"Who was at your wedding?" I ask periodically, hungry for the details of my origins. Some of my father's African classmates? What about her college roommate, the one who borrowed her nicest outfit, a sophisticated black cocktail dress with tiny buttons, and never returned it, despite my mother's increasingly bitter letters?
"Oh, no one really," she answers, glancing up from Report from a Chinese Village. "Just a pal of your poppie's and his girlfriend. I can't even remember their names."
I don't understand it. For years she labored to create the definitive family history, spending hours hunched over an old manual typewriter, clacking out family names and places and dates. She drew floor plans of childhood houses she remembered her mother and aunt describing. She pored over albums and scrapbooks and boxes of photographs. As with her anecdotes about my father, she was reductionist, a perfectionist. She chose photographs the same way she chose her memories only the most representative and best preserved. History in her hands was finite. I wonder why major family events like my grandparents' wedding got a single photograph in the album. Did she have only one, or was it her rigid aesthetic taste?
The spring of 1979, the year before Mount Saint Helens decides to wake from her 123-year slumber, the self my mother has kept dormant these seventeen years creeps out of the past. The last time she blew was 1857, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court decided that blacks were not citizens. And like the pressure now building beneath our feet, the Dred Scott case weakened the fault line between the North and South, eventually giving rise to explosion, the Civil War.
The very first outburst was the stuff of legends, an origin tale that also pitted brother against brother. According to the Klickitat, who call her Tah-one-lat-cha ("Fire Mountain"), and the Puyallup, who call her Loowitlatka ("Lady of Fire"), and the nearby Yakima, who call her Si Yett, the mountain was a lovely, white-clad maiden. The sons of the Creator both fell in love with her and battled each other, causing the sun to darken and the earth to tremble. As they hurled molten rock at each other, entire villages and forests disappeared in flames. Angered, the Creator turned one son into Mount Adams, thirty-four miles to the east, and the other into Mount Hood, sixty miles southeast in Portland. Loowit he turned into the symmetrically beautiful Mount Saint Helens, perennially encased in ice and snow.