The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.
– Adrienne Rich
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, watching the landscape move backward as we sit in the last car, as if erasing my childhood when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you.
Even as she is with me, she is gone.
The train station is the center of the universe, with tracks going and coming in all directions. People stand shivering in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where, as I understand it, all sensible trains end up. To me, the Windy City, as I hear my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It is where I began and where my mother is off to as the three of us – my mother Josephine, my grandmother Frances, and I – stand in a miserable clutch. I am sure they are as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there arms across their chests, hips slung out like bored movie stars competing for the same part. Maybe that’s what they are doing – vying for the part of good mother, or bad mother, depending on how you define things. But to me they are beautiful and thrilling.
But underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. This moment repeats for the third time what has happened before – a mother leaving a daughter, repeating what Gram did to my mother so long ago, and her mother before her. It will be years before I find out the whole story about the three generations of women who will define my life. At this moment, the ticking bomb is set to go off when my mother gets on the train. No one here claims any knowledge of this dire pattern. I can feel it though, deep in a silent place inside me, a place of desperation, the beginning of a crack that will split my life open.
The sun pinks the sky in the west, a place where the eye loves to rest in this open land. Already the lore of its history tickles my curiosity, even though at this moment I am four years old. I hear of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage – neon signs, billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. Right now the picture of an Indian, wearing only a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief hangs on the waiting room wall, wreathed in smoke rising like a mysterious code to the ceiling.
I read the code here, tapping feet in open-toed suede shoes. I stare at my mother’s toes, as if to memorize an intimate part of her, bringing my gaze up her shapely legs, my stomach in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a few months ago from Chicago, where we had lived after my father left. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war, and came back too, but not to us. She cries when she looks at his pictures. Every so often she shows me a small black-and-white photo of a man wearing a captain’s hat and grinning as he leans casually against a brick building. The crease in his pants is knife sharp. With her slim fingers, she almost caresses a photograph of herself against the same wall wearing a big fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing that was for your mother.” Mommy often talks about herself like that, as if she wasn’t in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago, when Mommy would talk on the phone forever in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knitting scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light that shone over her like a halo, and I remember that I’d do anything to get her to scratch my back with her sharp fingernails.
But a few months ago, we left – my first time on the train. The ride was thrilling: the sound of the whistle, huge clouds of gushing steam, great deep rumblings of the engines that sounded like scary monsters but sped us by green fields and blue skies all around, with little towns along the side of the track and people waving, waving as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed that was our seat, pulling down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the little tent that he made for us. My mother had a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked beneath us. Mommy wore her cotton nightgown, and I my pajamas. We cuddled between fresh cotton sheets. The train rocked us back and forth, back and forth in a sweet rhythm that one day I would remember as the best moment we ever had, Mommy and me. On the train, together. The next day, we arrived in Wichita where I met Gram, Mommy’s mother.
She looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead in a gentle gesture and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils you can see in most people’s eyes. She was nice to me and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram – whew – they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d watch, or hide in the hall, while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible to hear; it made my skin itch. I scratched it, making red marks all along my arms. Their cigarette smoke filled the air, choking me. Mommy rushed off to work each morning, and then it was quiet and nice in Gram’s little house, with windows that let in the sun. It made pretty patterns through the Venetian blinds on the hardwood floors. Gram read stories to me, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. She taught me to eat prunes every morning. I began learning how letters make words that make stories come alive – like Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears. I would wait for Mommy to come home. I loved her throaty voice, the way she touched my hair for a moment. I was always slinking around trying to get more hugs out of her, but she was not much for that.
One evening, everything seemed different. Mommy was in a worse mood, Gram edgy. I watched them while I helped set the table. The argument began, Mommy saying she hated Wichita, Gram making a nasty face. They started in, voices higher and higher until it seemed that something broke, not a dish but something inside them. Mommy stomped across the floor and said, “That’s it, I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me, and if she left me now, it would be forever.
I watched Mother stomp back and forth while I traced the patterns in the Oriental rug. You could get lost in those swirls, just like in a forest in the fairy tales. You could get lost and never be found again.
So here we are, waiting for the train. I don’t know how to feel. My mother stands apart from me and from Gram, far enough to show that she is the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I don’t want the train to come, but people move around getting ready for it, the train men pushing luggage carts, kids jumping up and down. I want to tell Mommy to stay, I want to hold onto her, but I can’t. I know it won’t help to try to tell her what I want, or even to cry. The wind blows through me, whirling my dress, my hair. Then the sound of the whistle calls out over us, a cry of pain, of sorrow so deep I can feel tears in the bottom of my stomach. If I hold my breath I can stop them from coming out. The light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. I cheer the light and the train, despite the fact that it will come and take my mother away. The train is beautiful, huge, terrifying, and wonderful. It hurls itself into the station, and everyone gathers around it as if it were a stallion that had won a race. It roars and sweeps its paws at the ground, steam rolling from its nostrils.
It feels as if Mommy and I are wrapped in invisible gauze, wrapped tight so it can’t break; but as she touches me softly with her fingertips, and leans to give Gram a kiss even though they are mad, I can feel the fabric unwrapping, unwinding us until just a thin piece is left as she finds her seat in the lighted car. Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, putting my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent that lingers on my skin.
How I want to be on the train. But Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know that I need to stay with her. It’s funny that she was so mad before, but now I can tell she is sad, though she doesn’t say it in words. I take her hand, and stand with her as we watch my mother get smaller, as the train disappears down the track into a puff of smoke.
The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the tracks that meet at the horizon are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.