As my mother loses weight, she begins to hum. Her sounds fill the house with unrecognizable songs, more like the grunting of an animal. I hear it when she showers, while she putters in the kitchen, as she shuffles down the hall. It infiltrates the padded cones of the earphones I wear. I’ve been with her in public places where she’ll hum-grunt if there’s ambient noise—music from a stereo or voices on a TV—because she thinks no can hear her. After a year of this, I have observed only two occasions when she stops humming: when she’s eating (which she rarely does anymore) and when she’s talking. So for a year I have been forced to choose between Scylla and Charybdis: engage my mother in conversation or listen to her hum.
With the exception of the latest sale at Big Lots or Bonton, there’s little else besides the past that my 67-year-old mother wants to talk about. And her memories are not pleasant. So when I speak with her—to make the humming stop—she tells me about the uncle who committed suicide, the bad spider bite she got as a young girl, the insult a cousin made about her cooking, an ungrateful child she used to babysit. All of this was decades ago. And then she starts in on me, my lifetime of bad deeds: the writing contest I lost in high school, the boyfriends I failed to keep, how long it took me to finish my dissertation, what I should have done differently in the interview for a job I didn’t get. I’m a terrible daughter. Terrible.
My mother has been obese her whole adult life. In the last ten months, she’s lost 40 pounds. As she physically takes up less space, she tries to take up more of it with her voice. But everything that comes out of her mouth is negative and ugly and drives the rest of us away.
To be a woman is to be forced to confront the empty space around and inside of you. Some of us reconcile ourselves with it; others do not.
In early spring before I turned fourteen, I got my first period. A few months later it was summer, and the neighbor girls were coming over to use our pool. Because it was my time of the month, the day on the calendar marked with a red “p” like the school nurse had instructed, I was prepared to sit on the pool deck and watch the other girls, the thickness of a cotton pad tucked firmly under me. But my mother ushered me into the bathroom and handed me a device with the little pamphlet that contained cautions about toxic shock syndrome and instructions with diagrams of female anatomy.
Alone, I tried to make sense of the balloon-like image inside my abdomen, emptying out between my legs, sketched on the tiny folded sheet. Fumbling with the tampon after unwrapping the paper around it, I accidentally depressed the plunger and the cotton finger came out of its casing. I stuffed it back in, scraping bits of fluff off the sides, and pulled the now-dented cardboard plunger back out. I lowered it between my legs and poked it here and there. I couldn’t find where to put it. By then my friends were in the backyard, waiting.
I found my mother in the kitchen. “Can’t you just put it in for me?” I whimpered, on the verge of tears. I hurt between my legs from all the prodding.
My mother’s face went slack. “I can’t,” she said to the floor. “It’s just something you have to do for yourself.”
I returned to my seat on the toilet and finally—impatient to join my friends—crammed the tampon into between my folds of skin. But I wasn’t comfortably able to insert it very far. When I donned my bathing suit, the end stuck out, tenting the Lycra fabric between my legs. Every step I took was painful, the wad of cotton chaffing dry against the opening to the hole inside me. First attempts to fill up that negative space are painful.
And later in life, it is painful to see that some women, my mother, had never reconciled themselves to the space they occupied.
A snowstorm blows in earlier than expected one Sunday during early March. I can’t imagine the whole day stranded in the house with my mother’s humming, her noises intensified by the still quiet of the snow outside. The house smaller even than it normally is.
Even though the roads are already treacherous, I ask my father to take me in his four-wheel drive truck to the start of the trail around the lake where I like to cross-country ski. I tell him I have a knife, my phone, expensive foul-weather gear. He obliges me.
I’m alone there in the woods, the trail all to myself. It’s quiet, the snow deadening even the drone of traffic on a distant road. As the soft flakes change to something more like ice, the sound of whiteness collecting on leaves and bark resembles the crackle of electrical lines, and then it shifts back again. And I don’t ever want to go back home. I want the snow to fall forever, filling up all the space around me, over me, inside me. Blanketing the whole world so we would have to start again. Enveloping my body like a muted womb, disorienting my senses, my knowledge of space. The reason victims in an avalanche have to spit: they can’t tell up from down. Gravity lets them know.
I know at first the wet cold covering me would be painful, like all initial experiences of filling emptiness. But eventually that would pass, giving way to the fullness of affirmation, the succor of winter’s silence.
© Lynn Houston