Last fall, my younger daughter, who lives in the next town over, invited me to go with her to a prenatal yoga class, saying that other women sometimes brought their mothers and she wanted me to come. I love yoga and happily agreed, especially since the class met on Malcolm’s birthday and I always try to do something special that day, to honor my firstborn child who died in infancy.
Colette and I drove to the class in a pouring afternoon rain, reminding me of the deluge on the day of Malcolm’s second open heart surgery, the operation from which he never awakened. I didn’t say anything about this to Colette, very pregnant with her second child—her first, a healthy two-year-old son. I only reminded her that it was her older brother’s birthday. “Yeah,” she said. “I thought of that.”
At the yoga studio the registrar greeted us, eager to have a mother daughter team in tow. “Do you know what you’re having?” she asked Colette.
“I hope you don’t mind my saying this,” the registrar offered,” but actually you have four generations of your family taking yoga today: grandmother, mother, baby girl inside, and since your baby girl’s eggs are already fully formed, in a way, we can count your baby’s babies as being here too, if she has children.”
“Wow,” Colette said. “That is amazing to consider.”
In a way, I thought, we were five generations. Though my mother has been dead for half a decade it was she who introduced me to yoga when I was a teenager.
She took me along to her evening yoga class that met in the basement of and was taught by an eccentric wealthy lady named Lassie Smith. Lassie wore bright scarves and deep red lipstick. She rang bells and hit gongs. Often class was cancelled because Lassie was away on an exotic trip. One night she called my real estate broker mother from Egypt at 2 am, clearly oblivious of the time, to check on the progress of one of her house sales. Mother lay awake fuming the rest of the night, but was all smiles at the next class. She was a professional.
This was the mid-1960s, in Princeton New Jersey, way before the Internet, before most women, particularly of my mother’s background, had careers, and even before yoga mats. If they did exist, we didn’t know about them. Mother and I took beach towels and lay in a circle on the floor inhaling Lassie’s Indian incense, the rest of the group tony middle-aged women with plenty of spare time. My mother was the only working woman.
I loved the class. Actually what I really loved was doing anything with my mother—yoga, driving to a lawyer’s office to deliver a contract, hanging around with her at one of her real estate open houses, drinking morning coffee together—with lots of milk and sugar—in her floral cups with matching saucers, walking the dogs after dinner, taking day trips to New York to window shop at Lord & Taylor, helping her with her French homework, and crawling into her double bed late at night after one of my frequent nightmares. Sitting in her office after school, waiting for her to finish work so we could go home, I would pretend to read or do homework while I eavesdropped and watched as she doodled on a legal pad and talked to clients on the phone in her bell-clear lilting voice I never tired of hearing.
At Lassie’s we bent our bodies into Downward Dog, stretched our spines into Cobra, did head stands against walls, and sat cross-legged for Lion Pose—where we opened our eyes as wide as we could, pushed our tongues out far and, on an exhale, roared like a room full of noisy gargoyles. Here was one place where these well-heeled women could fully relax. They sighed and moaned. Sometimes I had to bite my inner cheek to keep from laughing at what Lassie called “vaginal release.” As far as I was concerned, these uptight ladies were farting, my mother included.
Lying beside Colette in a tasteful studio in Durham, North Carolina, on a teal mat with purple blocks and a navy bolster, I thought back to another yoga class, the prenatal series I signed up for soon after Malcolm died, when I was pregnant with Colette’s older sister Olivia. The chatter before the first class was all about cotton vs disposable diapers, wall stenciling, midwives and labor plans. I looked around at the fresh-faced eager women, ripe peaches, and knew I didn’t fit. I with the harrowing history—ambulance rides, PICUs, naked babies strapped down on light tables looking like slabs of meat torn down the middle, tubes emerging from all over their bodies. Children dying.
My cesarean scar still tender, I watched the slide show of ragged images parade in a march of terror across my unstill mind. I felt dizzy, knew I couldn’t stay. I got up, rolled my mat, and told the teacher I was leaving. I headed out into the bitter January Boston afternoon, my eyes stinging from the cold and my tears. Forget the bus I thought. I didn’t want to be close to anyone. Instead I walked the three-plus miles up Mass Ave from the Cambridge yoga class to my home in Arlington Heights, baby Olivia kicking and hiccupping the whole way. She was always awake to my long hikes and hard breathing.
When I got home I called my mother in New Jersey, sobbing. She had witnessed far too much herself of Malcolm’s short, excruciating life. I don’t know how many times she headed north on Amtrak to try to help us deal with crisis after crisis—the disapproving visiting nurse when we had Malcolm at home for a brief stint; the sudden rushes to emergency rooms; her exhausted daughter, me, becoming disoriented in a hotel hallway, not knowing who or where I was. in the hospitals, Mother dutifully suited up in sterile scrubs over her soft wool suits, a mask covering her high cheek bones and slim lips, her hands gloved, so she could hold her grandson. She had her own horrors, including watching her youngest daughter pace and wail and punch pillows against a bottomless grief.
“Dearie,” she said to me on the phone, “you don’t have to go back to that yoga class.”
Colette and I lay side by side in Savasana, corpse pose, my favorite—in part because it’s the last pose and all the stretching and balancing is over. I was flat on my mat, drifting off, Colette propped up to protect her swollen belly and strained lower back. Our teacher Andrea said, “Put your hands on your belly and send love and gratitude to your baby.”
I placed my hands on my 60-something fleshy tummy and gave thanks first to my intrepid mother, always with me, and then to my three babies, two here on earth, the other hovering nearby, even three decades later.
We had all gone to yoga.
Susan Marcus said:
Ellie reminded me to read your blog. Poignant, bittersweet, she said. You paint a lovely picture of Mother, although that’s not the mother I knew. And your relationship with her was very different from mine with her. Beautifully written. Thank you.
Love this! And love you, Mommy!