Song of the Sad Mother

Chapter I

Flowers for Mother

I brought her flowers. But mother was not used to flowers. I’m not dead, yet, she’d say. I didn’t know where to put them. The fleshy roses suddenly seemed obscene. She said: Throw them away, if you can’t think of anything better to do with them. Nothing came to me. I was frozen.

You need to get over here, father told me on the phone. Supposedly it was important. 
He didn’t say whether it was important for him. Or for whom.

I should come immediately, he said. And I got on the first flight.
Did she want to see me?
And did I want to see her?

An odor of burnt dolls mixed with chrysanthemum floated in the air. But chrysanthemum was only in my head. And the dolls had long since been gone.

I brought mother roses.
Mother lay in bed. She said that I should pray for her. Mother talked about praying as though it were the same as washing your hands. She had only taught me how to wash my hands.

I can’t pray. Mother had never taught me a thing about prayer. So that I would never get into the habit of depending on anyone. You can only depend on yourself, she would tell me. And I allowed this lesson to impress itself upon me very deeply. I allowed it to impress itself upon me only to forget it again immediately.

Can you imagine that? I allowed this lesson to impress itself upon me forever only to simultaneously forget it. Do you know what it’s like, to know something and not know it, at the same time? When one is able to do something and at the same time unable to do it. That’s when you feel like you exist. You exist. But you don’t exist. And you yearn for your own being.

You must be thinking, I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. I am crazy, and I am not. Is it any different with you?

I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to myself. With the part of myself that is knowing and also able. And with the part of myself that does not know and is unable. I’m in the process of learning how to consolidate these things, reconcile them and unite them.
What will come of this? Nothing halved and nothing whole? No a being that is whole. A being in balance.
And what is balance. Do you know what balance is?
I’m also not sure that I know exactly what this is. Even though I know I’ve felt it some days. I feel my feet. As they graze the asphalt. I feel how one foot swings high in front of the other and then comes down again. Like in a dance. Like a chain. Intermittently. As though I were floating. But I’m not floating. I walk. I walk with myself. No, I just walk. And I just am. No, I just feel. I am.

Sometimes I walk beside myself. Sometimes with myself. Inside myself. And sometimes I just walk.

What does she want to hear from me? The young girl that’s come to sit at my table. Without asking me for permission. We know each other by sight. She comes to the café every day to read the paper or to watch the people while sipping a small café mocha for hours. Today she seems agitated. She speaks as though she were moved by something. Without awaiting a response.

Balance. What is balance? And who is balanced, said the young woman. She doesn’t look at me as she speaks these words. She looks out the window. Out into the distance. Out unto a type of distance that allows time and place to disappear.
Balance, she repeated. Is the president of the republic balanced? The pope? The mother of God? She pauses briefly and looks into her cup as though she had discovered a world deep inside of it. Then she resumed.

She’s balanced. The mother of God. She can balance out the pain of her lost son with love. She can neutralize it.

And mother. My mother. Whom did she love? Did she love me?

She often claimed to. Every time I was not allowed to do something that brought me pleasure. She forbade me everything for my own good. Because she worried about me. Because she was anxious for me. Because she loved me.

Mother loved me and father. But father was allowed to do everything. He was allowed not to come home at night. Even though she worried about him. Father did not come home because he had duties to fulfill toward our society. Toward Communism.

He always had something to do somewhere. It was only at home that he had nothing to do. Because his activities were best performed somewhere other than home. He came home just to please us. Even though it wasn’t a pleasure to have him at home, And to not have him at home was also not a pleasure.

To have him at home always meant to be considerate of the fact that he was home, even though he was supposedly supposed to be somewhere else.

When are fathers supposed to be at home? Fathers are never supposed to be at home.
Because fathers earn money and earning money doesn’t happen at home. And in spite of that, they’re supposed to be at home.

Mother was also not at home. And when she was there, she had to perform house duties. So that people could admire her housewifely qualities. Or at least not be able to claim that she was not a good housewife. Mother was good at everything. Even at being a housewife, she was good.

I don’t know if mother was good at being a mother? But is that something one can ask a mother? Is that something that one is even allowed to question?

Mother lay in bed. I see her in front of my eyes, as though it were yesterday. Mother was drained. The life was squeezed out of her. The strength pressed out of her. I’m searching for the right word. To describe what had happened to mother, the woman said.

The woman’s name was Maria-Maria. She came to Berlin from Bucharest. After the revolution. She came to find out, whether she can depend on herself.

To throw everything away and start anew. From nothing. To make something from nothing. And to figure out how to accomplish that.

To leave everything behind and go away. To another world. Where one has to learn everything from scratch. The language. How to turn a doorknob or flush the toilet. How to open windows. How to withdraw money from the ATM. In the event that one has some.

Maria-Maria said: I’ve come here because I didn’t want to go to mother’s grave. I never wanted to go there. Because mother is not in the cemetery. She is elsewhere. Where she is, I do not know. Sometimes she is around me. Sometimes she’s inside of me. And sometimes she is far away. Sometimes she’s in my anxieties. I have many anxieties. They are mother’s anxieties. But I’m learning to conquer them. I’m learning to cast mother out.

Mother burned my dolls. So that I would not depend on anybody. As soon as I started school. My bed was surrounded by dolls. I got my own room at a very young age. So that I would learn to organize my room. So that I would learn to be responsible for my own compartment. And at the same time learn to be responsible for my own life. Mother never had time. She only had enough time to organize my life for me. But no time to live it with me. Or to experience it with me. Mother did not experience. Mother had duties. From morning to evening. And even at night. But she could seldom fulfill her nightly duties. Father was seldom at home. Mother fulfilled her duty of headaches. The duty of her daily headaches.

In my memory, mother always had a headache. It was as though she’d been born with them. As though headaches and mother were one and the same.

I was always familiar with pain. Pain has accompanied me for a long time. Until I gradually learned to peel it away. To dissolve it. To free myself of it.

Mother had taught me to love pain. I loved my dolls. I was at least able to talk to them. I couldn’t talk to mother. Mother never listened. I used to talk with the dolls, but mother told me not to talk with myself. Only crazy people and your grandmother do that.

For mother, grandmother was the worst example.

The first day of school was a special day. Not only because of the freshly printed books that were carefully laid on every bench in the classroom awaiting us.

I’d been long since familiar with books. I could already read, write and do arithmetic. Mother had already taught me all of that. I was supposed to learn fast. Since mother had not the patience to explain anything twice. Let alone the time.

Now you’re already seven, mother said, and you’re in school. Now you’re a big girl. You need to depend on yourself. Dolls are not going to support you in that.

On my first day of school mother had burned my dolls. Because I needed to read. I needed to study. I needed to lean on knowledge.

Knowledge was like nourishment for my mother. And yet, mother had judged the knowledge of others. You need to know everything that is out there. Not really everything. Mother did not want me to know about happiness. One could not depend on happiness. If happiness even exists, mother said, it comes seldom and it passes quickly. And after it passes you fall into the hole that it leaves behind. And you suffocate. And you’ll never come out of it again.

Mother had never come out of hers. Mother had never found her way out. Even though she’d never even believed in happiness. In what had mother believed?

You should depend on yourself. Read. Study. Knowledge. Depend only on those things that you have accomplished on your own. With your own strength. Your own virtues.
Mother was virtuous. Now she lay in bed with her virtues and said: Pray for me.

I visited her on that morning in the hospital, Maria-Maria said. Father had called. And had said that I should go there. I was afraid to see mother. But mother could no longer hit me. And she could no longer burn my dolls. Now she couldn’t do anything anymore. Only lie in bed. With her head on top of three pillows. It is still wasn’t high enough for her. She sat more than she lay. Otherwise the water would have flowed from her lungs to her throat. And she would have suffocated.

What fantasies I used to have about choking. As a child, I believed that you could strangle someone at the wrist. Or at the waist. There are many ways of choking someone. It’s also possible to choke someone by choking their thoughts.

Thoughts are free. No one can control them. This is the only freedom that exists unrestrictedly. Mother held different beliefs. She believed that it was her duty to inspect my notebook. To inspect my pockets and my school bag. She believed that mothers were responsible for everything. For the casting out of daring, unwanted thoughts. All thoughts that distressed her.

Most of what I thought, distressed mother. Whenever mother became uneasy, she got a headache.

Whenever mother got a headache, you couldn’t speak to her.
I didn’t want to speak with her. I stayed out of her way. I stayed out of her way most of the time.

Mother didn’t believe that one had a right to unspoken thoughts. A mother was supposed to know everything. But all thoughts could not be confided—not even to one’s own mother.

I was wary of entrusting mother with anything about myself. That had long been so. Since mother had burned my dolls. And I had been forbidden to cry. Because at seven, one is already grown-up. And goes to school. And it’s not respectable to cry.
Because something different was expected of me, said Maria-Maria.

She looked in her cup with the coffee grinds. She swung it back and forth. Little autumn landscapes appeared in the cup. Brown and white. Maria destroyed them with her index finger.

Maria-Maria recounted: I came on the first airplane. Mother lay in bed and didn’t know that I was coming.
The day broke into a painful hue of red-gray. A day in the life of my mother. An ordinary day. Except that it was mother’s last.

She awoke feeling unease in her throat. The unease had risen and had spread. It occupied her throat and transferred to her mouth. Her mouth was full of rocks. The unease had moved to her lungs and further down to her belly like a fungus. A sticky lichen.

I’ve still got a lot of time. Said mother. Go. Do your things. I don’t need you. When I’ll need you, I’ll call for you.

Mother didn’t want me to be at her death. Later, father said that he could understand that. A report on the first day of school was broadcast on the radio. It was my first day of school that was being broadcast. I’d written the text myself. Read it aloud myself.
But mother could not suffer it. Not even the sound of my voice.

Mother looked at the flowers. These flowers had rotted under my very eyes. Mother thinks. I can hear her thoughts. She looks at me and signals with her hand. The words don’t come out. Her gaze is dark. Mother is like a hunted animal. She can only speak with her hands. Get rid of them. They stink.

I see the words in her eyes. I can read them. Wherever I look, I see mother’s eyes. And in her eyes lies the fear. The fear that she will never be allowed to see me again. And the fear that she will have to put up with me. To put up with the fact that I’m there. Now that she wants to go.

Did mother want to go? No, she had to go now. Now that I was there, she was supposed to go. Mother could not tolerate it. She couldn’t tolerate my voice. She couldn’t tolerate anything about me. That’s why she sent me home.

Father had said that it was important that I come. But mother was horrified to see me.

Is it time? Yes, it’s time.

She knew it, and yet she didn’t. She had decided upon it. Or however it is, when one is about to die. Somehow one always decides. Somewhere inside. At some point in time, one decides. It’s a fleeting thought. Like a blitz. One allows the flames to rise briefly. Then the head forgets it. But the cells don’t. They prepare themselves for the long journey. Mother’s cells had long since wanted to give up. I still remember mother only as an old being. For me, it’s no longer worth it, she would take care to say. When it came to herself, nothing was ever worth it. Always for others. Life should be lived just for the sake of others. And mother no longer knew why she had to live for me. She had long since ceased living for father. That’s also not entirely true. To have a reason to keep living for father would have pleased her most. But father lived for others besides her. Or he lived for himself.
Or did he live at all?
And mother? Had mother ever really lived?
Mother had lived for the good of society. For our society. For Communism. Everyone should live for it, she said. And father especially, found it important to say this.

It’s a time in which the café is deserted. Even the wait staff has disappeared into the churches. Maria-Maria looked out of the window and from there, beyond it. Into the room of her thoughts. Into the room where her mother lay.

I look at Maria-Maria. I see Maria-Maria with the bouquet of flowers in her hand at the foot of her mother’s bed. The flowers shake. Maria-Maria looks at the flowers first. Then she looks around. She wants to make the flowers disappear. She is held captive by her mother’s eyes. Held captive by the leaden bouquet. The bouquet grows bigger and bigger. Maria-Maria is a child with an oversized bouquet at the foot of her mother’s bed.
The mother lies on a catafalque and looks like a hunted animal. And the mother has blue lips. Her lips are dry and stick together. Her mother’s teeth are dead. A deathly yellow. I see Maria-Maria shaking. And as soon as she leaves the sick room, she vomits in front of hospital. It breaks out of her. The fear. The nausea. She herself does not know what it is. It’s something that infuriates her stomach. She calls it an imprisoned boxer. Maria-Maria sits across from me and recounts.

I stood with the bouquet of flowers in my hand and didn’t know what to do with them. I was supposed to embrace mother. She lay propped up by a pile of pillows. Her lips were blue and dry and stuck to her gums. Her gums had a blue-gray-red color. The hair on her skull fell in strands and had suddenly become gray. All at once she’d become old. Very old. She’d metamorphosed under my very eyes. Under her skin I saw great-grandmother. He lay on top of numerous pillows. Mother was getting older and older. Until I could no longer recognize her. Her temples were like parchment and the skin that stretched over her cheekbones threatened to rip apart. I was afraid of great-grandmother. Great-grandmother, who suddenly lay in the bed and said: Go, I’ll call for you when I need you. Great-grandmother spoke with mother’s voice.

Mother had never needed me. Mother had never asked anything of me. She had ordered me. Orders were mother’s way of communicating with me.
Sometimes mother ordered: Bring me the strap.
And I brought her the strap.
And then she beat me with it.
She beat the fury out of herself.

I held the flowers in my hand and did not know what to do with them. Who had ever given mother flowers before? I have never given mother flowers before. Except for Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day was on the 8th of March. It was the International Day for Women. By honoring one’s own mother, one was honoring all of the women in the world.
We honored our mothers in school. The honorees were at their place of work. They were fulfilling their duties. We sang songs in their honor. And we recited poems. The mothers had ironed our uniforms so that we would look worthy as we celebrated them on stage. Mother never experienced any of that. But the celebration hung in the air and probably reached her in ways not entirely known.

It had always been that way. One honored the children of the world by celebrating children’s day. On Children’s Day too, we were on stage. And we sang and recited poems, to honor the children of the world. Being a child. And the children of the world. And we mourned the children, who had no idea that they were children. Because the children had to work. And let themselves be exploited. Or they had to take up arms. Against other people. They had never had the opportunity, as we did, to celebrate their childhood.

I gave mother flowers. On a day other than the International Day for Women. On the 8th of March. Mother received the flowers symbolically. In reality it was the comrade teacher, who was also a mother, to receive the flowers on behalf of all of the mothers of the world.

No one had given mother flowers. Father didn’t even know that flowers existed. At home we had plastic roses. Roses that held a lifetime. Roses that lasted longer than the span of a life. And that one can re-gift.
Vanity, wasting money. And roses. Mother had wanted no part of it.

A day in the life of my mother, Maria-Maria said. On any day, I would have liked to be there. I would have liked to know, what she was thinking. Who she was.
Once on Mother’s Day, we wrote an essay. Each one of us about our mothers. About our mother’s role in society.

Who is my mother?
My mother is the most wonderful mother in the world. My mother is a tractor-driver. She works in the LPG farmers’ co-operative and makes furrows in the ground with her tractor. Then, with the seeding machine, she drops grain seed in the furrows. The seeds sprout and grow. In the summer, mother comes with the harvester and harvests the grain. Bread is made with the grain. For the world. Mother can also bake bread. The bread is fresh and tastes good. My mother is the most wonderful mother in the world.

That wasn’t my essay. It was Dorin’s essay. And we all envied him. Because he won the first prize at school that year. Whoever got the first prize was guaranteed to receive a lot of love from his or her mother. Because the mother would be proud to show the other mothers on Mother’s Day how well she had been fulfilling her duties and how useful she’d been to society. Every mother that was useful to society was a happy mother. That’s what they taught us at school. We only have happy mothers in our society. Mother was useful, and yet one could see that she did not belong to the happy mothers.
In my first year of school, I tried very hard to win the essay competition. I won the first prize. But mother’s face did not light up with pride. I was not able to elicit from her the warming, all-embracing smile that the other mothers smiled. Mother did not know the meaning of the word happiness. It was not a part of her vocabulary. It was not a part of her life. And father’s response was: We expected nothing less of you.


Carmen-Francesca Banciu

Carmen-Francesca Banciu is the author of eight books (four novels and four collections of short stories) and the recipient of numerous literary distinctions and awards. A native of Romania, Banciu has been living in Berlin, where she emigrated from Romania in 1990. Her work deals with the experience of writing under Communist dictatorship, geographic, psychic and linguistic migrations, and cross-cultural conflicts and exchanges between East and West.

Elena Mancini

Elena Mancini holds a Ph.D. in German Studies from Rutgers University. She writes arts and culture reviews for New York City weeklies at Community Media and maintains a New York City restaurant blog at She may be reached at [email protected].

Song of the Sad Mother (Das Lied der traurigen Mutter). Copyright (c) Rotbuch Verlag, 2007. English translation copyright (c) Elena Mancini, 2009.