Life

Three Trios: A Daughter’s Reflections on Her Mother’s Life

01 Three trios of wings, fluttering soundlessly in the resplendent hush.
Prior to my arrival here, I sojourned for a few days on the Adriatic Sea, dwelling in a residence along the coastline. Occasional beachgoers adorned the petite expanse of sandy shores. From my terrace, I could discern and perceive their presence. On a particular day, a woman with an unmistakably exuberant laughter seized my attention. Gazing upward, I beheld three elderly women immersing themselves in the sea.

They exposed their bosoms and swam just beyond the shore. They configured a circular arrangement, akin to encircling a round table, partaking in the consumption of coffee. (Take heed of the accent) They hailed from Bosnia, presumably refugees, perhaps once a nurse. How did I discern this? They engaged in nostalgic reflections of bygone school days, recounting an absent classmate who, during the final examination, faltered in distinguishing between anamnesis (medical history) and amnesia (memory loss). This anecdote, along with the term “amnesia,” echoed repeatedly, eliciting laughter on each occasion. The trio convulsed in mirth, gesticulating their arms as if dispersing nonexistent crumbs from an imaginary table.

Abruptly, a deluge ensued. A unique summer squall materialized swiftly but fleetingly. Seaside bathers persisted in their aquatic revelry. On the terrace, I stood witness to sizable raindrops glistening in the downpour, while the laughter of the three women crescendoed in frequency and volume. Amidst their laughter, the word “falling” resonated. This term was iterated multiple times, ostensibly alluding to the celestial precipitation…

02 A matron’s existence resembles a modest swatch of fabric.

I often muse upon my inadequacy in comprehending my mother. To my eyes, her life mirrors a meager textile bestowed upon her by external forces, an artifact she must clutch indefinitely. Devoid of elasticity, incapable of extension or contraction, her existence appears akin to a piece of fabric: laundered, ironed, mended, meticulously folded, and stowed away in the wardrobe.

I ponder why my understanding of her remains wanting and why the fragmentary insights into her life seem inconsequential. She harbors a profound curiosity about me, akin to a landlord or, perhaps, a surreptitious thief, possessing the code to my anguish. My own comprehension of this distress eludes me, its origin nebulous, impeding my ability to surmount its paralyzing grip, rendering each breath a struggle.

My comprehension extends solely to her posture, movements, countenance, and tone, facets of her persona mirrored within myself. Confronting the looking glass, instances unfold, akin to a double-exposure photograph, wherein I discern not my own reflection but hers. I perceive two lines inexorably descending, pausing at a yet faintly perceptible sag.

Frequently, I awaken in the nocturnal hours, besieged by chest constriction, mirroring her affliction. I find myself smacking my lips, mimicking her idiosyncrasy. Secretly, I observe her during her siestas, witnessing the emergence of small beads of perspiration on her upper lip. I ponder whether my countenance betrays a descent into despair during slumber.

Occasionally, I replicate her act of swinging my legs and wiggling my toes, as if crushing an intangible weight. I am seized by sporadic bouts of anxiety, mirroring her helplessness and vulnerability. In such moments, I mimic her strategy of feigned composure, coughing discreetly. Certain terminal sounds in my speech linger, reminiscent of her patient pauses.

Recalling a bygone era, I returned from a rendezvous, the lingering sensation of parting kisses with a young man still pervading my senses. Arriving home, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I inadvertently sealed my affection with an unintentional kiss upon my mother’s lips, as if the recipient were the young man. In hindsight, I speculate on a clandestine recognition—the person I kissed was, in truth, my future self and mirrored image. Complex motivations may have underscored this awkward act.

Whenever her semblance manifests within me, that inadvertent kiss replays in my mind—a prelude to our intertwined destinies, mirrored in her eyes, conveying shared embarrassment.

03 She substitutes immaculateness for opulence.

Those were austere times, commodities procured through rationing. The sole purchasable commodity was homespun fabric. Absolute destitution prevailed… In times of hunger, only modest fare could satiate their cravings…
“What constitutes modest fare?”
“Soup concocted from fennel seeds.”
“Solely soup?”
“There are also cabbage, potatoes, adzuki beans, turnip stew, boiled cabbage, wontons, sugarbread, eggs blended with sugar, and lastly, fare tailored for the young ones…”
“I struggled to eat my fill while carrying you,” she disclosed, gestating me. My father languished in a hospital, spewing blood. Attaining streptomycin proved challenging. Scarcity pervaded every facet of life. She recounted receiving a jar of honey, only to discover a deceased mouse immersed in the sweet substance come morning. Tears welled, whether for herself or the mice. Everyone faced a paucity of provisions, compounded by fiscal constraints. “We were compelled to tighten our belts.”

Daily, she employed lye to cleanse the floors of her rented abode. Lice discovery warranted the inversion of mattresses. She meticulously laundered everyone’s attire, boiling them in scalding water, sunning them, pressing them immaculately. The interiors were methodically wiped until they gleamed, for a pristine environment equated to half of good health. She exchanged opulence for immaculateness. The windows gleamed like crystal, sheets radiated a satin sheen, wooden floors assumed the hue of aged gold, and even a deceased mouse acquired an amber hue from the honey. The sterile ambiance repelled all olfactory intrusions. It was an era devoid of scents.
Certain terms elude my comprehension entirely, including: lye (utilized for cleansing), notes (currency substitute), and bedbugs (a pest of that era).
Some terms linger on the periphery of my understanding, such as: homespun, sugarbread (cake surrogate).
The lexicon my mother wielded during that period encompassed: sewer, gravy, turnip stew, sugarbread, tickets, bedbugs.

04 Invert the orb, and the hamlet shall be blanketed in snow.

During that epoch, the foremost superfluous item within households was a glass orb. Encased within was a diminutive village, set against a sable firmament. Inverting the orb would evoke a cascade of snow upon the miniature settlement. A mystical aura surrounded this orb, compelling me to orbit it, scrutinizing from diverse angles, seeking revelations beyond the descent of snowflakes.
Over time, a plethora of these enchanting orbs were ousted from households, inexplicably deemed kitsch.

I scrutinized the tableau of the diminutive village with intensity. In my perception, it mirrored another world—diminutive and distant. Enthralled by its enchantment, I inverted it. Subsequently, diminutive snowflakes wafted from the ground to the heavens, as minute as soot…

05 We merely perched amidst a petal storm, ensnared in a tempest of blossoms.

Within the abode of my mother’s friend Tina lies a tree, a Japanese apple tree.
“Hurry hither,” beckoned Tomika, Tina’s son, and my contemporary.
Obediently, I trailed behind. We arrived beneath the tree, adorned with dark pink apple blossoms, its canopy obscuring both sky and sun.
“Now, we ascend,” declared Tomika haughtily. Ascending to low branches, we nestled comfortably within the lattice of boughs.
“Did you witness it?” Tomika inquired arrogantly, gesturing to his domain beneath the tree.

Enshrouded in the arboreal paradise, concealed amidst the floral canopy, we sat bathed in the sun’s dappled illumination. Fragrant petals showered upon us, accompanied by the hum of insects. The redolent aroma, intensified as if through a magnifying glass, assailed me. I nearly succumbed to the sweetness, reaching out to grasp a branch, my fingers grazing the coarse bark, resulting in pink scratches. Small droplets of blood emerged, descending silently onto a petal.
“Sip the blood away,” whispered Tomika.
“Why?”
“Else you’ll perish,” he intoned mysteriously.
Compliantly, I imbibed the minute droplets from my fingertips. The taste, sweet and peculiar, sent my heart racing, as though on the brink of uncovering a profound secret. Trembling, amidst the fragrant intoxication, I gazed at the scraped skin, the pink flesh beneath. A sizable black ant traversed the wound, magnifying my sense of diminutiveness.

“Now, let us initiate a snowfall,” proclaimed Tomika, shaking the branches.
Below, upon the luxuriant green grass, a dark pink blizzard commenced. Amidst the swirling petals, I discerned my blood-tinted petal. Thus, we remained—small and solitary, as if ensconced within a glass orb, ensnared in a tempest of petals, Tomika and I, secluded in our own universe.

06 I believe it was henceforth that my mother commenced the process of maturing.

In my youth, she would occasionally erupt into laughter. I would gaze at her in astonishment, a tad apprehensive that such mirth might ensnare her breath. Typically, my father would nonchalantly withdraw, further escalating her merriment. This type of laughter appeared to afford her a transient liberation from the intangible membrane enveloping and constraining her. Upon retrospection, this rapid outburst of uncontrollable laughter represented her fleeting reprieve (through an unfamiliar avenue), akin to a profound inhalation before resuming normalcy.

Following the cessation of her laughter, she would abruptly halt, mirroring the inception of her laughter, dab her eyes, emit a profound and contented sigh, and then emit a few subdued chuckles. It was as though she feared the resurgence of laughter, so she deliberately eased into a constrained smile. Lowering her jaw to ensure complete composure, she would then embrace me and assert: “I’m well, do not fret; the laughter has concluded…”

Not long after my father’s demise, we ventured out with kinsfolk. Clad in mourning attire with a tightly enveloped skirt ill-suited for an outing, she, donned in ebony, embarked on a serene stroll through the woods. Unexpectedly, she drew a deep breath, hoisted her skirt without apparent cause, and sprinted. Fleet and buoyant, she held her skirt aloft akin to a child. Her velocity suggested an imminent breakthrough, as if an additional second or stride would propel her beyond the chrysalis that constrained her. Upon gasping to a halt, she executed an ambiguous gesture with her hands, akin to wiping tears (reminiscent of her post-laughter ritual), and perhaps, extending an apologetic wave.

I surmise it was at that juncture she commenced the inexorable process of aging.

07 She harbors aversion towards all things. Only seclusion within her abode imparts solace.

“I relish dancing. Previously, my father and I frequented soirées, but due to his inability to partake in this joy and his ensuing ennui, we gradually ceased attendance,” she expressed.
“I savor laughter, yet my father is an exceedingly earnest individual, prompting a gradual cessation of my mirth,” she conveyed, sans reproach in her tone.
At a certain juncture, she must have retrospectively observed: her native abode no longer retained its former essence, bereft of her deceased parents and sister, rendering a return untenable. Within the cartography of her heart, Varna succumbed to the encroaching humidity of oblivion, transmuting into an indistinct, damp blemish. She cast her gaze forward: her spouse had departed, progeny had left the nest, friends aged and vanished, leaving only the monthly visitation from the postman. This realization induced a vertiginous, breath-constricting sensation, teetering on the precipice of a fall…

I conjecture that from that moment onward, her inclination to venture beyond the confines of her dwelling waned. Exiting invoked an overwhelming fatigue, a sensation of impending collapse accompanied by palpitations, pallor, and breathlessness. “What plagues you?” I queried. “The fear of falling,” she obstinately maintained. “You shan’t; I am present.” “I can, I am capable of wrestling…”
She recoiled from shops, eateries, promenades, people, clamors, vehicles, canines, juveniles, verdure, squares, and markets. Any stimulus could incite a paroxysm of anxiety within her. She abhorred them all, akin to a tremulous wild creature, finding tranquility solely in the seclusion of her dwelling.
She seemed to develop a penchant for her confinement. Comfort derived solely from donning her familiar slippers, notwithstanding her yearning for a pair of dainty, winged shoes over the years…
Subsequently, she tentatively reacquainted herself with the exterior. Gradually, she resumed shopping and socializing, though her sphere diminished significantly. Her trepidation persisted, veiled yet unvanquished.
Dread enveloped her psyche—fear of the unknown, people, affliction, demise, open spaces, confined spaces, ominous tidings, journeys, unfamiliar environs, conceivable mishaps, conflict, famine, thoroughfares, unsociable individuals, flight, phone conversations…
She instituted habits to curb these anxieties, yet her repertoire comprised solely of two rituals: Sunday dinners with her progeny and regular pilgrimages to her husband’s sepulcher. Assertively, she impelled my brother and me to partake in these routines. Occasionally, she wielded her newfound resolve for trifles: insistence on a specific stopper, a particular stove component, adherence to a specific light bulb style, and rivets of a prescribed variety…
While her blood glucose elevated marginally, she perceived it as alarmingly high, obsessively tending to it as if nurturing a child. Occasional indiscretions prompted confessions: “Yesterday, I indulged in chocolate!” Light reassurances were met with palpable disappointment.

Revisiting erstwhile literary pursuits ensued. Embroidery and knitting were forsaken. Broken articles remained unrepaired. Winter approached, yet provisions were not amassed (“Why bother? My blood sugar is alarmingly elevated!”). Animals, be they canines, felines, or avians, held no appeal (“What purpose do they serve on an extended journey?,” she queried, despite seldom venturing far). Hobbies remained absent, visits to her husband’s residence were declined (“He is deceased; what would I achieve?”), and travel was outright rejected (“Until my demise, I shall not venture forth alone!”). She solely found solace in two confidantes—Anjika, who reminisced about the past, and Miljana, who assuaged her sorrows.
Her pursuits manifested a pattern of inadequacy. Solely the African violets flourishing on the windowsill exhibited a propensity to burgeon into resplendent shades of pink and alabaster under her care.

Upon learning of her complete debilitation, the profound extent of her solitude dawned upon me. Each visitation from kith and kin was treated as a personal celebration. The exchange of flowers and conversation appeared to momentarily erase the confines of her surroundings. Following an extended period of isolation, she ceased being lonely, captivating genuine interest from all quarters, from physicians to well-wishers…

08 Snowflakes disseminated from every terminus, descending into her chamber.

I activated the answering machine and perused the messages. A solitary message lingered. “Oh, Bubby… your whereabouts remain elusive. You’re perennially absent…” In the obscurity, the answering machine hummed, then abruptly, decisively, clicked, followed by an extended beep. ——, and tranquility ensued.
Enshrouded in silence, I reclined in the armchair, the lemony glow of the bedside lamp dripping down. Seizing the receiver, I cradled it between shoulder and cheek, caressing my countenance with the frigid plastic. Perhaps I ought to call her, converse ere she succumbs to slumber, regaling her with inane banter and bemoaning my own hypotension. “My blood pressure is exceptionally low today!” she would exclaim. She would inquire about my visit to the doctor, and I would furnish her with intricate details. Queries about her grocery shopping would follow, and I would recount my solo expedition, deeming everything exorbitantly priced and terrifying. She would concur, exclaiming, “How dreadfully expensive!” Subsequent topics would involve her culinary plans and the physician’s assessment of her blood sugar, slightly elevated, she would divulge. Expressing mock astonishment, I would query further, and she, feigning ignorance, would respond, “I truly do not know.” Comforting words and a wish of good night would conclude our discourse.

Yet, I refrained from dialing her number and instead resorted to calling for the time. “Eleven fifty-five, three seconds,” echoed the voice on the line. Sitting in silence, I pressed the receiver against my visage, swabbing my cheek with the chilled plastic. “Eleven fifty-five, five seconds,” the time chime resonated without variation.
As if poised to utter something, I opened my mouth, forming a circular motion with my lips, preparing for a resonant utterance. “Eleven fifty-five minutes and seven seconds,” intoned the voice, prompting me to murmur silently, “Alright, I’m here, I’m… Boobie…” The mellifluous voice wafted into the air like a diminutive balloon. “Eleven fifty-five minutes and ten seconds,” the voice continued, and the petite balloon hovered, lingering in the air. Time emanated indifferently from the receiver, imparting a coolness to my warm brow…

In my imagination, she reclined in bed, engrossed in a book. Sensitive eyes led her to gingerly remove her spectacles, shut the book, and rest the glasses upon its cover. Rising, she perched on the bed’s edge, swung her legs, and, with her toes, engaged in a tactile exploration of the nocturnal obscurity. Scrutinizing her swollen hands, she reached beneath the bedside lamp, meticulously inspecting them. Retrieving the remote control, she powered on the television, cycling through channels awash with snowflakes. Snowflakes cascaded from every stage, precipitating into her sanctuary. Powering off the TV, she ambled languidly into the bathroom. Perched on the toilet, she dangled her toes, rendering an auditory account of her actions in the darkness. Progressing from the bathroom to the kitchen, she maintained subdued lighting. Gazing into the refrigerator, she surveyed its contents as if questing for something. A lone box of yogurt, a container of milk, and a modest piece of cheese adorned the white grid—resembling a repast tailored for a mouse. She sealed the refrigerator, abstaining from selecting anything.

Wandering to the window, she reached for the fuzzy leaves of the African violet in the dimness. Leaning against the windowsill, she indulged in a cigarette, fixated on the nocturnal expanse. Below her, sizable verdant leaves quivered and rustled. In the moonlight, they assumed the semblance of silvery plates. In a year or two, these lustrous disks would ascend to the height of her window. Towering foliage burgeoned swiftly…

The palpitations of her heart resonated in the stillness of the night. Thump, thump, thump… A sudden surge of emotion gripped her, akin to a disoriented mouse within her being, knocking on the walls of her heart in trepidation. Caressing the velvety leaves of the violet, she pacified her heart.

In an adjacent building, sporadic luminosity emanated from pale lights. Before one window, an immobile figure smoked a cigarette. Adjacent, another woman leaned on the windowsill, also indulging in a cigarette. She scrutinized the woman, as if beholding her own reflection. Three cigarette butts, three luminous dots, flickered in the night, and the dense leaves absorbed the remnants. A fleeting desire to wave crossed her mind, yet she relinquished the notion, bestowing a subtle smile under the veil of night. In her imagination, she executed this action, delicately transmitting a small signal with her fingers. She envisioned the two smokers reciprocating with a similar signal.

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