The Science of Trees
By Abigail George
The photograph is of my mother. In it she looks like someone else. Perhaps someone else’s mother. Our relationship is fraught with difficulties. I’m a fat cutout or rather the curator of fat cutouts. Dark water inside of my head. I can hear her voice. She is calling me. Yes, I am coming. She’s my sun. A slow word. An open and shut release. She’s a mountain covered with light-green foliage. Her hair is cut in the style younger women wore in those days. The expression on her face is carefree. She is not burdened yet with a brilliant, manic depressive husband, and three spoiled but talented children. She is the storage space where I keep all my childhood treasure. I search for the city language of chronic illness. Find it there, the miracle, staring back at me on the page. My mother is beautiful even though she is the origin of winter to me. She’s taste, and smell. Sight, and sound. My mother is elegant. I feel when I look at that picture, holding the photograph in my hands that I can have a coffee with the girl that my mother is. Perhaps we can even go for lunch. Share a slice of decadent, mouthwatering cheesecake. That’s what girls do. They go out together, and talk, and talk. She will tell me how she met my gentle, and wise father. She will tell me their love story in so many words. She has all that slicked back magical wavy magazine hair. I only exist because of her. She carried me in her womb for nine months. The pregnancy was difficult. I was delivered by Caesarian section. Late at night while the house is asleep I write. I write to reach all of her. I write in code. She’s warm like a good, hot breakfast of French toast, and oats with cinnamon milk. Syrup and bacon. Eggs and toast. Muesli bird food. I remembered when her belly was gravid with my sister. Then with my brother. Perhaps I can even remember when she stopped laughing. The cold shore of her love ruined me for life. I’ve become a dangerous woman. Dangerous to love. I had position once, that giddy moment but now I’m marked in some explainable way that everyone who has eyes can see when they look at me they know that something is wrong with me. Outside my bedroom window. There’s the high school I went to but never graduated from down the road from where I live. The high school where I was bullied. Teased mercilessly for being too smart, too thin, for being invisible as long division, and dust. There’s the hospital I was born in down Stanford Road. The flat where my parents first lived, played house, settled down to raise a family, have that sunny road, have those kids. The flat opposite the library with the Encyclopedia Britannica that is still there locked in a time machine.
My mother is warm, and sweet but only with people who belong to the same tribe she belongs to. Girls and women.
The smell of clean cut grass is in the air. The scent of my mother’s rinsed hair. Salt and light on the open sandy path at the beach as we make our way to the sea. Curled in the foetal position on the bed listening to music played loud to drown out the other members of the family making their way, marching their way through the order of life in the other rooms of the house. Inside my head are waves. Vibrations of energy. Something snaps. Does it have a sound? A round shape like the shape of this blue planet called Earth? Is it circular like the moon calling the tides down an inquisition through a loophole? Is it the circle of the sun that is causing me this hot, dense, heavy abdominal pain? Knots of butterflies in my stomach. Playful moths in the pit of my stomach. The flame that flickers. Shadows of fingers. The sunlight is considered thin. In the afternoon it hovers against the wall, the comfortable sofa in the family room, after a rain showers flecks. The woman in the photograph is my mother. She is wearing a beautiful dress. She looks very elegant. She is smiling or laughing? I do not know this woman. She is a ‘fiance’. She has found herself a husband. She is not tired of life yet. She isn’t not cold towards her daughters. Not yet, anyway. She’s going to be Eve. Made from Adam’s rib. The world makes me go cool inside. In this photograph she does not have any flaws yet. They haven’t collected her from the hospital with me yet. I wonder if the woman in the photograph knew how to love. I knew she knew about loss. Her brother. The accident. She is not wearing her glasses in the picture. She looks lovely. She is too thin. Has she not been eating because of the stress of planning the wedding? She does not look like Joyce Carol Oates. My mother looks like she is a model in a catalogue. Damn! I, on the other hand, look like Joyce Carol Oates, I think to myself. I think to myself all female writers should look like someone they admire terribly. Alice Munro. Joan Didion. Anita Brookner. Marilyn Monroe, the poetess, and not the actress. Jean Rhys. Harper Lee. I know these things instinctively. It’s my brother’s birthday next month. It’s that time of year again. Easter. ‘Pickled’ fish pickled with onion and lashings of turmeric. White fish flaked with raised forks every year. Buttered toasted hot cross buns with raisins for eyes. Chocolate hollow eggs. Rabbits everywhere the eye can see in the mall. Down the shopping aisle.
The writer Anne Lamott taught me style. Technique. Jean Le Roux, a distant relative, taught me that you must marry for love. That to be addicted to silences is the most feminine of journeys. The writer Anne Lamott taught me that if I follow her writing instructions as if I was following an ingredient list for a recipe will it only be then that I can call myself a writer in the rod of the mist. This sublimity. This cool sumptuous balancing act of vowels and consonants in ink. The proof of language translated onto the page. Her books with their magnificent, stooping tumult. Then I think about Susan Sontag’s cancer. Nothing seems to matter to me now in this world. Only chronic illness. Only this city that I live in. My mother tongue. Only the kerfuffle of cancer. Cancer cells growing, growing, and growing with no end in sight. The black sheep of disease. Ah, the bittersweet art. Promises of it all. Life in writing. Life resurrected in writing. Anne Lamott. My mother. Jean Le Roux. Susan Sontag. The search for a self help kind of calm inner peace has taken over all my brain cells like a duck takes to water. My brain cells are part lofty cargo/part meat country. The craft of my writing is novel to me. The wings of the entire establishment of the camp system inside my head are like the proof of a heatwave. I am a free artist. An androgynous artist with the mystique of bipolarity. There is a link. Timing to the kinks, the links in the chain. Always has been. All my life. I have sought feminist writing. Art in language. A spacious museum that I could visit anytime by opening the pages of journals. Black Croxley notebooks. My mother gave that to me. The sun. There was an ocean behind Sontag’s ‘illness as a metaphor’ and a baptism of sorts for me. I longed to copy her. Write brilliantly without any superhuman effort at all. With the death in the family, with the onset of that came stereophonics of cancer in my head. Once I had a beautiful aunt, Jean Le Roux. A distant relative that passed from breast cancer. Life is not just a kerfuffle or an endless stream of traffic. Life is hungry for streets, alleys, theater, for musical comedy, and the drama, voice, the speech of tragedy, I am quiet. The day is quiet. The body is a flower. So beautiful even with the words ‘chronic illness’ on your lips. Even in the throes of death. My mother was the first woman I knew. My first love. Daughters love their mothers even though we might not admit it all the time. She taught me humility. What she didn’t teach me was how to love others. Was she selfish? Did she want me for herself for all of her life? She did not teach me how to love a man, and keep him. Cook, and clean for him. How to get him to marry you, to love you. She did not teach me to be soft. This paradise to be doe-eyed. She did not teach my lips to be loved. My hands feel creamy. There was always this flightless distance between us. This song. This dance. Madness on my part that once illuminated, and shaped my young adolescence, and adult world. All I want to tell her is this. That I admire her. I have always admired her. Her stylish flesh. Her power, and drive.
She’s lived all of her life while I am frightened of everything to death of the feats of the universe around me. The environment I live in. I am tired. Coping is a half-mechanism. I think of him in Joburg. Director. Winner of international awards. The sweet memory of him is ‘killing me softly’ like the song.
There is always this struggle for creativity in every bit of dust and air. For the ray of light, the driftwood that the beach spits out is imagination. There is always the order and the routine of the day. Make dad’s breakfast. Take medication. Hide the pharmaceuticals away from my small nephew’s inquiring gaze. The day is always the same. As fresh and new as rain. I find myself in tall grass. Hair windswept. I find myself standing in front of a mocking sea.
Insomnia. Fleck. Wavelength. Photosynthesis. Mitochondria. Photoelectric cell. Handsome words that comfort me like time’s place in the world. It travels like a nomad. They taste like sugar on my tongue. There’s no struggle that awaits them. Internal or external. No winter. Nothing objectified. All too soon adolescence was gone. Then the blues began. I didn’t know what to call it back then. I can hear my mother’s voice inside my head.
She’s talking about my brother. How he’s never going to marry that girl.