Published on May 24th, 2019 | by Carla Rachel Sameth0
Mother’s Day Triptych
The picture is of my son, Raphael, as a newborn. The bright royal blue color of the onesie complements his looks. Like now, his look is racially and culturally ambiguous, similar to the rest of our family. His eyes dark-dark almost black, his hair barely curly, brownish, which will get darker and thicker and curlier as he grows. At birth, there is a bit of blond. Like me. For a second. Family lore has it that my mom called out when I was born, “Oh my God, the Milkman, a blond” in a family of dark haired olive skinned people. My hair got darker later too, but I never turned as dark as my siblings, who are closer to Raphael’s color. Later he will more closely resemble my dad at the same age. His skin grows into a beautiful brown café au lait kind of color. His nose, “strong” with high cheekbones, a possible look of Ethiopian, Afro-Latino, Middle Eastern, African American. Or maybe Jewish, “They just want to know if you’re Jewish,” my mom always said. And the reality is that, we Jews come in all colors, from many different countries.
I once had to explain this to Raphael’s high school math teacher who asked him to draw a pie chart of where he was from. “Just help me do it,” he said, impatient. Instead I emailed his teacher explaining that the very history of African Americans and Jews makes it difficult to do this assignment. Raphael is an Afro-Jew.
As a newborn, he looks quizzical as if he can’t quite decide whether to be in this world or not. He peers at us, his parents, with a suspicious looking glance that suggests that he feels little confidence that these people can care for him in the outside world. We struggle to swaddle or change a diaper. He came into this world seeming to want to crawl back into the womb.
I, however, was smitten. The connection I felt when I held him in my arms is the same feeling I want to evoke with the tattoos we get one Mother’s Day when he is twenty-two. I know it sounds a bit like the identically dressed mother-daughter punk rockers we made fun of “back in the day” (not in front of them, of course), who showed up in court when I worked for the Family Violence unit at the Seattle City Attorney’s office. But yes, we’re getting matching Celtic tribal type symbols of mother and son.
This tattoo is better than if I branded him at birth with “I love my mom” on his butt and watched it grow. Here is the mom holding the baby, so symbolic many people can’t tell what it is if they don’t look at the exact right angle. The tattoo artist adds a little dot for the heart, beating. When I see my tattoo or his, all the shit storms of anxiety I experience sometimes float away like dust into the air, and I’m solid.
When my son is little, we gather smooth white stones to skip. Only the good ones work for us, but the other ones still feel comforting, nestled in our palms.
When he is 14 he asks me why we stack stones on the graves of our loved ones and writes a story about zombies to explain it, after my dad’s unveiling. A year after someone dies, in Jewish tradition, you gather together for the “unveiling” of the tombstone. Stones are placed around it when you visit. A prayer is said. A meal is usually partaken.
My son is in not yet twenty-one. My wife and I get married in the fall before I go with her on a Coast Guard deployment to Connecticut. She is my second wife, my third marriage; the first was to my son’s dad. A year before, knowing my son loved her and said she was a “bad ass,” I still decided we needed to wait. Even though I sometimes thought, How could I let this one get away?, I resisted a quick lesbian U-Haul move-in or marriage. When I told him, my son understood. He knew why I said, “I have to get it right. We’ve seen too many losses, have to make sure this one takes. She is too controlling sometimes.”
That’s how I felt then. I have learned that for her, what feels controlling at times to me, equals keeping me safe, equals love. And her love for me is unequivocal. A generous, loyal type of love I’d vowed never to walk away from if I found it again. I’d once had this with my big -hearted boyfriend Henry in Seattle. But not being ready yet, I ran. The safety I would long for later, felt at the time, claustrophobic. His big Filipino family and my big Jewish family felt like too many demands and too much familiarity. Later I missed their constant embrace, and our sprawling extended families
One day, I drive to Moonstone Beach about an hour from where my wife is temporarily stationed in Connecticut with the Coast Guard. A friend, Katya, has asked me to bring her back a moonstone, so I go on a grim, rainy spring day to gather these mythical stones. “These stones are magical and each one means something different,” a grainy old woman on the beach tells me. They are smooth and tenderhearted stones and I gather up a sackful.
This is the first time in my adult life that I don’t have to work for an extended period of time. That I am not working, studying or mommying, but am gifted this time to write or recuperate from life, to binge watch Marc Maron and Orange is the New Black and eat rocky road ice cream with my wife. I gain so much those six months away while my wife is on a temporary deployment. Including about ten pounds. She works on the base and I have my repose, my sabbatical. But what is lost at the end of those six months?
On our trip back to the West Coast across Canada, just before we enter the long ride through the Canadian prairies, I hear my wife and son scream at each other on speakerphone; he is across the country in California. “Stop yelling at me,” he shouts as she blows up, telling him what it is he hasn’t done. I am undone.
“I told you to get the paperwork…you can’t drive my car without it!” She’s given her car to my son but he needs to transfer it to his name, his own insurance, and he isn’t moving fast enough. We are moving, in our car, in Canada; he is driving her car in Los Angeles. I am petrified. Like wood. I have nothing to grasp a hold of.
As I scream, and plug my ears, an ancient response to trauma, she shouts, “I’m done with you both.”
I can’t reconcile that image with the loving family I thought I’d finally got, after this, after that. I can’t even list all that was lost in previous versions of blended and unblended family. I am deposited with my suitcase by the side of the road. I crawl into the overgrown brush past a train track, and dry-swallow a handful of Ativan, phone dead. My wife drives away. And comes back. I pee.
I wonder how I went from holding that blue-shirted, dark-eyed baby in the picture, to me standing in the middle of knee-high weeds in the Canadian Prairie. I comfort myself singing old Hebrew melodies from Shabbat at the Jewish Socialist camp I once went to, though I don’t think it is Friday night. My wife has pulled back up by the side of the road, waiting for me. I don’t remember how I get back in the car, but I end up inside. She must have put the seat belt on me.
I have few memories of the next three days. The handful of pills took care of that. “Tell me that you’ll fix this with him, you’ll apologize, you’ll make it right, swear to it,” I say in between dozing.
“Yes, yes, I told you I will.” She keeps driving.
Over the next years, I try to retie the knot, to imagine a world without ruptures. Me, my son, my wife, his step-mom.
One night when we are back home, I fall asleep after a rough night with my wife, a fight that guts and exhausts us, until all we can do is spoon, and in my free hand I hold that stone; the other hand holds her breast, as always. Each time I wake up, the moonstone is still clenched in one hand (her breast in the other).
It’s The Point. The Point on Gabriola Island, BC, where I went when I was a teenager, to the Jewish socialist (Habonim) camp run like a kibbutz. They taught us Marxism and labor history. Every Friday night we’d clean up real good, wearing our best clothes. The Point was where you walked hand in hand with your best camp friends, to whom you’d told your whole life story, and maybe you got to walk arm in arm with the guy you had the crush on, who might someday kiss you. Or not. It’s the music that comforted me for years that I sang to myself when violent screaming from family or boyfriends, a husband or a wife pierced my heart that I thought was finally safe. Those Shabbat melodies.
“I like the tunes” one old Jewish man, highly secular said to his daughter, the red diaper baby. I, too, like the tunes. They rock me and wrap me with a warm, slightly sour milk-smelling blanket like the one I wrapped my child with. I sang lullabies as I rocked with him each night, so tired I believed that the next day would be better, but nothing would be as good as that moment, his lips to my breast, his soft sucking sounds and sighs, me falling asleep with him in the rocker. Our breath together, like the Spanish and English that mixed where I couldn’t tell which language I dreamt in or spoke in, I couldn’t tell where he left off and I began.
My son is almost fully cooked now. Twenty-three years old. A young man that towers over me and says, “Mom I love you so, so much!” We are tethered, sometimes infecting the other with our anxiety or our worries. But we can talk about it, this transmutation of pain. And now we’re marked irrevocably with our matching tattoos, my shoulder, his forearm.
My wife spoke to me about possibly getting a tattoo for the first time, a matching one with me, but quickly lost interest. The money, the time, not a priority. We talked about a vine, perhaps a bougainvillea or an orchid that would stretch from one part of my body to hers. A shoulder to a thigh.
I long for something that will somehow bind the three of us together, me, my wife, and my son. They seem to be less attached to the idea, this desperate need of mine to find a container for the three of us that is safe, strong, undivided. They appear to accept the occasional bumpiness of their relationship in a way I struggle to, since I still cling to safe harbor, a place like The Point where ocean waves give the sense of calm, with their consistent return.
My son has told me that he is glad that my wife and I have found each other, knowing that I am taken care of. And my wife knows that the love between my son and me burns fierce and constant. Perhaps the thread that holds us together is their unyielding love for me. And mine for them. That is the place we will live in.