In Which We Think Back To The Last Time We Saw Her

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by JOSIANE CURTIS

I moved to Portland in the midst of the April showers that, I was warned, are known to last clear into July. I knew one person of the city’s 600,000, a childhood friend who introduced me to the Pacific Northwest when she moved after college. I visited twice before making the decision to follow. On my second visit, I remarked about how odd it was that strangers smiled and said “hello” when they passed each other on the street; that was the near-extent of my knowledge about the city. I knew that a river divides east and west, with bridges balanced across it like art installations. In certain neighborhoods, the smell of fresh-baked bread fills the air, often without an obvious source or explanation, the scent hovering everywhere you walk like a balloon tied around your wrist.

In my early days, I wandered the Northwest quadrant and admired the brick walls that read “FURNITURE” or “GLASSWARE” or “CURED HAMS,” in coats of paint now a century or more old. I fell in love with the layers of life in loft apartments and coffee shops that had once been warehouses and rolling mills. Rust and minerals appeared like flecks of salt and pepper in the once-blonde buildings. If cities are people then my Portland is Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, a headstrong woman aging gracefully. I marveled at the city’s visible history, and how foreign it all was to me.

Portland’s notorious rain didn’t bother me, that first season or any that have come after. In fact, I remember exploring those early months, confused at how the pavement was always wet but it rarely seemed to actually be raining. I didn’t drive a car and didn’t buy an umbrella. The first time I was caught in an unexpected downpour, I arrived home out of breath, less from running there than from a fit of laughter sparked by an elderly man who, also soaked to the bone, had smiled at me conspiratorially and jumped into a puddle. The strangers you pass in a Portland downpour will meet your eyes and smirk, as if sharing a secret no one in their cars or sitting warm at home knows: this is holy water! Portland rain is the fountain of youth! People go to outdoor concerts and farmers markets in stormy weather; no one melts. There is a too-obvious metaphor here about rain and the washing clean of the past, and it was not lost on me that first spring up north.

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My mother grew up in Santa Rosa, a town about a half hour from where I was raised. The details of her childhood are mostly a blur to me, but I know it was bad enough that the moment she turned 18, she took the first one-way ticket she could find out of town. This ticket came in the form of a wedding and a soon-to-become abusive husband. They took off in his Chevy Nomad and drove as far east as possible. Shortly after, she divorced him, became a model, and moved into a “flat” with her photographer boyfriend, “Chigger.”

We tend to grow up believing that our parents’ lives began when ours did. I learned early enough, though, that my mom’s life did not start because I came into it. Like a cat, she had fallen into one after another, landing effortlessly on her feet with each transition.

In rapid succession she morphed from model to rock band groupie, to hippie flower-child, to rootless traveler, moving back and forth from coast to coast and everywhere in between. Eventually, she got her high school diploma, and then entered an academic phase, working toward a PhD in language studies. She met my father in her academic phase. The my-father phase lasted about five years, toward the end of which she transitioned into the person I know: my mother.

My great-grandparents owned a plot of wild, naked land not far from Santa Rosa, where the sky at night is clear and cloudless, where the stars shine brighter than anywhere I’ve ever been. In that valley, even the darkest dark night glows. Shortly after I was born, they announced that they would be selling the property, and rather than see it sold off, my mom and her brother pooled their finances and bought it. My mother once again drove coast to coast, this time east to west, this time with a toddler and a nearly-newborn baby to keep her company. I didn’t know a father was a thing until many years later.

When I was fifteen, dating my first boyfriend and feeling the beginnings of what I thought might be love, I asked my mom why she’d left him. We were sitting in the living room, which looked out through two French doors to the back porch, and beyond that, the mountainside. “In all my life, when everything else around me came and went or fell apart, the view from this spot was the only thing that hadn’t changed since I was a little girl. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing that.” At the time, I couldn’t understand how a piece of property could be more important than a person. I hadn’t yet learned how lucky I was to have something in my life that stable, an idea of a childhood home that never faltered, was never threatened. I had not yet learned how easily people change.

When I was sixteen, my brother went to college and mom and I were left alone. We broke bad fast; a volatile combination of puberty and menopause. For three years we lived like lionesses, either at each other’s throats or silently stalking around the house, avoiding interaction. I became nocturnal. I would check for her bedroom light on my way up the driveway late at night, and if it was still on, I would sometimes park halfway down the gravel road and wait for it to go black.

I wanted to blame her. For what? Anything. Everything. My father’s absence. Who I’d become: unaffectionate, cold, guarded. For my growing inability to distinguish between two things that should be opposite; love and loneliness, for example.

After high school, when I began to understand that my mother was depressed, and deeply so, I shifted blame to my father, for anything, everything. Just before moving to Portland, he was in San Francisco for a conference and I met him for coffee, seeing his face for maybe the fifth time since babyhood. At the time, my mother was sick and I was brave. I wanted to hate him. I wanted to make him defend himself.

What I took away from that visit is this: my mother wanted my father to follow her, and he wanted her to stay. But she didn’t ask him to follow, and he didn’t ask her to stay, and they both remained hurt over it for a long time. Maybe forever, the ghosts of that past life lingering throughout every life that came after. Her children are sometimes comforting, and sometimes a painful reminder of that man. When I wanted to be cruel, I knew how his last name or the eyebrows I inherited from him, held hard and fast like a dare, could cut her to the bone.

If I have learned anything valuable about relationships from the lack of my parents’, it is to avoid the lasting pain of this pitfall at all costs. It is that you can’t be mad at another person for not giving you something you never asked for.

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When I was looking at colleges, my mom and I traveled to the east coast. We visited Boston, where she took me to the Harvard stacks and told me about sneaking in to read Dickens and law books, long before she went back to school. In New York, we got lattes at a café on the street where she’d gone on her first date with my father. The bar they’d gone to was no longer there, but I could feel her remembering it hard enough that it might as well have been. It was summer and her memories stuck to the inside of my windpipe like humidity; these places were supposed to be new to me, but everywhere we went was already a piece of my history. Her nostalgia made me claustrophobic.

After college, I moved to San Francisco. When my mother visited, I tried to show her around my neighborhood but every street corner was already special. I would start a story and she’d finish it. I know these stories were an opportunity, an attempt she was making to bond, but it took the excitement out of the place for me. Everywhere I went seemed to have been my mother’s home before she was my mother. I felt unoriginal, but also guilty. I felt like I was perpetually taking things that had once belonged to her: the plain wedding band I wear on my right index finger, her grey cowl-neck sweater, city after city, youth.

People often leave a place to escape their own memories, sick of standing on first kiss street corners or having breakup flashbacks on the bus route by an ex-boyfriend’s house. This was part of leaving California for me, but the appeal of Portland specifically was that I had no past there, even, especially, before my own. My mother had never been. The first time she visited, I walked her through the Rose Garden and Arboretum, took her to my favorite breakfast spot, found a Thai restaurant for dinner where neither of us had ever eaten. All weekend she nodded and smiled. She asked questions she didn’t already have answers for.

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Months after my grandmother died, my mom was shipped a box of old browning photographs, a sewing machine, and a recipe for that too-dense, too-rich chocolate cake Grammere had made every Christmas. My mom hated chocolate and had hated that cake. She emitted a sort of scoffing laugh when she found the recipe, and then her shoulder-shaking turned to crumbling as she pored and cried over the pictures, called in sick to work, had someone pick my brother and I up for school, didn’t leave the house for weeks.

A big black folder lived under the bed in the study with some of the prints from when she was modeling. In it, there were dozens of proof sheets and a few almost life-size black and white headshots, her skin grey and smooth and elegant. After Grammere died, I stole one of the photos.  My mom is in a garden and, even caught in the middle of a head-thrown-back laugh, there is a sadness in her face that I’ve sometimes been told is in mine as well.

Years later, I was helping my brother move and I found another of the photos, pressed between the pages of an atlas like a delicate flower. My mother is in an empty room, sitting on a wooden chair and looking at the camera, not smiling but seemingly content, like she is remembering something happy. I didn’t bring it up but wondered when he’d taken it. I wonder when he decided he didn’t want someone else to choose which pictures he would get one day, which to send through the mail in a repurposed shoebox.

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In Portland, I became friends with a woman who I consider to be one of my platonic soul mates. To say that Sondra always seems to know the right thing to say wouldn’t do her justice. She doesn’t “just know” the right thing to say, as if to imply that it comes easily, but she works hard to get to it. She listens, and reads people, and knows how to balance being honest and kind.

When we had known each other a few months, Sondra and I got together for a craft night. The holidays were approaching and she’d read about a way to weave magazine pages into bowls that could be given as Christmas presents. I came with a notebook, planning to write.

“Would you read me something?” Sondra asked as we settled onto the living room floor. I couldn’t remember the last person I’d read out loud to, the last time I’d even read out loud, but I said yes. I flipped through the notebook, found an old favorite, and then before I knew it I had read three pieces, five, nine. Somewhere in the middle, tears started streaming down my face.

In the silence after I finished, Sondra rose from the floor, hugged her shoulders around mine and whispered one simple sentence, five magnificent words into my ear before going to the kitchen to start dinner.

“You are not your mother.”

I didn’t even realize the piece I’d read had been about my mother, didn’t really even know when I had started crying or why, but there it was. It’s what I’d been running from. It’s why I had come to Portland – to find that out, or prove it to myself, or both.

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If Portland is a woman, she is like my mom. She goes to a grey resting place between seasons, a melancholy in her face even in the middle of a head-thrown back laugh. She smiles not that often, but when she does, it’s like August; it lights up the room. When she smiles, you forget everything that’s come before that moment and fall in love with her, and you forgive her, over and over again.

One Thanksgiving, my mom let me borrow one of her favorite sweaters, an oversized cowl-neck the color of six a.m. in September. I kept it long after the holiday, brought it with me when I moved to Portland. When she visited, she asked about it, having seen me wearing it in a photo a few weeks before. In true Capricorn passive aggressive fashion, I didn’t admit to having it, but snuck it back into her suitcase the night before she left.

The last time I saw her I was walking away from a Portland MAX station, where she was waiting for the train to the airport. My mother pulled the grey sweater she’d found in her bag that morning over her head, and disappeared into the sky. It started to rain.

Josiane Curtis is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Portland. She last wrote in these pages about leaving San Francisco. You can find her twitter here. You can find her website here.

Paintings by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson.

“Leviathan” – Josh Garrels (mp3)

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