Nonfiction by Sophia Ioannou

My Mother, a Changeling

My mother, a changeling.

Let’s say in Dusseldorf in 1957 a child was stolen. Let’s say, she — it was a girl-child — had just been born. She had two older brothers who might have felt her absence. They, too, were children after  all and children are attuned to disturbances in the air. Let’s say this girl-child’s mother did not notice and her father was outside of Geilenkirchen at the time, and two fairies came in through the window, taking this girl-child and leaving behind their own daughter in her place. No one noticed any differences. This changeling had the same calm blue eyes, except sadder. The changeling was so grotesquely sad that nobody who knew her wanted her.

My mother, with an iron rod in her thigh.

Let’s say this, in Dusseldorf the changeling assumed my mother’s name and her face became a palimpsest of my mother’s face and of sorrow. Let’s say this, to make it simple, the changeling was both my mother and was not. Let’s make it easy on ourselves.

In the car, my mother is crying. It is not the first time that I have seen her cry. She is an intensely emotional woman. She is telling me about the hospitals in New York City and scrawny babies, perhaps only three pounds, and their mothers’ bodies covered in scars and sarcomas, and the babies, too, soon to be covered in sarcomas. It took them too long to die, she tells me. And I remember my playmates when I was young, who were five years older than me and half my weight. I was sick looking at them. I cried. But I was a child and children cry, and I don’t think that my mother could have understood the cause of my suffering.

My mother’s father, who was in the army, flew them from Dusseldorf and then around the southern United States. They settled in Georgia. They were not happy there; they settled. My mother had two more sisters, who were also troubled. My mother’s father did not like to see his daughters like that, so troubled, so he chose to solve it in the only way he knew how, by perpetuating it.

My mother is crying on her birthday. She has not left bed once, even to smoke. The neck of a wine bottle creeps out from below her bed. Your father does not love me, she tells me. Your father has made you buy me presents to show that he does not love me.

She is a strange looking child in pictures, squat and tense in frills and lace. She does not smile for the camera. She is very serious about her surroundings. I find these pictures of her in an album hidden within a box covered by old clothing, an accidental treasure. They’re all washed-out or overly- saturated. Somebody has written names and dates beneath each photograph, in pretty, precise lettering that could not be my mother’s. In the photographs, her sisters are, at least, trying to smile, and it is 1961 in Germany, and I do not see myself in her at all.

Of course your mother spoke German, my father says later. Don’t you remember?

My mother, (1957–2003).

I don’t remember German, but I remember the slow drawl of her voice. I learned to drop syllables as she did. I learned to love the shape of words. How calm and sweet it was to hear her call my name in the middle of a Manhattan subway, when everyone around spoke rapidly and technically, and there was the brisk mechanical pace of the train engine, and up on the streets, the squalling of pigeons.

A changeling’s skin is very sensitive. It will bruise at almost anything and although the bruises that form are instances of magnificent beauty — purple flowers/blue starbursts — it pains the changeling to see them. Knowing this, and understanding my grandfather’s temper, I am not surprised to see my mother, in photographs, covering her arms and legs even in the summer.

My mother, who went into shock during labor and gave birth to a baby girl, me, with holes in the valves of her heart.

My mother is not crying on Christmas. She appears, even, happy and she bounces me on her knee though I’m too old for it. But it please her, to do that, so I let her. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her smile. The fire cracks loudly, like thunder. Look at us, she says, soft and kind. My father is sitting on the floor, making mountains out of the wrapping paper. He doesn’t hear us. Our last Christmas as a happy family, she says. And she laughs.

In a video, she is getting married. At the church there are only twelve other people. She has a crown of flowers on her head. The priest blesses my parents in Greek. She doesn’t look at the camera. She has paid only forty dollars for her dress and has gained ten pounds since her engagement and, once, out of nowhere, breathes a sigh of relief.

I married her because she wanted children, my father says.

And when my father left and she wasted, she was not crying. And when I found her on the kitchen floor, alive, she was not crying. And when she first struck me she was not crying, I was not crying, and the second time, she was crying and I was not, and the third, the fourth,

My mother, ashes.

My mother, who paid her own way through college, medical school. My mother, who lived on canned tuna. My mother, who taught me algebra when I was seven. My mother, who pulled me out of school twice a month to take me to museums. My mother, who washed off my knees, who taught me to swim and ride a bike. Who read to me Edgar Allen Poe. Who let me cry for anything I did not get. Who did not suggest I was selfish. Who deserved better.

Let’s say, I’m thankful.

Eventually, a changeling will return home. She will feel, somewhat, like an animal before a storm, sensing a pulsing of electricity in the air. She will leave and take nothing with her, except her body and leave behind a fleshy double. It is not death, but new life, and somewhere else, the changeling has shrunk down to a bead of light, dancing to the music of earth and air.
And return is not impossible.

 

 Sophia Ioannou is a Social Studies teacher living in Brooklyn. Recently, she graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.