January 12, 2009
In Search of Memories: My Mother, 25 Years Later
This essay ran in the long-defunct publication New Men's News in December 1984. It has never appeared online. An earlier Kesher Talk essay on a related topic, "Ranchito Morbido," appears here.
The train raced south through the foggy countryside of France in September 1984. My destination was Châteauroux, where I had been born almost 27 years earlier. Gazing at the fields and windbreaks this September, I wondered how many times I made the two-plus hour trip from Paris held on my mother’s lap.
The visit carried a double emotional wallop. I had never seen my birthplace, an Air Force hospital. Also, it completed a grieving period for my mother. Shirley Elizabeth Lissner Wallach died of bone cancer January 12, 1984, aged 63. That date is the apogee of a line of mourning which began in August 1981 with a dawn phone call from her sister Charlotte telling me the diagnosis.
For 30 months I pondered, cursed, fought, forgot, and sometimes hoped for her death. Disease and treatment ravaged this content, plain-speaking woman. She retreated into a shell of unspoken, unshareable pain I could never pierce. Having made her peace with herself, my mother could not face my anxieties.
Dealing with my rage – at her silence and my seeming inability to please her – began January 13 with one more trip to Tyler, Texas, where my mother had moved in with her widowed sister. After the funeral my brother Cooper, his wife Dianna and I combed through our mother’s room. She left no secrets, just graduation pictures, Mother’s Day cards and my last heartbreakingly cheerful letters. The sense of a missing physical presence overwhelmed me.
For months I felt restless, searching without clues or goals, just wanting to visit the stations of her life. In July, Cooper, Dianna and I returned to Mission, Texas, the old home town where Mom, Cooper and I all grew up and attended Mission High School (sons graduating 40 years after the mother). That didn’t satisfy me. I had to see Châteauroux.
I did that during a month-long European sojourn in September 1984. Once there, I walked down one road, then back, confused. Now what? The staff at the local tourist office couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak French. I indicated with a State Department birth registration form that I wanted to find the Air Force hospital. They shook their heads.
“Le hospital c’est kaput?” I asked, mangling three languages in one sentence.
“Oui, c’est kaput,” a woman said. She did sketch a route to the old “base Americaine” on a map. With this help I strolled through the noontime streets. I clutched every detail, and thought, “So this is it.” Little cars were parked on the sidewalks, and most stores had closed. Parents and children walked hand in hand, and my throat tightened. There, 25 years earlier, went I.
I walked out of town to a highway. Far away was a toy-like air traffic control tower and the former base. I thought, “This is far enough.” I took a picture and turned around.
Nothing dramatic happened. Nobody rushed out and gasped, “Monsieur Wallach, oui?” I bought croissants, and got caught in a rain shower. The ordinary events matched the way my mother lived – steady and dependable.
Returning to Paris, I felt relieved and somehow empty. I had been where my mother lived, gave birth and died. The cycle was complete, allowing me to recall her life as well as her death, colorful details like her devotion to family and friends, cooking and needlepoint. A part of me will always be vacant, but the search cleared away the gnawing I felt inside. There’s no place left to go, except headlong into my own history.
Van | 01/12/09 at 06:40 PM | Categories: Life and how to live it
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Thank you Van for sharing with me this history,that is a part very important of your life, specially emotionally.
You do remember me also some sad and important events of my life.
My mother also died from cancer, when I was 18 years old, and believe me I still miss her a lot because she is one of the most important persone in my life. The second one is my daughter.
I wish to have more proper words to tell you but my knowledge in english is not suficient enough
for expressing my feelings and thoughts.
It seems to me that you are or were very thirsty
about knowing the past, the history for understanding more your life and your mother's life too. Your emptyness really was hard to overcome.
I share with you the same feeling of emptiness, I woud like
some day to visit Polland and see where Mom and Dad lived, but I am afraid everything had changed now.
In my spirit, in my memories and very few pictures, photos, very few, I have both of them,
I think I really dont have to move away or travel, because I have all the history , sad and
happy memories, tears , strong emotions inside me.
We all need to search only inside us, there is the clue ( llave) the only clue for finding a sense in our life.
lilian rogozinski | January 14, 2009 12:48 PM