In the last years before her death, Zilla’s mother had become a hoarder. Always a lover of objects – furniture, clothes, radios, televisions, dishes – now those objects owned her three small rooms. With Nathan dead for five years, his places were the first to become crowded with additions. His old green chair was stacked with so many newly bought pillows you had to throw four or five onto the floor before you could actually sit in it. Rose’s clothes had multiplied so fast in the past years that she mocked herself: “I don’t have to go to Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s – I can shop right here,” – laughing at the piles of still tagged sweaters, gorgeous leather boots in rich colors – black, brown, deep purple – down coats for weather ranging from mild, light in weight and color, to frigid, heavy and hooded, lined with dark soft fur. Dishes overflowed the cupboards and rose like abandoned ancient buildings on counter tops, every day dishes of many colors, inherited gold rimmed crystal kept for her heirs.
“I can’t even get into the kitchen,” Zilla would complain, stepping over piles of newspapers, trying not to topple towers of cd’s – desperate to help her mother clear out some space. Rose insisted that she was clearing things out, and there was a time when ten or twelve large black plastic bags had been stuffed and lay on the floor like dead beasts, waiting to be picked up, as if for burial, Zilla thought. By Good Will, Rose informed her haughtily; she had already made the arrangements. “No, you can’t help me,” Rose responded to Zilla’s begging offers. “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” she’d shout. “I’m doing it, slowly, each day a little more.” She would ease her daughter out the door, or find a way to end a conversation on the phone.
No real progress was ever made, and eventually Zilla began to see her mother only at her own apartment or at a local restaurant. On a cold or rainy day, when she’d shop in the supermarket for Rose’s groceries, she would hand over the plastic bags in the doorway without going inside. She could have negotiated the narrow hallway path between large plastic boxes with their tight fitting blue covers and cloudy white plastic misting their chaotic interiors. But Zilla had lost all heart to witness. She handed the groceries to her mother quickly and returned to her own larger, carefully designed home a few blocks away. There, the only material reminder of it all were three menorahs Rose had insisted she take, three for her, three for her brother Mikey. And when Mikey died those three had gone to Michael, Anthony’s and Zilla’s son.
Rose felt disdain for any aspect of religion. Four of the menorahs had been bought only because they were on sale. The other two had belonged to her own religious mother and mother-in-law, so she could hardly have thrown them away. She never lit them, disparaging the holiday that “celebrated war and death” even more furiously than she disparaged Christmas – with its “disgusting commercialism, fairy tales about dates of birth of the Jewish carpenter and revolutionary preacher turned by meshugena fanatics into the god of Christianity with its centuries of Jew hating.” The tree itself, decorated every year in Zilla’s and Anthony’s home with lovely arrangements of white lights and delicate ornaments, some of them saved from Anthony’s childhood Christmases, was a source of silent contempt or outright mockery. “Has the Christ child been born yet?” Rose would say with a hearty patronizing laugh each Christmas morning when she arrived for brunch, but then sit down with apparently real pleasure to open her gifts.
Each year, they continued to pile them up for her, one from Anthony, one from Zilla, eventually one from each of Zilla’s children and grandchildren who had all been taught the value of reciprocal giving, especially from the very young. Home-made clay bowls and framed crayon drawings, then more objects – scarves, socks, vases, earrings, purses, sweaters. Finally, unwilling to contribute to the piles of unused belongings, they began to give her seasonal plants and flowers instead, one year a colorful shiny shopping bag filled with breads, jams and chocolates which at least would eventually be consumed.
When she died, Rose’s apartment felt like a warehouse. The work of dismantling and sorting took weeks. None of her family took much. Boxes and boxes were packed with scant attention and sent off to various organizations serving the poor.
But even after many years, the six menorahs remained, all six now lit up every Hanukah in Zilla’s and Anthony’s living-room, sometimes in Michael’s home. All six lit over the eight days to mark (Zilla always reminded Michael’s children before they broke into their secular Hanukah songs) the miracle of light: in history, and in their own individual lives, the possibility of light – pushing back darkness, like morning sun and moonlight softening the sorrows of night.
Despite times of visible light, darkness had encroached on Zilla’s life for two years now, pervading her moods, dominating the language of her poems until she stopped writing them. Her most recent drawings were done in heavy charcoal, the only color used for contrast, or a suggestion of three dimensional perspective in a dark blue. She’d worn down so many of her pencils in this color she’d finally bought twenty of them, all the same “midnight blue,” sharpened and kept near her studio chair in a matching dark blue glass so she could reach them easily to draw, or write the draft of a poem, or since she had begun to avoid drawing or writing at all, to sketch meaningless lines and circles while trying to sound attentive to someone on the phone.
For months, no sketches; no notes for a future poem. Her mind – or brain – was filled so tightly and chaotically with images and words, at times she could hardly move. She sat in her chair, or lay in her bed, and she worried, or tried to talk herself out of worrying, breathing deeply and rhythmically to calm her anger or staunch her seemingly never ending tears. She worried about Michael’s moods, which were often grim and which he refused to describe in anything like comforting detail. She worried about Naima, her daughter-in-law whom Zilla loved like the daughter she’d never had but who seemed angry at her lately, short and critical with her about everything – how she treated the children, how often or how rarely she visited, even how she dressed or wore her hair. “Do you really like the brown dye you’re using?” Naima had asked the other day. “Yes,” Zilla had answered warily, “or why would I use it?” “But why do you like it?” Naima had pressed, her criticism as obvious to Zilla as the deep red wool sweater draped over Naima’s turned back.
Her voice filled Zilla’s head, joined the other voices that for months had rendered her nearly immobile, and when did it start? She added that question to the pile of ringing questions. She sat. She lay down. She did her housework, which cheered her temporarily – sorting dirty clothes, dark from white, organizing coats by season and color in a long neglected closet, cooking elaborate and delicious meals for herself and Anthony. But all her domestic efforts were mere placations, relieving distractions until she could safely go back to her bed. Her bedtime, around nine or ten o’clock since she and Anthony had begun to move into their late sixties, became eight o’clock, then seven – earlier and earlier so that with television noise or a compelling mystery to read, soft lamplight, the thick white down quilt that now provided more solace than drawings or poetry, she could, as the old song went, relax her mind. The best comfort of all was Anthony’s beloved body, thigh touching thigh, her foot over his foot, her hand reaching over to stroke his now sparse white hair. She sank into the warm quilt, the soft light, the uncrowded small room, its contours and furnishings so familiar: two paintings of pale interiors, dusty pinks, blues and greys, and two photographs of their grown children, each in one side of a silver frame, in the same place on her bedside table for years. All this could magnetize her into a perfect stillness, a luxurious inner blankness and calm. I love you Anthony, she’d whisper before they finally turned off the lamp light and called it a night. He’d turn toward her back, reach his arms around her flannel pajama top and murmur, I love you too, Zilla. Dozing and waking, thoughts and feelings continued to dim, as if, like the huge blankets her mother sometimes threw over her piles of random belongings to hide them from an intruding eye, Zilla was covering her own brain-rooms with half sleep, a thick blanket falling slowly over the tangled mess.
Once, this calm stillness had come after writing or drawing, especially when she began to work on the language or lines after the sketch or first draft was done. Polishing words. Shading surfaces and planes. Now, she relished the interior darkness, the very dark she had once urged her mother to relinquish was now her own.
“You always see the dark side,” she had admonished Rose many times. “You have a wonderful family. You have unusual strength for someone your age. You have your books and you still love to read – and you have good eyesight – all you need are simple drug store reading glasses while all your friends are having cataract surgery! Your have your health!” Zilla remembered her shouts, anger fueled by her own ill health, for she had gone through two bouts of breast cancer while her mother still lived. Years later, cancer returned to her stomach, but by then Rose was long dead.
By now, Zilla’s scarred flat chest was familiar to her, no longer upsetting. She could look at herself, stroke her protruding ribs, massage the old scars that could still send sharp pains through her, as damaged tissue shifted and pulled – “ for life most likely,” Anthony would say in a pragmatic, knowledgeable tone, quoting the surgeon. She had grown accustomed to her body’s flat, almost child like shape.
But she missed her breasts. Not her breasts themselves exactly, but their central place in her sexuality. She was sixty-nine, experiencing all the usual debilitations and insults of an aging body, faulty memory, diminished hearing, aching limbs. Yet, unlike some of her friends who claimed to have finished with desire, hating their sagging breasts, even, at times expressing envy of her for having gotten rid of them, she felt attacked, at times, by desire. It was sudden, powerful, and trapped as if by thick steel walls from expression, not only in real life with Anthony, but in her ordinary interactions with men or women she might once have incorporated into her fantasies of love making, a pleasure almost as strong as the pleasure of actually being touched and touching in return. Suddenly it came, in the presence of someone she knew, or as a feeling of longing unattached to anything, signaled by heat, even a small orgasmic beating, out of nowhere it seemed, as if her body simply insisted on it, like a sneeze, or a yawn.
But desire for actual love making stopped at the narrow crowded hallway of her mind. No place to move. Boxed. Shoved under waves of worries and long past grief so deep even she, who had always navigated those waters with well known courage, pulled back into solitude. She would not call it depression – perhaps because of the stretches when life seemed ordinary again, slipped out of sadness and fear of death, filled up with short lived pleasures, even moments of extraordinary happiness. She was not depressed, if her adolescent bouts of paralysis had been depression. This was something else, she was sure, and she had no name for it at all.
Unlike her breasts, she did not miss the two thirds of her stomach the kind Dr. Chang had removed so skillfully, giving her fair warning: “I have removed part of your core,” he had said, hands pushed into the deep pockets of his white jacket, dark sympathetic eyes not wavering from her own. “It will take time for you to recover your self.”
How strange, she had thought, for this medical scientist who had removed with such precision and confidence, he felt almost certain, the cancer in her stomach – though it would be five full years, he told her (she never stopped counting) until he would use the word “cure,” – how strange for him to speak to her in the language of the yoga class, of various meditation practices; “her core,” he had said numerous times, instructing her about diet and exercise, issuing gentle warnings about her mental state as well. “Don’t make any important decisions,” he told her, “not for at least two years.” She’d had eight clear cat scans. She needed six more, another three years, before it was over for good. But that phrase made no sense, she knew. She’d had cancer three times. Why not a fourth?
“We’re all getting old, we’ll all break down in some way,” Anthony would say, and recently she had begun to feel comforted, to be included in the human collective, not singled our for some mysterious reason for pain. For years she had covered herself, protecting herself even from his long trusted touch, with soft undershirts of cotton and silk. She still wore them beneath her flannel pajama tops, but one night she let him reach across to her scarred chest while he was caressing her back. No sexual feeling accompanied this touch, but it gave a brief, quiet pleasure, and in the midst of that small exquisite moment she recalled an old, discarded piece of writing – Sex, Color and Words, she had called it, exploring the connections between these – core – her doctor might have called it – parts of herself.
She turned beneath the thick quilt, hoping for a path to cut through the piles of thoughts and feelings, fears and losses, worst of all, the flashes of memory too vivid and powerful to allow in even for a moment.
For when they did come, and they always did, she’d begin to sob, not merely cry, but sob in loud lament – as if it were happening now, happening again – the long hours of unconsciousness, waking in pain so severe she could not move her own body, the days and nights of morphine induced sleep, feeding tubes, a mouth so dry she’d come to comprehend in her flesh the idea of literally dying of thirst. Then the chemotherapy, the radiation, the nausea, blood tests, black and blue marks all over her arms as her veins began to resist the insertion of intravenous needles, her dependence on Anthony, on Michael and Naima, on her friends. She wished she could be like her mother, refusing all help – dependency, her absolute need of them, in some ways the worst part of all.
She collected the feelings and memories from years past, piled them high next to current anxieties – about Anthony’s aging, Michael’s moods, her grandson’s temper tantrums, Naima’s criticisms, a close friend who had not called in days, rejections of her poems. Thank goodness she had never submitted – hateful word – her drawings to any gallery, those blue-black interiors and portraits, the black and blue shapes that filled up forty or fifty pads. They were all piled neatly in their own small book case, each one labeled by date. Just as her journals, filled with early drafts of poems and their less poetic origins, were labeled. Just as her shelves of poetry books were strictly alphabetized – she could lay her hand on a desired book in a swift minute. Just as she organized and rearranged her closets, folding and refolding sheets, throwing out old frayed pillow cases and blankets, sweaters unworn for years, nearly new shoes and boots her aging feet could no longer fit into comfortably. She would never hoard like her mother. She had sworn this.
And so she knew. She was a hoarder, if in a different realm. And how she would begin to work her way through the piles of old belongings and strange new purchases, ancient memories and new anxieties, how she would make a clear path back to – back to her self – if that self still existed at all – she could not yet —
She used the conditional adverb – yet- trying to preserve a slender portion of hope. Yet: on one hand this, yet on the other . . . ; yet – not yet, not now, but at some moment in a possible future, possibly even soon. Not yet. She lingered on the phrase finding unexpected relief in the realization that like her mother, she was a hoarder, for it was still true for her that naming a thing in words, or recreating it in an image, gave her the deepest security she had ever known.
The morning after she named herself, her vision shifted to a slightly different angle, as if she had altered the position of her torso in the water while swimming, turning from back to side. It wasn’t a dramatic shift. No one could call it a sea change. It might last no longer than a day, perhaps only a few hours. But it was long enough to make a large drawing of her mother’s living room from memory, black garbage bags, barely identifiable piles of belongings, dark charcoal edges, blue-black planes. Then she began a poem about her darkened bedroom, feeling suffused with the unique relief not felt in many months as she described its opaque shades, thick curtains, the small pillows and tissue boxes she stacked each night against the clocks and the television cable box, blocking the glaring red and shrill green digital numbers, shutting out the light.