I. Christiane. New York City, 1985
In this memory, which has haunted me the whole of my life, I am perhaps two and a half years old, and dressed in a special dress made of maroon velvet and lace. I am playing in a fountain that is ornate—and dry. The dryness is a striking fact, for until this moment of recollection, I know it only as a fountain that furiously spurts; I am accustomed to leaping away from its spray.
I have virtually no memories of my early years aside from this one, which I attribute to the fact of a wartime childhood.
In the memory I am filled with a distinctive mood I’ve not known since, and which I can only describe as a feeling of luxury—not of a trivial, material kind but in the fullness of the word’s meaning: safety and ease, the promise of endless comfort, the implicit guarantee that all is right with the world and always will be.
My mother is nearby; I can sense her, if I do not see her. Then the moment blurs, and time skips long minutes, perhaps even hours. The sun has moved; it is now overhead and hot on the crown of my head. I look down to see that my dress is crumpled, its hem soiled. I see my mother crouched over the steps leading up to our grand home. She seems busy with something, though I cannot make out what.
At that moment she turns. She smiles. I am momentarily puzzled. I do not know why I am puzzled. That puzzlement has marked my relations with my kind soul of a mother for as long as I can remember. It is something I learned early on to try to hide from her. Only when I became a woman myself did I realize that my efforts had been unsuccessful—that my mother was all too aware of the odd distance between us, with which this puzzlement is intimately connected. This distance came from me, I feel certain, and has been a great sorrow for my mother, with all the losses she has suffered, and me her only child.
I glance over to where my mother now lies. Her body is so reduced by illness that she is almost invisible among the bedclothes. I recoil from the rattle of her breath. I grit my teeth against my own selfishness, and struggle to find something to say, though my mother no longer seems conscious. But they say the dying can hear, whether they appear to or not.