My mother was evening in Paris; a gold compact with a shattered mirror; the soft face of the moon. She wore faux pearl jewelry in colors that no oyster created. An ex-chorus girl who danced in the living room, singing, “Down among the sheltering palms” in her best onstage voice, as if the palm trees could shelter her from the painful reality of her life.
My mother was a brocade dress hung in a closet cluttered with secondhand depression. Her makeup was a bit stagey for a Flatbush Avenue tenement—a harlequin held prisoner on the fourth floor of my childhood. She was a porcelain demon that never slept. A night watchman in a pink nightgown, moving through our apartment like a spirit. Goddess steeped in madness, obsessively checking the door to make sure it was locked, carefully stepping over the loose floorboards, protecting me from an imaginary intruder.
My mother was a predatory bird with raisin-colored eyes and white-gloved wings flying from welfare office to Kings County clinic to become a number in a system, where poverty sits on hard-backed benches waiting and waiting to be called. She was the oilcloth that protected our kitchen table from hunger. A champion of “on the cuff” credit that provided food for us when nothing but mustard was left standing in the icebox and the evaporated milk had evaporated.
My mother was a liar who would say anything to get what we needed. Made up deceptions that she came to believe were true, as long as the end result was achieved. An urban farmer who milked the system, Catholic Charities, St. Vincent, everything to keep me healthy and safe. She was a brave warrior who stood up to my alcoholic father while fear ate away her life, her dark glasses hiding the defeat that showed in her eyes.
When she died, I found her glasses in the nightstand. She saved every pair, like a concrete diary revealing a past too dark to be hinted at. Her harlequin frames—more evocative than words written in a journal—a visual journey seen through her eyes, filled with a history we shared together.