Those times lifted me out of my childhood world with its vestiges of wooden boxes and also divided me all the more from my mother's silence, for they seemed to amplify hers. I used to glibly think there was no greater divide between mothers and daughters than the divide of that time: I stood on one side of the women's movement, she on the other. But how divided she herself must have felt, and her mother before her. My grandmother had been born in a remote village south of Rome and as a teenager had immigrated to a mill city in Massachusetts. Until her dying day, she spoke a particular dialect of Italian, which we, her grandchildren, thought was gibberish. Although my mother heard Italian every day during her own childhood, she rarely spoke it. She was instructed to speak English, always English. Where did they understand each other but in the silences between? In which world was my mother to have her say? The world she heard or the world she spoke to?
And the silence surrounding her now, is it the silence of acceptance? Whatever it is, it began to markedly deepen one day 15 years ago. A still morning, mild for December, though gray. Our home road was white with salt. The east was just lightening with the dawn. There was no other traffic on the road, so the siren was mute, but the red lights turned and turned as my father sped toward his last labored breaths and we all rode along into the blizzard of silence that divided our family into before and after. He'd had such a strong voice—his family peopled our world, his anecdotes and remembrances textured it. How all that could disappear would be its own story of a particular silence.
Somehow I had thought after his death, and after a while, some of the silence surrounding my mother would abate, that there'd be more space for her own voice. Whether what I imagined for her wasn't in her nature or time had made it so, I don't know. One of the many things I clearly don't know. I do know her silence turned more compliant than ever—as soft as pith—which made necessities easier. As her eyes began to fail, as she became less and less capable of seeing the road signs in front of her, I only had to pose a question to her doctor, and her license to drive was taken away, just like that.
Quiet, quiet into a new and noisier century. All of us bustle around her, then past her, with our own consuming lives. The pitch of our voices must seem so strange to her: the growing confidence of her grandchildren's talk, my own patiently enunciated and repeated words becoming less and less comprehensible as her hearing diminishes.
Now comes the silence of forgetting, the soft corroding of chalk cliff and the little dustings vanishing into the unfathomable sea below. “The old speak more to their own silence than to other men,” observed the Swiss philosopher Max Picard. “They go to meet the silence of death with their own silence within.” Her features are sharper than ever. She squares her walker, then sets out with surprising resilience for our lunch on the town. As we sit with the fish of the day, she questions me again and again. “What's the name of this place?” “What are those potato things I like?” “French fries,” I say and say again. Even such talk is an expression of silence, because all the while I haven't a clue as to what she is thinking, and in my own disbelieving mind I am wondering, How much worse? Which of us is more afraid? What am I afraid of? Afraid for her, for myself?
Just last week she failed to remember I was her daughter. “Who am I then?” I asked. “Oh … you're a friend. I can't have a daughter,” she said brightly. “Why, I've never been married.” As those 45 years with her husband soundlessly sifted into the North Atlantic, I saw my father fall all that much further back in time. He stands there beside his own old ones now: sepia, mute, staring back at me. And even in her forgetting, my mother moves inexorably toward him, past the clattering of hooves and the thud of wooden boxes.
Jane Brox is the author, most recently, of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.
Click here to read another piece on the joys of silence.