When I was five and Sarah seven, my mother went on a trip. She was gone from our home in Rochester, New York, for several days. But she was often gone— not always from the house but missing from our lives nonetheless. Then one day Sarah and I returned from school to find her standing at the door, a piñata in her hand, smiling her spellbinding, I-am-overjoyed-at-the-sight-of-you smile. Now when I imagine that scene, my mind’s eye puts a sombrero on her head, but I doubt she was wearing one. She had just come home from a trip to Juarez, Mexico, where she had obtained a quickie divorce. She told us she was taking us to live in Florida. We had no idea where – or what – Florida was. “There will be oranges there,” she said. “They’re everywhere. You can reach up and pull them off the trees.”
My mother has always loved piano music and hungered to play. When she was in her early sixties, she retired from her job as a computer programmer so that she could devote herself more fully to the piano. As she had done with her dog obsession, she took her piano education to an extreme. She bought not one, not two, but three pianos.
One was the beautiful Steinway B, a small grand piano she purchased with a modest inheritance left by a friend of her parents’. She photocopied all her music in a larger size so she could see it better and mounted it on manila folders. She practiced for several hours every day. When she wasn’t practicing the piano she was talking about the piano.
I love pianos, too, and wrote an entire book about the life of one piano, a Steinway owned by the renowned pianist Glenn Gould. And I shared my mother’s love for her piano. During phone conversations, I listened raptly as she told me about the instrument’s cross-country adventures.
Before bringing the Steinway north, my mother had mentioned that she was considering selling it. I was surprised, but instead of reminding her that, last I knew, she was setting it aside for me, I said nothing, unable to utter the simple words, “But, Mom, don’t you remember your promise?” If I did, it would be a way of asking for something, and asking my mother for something was always dangerous because of the risk of disappointment.
Stately and commanding, the house I found on Sacramento Street, in Lower Pacific Heights, was an architectural jewel; tour buses drove down the street several times a day and the guides pointed out our Victorian “painted lady” not just for its curb appeal but also for its lucky survival of the earthquake. Meticulously renovated, the house had a layout that I was sure would work perfectly: a three-room suite on the lower level with a bathroom and laundry room for my mother, living space on the next level, and, on the top floor, bedrooms for Zoë and me. The master bedroom was large enough to double as my office. Moreover, it seemed symbolic that we should find a three-story nineteenth-century Victorian, whose original intention was to house multiple generations.
My mother couldn’t have been more pleased. She started calling our experiment “our year in Provence.” In the face of naysayers, I chose to embrace the reaction of a friend who was living in Beijing: “How Chinese of you!” she said upon hearing the news. When I told my mother, she was delighted. “What have the Chinese got on us?” she declared. And I agreed. The Chinese revere their elderly. If they could live happily with multiple generations under one roof, so could we.
“This brilliant, wrenching, and funny memoir about three generations under one roof is quite unlike anything I have ever read. The story lingered with me long after I read the last page.”
Author of Cutting for Stone
I usually enjoy setting up a new kitchen, but this has become a joyless and highly charged task. My mother and I each have our own set of kitchen boxes, which means that if there are two cheese graters between us, only one will make it into a cupboard. The other will be put back in a box or given to Goodwill.
Each such little decision has the weight of a Middle East negotiation. While her kitchenware is serviceable, I’m a sucker for the high end: All-Clad saucepans and Emile Henry pie dishes. Before long, I’m shaking my head at pretty much everything my mother removes from her San Diego boxes. She takes each rejected item as a personal slight–which in fact it is. I begrudge her even her lightweight bowls, which she can lift easily with her injured hand.
Here she is, a fragile old woman barely able to bend down as she peers into a low cupboard, looking for a place where she can share life with her grown daughter. At such a sight my heart should be big, but it’s small, so small that when I see her start stuffing her serving spoons into the same drawer as my own sturdy pieces, lovingly accumulated over the years, it makes me crazy. Suddenly I’m acting out decades of unvoiced anger about my mother’s parenting, which seems to be materializing in the form of her makeshift collection of kitchenware being unpacked into my drawers.
When I became a mother myself, I developed a self-righteous sense of superiority to my mother: I was better than my mother, for having successfully picked myself up and dusted myself off, for never having lain in bed for days on end, too blotto to get my child off to school or even to know if it was a school day. By sheer force of will and strength of character, I believed, I had risen above all that she succumbed to and skirted all that I might have inherited. This, of course, is too obnoxiously smug to say in words. So I say it with flatware.
Suddenly life was good, even glamorous. We were poor but didn’t know it, or maybe we did know, but we didn’t care, because my mother had stopped disappearing into her bedroom. Our apartment building was surrounded by empty lots, which were all that separated us from the ocean. Within a couple of decades, those stretches of undeveloped land–prime coastline real estate–would be built upon, with upscale apartment complexes and million-dollar houses with ocean views. But in 1967, those barren lots were our magnificent private playground. I had a tomboy streak and recruited neighborhood boys onto an ad hoc softball team. Dieter and my mother installed a tetherball pole, which acted as a magnet for kids in the neighborhood. For the first time in years, we were enjoying what felt like a normal, quasi-suburban existence, with us at the center of everything–the popular kids with the endless playground.
“Doing a geographic” is a term alcoholics often use for acting on the impulse to start over by moving to a new town, or state, instead of making any internal changes. It’s the anywhere-but-here part of the disease that says, “Remove yourself from this, go someplace new, and everything will be better.” Two years into our Florida stint, my mother pulled a geographic as radical as the move from Rochester. The new plan was to head for California.
She enrolled in the mathematics graduate program at the University of California’s shiny new campus in San Diego, and as soon as our elementary school let out for the summer, she put us into a new Buick station wagon–a gift from her parents–and drove us across the country.
You’d think we’d have protested at yet another move. After all, having been duped before, we were in no position to believe that the next move would be any different. But I have no memory of being unhappy about the news. Because that’s what often happens when an alcoholic parent is doing a geographic. She pulls you in and, before you know it, you, too, believe in the promise of the new place.