Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light is nothing short of tender, with its vivid details on moments that could easily be buried in one’s memories. I think I tend to gravitate towards similar themes: books on poetry, literature, love, relationships, self. Smith’s was no different, except it opened up a foreign world wherein she had (and I didn’t) a language — all of it beautiful, majestic, painful — for her relationship with her mother.
She introduced Kathy Smith, her mother, in quite possibly the most loving way. The stories of her childhood intermingled with her mama’s homecooked dishes, pies and cakes, her gentle admonishments; even the Christian one-liners that Smith learned from her sprinkled throughout the book were welcoming. Her prose gave me the time and the space to lament my own childhood. One which has been riddled with a kind of conditional love that I’m just barely starting to accept.
Hers was filled with a different light, the kind that sifts through tall pine trees in the morning, straight from the heavens to the soft, green grass. I’ve never read anyone who has spoken so tenderly of their mother, which at times I found to be implausible. But Tracy took me there, and I knew. I started to heal.
I thought about my own mother in the next room, sleeping by herself in a large, empty bed. I wonder if she’s dreaming about my father who works the graveyard shift in San Francisco. I wonder if she longs for him the way I longed for her tenderness, the same longing throughout my life that started and ended with three words: I am enough.
As my mother read, I’d sometimes let my eyes drift across her face, taking her in out of habit, memorizing her, breathing in her smell, the way she held herself, the lilting cadence of her voice. […] watching her warmed me. I was calm and safe beside her, right at home. I didn’t think to call it beauty but beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel.
Perhaps I’ve known too many people, fell in love with women who hated their own mothers for Tracy to make sense to me. I struggled. One day, I took a 15-minute break and took the book with me. I stepped outside of the hospital I work at, noticing the first few signs of spring. The sun was bright and a soft breeze ruffled my curls gently as I propped myself on a ledge, sitting next to a succulent garden.
And then I understood.
If there was anything that this book taught me, it is the way I should love my mother unconditionally. I cannot replicate the same situations, nor be embattled by previous conditions if I were to live in the present with her. The reading has not lessened my own suffering but my capacity to understand is finally in place. I want to see my mother and feel her namesake (Joy) coarse through me, in ways that I never had before.
I never thought to wonder what my mother spent her in-between times dreaming about. I had no way of knowing then, as I do now, that when a woman delivers her children to a safe place, even for just a few hours, a part of her becomes free in a way that a child cannot understand, reverting in an almost physical way to the person she was before she had children.
Throughout her college years at Harvard, Tracy dealt with her mother’s sickness by refusing to name it. The denial was in part her mother’s, that she so willingly wanted to believe. She believed that she would be healed, and that cancer was gone, everyone in the family shouldn’t worry about her anymore. In the midst of a freedom that college afforded its newest students, Tracy was caught between a new life of her own anchored by the reality of her mother’s sickness.
I grappled with my own mother’s mortality. My mother stopped teaching when I became a freshman in high school, because at that time she told us that she was too sick. I was never sure of my mother’s ailments as I grew up, only that extreme heat made her feel sick so the air conditioning in our room at the house was always on full blast. She never liked being outdoors, unless it was before the sun came up (she frequently ran at 5 in the morning). Eventually we left the Philippines and its hot and humid towns for the cool and gentle sun of California. I never thought that the migration that gave her a new life would nearly kill me. This move caused heartaches on both of us for different reasons: I, the relentless nationalist/lonely teenager and she, the new immigrant/hopeful mother.
After graduating from Harvard, Kathy passed away. Tracy was only 22.
Sometimes after Mom had died, I’d be going along as if everything were fine. And then the fact of her death — no, not simply the fact of her death but rather facts of her death and her life; her presence in this world and the presence her absence made; the whole of what I remembered or lacked everything she gave and left and what, in leaving, she took — the fact of all that, like a column of threat and promise and light, would flare bright and hot in my mind.
There is only one childhood memory that I’ve refused to let go of as I got older. Most of my memories seem to have been purged from my memory unintentionally, and the process of remembering is tinged with a lot of wild, unpleasant feelings. But this memory stayed, the only thing I held on to to remind myself that my mother once showed affection. I was maybe 10 or 11. After a bad dream, I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if the four corners of the room I shared with my family were closing in on me. I walked to my mom’s side of the bed and told her that I couldn’t go back to sleep. She might have been too tired to remember but she held me for the rest of the night. I think I cried as I slept, maybe out of fear of my dreams, or for the fact that my tiny body was cupped by my mother’s warmth with her arms around me, or both.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.