- Kate Chopin, My Mother, and Me
My mother smoked before she had us. In a sepia polaroid from the early seventies, she holds a cigarette between two lacquered fingertips. She wears, impossibly, a catsuit, and hair falls over her shoulders in glossy waves as she leans into my father, squeezing his cheeks and grinning. He is in trouble—oh, is he in trouble.
Alone in the house as a teenager, I would rummage under silk scarves and lint brushes to get to this photo at the bottom of my mother’s drawer. It was the sole window into a side of her I didn’t know—the side that lounged on loveseats and took long drags from skinny cigarettes, smoke plunging deep as her neckline.
The mother I knew taught elementary school. She wore Nina Ricci perfume and houndstooth blazers and combs in her hair. She drank orange juice and sprinkled her food with lecithin. She most certainly did not smoke.
Except when she did. One cigarette a day, 365 days a year, for the twenty-four years she was married to my father. One cigarette, slipped under her sleeve before the dog’s evening walk, a secret that smoldered on her fingers and lips as she circled our block in the dark. My father didn’t know. My brother didn’t know. None of us would know until years later—after an even bigger secret burned to the surface, blazing through our lives like a five-alarm fire. [End Page 121]
My freshman year in college, I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for a Feminist Fictions course. There are books that seem to glide into our lives at a particular time as if by design, finishing thoughts just partially formed in our mind. I remember feeling this way as I read The Awakening, rooting at every step for heroine Edna Pontellier, the fin-de-siècle wife and mother who breaks from social convention to explore the creative and sensual parts of her being. Edna rejects her staid marriage and pursues an affair. She moves out of her marital home, with its schedules and servants, and into a small cottage, drawing and dreaming of her lover. Do all good girls edging toward womanhood fall in love with Edna? Maybe so, but in my own private falling, I was thrillingly alone.
Away from home for the first time, free for the first time to consider what rules I wanted to live by, I read the whole novella in one sitting. In Edna’s stirrings, I came face-to-face with my own. During the day, I attended classes, wrote outlines, made the dean’s list. At night, I pressed myself into strangers, cracking through the walls of my body and all that had ever defined me.
Twenty-five years later, I still have my Penguin Classics edition of The Awakening and Selected Stories. It lives on a bookshelf outside my youngest daughter’s room, a bookshelf crammed full floor to ceiling. There are my pedagogy books from graduate school and my Shakespeare plays from teaching; there are my husband Paul’s business school textbooks and Latin American guidebooks and Jonathan Franzen novels; there are What to Expect When You’re Expecting and How to Raise a Jewish Child. It’s an unlikely library, the kind only marriage can create, two readers conjoined on the shelves as one.
As I carried my daughter to bed a few months ago, my eye fell on the Chopin book. I lingered for a moment, her three-year-old legs dangling over my hips, and pulled it from the shelf. Later, the three kids asleep, Paul at his computer, I lay on the couch and opened its yellowing pages. There were notes all over the margins, written in purple pen—the scrawled insights of a girl I’d long ago outgrown. Must listen to own desires, she wrote. Strength in solitude, she wrote.
How strange it was to discover this person was still with me—that she’d been with me, still and patient, all along.
In October, Paul and I will celebrate our fifteenth anniversary. We’ve...