The music of a lone cricket emerges from the silence after the final notes of “Kind of Blue.” I sit at my computer late in the evening while my husband and daughter sleep, and I listen. The tiny creature’s solo sounds as if it’s coming from the kitchen and when I enter, the chirping intensifies. I can’t see the cricket anywhere and obviously it can’t sense me. If it could, it would fall silent. I return to my desk and write a while longer, without the sounds of Miles, choosing instead to listen to the cricket, my unseen companion.
* * *
Like jazz, the cricket’s song gets mixed reviews; some find it melodic and soothing while others find its shrill sounds most irritating. The insect itself elicits different responses. Some people barely notice the cricket; it’s just another garden variety bug. Others think of it as a sign of good luck, but many regard crickets as pests, something to be exterminated.
* * *
I’d never thought much about crickets until I attended a women’s retreat a few years back. On the second night, we sat at the top of Mount Abel, some 90 miles north of L.A.—fourteen of us, each with some sort of percussion instrument–and drummed down the sun. We started off with a steady beat, our eyes on the coppery orb as it dropped behind the horizon. The lower it sank, the quicker it seemed to move, and the collective rhythm grew frenzied until the last fingers of light disappeared over the edge of the earth. Then, naturally, the drumming slowed, became softer, until it faded into stillness.
As we sat together, I knew that some of the women had already found their “spiritual guides:” a jackrabbit, a doe, squirrels, even an owl. I’d seen nada, except for the cricket on my sleeping bag that first night.We sat, silent, as the day muted into sepia tones. Some of the women had tears on their cheeks. I thought about what our yoga teacher and drum leader had said the night before: “Be mindful of any animals you encounter while here in the mountains. Often an animal that presents itself to you is your spiritual guide.”
I’d mentally rolled my eyes. What have I gotten myself into? and wondered if I’d made a mistake in coming here. It had seemed like a good idea back in Los Angeles but now I wasn’t so sure.
As we sat together, I knew that some of the women had already found their “spiritual guides:” a jackrabbit, a doe, squirrels, even an owl. I’d seen nada, except for the cricket on my sleeping bag that first night. Then I wondered if I’d seen only an insect because I thought it was all a bunch of hooey.
* * *
Days before my seventh birthday my mother died unexpectedly. She was almost full term with her third child and had been admitted to the hospital after a few days in bed. No one was exactly sure what happened; years later I learned that the autopsy was inconclusive. The baby didn’t survive either.
My dad wanted me to understand that my mom was really gone, so he took me to the funeral home to say goodbye.
Before we went, he made me lunch and the two of us sat at our kitchen table. I didn’t eat much. I just nibbled at the sandwich and took a few sips of milk.
“Is she going to be in a coffin?” I finally asked.
He looked down at the table before he looked at me. “Yes…Well, her body will be, but she’s in heaven now.”
I looked out the window at the expanse of blue. No she’s not, I thought as I watched the swell of clouds that seemed to slowly change shape from nothing to nothing, and beyond that was more of the same.
* * *
Every night for three nights during the retreat, I found a cricket on my bed, and each time I’d shoo it off without ceremony before crawling into my sleeping bag.
“Coincidence,” I said to the other women in my room.
“I don’t think so,” said a woman called Pixie. She handed me a book on the myths and meaning of animals.
I flipped through and found a section on grasshoppers and crickets just to humor her, but I actually read it, at first with curiosity, and then with interest.
According to this book, many cultures believe grasshoppers and crickets are good luck. In some areas of China, people kept them in small cages as pets, and believed they contained the souls of their departed ancestors.
“Let me see,” said Pixie after I finished reading. She beamed as she finished the chapter. “That is so cool!”
I nodded, still skeptical that finding bugs on my bed was cool.
* * *
Some people dream of their loved ones after they’ve passed. Others have conversations with them in the ether. Many find comfort in their faith. For me, my mother simply disappeared.Some people dream of their loved ones after they’ve passed. Others have conversations with them in the ether. Many find comfort in their faith. For me, my mother simply disappeared. After she died, we rarely saw my grandmother and two uncles, the only immediate family my mother had. Her name wasn’t spoken, my father never talked about her, and my new stepmother erased all traces of my mom from our home: furniture, photographs, everything familiar.
My mother didn’t show up in my dreams and every night as a kid alone in the dark with the door shut, my room felt like a container for my emptiness, an echo chamber for the silence.
* * *
Many people confuse crickets and grasshoppers, and while they share many characteristics and are both part of the insect order called Orthoptera, they’re also quite different.
Crickets are nocturnal, and make their music only at night, while grasshoppers are diurnal and chirp during the day. Grasshoppers are green to camouflage them in grass, while crickets are brown or grey to aid in blending with the shadows.
* * *
During the mountain retreat, we took yoga classes every morning in a clearing sheltered by magnificent pines, hiked in silence through the woods, and visited a sacred site called the Circle of Gratitude, a ring of trees with their upper branches intertwined as if each tree had reached out to link arms with its neighbor. One afternoon we picnicked in an area the Chumash believed to be filled with feminine energy.
Maybe it was the spirit of the native people and their reverence for nature and the feminine; maybe it was the silence; or the absence of everyday noise and distractions; or maybe it was indeed the visiting cricket. Whatever the cause, I felt, for the first time, my mother’s presence, as if she were there beside me, her breath in the breeze, her fingers caressing my arms and my hair.
* * *
My grandfather, my mother’s father, was Chinese. He immigrated to Canada alone, married my grandmother when he was considerably older, and died when my mother was very young. Without her father or any of his family members in her life, my mother had no connection to her Chinese heritage. Her last name, her black hair, and her dark eyes, more Asian than Caucasian, were the only remains of her Chinese identity.
The fact that my mother was half Chinese was distressing to my father’s Danish family.
“We’ll never speak to you if you marry her,” his parents and brother said to my father when he announced their engagement.
“Fine,” he said. And he married her. His family didn’t make good on their threat; they attended the wedding and accepted my mother into the family.
* * *
Contrary to popular belief, crickets do not make music by rubbing their legs together. They actually create their well-known melody with their wings. The upper side of the wing is textured like a file, while the underside is more like a scraper. When the cricket draws the underside of one wing across the top side of the other, it produces the sound we recognize as the call of the cricket. This is known as stridulation.
* * *
I hear “The Girl from Ipanema” with Stan Getz on the saxophone and Astrud Gilberto’s delicate vocals, and maybe my mother humming along, I can’t be sure. I picture her in our living room, making tiny rhythmic steps back and forth across the patterned rug, her hips swaying with the beat.
“Why are the drapes closed?” I ask.
“So the neighbors don’t see me.” She’s practicing her dancing before she and my dad go out.
I move closer to her and try to imitate her steps. My hips don’t move the same way, my feet are always a step or two behind hers, and I’m not in time with the music.
She laughs, grabs my hands and counts out loud for me as she guides me around the room. I laugh too and stumble along, doing my best to follow.
* * *
The average lifespan of a house cricket is three to four months. During her lifetime, the female cricket will lay approximately one to two hundred eggs through her ventrally attached ovipositor. The eggs develop into nymphs, which in turn molt eight times. At each stage, the nymph resembles an adult cricket without wings and becomes slightly larger with each molting.
The female human is born with all the eggs she’ll ever have. At birth, a baby girl’s ovaries contain between one and two million eggs. By puberty, she has approximately four hundred thousand eggs. Between puberty and menopause she’ll lose about one thousand eggs per month.
For a very short period of time, the potential of three generations of women exist together on a cellular level within a pregnant woman: the adult woman, the fetus, the fetus’s eggs, all fitting together like Russian nesting dolls.
* * *
“This is boring,” I said to my mom as she worked in the kitchen.
I watched the black and white TV where the image of a small gray rocket was suspended mid-screen like a cartoon. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere or moving very fast.
My mom came into the living room and sat next to me on the couch.
“I think it’s exciting, landing on the moon for the first time—it’s one of those things you’ll always remember where you were when it happened.”
We sat together watching the fuzzy picture. I leaned against her and she stroked my hair with one hand while she rubbed her pregnant belly with the other. I don’t remember the actual moon landing. I don’t remember Neil Armstrong’s famous words. What I remember are the minutes after lift-off, watching a tiny spaceship on our TV screen, and the warmth and closeness of my mother.
* * *
At week six of my pregnancy, I knew I was going to have a daughter.
“What if you’re wrong?” my husband asked.
“I’m not wrong,” I said as I massaged my lower belly where a tiny fetus was busy blossoming. But I worried. Would I even become a mother? What if something happened, something rare, unforeseen, just as the worst of all possible outcomes had happened to my own mother? And if I was lucky enough to have my own daughter, how would I be a mother without my own mother?
* * *
I was twelve or thirteen when I saw my mother in a crowd…It was the angle of her neck, the way she tilted her head, and her fluid movements as she walked that were so intimately familiar to me.I was twelve or thirteen when I saw my mother in a crowd. Standing at the railing on the second floor of Fairview Mall, I looked down and spotted two women stepping off the escalator, sauntering through the throngs of shoppers, their backs to me. One woman had long black hair past her shoulders and a soft round body. The other was a little taller and slim, also with black hair, but cut short to reveal her neck. It was the angle of her neck, the way she tilted her head, and her fluid movements as she walked that were so intimately familiar to me.
My breath caught in my throat as if I had swallowed an ice cube and blood drummed in my ears louder than the casual chatter, the rustling packages and the splashing fountain in the open space below. Even though my logical brain knew my mother was dead, something in me so pressing, so certain, convinced me that it was really her. Yes, it has to be, said the electrical circuits coursing through my body. You know it can’t be her, radioed the signals from my brain.
I began to run before the debate was over. I pushed past the bodies in my way, over to the escalator, squeezing between the shoppers standing on the moving steps clutching their purchases. As I made my way down to the first floor, I kept the two women in my line of sight as they wandered into the department store ahead. Once in the store, they turned left and out of my view. My pace quickened when I hopped off the escalator onto solid ground. I couldn’t lose them.
In the women’s department, the fluorescent lights seemed dimmer and the decibel level much lower than in the mall and I stood still for a moment, adjusting to this new environment. I scanned the customers around me and didn’t see the women. They have to be here, I told myself and wound quickly through the maze of clothing displays. Finally, I spotted them near the back of the store, browsing through tops on a circular rack. I could see the shorter woman clearly but the other woman was looking down, her face still not visible to me.
I ran up next to her, closer than I meant to, reaching for the hangers as if I were browsing, but I couldn’t help but turn directly toward her and stare. The woman’s eyes widened and she stepped back. I should have said something, but I didn’t. I just stood there as my chest deflated when I saw her face was nothing like my mother’s.
My steps were slower now as I walked toward a less populated section of the store. The bright colors of the patterned shirts blurred together from the tears in my eyes. What was I thinking?
“Stupid,” I whispered to my smudged reflection in the mirror attached to the wall. “You are so unbelievably stupid.”
* * *
My first Mother’s Day gift was the birth of my baby girl. She entered the world quickly and without complication. In her initial moments, she blinked and gazed calmly at her new surroundings before filling the room with her robust cries.
Hours later, as I held her in the pale light of early morning on my first Mother’s Day, I marveled at the length of her eyelashes, the shape of her lips, the perfection of her tiny being. Her eyes seemed to focus on my face as if memorizing me in case we were ever separated.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” I whispered into the dawn to the grandmother my daughter would never know. My tears slipped down onto my newborn’s tiny hospital gown and bloomed on the cotton next to her beating heart.
* * *
Whenever I find crickets in the house, I always release them out of doors. My daughter does the same: if she finds one in her room, she just gets a plastic container and lid, scoops the critter into it, and dumps it outside the back door. She’s not afraid the way she is with spiders. Sometimes she even talks to the crickets, like familiar friends, as she transports them to their new home in the yard.
* * *
Everything I have of my mother’s fits in a shoebox: a dozen photographs, two books, a necklace and matching earrings.
The necklace and earrings were given to me when I was sixteen by my grandmother, my father’s mother, who had saved them for me.
“They were so beautiful on her,” my grandmother said.
I picked up the necklace and examined the thin pieces of silver in alternating lengths that looked like they’d poke into your skin. I thought it was ugly. It reminded me of a photograph I had seen in National Geographic of a man with a collection of bones strung around his neck.
Grandma handed me a small black and white portrait of my mom wearing the necklace over a black dress. In the picture, her eyes focus on someone or something off to the left and her lips hint at a smile.
Now, I love the necklace. When I put it on, the heavy pieces sit like cool fingers at the base of my neck, and when I take it off, the heat it has captured from me feels like a warm touch in the palm of my hand.
* * *
My brother and his wife left the hospital with an empty baby blanket and hearts in mourning. She was tiny and perfect, swaddled and still. They held their daughter in their arms those brief precious hours and cried when she couldn’t.
Three time zones away in my hallway on cream colored carpet I found the tiniest cricket. It jumped away from me almost playfully until I caught it in my hands, its frantic movements hitting my palms like a heartbeat. Some of my family would have scoffed at my wonder in this little insect. Others from an older generation might have sung a hymn, and still others, I liked to imagine, would have crooned a lullaby. But I simply took it out into the garden and let it go in the damp grass in the dark night and knew it was there even when I could no longer see it.
* * *
A Facebook friend recently shared a link to a YouTube video called “Choir of the Crickets.” The title alone was enough for me to click through and view. Still photos of fields of lavender, sunflowers, poppies, shots of Italian villas and close-ups of crickets accompany the sound track. A woman’s voiceover says, “What you are hearing is a recording of crickets. There are two tracks. One is played at regular speed and the other is a slowed-down version. Crickets have a faster life span than humans do. Their sounds are slowed down to the equivalent of a human life span. What you are hearing are the crickets only. No instruments or voices are added. Listen…”
The regular track is the familiar sound of a chorus of crickets, a nocturne for a summer’s eve. But the slower version is like an exquisite choir, voices rising and filling the expanse of a concert hall or a cathedral, sopranos performing the melody, with altos, tenors and bass all in perfect harmony. Hearing these two choirs together feels as if the divine is intertwined with us, the meeting of the known and unknown, like a breath in the breeze, a hymn or a lullaby.
* * *
Sometimes during these moments, if I am very still, I can imagine my mother’s presence, her figure molded on the other side of me, as if I am nestled between her and my daughter, the potential of three generations fitting together for an instant.Even though my daughter is ten, she’s still wants me to lie down with her before she goes to sleep. After her bedtime routine, after we’ve read together, and she’s under the covers with the lights out, we talk. This is when she tells secrets that I promise to keep and asks those big, pressing questions. Everything leads to conversation, but not necessarily to answers.
Finally, I tell her it’s time to sleep. She turns on her side and faces away from me and I shift in the same direction, my knees bent behind hers, my arm across her shoulders, our fingers intertwined. Chair pose, she calls it, because it’s as if she’s sitting on my lap.
“Close your eyes,” I say, and I feel her breathing deepen into a slow, even rhythm.
Sometimes during these moments, if I am very still, I can imagine my mother’s presence, her figure molded on the other side of me, as if I am nestled between her and my daughter, the potential of three generations fitting together for an instant. And sometimes, if I really listen, I think I can hear her singing, a hymn or a lullaby, to both of us, as I slip into that fragment of bright space before tumbling into the depths of sleep.
* * *
This piece originally appeared in Tiferet: Literature, Art, and the Creative Spirit, April 2014