What Goes Unsaid
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, and 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.
我对她说:“我爱你,妈妈。” 而她说:“谢谢。” 这件事后来我再没提过,但却始终在我的脑海里盘旋不去,我一直想知道为什么我妈妈从来不说这几个字。几年前,我读到罗伯特•赫尔希写的一首诗,诗名叫《感伤的时刻或面包为什么要过马路?》,这首诗填补了我和妈妈的对话中许多我不能理解的空白: 别用面包把肚子塞满了/我心不在焉地说/这儿的菜量大得很/我的儿子,我那发线已开始/后退少许的儿子,对我说/你怎么会/跟我说这样的话?/他不知道的是/当我们一起散步时,/当我们/走到马路边时, /我有时会不自觉地伸出手/想要去牵他的手。
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.