Nonfiction from Jericho Parms
AS A GIRL, I wrapped my mother’s resting body. Gathering jackets from the hall closet, scarves from her drawers, I lay them across her breast and snug around her torso. I reached for the plaid Irish blanket she kept on the futon and the orange afghan draped on a nearby rocking chair and covered her legs—a poncho or overcoat joining the knees and ankles. I encased her head and neck in a headdress of one of her favorite scarves—light and gauzy, from some place far away. Lifting at the wrist and elbow, I crossed her hands on her chest. Her body was still, her limbs stiff with discomfort. She surrendered to my games as long as I kept my movements gentle, as long as I refreshed the damp washcloth on her brow, its cool touch inadequate relief against her throbbing forehead. Before letting her be, I pressed my palms together in a gesture between make-believe and prayer and whispered, “Mummy” as if calling her back to life.
There is a photograph of my mother wrapped this way: prepped like Pharaoh Hatshepsut for burial.
When she calls, I tell my mother that my migraines have returned. She stays on the line as I turn off the light and crawl into bed. She listens on the other end as I lift the heavy covers and settle into the unyielding scream of my body before I hang up. In the numb darkness, I feel the corners of a cold compress resting like coins on my eyes. I feel my body sheathed by the cotton duvet and sense myself harden like clay.
Sometimes, during these episodic spells, I’m convinced that if I just close my eyes I could disappear, sink six feet, flake away, decompose. Perhaps this is a dramatic expression of melancholy or morbid disturbance but from one such bout of grief I first imagined having a child. Or rather, I imagined a small body kneeling on the bed—a quiet visitation—leaning slightly across my ankles as she smoothed the blanket from the pyramid of my cloaked feet, along my shin and thigh, and reached to tuck in my shoulders.
Ancient Egypt had no word for Queen. Hatshepsut, nobility aside, was once a girl, ruled as a man, perished as a woman, lives forever in stone and hieroglyphic. Scientists say she died in pain, something to do with a chipped tooth—an abscess as the result of removal, like the largely erased history of her reign. Her burial: a secret. Her remains: said to be little but fragments in a canopic jar.
I imagine the urn of ashes my mother had to search for after my grandmother died. According to tight-lipped family tradition, there had been no ceremony or memorial, just the rigid silence of a western ranch house—an unused bridge table, glass tumblers and eclectic housedresses already given away. As a grown daughter my mother waited for her father to leave the house and, after an exhaustive search, opened a decorative jar displayed unassumingly on a table—drawn to the pottery’s ornate azure glaze—and found the dust of her mother inside.
Excavation is a human impulse, but archeology accounts for only pieces of the story. Inevitably, I will break from empirical evidence and listen to the mercurial patterns of the body instead. In this case, perhaps somewhere between the eye and the temple there is a sacred meeting place where womanhood and pain collide, where a generation ago my grandmother might have embalmed herself in scotch, and decades ago my mother, lost and uncertain, may have been born again, again—if not for their children. If the estrogen running through our cells can account not only for debilitating headaches and hereditary sadness but an intrinsic desire, then perhaps the same darkness interred within us can engender an unworldly capacity for love. If that is true, then maybe, even further back, in some similar shadowy past, Hatshepsut may have first imagined Neferure by her side, and heard her whisper “mum” in the darkness or, even better, a word for queen.
The women in my family get migraines, don’t sleep well, cry in the shower, and—with the exception of my mother—drink too much. As a girl, I grew up with neither faith nor religious practice, but I had a remarkable curiosity in ancestry and ritual comfort, which has never gone away. Our lineage is wrought with a threshold for pain, madness, and mania that taught me the importance of lying down in the dark until the throbbing subsides, until we fully dry out, of mummifying the self against our own decline.
Is it wrong that, if I have a daughter, I want to teach her this: To entomb herself now and then? To close her eyes and play dead for a few hours until she can handle the light again? Is it wrong that I want to share the peculiar relief of sitting up, fog lifting as we unwrap ourselves, straighten the bed sheets and blankets and step back into the world, preserved?
Jericho Parms is the author of Lost Wax (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and Waveform: Twenty-First Century Essays By Women. She is the Assistant Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at Champlain College. www.jerichoparms.com