Litany for My Mother’s Body

By

My mother’s body horrified me. Nine years old, I watched her dress. Her belly was rippled and sagged and scarred—a used-up bag of nothing. Her legs were thick and white and veiny, monumental and pasty soft. Her arms were brown from the sun, from hoeing her garden and planting the rows of corn and pumpkins and squash and green beans, the phlox and honeysuckle bush by the fence. From standing in the back, chopping wood, balancing the wood on the block and raising the axe high over her head and bringing it down. Loading the wood in her arms and taking it inside to the woodbox, loading the wood into the stove. Outside, pulling the rope to haul the water from the well, pouring it into the next bucket, bringing it inside, pouring it into the big kettles, putting them on the stove to heat, pouring them into the dishpan. Brown arms from washing the laundry in the backyard with the wringer washing machine, feeding the washed and rinsed clothes through the two turning rollers that squeezed the water out of them, using that rinse water for the next wash water. Hanging the laundry in rows. Brown from swimming in the Rio Grande, the riv, she called it, in her one piece swimsuit that to my relief covered her saggy baggy belly but showed her lumpy dumpy legs, so white, so never tanned, so jiggling as she pushed forward with her brown arms into the water, her hands together like a prayer, her shriek echoing off the canyon walls as she plunged into the cold snowmelted Rio Grande.

My mother’s body horrified her mother. From the time my mother was two, her mother, who only fed her body cigarettes and coffee, tried to do something about my mother’s body. She put her on diets that lasted her childhood, my mother who stood in the night eating whipped cream from the can, the refrigerator open in the kitchen, the cold air blasting her face as she squirted the cream until her mouth overflowed, cream that padded her hips and filled her cheeks and blew up her breasts. Boobs Balogh, they called her. She swallowed diet pills her mother fed her. She ate nothing for her mother. She pushed on the lever and the whipped cream foamed into her mouth, filling her, filling her with nothing, most of it air.

My mother laid her body down for boys. Boys in backseats. Boys in stairwells, boys in phone booths, boys in bushes, boys on park outs, boys who shoved their dicks into her and pumped away and finished in her body and left her there, her body filled with nothing but leftovers, and then the babies they made, which my mother’s mother helped to get out of her body by hiring some man or woman, somebody who knew something about it; I almost died, my mother told me and she said it happened once, but my uncle said five and somewhere in there is the truth, though what matters is the out, the get it out of this body which is horrifying but it’s all I have, and then the body that she kept inside her, the baby that she gave away, whose little body she never held. They put me to sleep and when I woke up there was no baby, she said.

And then, me. I was the first body from her body that she kept.

My mother’s body carried my brother and pushed him out in a tipi. My mother’s body carried my sister and pushed her out in a bed at home. My mother’s body carried my brother and pushed him out in the same bed. My mother’s body had another baby but that one she got rid of and then she was done with carrying bodies in her body.

DSCF8563My mother was horrified by her own body, so she made it a temple. She would be pure. She didn’t eat sugar. She didn’t eat potato chips, or red dye number 2, or hot dogs, or bologna, or white bread that stays in your gut for seven years, or ice cream. Then she went into the pantry with a spoon and stood over the five gallon tub of organic honey and spoon after spoon went into her mouth, so I couldn’t find her but it didn’t matter because I wandered alone in the mesa, not thinking of my mother and her body, risking my own body climbing down the side of the cliff to the Rio Grande. And after she was good she was bad: the honey, ice cream, white bread, chips, pudding, chocolate, red dye, all of it, all of it, all of it into her body. “If you ate too much, just go stick your fingers down your throat,” my mother said.

My mother’s body took the men’s blows. Blows of words, and blows of fists and blows of boots and blows of backhands and front hands, blows and blows. Bruises I saw on her face; bruises on her body I didn’t see, bruises on her heart she told me about. I’m alone I’m alone I don’t have anybody at all. She laid her body down for love. He loves me. You just don’t understand.

My mother’s body bent over her worktable making silver jewelry. Her arms went white; her hands went horny with calluses; her body went limp, poisoned by silver dust, until she bought an exhaust fan. My mother curled her body around pillows. There were pillows everywhere in her house to soften where she kept her body.

My mother put beer in her body. My mother put wine in her body. My mother put drugs in her body.

My mother gave her body to yoga. She stretched and posed. Downward dog. Cobra. Child’s pose.

My mother’s body held her death inside it. A virus, not a body but a life, dividing and dividing and dividing, endlessly perfectly killing her body, eating her liver a year at a time, and my mother took her body to the healer who did not know how to heal though he gave her tinctures that smelled of swamp that she put on her tongue one drop at a time, a delicate dispensing of hope, a shiver, a shake of the head at the taste.

My mother’s body failed. It’s getting so I can’t spell anymore, she wrote, all of it spelled just right, but her handwriting gone bad, shaking with death. Then my mother’s hands could not write her name. My mother fell in the garden and it took the two old women forty-five minutes to lift her body upright. I flew home to see how small her body had gotten, my mother whose belly was finally, finally flat, whose body was nothing but fragile skin that scraped off on her soft pillows, leaving the body exposed, muscles raw and red and oh, it stings. Oh shoot, she said, and showed me her arm, peeled like a filet ready for roasting.

In the organic grocery my mother’s hips could not hold up her pants and I struggled to pull them up. My pants are falling off me!, she said, not happy or laughing but angry with me for not getting them up faster to cover her body.

My mother’s eyes glowed. The lenses the doctors sewed in her eyes flashed in the light, as if she hid behind them. But her eyes glowed, and she listened, nodding, as I went over the papers. Understanding nothing, nodding. Then, the page: I do not want my body sustained by artificial breathing. By artificial nutrition. By artificial hydration. Oh!, she said, her eyes wide and glowing. I don’t want anything artificial in my body!

I said, I am sorry in my lifetime that I was not a better daughter to you.

She said, Well that’s a burden you don’t have to bear.

I said, Still, I’m sorry. I wish I had been a better daughter to you, in my lifetime.

Well, I wasn’t a very good mother, either, she said. And then, because her body was failing, she forgot what we had been talking about.

My mother’s body wouldn’t take food. We spooned it in her mouth and she spit it out. Venison. Organic applesauce fresh made. Fresh milk that came in a glass bottle with a plug of cream on top. We lifted her body out of the bed, careful not to peel the skin from her bones, and put her on the commode. She moaned, and then the smell. Suppressing gag reflex, my sister said, carrying what came from my mother’s body to the toilet. Brown Urine. Such a smell. As if her body was expelling everything she’d ever hated about her body. Every blow, every bit of loneliness, every sorrow.

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My mother’s smile, radiant. I love you mom. I know, she said. Sighing, closing her eyes, her body still, only her neck moving to turn to me. And again, later, the radiant smile, the glowing eyes. I love you mom. I love you too, my mother said, though it seemed she might not be completely there. It might be only her body there, talking.

My mother’s body could no longer get out of bed. She lay with her mouth open, and I dipped the pink sponge in water to wet her tongue, her gums, her lips. Her mouth open like an infant, her hands curled under chin, and beside her in the other bed, her newborn grandson, not of her body but of her son’s body and so of her body, sleeping, his mouth open, his hands curled under his chin.

My mother in the night moaning. Help, help, help me, help me, I’m peeing, oh god I’m peeing help me and I hold her, keep her from throwing her body out of the bed, hold her hush, it’s all right it’s all right just let it come out hush, hush I love you hush and then it passes out of her and she is quiet.

She was frightened, peeing, but it was her in there.

She has gone from her body again. I am left only her body, and the smell, the diaper I must shuck from her body, the sheets, the turning to one side and the other, her legs like bones with the fragile skin that peels off so easily, my mother’s body, my mother’s body, my mother’s body.

My mother’s body is done. My mother arches her neck and behind her is the sky—my mother looking back at the sky moans, Help. Help, Help help. I push morphine into her body. Help. My brother holds her hand, my sister holds her hand, I hold her and put my finger on her neck and she calls help. My mother’s body cannot breathe. The breath stops. My brother sobs. But her heart beats. Under my fingers her heart beats on, stubborn bruised heart, beautiful heart, the heart of my mother’s body. It’s still beating I say, and then another breath, her eyes still looking for the sky, the tree and the sky behind it and the mountain, and my brother sobs and my sister weeps and her blood moves under my fingers, my mother’s heart beats on under my hand. And then it stops.

We bathe my mother’s body. She has no hair on her vagina. This place that issued me, that took the boys and the men and gave the blood and the babies. No hair. But not a child’s or a baby’s, not my daughter’s pink and fresh, plump and sweet like a dolphin’s nose. Wrinkled, without fat, without muscle. Only skin, and the bone beneath, and the golden brown stain of what issued from her body in the last days. Her butt muscles are gone. Her anus is halfway up her back. But the scars on her belly, the stretch marks, the saggy belly. This I know. I rub cream into her legs and feel only the skin and the bones of my mother’s body. I think of her in her swimsuit, her brown arms raised, her hands together as if in prayer, running on her sturdy white legs into the water, her shriek echoing off the cliffs around us.

My daughter and my sister’s daughter comb the hair on my mother’s body. They find her favorite oils and anoint the face of my mother’s body. We dress my mother’s body in purple silk. We cover my mother’s body in a red Pendleton blanket. The frown that has been on her face releases. She seems to almost smile, her eyes not quite closed, as if peering slyly at us, as if she knows a joke.

My brother rises at dawn to dig a hole in the ground for my mother’s body.

My mother lies on a table and around her the people eat. Sweet things, bread things, hot things, good things. Everything her body craved. We eat this in memory of you and your body.

We sew my mother’s body into the blanket. I make stitches. My sister makes stitches. My brother’s wife, my half sister. Other women. We sew my mother’s body into a warm blanket and then the men carry her down to the hole my brother and other men have dug in the ground, up since dawn for two days digging. We stand around the grave and put ropes under my mother’s body and lower her into the ground onto a bed of cedar boughs under the New Mexico sky. To the east the moon is rising over the mountains. To the west the sun is setting. The view goes on forever as if God has made it for my mother’s body.

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Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Goldberry Long is the author of the novel, Juniper Tree Burning. Her second novel, O'Keeffe's Girl, is under contract at Simon and Schuster. She teaches at University of California, Riverside. More from this author →