What We’ve Made

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Amy Bern­hard

Really whip it,” my mother says, her voice sharp in my ear as she leans over my shoul­der. “Use your wrist.” We’re stand­ing in the kitchen of her house in the sub­urbs, the house where I grew up and where my mother now lives with her sec­ond hus­band. Since be­ing di­ag­nosed with rheuma­toid arthri­tis two years ago, she rarely cooks, her cup­boards crammed with yel­low­ing recipes— split pea soup, Swedish meat­balls and brown gravy, chocolate mousse cake—fa­vorite foods her aching hands can no longer pre­pare. Hang­ing above the stove is a worn news­pa­per ar­ti­cle from the sum­mer of 1999, when my mother won first prize in our county fair’s bak­ing com­pe­ti­tion. In the photo, she wears oven mitts and a wide, toothy grin, hold­ing out her golden ap­ple pie like an offering. In her right fist she clutches a bright blue rib­bon, its color faded over the years to a dull, dis­ap­point­ing gray. Now tat­tered cook­books line her shelves, their pages dusty and dog-eared. Pots and pans rust be­neath the sink. The once-white wall­pa­per has aged to ivory, flecked with grease stains from meals past. My mother nudges me to the side with her hip, wrest­ing the mix­ing bowl from my hands. Up close her knuck­les look like swollen, skin­col­ored grapes, the bones in her wrists snap­ping with each flick of the whisk around the bowl. “You have to lean into it,” she tells me, making small, tired cir­cles with the whisk un­til the flour and egg be­gin to lump to­gether and stick. A few more strokes and she stops, wipes her hands on a towel. We both try not to no­tice how they shake. “Take over from here,” she says, step­ping aside to catch her breath. I re­turn to the counter and wrap my fin­gers around the whisk’s rub­ber han­dle. Grip­ping the bowl with one hand, I push the thick bat­ter back and forth while she stands be­hind me, in­hal­ing loudly through her nose. Her face is hid­den, but I can pic­ture it nonethe­less: nar­rowed eyes, set jaw, that pinched, ex­as­per­ated mouth. She clears her throat. “How about putting some mus­cle into it?” “Okay, Mom.” I try to force down the ir­ri­ta­tion ris­ing in my chest as I pry open a can of bak­ing pow­der, spilling some on my sweater. At twenty-five I’m as clumsy in the kitchen as I was at thir­teen, my culi­nary abil­i­ties ex­tend­ing not much fur­ther than a box of pasta and a jar of spaghetti sauce heated on the stove. My mother tried to teach me to cook as a child, but I was bored and im­pa­tient, a tom­boy who pre­ferred

the rough-and-tum­ble of the out­doors to the cramped view from our kitchen win­dow, where she stood wash­ing dishes and watch­ing to make sure I didn’t swing too high. Still, this year I’ve vol­un­teered to help cook Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, de­spite her protests: “My hands are fine, Aim. Please, I can do it on my own.” It’s killing her, this grad­ual loss of con­trol. And while her stub­born­ness of­ten frus­trates me—some­times she can do it bet­ter on her own— it’s also the very trait of hers I ad­mire, the thing that has sus­tained her, that has granted her the will to strug­gle, to sur­vive. Whether lifting a fork to her mouth or pulling on shoes in the morn­ing, each day presents a new ob­sta­cle, a fresh burst of pain in her slowly stiff­en­ing joints. Tasks as sim­ple as chang­ing a light­bulb or but­ton­ing her shirt can leave her sore for hours, never mind the te­dious com­mute she makes into the city ev­ery morn­ing, fin­gers curled care­fully around the steer­ing wheel as she inches through traf­fic to North­west­ern Hos­pi­tal, where she is both a nurse and a pa­tient. She un­der­stands what the doc­tors there mean when they say bone ero­sion and au­toim­mune dis­ease. She lis­tens qui­etly as they ex­plain how the lin­ing of her joints has thinned, how her body is at­tack­ing it­self, and when they’ve stopped talk­ing and low­ered their clip­boards, my mother, a re­cent breast can­cer sur­vivor, looks up at them and gives a brisk nod. “Thank you for your time.” Gath­er­ing her things, she leaves the exam room with her face held still, suck­ing in her cheeks so the other pa­tients in the wait­ing room won’t see her cry. As I bend over the counter, I feel her green eyes drilling into the back of my neck, sharper than the blade I’m us­ing to peel ap­ples for her award-win­ning pie. I won­der what she sees, look­ing at me—who is this child stand­ing be­fore her, this daugh­ter so en­am­ored with words and es­says and ideas that she can’t be both­ered to learn to beat bat­ter or dice an onion? Pa­thetic, how her daugh­ter thinks art will save her. She’d hoped for the same with her cello, but at age twenty-two, health prob­lems in­ter­vened, leav­ing her di­vorced and liv­ing in a small Mid­west sub­urb in­stead. Or maybe she isn’t think­ing any of this. It’s the cen­tral con­flict be­tween us: the mem­oir I’m writ­ing in se­cret about our life to­gether, how I’m al­ways try­ing to in­ter­pret her moods, as­sign mean­ing to her thoughts and feel­ings. In my fam­ily, and in the Mid­west­ern cul­ture in which my mother and I were both raised, ex­pres­sion of emo­tion, par­tic­u­larly the louder ones such as anger or fear or grief, are viewed as im­po­lite, dis­loyal to place and kin. Bet­ter to mind your man­ners, keep your trou­bles to your­self. “We don’t want to of­fend any­body,” my mother would re­mind my sis­ter and me be­fore we went out in pub­lic,

check­ing to see that our clothes were neat, our teeth and hair brushed. To curse or talk back was to poke holes in the tidy do­mes­tic nar­ra­tive she’d spun from her days of cook­ing and clean­ing, days spent bend­ing over the wash­ing ma­chine, us­ing an iron to smooth the wrin­kles from our shirts. Tell your­self a story so many times and if you’re lucky, you might come to be­lieve it; for her, this was the sweet op­ti­mism of fic­tion, so much kinder than fact’s stern, un­for­giv­ing eye. Ap­pear­ance was ev­ery­thing, but once the cur­tains had been drawn for the night and the garage door low­ered, she and I would sink into the lumpy yel­low sofa and open a book, drift­ing be­yond our sub­urb’s gray side­walks and skies into other worlds, other lives. She fa­vored nov­els rich in de­scrip­tion and po­etic lan­guage over the true crime I de­voured, baf­fled by my fas­ci­na­tion with the trou­bled side of hu­man na­ture. “Why do you want to read some­thing so dark?” she’d ask as I handed my books to the sil­ver-haired li­brar­ian be­hind the check­out desk, their blood-red cov­ers lur­ing me into the shad­owy un­known, where easy an­swers didn’t ex­ist. Per­haps my mother had seen enough dark­ness in her past and needed to look away. My mother’s per­fect grades and her fam­ily’s mea­ger fi­nances earned her a full schol­ar­ship to North­west­ern Univer­sity, where she spent four years study­ing and prac­tic­ing the cello un­til the morn­ing she woke up deaf in her right ear. She was two months shy of grad­u­a­tion. Orchestra au­di­tions, graduate school ap­pli­ca­tions—she watched from a metal exam ta­ble as the fu­ture she imag­ined for her­self slipped fur­ther and fur­ther away, grow­ing as blurry as the lights the doc­tors shined in her eyes and ears. Mean­while, her class­mates dressed in con­cert black and filed onto the au­di­to­rium stage for se­nior pic­tures, their eyes flick­ing over my mother’s empty seat in the first row, sad for her but se­cretly re­lieved that it hadn’t been them. Be­neath her name in the year­book, an empty gray square says, “Not Pic­tured.” And though the doc­tors as­sured her that with time she could train her ear to play again—to dis­cern dif­fer­ences in pitch—maybe it was the sud­den era­sure of her iden­tity that over­whelmed her, made her fu­ture feel as hol­low and ab­stract as the plas­tic ear mold she wears. The story fills it­self out from here: a hasty and tur­bu­lent mar­riage, my mother sud­denly preg­nant with a daugh­ter she isn’t sure she wants. In the morn­ings, my fa­ther re­ports to work at the post of­fice and leaves my mother to wan­der the nar­row hall­ways of our ranch house alone, her bony hands cup­ping her blos­som­ing belly. I was a dif­fi­cult preg­nancy, she will tell me later, al­ways flail­ing and kick­ing. To calm me, she paces back and forth across the liv­ing room car­pet, hum­ming Bach pre­ludes

and Chopin con­cer­tos, the slow rock of her foot­steps lulling me to sleep in­side her stom­ach. Some days, ei­ther for my com­fort or her own, she drags the cello out of her bed­room closet and touches her bow to the strings, feel­ing her way back through the songs and scales she’d mem­o­rized in col­lege. She could start over, she knows—she could re­turn to the city, buy a dig­i­tal tuner, and slowly train her ear to play again. But she’s so tired and be­sides, there’s the baby to con­sider, that hard, swollen re­minder nes­tled be­tween her and the cello’s ster­num. “You’re all I have,” she used to say to me out of nowhere. I was ten, twelve, and she’d abruptly look up from her cup of cof­fee or take her eyes off the road to rest on me buckled into the pas­sen­ger seat, as if in the mid­dle of a silent con­ver­sa­tion with her­self. Said as fact— you’re all I have— the words pressed into me, etched them­selves on my skin. Her mu­sic ca­reer, her mar­riage, her body: all of it had failed her, and so she crafted a new nar­ra­tive for her­self, a story line to help or­ga­nize the events of her life, make sense of them. Maybe she can’t re­vise what hap­pened in her past, but she can at least con­trol how oth­ers per­ceive her, and in her adap­ta­tion she’s the ded­i­cated wife and mother, press­ing on de­spite the small tri­als and drudgeries of her days—loy­alty, one of her most val­ued traits. But ev­ery good hero­ine needs an an­tag­o­nist. En­ter her daugh­ter— crit­i­cal, touchy—writer of non­fic­tion, that nosy genre loyal to no one. We don’t want to of­fend any­body. To­day, help­ing my mother pre­pare Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, I do my best to keep my pa­tience. I grit my teeth when I feel her eyes darting around my shoul­der, when she stops me mid-chop to point out er­rors in my knife-han­dling tech­nique. It’s been sev­eral weeks since she told me about her dream. “You were a child,” she re­counted early one morn­ing over the phone, her voice hoarse, still con­fused from sleep. “You were a child, throw­ing flour all over my kitchen. I kept yelling at you to stop, but you wouldn’t obey me.” She’d paused, and I’d lis­tened to the rus­tle of her curly hair as she shifted the phone to her other cheek. “I woke up ter­ri­fied.” We fell silent, even­tu­ally break­ing into ner­vous laugh­ter. I’d for­got­ten about the dream un­til now, her words float­ing back to me above the soft shush­ing of the peeler. I woke up ter­ri­fied— but of what? Of my be­com­ing in­de­pen­dent? Of my writ­ing and the fam­ily mess it threat­ens to ex­pose? Years ago, when I first started to write, I asked her some­thing about my early child­hood and heard a shift in her tone of voice as she replied, “Why do you want to know?” Now, as I think of all the things I’ve writ­ten about—her lone­li­ness, my lone­li­ness, her love af­fairs, my love

af­fairs—i won­der if she’d see what I now see: that for years she was all I had. A mother whose large­ness of de­sire and hunger filled the rooms of our house, whose strug­gle to be more than she’d been raised to be gave me the first hint of a woman’s life, those dreams and demons hov­er­ing in the air, whis­per­ing sac­ri­fice, suc­ceed, sac­ri­fice, suc­ceed. What she might understand as be­tray­als are my at­tempts to con­tinue her legacy, to look hard at her choices in or­der to in­ves­ti­gate my own. But I still haven’t told her any of this. “Let me.” Be­fore I can protest, she’s al­ready moved in front of me, ap­ples slip­ping be­neath her trem­bling fin­gers. Try­ing to steady her hands, she man­ages a few shaky cuts be­fore fling­ing the peeler into the garbage. “Blade was dull.” She turns to face me, a look of sur­ren­der in her eyes as she steps back to rub her sore wrists. I say noth­ing. Se­lect­ing a new knife from the drawer, I re­turn to my place at the counter and slice slowly, hold­ing the wooden cut­ting board steady with my fin­gers. Long and lim­ber, they re­sem­ble my mother’s—“mu­si­cian’s fin­gers,” she called them, as evenings we took our places on the hard pi­ano bench. Her hands were beau­ti­ful then: smooth, shiny knuck­les, her fin­gers ar­tic­u­late and thin as pen­cils. Cov­er­ing my hands with hers, she tried teach­ing me to arch my wrists, to press down lightly on the keys, but it was no use. I was all thumbs, clunk­ing out bass notes with my left hand while my right pounded the tre­bles, jar­ring our cats from slum­ber and driv­ing them grum­bling into the kitchen. The dif­fer­ent scales and clefs made no sense to me. What I really wanted was to learn the drums, ad­mir­ing the gruff, loose sounds of my fa­vorite rock bands, but my mother re­fused. The drums were too loud, too messy. Pi­ano was more re­fined in that it de­manded del­i­cacy and poise, both of which I lacked. But my fin­gers, lithe and slen­der, so much like her own—my fin­gers gave her hope. Maybe it was her body’s be­trayal that caused my mother to seek refuge in mine, our hands mov­ing to­gether over the ivory keys as I strug­gled to learn the notes that were grad­u­ally be­com­ing painful for her to play. Yet de­spite my ha­tred of the pi­ano, part of me took se­cret plea­sure in the evening prac­tices, those drowsy, post-din­ner hours when my mother would fall silent and sur­ren­der her voice to me. Clos­ing her eyes, she swayed back and forth like a metronome, tap­ping out the rhythm on her knees: One, twothree… One, twothree. Her curly head dipped to­ward mine, and I’d lean closer to catch a whiff of her cherry lo­tion, hold­ing it for a beat in my lungs. No mat­ter how poorly I played, at the end of a song she sighed and smacked her lips, as if she had tasted some­thing de­li­cious. “Again?” she’d ask af­ter a mo­ment of quiet, and I

would rear­range my hands on the keys, her fin­gers hov­er­ing over mine, guid­ing me. “Are you go­ing to write a lot in Vir­ginia?” Her voice breaks into my con­cen­tra­tion—the knife slips, cut­ting me. “Move the blade away from you.” She takes my hand and thrusts it un­der the faucet’s warm stream, press­ing a towel against the nick be­fore set­ting a new ap­ple in front of me. Suck­ing in a breath, I pick up the knife and re­sume work, my jaw tight­en­ing as she taps her feet on the linoleum. In the liv­ing room, there’s the faint roar of a foot­ball game. The oven pops and hisses, giv­ing off the thick, starchy scent of potato casse­role be­gin­ning to brown. My mother shifts her weight, knots and un­knots her empty hands. Rest­less, she tries again. “Do you think you’ll be lonely in Vir­ginia?” I shrug and reach for an­other ap­ple. I can be stub­born, too. “I mean, spend­ing so much time by your­self?” She’s test­ing me. I hold my face still, an­noyed. “I’ll be fine,” I mut­ter, em­bar­rassed when I hear how de­fen­sive I sound. No mat­ter what I do to es­cape my mother’s watch­ful eye, she al­ways man­ages to spot the very thing I’ve tried to hide; in this case, my anx­i­ety over my up­com­ing trip to Vir­ginia, where I’ll be liv­ing for three weeks at an artist’s colony. For months I’d fan­ta­sized about the rus­tic barns and rolling hills, the brisk morn­ing walks fol­lowed by slow, silent af­ter­noons of writ­ing, but lately I feel a tight knot of dread when I think of the iso­la­tion, the empty days loom­ing in my mind like the blue-tipped moun­tains pic­tured on the colony’s web­site. The plan was to fin­ish my book—but now I re­al­ize that this means I might have to show it to her. The pos­si­bil­ity grips me with fear. Af­ter break­ing down and telling her about the colony, my mother vis­ited the web­site and said that while she agreed the pic­tures were beau­ti­ful, she didn’t understand why I wanted to go. It looks like a scam, her e-mail said. Why pay money? If you need to get away, we have a free desk in the guest bed­room—what’s hid­ing in the moun­tains that I can’t give you at home? Maybe it’s the se­cre­tive na­ture of writ­ing that both­ers my mother, who seems to view my need for soli­tude as a kind of re­bel­lion. “Why write if you won’t let any­one read it?” she asked me once, shak­ing her head when I ex­plained that I pre­fer to write for my­self. “Ev­ery­one wants to be loved,” she said mat­ter-of-factly, re­veal­ing a flash of her in­ner per­former: mem­o­ries of bright lights and au­di­ences bathed in shadow, ap­plaud­ing as she rose from her seat to bow with her cello.

“Not me,” I’d snapped, “I don’t want ap­proval,” hear­ing the lie be­fore it tum­bled out of my mouth. I had tried con­vinc­ing my­self of the same thing the day I an­nounced my de­ci­sion to quit the pi­ano, stand­ing be­fore my mother in her kitchen, my palms sweat­ing. For weeks I’d re­hearsed the con­ver­sa­tion over and over in my head, care­fully plan­ning what I was go­ing to say—that I was seven­teen; that I wanted in­de­pen­dence; that while I ap­pre­ci­ated her guidance, I needed space to make my own de­ci­sions. But as I faced her across the kitchen ta­ble, I felt my re­solve fall away, her eyes soft­en­ing with a hurt I hadn’t an­tic­i­pated. “Why are you do­ing this to me?” she asked in a voice so small I had to lean for­ward to hear her. Caught off guard, I opened my mouth to speak and then closed it. I’d ex­pected anger—had come pre­pared for it—but this was some­thing new, a vul­ner­a­bil­ity I had not yet wit­nessed. Un­sure how to re­spond, I mum­bled some­thing about want­ing to fo­cus more on home­work; what I didn’t tell her was that the home­work was for my cre­ative writ­ing class. I needed to prac­tice harder, she was al­ways say­ing, in­stead of liv­ing all day in­side my head, but this was ex­actly what I loved do­ing, spend­ing time alone, making up my own sto­ries in­stead of sim­ply play­ing the notes some­one else had writ­ten. More than any­thing, I hated per­form­ing, hated the dimly lit au­di­ences, the ea­ger looks on their faces as I shuf­fled on­stage and slid across the pol­ished bench, ar­rang­ing my hands in mid­dle C po­si­tion. Writ­ing helped to block out the world around me. Hunched over my note­book, I heard my voice grow louder in­side my head, drown­ing out my mother’s cries from down­stairs to join her on the pi­ano bench. Only now do I understand her re­ac­tion that day in the kitchen. Why are you do­ing this to me? she’d asked, her face crum­pled, her eyes nar­rowed as if bracing for an at­tack. With the loss of mo­bil­ity in her hands comes what she might per­ceive as the even­tual loss of her voice, of her abil­ity to speak through her art—mu­sic. Her body is turn­ing against her, and now she wor­ries that I am too, us­ing my mu­si­cian’s fin­gers to write words that can hurt her. And no mat­ter how hard I try to con­vince my­self oth­er­wise, part of me fears that she has a point—that I’m be­tray­ing her with my mem­oir, deny­ing her right to a voice. To­day as I work be­side my mother in her kitchen, I feel the guilt re­turn­ing, warm and fa­mil­iar like her hands on mine. I try to ig­nore her peer­ing over my shoul­der, re­sist­ing the urge to ar­gue when she gives me in­struc­tions. “You need to press harder,” she says, and I mut­ter un­der my breath, “I know,” both of us fight­ing to stay pa­tient while I push a rolling pin back and forth, making lit­tle rips in the dough. Af­ter a few min­utes of this, she un­crosses her arms and steps for­ward.

“Let me.” Grip­ping the rolling pin tight in her hands, she con­cen­trates on evening out the lumps. Her wrists trem­ble and I move closer, lay a palm on her arm. She brushes it off. “Mom?” I say, gen­tle at first and then firm: “Mom.” She stops work­ing and looks at me. Her eyes are damp, flour sticks to her hair and clothes. Slowly I reach out, feel­ing her hands tense as I cover them with mine. Nei­ther of us wants to need each other. “Ready?” I turn to her, and she nods. We fin­ish flat­ten­ing the dough in si­lence, lay­ing it smooth at the bot­tom of the pan be­fore pour­ing in the ap­ple fill­ing and fash­ion­ing a lat­tice crust. My mother sets the timer. Be­fore clos­ing the oven door, we lean in, take one last look at what we’ve made to­gether.

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