In August of 1985 I was a tourist in New York on the Staten Island Ferry, in transit to my ultimate destination, a year’s study in Paris. As I was once again leaving my country on a pilgrimage to Europe, I was feeling a nostalgia for the unknown. Something like hope and expectation was welled up within me, and I was susceptible to the emotion which would arise from a viewing of the Statue of Liberty.
It is August, 1985. My mother has been dead for over nine years, and she is riding on the Staten Island Ferry with me for a viewing of the Statue of Liberty.
A nostalgia for the unknown? It was a nostalgia which came from expropriating someone else’s memory, not my own. I had never been on the Staten Island Ferry before in my life, and still the romance of treading water and swaying to the ferryboat’s rhythm took me by surprise. Then I saw the Statue of Liberty and it all made sense. I could see my mother in a white dress from the forties, on the deck of the ship, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.
(Give me your tired, your poor)
She was the frightened little girl from North Carolina who went to live in upstate New York with her older sister when their mother died. Kids made fun of her for her Southern accent. In nursing school, on duty in hospital, she was sent from ward to ward asking for a fallopian tube, a prank orchestrated by her more senior peers. She had been through the pranks, the jokes, the taunting, and persevered through it all. She had earned the passage on the Staten Island Ferry, I thought, as I imagined her looking up at the green-grey Liberty with her own green grey eyes, both of us seeing our Mother within that great mother of all—
(Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me)
She must have been at her best then, I thought, somewhere in her twenties, at the bow of the ferryboat gazing up at the Statue of Liberty. I decided to get out of the cabin and take a closer look at her. I actually got right next to her on the railing without disturbing her gaze at the statue. She was altogether there, years before the four kids, the unhappy marriage and alcohol ingested in an attempt to make it all tolerable. Years before my sister’s, her daughter’s suicide, the hysteria; before all of that, she had been a courageous young woman, with nothing in her eyes but a reflection of the Statue of Liberty.
When I was six or seven, I once told her, “Mommy, you’re not fat,” perhaps in the hope that by pronouncing that lie she would turn into the thin, elegant Jackie Kennedy figure which I would have preferred. My mother was fat, and haggard. She cleaned the house and made all the beds like a maid and cooked dinners and drank too much vodka on the weekend to forget it all. Mommy you’re not fat. You’re this vibrant, young woman in her twenties, on the town in New York City, on furlough from nursing school, viewing all the key points of interest. You’ve had a late lunch at the Automat, or maybe taken in a matinée at Radio City Music Hall.
March, 1981, San Francisco: at a presentation made by a gay men’s community group to a field-trip class on community service, I was incensed at how some of my peers were more concerned with challenging the men’s sexuality rather than learning more about community needs. By speaking out I was, perhaps for the first time, coming out. A mother of one of the gay men nearby told me, however, that mothers always know. Could I introduce myself to the young woman on the bow of the ship as her future gay son?
My mother was driving my sister and me to a camping spot. As we sped through a town, she recited, “There’s the church, there’s the steeple, where the hell are all the people?”
The sun is going down. Maybe if I spoke to her…
“Beautiful day isn’t it? Silence. She calmly continues her ferry ride, ignorant of me.
“But the wind is cold for August,” I suggest. Silence. Of course she doesn’t talk. Since she’s just a hallucination, I loosen up a bit. I tell her how glad I am to find her in all her youth and vibrancy on the bow of the Ferry, and what an honor it is to view the Statue of Liberty with her. I tell her how sorry I am for the pain and disappointment in store for her, how much pain I felt in her death, and how I will never forget her. I tell her I forgive her how sorry I am for the moments of hysteria when she acted so hatefully toward me, and how much I needed this cleansing vision of her at the bow of the ferry, perched agilely as if she could fly off into the wind and perch on the tip of the statue’s torch.
(I lift my lamp beside the golden door)
You and the statue are all the courage I need. I’m going away for a year, and I don’t know how things will turn out, and I feel very alone in this world, and am running off to Paris almost as a cultural fugitive. But you and the Statue are superlatively one, and you will be there on my way home, always vigilant as a vision of courage, the young, defiant student nurse, and Liberty, watching over us all.
(I lift my lamp beside the golden door)
—untitled journal entry, January 1st 1993