I would like to tell the story of my parents and me, which happens to be a love story:
I remember once finding my mother’s eyelash pressed between the pages of a book. I do not know what book or what page, but I know, from its curve, that it was my mother’s eyelash. I found it pressed, as a leaf would be, into the valley of a book spine. Then, just as I had balanced the lash on my fingertip, it blew away.
The richest parts of my childhood are slipping between the folds of my memory. It happens quickly—memories of four fall away, as a piano note dies, then five, six. I want to remember my early years—a time when I didn’t quite know what would become of anything. Those days are like the shards of a broken bottle—I watch as my parents collect the pieces in a paper bag.
My mom has the voice of a hollow chestnut and wisps for fingers, like the smoke that lingers from a put-out candle.
If I draw deep from the memory of my mother, until my breath gives out, I arrive at a hiccup in her womb. And also a snip, the sound of scissors on my umbilical cord. At that moment I broke from her, and my world rested on the tip of a pin and a hiccup.
Steam pours out sometimes from manholes beneath the streets of New York—billowing, like the folds in my mom’s purse I held as I stepped between cracks in the sidewalk. We would reach a light, and my mother would squeeze my hand. I recall a pressure and a pulse in that grip.
And, by the park, I can see the yellow of a street lamp, pierced by the black needle of her silhouette. I recall the tick of her shoes on the cement, like billiard balls breaking in the night. In that moment, the world was a black box and the moon a pinhole, and I clung to my mother’s leg, her scent, her hair.
I do not know when it was that I discovered my mother had a prosthetic leg. It’s not something I think to tell people about her. I often forget until, in an instant, “could you grab my beach leg?” becomes a long hand reaching into a deep well, and it dawns on me. When I was a young boy, she waited for me to ask her about her leg, but I never did—for in my early years she could only be my mom, and, therefore, she was perfect. Kit and I are the only people in the world who see my mother in this way. I remember a time when my mother had her leg off by the beach, and watching my father pick her up (she was small in his arms), and they waded into the ocean. She was, then, the same as I was in my father’s arms when he carried me to bed in half-sleep. When I let myself be heavy.
I grew up under the desk in my mom’s classroom and the wingbeat in the whistle-thump of her voice. She taught me to read and spell and sing. My mother showed me the ocean and watched, in her sundress, the waves which chained me to the sand. I swam till my nose ran with salt and my face peeled.
She tells me that she feels my pain on her body. When she looks at my face and sees a spot, she itches at the same place, in parallel—it is as if there were once a cord that ran between us.
My father has the eyes of a seed. Within his iris, there’s a white tongue that sprouts and licks with wonder. He is the most curious man I know, curious as the brook and the eddy. Curious as the fish is towards his fly.
If I let myself be drawn back to the Catskills, I can recall the artist’s conk, white with dew, and my dad’s hand working the mushroom. And in the air the scent of the stove, suspended in cream light.
In April, when Kit turns her years, the tulips would rot on Park. Broken-words, the high-hat of the burner click, Oscar Peterson, the thick air of the kitchen. I can picture the sweat pooling in my father’s nape, the arch of his clean-shaven jaw. The charcoal nude that hangs in the hall, drawn by his hand. My father plays God in the kitchen. I can smell the sweet-tang of asparagus, the tofu, and his fingers kneading pasta. I hear his voice over the music, asking if I would climb up on the counter to grab a bowl. And I can taste the waves of beans and roasted tomatoes, the butter of the smashed potatoes, hollandaise. And there’s a glimpse, too, of the anvil of my tiny, impatient hand bearing down on the porcelain, spilling glasses—making a mess.
In the wash of twilight during the summer months, I recall leaves painted black against the clementine, an instant when the world loses its depth. Then the starlings would murmur, beating like a blue-black heart in the sky, and my dad would sit outside under the cicadas, near the fire he had lit.
My dad is my nurse. When I fell on my bike and kept my hands on the bar so my elbow turned to a blood-wine pulp, he poured antiseptic on the hollow. A hollow so deep we could see the white of the bone. My father deloused my hair. And he cleaned the scabs on my face when I fell from the scaffolding, my bare chest when I slid over pine cones. He iced the half-space in my gum from a cracked tooth. And when I threw up, he rubbed my back with the lobes of his palm.
As the waters warmed and the branches bled green in spring, my father and I would venture out to the streams of Connecticut. In those days, he showed me fishing—rainbow scales, shadows and the riverbed, debarbing a fly, the knot, teeth on the tippet, the arch of a cast. We would wade deep into the calm, and I would watch as the line caught the sun and etched gold against the sky.
I was jealous, and I bit. I talked back and cursed my parents. I still do. Sometimes they are also harsh and stubborn. But I didn’t know then, or now, all my parents would do for me—the deep warmth in the net of their arms. They showed me the art, the music, the passion, politics, and laughter that have become the anthology of my life. And when I come round the corner, in another panic or sick again—they drop their pen, always, to squeeze my hand and run fingers through my hair.
I’ll try once more to say what I mean, before the memory slips away.
In Quogue once, behind the hydrangeas, an albino deer came to our field—as still in that summer meadow as your eyes. Perhaps it was a doe. She holds some secret I wish to whisper in your ear—a silent glance that says I love you.