My Mother on Film


By Natasha Markov-Riss

In eighth grade, I got caught skipping school three days in a row. My homeroom teacher called up my mother and told her that the three of us must have a little chat. It was Saturday morning, but Ms. Pieri said she would unlock the middle school just for us. I found that terribly ominous.

My mother barely looked at me during breakfast. She sat in the car listening to NPR while I tied my shoes. I glanced over at her while we were driving to school, craving a thaw, but her jaw was as hard as I’d ever seen it. She talked to my Uncle Colin and Aunt Sylvia on the phone, didn’t put them on speaker or gesture for me to say hi.

After Ms. Pieri invited us to sit down, she produced spiteful phrases like Lydia has skipped three days of school this week and we are concerned she is not a good fit for this community. It madethe spot in between my lungs tingle with hatred. I stared at the cold, unused fireplace behind her chair.

Then my mother looked at me. She gave me a little smile and turned back to Ms. Pieri.

What’s the problem with skipping school? That’s what she asked Ms. Pieri. What’s the problem with skipping school?

Ms. Pieri looked at my mother like she had asked for a sexual favor.

I’m sorry, what? My mother’s words had snapped a tendon inside Ms. Pieri’s taut little heart. I could see the two halves of it jumping away from each other, the way a guitar string would if you cut it with scissors. My mother was smiling.

What’s the problem with Lydia skipping school? School’s not the only place to learn. (My days off were spent smoking behind the abandoned office complex, which my mother certainly knew.)

Ms. Pieri recovered a little, tied her tendon back together the way you tie a broken rubber band, and said, Linda, these are our rules. She would need a note from a parent or guardian.

So my mother reached over, took a sticky note off of Pieri’s pad, and said, Consider this my note. It was like a movie. Consider this my note.  

Her messy scrawl. That, I never forgot.

Professor Nobal wrote mostly in cursive, smooth and slanted. She would stand at the head of the long oak table and read her hand-written lecture notes from the yellow legal pad, pausing to pick up Baudrillard and Morrison the way my mother plunked at keys on the piano—reading from each marked page, picking out a rhythm. The seminar room was miles distant from Pieri’s office, years away, too, and far grander even without a fireplace. Sometimes during break in the middle of class, Nobal would make us tea in the English Department office, taking orders on the corner of her legal pad, returning with a motley assortment of mugs.

When Toni Morrison published Love, Nobal began one particularly memorable lecture, commercial culture was soaring. TV was taking off in earnest. The World Wide Web, too. Images were circulating in a big way, produced cheaper, faster, than ever before. She picked up a copy of Seventeen and waved it at us.

Now, there’s a school of thought, she said, that equates visual representation with liberation on a one-to-one basis. Nobal pointed to Love, lying open against the table.

But Morrison challenges the idea that representation, even of the self, necessarily leads to power or freedom or safety.

Nobal was emphatic, waving her arms. I scribbled down notes: “…production of products AND images.”

So that brings us to a big question Morrison addresses here. She paused, and we held our breath with her. What happens when you lose control of your own image?

That last line still echoes. What did Nobal mean by “your own image?” A photograph of you? A photograph you take? Other people’s idea of who you are? Your memory?

In defeat, I have decided that “your own image” can be many things.

I have lost control of many things.

The month after our chat with Pieri, my mother was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. The doctor told her she had four months to live, that she’d be dead before my fifteenth birthday. She relayed the news to me at the kitchen table, calmly, no tears. At risk for spillage, I packed my insides tightly together and stayed perfectly still while she talked.

My mother peeked into my room later that afternoon with two sheets of paper in her hand, a pro-and-con T-chart on each one. She sat on my bed and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.

Pro of living with Uncle Colin, she said, is that he will always have chocolate. (My Uncle Colin was very fat.) Con is that he farts like a garbage truck.

 I laughed in spite of myself. It made her eyes get shiny.

Sylvia will take good care of you, though. Mama said, all serious. My brother married a good woman. That hovered in the air for a moment. She took out the second sheet of paper.

            Pro of living with Grandma is that you’ll watch lots of Seinfeld.

            Con, I said, is that she might die, too...

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