Not long ago I spent a weekend visiting my parents in New York. On Sunday morning, shortly before I was to leave, my mother asked my father and me to help her with a project.
She has been continuing to explore the idea of reclaiming her body since cancer has marked it (see 'Sign on the Line,' May 3, 2007). She has been working on this through art centered around her surgery scar, which runs nine inches vertically down her middle. She has been playing with the idea of the scar as a line, and with all the different meanings and connotations associated with the word line.
On this morning she was focused, intent - to a degree I would almost call unique to her; it is a mode my father and I recognize well, and it is not altogether easy to demur when she is in this mode and putting out a call for followers or collaborators.
She had been up for hours already and had done a fair amount of work, both conceptual and physical, on the project. This involved having assembled some hundred kitchen matches in a row, like soldiers, held together with duct tape. Two children's blocks, taped to the back of the row, would provide a base to the thing, so that it could be stood upright without tipping over. Her proposal - but this is the wrong word; it was never anything so mild - her imperative, then, was this: to create an image of a "fire line" along her scar. Her determination, whenever she is onto the idea of creating art, has always been uncanny, both luminous and slightly scary. Luminous because she is visibly powerful when making art; scary because she appears somewhat dissociated from the role of mother.
My father was to be the stage manager/fire warden. He knelt, frowning, with a box of matches, a pot of water, and a washcloth.
I was to be the witness/image-maker. I held the camera in sweaty hands.
My mother was subject and object, artist and model - artist and work of art - all in one. She lay on the floor, lifted her shirt out of the way, and carefully balanced the match-contraption on her stomach.
My father lit the row in two or three places. The flames spread rapidly up and down the line. My mother, she later reported, felt an intense flush of heat. I snapped the picture. The matches burned down toward her skin. My father tried blowing them out. Little sparky match-heads began to fall onto my mother's stomach. We tried to brush them off before they burned her. They were like insects, so many of them, skittering everywhere. My mother made sounds of distress. The smoke alarms went off. My father, with what seemed a stroke of genius, lifted the whole half-burning contraption off her, submerged it in water, and laid the wet washcloth on her stomach, now dotted with tiny red marks.
I was, in a way, furious. I'd let myself be conscripted in the service of something disquieting. There was a frankly dangerous and violent element to the art piece on which we'd all just collaborated. And there was something disturbingly intimate about the circumstances of its creation: we were not a team comprising colleagues, or friends. We were mother, father, daughter. I knew that neither my father nor I had felt we could refuse. I don't think either of us felt we entirely grasped the full meaning of the project, what made it quite so crucial to my mother, what truths or possibilities it illumined.
But here's the thing. I was also full of gratitude. I am aware of our intimacy - mine with my parents - as a rare privilege, one that has led us into experiences that have enriched all of our lives, enriched even our understanding of what life can hold. We have, since that day, talked about the discomfort each of us was feeling, talked about our logistical roles and the ways in which they correspond to roles we've long played. We've talked about how amazing it was that we got the picture in just one take, and how my mother hadn't realized how hot her stomach would get, and how none of us had anticpated the problem of the falling match-heads. We've even talked about the fact that none of this got talked about on that day, in the immediate, stunned aftermath.
In other words, being uncomfortable robbed us of nothing - it gave us new questions, new places to connect. I realize, writing this, that is a message my mother has been conveying all of my life.