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05/10/2013 08:01 am ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013

Reading Mother

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"Well, of course, you can read," my father said. It was two days after my tonsillectomy and the boredom of my sickroom led to this discovery. He barely looked up from the Philadelphia Bulletin he'd brought into my room.

"You got an A in reading, didn't you?" he added, picking up the sports section.

Yes, but this is a real book--something better than the activities of Dick and Jane found in my first grade reader--I wanted to tell him. But he was still shaking his head, irritated as usual at nearly anything I said. No matter how carefully I framed the words in my head, they always seemed to annoy him.

Later, I read far into the night, only putting the book down when I heard my parents mounting the stairs. Drifting off to sleep believing Heidi's grandfather was a fearsome creature, more animal than man. I woke near morning with a high fever, ranting about that grandfather's possible descent from the Swiss Alps into my bedroom. Soon I was back at the hospital where I was diagnosed with pneumonia. Ten days later I was home again, the prospects for a quick recovery squelched by a misread lab test.

"She'll need the summer to recuperate," the doctor told my mother.

It was the mid-fifties and doctors still made house calls in Philadelphia.

My mother drooped with this prognosis, not entirely from worry. Although we loved each other fiercely, we were very different, and neither of us profited from too much time spent together. As my father reminded her often, she was not a "natural" at motherhood, and tending a sick child was not her idea of how to spend the summer. Nor did she have much confidence in her nursing skills. Her preferred activity was to take a SEPTA bus out of Philadelphia's concrete and brick environs, traveling into the countryside where she spent the day walking in the woods or fields, tracking butterflies, birds, and all matter of flora and fauna-- her binoculars worn around her neck on a red lanyard she'd made as a girl, her guidebooks stowed inside an early version of a bookbag--two pieces of canvas stitched together with tiny if irregular stitches in a heavy knitted thread.

"Ada's head's in the clouds," my father said in a stage whisper to any relative who stopped by. "Literally," he'd finally add, waiting to see if they'd caught on.

Though marriage to my father cut short Mother's pursuit of a biology degree, the walls of the tiny living room of our row house were lined with books on naturalism; her drawers were filled with detailed sketches of flora and fauna, slides and labeled bottles; the shed outback overflowed with nets, magnifying glasses and dissecting tools.

"Are you sure she should be at home?" Mother asked the doctor, not quite looking up. "If she's that sick, I mean."

Her hands fluttered nervously and she stuck them in her pockets, probably soothing herself by fingering the interesting rock or shell she always seemed to carry. Tending a sick child, and her only child at that, frightened her, though she could be quite adept with a stricken bird or a wilting plant where the stakes were lower and she didn't have my father looking on.

My pediatrician, an anomalous female at that time--Dr. Margaret Brodie--patted my mother's thin shoulder. "I'm sure you'll do fine, Mrs. Wingel. I'll be keeping an eye on her too."

Though she was not my favorite person due to a lapsed promise that all injections would be in the arm, Dr. Brodie was a kindly yet striking woman in her mid-thirties. She wore her jet-black hair in an elaborate twist and was taller than most men. When I finally saw her with her hair down some weeks later, I found she had a four-inch streak of dead white hair that ran down the middle of her head, which perhaps gave rise to her French twist. We inherited Dr. Brodie when Dr. West retired the year before, and no one knew her very well yet.

Normally by mid June, my mother and I would be tanned and fit, the house as neglected as my father would tolerate, dinners as dull as he'd allow. Most mornings, Mother packed two peanut butter sandwiches and a bag of toys to entertain me, and we hopped on a bus headed for the country where we each spent the day in our own way: me inventing adventures for my assortment of dolls; my mother on a hunt nearby for woodland plants, fungi, and rare butterflies. It was still safe to leave a child alone for a short period of time in those days; or, if it wasn't, no one had told us.

On days when she wanted to go further afield, Mother left me in the care of Mrs. Murphy down the street, a mother of six who scarcely noticed a temporary addition. I was ridiculously in love with the short, fiery Mrs. Murphy, who spent the day with her hands in soapsuds and lemon oil, all the while stirring the eternal pot of stew on her back burner and yelling at her lively children. I followed her around most of the day, something she found strange but tolerable. ("Don't you want to go play outside yet, Sandy? The children are organizing a game of 'Capture the Flag.'") I greatly admired the way she ran her house--and then felt guilty for it. She was just like the mothers in our schoolbooks and on television, even if she didn't dress the part.

My father was a salesman for an automobile parts supply company. Weeks on the road were followed by late nights at the office with Mother and I left to entertain each other. He sat in the waiting room at the hospital for my surgery, carried me back two days later, and stopped by my room most nights when he was in town that summer. He always brought a newspaper or a magazine with him, and I had to be very entertaining indeed to get him to put it down.

Yet a strange compensation to his visit was in watching him read--his head moved from word to word as if each one had to be digested like the kernels on an ear of corn. My teacher had warned us not to do this--to let our eyes do the moving, but nobody had told Father, I suppose. I guess we loved each other, but he didn't figure into things very often. When his name came up in conversation, it was always a surprise.

"Oh, him," I would hear my mother respond to a neighbor's inquiry or to a teacher's polite questions on parent's night-- not resentfully, nor angrily, but surprised anyone other than the two of us knew of his existence.

On the one or two occasions he entered a school I was attending, surprisingly, he seemed as out of place as mother. The bluster he pretended to at home quickly deserted him in that setting, and he was as passive as any lower middle-class parent of the time.

That summer my mother tried again to get me interested in books about nature, but I stood resolute-- an established fiction freak already. Perhaps she could have tolerated her incarceration that summer if the two of us had talked about insects or rocks, if we had kept an ant farm and watched their activity, if we'd peered through a telescope from my bedroom window. But none of these activities took place and the pile of books from the children's library about plants and animals served as coasters as I made my way through The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Prince and the Pauper and other children's classics.

Our days were mostly dull ones; my mother looking longingly out the window at summer's surprising willingness to unfold without her; I, my nose in a book in my rumpled, crumb-filled bed with just the occasional game of Parcheesi or Monopoly to spell us. Long, hot days interrupted only by Dr. Brodie's visit, a prosaic event that nevertheless began to draw my mother to the window some minutes beforehand. There she'd fidget nervously, humming loud enough for me to hear upstairs. And I felt the excitement too, somewhere deep inside. It was as if our real life began when Dr. Brodie came through the front door. Or at least that was how I read it then.

Dr. Brodie pulled up in her brand new two-toned sky-blue Buick more and more often over the next weeks. A quick trip to my room with the associated medical tasks would be followed by a lengthy visit with Mother downstairs.

Once, when their laughter prompted a trip to the bathroom where I could better hear, they were discussing microscopes. My mother confessed to secretly hoping for a new one before long; my grandfather had purchased the one she now used when she was in high school. I heard them thumbing through the catalogues Dr. Brodie had brought along, pointing out models to consider. Another day, I heard them discussing college courses my mother could take at Temple University once I was back in school. Even at seven, I thought this unlikely. Adult students weren't common then, and I couldn't picture my mother, with her too-long dresses, bitten-to-the-quick fingernails, and heavy tramping shoes--with her long straight hair she held back with a plastic barrette at a time when other mothers wore their hair short and curly, insinuating herself into a classroom full of pony-tailed teenagers.

I was also surprised to hear Mother call Dr. Brodie by her first name. They were Ada and Margie that summer: two bright and beautiful girls who loved science first and most. Together they seemed indefatigable. I couldn't take my eyes off them, having discovered that-- yes, this is what it's like to be a grownup woman.

Dr. Brodie, my mother informed me, sitting breathlessly on the edge of my bed after the doctor had driven off, had attended Smith College and Columbia University Medical School, graduating near the top of her class, one of only two or three women to do so that year. Dr. Brodie, my mother told me another afternoon, had done some modeling during summer vacations in the early nineteen forties in New York City. Her specialty was late afternoon wear and, most particularly, hats.

"I could see that immediately from the shape of her head," mother said, putting a hand to her hair. Mother was breathless; I remember it perfectly, having felt the same thing myself.

As that summer passed fitfully, I began to regain my strength and was finally permitted visits from my best friend, Nancy, who was able to carry me around the room on her back.

"Oh, Sandy," mother said, finding us hobbling around one afternoon, "I hadn't realized you'd lost so much weight."

Nancy plunked me down on the bed where my spindly legs poked out from my threadbare pajamas. "We'll have to fatten you up."

After that, Dr. Brodie's visits often overlapped our dinner hour where an enhanced menu took shape. The two women--with the excuse of my need to put on weight-- often prepared it together with the doctor occasionally staying on to eat. I was fed a diet of mostly cream-based food, although my stomach, after years of duller food, sometimes protested. Slowly, I put on weight

And finally, she was there one evening when my father came home unexpectedly. His voice, so unexpected at that hour, vibrated whereas Mother's and Dr. Brodie's were light and hung delicately in the air. It was like a piece of music coming through my floorboards: the wind section and the responding strings--often sounding a bit tentative. The exchange went on for some minutes, ending with the familiar slap of a screen door, then the newly-recognizable coughing sound of Dr. Brodie's engine. My father stepped outside, pretending to tinker with a loose railing on the steps. He stayed there for some minutes--long after her car had disappeared. Only my mother's step on the stairs sent me flying back to my room where I wondered if my father had physically thrown Dr. Brodie out of the house. She had the look of someone pushed when she strode down the steps. What had she said or done, I wondered? Perhaps the two of them were more vulnerable than I had thought? Perhaps the little world we'd created in that tiny row house in Philadelphia could be easily smashed.

After that, Dr. Brodie was always gone by six-thirty, the earliest hour at which my father might turn up. And I sensed or intuited it was not a good idea to talk about her in his presence, not that my father and I had many conversations. Mother and I were careful not to mention her too often even when alone, as if too much talk of her would filter through to my father.

Near the end of the summer, Mother began to plan for a daytrip to the country. We took longer walks each day, building up my stamina, putting color back in my chalky cheeks. On a fine day in mid-August, she packed all our old standbys plus a basket of real food--the kind of things "we" now liked.

"I don't see how we can get all this to the bus stop," I said worriedly, unable to even lift the basket.

I sunk onto the sofa, losing any enthusiasm for the trip as I added up the obstacles ahead: waiting for a bus on a sun-baked corner, toting all this food along, not being permitted to swim in the bacteria-laden pond.

"Not a chance," Mother had said earlier, when she saw me getting my suit out of the bureau drawer, the tag still dangling from the strap.

"I've got that problem solved," Mother assured me with a small smile, trying to knot a cotton scarf behind her head.

For once, she looked the picture of the early 1960s homemaker as she put on a full-skirted dress and a pair of strappy sandals--hardly walking things! After a minute, I knew from her humming who our ride to the country would be with. Dr. Brodie arrived and the three of us set out.

The picnic grove was a long walk from the parking lot, and the lunch that followed was heavier than the thin sandwiches Mother generally doled out. Not much later, I fell into a brief, but deep sleep, waking after perhaps thirty minutes to find both gone. No, not gone-- there were parts of them everywhere; their shoes, dresses, even their straw purses were tossed carelessly on the blanket beside me. And after a minute's confusion, I heard them as well, and following the sound of their voices, I caught up with them in a pond not far from the blanket. For some reason the scene seemed odd, and, a bit frightened, I hid behind some shrubs.

Nothing I saw that day at the pond was anything the two of them wouldn't have done in front of me; they both wore perfectly respectable swimsuits, for instance, but I wasn't used to seeing adults touch each other, even in a casual way. Some part of me recognized an intimacy in their behavior that I had never seen before. They were laughing giddily and doing other childish things, things that seemed private or personal, so I fled after a few minutes, pretending to be asleep when they returned to the blanket, hushing each other's giggles, tripping over their discarded items. I screwed my eyes shut until it was clear that I had to be feigning sleep, and then they tickled me until I pretended to wake up.

That was the only afternoon we spent in the country. School started, and I was swept up in the resulting tasks and activities, only seeing Dr. Brodie at my regular checkups and for the occasional sore throat. As the weeks and then months passed, I nearly forgot the days the three of us had spent together that summer.

Once, the next year, I think, my mother sent me to Dr. Brodie's office alone to get a booster shot. Her office was in a large Victorian house and the front parlor was the waiting room. I was playing with the dollhouse on the table at the front window when she came to get me.

"Oh, Sandy," she said. "Ada didn't come with you."

Even I could see she was disappointed. I followed her into her office and waited nervously for the booster shot. Both of us were awkward without Mother. It was Mother who made the rather somber Dr. Brodie laugh, I realized. It was Mother who encouraged me to talk rather than listen.

"There," Dr. Brodie finally said, removing the needle from my arm. "You're better at that than you used to be."

I nodded, and then feeling I owed her something in return, added, "Mother's went down to Temple University today to register. She's going to sign up for a class in chemistry."

Dr. Brodie smiled widely. "I'm so glad," she said. "She'll make a grand teacher."

She patted me on the arm as she said it, and I felt a warmth rise inside me like the mercury in the thermometer outside the back window. I stuck the lollipop she offered me into my mouth quickly, and we both turned away.

I don't think I gave much thought to Dr. Brodie for a long time after that day. I only ran into her at home one more time. It was more than a year later and I came into the house and found Dr. Brodie brushing my mother's hair in my parents' bedroom.

"You're home early, Sandy," my mother said in what seemed like a too-loud voice.

She could see me in her mirror before Dr. Brodie even knew I was there. There was nothing amiss other than the oddity of my doctor brushing my mother's hair in her bedroom--the room she shared with my father. I 'd never seen my father do such a thing, nor did my mother make a ceremony out of brushing her hair--or mine, for that matter. I had never thought of it as more than a nuisance up until that moment.

"It was a half-day," I reminded her coolly. "Remember, I brought home a note."

I didn't know why I was being mean, and not knowing why made me feel even meaner. As I was speaking, Dr. Brodie put down the brush and removed a stethoscope from her medical bag, which was on the walnut chest at the foot of the bed.

"Come here, Sandy," she said. "You sound a bit chesty--like you might have a touch of bronchitis."

I did so reluctantly, inchoately aware that I was being distracted. But it turned out I was sick, of course. Dr. Brodie was incapable of subterfuge. But I didn't forget that brush, with its electrical charge, moving surely through my mother's hair, my mother's eyes fluttering closed, her head seemingly collapsing against Dr. Brodie's stomach.

My parents divorced when I was thirteen--my father quickly marrying a woman he'd "just met" in Chicago. My mother had finished her bachelor's degree and was teaching high school biology. Dr. Brodie disappeared too, though Mother and I never discussed it. I had a new doctor by then, a man who was grimly efficient, something that seemed more adult.

At some point, I began to read the string of women boarders we took in to help with the rent as Mother's lovers. Most of them left after a semester or two, moving on to another neighborhood, another town. I never grew attached enough to any one of them to ask questions, though I did spend a great deal of time thinking about it, imagining what they must do together. At some point, I began to think of Dr. Brodie as the love of Mother's life, and I felt sorry for Mother for having lost her. I never pitied her for losing my father though. It never even occurred to me.

When I was twenty-five and my mother forty-nine, she defied my "reading" of her and married a former priest, James Wilks, whom she'd met nearly a decade earlier protesting the Vietnam War. For a year or so, I convinced myself that Mother and James were merely friends, each of them looking for a companion. Hadn't James spent thirty years celibate? I changed my mind, however, the day I came in to find him brushing Mother's hair, the glints of electricity from years earlier magnified tenfold. Once again it was Mother who noticed me first. "Sandy?" she said, surprised. I wasn't due in until evening. I lived in Boston that year, returning to Philadelphia infrequently

"Next?" James joked, looking up, intuiting perhaps the small fist of jealousy forming in my chest. I shook my head. They were at the kitchen table, an odd place to brush hair, I thought. But then he picked up a pair of barber's scissors and began to trim her bangs, the tiny pieces of hair falling neatly onto an old newspaper that lay beneath them. His hands looked so gentle, so capable that I did want to sit down in front of him. I was very lonely that year.

"Another skill you learned in the priesthood, James?" I said, hiding my embarrassment with a quick smile. He was a good cook and avid gardener too, both talents credited to his stint in a small rural parish in southern Maine.

He shook his head. "I learned how to cut hair from my mom. She was a beautician, and I helped out in her shop--the only way we could make ends meet."

When he was finished the job (blowing some stray hairs off her neck with soft lips, patting her back with a light touch) he offered to leave us alone. But I asked him to stay--even insisted on it--and he obliged me, pulling up a chair and pouring another cup of coffee. So this is my mother in love, I remember thinking to myself.

And where was Dr. Brodie through all these years? I asked Mother about her only once, about a year before, careful not to reveal the long years I'd spent possibly misunderstanding things.

Mother got a puzzled look on her face. "She just disappeared, Sandy. Sold her practice without even telling me and took off."

I could see it still hurt. "Maybe she was disappointed in love." I said, prying just a little.

Could Mother be even more naïve than I was? Were both of us myopic? Poor readers?

Mother frowned. "I don't think she was much interested in...romance," she said finally. "I never once heard her mention a man." She examined her fingernails, searching for the answer. "We shared an interest in science and that's what we talked about most of the time. It was incredible for me to find someone else--and a woman yet--to talk about plants and birds with." She laughed lightly. "The others like us--all thick-lensed boys-- were chasing butterflies with a net. It seemed like such an unattractive interest for a girl. Especially to your father. He would have loved it if I...."

"Wore silk dresses and mascara?" She nodded. "Still," I began. "She--"

"I was very hurt," Mother interrupted me. "We'd become so close--she showed me what I could be...." She rubbed her reddening eyes. "I can't emphasize that enough, Sandy. Not just an extension of ....someone else. And then she fled. I thought I meant more to her. She could've told me anything, although I have to say she seldom discussed her personal life. If she were pregnant, I would've stood by her." Mother paused. "That's generally why women disappeared in those days though I never heard her mention a man."

"Even a woman her age?" I asked despite myself. "And a doctor as well? I doubt that would have...." I stopped before I said too much.

"Perhaps someone in her position--" Mother said, and then shuddered a bit. "I thought we'd be friends forever. That I could count on it."

"I'm sure you meant a great deal to her." More than you ever knew, I told myself.

"Not in the way I imagined though," Mother said. "We were closer than any two sisters. What do you think happened, Sandy? Was it something I did? Was I too...needy?" Her eyes glistened with emotion.

"I only knew her as a child. I'm sure it was something like a pregnancy. Or an unhappy romance."

The words were stiff, but she didn't notice, nodding slightly as if my words confirmed something. How could it help Dr. Brodie to have me tell her now?

She heard Jim come in behind her then and her face lit up-- like it always did. Dr. Brodie had evoked a different look entirely from Mother. I don't know why I didn't see it. We both learned how to live life on our own terms that summer--Mother as a scientist, me as a woman who loves other women.

The three of us went out for ice cream after Mother's haircut--like any happy family on a Sunday afternoon.