Fresh summer cherries are my Proustian madeleine. Whenever I bite into one, I think of my mother. Still. My mother has been gone for nineteen years—it will be twenty in October (how can that be?)—yet the taste of cherries brings her back so clearly, I am there, in my parents’ bedroom, watching the Red Sox and sharing a bowl of glistening, carmine fruit with her. My mother could not bear the heat, and so the air conditioner whirs away in the window. The house floats in the velvety summer darkness that has descended beyond the window. A pleasant, icy breeze wraps our bare arms. Chances are, the Sox are blowing a four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, breaking our tender hearts once more. I select a cherry from the bowl and pop it into my mouth. A dizzying explosion of sweetness rolls across my tongue. The juice is thick and dark. I imagine it spilling down my chin.
The cherries from my childhood were local; there was a farm stand just down the street, and my mother took great pleasure in our trips there, in lingering over the bins to select the most perfect, ripest fruits. In those days, we put them in a paper sack. The cherries I eat now, yellow with a pink-blush swirl, literally pale in comparison. They are shipped to the supermarket from Washington or Oregon in a plastic container. But they are sweet enough and juicy enough to bring memory tumbling back to me.
Growing cherries where I live now—Tucson Arizona—would not be possible. They could not survive the heat, and neither could my mother, which is, I think one of the reasons she decided on an early exit from this planet when faced with a move from her beloved Boston, the city where she had lived, worked, and raised a family for forty-four years, to this arid, baking place.
My mother died suddenly in 1992. A week before her death, while visiting me in San Diego, we spent three days together recording her life on tape. She was a refugee from the Holocaust, and I wanted to know about her early life in Switzerland and Eastern Europe. I wanted to know about the family she lost in the ghettos and camps. We had never really talked about it before. As the shock of her brief illness and death settled into my brain, I realized that the whole time of our visit, she knew she was dying. It was the little things: her unexpected candor in speaking to me, her willingness to sit with me for hours (talking about herself was not something my mother did well), her puzzling refusal of a necklace I wanted to buy for her. She kept the knowledge of her impending death to herself as she kept so much of her personal suffering to herself over the years of her life.
It was my intention to write about my mother’s life as soon as I recovered enough to put pen to paper. At the time, I was a scientist; I had not yet gathered the courage to jump off the cliff and call myself a writer. I thought this would be my first writing project, a chance to honor a woman who had fought so bravely both personally—she struggled with severe episodes of bipolar disease before “bipolar” was a word—and in her life as a female psychiatrist trying to leave her mark in a very male dominated field. My sister-in-law gave me a beautiful blue journal with the words, Memoirs of Dr. Doris Benaron by: Naomi Benaron embossed along the spine. Too paralyzed by loss, I could not do it. I am paralyzed still.
For years, the journal stood empty in my bookshelf, causing waves of guilt and anxiety every time I glanced at it. Then I began taking writing classes, but it was fiction that captured me. I believe I share this view with my mother as well: the truth is terrifying to face. I found the courage to write two short stories about my mother, one about her struggle with mental illness and the lasting scars it left, and one about the four days of her dying, but the truth had morphed into fantasy, just changed enough so that they were no longer about her and about me. Just changed enough so that I could inscribe the pain onto the page. I thought more and more about the memoir, but still, its pages remained blank, an accusatory white space.
In the end, I filled the journal. The first entry is a poem—a terrible one, I’m afraid—I wrote to my mother. There are other poems to her scattered throughout the journal. They get less and less clunky as I grew in my writing, as I learned to shape the sharp edges of loss. A few have been published. But mostly, the journal is filled with research notes, sketches, and scenes for my novel Running the Rift, a coming of age story about a young Tutsi boy growing up in Rwanda during the years surrounding the genocide. A champion of social justice all her life, I don’t think my mother would mind. She would, in fact, be proud. In one way, I could not have strayed farther from my own truth, but in another, the story is my mother’s. It is a story about “othering,” about the struggle to survive in a world where you are persecuted because of something you were born into, be it race, tribe, religion, culture, or gender.
I remember one of the last conversations I had with my mother, perhaps a week before she came to visit. It was early morning, and I was doing my chores: feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, scooping chicken manure and dirty straw. We had an old fashioned black phone in our barn, and it was here that I took her call. I remember how pleased I was to talk to her, and I want to believe that she knew it, too. I remember that I leaned against the side of the barn, sunlight scintillant on my face, and that we spoke for a long time. It is still difficult for me to listen to those tapes we made during her visit, but imagining this morning conversation gives me courage. It makes me believe that the time is approaching when I will get a new journal, moleskin this time, and begin to tell her story. It is the least I can do for my mother, for this woman with hair that remained a fiery red until the day she died, this woman who fought and fought because she knew no other way to live, no greater gift to teach her daughter.
Naomi Benaron earned an MFA from Antioch University and an MS in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She teaches for UCLA Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. An advocate for African refugees in her community, she has worked extensively with genocide survivors. Her novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a work addressing issues of social justice. She is also an Ironman triathlete.