Betrayal

By Lynne Huffer

The goddess must now be my subject.

Would that I could sing a hymn worthy of her,

for she surely deserves it.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

 

ctober, 2002. I’m visiting Mom at her house in Denver. She has lived there with her partner, Gillian, for about ten years, just down the road from the house on Ash Street where I grew up.

“You know I didn’t come out as a lesbian until after both my parents were dead.” Mom is animated, her face flushed. “What does that tell you?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I take a sip of water. “It seems sad not to be able to really start living until after you’ve lost your parents.”

Mom doesn’t talk much about her mother’s death, but today, for some reason, she wants to.

“Things were different then,” she says. “You just didn’t talk about the important stuff the way you do now.”

“What kind of stuff?” I have an idea, but want to hear her say it.

“Oh, you know.” Mom looks embarrassed. “Sex. And death.”

My mother tells me about the last weeks of her mother’s life. It was 1957, and Mom had just graduated fromWellsCollegein the spring. She’d been dating my father for four years, and they had planned their wedding for that summer. When it became clear how sick Helen was, Mom made a plan to get married and then go take care of her mother.

But Helen said no.

“That’s not the proper way to start a marriage,” she said.

“She was probably right, you know.” Mom stirs the soup simmering on the stove, then turns to face me again.

“Anyway, we put off the wedding and I went to New Orleans, where my mother was in the hospital having a biopsy.” She pauses, trying to remember. “I think it was one of my mother’s friends who was staying there.” She looks out the window, then back at me. “Yes, that’s it. In a hotel next to the hospital.”

I think I detect a catch in her voice, barely perceptible. She carries on.

“The friend wanted to know the result of the biopsy. And I told her right away: ‘It’s malignant. It’s cancer.’”

I can see she’s feeling it all over again: the diagnosis and then the friend’s reaction.

“And the friend said: ‘Don’t you ever utter that word to another person.’ That’s what she said when I told her.” Mom’s eyes flash.

“You know, it makes me angry now,” she continues. “But at the time I felt ashamed, like I’d done something wrong. Like I’d been a bad girl.”

Something dark stirs in her clear blue eyes.

“It felt like somehow I’d betrayed my mother.”

I have a photograph of her mother, taken in Florida, where she’d gone for treatments. She looks like an angel who has fallen into a lawn chair. Her face is haggard above the giant bow just under her chin. My grandfather, Charles, sits beside her. She’s forty-seven, smiling bravely, but looks seventy. They know she’s dying: you can tell by the look on Granddaddy’s face. Or maybe I’m simply projecting his anguish when I read the time stamp on the edge of the photograph:Florida–March 1957. By September she will be buried.

My mother is in her seventies now. But I think of her as forty, younger than her own mother in theFloridalawn chair. She still plays competitive tennis every week, and she celebrated her seventieth birthday by riding her bike almost 1,500 miles from San Diego, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida.

“A lot of the other women would take breaks when they got too tired,” she says. “But no way was I going in that sag wagon. I pedaled every inch of the way.”

It’s no wonder I go on pretending she’s immortal.

I want to keep her that way. And so I caress the words that will form her story, even the scary ones like cancer, the ones that have no business near a life so vital. I fondle them like an idol to ward off the evil, and also, I must admit, to get back at her mother’s friend who shamed my mother for speaking the truth. I become my mother’s champion, repeating what she said, like a talisman:

“It’s cancer.”

And like sails my mother’s words unfurl, catching the wind again, filling her lungs with the same awesome breath that pumped her across deserts and swamps, through wheat fields and mountains.

“It was the adventure of a lifetime,” she says. “You can’t imagine the thrill. Being able to dip your bike wheel, first in the Pacific and then in the Atlantic.”

My mother is a goddess who stretches across continents.

I know that unlike my mother’s actual breath, the ventilation I create with my words is artificial. But I go on doing it, unable to take in the airless, inevitable thud of someday: the time stamp, the thumbtack, my mother snatched away, beyond any ocean, to the underworld.

___

Lynne Huffer is a Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. She has a PhD in French Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at Yale and Rice Universities. Her fields of study include feminist theory, queer theory, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies, modern French and francophone literature, literary theory, and ethics.

She is the author of Mad for Foucault; Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures; Another Colette; and numerous articles on feminist theory, queer theory, and French literature. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, Dos Passos Review, Eleven Eleven, Passager, The Rambler, Rio Grande Review, Southern California Review, Sou’wester, and Talking River Review.


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