The minute I spy the unsolicited parcel on my welcome mat, alarms go off in my head. All my packages normally go to a private mailbox at another location. Memories of that freak who attempted to disfigure Bj�with a mail-bomb come rushing at me. But those dashing boys in blue at my local precinct have warned me to quit calling unless I have a real emergency, so I bravely bring the box into my apartment.
My curiosity piqued by the unfamiliar Florida label, I shield my loveable mug with one arm while popping open the industrial staples with my free hand. Inside, individually wrapped in tissue paper, sit a dozen ruby red grapefruit, a present from my mother in Virginia.
Sometimes Mom's twisted gift-giving logic makes sense. Like when I request a black sweater and she gives me red instead, because "I'm tired of you always looking like you're headed for a funeral." Yet the grapefruit are just baffling and impractical. I have never been a big citrus eater. I live alone and breakfast simply. Owning neither a serrated spoon nor curved knife for sectioning the damned fruit, I shove the box in the fridge, vowing to buy a juicer and invite folks over for fresh greyhounds.
I fly back East to visit my folks for the holidays. "Did you get the grapefruit?" asks Mom at the airport. I smile in affirmation. The next morning, I find a ready-to-eat specimen waiting at my place—and my place only—at the breakfast table. This is getting weird. What message is my mother trying to send?
My parents reside on a remote country road in the mountains half an hour outside Roanoke. On those very rare occasions when I visit, precious few diversions are at my disposal, especially if I don't rent a car. After three days, it apparently dawns on Mom that it's unnatural for a 32-year-old male to sit reading silently 12 hours a day without interruption. To my astonishment, she offers to make the ultimate sacrifice: "Would you like to go record shopping?" she asks. "I know a place with lots of old vinyl."
Mom stands by quietly as I flip through the shop's bountiful bins. The clerk is playing The Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, one of my all-time favorite albums, and I relax for the first time since arriving. But when "Cloudbusting"—the song I hold dearest—comes on, I cannot look at my mother. This track always reminds me of my dead friend Robert, one of several gay men who mentored me during my teens, when my parents hadn't come to grips with my coming out. I want to turn around and share my memories of Robert, but there are topics Mom and I both find uncomfortable to discuss, "the gay thing" and AIDS chief among them. After the murder of Matthew Shepard last year, I tried to entice her to occasionally acknowledge that I'm not asexual, but much remains left unsaid between us.
Our first family Christmas together in 10 years is a success: We don't fight once. On my return flight to Seattle, I read a lengthy article on the making of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Keyboard player Rick Wright claims when he heard Roger Waters' demos, he thought "Oh no, here we go again—it's all about the war, about his mother, about his father being lost." My friends know that reaction well. Though I couldn't drum up something as venomous as Waters' "Mother," mine is often the source of my best material.
Songs about mothers start popping up in my head. Some of them nail down the anxiety that she sometimes generates in me (the screeching "Mother" by the Police), others hint at our inability to communicate clearly ("Mother Stands for Comfort," also from The Hounds of Love), but none I can think of easily unlock the puzzle that is my Mom. Who is this woman that taunts me with mysterious citrus?
Suddenly it hits me: "Mother" from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Yoko Ono authored a book called Grapefruit, instructions for conceptual art pieces. In 1961, she debuted "A Grapefruit in the World of Park," which intertwines snippets of picnic conversation between a mother and child with descriptions of their surroundings, talk of a deceased offspring, and atonal music. Although the symbolism of the grapefruit is ambiguous, the performance deals with motherhood and loss.
There are no coincidences. I can't be certain my mother's been boning up on the Fluxus artists, but she did lead me to good record shopping in a one-horse town. She knows me better than I give her credit. I've been eating half a grapefruit every day since. They're sweeter than I remembered.