Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 35-50
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Cynthia J. Hollenbeck
I hate it when I first see it—the wedding gift from my mother, which arrives in May 2001, two months before the ceremony. With my two daughters standing by my side, all smiles, hands clasped, I tear the envelope off the large white box and read the card aloud: "Sorry, can't make the trek to Idaho. No smoking, no flying. Best wishes on the upcoming nuptials. Here's a wedding toast, complete with frame and plenty of shellac. Ready to hang! All the best—Love, Carla."
"Carla's your mommy," says four-year-old Josie. Her ash-blonde bangs hang over her blue eyes.
Jessie, who is eight, asks, "How come your mother doesn't write Mom?"
"She didn't raise me," I say, the only explanation I am able to offer. I imagine that my mother—having left my father, my brother, and me some 30 years before—feels Mom is a title she does not deserve.
Using kitchen shears, I snip the thick tape that seals the box, pry apart the flaps, and lift the gift from a barrage of styrofoam peanuts. It's a collage about the size of a record album: five-dozen images of the Mona Lisa strewn and pasted onto long strips of woven black paper. Mona in a Santa hat beside the word "Ho!" Mona with fried eggs over her eyes, toast in her hands. Mona wearing Groucho Marx glasses. Mona cut into four squares beneath a wash of purple and orange watercolor. Mona waving an American flag. Mona's face on a pillow. Mona, Mona, Mona. In the lower left corner, in my mother's perfect block letter script, her initials, COAB, and the title, "MONA'S TOAST."
I recognize the piece right away. The previous summer when I had visited my mother, the same collage had hung above the doorjamb in her flat in Newport, Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband, Bill, and works as a freelance artist. Before that week-long trip, I had only met my [End Page 35] mother once, briefly, in 1993, in our hometown, Binghamton, New York. But my entire life I had dreamed of spending days, months, years with her—the mysterious woman who'd left when I was six months old.
My daughters study the collage their Oma has made, impressed by the vivid color and careful detail. Each Mona precisely cut and placed, no stray lines or jagged edges. But me, I stand in my foyer scanning the pale walls, eyeing the numerous photographs of my kids, dressed as hippies for Halloween; dolled up in dresses for their first day of school; my fiancé, Eric, and me, heads pressed together in a close-up. And my personal favorite, an Easter photo, Eric wearing a tiny cowboy hat and holding a tiny pistol, the girls and me in petal-edged headbands so that we look like sunflowers.
I peruse the hall, corner to corner, searching for an empty space to hang this art, this gift from my mother—a fragmented image of a woman I can never know.
June 2000. Mid-afternoon. My plane descends onto a narrow airstrip in Providence, Rhode Island, 30-some miles from my mother's Newport home. Outside the window, maple and elm trees sway behind a chain-link fence. Expectant clouds hang in the sky above. And below, somewhere, my mother waits.
We land at our arrival gate and no one is there to greet me. I walk through the airport terminal. Parents meet children. Grandparents hug grandchildren, shove gift-shop teddy bears into small hands. Lovers smile and gaze into each other's eyes, kiss. Toddlers clutch their mothers' hands, stagger toward their fathers dressed in business suits or military uniforms. I stand alone, a smile stamped on my face.
For a while, I clop back and forth in my wood-heeled sandals from the arrival gate to the restroom. The Hasbro plant that manufactures Mr. Potato Head...