Mother

BY
GRACE PALEY

ONE DAY I WAS listening to the AM radio. I heard a song:

“Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song, I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly. If you come home at 4 A.M. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already. Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places—in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father.

They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they’d just come over on the boat. They’d just learned the first English words. It seemed to them that he had just proudly handed in a 100 percent correct exam to the American anatomy professor. It seemed as though she’d just quit the shop for the kitchen.

I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room.

She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don’t talk so much anymore.

I’m tired, he said. Can’t you see? I saw maybe thirty people today. All sick, all talk talk talk talk. Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I’m tired, he said.

Then she died.

[from: LATER THE SAME DAY, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985]

6 Comments

  1. I remember this, Norb:

    Two aging Leftists pay tribute to the ‘old’ patriotism: Questioning wrongs

    By Patrick T. Reardon, Tribune staff reporter | June 5, 2002

    Studs Terkel called Grace Paley an “improper” woman last week. And everyone knew it was a high compliment. “She’s always involved in making trouble,” Terkel said. And Paley smiled. And so did the crowd of 250 people gathered Thursday in the ballroom of the Union League Club — an elegant stronghold of the same American Establishment that the two writers and social activists have relentlessly challenged throughout their long, long careers. “She is an improper person always to people of authority,” Terkel said with great respect.

  2. How true this is–no matter what undercurrents reign in the mother-daughter relationship, there will always be someone we want to tell them after they’re gone.

  3. Norb, I think you have to unlock your feelings or rather if your mother is to live on, then in both your imagination and memory. And memory flows if she is no longer concrete, standing in the doorway, but ongoing in the present of your own life. That is the way to go, my son, she would say to you and would surprise you even with a smile. It would be a way to end a kind of neutralization of your feelings. Lets say, mothers, are very political as they like to rule over your emotions. Give yourself a chance to break free without losing her confidence in you.

  4. Alice D'Alessio

    April 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Love Grace Paley. Wish she weren’t gone. She had perfect pitch.

  5. Thanks, Norb. This touched a chord with me. I was not quite 30 when my Mother died way too soon at age 59. Standing in the doorway today, she would remind me, as she did by the way she lived, to be respectful of the “grays” in life…it is not all black and white.

  6. I missed the commentary you often include with your choices. I remember you praising Paley in a class I took from you long ago; I have her Collected Stories; is there another story you would recommend?

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