- The Descent
Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.-Rumi
The photograph is black and white, and in it my mother is nineteen. Her face is turned up, and she’s smiling, her teeth white and fairly straight, though she’s not one of the Junior League girls. She’s the daughter of a housewife and a pipe fitter who never went beyond the third grade, and she has spent her girlhood living near job sites while her father built power plants throughout the south and Mexico. In the photograph, she’s a freshman at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It’s 1957, and she’s the “Sweetheart of Delta Theta Chi,” which means she’s been voted one of the most beautiful girls on campus, and she is. Her hair is blonde and elegantly styled, the way movie stars wore their hair then, so that your eye is drawn to her long throat and bare clavicles and shoulders. Around her neck is a string of pearls I’m sure are either borrowed or imitation, and just before the photograph’s frame begins, you can see the top of her strapless gown. It appears to be ivory satin, though I could be wrong about that, for this [End Page 71] was so long ago, and I am thirty-six years older than this young woman in the photograph. I have been staring at it for over an hour, because I am drawing my nineteen-year-old mother’s face.
It is ten days before Christmas, and outside my bedroom window snow is falling on my family’s gravel driveway and the hardwoods and pines of our two-acre lot forty miles north of Boston. Downstairs, my wife Fontaine, a dancer and choreographer and the mother of our three children, is playing on our stereo Harry Connick Jr. Christmas carols while she makes peanut butter from scratch for one of my sisters. Throughout the house, our daughter and two sons may be working on their presents too, which cannot be bought in a store but instead have to be homemade for that one person in our larger clan whose name they drew last summer, this tradition of ours going back from before they were born.
We were a family of writers and carpenters and musicians and social workers, and there was never much money in any of our pockets, so this tradition became a way to lessen the financial and spiritual heartaches of that commercial frenzy our culture dives into every December. You only have to give one gift, and you have to make it.
This year I had drawn my mother’s name. She’s in her late seventies and lives nine or ten miles west, and she teaches dozens of three-year-old children at a Montessori school five days a week. She’s also nearly sixty years older than she was in the photograph in this hardcover book open on my lap, and I’m tempted to stop doing what I’m doing and instead do what I do every Christmas, which is to build a wooden box for whoever’s name I’ve drawn. Unlike drawing, it’s something I know how to do, because throughout my twenties and thirties I made most of my living as a self-employed carpenter. I own all kinds of power tools and use our enclosed back porch for a shop. I’ve built jewelry boxes for my nieces, a toolbox for one of my nephews, a toy chest for another niece. For some I’ve used pine, for others a hardwood like birch or maple or even the spotted Brazilian wormwood, which I used just a few years ago to make yet another box for my mother.
But enough of these boxes. Wasn’t there something else I could make? One year I cooked my sister Suzanne a platter of chicken-and-sour-cream [End Page 72] enchiladas. Another year I knitted my aunt Jeannie a wool scarf, though I was not a knitter and it showed. But a few years earlier, my wife—who also paints and studied art in college—brought drawing paper...