A moment of un-being

May 11, 1994|By Marianna Russell

THE incident cannot have lasted more than a few seconds.

In the beginning, the circumstances were quite ordinary. A mother, invited to make a presentation before an English class at her son's school, walked through the library on the way to the appointed classroom. She knew her son would not be in the class, so she was pleased to see him as she walked up from behind rows of chairs lined up to face a stage.

Her son did not see her. He was kneeling on a chair, leaning over the back to talk to friends in the row behind, and his long bangs were falling in his face. She wasn't surprised to see him socializing instead of studying.

There was the split-second decision in which she had to weigh the possibility of embarrassing her son in front of his friends against her desire to let him know that she was there. She decided to take the risk. After all, he'd been proud of his mother when she had talked to his class the previous year. She put her hand on the shoulder of his navy blue blazer. In a motion she recognized as characteristically his, her son's head came up at an angle as he shook the bangs away from his eyes -- eyes she had always been told were just like hers. Her son's eyes met hers.

Only he was not her son.

A common mistake. Ninety percent of the boys in that all-boys' school were in khaki pants and navy blazers. And there was nothing out of the ordinary in her son's build or the color of his hair; any mother could have made the same mistake.

But the moment did not end for this mother. It moved beyond any limitations of time or space, for as she gazed into that young man's As she gazed into that young man's eyes, she honestly did not know whether this was her son. Everything began to fall away.

Everything began to fall away: the dark-paneled room, the high-vaulted ceiling, the book stacks, the other boys, the sounds of adolescent males coming and going with husky, barely-hushed voices, the introductory words for her presentation, the day of the week, the hour of the day and -- most terrifying -- the imprint on her mind of a beloved face.

There was nothing in the world at that instant but a mother and a boy who could or could not be her son.

And if the mother did not know the identity of the boy, how could she know her own identity? That very singular moment lasted only a second, though it was long enough to fill her with an age of horror. The boy smiled, looked puzzled, and she recovered: knew he was not her son, withdrew her hand and quickly explained the mistake.

Three hours later, when she returned to the school to drive car pool, she was shocked to see her son wearing his favorite shirt, a brightly colored blue and white check, beneath his navy jacket. If she had made a mental note of that before dropping him off in the morning, she might not have mistaken the boy in the library for her son.

He inquired about her presentation. Finally, she could not stand the not knowing, so she asked him if he had a double in school. He said people tell him he looks like so-and-so. She told him the story about her encounter with so-and-so and tried to laugh it off, but he sensed her anxiety. Now he was trying to tell her she had scarred him for life. What emotional trauma at knowing your own mother doesn't know you! She would never live it down!

She could rationalize the incident up and down the page, but in the end she kept coming back to that same feeling of existential horror. Virginia Woolf had used the phrase "moments of being." This had been a moment of un-being. It belied everything she believed about herself: that whatever else she was or wasn't, she was at least a good mother.

And even if she was not always a good mother, any mother ought to know a stranger from her own child!

In the past year the mother had watched the changes in her children's lives, feeling echoes of change in hollow places within herself. She had watched her eldest child graduate from college and begin forging a life on her own in a very big city. She'd watched the second child move from indifferent apathy to assertive resolution in choosing a college and convincing that same college to choose her. And she'd watched the growing of her youngest child -- her son -- knowing that in two years he would be off to college as well.

Having been a student herself for the past five years, the mother knew all about college and change and growing, the way you grow so much you hardly recognize yourself. The mother -- and student -- fervently hoped her son would forgive her momentary lapse of memory. She had one or two things on her mind.

Marianna Russell writes from Sparks. She will graduate this month from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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