We Are All Welcome Here Online - Elizabeth Berg

Prologue

Oftentimes on summer evenings, I would sit outside with my mother and look at the constellations. We lived in a small town, far away from city lights, and our skies were inky black and so thick with stars it felt as though somebody ought to stir them. I would stretch out beside my mother’s chair, and she would lean her head back and gaze upward, smiling at Orion’s Belt, at the backward question mark of Leo, at the intimate grouping of the seven daughters of Atlas. Sometimes I would pick some of the fragrant grass I lay in to put under her nose. “Ummm!” she would say, every time, and every time there was a depth to her appreciation—and a kind of surprise, too—that made it seem as though she were smelling it for the first time. When I once commented on this, she said, “Well, it might be the last time, you never know. And if you’re aware it might be the last time, it feels like the first time.” She was always saying things like that, things you needed to replay in your mind one more time. “Life is the cure for life, and death is the cure for death,” for example.

She was a bit of a philosopher in that way, my mother. She was also a bit of a psychic, skilled in reading tarot cards and tea leaves, eerily accurate in random, off-the-cuff predictions. She knew lots of things other mothers didn’t: the laws of thermodynamics, how to write a song, the place for chili powder in chocolate, the importance of timing in telling a joke, how to paint Japanese anemones, personality quirks of George Washington. She taught me things about nature and about people’s psyches that have served me well my entire life.

She could also make me fear her. Until the age of eighteen, I did exactly what she told me to do—otherwise, she would discipline me in her odd way, by biting my finger, oftentimes so hard it bled. Then she would instruct me on how to disinfect the wound before I covered it with a Band-Aid. She had been a nurse—she could measure with extreme accuracy the degree of your fever by putting her lips to your forehead.

I brought her presents: wildflower bouquets, drawings and stories from my own hand, occasionally something from a store that I had saved for. I never felt the full pleasure of any accomplishment until she had acknowledged it. I was jealous of her attention to others. But I also punched pillows, pretending they were her, and talked between my teeth about her, hard-edged words full of frustration and deep, deep anger.

I played paper dolls at her feet, and she played with me. “Mine wants to go out to dinner tonight,” my mother once said. “She wants to wear the fanciest dress she has.” I held up the elegant long blue dress, the one used so often the tabs were barely holding on. “No,” my mother said. “The pink one.” I held it up, the sparkly one that came complete with a white fur stole and diamond bracelet. My mother sighed and said, “Yes, that’s the one. Now light me a cigarette.” She took a deep drag, then closed her eyes. I thought I knew what she was seeing: Herself, in that dress. She pulls the generous yardage in and around her after she is seated in her date’s car, and he closes the door carefully after her—she hears the satisfying, muted click. She insulates herself into her stole, breathes in the scent of her perfume, which lingers there. At the restaurant, she orders steak Diane and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. There are gold-tipped matches on each table, and a small lamp, lit romantically. A band is playing for those who want to dance, and my mother does, right after she finishes her second dessert. She will powder her nose, then hit the dance floor and not stop dancing until the band stops and not even then, for she will dance out to the car.

I did more than fantasize at my mother’s feet. I learned to read there. I drew pictures and she explained the subtle art of shading. I conjugated French verbs. I leafed through Sears catalogues, showing her what I would like to have for Christmas, and I painted both our toenails the deep red color she liked best. Once, on a September afternoon when I was six years old, I sat and listened to her patient instructions