Earlier this week I was in New York City to tape a segment of “Weekend Edition” with Scott Simon. I have always loved Scott Simon’s interviews, and the prospect of being on his show was both thrilling and terrifying–mostly because the way it works is, he interviews you for a half-hour or forty-five minutes, and then–depending on a combination of world events and your own ability to string sentences together in an eloquent manner, a segment either a) doesn’t run at all, b) runs for three minutes, or c) runs for up to ten minutes. So my own personal eloquence was on the line. Now, I’m certain that one of the reasons I became a writer is because I never feel, when I’m speaking, like I’m getting it right. I never say quite what I intend to. I tend to feel like I’ve landed slightly to the side of the point I’m trying to make. The words flee, they have no heft, unless I’m committing them to the page. I like to control my ideas, to hone them and craft them–arrange and re-arrange words until they fall into a precise order, like a line of musical notes. And you can’t do that on the radio.
Before heading down to NPR’s offices, I took myself to lunch at a restaurant called E.A.T. on the Upper East Side. I settled into a seat against a mirrored wall, ordered a ridiculously expensive salad and cappuccino, and realized that I was thinking about my mother. E.A.T. was a restaurant where, for many years, I used to meet her for lunch. We probably had fifty E.A.T. lunches, my mother and I. The bread basket with its raisin nut bread, it’s ciabatta and sourdough, are like Marcel’s madeleines to me. As readers of my non-fiction know, my mother and I had, to put it mildly, a contentious relationship. (One magazine editor who shall remain nameless even carped behind my back that I have only one subject: my mother.) Be that as it may, for many years it is true that I turned my difficult mother into my muse — it was all I could reasonably do with her. And now–as I sat in this improbable, noisy restaurant filled with well-turned out women in complicated designer jeans, their sapphire-and-diamond solitaires flashing–my mother, who died almost four years ago, appeared before me. Not quite an apparition, she was nonetheless very much present. And she was not pleased. How could she be? I was here. She was not. I was about to go on NPR. She was not. I was about to have an essay come out in the June issue of Vogue, about HER. She was not. I had become the author, not only of my own destiny, but, in a deeply uncomfortable way, of hers as well. The mother of my memory quivered with rage. Her jaw shook. She seemed to be telling me that I am a terrible person and deserve nothing good. I felt myself shrink. I began to disappear.
I paid the check, bolted out of the restaurant, and began to quickly walk downtown on Madison Avenue, trying to leave my mother behind, in the cathedral of memory that is E.A.T.. As I headed south, I had no way of knowing that in just an hour, Scott Simon would ask me to read a passage from Black & White about a little girl who wants to shrug out of her own skin, to leave her shell behind the way the cicadas in her backyard do. But what I was thinking, on that beautiful spring day as I headed off to do battle with my own fears and my own sense of deserving, was that my mother will always be lurking in the cathedrals of memory: Jean-Georges, where my husband and I first introduced her to my future in-laws. Edgar’s Cafe on West 84th Street, where she first met my husband after we had been dating for three weeks. The hushed, airy floors of Bergdorf Goodman, where I used to walk with her–our shared love of fashion one of our only true bonds. My mother–all of our mothers, whether we had it easy with them or not–is like a phantom limb. I feel her presence–and her absence–when I least expect it. I will never be able to totally shrug out of the skin of my childhood and leave her behind. Honestly, I don’t even want to. Not exactly.