Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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It's 6 a.m., and the fog is just lifting as I step into my Berkeley back garden. I have one hour to myself before the kids get up.

Whenever I'm here alone, I feel close to Ma. I remember watching her contentedly digging, planting, weeding until the freckles along her strong arms darkened, multiplied, and finally, by mid-summer, blended into a mottled brown farmer's tan. After she died, I drove to my family home in Martinez once a week to check on the place and water the yard. Even after every last scrap of my family's life had been hauled out of the house, I still felt Ma there in that overgrown garden: her roses bloomed in the hot East Bay sun, her paper narcissus popped up through the weeds. Even her kitchen scraps were still decomposing in the compost bin. With the advance of Alzheimer's disease, she had spent less time in her garden, but the plants kept coming back; they held her shape.

The day we closed escrow on Ma's house, I began work here in my own wild yard. I rolled back blankets of ivy and ripped their roots out of the hard soil. I weeded, watered, and dug in rich, warm compost. One evening at the kitchen table, as April rain pelted the windows, Cleo and Zoë pushed seeds into peat pots filled with potting soil, just as my big sister, Alice, and I had done 35 years earlier.

Now I peer at the tiny new beans dangling on the vine and stoop to pull a weed, breathing in the scent of sweet peas. I know how Ma felt; this daily ritual keeps me sane.

A yell breaks loose from the house above me:


I hold my breath. Will Zoë be my easygoing eight-year-old helper today, breezily dressing and skipping downstairs to make her own breakfast, or an insecure, tantrum-prone, pre-pre-teenage stress case? Will she be her own person, or will she be glued oppressively to her carefree little sister, insisting that they dress like identical twins, in identical t-shirts, with identical braids?

The two girls emerge on the back porch above me. Zoë glares down at me, hands on her hips.

"Mom! We need our rainbow t-shirts. Do you have them?"

Four-year-old Cleo stands naked, a mass of matted hair framing her face. She eyes her big sister uncertainly, awaiting her assignment from the fashion director. It seems this is going to be an identical twins morning.

I think it's sweet that my girls want to color-coordinate, that even at four years apart they play so well together. But Zoë's need to feel intimately connected with Cleo throughout the day, to be one with her, has taken on a panicky quality. She sometimes becomes so desperately intent on their sameness, down to their hair bands and shoelaces, that it's as if she wants to actually become Cleo.

"I think those shirts are in the wash, honey. But Zoë, just get dressed and let Cleo pick out her own clothes."

"She WANTS to! We HAVE to!" Zoë's voice rises, becoming more nasal. "Besides, I'm not going to school if you don't let us."

Cleo the peacemaker/enabler breaks in: "It's okay, Mama, we can. I said so."

"We don't have time for special outfits this morning," I say. I clench my teeth. Zoë seems so vulnerable whenever this happens, as if she'll break in two if they aren't the same. And I'm afraid it's my fault. I wanted them to have a pure sister-love, devotion, without complication. I encouraged them to intertwine, to depend upon each other, in hopes that they wouldn't have to experience the kind of antagonism that broiled between me and my sister.

When I was around four, someone from Martinez Elementary School did my family the enormous disfavor of testing my sister, Alice, to determine her IQ. I didn't know the circumstances or the numbers, but I always knew that my sister was a child genius. Two years her junior, I attended a different school and was never tested, but it seemed obvious enough to me that I was, by default, the stupid one.

I always felt less-than. Again and again I tried to prove myself, tried to show what I knew, though I always knew less than she. "You're wrong," she would say, "you don't know anything. I know, I've learned all about that already." But when she won game after game of checkers, instead of asking her how, I threw the red and black pieces across the room in frustration. "You're acting like a baby," she'd announce haughtily, and I knew she was right. Raging with humiliation, I dug my fingernails far enough into her wrist to draw blood. I was determined to become everything she was not: irresponsible, artistic, mischievous.

We couldn't stand each other, yet we loved each other. She was there in the night when I was scared of the dark. When Daddy and Ma fought or drank too much, we kept each other company, and on my first day of school, when I didn't know anybody, Alice helped me through. We struck a tricky balance between deep, enduring loyalty and a daily mutual antagonism that lasted until we both moved out of the house.

By the time I got pregnant with Cleo, I wanted a second child very badly. Ma was getting worse, and I was appreciating Alice in new ways. She was the one person who could fully corroborate the subtle changes in Ma, and who empathized in intimate detail with my horror of slowly losing her. I didn't want Zoë to ever have to go through something like this alone. But nor did I want her to have to compete for approval or define herself as someone's polar opposite in order to survive. So I made my pregnancy all about their connection.

"This is YOUR baby," I said to Zoë. "She is for you. She'll be on your team because you two will get to be kids together. When you guys are mad, you can stage a revolution against us parents. And when you are grownups, you will help each other to tolerate us in our old age."

It seemed like a brilliant tactic at the time, but watching Zoë and Cleo now, I wonder what weird dynamic I have created between my children. Zoë depends on Cleo being hers. They seem almost too close, too joined. Why is it SO important that they look the same? I wonder if Zoë, in her own kid-logic, has decided that if they look exactly alike, no one will compare them, and then they will be equally loved. Or maybe they really are just close, loving sisters, and I don't recognize that when I see it.

Whatever it is, I surely can't control it. My mind retreats to a familiar cul-de-sac: What would Ma say about this if I could talk to her now? I sigh and fold my arms, looking up at my two beautiful daughters and thinking of Alice and me.

Our interactions had a secret chemistry. We were like two aspens on a hillside -- we looked like separate beings, but underground, we shared the same tangled system of roots, and we felt things we couldn't quite understand stirring in the dark soil beneath us. What poisoned her poisoned me; what fed her fed me. It was the connection that was important. No matter what was happening in our lives, we always have that.

"Look," I say, "you guys deal with this. Find clothes. Put them on. I don't care what clothes they are, but do it in the next ten minutes. You are both beautiful no matter how you dress. And I love you."

Zoë stomps loudly away, and Cleo follows. I take a last glance around the garden. In my inexperience, I have planted the tomato plants too close together and without cages. They are falling across a row of tall carrot tops, helter-skelter, with tiny yellow flowers on their every limb. When they bear fruit, they will be impossible to contain or support. I will have to stake them retroactively this weekend, and hope for the best.

Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.

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