M.M. Adjarian has published her creative work in such magazines as the Baltimore Review, Verdad, South 85 Journal, Eunoia Review, The Missing Slate, Serving House Journal, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly and has an essay forthcoming from Grub Street. Currently, she is working on a family memoir provisionally titled The Beautiful Dreamers.
By M.M. Adjarian
My mother began rewriting her will as soon as I left Malibu. Shortly thereafter, she arranged to be buried near Ernest Hemingway.
Bent over from osteoporosis, she came to Ann Arbor from the retirement village in Tempe where she was living to tell me this—and to give me some heavy sweaters she’d never worn. “For you,” she said, pulling a small rollaway suitcase behind her. “They’re of no use to me, now.” Rummaging through the purse she kept clamped to her shoulder, she pulled out a plastic bag with antique jewelry that had belonged to her grandmother. “These, too.”
Afterwards, we walked to a small sidewalk café on nearby Liberty Street for lunch. We had barely sat down when she pulled a map of Ketchum Cemetery from her purse. She had circled Hemingway’s grave and placed an X on the plot she had bought for herself.
“I was in Sun Valley recently,” she said. “While I was there, I made arrangements. When I die, this is where I will be buried.”
She took her pen and traced a small black path between the two gravesites. As far as I knew, she’d visited Ketchum only once, on a family ski trip to Sun Valley, in 1970.
At the same time she finalized her burial plans, my mother named Cornell University, her graduate alma mater, as the sole beneficiary of her estate. She told me nothing about this. Yet the elegant—if theatrical—finality of what she was doing was clear. As it turned out, transporting gifts halfway across the country and deciding to be buried near a Nobel laureate were not enough. She also insisted on buying me an expensive black leather briefcase, which absolutely had to be embossed with my initials in gold.
“But I don’t graduate for another two years!” I said.
“Make sure the store does a good job,” she said, waving an arthritic finger in my face. “Those letters need to be imprinted deeply into the leather.” I stared at her rings, emblazoned with her family’s ancient crest. My mother was a woman of impeccable style. “I’ll never see you again,” she said.
I didn’t want to believe her, but, this time, her performance was convincing. She asked me to sign papers that nullified the power-of-attorney she had given me a few years before. Relieved, I signed my name them and sent everything to her lawyer in Scottsdale. She’s giving me my freedom, I thought. In fact, she was giving me an excuse to distance myself even more from her than I already was.
So, unable to live up to the unconditional loyalty that she expected, I became estranged from my mother. The same thing happened between her and my brother Fred. Fred would say it was because he had not lived up to her expectations—which included going to medical school—but his ostracization was due to the fact that my mother saw him, as she later saw me, as a traitor to the family. For my mother, family trumped everything.
In her old-school Southern European way, she let us know that independence from her was not an option, especially not for me, her daughter. Often, my mother held up her half-sister, Ersillia, who continued to live with my grandmother even after she married my uncle Luigi, as a model of filial devotion. “This is how it should be,” she would intone with certitude that brooked no argument. Yet she always remained silent about the way she fled from the same family she celebrated through her sister.
Like our mother, my brother and I would become escape artists—college was our way out. And once we got away, we stayed away. Calling to remind me that I owed my life to her was my mother’s not-so-subtle way of attempting to lure me back. With my brother, it was different. Her possessiveness surfaced in the way she buttonholed him into discussions about my father. On his visits home from college she would hang on the open window of his white Ford Galaxie as he was leaving, unable to stop talking, unwilling to let him go.
Before Fred and my mother’s estrangement, each was the sun around which the other revolved. Yet, close as they had been, he was at a loss to explain her final wishes. Disinheritance he could understand, though not accept—they had been out of touch for more than twenty years—but burial near a vacation resort in a plot near Ernest Hemingway? That defied all logic.
“Why didn’t she choose Arizona or even Italy?” my bewildered brother asked me, shortly after her death.
This was in May of 2012, and I had no answer for him. But in the weeks that followed, the more the reality of her death sunk in, the more I began to see the possible reasons behind her choice.
Hemingway had been my mother’s favorite writer. Where she first encountered him, I don’t know. Perhaps she heard of him when she was first learning English in Italy, or later, when my brother shared the stories he was reading during his freshman year at college. What I knew for certain, growing up, was that Hemingway had cast a spell over both of them.
I remember one afternoon, the three of us walking along the shore at Zuma Beach. My brother was still living at home, so I must have been four or five. Hemingway—that password into their own private world—was, once again, on their lips. I don’t recall what they were saying, which Hemingway story they were discussing. What remains is the image of them leaning close, to hear each other over the roar of the surf, while I wondered if they had forgotten me.
“Mama! Fred!” I splashed up behind them. “Wait for me!”
They didn’t. Were they still talking about Hemingway? Were they discussing my father and the problems they were having with him? Walking together, with the closeness of lovers, my mother and brother were too absorbed in each other to notice the frustrated, sea- sodden child who wished more than anything that she could join them.
I was not the only one excluded from my mother and brother’s magic circle. My father was banished as well. He didn’t do the things my mother thought fathers were supposed to do with their sons, the things Hemingway had famously done with his boys.
“Does he ever take your brother camping? No. Does he ever play ball with him? No. As a father, he’s been a real zero.”
My father’s book restoration business allowed him to work at home. Yet his projects were demanding enough—and he solitary enough—that he found it difficult to make time for much aside from work.
“I put the clothes on everyone’s back. I make sure there’s food on the table. What more does everyone want?”
For my father, being the provider was being father enough.
I doubt that my mother saw Hemingway as a role model for my brother. Maybe he simply helped my brother and mother feel less bereft of my father. My father, who lived with them in body, but not always in spirit.
Hemingway was that unusual American who had spent significant periods abroad, in particular Italy and France. Since neither of my parents could offer much beyond their own still-forming experiences as naturalized Americans, perhaps Hemingway, born just north of the Kansas heartland where my parents lived, provided a sense of rootedness in America.
The strange thing about my mother’s veneration of Hemingway was that it seemed to have developed from limited contact. My brother had Hemingway’s major works on his bookshelf: The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, Death in the Afternoon. Yet I never saw my mother reading any of them. One room in our house had floor to ceiling shelves filled with books my mother claimed my father had “borrowed” from the public libraries he’d contracted with in Kansas City, but she ignored those books as well.
Whatever she knew about Hemingway’s writing—or about Hemingway himself—my mother was clearly drawn to the worldliness, sophistication, genius, and perhaps even the swaggering manhood he embodied. Maybe he reminded her of the American soldier she had loved and lost during the Second World War. Maybe she wished that her life could have been as adventuresome as Hemingway’s. Maybe she simply wanted to rest near the one famous person who had her undying respect.
Before illness robbed him of his creativity and will to live, Hemingway had cut a dashing figure. But the man who had been an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI, an expatriate, African big-game hunter, foreign war correspondent during WWII also struggled with alcohol abuse, insomnia and depression.
Perhaps my mother saw Hemingway as a kindred spirit. She had demons of her own. During the latter part of my childhood and most of my adolescence, my mother dealt with debilitating sleeplessness. Her doctors couldn’t seem to help. I accepted it as a part of who she was, as I accepted her rages and tears, never thinking the two were linked. Only in the wake of a nervous breakdown, when doctors unwittingly gave me the same benzodiazepine tranquilizers that my mother had used for sleep, did I finally make a connection between her sleeplessness and an undiagnosed emotional disorder.
I was four years old when I first saw traces of the darkness inside my mother. We were alone in the backyard. Wearing dark sun-glasses and an old white T-shirt that belonged to my father, my mother stood over a makeshift outdoor trestle varnishing some wooden frames for sliding glass windows that were to go in my bedroom. I was playing nearby, and I saw a rat lying in the grass. It was covered from head to tail in dried white paint and very dead. Hesitantly, I poked it with the tip of my canvas sneakers. I was too afraid to touch it but still fascinated by its lifelessness.
“Mama, look! What’s wrong with it?” I rolled the rat on the ground like a ball. “What happened? Why is it covered in paint?”
My mother stopped what she was doing. She looked at me from behind her sunglasses. “You are a rat.”
I froze, a half-formed response lodged in the back of my throat. It was not so much what she had said, but how she had said it—low, guttural, threatening. I didn’t know she had been angry or that I’d done anything wrong. Newly afraid of the mother whose eyes I could not see, I continued playing in silence.
Later, I couldn’t reconcile this terrifying woman with the one who told me happy mealtime stories and drew me funny pictures. Was this the same mother who, until I was six years old, baked me elaborate black-and-white quadruple layer Mardi Gras birthday cakes and insisted on calling everyone I knew in the neighborhood to gorge on it with me? If there was one thing my mother loved, it was children. And they loved her back, almost as much as I did. When I was in kindergarten, she came to class a few times to teach the class a few words of Italian. Everyone swooned over the vivacious, warm- eyed lady with the quick smile. “When is Rosa coming back?” they would ask my teacher. “Rosa?” I frowned. “That’s my mom.” It was too intimate a name for others to be using. She belonged to me, not them.
I did not understand that, like a child, my mother was also afraid. Perhaps this is part of the reason she adored Hemingway, who made a profession out of being brave. Fear never stopped him from acting, or in the end, pulling the shotgun trigger that ended his life. My mother, though, understood a deeper—and grimmer—truth about fear. To make others feel afraid was to exercise control. To control was to feel, at least for a moment, safe. And in a home where so much had changed so quickly in the years after I was born, security was something she desperately needed.
The ways my mother intimidated changed over time. At first, she scolded or spanked. By the time I was eight or nine and she and I were alone in the house on Fernhill, the belt she had used disappeared. She began using her hands instead. “Lo vuoi? Do you want this?” she would growl, raising her right hand at me. Over time, her punishments became increasingly random. Whether I lied, or came home late without calling, or left bits of food stuck to dishes and pans after washing them, it was all the same. I might—or might not— feel slaps that burned my face, fingers that pulled my hair, and fists that pummeled my body. “Pezzo d’imbecile. Cretina. Schifosa. Idiot. Moron. Despicable girl,” she would scream, thrusting her face into mine. “Are you ready to see the devil dance?”
I was angry but I never struck back. And I never told my father. He would have said, “That’s your mother.”
So I took refuge in permanent sullenness, slipping away to the beach, the occasional friend’s house, and eventually to Santa Monica.
My mother tried to control her inner turmoil, but the ways she chose to do it never worked. There were the sleeping pills, which she took on and off. There was religion. After her divorce from my father in 1974, she sometimes came into my room at night to talk to God. The visits stopped, not long after they started, but the insom- nia did not and neither did my mother’s attempts to find answers. When I was 10 and motivated in part by a son who roomed with Christian Scientists at UCLA, she decided that we would go to the Christian Science church, a mile from our house. She stopped attending after a few months, but this was California and seeking the path to enlightenment was not an option. It was a rite of passage. Commercials advertising Dianetics were all over the TV. Jerry Brown studied Zen Buddhism in a Japanese monastery. Even my unapologetically lapsed Catholic father eventually decided to explore higher consciousness with the Fellowship of Friends, an organization my mother called a cult.
Rather than try another church, my mother pursued the idea that mental discipline can overcome unruly emotions. That eventually led her to explore Transcendental Meditation and the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After attending a few meetings of a group in Malibu, she stopped, but she continued to watch a television show that broadcast shows based on the Maharishi’s teachings. “It’s so nice to hear only uplifting stories—not all that other trrrash you always see on TV,” she would say, expressing her disapproval with a wicked tongue roll. Perhaps it was this relentless optimism that made TM one practice she followed faithfully in the discontinuity that was her life.
My mother also searched for solace in friendship. Around the time she was trying out new faiths, she met another Italian, a small earthy barrel of a woman named Ione. Until my mother wearied of Ione’s simplicity, their favorite activity was to pass afternoons in Ione’s sunny kitchen bantering in Italian about la vita ed i mariti—life and husbands—over plates of freshly baked almond biscotti. I only spoke English, at the time, and couldn’t decipher their list of marital grievances, so I played with Ione’s curly-haired son, Paolo. Paolo liked to show me their rabbits. His father kept them behind the house and skinned them for meat.
“He likes you,” my mother would say, grinning roguishly. I preferred Paolo’s rabbits.
In the absence of God and close adult relationships, my mother eased her solitude by listening to local Spanish-language radio stations. She’d close her eyes and sing along in her rich mezzo-soprano. A voice teacher, in Ithaca, had told her that she was good enough to sing professionally. I was a young teenager worried about my mother embarrassing me, and I asked her why she did this. “Because the music is so full of feeling. I suppose you don’t understand that, do you?” I didn’t. I was too busy camping out between the speakers of my record player listening to Aerosmith and hoping some of the band’s rock and roll cool would rub off on me. Why anyone would listen to the endless lamentations of men I imagined in tight pants and oversized sombreros was more than I could comprehend.
Yet, lonely as she was, my mother loved America and never regretted her decision to emigrate. She dutifully cried when Kennedy was shot, watched spellbound as two Americans walked on the moon, conveyed dismay at the crimes of the Nixon presidency. She railed against the gas lines that sprang up during the recession following Watergate, and she expressed loathing for Nancy Reagan that sometimes sounded like envy. “Her advice is to ‘have fun.’ What does that woman know about anything?” my mother groused. “She can do what she likes because she’s got money.”
But for all the unfolding historical drama and scandal her adopted country offered, it lacked the emotional rawness of Mexican love songs. With his passion for bullfighting and the hot-blooded cultures of Spain and Cuba, Hemingway might possibly have understood my mother. In Death in the Afternoon, he wrote that a matador creates art with every performance. Sacrifice and death always exist as outcomes for the bull- fighter, just as heartbreak and desolation do for the men my mother listened to. It was a matador’s choice to prove his artistry—as it was the singer’s choice to prove his worth in the face of betrayal.
In a sense, my mother entered her private bullring when she came to America. Her inability to master her fears drove her to live in isolation, so she dodged the challenge of the immigrant life she had found comfort in the expression of sorrow for what could have been.
My mother was a misfit; despite his fame and wealth, so was Hemingway. The fondness she developed for him was something like love. Here was someone who experienced bouts of depression and anxiety, who understood what it was like to labor under the burden of expectations that came with being different and gifted. No doubt what my mother really wanted in the end was peace.
Ketchum and Sun Valley may have represented a respite from the anxiety that gnawed at her. Perhaps she had even been happy there. For my mother—whether because of her emotional volatility, the circumstances she found herself in, or both—happiness had been in short supply. So she took her joy where she could, carrying it as close to her as Hemingway carried the memory of Paris in the 1920s, privately feasting on it in a mind and heart I never truly understood.