Mutter, Mater, Mother

A Saturday morning, on the corner of Abanao Street. The trickle of blood coming down her inner thighs starts to thicken and gush. She has nothing to stanch the flow. Did she take off her sweater to wipe up, to cover?

Her hands let go of mine. Now they are signaling in the air for a cab, for a jeep, for anything with wheels brave enough to stop and take us away. I bite my lip though I want to cry. There is a ringlet of blood around her ankles.

I wonder why we go home, instead of to a doctor, to a hospital, to the health center. Still bleeding, she pays the driver. In the bathroom, she strips off her clothes and sits on the toilet breathing shallowly through tears, thinking that at some point it must stop.

*

Mother, verb. From the 1540s, “to be the mother of,” from mother. Meaning “to take care of,” from 1863. Mothered; mothering.

Mother, noun. “A thick substance concreting in liquors; the lees or scum concreted,” probably from the Middle Dutch modder “filth, dregs.” Or even mud.

Hyserectomy. Hysteria. A medical procedure to take away most of the female genitalia. The madness thought to originate from having a womb, from being a woman. Some irrational tendency to tears, to agitation, to raging fits. The cramp in the nether regions that doubles you up in bed for days.

*

Eventually someone takes her to the hospital, where she has this surgery. When father comes to collect me for a visit, he says the doctors took out her appendix too, for free. So it would never cause her any problems in the future.

They give it to her to keep if she would like. It swims in a little vial the length of my index finger, with a red rubber stopper. Tiny white filaments extend around it like a ripped shroud.

*

She had debilitating headaches every now and then. When I began to have them too at sixteen, I learned these were migraines. She threw up in the toilet, went to bed in the middle of the day, all the curtains drawn. She moaned for someone to come and pull her hair close to the roots, claiming that was the only way she could get relief. Mine peaked either before or after my periods. I begged to see the doctor for prescriptions.

*

She was told she had a beautiful soprano voice that could be trained and cultivated with music lessons. She could envision herself standing to one side of a piano at the tail end of a party, as the accompanist smoothed down the pages of the folio before nodding to her to begin. She could see herself pushing one foot discreetly in front of the other, clasping her two hands together beneath her diaphragm. Opening her mouth after the first intake of breath. Everyone suspending their dessert forks in the air, silently setting their wineglasses on the table.

*

One of the songs she was trying to learn was Huling Awit— Last Song. A Kundiman. Kung hindi man: If not. If you do not. A lover’s plaint. The sound of a threat cradled in its inner lining. If you do not love me, if you scorn me, I will perish. Will take my life. Will throw myself upon the rocks. Will leave you the lasting gift of regret disguised as ardor. Patroness of sorrow and the unfulfilled. Patroness of excess.

*

When someone brought news of her father’s death, she crumpled to the floor like a yarn doll unraveling, like a dry tobacco leaf dwindling to smoke. She did not cry so much as howl the dirge that women from her province know as the only fitting elegy to the dead. Dung-aw: a keening, a blade that rips the air and the chest and throat as it escapes.

*

Mother, Old English modor or female parent, Old Saxon modar, Old Frisian moder, Old Norse moðir, Danish moder, Dutch moeder, Old High German muoter, German Mutter, Latin mater, Old Irish mathir, Lithuanian mote, Sanskrit matar-, Greek meter.

And I have confessed it since I learned it: she was more than one. She was someone’s double, was the mother that dandled me in the public eye, while her sister nursed me in secret. Not so spectacular. It happens to so many. But back then, I thought I was the only one.

Dura mater, the tough outer membrane surrounding the brain, 1400, from Medieval Latin. Dura mater cerebri, hard mother of the brain. Translated from the Arabic umm al-dimagh as-safiqa, meaning thick mother of the brain.

*

She talks to the ghost of my father in her sleep. She tells him: look at what I have become.

*

She had the habit of tapping on the table with the points of her fingernails while she composed a thought. Or hummed an opinion under her breath. I heard whispers all the time.

During the time we could afford maids, she hovered over them, their commander and quartermaster, watching how they sliced the vegetables, cut the meat, stirred the stew. When she found a hair fallen from one of their heads, she lifted the pot, carried it outside, and threw the whole thing into the trash.

Sometimes humor is the best defense against a grim onslaught. When I think of these things I don’t really know whether to laugh or cry.

*

And sister? Sister-mother? I have a memory of a picture: she is young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, her dark hair braided underneath a black lace veil. There is a church in the background, a baby in her arms. For all they knew, she could be a nanny, someone’s housekeeper, out with the mistress’s child.

Sister-mother, you have gone ahead to your grave. I did not know your fullest nature. I did not have the questions I now have for you.

But neither do I fully know this mother, proud idol, whose knobbed fingers clutch a purse to her side, wrap a cord of keys around her waist, double lock the bolts in the empty house filling and filling with plastic bags and remnants of meals.

*

Where she lives now, sometimes the neighbors hear her come out onto the sloped driveway where there is no family car, only drying laundry. She is so angry she raises her voice above the clothesline.

She used to have a cabinet with glass doors, in which she filed every dress she ever bought or made for a special occasion. Yellow silks and flowered chiffon. Mohair twin sets. Gowns with butterfly sleeves. Snapshot of her slender, graceful neck emerging out of a ruffled collar.

Crone, Anglo-Saxon; French charogne, carroigne; sometimes associated with carrion. Meaning shrill, disagreeable woman. When there is nothing left, there is still the voice that one knew how to use in command, that tilted at the wind, at anything in its way. In place of the song, any song, first or last: the cries of confused birds wheeling in a small closed room.

1 Comment


  1. “I did not have the questions I now have for you.” Oh Luisa. This is so poignant.

    Reply

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