Last Mother’s Day, my sister sent me a postcard. One of those old-fashioned scenic postcards, a black-and-white photo hand-tinted in muted pastels, not quite natural hues that instantly imbued the image with a patina of nostalgia. The picture showed a rippling lake set against a backdrop of craggy, snow-capped mountains and a small island in the middle that looked like a floating village, complete with a church steeple jutting above the low roofs. A caption in florid cursive identified the scene: Lago Maggiore – Isola dei Pescatori Borromeo e Bavero.
I turned the card over, smiling at my sister’s large scrawling print, instantly recognizable. She’s a pre-K teacher and prizes legibility. “Happy Mother’s Day! Your Loving Sister, Elizabeth.” After the word “Loving,” she’d drawn a smiley face—a winking smiley face. A sly allusion. Our mother also peppered her messages with winking, grinning emojis long before emojis were a thing. That smile and wink were my sister’s signal that this postcard, straightforward though it seemed, contained a subtler subtext.
My sister lives outside of Seattle and has never been to Italy. This postcard came from elsewhere. The date at the top was the giveaway. July 1, 1950. That handwriting was unmistakably our mother’s. Her jaunty script is imprinted in my memory, as much a mark of her singular identity as her raspy, loud Carol Channing voice, her laugh, the bright stripes and bold prints she wore, the way she pulled her lips into a sharp line when she was mad. There she was, fully present in the form of a date hastily written on a postcard she never completed more than 70 years ago. What would her message have been? And to whom was she hoping to send it—a girlfriend? A family member? A beau back home?
Not to my father. He wasn’t yet in the picture. When she marked the date on this card, my mother had no idea that a year later, after her one and only trip to Europe, she would reluctantly accept a job at a girls boarding school in California, urged to go by her parents who told her she would probably never marry. She was already 25. She might as well leave home, resigned to a spinster life housed and fed in a cushy boarding school. At least the weather would be pleasant. They would love to visit her when they could get the funds together. But then she met my father in that distant seaside city, distant, that is, from Massachusetts, and to that move I owe my very existence.
As does my sister, who plucked the postcard from a box of loose photos, greeting cards, and other memorabilia my mother had never thrown away, filled in the blank, and sent it across the country to me. For Mother’s Day.
It was not just my mother’s handwriting that marks this postcard as hers. My mother struggled her whole life to finish things. And the many things she left unfinished, like that not-yet-addressed, not-yet-filled-in postcard, she could never throw away. Because if something was unfinished, it still held the possibility of being completed—someday. She engaged in perpetual deferral, a living demonstration of Zeno’s paradox, which I learned in 10th grade geometry: “If you take a half of a half of a half of a half, you’ll never get to the door.”
My mother turned Zeno’s Paradox into an art, a lifestyle, maybe a religion. She wanted credit for the intention to perform an act, whether it was to knit a sweater or send a postcard. Wasn’t it the thought that counted? I judged her harshly for this habit when she was alive, in part because I feared it was contagious. If I were a courtroom prosecutor, I would lay out all the evidence on the long table for the jury to survey: the needlepoint pillow of George Washington she was making to please my grandmother, her daunting mother-in-law, threads and needles and folded white canvas carried from place to place in a filmy plastic bag; the colorful fabric scraps cut to precise geometries to patch together one day into quilts; the baby blanket, rows of pastel stripes she started knitting when I was expecting my first child, a present her granddaughter was destined never to receive. After she died, we found multiple copies of the same photo of my brother and me sitting on Santa’s lap. Replicated to become a Christmas card? In any case, never sent.
But now I can open boxes of my own and find the same evidence of incompletion. There is a novel that’s been almost done for nearly ten years. Half-read books and partially filled out planners projecting what I hope to accomplish in the year ahead. And postcards. I found one I had written to my sister when my husband and I went hiking in the Dolomites five years ago. “This is my favorite place,” I wrote. I stuffed it in a book to mark the page I was on, found it by my bed, and handed it to my sister a few years later when she came to visit. She had already sent me the postcard from Lago Maggiore. We laughed. And if our mother had been with us, too, I like to imagine the three of us could have sat on the edge of my bed together, and I would show her my half-written postcard as a gesture of apology, acknowledging our shared foibles, our shared tendency to leave things hanging in the wide-open realm of possibility.
We shared something else, though my sister didn’t know this. In the fall of 2018, not long after I had not sent my sister that postcard from the Dolomites, I took the train from Milan to Geneva and passed by Lago Maggiore. I too had glimpsed that wide blue mountain lake and marveled at the palm trees that lined the shore, a tropical incongruity against the snow-flecked Alps. When I saw the postcard, I realized that my mother, on her first and only trip to Europe, had also ridden that same train, and been struck enough by the view of the lake to buy a souvenir postcard which, because she never sent it, now communicated with me across the span of 70 years.
My mother had often reminisced about that trip to Europe. She worked as a camp counselor on Lac Annecy in the French Haute-Savoie, close to the Swiss border. One weekend off, she decided she had to go to Milan to see The Last Supper. She didn’t have much time, I remember her telling me. She dashed into the small church, not sure she would even make her train back. But she had traveled so far to have a few minutes in front of that iconic painting. It was faded, she said. She was surprised by how deteriorated it was. Leonardo experimented with paint, she told me. He didn’t realize that the new technique he had invented would make an image that could not endure. She found that deterioration moving, though also frustrating. I heard regret in her telling of the story, as if she thought she had missed the right moment to see the image whole, as if, somehow, her experience that day was incomplete.
Though maybe, I realize in retrospect, the wistfulness she was expressing was a form of anticipatory regret on my behalf; by the time I ever made it to Europe, she figured, The Last Supper would have chipped and faded to the point of invisibility. I didn’t even remember this story until I visited Milan for the first time, on that same northern Italian sojourn five years ago, and saw The Last Supper myself, now fully restored and viewable only with timed tickets. I was surprised by how moving I found the actual painting, situated in the refectory where Leonardo had originally painted it, the hackneyed, over-reproduced image fresh, vivid, and strikingly human in its original setting. It was not the fading ghost of a great painting my mother had experienced. If she had been alive, I would have sent her a postcard. Or more likely purchased one with the intent of sending it.
Leonardo had his own struggles with finishing things, not just paintings, but also, even especially, his writing. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes that Leonardo “was invested in writing as an instrument of knowledge; … more interested in the process of inquiry than in the completion of the text for publication.” Calvino cites a short fable the great artist attempted to write about the nature of fire, which survives in the form of three incomplete drafts, each of which stops and starts and loops back before trailing off:
Each time he adds some details … But he soon breaks off, as if becoming aware that there is no limit to the minuteness of detail with which one can tell even the simplest story. Even a tale of wood catching fire in the kitchen fireplace can grow from within until it becomes infinite.
“Infinite”—“infinito” in Italian—can also mean “unfinished.” They are at root, as Calvino no doubt knew, the same word. So why does one radiate promise, vastness, and ever-expanding possibilities while the other smacks of abandonment and failure? For my mother’s sake, I embrace that double meaning.
The young woman of 25 on her first (not knowing yet it would be her only) trip to Europe, riding a train alone, on a self-appointed adventure from Geneva to Milan to see a famous painting she knew only in reproduction, had nothing but possibility before her. The train entered Italy, descending through a series of dark tunnels, emerged into a wild, high ravine, and then glided into a landscape out of a fairytale. A glimmering lake surrounded by elegant buildings, palm trees, dotted with islands. This Italian lake had a more sophisticated demeanor than the open blue waters of the other lakes she’d encountered, Annecy or Geneva. A dreamy girl could imagine living there, settling on one of those castled islands.
Not long after, that same woman, though her parents had tried to narrow her path, to limit her horizons, and had predicted for her a fairly bleak future of spinsterhood in a girls’ boarding school, headed west buoyed by her summer of independence and adventure abroad. Her life was still blank as a postcard.
Later, when that open future filled up with a husband, three children, cats, goldfish, a dog, a household to manage, she had less time to dream. In the morning, while the rest of us rushed to get out the door, she stayed upstairs in her bed, waiting for the house to empty. Except when one of us was running late. Then she intervened. She would pull out her monogrammed stationery and write an apology note — the one form of literary correspondence she ever perfected, a stalling technique that, paradoxically, required completion to work. I remember the mornings I stood rigid with impatience over her bed, my hand hovering close to her own, desperate to snatch the notecard away at the first indication she was done. Yet the closer my fingers drew, the slower her pen seemed to move. Half of a half of a half of a half. I despaired of ever reaching even her bedroom door. Yet, until she addressed and sealed the envelope, I was in her thrall. Now, I wonder if by dragging out these two- to three-sentence excuses, she believed she was performing some kind of magic spell. Was her aim to stop time altogether? To keep us all from growing up and leaving home? To suspend us in a hazy realm of infinite possibility? Or to save us all, herself included, from the ultimate ending, the door none of us can prevent ourselves from reaching in the end?
Near the end of my mother’s life, she lost her memory and her eyesight simultaneously. She spent her last three years in a nursing home, happier and calmer than I had ever known her. Not being able to see may have been a blessing. She resided in an alternate reality of her own conjuring. My father called each of his children every night so we could talk to her on the phone. She couldn’t talk for long, she often said. She was busy. She had to find the Christmas ornaments in the attic (we never had one), or prepare for a dinner party (my father did all the cooking), or they were driving together somewhere, on the road. She had to help my father pay attention. “We’re driving by water,” she would tell me.
When she narrated these drives, I always pictured her gazing out the car window at the stretch of Pacific Ocean between Ventura and Santa Barbara that we passed countless times on the trip from our house in LA to my grandmother’s house, 100 miles up the coast. Now, after seeing the postcard my sister sent me for Mother’s Day, I wonder if she was conjuring a different scene, a lake in Italy with mountains all around it, and islands dotted with castles and villas, a place of promise and enticement.
“It’s very beautiful,” she said, her voice raspy and dreamy and full of fondness. “Oh, how I wish you were here.”
Image Source: IMBiblio / Flickr Creative Commons