When I was a child, I knew that my mother was a fairy. Not the kind of fairy with gauzy wings and a magic wand, but one with a thrift-store fur coat and ink-stained fingers. There was nothing she couldn't do. On weekends, she put on safety goggles, grabbed a jigsaw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X-Acto blade.
"Maman," I asked her when I was four, "when will I be a fairy like you?"
"When you're sixteen," she replied. And so I waited, and I watched her.
Once, during a thunderstorm in Brazil, my mother pulled the rental car over to the side of the highway by a dark, deserted beach. She beckoned to my brother and me. We uncurled from the backseat and leapt out into the electric rain. We followed her, leaving my father shouting her name from the road, his voice barely carrying over the storm. We stripped down to our underwear. My mother held out her hands, one for each of us, and we ran straight into the water. The ocean picked us up and slammed us down against the sand. We screamed with laughter. We ran back in. The sky fractured with lightning, opened, fell into the ocean. The waves reared twice as tall as my mother.
At the car, my father was pale, his voice quiet with awe and anger. "Jesus, Françoise," he said, shaking his head. We were late now, as usual, and my mother drove the car fast down the highway toward the pitch-black sky. Though we had been in two accidents, I did not know my mother was a reckless driver until I was in my twenties, when friends told me so. The things my mother did not see about herself, I did not see, either. We fell asleep in the backseat, my brother and I, mouths open, gritty with salt and sand, our hair drying in wild curls.
My mother disdained most dangers as American constructs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables. She was always certain that nothing would go wrong. "No one ever told me it was dangerous to swim in a lightning storm," she would say when I laughingly mentioned the memory years later. Her voice pitched defensively; she did not like to be teased.
There were other vacations, too—the vacation when my mother, sick of the other moms who complained about the lack of apple juice at the breakfast buffet, absconded from the resort and let me drive the rented stick-shift jeep along the dirt roads, even though my feet barely reached the pedals. The vacation when my mother booked no hotels in advance, just took off driving down the coast of Costa Rica, buying us all the strange fruits that they sold by the roadside. My father rarely came with us. Once, in a forest, my mother scooped the earth into her hand and put some in her mouth and ours while she explained about building immunities. We were often sick as children, and then rarely. We knew, my brother and I, that it was only fear that led to danger. My mother cast around us her conviction that we would always be safe, and it held us like a force field.
“Do you know when I finally felt free of my mother?” my mother asked me. It was a story she told several times, more allegory than anecdote.
I was a baby, six months old, and she'd taken me to France to meet her family. This was during the golden years, the ones I'll never remember: the years when she never put me down. She wore a big coat and me strapped underneath it. We shared a body. In the night, she woke and came to feed me before I'd even opened my mouth to cry.
But on this evening, when she arrived at her friend's home for a dinner party, she was instructed to leave me in the host's bedroom. She did so reluctantly. As food was served and wineglasses refilled, I began to cry. My mother leapt up from the table.
"Leave her," the French friend said. "The noise doesn't bother us." My mother continued to move toward the door.
"She'll never learn to stop crying if you pick her up each time," the friend said with the tone of absolute authority the French often invoke when imparting wisdom. You'll catch a cold if you go out with wet hair, bread is more caloric when it's underbaked, you'll never sleep if you drink ginger tea in the evening.
My mother hesitated, then sat back down. My wails grew louder.
"She'll tire herself out," another friend declared. But my mother had already left the table again and gone to take me into her arms. As she soothed me, rocking me, pressing me to her body, she heard fragments of the chorus of disapproval from the other room. Now, the baby . . . When my child . . . She's just got to . . . It will only encourage her . . .
This is what it would be like, my mother thought as I quieted against her. This is what it would be, if I raised her here. Everything would happen all over again.
She thought of her loft in Manhattan, with its high industrial ceilings. She thought of the streets where we were invisible, she and I, in the jostling Chinatown crowds. And she knew she was free.
"I realized that I could reinvent motherhood," she told me now. "I was so far from all this in America. I had no blueprint, no rules. And so I invented it. Every piece. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew that it was going to be different."
Now, now that I knew her past, I saw both. I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.
My mother ran away from Paris to New York City when she was eighteen. My family had always lived in the SoHo loft she moved into her first year in America, in 1974. I tried to recognize the space as it was in the old photos. It was a jumble then, crowded with furniture she’d hauled up from the street, the rooms partitioned by bookshelves and makeshift screens. Shortly after my birth, my mother created real walls and doors and staircases, leaning ladders to mezzanines and rope ladders to nowhere, trapezes carefully drilled into anchor beams-the floor plan inside which I stored my childhood.
We visited her family in France twice a year: her divorced parents, her two sisters, a cousin. They were all the family I had. Nine people in all, if I counted myself. There was no one left on my father's side.
My grandmother would not let herself be called Grand-mère, so we, like everyone else, called her Josée (she spelled it sometimes with a final e, sometimes without, and pronounced it joe-ZAY). Josée lived on a houseboat moored on the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine doubled back to touch the city's northwestern border. She had purchased it as a shipping barge and transformed it into a luxurious home in a style entirely her own. There were cream-colored carpets and sliding Japanese doors. There was a Jacuzzi in the center of the space beneath an octagonal skylight that opened like a flower, and a table that rose out of the floor at the touch of a remote control. You took off your shoes at the entrance, or, if you preferred, there were little plastic bags that you could slip on over your heels. This houseboat, and the several others she had renovated and sold before, had been featured in magazines. She kept them in a stack beneath the hanging red lacquer fireplace. In the guest bathroom, the walls were covered in pictures of her travels: in a sari on an elephant, in blackface and leopard pelts, in leather chaps and nothing else (alongside a certificate stating that the "bearer bared her knockers at Mardi Gras 1998"). My grandmother was beautiful long after she was beautiful. She carried and dressed herself in a way that left no question. She had blue eyeliner tattooed around her eyes. She never asked me about myself.
There was always a moment of held breath as my grandmother seated us around her table, her choices as deliberate and pointed as a queen's. Those seated close to her were in her favor, those seated far away were not. Love was a zero-sum game. My mother, because her presence was rare, was often seated close. Her sisters, from the far end of the table, tried not to glare.
Even at a young age, I was aware that my aunts were trapped in their parents' orbits, like moths with singed wings around a flame, though how I knew this I am not sure. They were grown-ups, yet not grown-ups. They pitched their voices to the same resentful whine in response to their mother as I did to mine. Andrée, six years younger than my mother, felt closer to my own age. She broke her knees in motorcycle accidents, lived in Paris's roughest neighborhoods, and had wild love affairs. Sylvie, older than my mother by a year and a half, was constantly leaping up to serve and clear the plates, sighing loudly as she did so, the family martyr. But when she talked to the children—her son (our only cousin), my brother, and me—she was capable of great bursts of laughter, the glugging unself-conscious guffaw of a child.
During these visits, I followed my mother's lead. I knew in my bones that her family was dangerous, and she had taught us to be wary of them, like fast food or crossing Canal Street. She treated her sisters with the polite reserve she displayed toward women she didn't trust. With her parents, she was as effusively kind and respectful as she would have been with someone else's parents. I followed suit. My voice went up an octave in Paris. I said mostly merci, oui, merci, s'il te plaît, c'est delicieux, merci. I stood on tiptoe to kiss an endless number of cheeks.
When I was young, I watched my mother brace herself before each encounter with her family—the hard looks she gave herself in the bathroom mirror, the lipstick applied like armor. At the table, much of the conversation took place in language too encoded for me to decipher, but I sensed that the banter was laced with barbs, a poison center to every compliment. And I heard the comments that were directed at me—the grave pronouncements of disaster over my newly cut bangs, the way everybody agreed, with knowing nods, that I certainly didn't need a second slice of cake. I dreaded those dinners, but I adored the cab rides home. In the backseat, I felt awash in the safety of our family, finally shrunk back to its correct four-person size, a rare feeling of unity between us.
My mother was giddy with relief. "The best thing I ever did was move my life an ocean away from them," she often said in those moments.
"I'm so lucky I escaped," she said at other times. "It's the only way I survived."
But I couldn't imagine. The past was always there on her body, but I couldn't see it. It was in the scars that I traced with a fingertip as a child, in the strange things that set off her anger. It was even in my own body, a feeling of damage and danger that had no name and no explanation. It was underneath everything else: that deep foundation on which we were both built. But like her French accent, which forty years in America could not fade—and which her children, so used to her voice, could not hear—the past was too present for me to see.
How could my mother ever have been a girl? I knew what it meant to be a child, how emotions could knock you flat with their sheer strength, and how adults never seemed to understand. But of my mother's childhood, I knew almost nothing. Most of her scars were from accidents. A nose that broke four or five times. The place where the sharp metal spike of a fence had pierced all the way through her arm. A gash in her head from a sharp corner in a corridor of her family's apartment. ("I didn't know you had a red pillow," her grandmother Mina said when she found my mother lying down in her room afterward.) Those were the funny stories. It was the scars on her wrists, the scars on the soft hidden places inside her body—those were the scars she didn't tell me about, and I didn't ask.
"After the divorce, my father used to come into my room and . . . ," my mother began once, then caught herself. "I'll tell you when you're older." When I told her that my high school girlfriend had cuts all over her arms, she said, "You know, when I was that age . . ." Then, with a quick sigh: "I'll tell you when you're older." There were moments when details slipped, when she seemed not to realize how strange certain things sounded, or forgot for a moment that I knew how to listen. Her father had wandered the hallways naked, terrifying the young maids. One Christmas, he had preemptively removed her appendix. But when I asked her directly about her life, she told me only the funny stories, the easy ones: the time she and her sister broke the bed and blamed it on their obese grandmother, the time she cut her sister's hair while she was sleeping. I saw only the edges of the holes, the aftershocks of the explosions. "I'll tell you when you're older," she said when I tried to reach for more. My mother understood: There was room for only one of us to be a girl. There was room for only one of us to be a woman.
As a child, I tried to cast spells of my own invention. I spun my dolls around three times, spat on teddy bears, put pieces of wire beneath my pillow. I lived in awed fear of a faded pink fairy figurine that I believed controlled not only my fate but that of the other toys. The real world was overlaid with a shimmering second world of signs and symbols. I continued to believe in a magic realm long after my friends had stopped. I did not want to grow up. I did not care about my clothes. What stood on the other side of childhood—an uncomfortable awareness of my body, my mother’s growing anger—held no appeal for me. I wanted only to fall out of this world, with its looming dangers, to that other, shimmering place.