Who Do You Think You Are?

A Memoir by Alyse Myers

Now in paperback!
Photograph of Who Do You Think You Are?

Prologue


I didn't like my mother, and I certainly didn't love her. The only time we actually had anything in common was when I had my own daughter — but by then it was too late, since my mother was to die before we really could compare notes.

I know she didn't like me either. I can't say whether she loved me, as I don't remember her ever telling me so. But her dislike was more about not understanding the monster she created, as she would say, the person who wanted so much more than she expected — or was able — to give. Or wanted to give. To me. To my sisters. And to herself.

My mother married my father when she was nineteen and was a widow at thirty-three. She told me that he was the only man she had ever been with, both before they married and after he died. Even when I was a child, I knew that theirs was a complicated marriage. I wanted to believe they were destined to be together, that their bitter fights had to do with his illness and her inability to cope with it. I didn't want to believe that my parents — childhood sweethearts — could end up hating each other with a passion that still frightens and saddens me to this day.

A week after her funeral in 1993, my two sisters and I were in her apartment in Queens, New York, arguing over who would get her things. I was thirty-seven and my sisters would soon be thirty-five and thirty-four. She didn't have much, and I knew we were fighting over who would get more for herself and not for who would have more of her. Who would get the ugly blue and white crystal bowl that a neighbor's daughter had given my mother after a trip to Germany as thanks for looking in on her elderly mother? Or the Lladró porcelain statue of a milkmaid that came from Spain, a gift from that same neighbor's daughter? Or the framed painting of a Moorish castle that she bought at a Greenwich Village art show and was so proud that it perfectly matched the green and gold motif of her living room?

My sisters and I took turns picking things we wanted. I forget who went first. I put my choices in one corner of the room, and I soon realized the things I chose weren't really important to me, but I wasn't willing to say so. I wasn't going to let my sisters have all of her things.

And then I remembered the box. It was the size of a shoe box, hand-carved brown wood, with a green and red skull and crossbones painted on top. It looked like a pirate's treasure chest. I don't know if my father did the painting, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had been something he made in a grade school shop class. My mother was an A student and my father barely made it through the ninth grade. I could see him doing well in shop class, though. When he showed up, that is.

I knew my father had given the box to my mother before they got married. She told me so many years earlier, when I sat on the floor watching her cleaning out her bedroom closet. Or trying to. The box sat in the middle of a pile of shoes — all colors and many missing a mate — scuffed pumps and loafers, slippers and handbags. I asked her if I could open the box, and she told me no, it was only for her. That there was nothing interesting in it and I should go back to my room.

I tried again. "When can I open it?"

"When you're older," she told me. "You're not old enough now."

I had turned thirteen the week before. That day she told me I was now officially a grown-up.

"But I'm a grown-up," I reminded her. "You told me so yourself last week."

Silence.

"When can I open it?" I repeated.

She paused. "When I'm dead," she responded. "You can have it when I'm dead. In fact, it will be my present to you."

* * *

Over the years, whenever my mother wasn't home, I would take the box out of her closet and turn it around and around, shaking it and wondering what treasures hid inside. I wanted so much to open it, but the box was locked tight, and I couldn't figure out how to open it without breaking the lock. I once dropped it on the floor — partly by accident but partly hoping the little gold padlock would somehow spring open and whatever was inside would fall out. But the box remained shut and the top corner chipped where it hit the floor. I looked around, afraid she would catch me, even though I knew no one was there. I knew she would kill me if she found me playing with it. So I put it back where I found it and left her room.

From that point on, I wanted to know what was inside. I knew the box was important to her. And at her apartment a few days after her death, I knew that if there was one thing I had to have of hers, it was that. That box would give me the answers to my questions: Who were my parents really? And why did my mother end up with so very little in her life?

As my sisters fought over her fifteen-year-old television set, I walked into her bedroom and over to her closet. The sliding door was off its track, as it always was when she was alive. Never a good housekeeper when my sisters and I were living with her, my mother's apartment was even more cluttered and messy after we had all moved out. Her clothes were so tightly packed in the closet that it was hard to see what was there. She never threw anything out. I could see the blue dress with the white stitching that she wore to my father's funeral twenty-six years earlier crammed next to the brown polyester slacks and the brown and white polyester blouse she wore to her chemo treatments. Her shoes were thrown in a pile on the bottom of the floor, size 7 ½ AAA that she always had such a hard time finding in stores. The home nurse who had taken care of her while she was dying clearly had no interest in keeping the house clean, either. What is the point? she probably had asked herself. She's going to die, anyway, so why should it matter?

I was glad I brought my largest canvas tote bag that day. I carried it with me from room to room, knowing my sisters would think I was trying to take something they might want. I didn't care what they thought. Carrying the bag reminded me of when my mother first came to visit me and my husband in our apartment soon after we were married. She kept her handbag with her the entire time she was visiting, tightly over her shoulder, hugging it to her chest. "Ma," I said when I saw she had her bag with her in the kitchen, the dining area, the bathroom, and then back in the living room, "I promise I won't steal your money." She looked at me like I was crazy, and then I touched her bag and told her it was safe for her to leave it in one place. We both laughed, and she told me she didn't realize that she was carrying it around. I'm not sure I believed her.

Now, facing her closet, I bent over and looked on the floor and pushed aside some of her things, but I didn't see the box. I stood up, stepped back as far as I could go, jumped up a few times to see if the box was on the top shelf. I started to get nervous. I didn't want my sisters to know what I was doing. They were still looking through her things, her LP records now. I left my bag on the floor by the closet and tiptoed down the short hallway to the kitchen and to the table covered with the orange and yellow checked vinyl tablecloth with old cigarette burns at the place where she used to sit. Feeling like a criminal, I glanced over my shoulder a few times, hoping my sisters wouldn't notice me. I picked up one of the metal folding chairs and tiptoed back to her bedroom.

I placed the chair in front of the closet, kicked off my shoes, and climbed on top. I saw the box on the shelf, hiding behind the simple blue leather pocketbook I gave her for her fiftieth birthday. I knew she would never use that bag, but I wanted her to have something that wasn't plastic and didn't have hundreds of pockets and zippers. I wasn't surprised when I saw the tag still on it. I pulled it out and shoved it into my tote bag.

Then I reached for the box, pulled it out, put it under my left arm, and climbed down from the chair, keeping my balance by grabbing onto the blue and green and white housedress she wore when playing poker with my grandparents and their friends on Saturday nights. I slipped my shoes back on and put the chair in the corner, next to her bed. There was no one now who would notice it missing from the kitchen. I slipped the box inside my bag and used my sweater to cover it. I walked out of the bedroom and saw my sisters still going through her LPs, arguing over who was going to get Barbra and who was going to get Frank.

"I'm going now," I said. "I have to get home for dinner."

"Did you take anything else?" my youngest sister barked. "You didn't take anything, did you?" I knew she would worry that I had more than she did.

"What would I take?" I asked. "There's nothing here I want."

Out in the street, I looked for a taxi to take me home to my apartment in Manhattan. After twenty minutes, I found a driver who was thrilled to go back over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. I leaned into the seat, lifted the sweater in the bag, and looked at the box. I thought about when I would open it. And then I thought about my mother and why our relationship was so complicated.

"Why do you want more?" she always asked me and not pleasantly. "Why is my life not good enough for you?"

I closed my eyes as the taxi went over the bridge and didn't open them until it turned the corner to my building.

When I got back to my apartment, my husband and daughter were sitting in the kitchen, laughing together and eating dinner. I was reminded how lucky I was to have my own family that was so uncomplicated. I gave my husband and daughter a kiss and then walked straight into the bedroom.

"What did you do at your mom's house?" my husband called after me. "Did you find anything special?"

"Nope," I said. "Not a thing. She didn't have a thing I wanted."

I don't know why I lied to him. I sat on the bed holding the box, tracing the outline of the skull and crossbones with my fingertip. I toyed with the lock and noticed that it would be easy to pry open. Finally, I would be able to find out what it had been hiding all of these years. All I had to do was get a screwdriver, wedge it under the metal plate, flip open the top, and all of my questions would be answered.

Instead, I walked over to my linen closet, took out a white towel, and wrapped it around the box. I opened my closet door and moved aside my shoes that were neatly stacked in white boxes. I pushed the wooden box far back into my closet, behind my shoes, and closed the door.

I can't explain why I didn't open the box that day. And I can't explain why I didn't open it until twelve years later. I don't know what I was afraid of, but all during those twelve years, I would conveniently forget it was in my closet, or when I did notice it was there, would decide I just didn't have the time to look inside.

Copyright © 2008 by Alyse Myers