My mother wore a black leotard and electric blue tights in the summer of 1984. Suited up, she liked to flip on the Jane Fonda Workout, sit down in her brown wingback chair, and watch.
“Studying,” she said.
Sometimes she ate a snack while watching the Jane Fonda Workout.
“Getting my energy up,” she said.
Sometimes my mother exercised, studying her form in a gilt-framed mirror. My brothers and I bounced around next to her, in front of her – on top of her, really – as we tried out moves and felt the burn. We were 9, 8, and 3. We liked to watch the Jane Fonda Workout. And we loved to watch my mother.
My mother turned 40 in 1984. She’d been with my father for 10 years. At 8 I had a creeping awareness of current and undercurrent, and could sense my mother’s stay-or-leave calculus, and knew that my father was around most days because she let him be around. Was he grateful? I was grateful. Did he know she could change her mind at any moment? I knew, and I scanned for the wind and wave that would warn us.
Wind: My mother dropped the baby weight in 1984, thanks be to the Jane Fonda Workout, iced tea, grapefruit, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and one-pound Hershey’s bars. She had her glossy brown hair shaped into a wedge, bought cotton culottes. She took up Transcendental Meditation in 1984, too.
Our Bodies, Ourselves; Diet for a Small Planet; Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health; Co-dependent No More; Fat is a Family Affair: all books my mother read in the 70s and 80s until their covers gave to suede. And then she read a book about Transcendental Meditation. She needed Transcendental Meditation. Fifteen to 20 minutes, twice a day; that’s all it took. Surely she could manage that.
In the mornings my mother would change out of her nightgown and bathrobe, put in her contact lenses, drink one cup of Taster’s Choice, and drive to Dull Knife Memorial College, to teach communications, human development, sociology, psychology and social problems. This, she kept track of in a red-covered gradebook, in an office down the hall from her friends; Mr. Ball, the police science teacher, and Mr. Engel, the math teacher.
Sometimes we borrowed money from Engel. Lots of people on the reservation borrowed money from Engel. He rarely saw it again, but he never said no. Once we made a special dinner for Engel – steaks, potato salad, cold sun tea and a chocolate cake. After dinner, my parents asked Engel for money, and he loaned it, no sweat.
My mother’s Dull Knife office locked. In between classes she could duck inside it, sit in her rolling chair, and meditate. Outside: Tribal college, linoleum floors, cafeteria french fries, Pell Grant panic. Inside: Closed eyes, slow breath, quiet mind. Mantra. Mantra. Mantra. Fifteen to 20 minutes a day.
My mother came home from work every evening at 5:10 and walked directly to her bedroom to change into a nightgown, robe and slippers. In the kitchen, my father – between jobs – browned ground beef for goulash or spaghetti. In the living room, we children sprawled on the gold carpet, watching the opening minutes of World News Tonight, waiting for mother to join us at 5:15. If anyone dropped by she would say, “Tell them I’m not here.” Sometimes, she said that over her shoulder, while crawling into her bedroom on her hands and knees.
After getting through World News, spaghetti and maybe another hour of television, my mother climbed into bed, under the sheets, and turned on her lamp. We would go to her, my brothers and I, The Indian and the Cupboard or James and the Giant Peach in our hands, to argue for the privilege of sitting closest to her, her lap our territorial capitol of love and literacy.
My nightly inventories confirmed the mole on her neck and the three brown spots on her cheek. She said a new one had appeared each time she had a baby. She wore thick glasses with huge frames and scratched lenses, and so did I. Surreptitiously, I sniffed her hair for the Selsun Blue shampoo. Her chin shook when she took a sip of hot Good Earth tea.
I’d examine her hands and ask again why she didn’t wear a wedding ring like my friends’ mothers, and she would explain that she’d taken it off one day to wash the dishes and lost it. She’d looked everywhere for it, she said. Absolutely everywhere for it. I’d ask her to tell me, again, about their wedding day, about her purple dress and his tan suit and the courthouse in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. “Can’t you get another ring?” I said. “Another wedding ring? And one for dad?”
We always left my father behind in the living room, to clip his toenails, watch television and smoke. My mother had stopped smoking, and now she had a book that explained how, by setting aside the money she’d spent on cigarettes every week, she could save enough in a few years to go to Paris. We were all going to go to Paris, she said. It would cost many thousands of dollars, but we would get there, now that she wasn’t a smoker anymore.
Never start smoking, my mother told us. Never start drinking, she said. It is better just never to start. Look at where drinking got people. Look at your father – he wishes he’d never started drinking. Look at all the kids on the reservation without families. Look at all the dysfunction, she said, and I’d wonder what dysfunction meant. Look at all the co-dependence, she said, and I’d wonder what that meant, too.
And then we had to leave the room on account of Transcendental Meditation.
Waves. What was this meditation? Was she thinking? Was she making up her mind? Could I stop it? I stood outside the door and listened. Nothing. I pressed my ear to the door; nothing. I retrieved a plastic juice tumbler from the kitchen, held it to the door like I’d seen on Scooby Doo. Nothing.
Her bedroom door didn’t lock. I cracked it. Listened. Nothing. She could be in there making a terrible mistake. I dropped to the floor in my Cathy comic strip nightgown, crawled on my hands and knees until I reached the foot of the bed, noting the position of the adored: seated, eyes closed.
“Paige?” my mother said. “Is that you?”
Climbing onto the bed next to her, I asked, “How do you do that?”
“Close your eyes,” she said. “Count every time you breathe out.”
“How high should I count?”
“Count to four, I guess.”
“Just when I breathe out? Can I count when I breathe in, too?”
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
“When do I start?”
“The sooner the better,” she said.
I closed my eyes, counting, loudly.
“Count in your head,” my mom said.
In my head, I counted to four.
“Nothing is happening, Mom.”
“That’s the point,” she said. She kept her eyes closed.
“What is supposed to happen?”
“Your mind is supposed to empty.”
“Is your mind empty?”
“Not at the moment,” she said.
“I don’t get it. Why do you need your mind empty?”
At this, she chuckled.
I scooted as close as possible, almost in her lap, drew my knees into my chest, and counted in my head for her, perhaps 10 times:
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four.
She looked so peaceful.
“Is your mind empty?” I whispered.
Her eyes flicked open.
“We’re done meditating for tonight, honey,” she said. Success. I’d calmed the seas. Father smoking in his chair; mother reading in her bed. There’d be Taster’s Choice and World News tomorrow, I knew it.
Television or my brothers often distracted me in the evenings, but if I noticed my mother’s absence, I crawled into her room. Once, I brought a friend with me and gestured to the specimen: “This is Transcendental Meditation. Tell Sarah how you do that, Mom.”
“Sometimes I like to imagine I have taken off the top of my head, and I am removing a piece of my brain at a time,” she said.
“I don’t think I can do that,” Sarah said, spooked.
“Oh,” my mother said. “That’s too bad. Maybe you two girls should go play, instead.”
Everyone must think of a word when they exhale, my mother told me, on one of those many evenings when I thought I could hold her back by asking questions that kept her mind full. “What’s your word?” I asked. “Oh, nothing important,” she said. And I didn’t ask again for almost 30 years. By then, I had two children of my own, and they often washed over me, the choices my mother had made in 1984.
If my mother had learned Transcendental Meditation from a guru, like she should have, he’d have assigned her a mantra. But she didn’t have a guru, so she’d come up with her own. She had three young children and not enough money for them. She had a husband, sober and smoking in his recliner. He might be there next week. He might not. She had Mary Baker Eddy. She had a trip to Paris coming up. She had Transcendental Meditation.
She breathed in.
She breathed out.
And her mantra spilled forth.
Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.