“Until her death, I don’t believe I ever danced an Allemanda. A linear movement in binary form.”

mum on gonzales beach

On Mother’s Day, I remember my mother, Shirley Macdonald Kishkan, who died in 2010. I’ve written about her, most recently in my book, Blue Portugal & Other Essays. Here’s a section from “We are still here (J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004)”.

1. Allemanda, in Toulouse, on Mount Tolmie

3.two deer

The opening, grave and ominous.

My mother has been dead for seven years. I’ve been researching family history—hers, in part; though mostly my father’s mother’s origins in Horni Lomná, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood, across seas and generations, the maps imaginary and remote. How my mother’s mother was unknown to her—my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless—and how that first terrible loss shaped her, blank area on the map. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function, scribble her place in geography. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize—too late—what she gave me and my brothers.

In Toulouse, last March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors left across a landscape. A map, on paper or in memory, a field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a guided tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs—a long road pink with oleander leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. (As far as I know, she never used a camera.) I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

(Walk three steps, then lift a foot. 2/4 time.)

Now I wish I’d offered to take her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure at the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives. She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.

I have a photo album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography—she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present, her clear eyes, her smile. (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…” Her eyes, in mine. Her knees, with that migrating pain. At the end of her life, she could barely walk.)

Until her death, I don’t believe I ever danced an Allemanda. A linear movement in binary form. Walk three steps, then lift a foot. 2/4 time. Four couples, her children and their partners, promenading the length of her living room in an apartment on the slope of Mount Tolmie, entwining their arms, as one lifts a box of photographs (though none of France), another passes a load of her clothing (the cardigans, the polyester trousers, the tiny socks, a few threadbare nightdresses), and the remaining dancers keep their place in the movement. There is nothing French in the apartment, no music but what I hear in my head as I step, as I sort, as I turn, turn, the old harmonies returning.

From Toulouse, lift, lift, make a place in your arms for a mother who ran like a girl to rejoin her friends who waited in France, who watched deer make their own graceful steps below her window on Mount Tolmie, lace your arms with hers, turn, turn, towards her, away. Careful with your knees as you lift each foot, stand where she stood, 2/4 time, the years passing before the window, like the deer.

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