Bliss Remembered, The Book
The summer after my mother found out that she was dying of cancer, she asked me to come visit and watch the Olympic swimming on television with her. It was 2004, when the Games were in Athens. Mom had been on the United States swimming team in the Berlin Olympics in I936, when she was eighteen. While she never talked about that experience-she was, in fact, mysteriously silent on the subject-she would say, "That's the only thing of any real consequence I ever did in my life." That wasn't true, but it was very much like her to speak so modestly. To put this in perspective: my mother was one of these people who gave much unto the world, brightened the lives of those around her and left us all better for her having been here among us.
You can be sure I understand if you think I am prejudiced, and I am, but nonetheless, that all happens to be the God's truth.
Of course, she also could be herself, which was a handful.
She was an awful lot of fun; she had a way about her. Unlike most old people who seem to withdraw unto themselves, she became more expressive and confident of herself (and her opinions) as she grew older. She had developed an uncommon facility about the past, wherein she discussed herself back then with a certain out-of-body quality, as if that girl was someone else altogether. And while she certainly maintained the courtesy and graciousness that had always marked her, she felt less compunction to suffer fools. In particular: woe to the poor person who called her a "senior." Mom, I think you could say, went out-well, if not with a bang, then certainly with a lot of sizzle.
I was, then, not altogether taken aback when, after I told her that I'd be delighted to come see her, she said, "I'll have something in the nature of a surprise for you, Teddy." But, although I pressed her in a good-natured way, she wouldn't tell me what it was, and I had all but forgotten about it until I arrived, a few weeks later, at her garden apartment in Eugene, Oregon. …
Still shaking her head at the folly of us all, she got up and went over to her little antique desk, opened a drawer and pulled out one of those large acetate envelopes. It was a bright purple-violet, her favorite color. I instinctively reached out my hand for the folder. You would've thought that I'd have learned by now. "No, no, no," she said. "Not yet. In fact, I've decided that I'm gonna tell you the first part of the story."
"This is a story?" I asked, pointing to the envelope. "You've written a story?"
"No, no, Teddy. Not a story story. It's the real story that happened to me long ago that I want you to know about."
"My story, yes."
"At the Olympics?"
"That's part of it." She grinned-and rather mischievously, I thought. "That's a lot of the part I'm gonna tell you."
"Why do you wanna tell me that part?"
"Well, the first part is a lot of fun, so I decided I'd enjoy telling you that." As she stood before me, she gently rapped the envelope on her thigh. "But the second part is more important, so I better let you read that to make sure it's absolutely clear."
"All right, I got it."
"But Teddy: prepare yourself now. There's some sex."
That took me a back a little. "There is?"
"I hope you can abide that, Teddy. I promise not to offend your delicate sensibilities."
"I'll try not to blush, Mom."
"And I'll try not to spell it out."
"Okay, it's a deal."
Her expression changed then, and in a voice so different that I thought at first she was putting me on, she spoke softly: "Some violence, too."
I watched her closely before I realized she was serious. Even then, I wasn't certain. "Violence? Really, Mom? Violence?"
"One day, yes." But quickly, then: "Only let's not get into that now. That's a ways off."
She put a smile back on her face, reached into the envelope, pulled out a little tape recorder and handed it to me. "You gotta use this."
"But you said you've already got it all written out in there." I pointed to the acetate envelope.
"That's true, but I'm sure I'll flesh it out some in the telling, so it'll be a fuller picture. Probably more scintillating, too."
"You want me to get this transcribed afterwards?"
"You can if you want, Teddy. After I'm dead and gone, you can do whatever you want." She sighed. "That's the point."
Mom wasn't fey when she said that. Rather, her voice was suddenly very trenchant, and, of course, it made me all the more curious. "What is the story, Mom?"
"That's what I'm gonna tell you. You don't need a preview of coming attractions. Can you work this gizmo?"
I may not be a technological wizard, but I knew enough to push the start button, and I said, "Testing, testing," and stopped it and pushed the little backwards arrow and played it back. Sure enough: "Testing, testing."
"I got it," I said. "Whatta guy."
"Let's go outside," Mom said, leading me out the French doors to where she kept a pretty little garden-flush with rhododendron, which had always been her flower of preference. It was a soft summer's day, terribly quiet. She sat down and smiled at me in something of a conspiratorial way. It even left me a little uneasy, because it was obvious she had something up her sleeve. Sex, okay. But violence? My mother?
"When does the story start?" I said, laying the little tape recorder down on the table next to her.
"Nineteen thirty-four," she said. "When I was sixteen, on the Eastern Shore. But, really, Teddy, you'll see that this moves on from the damn Depression and becomes the last story about the war. "
"World War Two?"
"Yeah. It's the absolute very last story about World War Two. I gotta believe all the others have already been told by now."