for I am not sure when he’ll get off ferry and come to me, what that will be like, how even as I type I am aware of this day shifting to be what I hoped for, how disappointed I’d have been if he couldn’t come, how I would have been just fine.

Puncture. Caress. Opposite poles. I am not good at this.

Non sum ego quod feuran. I am not what I was. Not what I was in April, in this room with the children and the summer just bending around the corner, what that summer would hold, the waiting, the joy and the sudden sickness. I haven’t told that story on paper yet, again waiting, feels less essential to me than this puzzle of how I got to wanting this much, solving the mystery of why I focus on the one thing in a hundred that is not in my power to solve, this dilemma that isn’t, this lesson in – again- letting things be as they may be, and learning to let them go.  

To Consider This Summer Morning – Mary Oliver & Andre Dubus III

Andre said he read a poem every morning before sitting down to write. I can do at least that much, here, and practice the sitting.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” MO

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  MO

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” MO

“So every day
So every day
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,
one of which was you.” MO

“I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.” MO

“Most of the time I feel stupid, insensitive, mediocre, talentless and vulnerable—like I’m about to cry any second—and wrong. I’ve found that when that happens, it usually means I’m writing pretty well, pretty deeply, pretty rawly.” AD

“And I felt more like me than I ever had, as if the years I’d lived so far had formed layers of skin and muscle over myself that others saw as me when the real one had been underneath all along, and I knew writing- even writing badly- had peeled away those layers, and I knew then that if I wanted to stay awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing.”  AD

I took a class last year with Andre Dubus III (author House of Sand and Fog and Townie) . Being around a man from Newburyport was the gift of New England home on a rainy Seattle afternoon, and we have a mutual friend in Joe Salvatore (author of To Assume a Pleasing Shape /editor of the Brooklyn Rail), from Brockton, a friend from a thousand barefoot years ago. I take these writing classes to remind me of what I have always thought I would do – and should do. Andre said he read a poem every morning before sitting down to write. I can do at least that much, here, and practice the sitting.