Venus De Madre
Stefanie Levine Cohen
Stefanie Levine Cohen
Stefanie Levine Cohen studies and writes about birth, death, afterlife and the human condition. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories exploring these topics. Stefanie also works as a volunteer visitor for Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Pennsylvania and her JD from the New York University School of Law. Her work has been published in The Montreal Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, ginosko, and The MacGuffin. Stefanie lives in Cherry Hill, NJ, with her husband and their three daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's almost moving day.
The boxes are partly packed and the walls are naked. Without paintings and family photos as camouflage, I can see all the scratches and dings we created over the years. Here, you threw a picture book into the wall—you wanted me to read a different one. There, the mirror chipped when I dropped it. I was hanging it as a surprise for you because you loved to make funny faces at yourself. The ceiling fan is a bit crooked from when you tried to stop it from spinning with a pogo stick. To me, these divots are part of our story. To the next owner, they will be broken bits that need to be repaired, or perhaps just trash.
I'm standing in the room that was your nursery twenty-three years ago. We've done it over many times since then, redecorating as you grew up and then went out into the world. I'm fond of its most recent iteration as a reading room, with that blue love seat and antique floor lamp from the consignment shop. The love seat faces the window, and when I crane my neck, I can see you wandering home from the bus stop after school, examining some leaf or worm you picked up along the way. You wore pink ribbons that never stayed in your wild hair and sparkly sneakers that never stayed tied. It was a ninety-second walk from the bus stop home. Sometimes it took you five minutes, sometimes the rest of the afternoon.
Your rocking chair is still here. I will sit in it, rock a little, just for a moment. You remember that rocker, don't you? We spent hours in that chair, sometimes even days, rocking and listening to lullabies on that plastic little tape player that was really just a toy. You loved the song about the fishes in the ocean, and I loved the one about the pretty horses. I can still smell the baby wipes and the soft lavender lotion. Is that even possible? I bet you didn't know that I used to go there just to smell that smell, to listen to those lullabies, even after you were too old to sit on my lap. It was my quiet corner. It fed me like the first day of spring. The new house owners wanted to buy the rocker for their own nursery, but I said no. The wood is unevenly faded from where the cushions protected the walnut grain from the sun, and it's probably not up to regulation anymore anyway. Why would they want this old one? They need to get their own chair.
Did I ever tell you about the time Dad's wedding ring disappeared? Years later, we found it under the rocking chair cushion. It must have slipped off his finger one night when he was rocking you to sleep, or maybe he took it off for you to play with it. I teased him about losing it—I knew he didn't like to wear jewelry—but he laughed and said it was an accident, that there was no secret intention, no desire to be rid of whatever the ring represented. He even bought another one, and then we found the original, so he had two sitting in a drawer, unworn.
Dad loved to rock you to sleep. He usually fell asleep before you did. I worried you would slide off his shoulder, but he had complete faith in the way you clung to him. I envied that faith. He was so clear and calm, his chest lifting you up and lowering you gently with each breath. Me, I never slept the same after you were born. After years of yearning for a child, and knowing I would never have another, I spent all my hours worrying about losing you. I heard you call before you awoke. I waited for that calling out.
I remember the welcome weightiness of you in my arms. You never apologized for the burden you placed on my back and shoulders, the tug of your hungry mouth, the call in the night, the squeeze on my heart. You claimed all of me as your own, as you were right to do, because that is how we are made. You swallowed me up, and I let you, gladly, because to be swallowed by you was to have purpose. You ripped me open, filled my insides from the belly out, through my arms and into my fingertips, down my legs, out into my feet and toes, my body ready to be your pillar, your safe place and strength. Silly me to fail to see you were way stronger, stronger than I, needing little more than a launching pad to scream wildly into the great universe you always knew was yours.
You showed me again and again how mighty you could be. A thunderous girl, two speeds only—stop and go. The crazy curly hair, a perfect metaphor for your chaotic soul. I cried when you straightened it, and wondered who you were when you dyed it black. I grew to like the tiny diamond in your angular nose, but I never told you, fearful you'd pierce something else and make it hard for me to look at you. The rebellious years—the boys, the cars, the late nights—I played right into them. You may have lied about where you were going—I'm not sure. You fooled me much of the time. You knew I wouldn't sleep 'til you were home, but you stayed out anyway, sure that I was wrong to wait up. I knew I was safe, you'd say. Don't you trust me? You'd look me straight on, gold flecks lighting up your sea green eyes, daring me to admit that no, I didn't trust you. I never did tell you that. What kind of a mother would I be if I did?
When you left me I was bereft, relieved, frightened, ecstatic, and undone. At eighteen, you went to save the world and save yourself. The children in Nepal, you claimed—were there no needy children closer to home? You needed to get far, far away—from me? From yourself? With your absence, my world might have opened up. I should have been free to explore, to try something new, but I wasn't. I had made your shackles my shackles, your pain my own. And then you were gone. You were empowered. I was disemboweled.
Here in the nursery there's a shelf on the wall that held a few knick-knacks that never made it to the breakfront downstairs. My favorite is a replica of the Venus de Milo you bought for me on a fifth grade class trip to the Art Museum. I remember asking you why you chose it. I thought you would say you felt sorry for her, since she had no arms. But you said she looked powerful, like a superhero, and she must have been even more special to be powerful even without arms. You knew that strength and beauty lay in the imperfection. You were ten.
The greatest teacher I've ever known came in the form of a child I thought I knew, thought I could raise up, thought I could protect. I pulled out all my best tricks, read every book, did the best I could do to perfect you. I thought that was what good mothers did. Silly me, to fail to see that perfection was in the flaws and the passion. Kudos to you, who deep down had the honor, the respect for your very own soul, who wouldn't let anyone, not even your mother, chip away at what was yours, and yours alone.
For a long time, I lacked that wisdom. I thought flaws were meant to be fixed. If I had been the archeologist who found the Venus de Milo, I would have tried to glue on her arms. But I am learning. Now I dust her carefully, smile at her striking form. I don't want to repair her broken limbs. Before I leave this room today, I will wrap her in my soft scarf for safekeeping. She can sit with me and rock a few more minutes.
I think it's a good thing, this move that we're making. This house is too big for your father and me, and the condo development will be very nice. There's a guest room so you can visit when your work and your travels allow. I hope you'll still want to visit. I think that you will. I'm glad we won't have to concern ourselves with snow removal and gutters and roof shingles that need to be replaced. I don't want to worry about the house anymore. I want to go on adventures. I want to do new things. I wish I knew what the new things were, though. I'm older, but not yet very much wiser. I don't know what I want. I'm afraid I might not know who I am.
I once heard that a mother could only be as happy as her least happy child. It occurs to me now that this is a sellout—an easy way to just shrug off the challenge of learning to be happy yourself. It's so much easier to focus on fixing things for your child. It all starts with those unnecessary Band-Aids on skinned knees. You don't need them, and you'll scab over sooner without them, but it makes a mother feel better to think she's doing something. I cringe to think of when I called the parents of kids who teased you on the playground. You were hurt by them, but furious at me. You could have gotten back at them, you said, outsmarted them, stolen their notebooks, punched them in the eye, but now I had ruined everything. I was hurt by your ingratitude toward me and shocked at your vengeance toward them. And oh, the year I called the principal to beg him to change a class assignment because you got a lousy teacher, and you were so gifted in French, and what a shame to lose a whole year's progress. It pains me to think how I got in your way, stealing your birthright of opportunities to grow into yourself. How you learned to problem-solve, I'll never know, since I never gave you the chance. I didn't know that it wasn't my job to make you happy.
There's a faded spot on the wall where a photograph used to hang of you and me the day you were born. I pushed you out, squalling, a bloody mess (that was you, not me). I bore you like a lady, or so my own mother said, when she watched you come into this world. She was proud, which pleased me. Now, the fact that I cared to maintain my composure during such a magnificently raw moment as childbirth does not please me. Today, I might be more proud of a little less restraint. I gathered you to my swollen bosom and vowed to protect you—a misguided promise to both of us, I now see. Your falls and scrapes and tears were nothing, nothing compared to the pain I felt watching you and wondering what I might have done to protect you.
How did I fail to recognize that each obstacle I removed from your path would necessitate a bigger one taking its place, because you were going to have to see what lay ahead of you, and weave your own way, wipe your own tears and dress your own wounds, if you were to grow into the glorious, wounded, repaired, fragmented and divine soul that you are, that you always were, and that you'll always be, long beyond now and forever? I was too close to the angst of each moment. You had to pull away for me to retreat and gain some perspective. There was no other way for me to see all of you, all of us.
From where I sit now in this rocking chair, I marvel at how the corners of this modest room barely contained you. Your magnificent imperfections burst beyond space. At three, at nine, at twelve—and now in your adulthood—your laugh might on occasion be too loud, but it rings of joy. Your body outgrew its softness—it is as hard and unforgiving as your opinions and self-righteousness. But you love your hard edges and your ideas and all the relentlessness that you say is your integrity. Perhaps you are right. I haven't traveled the world as you have, so I haven't seen the pain and violence and injustice of which you speak during your brief visits home. You charge into the house and whip us up in a tailspin of crazy. You bemoan the state of humanity and then bless us with your hope and vision and faith in the promise of a better world. You sleep deeply, eat occasionally, and spend inordinate hours in communication with friends all over the globe. You blow out as fast as you blow in, and when the door slams behind you, as it always does, each and every time, your father and I sink into our chairs with exhaustion and wonder what has come over us. I know these passions make you who you are, and this is why you are strident. I know that you are fueled by the desire to do good in the world, and to love, and this, in all its imperfect manifestation, is what compels you. I love you with all of your flaws and extremes. I admire my Child of the Universe, even as you wear me down, as you have always worn me down. Even when you are misguided, or too severe, I know you. I love you.
But I do not know myself in this way. I accept that to love someone is to love all the parts, even the ugly parts, even sometimes because of the ugly parts. Yes, I know that the dents in the walls are just pieces of the story that lead to the wholeness and truth, honor and integrity. To fix the dents is to render the story false. But I do not know how to turn this knowledge inward, to accept that I don't need fixing, that my dents are essential to my story. This notion that my weaknesses are a critical component of my entire narrative—this is something I understand in my mind, but struggle to know in my heart.
It is time to finish packing. It is time to place the lovely Venus into the cardboard box, tucked amidst the other memories, soft and snug. It is almost moving day. I am ready, I think, but it's hard, very hard, to leave this room. I will admit it, I am afraid. Not of what I leave behind—I believe I have reached an uneasy peace with that. But where will I go when I push beyond these walls? And who will I be when I get there? Will I recognize my own story? Can you tell me how? When I close my eyes and cease my chatter, who will I be? The protector? The fixer? The bruised one? Venus de Madre, the powerful. Will she emerge, if I let her? Will she stand strong, will she be proud? Will she have a story to tell? Will there be someone else to be, when all I've ever done is be your mother?