Author’s note: “I once had a friend who did yoga and wrote down her dreams and earnestly informed me that she could hitchhike alone and be safe because she was special. She seemed to truly believe that nothing could hurt her. In “Her Gestures, Her Rules,” I imagined that she had a daughter who would, like most daughters, go from acolyte to critic to something in between.”
Her Gestures, Her Rules
BY THE EARLY ’80s, when the new age was still new, my mother, a local legend, operated the most popular yoga studio in Ulster County. Valley Yin Yang catered to aging hippies, rich and poor. I, conceived in 1969 at an ashram in Goa, was a significant line in her biography: an illegitimate half-Indian daughter. Her students were fascinated by me, as they were by every aspect of my mother’s life—her clothes, her diet, her true beliefs, her original religion. And, of course, her long legs and her thick hair, so dark my hair could have come from her, not from a never-named Indian father.
We made a good team. Occasionally, my mom would lift an eyebrow ever so slightly, and I’d lower my voice or sit still. She’d wink her thanks. I was a natural, and my every gesture—opening a door, helping to roll out a yoga mat, pouring a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea—elicited gratitude way out of proportion to the effort. Holidays and my birthdays became opportunities for her acolytes to show their reverence with a donation to my college savings account. To be clear, I was also an acolyte, until I wasn’t.
Her boyfriend a little less so. Nate Wald was a source of fascination to all of us. He wasn’t tall or remarkably handsome or charismatic. But he ran, and he often gave off the aura of a runner’s high. Nate lived on the other side of Ulster, in Woodstock, where he was working on his dissertation and managing his brother’s dental office. He and my mother spent every other Saturday night together, while I got farmed out to one or another of my mother’s students. They considered it an honor to take care of me.
Nate managed the money in my college account: it had been his idea to open one for me. And the account grew steadily until I turned eleven. Then—and this was scary—enrollment at the studio dropped precipitously. I worried that I was the reason that I’d stopped being cute and gotten less respectful all around. But the problem wasn’t just my zits and unwanted facial hair and attitude. The studio was less successful for various reasons. Everyone was obsessed with the hostages in Iran, and people wanted to be home to watch the news. Gas was expensive and maybe about to be rationed. Yin Yang Yoga also had new local competition: Jazzercise, herbal medicines, poetry therapy; also, a couple of my mother’s long-term students started teaching out of their homes.
Nate warned my mom, “You have to fight back, Elena. You can’t om this away.” We were eating tempeh out of ceramic bowls, and the meal suddenly seemed out of sync with Nate’s level of agitation.
“You have to finish your PhD,” my mother noted, completely changing the subject.
He said, “That is also correct—but we’re talking about your livelihood.”
“No. We are having dinner.”
“You have to get serious,” Nate insisted. He stabbed at the woodstove-warmed air with a chopstick. I was terrified. I’d never seen anyone risk piercing my mom’s unflappable aura. I was afraid she’d sap him of his life force on the spot. “Advertise!” he demanded.
She lowered her head. I wanted to knock Nate down. Then she looked up and said something I thought was unlikely about consulting the goddess of commerce. Nate grinned.
By my sixteenth birthday, Yin Yang Yoga had a New Age shop where the changing room used to be. Mom ordered merchandise, modeled clothing, even offered minor alterations, mostly hemming. Yin Yang also offered classes for pregnant women and old people and cancer patients.
Our profits were going up—but not fast enough. Luckily, my mom found a job working part-time as an assistant in an electrolysis office. We’d gone there week after week to deal with my sideburns, and she’d somehow, effortlessly, brought a quiet joy to a badly lit waiting room.
Her yoga students weren’t supposed to know about the electrolysis job. By then I had become an expert at not discussing things. Some things were just easier not to mention. Specifically, that I was darker than white people but wasn’t considered a Black person. My mother’s relatives, who were mostly dead, considered themselves secular Jews, which meant nothing to me at that time—except that it was something else I didn’t want to discuss.
After aging out of my tiny K-through-9 hippy-dippy private school, I went to a big regional high school, where I hung out with rich kids who’d been kicked out of boarding schools and who skipped the football rallies to get high. But with Nate’s encouragement, I kept up my grades. He was around more during the week to keep an eye on me.
During my junior year, on the Thursday night before homecoming weekend, which meant parties, my mother informed me that she’d been invited to a memorial service in Needham, just outside of Boston. We were about to eat dinner. Nate had just baked a brisket: salty, stringy in a wonderful way, totally delicious. In honor of the falling leaves, he’d been granted permission to break our no-dead-mammals-at-the-table policy.
“Who’s being memorialized?” he asked, slicing the steaming slab on a cutting board we normally used for dead sea creatures. We weren’t vegetarians. My mother just preferred not to have meat in the house.
I asked, “Who’s that?”
“He was one of my students. He wanted me to be there. He
thought my presence could comfort him after his death.” Nate groaned.
I said, “That’s just weird.”
My mother nodded and then switched the subject to the meat. She admired the evenness and arrangement of the slices. She bowed to Nate’s skill. “Now we might all send out a little wish for the soul of the cow,” she added.
“Moo,” said Nate, with mock earnestness.
“Moo,” I echoed.
My mother beamed, cutting up her brisket as if the cow’s
soul had whispered in her ear and blessed our dinner. Everyone was happy.
NATE ANNOUNCED HE’D MADE SOME PROGRESS on his dissertation about utopic communities and summer camps in New York state. “The new office manager at Camp Emerson finally dug out the file on counselors from the McCarthy era.”
“Let me guess,” said my mom. “The lifeguard was an FBI spy?”
“Close. The camp nurse. Makes sense, right? She could summon anyone to the infirmary and poke around anywhere.” Nate had studied American history at Berkeley while also trying to organize a union for adjunct teachers. Twelve years later, the union was strong, but Nate was still technically a student.
Mom said, “The universe is supporting your research.”
Nate looked at me and rolled his eyes. When he was down on the world, he would deconstruct her pronouncements, noting she was saying nothing while using words that seemed to carry a lot of weight: universe, research. But at other times, he let himself almost get caught up in her theology, or magical thinking, or spiritualism. Almost.
Now she said, “Nate, you should work. You don’t need to come to the memorial. You have new material that needs your attention. Diya, you and I can drive back and forth in one day.”
I asked, groaning inside, “Was this the guy from the cancer class who died?”
She shook her head and started tossing a salad that didn’t need tossing—which was notable. She almost never made unnecessary movements. “He was in another class. A private class.”
I said, “You teach it on Friday mornings, right?” She was always ready to leave the house before I left for school on Fridays, when there wasn’t anything on her studio schedule. And the electrolysis office was closed on Fridays.
She gave up on the salad and then said, abruptly, as if she’d just made a decision, “I’ve been working with AIDS patients referred to me by Duchess Memorial Hospital.”
Nate fumbled with his fork. I shuddered at the thought of her touching skinny gay guys with lesions.
She told us calmly, “David was my first Friday morning client. A wonderful dancer. He’s outlived two others.”
“Others? How many others?” Nate’s voice was harsh.
“Three,” she said, her voice professional, undaunted.
Nate was more exasperated than I’d ever seen him. “How long have you been doing this without telling us?”
“For almost two years.”
“Jesus, Elena! You were working with sick homosexuals before anyone understood a damn thing about blood and the goddamn virus.”
“Don’t swear,” she said less calmly. “You know my rules.”
“Rules that say you can play your I’m-a-secret-saint game and put other people’s lives at risk.”
“I knew I wouldn’t catch it.”
“How the hell could you know that? Did some prana elf whisper in your ear?”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“You’re the absurd one. Peter”—his brother, a dentist, our dentist—“is still terrified of AIDS patients.” Nate exhaled loudly, a combination of disgust and disbelief that left a bitter edge on the taste of my own simple fear: Even if she irritated me— sometimes a lot—I couldn’t imagine life without my mother.
My mother stood up from the table and left the room, her way of ending an unpleasant conversation. Nate and I watched her long, narrow back as she headed toward the far end of the house. She was wearing drawstring pants, black, and a silk- screened shirt, deep beautiful blues and purples and greens.
Nate shivered. Then I shivered. I wondered if possibly her aura really did generate heat, as her students believed—probably she had just opened a door and let in a draft.
Then Nate asked, “Shall we eat?”
I pushed away the plate.
He shrugged and said, “It’s your father’s genes in you—the Hindu’s respect for cows.”
“It’s not the meat.”
He sighed the kind of sigh people who paid my mother to help them made.
“What has she told you about my father?”
“Gurus seduce students all the time, Diya. It’s a power play. Or so I’ve heard. But hey, I don’t want to cast aspersions—you have his blood.”
“Stop talking about blood,” I snapped.
THE MEMORIAL WAS HELD in a wooden Unitarian church surrounded by ancient pines and birches. I was impressed by the angularity of the building. As she parked, my mother explained that David Baker’s children and former wife had decided to pretend his death was caused by lung cancer. She asked me to honor their wishes. “Please, Diya.”
I said nothing. Our prana reserves were pretty much depleted after the three-hour drive. The night before, I’d begged her to let me stay home for the weekend. She’d accused me of just wanting to get high with my friends. I’d accused her of driving Nate away by being too arrogant about her role in the universe. I’d complained about missing the homecoming dance. NPR commentators on the radio had disparaged Reagan’s plan to put a missile-proof dome over America. My mother had worried about the dome “trapping ether on earth.” I’d muttered about being trapped with her craziness.
We carried our dark dresses toward the church on hangers; they billowed like ghosts leading us up the path, where we were greeted by David Baker’s lawyer, David Bergman. He looked older than my mom, but not by a lot. They hugged as if they’d met before. I snuck off to the ladies’ room, changed into the dress, and spent extra time washing my hands, irrationally afraid of AIDS germs. When I returned to the lobby, the catered food was arriving. The waiters and waitresses, all young and cute, seemed oblivious to the whole death thing. They made me ashamed of my fear. I wanted to be nicer to my mom after that, and I would have been, had I been able to find her. She’d disappeared, as had Live-David.
I brought my travel clothes back to the car and then went into the sanctuary and found a seat in a back corner. I took in the tall candles, and the flowers, and a table, which were the only things on the podium. I liked the quiet and the solitude before the others arrived. And the wooden beams above me, and trees, shadows, sky outside the enormous windows. I started doing the kind of breathing that my mother advocated, slow and deep.
My eyes were closed when I was startled by the sound of loud sniffling. I looked around, wondering for a second where I was. Then I saw a short guy in a suit walk down the side aisle and sit in the front row. I took a little packet of Kleenex from my pocket and headed toward him. I’d watched my mother offer comfort to students who were going through emotional turmoil. I knew what to do.
“Hey. Here,” I said, handing him the Kleenex. “Take the whole packet. I don’t need it.”
“Thank you. You’re sweet.” He solemnly opened the plastic, extracted a tissue, and blew his nose.
I said, “I’m from India.”
“Ah! I suspected that might be the case. What brings you to this neck of the woods?”“David wanted me around to ease his transition into the next world. He was afraid he’d be surrounded by exclusively negative energy fields.” Ah, how the mashed-up mumbo-jumbo flowed!
He nodded. “By cruel and petty souls.”
I said, “But that doesn’t include you.” I put my hand on his forearm so that he could feel my warmth.
“You’re so perceptive.”
I nodded. Then I said, with serene calm, “This whole fake, he-died-of-cancer show is wrong. It was AIDS.”
And I immediately recognized the look he gave me. It was a look my mother always deflected graciously. But I had no interest in deflecting it: I’d never been on the receiving end of such awe. This sniffling man believed that David, his friend, a grown man, knowing he was about to die, had put faith in me, some random teenage girl “from India.” And the sniffling man, in so believing, had endowed me with spiritual abilities. My first acolyte! All my own!
A group of guests began to file in, and I returned to the back row, feeling taller, lighter. But restless. A cellist in a long dress played something beautiful. There were to be testimonies by relatives. I slipped out of the sanctuary, looked at the trees, and thought about the possibilities of God, and about the cuteness of the caterer who came outside and gave me a brownie with chocolate chips. I heard the singing of “Amazing Grace” coming through the wall. How sweet the sound…
Heading home, my mother let me choose a tape for the ride, and I picked a tape of Vivaldi that we both liked. Along the Mass Pike, I analyzed what I’d learned in the sanctuary: How all it took to get an acolyte was one potent truth—in this case, it was about AIDS; one potent lie—that dead David had wanted me at the church. And, perhaps, one gesture—my hand on his forearm.
I kept my insights to myself, like a secret weapon too destructive to actually use, and silently replayed the little making out I’d done with the cute caterer who’d never kissed anyone with skin as dark as mine.
I didn’t know it then, but my mother also had new secrets: sperm were swimming inside her as she drove, and within a couple of months, around the winter solstice, she’d inform me that she was pregnant. And engaged to David the lawyer. And I’d yell, “What?”
She’d do a deep forward bend—we would be sitting on a blanket on the floor—and then she’d right herself and explain: “David’s a good man, Diya. He’s a widower. His wife died of blood cancer. He spent a lot of time in waiting rooms with the first AIDS patients. He started writing up their wills. That’s how he met David Baker. But because of lawyer-client confidentiality, he’d never spoken of all the deaths. There were rules. Until—” Until he and my mother spent hours on the phone preparing the memorial and he’d confided and cried.
“What?” I was shocked but not actually surprised. All my life, I’d been a living testament to her disregard for marriage before sperm/egg implantation. But this pregnancy, on so many levels, was just not right. “Mom, you met him once.”
“We had a connection. We accepted the risk of pregnancy. Now David believes that making our bond legal is best for his reputation and for the baby.”
“I get it. He doesn’t want another bastard child. Another me.”
“Diya, David has better health insurance than we do. That’s reality. And his town has better schools.”
“My friends are you.”
“Your friends are trouble.” They were. More than she knew. But I spat, “And you’re such a great influence? You? A slut?” I wanted a reaction. A slap. A shake.
No reaction. She said, “Nate always wanted you to get a more demanding education.”
“Nate wanted me to have a break from all your yoga-think.”
That landed. She said, “He’s happy for us, Diya.” But her voice had switched to the slightly higher, extremely irritating register she used when trying to close a sale with a student considering a long-term month-to-month contract.
THEY WERE MARRIED in a rabbi’s messy office. David’s mother and I were the only witnesses. The bride wore an off- white dress, which had pretty little flowers on it, and looked like she was blooming with love. David’s mother and I played along, but I caught her eye roll as David stepped on a champagne glass wrapped in a cloth and my mother called out namaste!
The new couple took off for a one-night honeymoon, and I took off with my new step-grandmother.
“How about calling me Marilyn?” she asked as I clambered into the front seat of her Civic. “Seems a little late for granny.”
“Cool. You know, you don’t have to make a fuss about me. I mean, I can take care of myself.”
“I should hope so.” Her reaction seemed unnecessarily severe; I’d been told that she’d taught chemistry at Wellesley, but I didn’t realize at the time how that meant she was used to treating girls as serious people. “We’re going out for Chinese food. No fuss at all.”
“Great!” I’d assumed she would be as excited about being stuck with me as I was about being stuck with her, but not that she would expect me to feed myself. “I love Chinese food.”
They knew her at the restaurant. She gave the waiter a great smile, really nothing like her cold schoolteacher-y aura. When we were settled in a booth and had ordered, she said, “I’m sorry David’s daughters weren’t at the ceremony, Diya. They’re in California. They have exams and project deadlines.”
“It’s fine,” I said. It really was. “I feel bad for them, getting stuck with a pregnant hippy stepmom and a dark Cinderella stepsister.”
She stared at me and asked, “Is that how you think of yourself?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. I mean, I was kidding,”
“It didn’t sound like kidding to me.” I wanted to snap, Who asked you? Then she said, “Do you think your mother would object if we ordered a couple of beers?”
“Who cares what she thinks? My mother’s an old slut on a honeymoon with someone she barely even knows.”
Marilyn squirmed. Took off her glasses. Rubbed her eyes.
I said, “I’m sorry.”
She said, “I’ll rephrase the question: should we order drinks?”
I said solemnly, “We should.” I chose the beer for both of us, and she helped me choose my classes for second semester, eleventh grade. We chose well.
In those first few months of living in Massachusetts, I thrived, but I also worried. Something was wrong: I could tell by the syllables my mother was choosing when she chanted, something she only did when David wasn’t home. Not that he would have recognized that those particular syllables were a bad sign.
He didn’t know how she used to be, before we moved into his four-bedroom pseudo-Colonial and drank from his smooth china teacups and poured milk from his pewter pitcher and were assaulted everywhere by flowered wallpaper. Back in our little bungalow, my mother had floated from room to room, never seeming to make the exact same entrance twice. Here, her movements reminded me of her older yoga students, who couldn’t quite believe it was okay to stretch as far as they had.
When I asked her what was wrong, she admitted only that she missed the vintage sofas we’d left behind. We used to run our hands back and forth across the velvet fabric, watching the hues change. She added, “But David and I both like M.A.S.H. reruns.”
Hawkeye was my mother’s name for the baby.
Nate had been the editor of his high school newspaper and had always wanted me to join a newspaper. Now, with Marilyn’s help, I realized I liked writing about science. This was just after Ryan White—a boy one year younger than I was—brought national attention to the “innocent victims” of AIDS. I wrote a feature piece about how he was treated when he was finally allowed to go to school. I showed the article to the caterer guy, who cried when he read what I’d written. It was even better than having an acolyte.
Then, toward her second trimester, my mother, without explanation, sent herself to bed, determined to stay there—except to go to the bathroom—until week thirty-six, June 21: nine weeks and three days away.
David and I tucked her in for night one. She sat up against her pillows, which were covered in teal pillowcases from our old life, and assigned us our positions on either side of her new plush throne. She waited for us to bring up chairs from the dining room and get settled. Then she told me firmly that I should continue to go to school and write my articles. “And your grandmother would like you to have your dinners with her.”
I saw David smile slightly, or at least not flinch, at her using the word grandmother. Marilyn lived two doors away. Her house had no wallpaper—and no fake Colonial anything. He put his hand on my mother’s arm and said, “You’ll need some help.”
“I agree,” my mother said. “It’s time for Nate to balance out his karma.”
I wanted to scream, You two broke up, and you have a husband now! The husband just sighed. And Nate was summoned. Within a couple of days, he’d set up a makeshift kitchen in the bedroom: a microwave, a little refrigerator. He fed my mother, and he slept at Marilyn’s house, and I hung out with them in the evenings, getting world-class help on my homework.
At week thirty-five, my mother woke up at dawn, waited for a good-morning kick, and knew. She didn’t need the monitor at the emergency room to confirm what had happened, but David and I did. We watched and waited anxiously, hoping for a heartbeat. I didn’t have my mother’s sensory gifts, but I thought I could hear David’s heart pounding along with mine as we watched the screen.
She spent all day getting various tests, while David and I waited in various horrible little rooms. No one asked the doctor why—why the heart malformation, why it wasn’t discovered until the baby was dead. My mother had sent Nate back home. That evening, beside her hospital bed, my mother stood on one foot, reached her arms straight out to the sides like a bird, and raised the other leg behind her. Then she leaned forward, until she made a T of her body, the hospital robe tied up tight around her and her quieted uterus. She came out of the T with remarkable steadiness and stood in the standing prayer pose, which is just what it sounds like. Watching her made me feel something like awe.
She agreed to allow the doctor to induce labor the next day, and to be put on an IV to help her get to sleep. While she slept, David did crossword puzzles, and I tried to study. Grief filled the air between us. We shared my mother’s hospital meal, and the nurse brought extra everything.
At some point, David said, “Diya, my mother would love to have you continue to stay with her. And I’d like it. I mean, I prefer for her not to be alone.”
“You mean if—”
“If Elena decides to return to her old life. She gave up a lot— for the baby.”
“Yeah. But the baby would have loved us, right?” I tried to keep it light.
“Yes,” he agreed.
I told him about the sniffling guy in the church, how easy it had been to make him believe what I wanted. I thought David enjoyed the distraction of my story and that he respected my insight. But maybe he was calculating how much love could have actually been generated by a single baby.
I got hungry, so we headed down a long darkish hallway to the snack machines. I would have gone by myself, but David didn’t want me wandering around alone. He seemed to think the hospital was a bad neighborhood in itself.
We decided on the fat Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels and the peanut M&Ms. We were happy with our choices, and David had an impressive assortment of change, but the coin insert device kept jamming.
He didn’t say anything, just kept trying different angles and different coins. I think he liked the distraction of the challenge. I was starting to miss my sleeping mother and my dead baby sibling when the janitor, an old guy with brown skin and light freckles, came over to help us. Without a word, he unlocked a door on the side of the machine and exposed the coin-slot mechanism. It was kind of intimate, seeing the inside of the machine—all dusty gears and darkness. He extracted an offending quarter and slammed the door shut. He put the quarter into another slot without pointing out that it had been put into the nickel row. He didn’t add: There you go. Or it happens all the time.
David said, “Thank you.”
The janitor shrugged. Then he told David, “You have a pretty daughter. Nice mix.”
David said, again, “Thank you,” and winked at me.
I told the janitor, “My mother is in India. She’s originally from Bombay. She’s a Brahmin, trained in astrophysics. But she’s opening a shelter for unwed mothers and orphans.” Major lie.
The janitor muttered a vague acknowledgment.
David mused, “When I met her, she’d been teaching yoga. She had a following.” Major truth.
“Would you like a pretzel?” I asked the janitor. A gesture. He took one, almost smiling. Almost awed.
“She misses her mother,” David told him. Then the two of them looked sad together, men considering losses in the middle of the night, and crunching.
TWO DAYS AFTER GETTING OUT OF THE HOSPITAL, my mother returned to New York, and I moved to Marilyn’s. The math was cruel: my mother had arrived in Needham with a baby inside her and a daughter in tow, and she’d left alone. Three minus two equals one.
Nate reported on her mourning, and he tried to make me more accepting of her stupid new faith in astrology. She’d given Hawkeye an official birthday and had his chart done. Nate said the chart gave her, gave us, a structure to build a lost boyhood upon. I said, “He’s dead. His chart’s even more useless than other people’s charts. If that’s even possible.”
I spent the summer taking an SAT prep class and journalism workshops and having a boyfriend and musing on the woman in India I’d invented for the janitor. David occasionally ate dinners with Marilyn and me, and since we didn’t mention my mother or the baby, it was possible to pretend he was also missing the nonexistent Brahmin mom; after all, she’d made us, she and he and I, a family. In my mind, she’d grown beautiful: her hair was the same as mine, except for some long silver threads. Her skin was darker. Her height and grace shimmered. I’d even sometimes mentioned her in passing, to people I knew I’d never see again— a random clerk at a 7-Eleven, a neighbor’s housepainter.
One evening in August, I helped David load Marilyn’s dishwasher. We’d had wine at dinner, and Marilyn had gone off to watch a BBC soap opera, and without thinking it through, I mentioned the pretend mother-wife. I said I’d gotten a phone call from her that morning. Major lie. He almost dropped a plate, but instead of shutting up, I reported I’d just won a high school journalism award for my story on Ryan White. Major truth. Then I gave him a copy of the latest school newspaper with my name, for the first time, on the masthead. Gesture. My hands were damp and smeared the print.
He snapped, “Diya, never again mention that phantom!” He added, furious, “It was irresponsible for me to engage you in such a stupid prank. God knows your mind’s been subject to enough manipulation.”
“My mind is fine,” I spat out. “And I don’t go around marrying people just so that other people will say, ‘Oh isn’t it wonderful that he got her pregnant and he’s marrying her?’ And when the baby dies, you just wash your hands of the whole mess like it never happened and—” My voice was shaking. I suddenly and powerfully missed my real mother’s aura. But when I called her and she started telling me about her new project, a series of workshops on grieving called Lessons from Hawkeye, all I could hear was that awful high sales-pitch voice.
So I focused on getting into college and grad school and getting work into various journals. Through all the years of the estrangement from my mom, I’d have waves of guilt, especially whenever I heard about a new kind of yoga or the times I saw the lovely Indian mother and her tiny daughter pushing red carts, one big and one small, at Trader Joe’s.
Marilyn had become the family I went home to again and again. She died a decade ago. But one of the last things she did was introduce me to a scientist who studies weather patterns. I like to believe she knew we’d get married.
Nate spoke at our wedding. He said of my groom and me, lovingly, that we were earnest to a fault. It is true that we almost didn’t have children because of concern about our fraught and fraying planet. Then, just under the wire, I became the mother of twin boys, and after that my husband and I came to love watching my mother calm our high-strung son with one simple chant and make our solemn son giggle with another. We looked forward to visiting her and Nate in their bungalow. Mom didn’t need a lie to get my sons to adore her: with them, there was truth in her every gesture.
But that was before Nate called us and reported that she was convinced she’d be immune to COVID-19 and she was determined to continue working with private clients. I immediately drove seven hours to set her straight. She heard me out. Didn’t deny that her clients would survive without her, that the virus was dangerous, that she was nearly 70. She gave me a prayer-handed bow. I groaned. Then she knelt, leaned her head to the earth, put her weight on her lower arms and turned her inverted body into the approximation of a question mark. As she swayed from side to side, Nate announced that he’d be quarantining, alone, at an Airbnb. My mother knew he could afford to stay away a long time; he’d become the go-to guy for New Age technical support—another local legend.
Two months into the lockdown, one week after her death, Nate and I donned masks and gloves to sit outside on my mother’s yoga blanket, which he’d left out in the sun for days. He thinks she caught the virus at the home of one of her first students, a wheezy old plumber. The memorial gathering was tiny: Nate, me, trees, and an urn of my mother’s ashes. The service consisted of ten minutes of silence.
When the ten minutes had passed and the chimes on Nate’s iPhone timer had rung long enough, I said, “Namaste.”
Nate recrossed his legs and told me, of all things, “I emailed David. He’s sorry for our loss.”
“I’ll bet he’s devastated.”
“Don’t start on him now. It isn’t respectful, Diya.”
Respectful? Screw that. I wanted to stomp into the house and grab a flier announcing an upcoming Lesson from Hawkeye workshop, to tear it up and shove the pieces into the urn.
But I didn’t. Instead, as a gesture of respect to Nate, I started reciting my mother’s eleven steps to a proper headstand, the cadence of her voice coming from deep in my throat and my memory. Nate rocked back and forth in time to my words, just as my mother would rock, while chanting. I imagined the two of them as natural pendulums, moving in response to the earth’s rotation—he in his body, she in her spirit. But I didn’t actually believe it. And I certainly couldn’t time their movements to see if they might have been in sync. I didn’t have any video recordings of my mother rocking, and even if I had, and even if the recordings were accurate, and even if I could ask Nate to keep sitting and swaying at the same rate, on the same mat, I couldn’t hold on to my voice/her voice and keep it steady, over and over, from child’s pose to point your toes skyward.
Susan Land is a featured fiction writer in the 14th edition of the Delmarva Review, released earlier this month She earned an MA from Johns Hopkins and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her stories have recently appeared in Bellevue, Nimrod, The Literary Review, Bethesda Magazine, Potomac Review, and Gargoyle. She writes and teaches in Montgomery County.
Delmarva Review, Volume 14, is an independent collection of compelling new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In this, its largest edition, editors selected the writing of seventy authors from thousands of submissions during the year. The review is available in print and digital editions from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers, as well as from regional specialty bookstores.
Letters to Editor
Meredith Pond says
Wonderful story! I loved the merging of details of m&ms and fat pretzels to the time capsule of HIV and early yoga classes way back when! Thank you!
Susan Land says
Thank you! I am so happy you enjoyed the story. I think the scene with that broken snack machine is my favorite.
I’d forgotten what they’d chosen to eat.
Happy Holidays and all days!