Of all the things a girl could wonder about her mother, I wondered about my mother’s egg. My mother was not like other mothers, with a ritual artillery of powders and potions to defend against the wear and tear of motherhood. She had coffee and cigarettes. But she also had an egg which sat atop the highest shelf in her closet. After her divorce from my father, the egg was banished to the garage, soaking up grime and carbons. My parents loved that word, banished. It was versatile and encapsulated the totality of the Jewish experience as they knew it, or at least as it was taught to them.
When the egg was still fresh and unchallenged on its throne in the closet, everything about it intrigued me: What was it made of? What it was doing there, silent and elevated, watching over all of us as if it were some kind of zeppelin? My parents’ bedroom was where we watched a black and white Zenith TV, right up until their marital apocalypse. It was also where my father tried to build frigates and destroyers, but no ships ever materialized. They were models, a million pieces disassembled over a gluey landscape that had once been a card table. How my sister and I loved to bang our fists on the tabletop and make those millions of little pieces of ship and frigate jump, jump, jump! We really thought we were getting away with something, but the egg must have seen it all, thankful that its own shell was not in our hands.
The egg was the size of a piñata. It might have been papier-mâché, or perhaps it was ceramic. It glittered when light touched it and reminded me of shining stars Hollywood Boulevard. Perhaps it was a seed to grow Pleasure Island, or Halloween, or even Easter and the Easter bunny himself. Easter was the most verboten of the Christian holidays. We occasionally received the trappings of Easter but never an explanation of it. The fact that my mother harbored the best and biggest Easter egg on the planet was like a secret. All questions and manner of investigation—opening the closet door wider to get a better look, or asking Mom and Dad about the egg—were met with a resounding no. The egg was our family’s equivalent of that television show, “The Outer Limits.”
The egg rested on its side, supported by a tableau of grass and roses that nowadays would be made of icing crowning a gourmet cupcake. When my mother deigned to “renovate herself,’’ or “make herself presentable’’ for a dinner party or some business meeting with my father’s clients, she would have to leave the closet door open as she searched through her wardrobe. Her weight being the perennial issue it was, she would have to audition more than a few outfits to make sure she could still “hide a multitude of sins,’’ as she put it. This was my only chance to study the egg and what might be inside it.
When I imagine that egg now, I think of my mother’s Phi Beta Kappa key-winning and her mostly asymptomatic mind, cresting and lapping out from the shell. When I was in fourth grade, the shell that was her competence and devotion to all of us—her daughters, her cousins, her best friends, even her husband—cracked, and her rationality and smarts oozed out. She had what was then called “a nervous breakdown,’’ and was institutionalized for what seemed like months. What the diagnosis was in contemporary terms I do not know, for she kept that a secret. When she came back from the hospital, she was incredibly delicate. She did not seem to gather back her strength until after the divorce and after menopause. What had controlled her emotions and her intellect wasn’t there for a long time.
“Our problem is that we’re just not tough enough,’’ was her one-size-fits all explanation for all the tragedies that engulfed our family: one pre-Roe v. Wade abortion resulted in years of serious illnesses for one relative; there was a suicide attempt by another; my sister developed alcoholism and anorexia; and my first marriage ended in divorce. There were many other disappointments, either romantic or career-related, that followed for me and my sister. She saw our suffering as the exclusive result of bad behavior by outsiders. The truth is much more complex than that, but it’s hard for me to be objective. I contain the facts, hours and arrangements of events, but I can’t quite put it all together with only the things that I know.
After my mother’s breakdown, I discovered that the egg was a centerpiece at one of her showers. This did nothing to diminish the mystery. Was it her wedding shower? A baby shower? Why an egg? My mother had been an inveterate omelet eater when she was a young, single girl. Omelets were the only substantial meal she could afford on her entry-level, pre-feminist movement salary in 1950’s Manhattan. There was also a restaurant in Los Angeles during my 1960’s childhood, The Egg and I. It was on Wilshire Boulevard, then known as the Miracle Mile. This wondrous confluence of location and constituents became the object of much speculation for my mother and grandmother. Together they were chronic everything-eaters, dieters, and recipe hounds. For much of their lives they were on diets, and on The Egg and I they would wax elaborate and specific, right down to the exacting measurements of the forbidden ingredients.
If the egg was from one of my mother’s showers, I can just imagine all of the things it must have represented: my mother the old maid, finally being brought to wed; my mother, the Army brat, finally settling in one place; the wars were over, and no one could conceive of the next. My mother’s father, a colonel in the U.S. Army, was preparing for retirement. My father, a public school teacher denied tenure, was going into business with his father, a retreat to the family produce business. Auspicious times, if not great beginnings.
The egg was the centerpiece for a world of impossibilities: interstate highways, satellites, mechanized agriculture, and open suburban expanses. There was room for eggs of all kinds to thrive and multiply, for a nation of eggs to march against the din of Communism, dividing and pacifying a globe in danger of exploitation. The egg was my mother’s proof of her vibrant life before marriage, and the curtailed possibilities after the wedding.
My father liked to build models, and after my sister and I thoroughly destroyed his hobby, he dreamt of pre-World War II aircraft. He took us to see The Great Waldo Pepper, about barnstormers during the Depression, and he later recounted how he could have been in every scene himself had the producers asked him. In the bedroom, he had his Zenith television to deliver million dollar movies interspersed with locally-produced commercials for miracle cleaners and cures and nursing careers. The Corsican Brothers, Dawn Patrol, Things to Come, and The Maltese Falcon: What my father lacked in vocabulary he made up in what he memorized from film dialogue. He could quote like a swashbuckler or a flying ace taking on the Germans. He’d seen the present and it horrified him, so for two or three hours each night, he retreated into those seeds of light that spread themselves around his bedroom in the form of old movies.
Christmas trees were his business once he had destroyed the produce business he inherited. He harvested and sold what the Christians could not. It was an honorable profession for a Jewish man, he said. Someone had to do it. Trees rise from seeds, not eggs, seeds being the discreet products of intercourse that require no contact. Seeds could be roasted, salted, carried in the pocket. No special arrangements were needed. My father only wanted what he could carry with him, in his mind: the memory of farms in Idaho and Michigan where his Christmas trees were cultivated, the entire Pacific Northwest where we vacationed every summer before the trees were severed from their roots and stacked in refrigerated cars for that long trek into the retail specter.
In his later years, my father would confess to hating the egg, and everything else my mother collected. Most of all, he hated female biology. All discussion of eggs, sex, animals and their mechanics, he abhorred. He thought biology crude in its scheduling and manners. For my mother to even secretly display the destiny or purpose of her daughters was just the first offense. The other offenses were all the emblems she brought to the household from the world outside it, all the plunder from the good war that even my father romanticized. But her father had won that war, for democracy and for all of us. My father’s dislike included paintings her father “purchased’’ in Germany, the rugs he “bargained for” in the Indian subcontinent, all kinds of finery in silk and straw from the Empire of the Sun that serendipitously fell into the lap of the base Quartermaster.
I have so many questions to ask. How does a clutter-phobic man come to marry a woman who personified the American Century in its sweep and materialism? “Is Mommy beautiful?” my sister and I used to ask him. “She’s beautiful on the inside,’’ he’d say. We understood our father’s answer no better than we understood the purpose or the contents of that egg.
An egg is a vessel, a temporary menace, discarded when there is time enough to linger in the air, under a mother’s breast, in the torso and protection of a male figure. Maybe I am creating mystery where there is none, so I might keep on thinking of these people. Maybe there are only facts, sequences of events that are not linear, that are not a narrative but rather an order through mathematics and through memory. My mother and sister died within nine months of each other, and my father followed four years later. I have no one with whom to grieve. I am much like that last branch, the heirloom seed, stubbornly persisting as a storehouse of unsorted information. My daughter will one day decide what is relevant. She will decide what is just noise and unnecessary data.
My mother said she wanted to be a librarian or an architect. She wanted a profession that relied on sequences and evidence. Here is the book I read, and here is the next, and the next. Here is the building I built with my own hands. It is this tall and weighs this much, and it will stand long after I am gone. There should have been more of my mother, if not to explain, then to accompany these facts, more than odd memories that do not easily translate into stories, whether they be written or anecdotes I wish for my daughter to inherit. When I told my mother I was pregnant, she said, “Oh my God!” as if she had no intention of ever becoming a grandmother. Her first question was the same one my doctor asked as he perused my medical records that included my weight and age: “How did that happen?”
I did not have to tell him, but I wanted to tell my mother. I wanted to share when I knew that something was possible. When I felt that egg escaping from its confinement. When I knew not so much that I would have a future, but that all of this—the words, the rhythms, the strange, disjointed pictures of fairytale eggs without rabbits and chickens—would someday have a place to land.
It would all have a place to be properly buried. I wanted to tell my mother how I was walking down the street, 30th Avenue in Astoria, New York, and I felt as though something loud began playing in the cramped quarters of my right hip, something that had the ability to scale the heights of a public works monument. Something that could climb a dam for rural electrification or ride a highway for a shell game of launchers and rockets. All of the out-sized, romantic, and unrealistic things once done in this country, to hills and canyons and mountains, were in my hip.
I was looking at myself in the smoked glass windows of somebody’s business. I wanted to see if I was still thin and sexy as my body rattled on toward nothing. I never understood my mother’s egg until I experienced this sensation, like hands and branches reaching across one hip, into my abdomen, fighting through plasma. An egg to preserve this singular feeling of a singular egg. It was my life’s best and final offer.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), a full-length collection of poetry, With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012), and three chapbooks of poetry. Her poems have recently appeared in UCity Review, Junoesq Literary Magazine, Metaphor, and Free State Review. Visit Jane on here website, jane-rosenberg-laforge.com and follow her on Twitter @JaneRLaForge.