She throws an envelope onto the kitchen table, vaguely in my direction. She has written my name on it, and underlined it twice. I know what’s in it: it’s my birthday and inside it there will be, as always, a check. I am only ten-years-old, and I do not exactly know what to do with money, and I wish my mother had bought me a present, like other people’s mothers. But the only time I expressed that wish she answered, sharply, harshly, “Who the hell could figure out what you want?” So I’m not getting a present like other kids, and it is—somehow—my fault.
This is the scene that comes into my mind when I was asked about a favorite gift from my mother. My first response was, “My mother never gave me any gifts.” These words were followed by a generous helping of self-pity: that sickish sweet, oily syrup that somehow encourages the tongue and the palate to demand more and more. I try to stay away from its allure, and so, when I feel it coming on (particularly when its source is my mother), I seek alternatives. I begin by going the route of Marx or Freud: my mother was working class, the child of immigrants, her young womanhood was lived out against the backdrop of the Depression. Or: her childhood was difficult; she was the oldest of nine children of a harsh mother, she was stricken with polio at the age of three, an affliction which made it impossible that she would love her body. She was a single working mother, a widow, living with her grief-stricken child, her demanding mother, her jealous sister: she of the gimlet eye and viper tongue. And so, finally, I push both Marx and Freud into the background and settle on a simpler explanation: She was worn out. She was tired.
One of my mother’s most treasured ways of identifying herself was to let everyone know that she wasn’t like other women. She spoke of everything connected to the traditionally feminine with a lacerating contempt. The decoration of houses, the preparation of food—even the discussion of food—hair, makeup, clothing—all these were the property of a category she referred to as “lightweights.” I have come to understand that this was a complicated defense against what life didn’t give her, what she couldn’t have. Her polio meant that her body would never be acceptable by conventional standards. It was probably easier for her not to look at it too closely; buying clothes would have required this kind of self-scrutiny, a scrutiny that was, for her, a very bad bet indeed. Better to say she was above all that, beyond all that. To relegate that to the “lightweights.” As she relegated cooking and interior decoration because she never had the kind of marriage (my father earned no money; his contribution to our financial life was to get us into debt) that would allow the kind of leisure that attention to cooking and decoration might require. So she relegated the domestic realm to lightweights as well.
What was the opposite of a lightweight? It wasn’t a heavy weight. It did not mean a person who was earnest or even serious. These people were rejected out of hand as “sad sacks” or “pains in the ass.” Humor was the coin of the realm. Its products were her treasured capital. Jokes were important, jokes were essential; a satiric commentary on the follies of one’s fellow humans was a pearl of great price. Some things, though, were of critical importance. Anything having to do with the success and superiority of the Roman Catholic Church was always welcome. Anything pointing out the inferiority of the Republican Party was just fine. But jokes, religion and politics –where could you buy them? How could you wrap them? What color would be preferable? Did you want them large or small? All the things my mother prized, being incorporeal, did not make themselves available as gifts.
You may wonder why my mother didn’t buy me books. The answer was simple: she didn’t trust her taste. My father was the reader and writer in the family, and she realized when I was very young (my father taught me to read at three) that books were his province, his and mine. We were the superior inhabitants of a superior realm, a territory she wouldn’t have dreamed of trespassing upon. When he died, when I was seven, she left the selection of my reading material to two of her closest friends, both of whom had been to college. She had only finished high school, and though she knew herself to be intelligent, she was fastidious at granting intellectual pride of place to those with what she considered superior credentials.
And so, I have come to understand why she never got me presents, and this failure was the objective correlative of her inability to give me any useful guidance on a good way of being a woman. This too, has been a cause for generous lashings of self-pity when I drink the hemlock of deprivation and regret for what I have not had, or what I had to earn or win myself, through luck or labor.
I thought no more about the question of my mother and her gifts, or lack of them. And one day—it was a sparkling late afternoon in the middle of May–I was in a cab driving down the West Side Highway. The sun glimmered on the river; coin-sized patches of light danced along the Hudson’s silver skin. My eye fell on a rather unprepossessing boat; I heard it’s cheerful, workmanlike tooting. I saw the sign spelt out in white along its sides. CIRCLE LINE, it said.
Immediately, I am back more than fifty years. It is a spring day, but an earlier one: the beginning of April. Easter vacation. My mother has taken a day off. “We’re going on a little adventure,” she tells me. She has booked tickets for Circle Line: the boat that takes people around Manhattan Island.
I remember, driving next to her in our two toned blue Nash-Rambler, a high sense of rightness, but a rightness whose exaltation nevertheless felt entirely secure and safe. My mother was driving me on “an adventure.” She had taken a day off. We were going to the city. Not only to the city: we were going on a boat. No one we knew had ever done this. It was something people talked about doing, but never did. And we were doing it!
I don’t remember how long the voyage took. I remember sitting next to her and eating ham sandwiches we’d brought from home. I remember bringing her a coffee from the bar inside the boat; I selected, for myself, a lemonade. The air smelt wonderfully of salt and the larger world. “There’s the Statue of Liberty,” my mother said. We picked out the Empire State Building. Neither of which we’d ever actually visited, or, being New Yorkers, were likely to do. I was so proud of her, and of myself as her daughter. She had taken a day off! She had had this wonderful idea! She had made everything possible. Everything that no one else could have done.
It occurred to me that day, fifty years later on the West Side Highway, that this was a very great gift indeed. Better than a Ginny Doll or an angora sweater or a poodle skirt or a heart- shaped locket or a gold bracelet or my first pair of high heels. She was giving me the gift of the larger world. And the belief that it was something that could be reached. If you just thought of it, and figured out how to make it happen. This was the reward for not being like other women. This was our reward for not being like other mothers and daughters. An adventure on the water. The sight of the glittering city. The possibility of the greater world.
“The Circle Line” is from What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, just out from Algonquin.
Mary Gordon is the author of seven novels, including Final Payments, Spending, and, most recently, The Love of My Youth; of two memoirs; of The Stories of Mary Gordon, winner of the Story Prize; of Reading Jesus; and a biography of Joan of Arc. She is the recipient of a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches at Barnard College.