When Sela Lowe invited her children, Aimee, Bobby, Cecelia, and Matty, to the lake at the beginning of September it was clear the invitation was more demand than request. At least, it was clear to Cecelia. The others viewed Sela’s words as law, as compact phosphorescent orbs of fact, the sort of facts told by honest-to-god truth tellers. “Righteous truths,” Matty once said to Cecelia. Whether demand or fact, Kyle kissed his wife outside the Dulles airport terminal and admonished her to remember that family is family.
Even in the late summer heat, and though it still drew ridicule, Cecelia insisted on wearing her twin sets and khakis during the annual lake house weekends. Everyone else stripped down to nothingness or nearly nothingness, letting the sun caress places they insinuated Cecelia didn’t know she had. When Cecelia first adopted her twin set uniform as a teenager, Aimee asked, “Why do you let the patriarchy bind you in their garments of oppression?” Cecelia explained she did not find them oppressive. She did not bring up her old argument that if the opposite of repression was the scene at the sexual freedom festival they’d all attended as a family on her tenth birthday, she felt repression was the moral choice.
When Sela tried to take them back to the festival for Cecelia’s twelfth birthday, the two had argued violently. Sela said that when the man with the green eyes, who yanked around the man with the brown eyes, who was attached to the leash by a dog collar and crawled among the discarded plastic beer cups and hot dog wrappers, when the green-eyed man spat on the brown-eyed man and the green-eyed man turned to answer Cecelia’s question about why he’d done such a thing with the words, “that’s not spit, that’s love,” we, as righteous truth tellers, were supposed to support and empower the green-eyed and brown-eyed men’s expressions of love. Cecelia argued, then and repeatedly until she gave up all arguing with Sela, that such activity connoted not love, but hate. During one such argument, Bobby looked up from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to say, bottom line, at the end of each day there’s not much difference between love and hate. Verbally, Cecelia never won an argument against Sela. Nevertheless, after Kyle dropped Cecelia off at the airport she waited in line for half-an-hour to check her suitcase full of twin sets through to Long Beach.
In her biography, Sela Lowe was described as a “ground-breaking revolutionary,” a “feminist artist working with the female body as the foundational text for human consciousness and power.” What people remembered her for were the pubic hair portraits. For a decade, in photograph after zoomed in photograph, Sela Lowe created testaments to female choice by carving intricate political cartoons in her pubic hair. The early ’70s power Mohawk was her most recognized work, although she deemed it her least inspired. Despite the fact that time marches on and her point seemed to have been made with the climaxing NEA funding protests where she shaved off all her pubic hair and tossed it in the face of Bonnie Sue Livingston, the wife of Pastor Henry Bartholomew who ferried his congregation to each of Sela’s shows giving fiery eternal damnation speeches as the anxious cocktail-dressed crowd filed in, Sela refused to retire. Three movie stars showed up for her merkin bonfire a few years ago. Perhaps there was still time for a comeback.
By the time Cecelia arrived at the beach house, everyone had taken to the water. Sela lay on a polished wooden lawn chair, bits of grass stuck to the bottoms of her feet. Bobby tossed Marguerite high into the air. Cecelia watched the girl’s outline against the sky’s blue background, her feet kicking wildly before she cannonballed back into the water. Bobby had to trade two weeks of prime custody time with Gwen to get Marguerite for the long weekend, but like all things involving Marguerite, it was worth it. Aimee and her partner, Kelsey Ann, floated on their backs in the thick lake water. Aimee’s dreadlocks made a raft upon which Kelsey floated nasturtiums picked from the garden. Matty alternated between diving off the dock’s end and playing his bongos by water’s edge. Every year someone threw Matty’s bongos into the neighbor’s industrial sized garbage bin, but at the next gathering he always returned with a new set. To Matty, bongos were almost like breathing. Surfing was even greater than breathing. Bobby would’ve debated the logistics of such beliefs, but Matty wasn’t much for debates.
Cecelia made sandwiches in the kitchen, observing her family’s frivolity from the double window. Eventually, everyone trudged inside, dripping lake water and bits of algae on the greying wood floor. Matty swooped Cecelia up in a bear hug. He twirled her around calling out “Seal-Seal-Ya,” woofing the double seal bark he made since learning Cecelia’s name thirty-one years ago. She wrestled out of his tan grip and instructed him to eat.
Later that night they all hunkered down like meerkats, limbs draped across limbs, interwoven over sofa arms and backs of chairs. Cecelia claimed her usual, the one with the bulbous butterscotch leather arms and woven yellow ikat print. Marguerite climbed into her lap and curled up like a kitten. Together the two listened to the cacophony of the others as they debated everything from rights to values. At one point Marguerite straddled the chair’s arm as if riding a horse and whispered to Cecelia, “They’re silly.” Cecelia agreed, after which Marguerite added, “and loud,” to which Cecelia also agreed.
The next morning, Bobby said he needed to go into town to get a nightlight for Marguerite. Despite her age, she refused to sleep a full night in her own bed. Bobby and his ex-wife were becoming desperate, each blaming the other for disappointments beyond the originals. Aimee joked that Kelsey Ann could sleep in Marguerite’s room, white as she was, like a ghost. Kelsey Ann punched Aimee hard in the stomach saying at least she wasn’t blacker than night itself, and then, with Aimee’s powerful biceps pinning down her pale wire-thin arms in playful retaliation, Kelsey Ann admitted she could use another bottle of sunscreen. Matty said he needed more coconut water, after which Sela said that where the herd went she would follow. It was an odd thing for Sela Lowe to say, but Cecelia wasn’t one to argue against the gift of silence.
Cecelia took a binder of reports outside to read in the morning sun. She read the draft Summary of Economic Projections, which she determined would need to be revised at least three times before it could be included in the Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy Report to Congress that fall. When eventually she, like everyone else in the country, didn’t want to think anymore about the ratio of dollar to yen and dollar to euro and their effect on the personal consumption expenditures, she closed the binder and listened to the infrequent water flops of the silver carp in the lake. Cecelia, along with Matty, was born to Sela’s Jewish husband, Saul Feinstein, as opposed to her earlier lover, Markus Ezra, who fathered Aimee and Bobby before renouncing them all to help Farrakhan rebuild the Nation of Islam. Given the thinness of her hereditary skin, its predetermination toward sunspots and creased lines, Cecelia knew she couldn’t stay outside as long as Aimee the first born. She brought herself out from under the sun’s wrath before her body boiled apple red.
With the house echoing quiet, Cecelia found herself standing in Sela’s library awash in books. Piles grew on the floor, paperbacks and heavy tombs covered in thick woven fibers of olive and burnt cherry and robin’s egg and marigold. They overlapped each other on the desk and worn couch, the words fighting to be read first and declared definitive. Cecelia saw the book that sparked it all. It sat beneath a cup of tea developing a fine scum of mold.
Truthfully, they’d all had rooms of their own. At least at Saul’s they had. His brownstone was taller than the others on the block, four stories instead of three. As children they’d run elaborate universes of their own imaginations in that house. It was where Aimee began to cultivate her music, hunched over her guitar, her moon hair casting a shadow on the scribbled scores she composed. Eventually, once she’d grown into both her smile and her biceps, once she’d learned how to play a crowd off itself with her glances, her music took off, as did she. But that was much later, after Sela pulled them out of the solid enclosures of Brooklyn into the unfiltered sunlight of California.
Maybe if Cecelia had more time in her room before Sela divorced Saul and moved them out West to the artists’ commune in Benicia, she could have found a way to move closer to Sela instead of further. But the last image Cecelia possessed of those rooms was Saul sobbing into a bedspread wrapped around his balloon stomach as Sela threw wide-legged pants sewn from old saris into a cloth bag and prattled on about how Betty and Germaine were right all along, then warned him not to fight for the children because the courts still knew that mothers are better than fathers. This is the scene that came back to Cecelia every time Sela explained to her new friends on the commune that marriage repressed women. It seemed to Cecelia that if marriage had made anyone secondary, it was Saul, not Sela.
Cecelia scanned the bookshelves for the volume that truly lit the fire. Saul had bought Sela a first American edition. The cover always struck Cecelia as patriotic with its blue and red square, the red and white script. When she found it on the left side of the third shelf, strangely wedged between two Steven King novels she remembered what Sela told her when she’d asked to move back to Brooklyn to live with Saul.
“You’re still binding yourself in the shackles of a nuclear world,” Sela had said.
Sela told her to look at Matty, how well adjusted he was. Matty did thrive at the commune. He was a dove preening among owls.
“Matty is the exact reason you will never find liberation,” Cecelia had said.
But then Saul died of a heart attack and that particular argument between Cecelia and Sela ended because of Cecelia’s vow of silence. The members of the commune discussed her bravery and commitment, and because of that bravery and commitment Cecelia didn’t have to tell them the vow was only supposed to last a day, but she’d decided to continue for a full year when she realized it meant she wouldn’t have to pretend to listen to them anymore.
After Cecelia’s year of silence, they left the commune. Aimee took her music on the road where throngs of young women looking for a savoir could wash themselves in her glow. Bobby left for Berkeley where he held court in his rental flat, leaving only to travel with the debate team where he was a surprise closer on issues of vaginal freedom. Sela, Cecelia and Matty moved to Los Angeles so that Sela could be on the ground floor of hating the National Endowment for the Arts’ views on obscenity.
It was the 1990s that broke them. There was the generational division, of course, but those are always present. It was something more. A cleft in the images a single mirror reflected back to mother and daughter, to sister and sister. Because Aimee was older, she understood the second wave. Cecelia always figured Aimee understood the third wave in a way she couldn’t because she was just a cracker, a cracker, cracked and packaged in double layers of matching combed cotton. Cecelia flipped through Sela’s latest issue of Ms. Magazine and remembered the worst of it. If the second wave was tolerable but distant, it was undoubtedly the third wave that sealed her fingers in on themselves, fists shaking uncontrollably at Sela’s orations. In the fall of Cecelia’s senior year of high school, Sela announced she’d met the person of her dreams: Ruth Carmichael, who soon moved in and left diaphanous scarves everywhere. Cecelia sat in the kitchen one night, her headphones blasting Nirvana. Silently, she watched Ruth walk Matty through the entire contents of Our Bodies, Ourselves: “Here we are now. Entertain us.” Looking back, the education served Matty’s interests well. But Ruth wasn’t the problem.
What bothered Cecelia was what Sela said to her after Ruth moved out. Sela came into Cecelia’s room, flopped across the bed and waited until Cecelia looked up from her desk. Then she’d said, as though conjuring up a diamond from the bedrock of society, “Cecelia, don’t get involved with women. They’re too emotional. Love to them is like a castle they build themselves into.” While Sela reveled in her revelation, Cecelia sat there, the Pixies’ screams pulsating from the headphones around her neck, and she thought of Saul standing in the doorway screaming at Sela’s rigid back as they left: But I love you. I love you. I love you.
Then a week later over a vegan Thanksgiving, Cecelia was forced to listen to Sela Lowe, dabbler in lesbianism, lecture her daughter Aimee, a professional in the field, on its merits and pitfalls. The worst part was that Aimee sat there rapt, as though Sela was actually saying something of value. When Cecelia couldn’t take their discussion any longer she rose and screamed above the fracas that nobody in the room was in fact a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” so they should all just shut the hell up, at which point Sela declared that she was in fact a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and Cecelia pushed the entire tofu turkey to the floor shattering the platter she’d made in ninth grade and painted deep pink because she liked the color, not because it reminded her of a vulva like Sela told everyone. Aimee, who was hindered from meeting all the requirements only by her hatred of children, said that if Sela felt that she was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” then she was one, at which point Cecelia declared herself a “rich, crochet-loving, Punjabi elephant,” and Sela’s thunderous clapping almost drowned out her declaration that finally, finally, Cecelia had decided who she wanted to become. The ‘90s had been hard on everyone.
Cecelia was in the bathroom when the car pulled back into the driveway. As she washed her hands, she looked in the mirror and remembered the argument Aimee and she had Christmas day in 1995.
“It’s not even created by men,” Cecelia had argued. “Think about it, women judge other women’s appearances more than men do.”
Bobby had looked up from reading Harper’s and said she had a point. “But where does the foundation for those women’s judgments come from?” he said before walking into the kitchen to get an apple.
It was stupid arguing about beauty with Aimee. Her cheekbones rose up like pelican wings. The intensity of her brown eyes radiated a version of power that Cecelia, with her overly oblong face, would never own. The gall of the beautiful to argue with the unbeautiful about beauty infuriated Cecelia at the time.
Eventually though Cecelia found a path that looped far from Sela’s world, a path filled with numbers and graphs, with projections and formulas. There she found a voice worthy of using in her own quest for power. The others may never have understood it, the dominance she felt at being walled in by a scaffolding of numerical structure, which she in turn applied to everything else in life. It created in Cecelia’s chest a flotilla of freedom that she sent out daily through the clacking of her fingertips on calculators and keyboards. While they may never fully forgive each other their divergences, they could at least occupy the same house for one weekend every year. Family is family.
When the clan returned, they tumbled into the kitchen talking over each other. Sela announced that on the car ride back they’d all decided to spend the day crafting the greatest performance of the Vagina Monologues ever given in public or private, and Cecelia, instead of sarcastically inquiring whether Matty’s performance would just be a lengthy list of women’s names, took a deep breath and said she would do “Reclaiming Cunt.” Internally, her heart warmed. She would wear all her sweater sets at once during the performance.
On the last night, after everyone else retired to bed, Sela called out to Cecelia.
“Come and sit with me,” she said.
Cecelia was scrubbing the supper dishes in the sink wearing elbow length pink gloves. She called back that she was busy; the dishes wouldn’t clean themselves. When Cecelia was nearly finished, Sela strolled into the kitchen trailing her sweet skunky evening scent and began drying plates.
“Maybe we should go on a trip,” she said, placing the plates on the open shelves, “just the two of us.”
“A trip?” said Cecelia confused.
“Something special we can share.”
Cecelia turned off the water and stared through the window at the place where the dark night touched the dark water. She wondered about the precise color where the two met. Was it the blue black of the sky or the green black of the water?
“Where would we go?” said Cecelia.
“Anywhere you want.”
The gift of such possibility astounded Cecelia.
“Let me think about it,” she said.
“Not too long,” said Sela.
A month later, after she heard the news from Aimee that Sela was dead, Cecelia sat on the floral bedspread in her D.C. townhome and wondered if Sela had wanted to go on a trip at all or if she’d just wanted to ask Cecelia to go. She eventually decided it didn’t matter. The dead never give satisfying answers. Sela hadn’t told anyone about the cancer and for some reason didn’t try to fight it either. Inside, buried in a bubble Cecelia reminded herself never to let rise to the surface, she thought it was because Sela didn’t want to lose her hair. Sela’s hair came down to her waist, hanging like grey and black marbled sheet cake. It was part of her even more than her work. Maybe losing a piece of herself seemed worse than losing it all. They would have forced her to fight, to get the chemo, to send away a part of her in order to save the rest.
This time at the airport, Kyle boarded the plane to Long Beach with Cecelia, though he did not go to Ms. Panopoulos’ office to hear the reading of Sela Lowe’s will. Instead, he stayed back at the hotel room, saying he was going to swim a few laps and jump on a few calls, though they both knew he’d spend the afternoon at the lobby bar bracing for the evening ahead.
After Ms. Panopoulos finished reading the will everyone looked at Cecelia. The room was chilly because Ms. Panopoulos kept the windows flung open to create a breeze that cooled her menopausal warmth. It made her feel like the rush, rush, rush of life was just a part of Mother Nature’s wind tunnel. Cecelia buttoned her coral sweater set and clasped her fingers in her lap as if in prayer.
“Are you going to do it?” Bobby said finally.
“I think you should,” said Aimee, flicking her fingernail up and down the line of tiny gold hoops marching across the side of her earlobe.
“You have to do it,” said Matty, “it’s what Sela wanted.”
Cecelia did not want to do it, so she looked down at her hands.
“It’s an amazing concept,” said Aimee, “a conflation of forty years of her work.” Aimee stopped slouching and leaned forward in her chair. She fiddled with her dreadlocks and aimed her penetrating eyes at Cecelia. “When you rise from the coffin everyone will see that heteronormativity will continue to be broken as long as we keep standing up to it,” she said.
“I don’t want to do it,” Cecelia said finally.
“Think of the legacy,” said Matty leaning forward, his thin blue flannel gaping open at the chest to reveal a v-shaped slice of smooth torso.
“Everyone will be at the funeral, not just the artistic community, but the media, the professors, the protestors,” said Bobby.
“It will be her final piece,” said Aimee.
“No. It’ll be my first piece.”
Aimee rolled her eyes, “You’d be like an actor. Sela’s the director.”
“Why don’t you do it then?” Cecelia said turning toward Aimee.
“Because she didn’t ask me too.”
As if to the wall, Bobby said, “It does seem like she should have told Aimee to do it.”
Then everyone was silent. A telephone rang in the reception area. Ms. Panopoulos yelled for her secretary to take a message.
“I am not a feminist artist like Sela is,” Cecelia said quietly.
“Was,” said Aimee.
The room was thick with unspoken misgivings. Cecelia explained she didn’t want to be onstage covered in all that “stuff,” at which point Aimee berated the fact that Cecelia wouldn’t even say “pubic hair,” instead always referring to it as “stuff.” Bobby chimed in saying it was kind of gross, after which Matty said it wasn’t Sela’s, which Cecelia said made it more gross. Matty countered that he thought Sela’s would be more gross and then Cecelia couldn’t decide what would be worse: pretending to be her mother, Sela Lowe, rising from the grave covered in her own mother’s pubic hair saved up over the years or the pubic hair of her mother’s fans, sent to her over the years.
Ms. Panopoulos wanted to say something but knew she had to stay quiet. She buzzed her secretary and asked him to bring them some tea. Cecelia thought again about the trip Sela asked her to take at the lake house. The longer she debated, the more she began to think that this ridiculous request in her mother’s will was the trip Sela had in mind, that Sela Lowe had never really intended to let Cecelia go anyplace she wanted. In thinking these thoughts, Cecelia became furious. She refused to take the tea Ms. Panopoulos’ secretary tried to hand her, instead declaring she would not do it.
“Aimee can do it,” Cecelia said.
Ms. Panopoulos rubbed her fingers across her forehead. She fanned herself as she explained that Sela was very specific, that if Cecelia refused, nobody else could do it either.
“It really is you or no one,” said Ms. Panopoulos.
“Then it’s no one,” said Cecelia rising from her chair and walking swiftly from the room before anyone could stop her.
After they’d all gone, Ms. Panopoulos stood up from her desk and turned around to face the Lee Krasner painting hanging on the wall. Standing on her tiptoes, she reached up to the frame’s uppermost left corner and pulled down the camera. Cecelia will be embarrassed, she thought, to have the whole thing played out at the funeral. They will all be embarrassed. Ms. Panopoulos felt that funerals should be for remembering, not preaching, but through the years she’d disagreed often with her good friend Sela Lowe and while at times the disagreements caused Ms. Panopoulos to change her mind, swayed as she could be by Sela’s sermon-like arguments, never once had Sela Lowe reconsidered and switched her view to Ms. Panopoulos’ position. She reread the last page of the will: Play the recording at the funeral. If I am correct, Cecelia will refuse, which will be the greatest statement on feminist choice I could ever make.
At the funeral, after all the speakers on the program had testified to the enduring, ground-breaking, thought-provoking, status-challenging work that was the very essence of Sela Lowe, Ms. Panopoulos stood up, walked to the podium and announced that Sela had one final piece to show the world. When the tape ended the crowd was silent. Their awe reverberated softness until it was pierced by a tiny sound in the back that grew louder and louder as Cecelia began to cry.
Katherine Robb is a writer and attorney. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Hobart (online), Jenny, Tincture Journal, River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, New York University Annual Survey of American Law, and Taconic Press. She is finishing up her first novel, a family drama set in Eastern Oregon. Follow her on Twitter: @KRobb_AMP