A Brief History of Swans


I like to imagine that they are waiting for us. I like to imagine that they check the reservation (“Burton, for three, are you sure?”), that they bite their nails and tap at their watches and wait breathlessly for us to enter.

And so we enter. I am wearing my mother’s clothes, and my mother is wearing my grandmother’s clothes, and my grandmother is wearing velvet. Our hair is long, it is golden, it is identical, and this is one of our splendid illusions. My mother and my grandmother have strenuously, assiduously, dyed their hair to match mine. Now, when reminded, I dye it too. In this way, we resemble one another.

We sit in the same table every time. We have argued for ten years about the draft, the clang of the waiters, the noise. We have harassed maitre d’s, we have gotten up and changed tables mid-meal, we have weighed the case of sound against the issue of smell, and now at last we cling to the only spot that suits us, underneath a six-foot-tall statue of a giant breast.

This I love. This is home. We argue loudly, and by dessert, at least one of us has slammed our napkin down on the table and threatened to leave. Our arguments are sonorous; they are meaningless. We argue about books we have not read and politics we know nothing about. We argue about my mother’s sleeping habits and my grandmother’s eating habits and my inability to pluck my eyebrows evenly. We argue about my mother’s timekeeping, my grandmother’s worrying, about the mess I have left piled up in my room. We tell one another to be quiet—“You’re making a scene,” we hiss—and still we are no quieter, because this is what we do.

We make scenes. We frighten away boyfriends, lovers, strangers, and we do not mind, because we are together: together, we are glorious. We are effortless, inevitably overdressed, and we return on Sundays to the restaurant that knows us, that pours us free prosecco and sneaks us chocolates with the bill, where my grandmother flirts with the waiters and my mother and I shout at each other about politics, and where they save a table for us under the marble statue of the exposed breast, because this is New York, and this is home.


With them, I am beautiful. With them, the streets of New York spread out toward the rivers and come to occupy the whole world. With them, the world does not exist south of 57th Street; and the sky and the earth are made of city lights.

This is what I am so afraid of.


I may have had Cinderella, but I do not remember it. The stories I remember most vividly, the ones which I begged my mother to tell me, which I repeated to my friends with pantomime wordiness, were her stories—stories of business trips and old lovers who took on the characteristics of dryads and giants, stories which I or she have made into myth and from which even now I’ve never tried to sift out truth. I made her tell me about her escape from rabid monkeys in the Punjab. I made her tell me about a businessman in Cairo who mistook her (dressed, naturally, in a djellaba) for a beggar and struck her; how she fell and hit her head; how he spent months nursing her back to consciousness, and how, when she opened her eyes, he proposed. She may or may not have been a spy, but she was almost certainly the woman about whom Jimmy Carter had famously impure thoughts. (“I danced with him once,” she says, “and he made that speech not long after.”) I made her tell me about the men whose hearts she had broken, and the men whose hearts my grandmother had broken, and about the counts and poets in seven continents who longed for them, and the financier who, twenty years on, still called my mother for advice about how to win my grandmother back.

And then I was eight, and in the back of a taxi, and my mother was telling me about a love affair in Rio, and I remember—though she does not—the rare tantrum I threw, inexplicable in my grief. “You’ve already done everything,” I wept. “What’s left for me?”


So I set sail. At seventeen, I moved to England, as far as I could from our familiar restaurants, from waiters who knew us, from home. It was, predictably, largely an illusory escape. My mother and I still argued, all the more splendidly for the distance between us, about whether or not to straighten my hair, whether or not I had adopted the English tendency toward frump.

England was one of the few places my mother had rarely been. She liked to complain vaguely about its food, its weather, its unfashionable footwear. It was nothing like Paris, where she had lived, or like New York, which was home.

I clung to it with atavistic stubbornness. I did not brush my hair. I wore skirts my mother hated. I never wore make-up (this I could not bear to admit to my grandmother, who even when being rushed to the emergency room insisted on a judicious layer or two of mascara, but I boasted about it to my mother in the hopes that it would annoy her). I hurtled into a faithfully domestic relationship with Brian, a waistcoat-wearing Catholic who got annoyed when I dried my dishes on the wrong side of the sink. (“Couldn’t you at least date someone with a motorcycle?” my mother pleaded, barely mollified by the fact that he was, at least, an actor.) I went by my middle name. I got my boots muddy and carved out a routine: I found a sandwich shop on Oxford’s North Parade where the owner knew me, and turned up at seven in the morning in my pajamas for take-out coffee.

I did not come home for Christmas that first year. The thought of our traditions—the pageant, the Christmas Eve party at the bookstore, the inevitable fight when my mother arrived a half-hour late for dinner—galvanized me. They terrified me. If I went home, I would wear my grandmother’s jacket and let my mother straighten my hair. I would pluck my eyebrows and then we would go to dinner, and shout, and swan, and then I would never leave.

Instead I visited Brian in England, where his mother served roast pork and we all played board games and drank tea around the kitchen table, where I marveled at a full-stocked fridge and grew restless at such easy conviviality. In five days, nobody argued. I began emailing my mother New York Times op-eds, desperate in the hope that she would disagree with me.


I took this as a sign I had not yet weaned myself off home. My visits, when necessary, were brief. There were no rabid monkeys in the Punjab, nor amorous businessmen, nor broken-hearted financiers, but there was a house, several college degrees, preparations made with Brian toward a partner visa, English citizenship. My grandmother had broken every heart in New York, I told myself, and my mother had fought off wild beasts in every country in Asia, but England belonged to me. I took pride in learning new shibboleths, in the fondness I developed for cider in Sunday pubs. I scandalized my mother by informing her that I enjoyed baked beans.

“You’re becoming so English,” she would say, throwing up her hands at my perverse domesticity. For years I took this as the ultimate affront, a reminder of how I had failed to live up to the legacy of the Burton women, unencumbered by husbands or other disloyalties. Only now do I realize that she missed me.


And then my mother and my grandmother flew to Oxford for my master’s graduation, and we changed tables ten or twenty times at an Italian restaurant on North Parade. We argued over the kitchen’s limited supply of Dover sole, my mother’s wariness of carbohydrates, the veracity of the Italian recipes. For three days, my grandmother’s mascara was perfect and my mother and I made increasingly ridiculous statements that could only be countered with argument.

But Brian was there, now. Unfailing polite, impeccably English, he sat discomfited and silent, straight-backed and rational. He did not raise his voice. He made helpful mediating remarks and tried to change the subject.

I was furious. “You’ve got to argue, too,” I insisted. Our family wasn’t like other families. The love we showed was messy, grand, performative. It bubbled over out of conflict. His silence, I felt, was a judgment on us, on our way of doing things.

“How could I?” he said. “I haven’t got a view.” He had never felt more foreign to me.

I found myself missing New York, and the ease of it, and the overwhelming beauty of city lights that do not go out. I started to miss the arrangement of telephone numbers, the availability of everything bagels, the restaurant on 57th Street with its plaster statues of giant breasts. I missed arguments. I missed home. All my stubbornness reared up in defense of what I had left behind. We broke hearts, we escaped monkeys, we almost brought down governments. We were the Burton women: beholden only to each other and to the illusion we did our best to create, and to the city that we liked to think was watching us.

I asked Brian if he’d ever thought about moving to America.


The last time I was in New York, we three sat at our customary table, in the shadow of the enormous plaster breast. The waiter hugged me and snuck us glasses of prosecco and told me how much my grandmother had talked about me in the years that I’d been away. We drank too much and stuck our forks in one another’s food, and then, dizzy with the joy of homecoming, we drank more and argued long and loud about aimless things.

The bill, the waiter said, was on the house. “Your grandma’s missed you,” he said. “She’s been waiting for you to come home.”

So we stumbled to the coat check. So the girl at the counter, watching the other patrons turning toward Broadway, asked us if we were going to see the show.

“You must be new here.” My grandmother slid her fur onto her shoulders. “We are the show.”

So we walked out into the city that would never end.


Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


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Tara Isabella Burton's work on religion, culture, and place can be found at National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Al Jazeera America, Smithsonian, The BBC, The Atlantic,and more. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, Shimmer, PANK, and more. She is the winner of The Spectator's 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She has recently completed her first novel. More from this author →