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Y mother's attention to me, though, seemed to lag after the first few days in Maplewood. In the mornings Fanny deposited me and Lucy at ballet class, while my mother slept in; I didn't see her until dinner. She seemed quiet and distant then, but peaceful, even satisfied.
"What'd you do all day?" I'd ask her at dinner.
"Oh, nothing -- sit by the lake. Relax. Read some."
Fanny had given her a whole pile of books: Fear of Flying, Heartburn, The Women's Room; my mother pressed wildflowers between the pages. She was definitely enjoying life in this town, and I was too -- the clean white sidewalks of Main Street, the wide, airy aisles of Stop & Shop, nights in bed beside Lucy, reading our Sweet Valley Highs out loud. Even ballet was better than I'd expected. Lucy did wear toe shoes, but she kept tripping over them, and the instructor, Jolée, didn't notice me twirling off count.
"Think how good we'd be if we danced together all the time," Lucy said, nearly falling over from her arabesque. "We'd be like Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. Torvill and Dean without ice."
In Jolée's class we had become a regular pair: each day, for our improvisation, we invented a two-minute ballet and performed it as a couple. It didn't matter what we looked like; Jolée simply crooned, "Feel the mooovement, become the mooovement," and nodded with praise.
Out of the whole class, only one girl had mooovements that seemed on target, even beautiful, and Lucy and I often stopped to gape at her with envy. She was sixteen, with black hair that swept to her hips, and breasts that made ours seem like walnuts. Jolée adored her. It wasn't until late in the first week that I found out her name: Greta, just like my mother's.
"Isn't that weird?" I said to my mother at dinner that night. "Isn't that the craziest coincidence? Another Greta. I never met anyone else with your name."
My mother nodded and shrugged; she didn't seem fazed or surprised, but Fanny kept smirking at me and then glanced at my mother and said, "Honey, it's not a coincidence -- Greta's father was your mother's old boyfriend. He's a widower now."
I gazed at my mother. Sometimes she would tell me about the men she'd gone out with before she met my father: Moshe the Israeli; Charlie the Navy sailor, whose whole crew stood up when she entered the room; Harry the Californian, with the red convertible. I always felt envious and proud that my mother had had all these lovers, that she was so attractive and desirable, that she'd had this whole other exciting, romantic life, as I hoped I would someday.
"Greta's father is Moshe?" I said. "Harry with the sports car?"
My mother laughed. "No -- no -- this was the first boyfriend I ever had. Rolf -- Rolf Stein."
Rolf. I peppered her with questions. She'd known him since she was my age, growing up in Washington Heights; unlike her family, who'd escaped to America at the beginning of the war, Rolf's had gone to Holland. His parents hid him in a Dutch orphanage, and he never heard from them again.
"We were engaged when I was eighteen," my mother said. "But before we could get married, he wanted some proof that his parents were actually dead. He'd had this hope, all those years, that they might still be alive. He left for Europe then Germany, Holland, France, Russia. This long search. He found someone who'd known them in Amsterdam, someone who thought they'd been sent to Treblinka and survived."
He'd sent my mother postcards from across Europe for more than a year; suddenly the postcards stopped coming.
"What happened?" I asked. "What then?"
She shrugged. "Nothing. I married your father."
N bed that night, Lucy and I couldn't stop talking about it.
"Oh, my God. It's so romantic. To name his daughter after your mother. He must have really loved her."
"I guess. I guess he did."
We recounted the story again and again. Drama it was. Romance. The Sound of Music, starring my mother. In our minds Rolf grew as handsome and dashing as Christopher Plummer; my father became the balding understudy, with too-short corduroys and mismatched socks.
Lucy had seen Rolf only in passing; she couldn't remember what he looked like. "But I'm sure he's gorgeous. I bet you he'll be at Summer Showcase. Everybody goes. My God -- we're really going to meet him."
As the showcase approached, Jolée told us that we could each perform a five-minute dance onstage. Lucy and I knew exactly what we'd do: we were going to dance the saga of my mother's first love. We choreographed it expertly. For the war we donned black leotards and galumphed across the stage; then we changed to purple and swept toward each other with elegance and grace; then we crumpled apart. We ended together in a passionate embrace.
As we rehearsed for Saturday, we decided that watching the dance would reunite my mother with her true love. She and Rolf would see the performance and recognize that their love had never ended; my mother would marry Rolf and we'd move to Maplewood; Fanny would marry Rolf's long-lost cousin, who'd suddenly appear, and Lucy and I would be related for real. We didn't even think of Lucy's father, my father, or my sister; in Maplewood the rest of the world seemed to disappear. It felt feasible, possible, that everyone could be happy.
N the morning of the performance I woke up feeling sick with a sharp, shooting pain around my stomach. I wasn't sure if the cause was anxiety or something concrete, but by the afternoon, at rehearsal, it hadn't gone away.
"I don't feel so well," I told Lucy.
"It's probably just nerves," she said. "You're scared of the responsibility. The pressure. It isn't easy, reuniting old loves."
I hugged my abdomen. "I don't know. Maybe -- it could be my friend."
"Oh," Lucy said knowingly: my period. "Is she supposed to be visiting now?"
"She's early, I think."
"She really makes you sick?"
"Yeah. Kind of." I'd rarely told anyone, aside from my mother, how sick my period made me. For most eighth-graders, cramps were the imaginary, convenient excuse for getting out of typing, math, or gym, but I was almost doubled over by the pains. I was embarrassed by how badly they affected me, how I missed school and threw up and ran fevers, spending all day in bed, writhing and crying, praying for the Advil to set in. Even my father didn't wholly believe the pain was real; he seemed frightened of me then, averting his eyes when he asked me how I felt. And he wasn't unsympathetic just because he was a man -- Alex didn't believe me either. We weren't like the sisters I wanted us to be, confiding all our womanly secrets; when she first got her period, surreptitiously popping the Kotex into our shopping cart, I was shocked and elated, expectant and jealous. "What's it feel like?" I'd asked her, eager to share in the delights of her budding womanhood. "Shut the fuck up," she'd said.
My mother was the only one who believed the pain was real. To her, any illness, menstrual or not, became an occasion. Out came the ginger ale, strawberry Jell-O, soup; sometimes she would stay home from work, and when the painkillers finally set in, we'd paint with watercolors and play board games I was far too old for. She brought up trays of food for me to eat in bed -- sandwiches with the crusts cut off, saltines spread with peanut butter and jam.
But now, all day, as rain poured down outside, we'd been practicing, decorating, and preparing for the showcase; I wouldn't see my mother till it was over.
"Once we start dancing, you'll forget it hurts at all," Lucy told me. "You'll be fine."
But by evening my cramps were worse. At six-thirty, half an hour before the performance, I pulled off my leotard in the bathroom.
Blood -- drips and gobs of it were on my underwear; I recoiled at the sight. It was always a shock, seeing the redness; I never accepted that all this blood leaving my body could actually be a normal thing.
I found Lucy backstage. "I'm really sick," I said. "My friend's here."
"Can't you just use a tampon? No one will know." She glanced out at the auditorium. "You have to go on. The dance -- we can't not do the dance. I can't do it without you."
She summoned Jolée, who suggested that I try deep-breathing methods, and Fanny, who procured Advil from someone in her hora group.
"Do you know where my mother is?" I asked Fanny, my voice beginning to break. "I need to see her."
She looked around at the people filing into the auditorium. She seemed nervous. "I don't know. I haven't seen her since this morning. Maybe -- she might be by the lake. But, honey -- " She reached her hand out to me, but I started running, past Fanny, Lucy, Jolée, out the stage doors. I didn't know what I was doing. The performance, our rehearsals, our plans to reunite my mother and Rolf -- suddenly none of them mattered. I had to see my mother now; I had to know where she was. I wanted not just her comfort but the assurance of her presence; for a moment I felt like the mother, worried about her daughter's whereabouts, needing the fact of her life to validate mine.
The rain had stopped. I ran the whole way to the lake, half a mile, the wet grass soaking through my pink ballet slippers, mud splattering onto my tights. Near the lake I paused, panting. My mother, her back to me, was sitting quietly at the water's edge. A man sat beside her, his arm around her waist.
"Mom!" I called out. "Mom!"
She turned and stared at me, standing there sopping wet and streaked with mud; she looked at me as if I were crazy.
"I'm really sick. I think -- I think I need to go home."
I didn't get a good look at Rolf. In the rush all I saw was the dark form of his body, shaded angles of his face. My memories after that are shady too, my brain trying to edit out my clumsiness, my humiliation at destroying my mother's love scene. I remember my mother taking me home to clean me up, and, later, apologies to Fanny for missing the performance, Lucy's silent disappointment, my mother's quick decision that we had better leave that night -- that I'd probably feel better if I just got back to Queens.
On the bus ride home my mother showed no sympathy. I vomited in the bus bathroom; I sniffled in my seat. My mother hugged her pocketbook to her lap and gazed out the window, not listening. She seemed torn between Maplewood and Queens, angered by her decision, her obligation, to return home. In one instant she chose our old life over a new one, but that choice brought her no relief. Midway through the ride a woman tripped over my bag in the aisle. "Stop being so Goddamn careless!" my mother screamed at me.
I gathered my bag to my chest. A month before, the last time I'd gotten sick from my period, we'd missed a ballet performance because of it. My mother had said it didn't matter, and she'd told me what she really thought about dancing then. In reality it's not a life, she said. You can't see it on the dancers' faces, but underneath they're all in pain. Their bloody toes, their torn ligaments. They're all hiding tremendous suffering.
I cried that night on the bus, noiselessly, my face turned toward the aisle, buried against the seat so that my mother wouldn't see. I didn't cry because of the cramps or the sickness; I cried from guilt over my own selfishness. That dancers hid their suffering seemed noble. They endured pain for something beautiful. And I'd been unable to make that sacrifice, or even come close; self-absorbed, I'd embraced my pain, shouted it, flaunted it, as if it were something unique.
ITTLE changed after we returned home: my parents' fights continued, my father still slept on the couch, my mother murmured to Fanny on the phone. My mother never spoke of Rolf to me, and rarely mentioned our trip to Maplewood. I didn't bring it up. I was grateful that our relationship seemed the same as it had always been: hugs, evenings at the Pirouette, declarations of love.
Then one night, two months after we'd come home, my mother said good-bye to Fanny on the phone and passed the receiver to me. "You have to watch out for your mother -- it's bad news," Fanny said. "Rolf ... he passed away. I can't believe it. I just ... I can't believe it at all."
"Passed away" seemed the wrong choice of words when she told me what had happened: Greta had come home after school one afternoon to find him hanging from an exposed rafter in an upstairs bedroom.
That night I went to my mother's room to talk to her, to comfort her. I brought up milk and crackers, arranged on a tray. But she lay asleep in the darkness, surrounded by her open notebooks. I shut the door and returned to my room.
I didn't know what to make of Rolf's death. I blocked it out until three months later, when my mother suddenly got a diagnosis of advanced melanoma. In the ten days between the diagnosis and her death -- no one had expected it to happen so soon -- Fanny sent packages of self-healing books: Medicine & Miracles, Think Yourself Well. The night after my mother died, Fanny told me on the telephone, "It was your mother's depression. She never came to terms with her history, with her parents. With the war. Really, it's not so different from Elsa or Jack. Or from Rolf. I've seen it happen to so many people ..." She trailed off and began to cry.
I didn't know what to say to her. I'd been devastated by my mother's death; everything, my whole life, seemed instantly lost. Part of me wanted to scream at Fanny that my mother could not have brought it on herself. She could not have wanted to die.
But perhaps my mother hadn't brought it on herself; perhaps we were to blame -- my father, my sister, and I -- in our inability to give her what she wanted. What if, that night in Maplewood, I'd said, "Stay with Rolf, Mommy! He's yours! You should be happy with your own life!"
I didn't say any of this to Fanny. I just said, "Uh-huh. I have to go now," and hung up the phone.
HE sun began to come up. My father still slept on the couch. Outside, a garbage truck groaned down our street. Our neighbors' bed rattled against their side of the wall.
"My Mother's First Lover" was all I'd typed on the page during the night. At some point I'd fallen asleep across from my father, at the other end of the couch. I'd dreamed of Rolf, and had trailed him to where my mother was, where she surely must be: in some other universe, alive and happy, with him.
For a few moments, in that hazy transition into waking life, a dream lingers as reality: Rolf's form strong and permanent, my mother lithe and healthy and satisfied. The peacefulness that surrounded them was what stayed with me the most in the seconds before I completely awoke -- the rightness of it, of true love reunited. The perfect ending to this story, a story Ms. Poletti might write, one she'd certainly approve of.
But I'd barely become accustomed to that picture when it began to evaporate. Outside, the garbage truck creaked, car horns honked, a taxi driver screamed. On the dining-room shelf -- from which my mother had once snatched objects to throw at my father -- lay one of the oversized buttons my sister and I had made of their wedding photo. In that photo my mother smiled with the same satisfaction she'd shown in Maplewood -- the same expression she'd had in the dream.
My father said to me once, not long ago, in the car driving over the bridge to Manhattan, one of the few times we talked about my mother after she died, one of the rare times we shared anything openly at all, "The problem with Mommy was that she never believed I loved her. I told her I did, but she never believed it was true."
At first I balked, not believing that any of my father's perceptions could be right. I had blamed him, along with myself, for her death, for not making her happier. But I knew he had loved her: his grief was as clear as mine since she'd been gone. And I thought about my mother, growing up without ever being hugged. Despite the lack of love she'd felt in her own life, she'd managed, somehow, to love me. The night we left Maplewood, after the long bus ride home, I awoke in the middle of the night to find a tray of ginger ale and sandwiches, the crusts cut off, and my mother next to my bed, her hand on my stomach, assuring me then and always that the pain was natural after all.
Margo Rabb is a writer whose stories have been in American Fiction and on National Public Radio.
Illustrations by Liz Pyle
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; My Mother's First Lover; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 78 - 90.