Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

I don’t have to get ready to visit my mother. She never likes it when I put anything on my face. “You are beautiful as you are,” she always says. I take an early train. I know she’s already waiting for me, sitting at her window.

When I take her in my arms, I feel her bones through the baggy sweater. She has been sick, lost pounds. My mother has become a birdie. A little bird with gray feathers on her head.

“Finally,” she says, “you are finally here.”

I put on my jacket. I leave her behind, my mother with the
traces of a life well lived
on her beautiful face.

She cooks favorites for me — green beans, potatoes, and a piece of meat — and urges me to eat enough. She soaks the stewed pears for dessert in white wine until they turn red. I spray whipped cream on her plate. “Oh, that’s how it should be,” she says, when I put the can down. Now that we are eating together, she has an appetite again.

She walks every day, but today she walks with her daughter. We pass the house where my girlfriend lived a long time ago. I remember the aroma that clung to her pinafore. Sometimes in America I smell that scent, and then I see my friend appear in front of me. Two long braids, a porcelain face.

A little farther on my Dutch river flows, the Maas. Even though I now live near a different river, I keep dreaming about this wide water over which flat cargo barges glide soundlessly and about the lonely fishermen on the docks. My mother and I stop and rest on a bench by the locks. The chimneys of the now-closed power plant tower loom high across the water.

The disease has left its mark on my mother’s face. Occasionally she feels a stab of pain. Then she winces and clenches her teeth. But my mother does not complain. She asks how I’m doing. She wants to know everything about my children. She is proud that she still knows everything about me. The name of my French teacher in school, whom I had long forgotten.

She is now cooking in the white baking dish she gave me when I left the house as an 18-year-old. “Don’t throw it away,” she said, when I cleaned up my room before I left for America. At her house she always keeps her oven warmed for me. I listen when she talks about my father. “So you won’t forget him,” she says. “I won’t forget you, Mom,” I say.

“I’ll make you something to eat, for your trip back,” she says. She spreads butter on brown bread and adds cheese. All my years in school she gave me brown sandwiches with butter and cheese in a yellow lunchbox.

I put on my jacket. I leave her behind, my mother with the traces of a life well lived on her beautiful face.

“Saying goodbye means experiencing new adventures,” the kindergarten teacher said to my son one time, when he cried uncontrollably as I left. “When you see each other again, you will have a lot to say.”

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in the U.S. in 2017. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.