What goes unsaid: a mother and daughter's oblique communication

A mother snips quotes that inspire straight out of books and tapes them up, but sidesteps more direct expression.

When I read a book from my mother's shelves, it's not unusual to come across a gap in the text. A paragraph, or maybe just a sentence, has been sliced out, leaving a window in its place, with words from the next page peeping through. The chopped up page looks like a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle waiting for its missing piece. But the piece isn't lost, and I always know where to find it. Dozens of quotations, clipped from newspapers, magazines – and books – plaster one wall of my mother's kitchen. What means the most to my mother in her books she excises and displays.

I've never told her, but those literary amputations appall me. I know Ann Patchett, and Dorothy Sayers, and Somerset Maugham would fume alongside me, their careful prose severed from its rightful place. She picks extracts that startle me, too: "Put your worst foot forward, because then if people can still stand you, you can be yourself." Sometimes I stand reading the wall of quotations, holding a scissors-victim novel in my hand, puzzling over what draws my mother to these particular words.

My own quotation collection is more hidden and delicate. I copy favorite lines into a spiral-bound journal – a Christmas present from my mother, actually – in soft, gray No. 2 pencil. This means my books remain whole. The labor required makes selection a cutthroat process: Do I really love these two pages of "On Chesil Beach" enough to transcribe them, word by finger-cramping word? (The answer was yes, the pages were that exquisite.)

My mother doesn't know any of this. She doesn't know I prefer copying out to cutting out. I've never told her that I compile quotations at all.

There's nothing very shocking about that; for all our chatting, we don't have the words to begin certain conversations. My mother and I talk on the phone at least once a week, and in some ways, we are each other's most dedicated listener. She tells me about teaching English to the leathery Russian ladies at the library where she volunteers; I tell her about job applications, cover letters, a grant I'd like to win. We talk about my siblings, her siblings, the president, and Philip Seymour Hoffman movies. We make each other laugh so hard that I choke and she cries. But what we don't say could fill up rooms. Fights with my father. Small failures in school. Anything, really, that pierces us.

I like to say that my mother has never told me "I love you." There's something reassuring in its self-pitying simplicity – as if the three-word absence explains who I am and wins me sympathy – so I carry it with me, like a label on my back. I synthesize our cumbersome relationship with an easy shorthand: my mother never said "I love you." The last time my mother almost spoke the words was two years ago, when she called to tell me that a friend had been hospitalized.

I said, "I love you, Mom."

She said, "Thank you."

I haven't said it since, but I've thought about it, and I've wondered why my mother doesn't. A couple of years ago, I found a poem by Robert Hershon called "Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road?" that supplied words for the blank spaces I try to understand in our conversations:

Don't fill up on bread
I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge

My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?

What he doesn't know
is that when we're walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand

It's a humble poem, small in scope, not the stuff of epic heartbreak, yet poignant. After copying it down in my quotation journal, my wrist smudging the pencil into a gray haze as I wrote, I opened an e-mail I had begun to my mother, and added a postscript: "This poem made me think of you," with the 13 lines cut and pasted below. My mother doesn't read poetry – or at least, she doesn't tell me that she reads poetry – and I felt nervous clicking, "Send."

She never mentioned the poem. But the next time I went home for vacation, I noticed something new in the kitchen. Not on her quotation wall, but across the room, fixed to an antique magnetic board: Robert Hershon's poem, printed on a scrap of white paper in the old-fashioned font of a typewriter. The board hung above the radiator, where we drape wet rags and mittens dripping with snow, in the warmest spot in the kitchen. The poem still hangs there. Neither my mother nor I have ever spoken about it.

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