‘Tis the month of mothers, and to commemorate Mother’s Day, I’d like to share with you my somewhat untraditional Mother’s Day story, published in Spark: A Creative Anthology (Vol. VII). I hope you enjoy it.
Today must end.
Daughter though I am, I can no longer endure my mother’s presence. After fifteen years of forced proximity, we will not live together again. Perhaps I should have prepared her with a few frank words: “I’m selling the house, Mother, and you must leave.” Now it is too late for that. Tonight I will return to purge the rooms of her remnants—to shampoo the sofa, scrub the bathroom, strip the linens.
She will presume that a new residence will house us both, but it will not. Once she accustoms herself to changed circumstances, my mother may be grateful for the separation. In truth we do not love each other. I will, of course,
fulfill my duty and visit her regularly, and I will be relieved each time to walk away without her.
I hear her rising now, and I start scrambling the eggs on the chipped stove, splattered yoke pooling in the nicks. Her walker thumps heavily as she hobbles to the bathroom. She emerges to labor down the stairs in a sleeveless housedress, her bare feet in unlaced sneakers, and she takes a seat at the Formica-topped table. There we speak in strained sentences about nothing—the weather, meal menus, celebrity gossip—while the past guards the space between us.
My brother is crying with the passionate indignation of a six-year-old. “I don’t want her to walk me to school. The kids make fun of me, she’s so ugly.”
“I want your sister with you. You’re too young to walk alone.”
“She’s only two years older! Please, Mommy, they look at her and then they look at me and then they cross their eyes.”
“She’ll wear sunglasses.”
“I won’t, it’s January!”
“Your brother’s too young to cope with traffic, and your father expects his breakfast on time.” My father, a good man who drove a cab twelve hours a day, required a peaceful household, quiet mealtimes. “You’ll do what I say. As soon as you drop him off, you can take off the sunglasses.”
But, of course, they laughed at the sunglasses, too. So my mother parted my hair in the middle and let the waves hang loose over my eyes, “like Veronica Lake,” she said, a bygone actress known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle. It was not a perfect solution, but if I kept my head bent, my eyes stayed hidden.
Sometimes when I annoyed her, she called me Funny Face without the accompanying tone of endearment, but never within earshot of my father. I carried the yearning for her love throughout childhood, like a phantom limb, painful in its absence.
At the photographer’s: “Sit still, the two of you, and let him finish. Grandma wants me to send her photos. Don’t push your hair behind your ear, Patricia. It took me half an hour to get it right.”
“Got it,” said the photographer.
“Good. Now a couple of Andy. Come here, Patricia.”
“No. First me, then Andy. I’m older.”
“We can’t afford so many. Only Andy this time. He’s the baby.”
“Please, Mommy. I’ll leave my hair alone.”
“Not this time.”
The tantrum took me by surprise. I registered my mother’s red-faced rage and embarrassment while she dragged me screaming out of the studio by my wrist, commanding my brother to follow, the photographer scowling at the scene. When I couldn’t stop screaming, she hailed a cab, ordering the driver to stop at a hospital entrance. I was pulled into the emergency room, still screaming.
In time I understood: pregnant as a teenager, my mother nursed a stubborn hostility toward her firstborn. I accepted that love cannot be willed, so I stopped hoping. I left for college, had surgery to align my eyes, and made my way through ten years of trial and error. Then Daddy died and I, an unmarried daughter, became default caretaker. And Mother consumed the next fifteen years.
Love continues to elude us.
“Cold as ice,” my mother says. I don’t know if she means me or the eggs. After breakfast she takes possession of the sofa. She drops into the concave cushion customized to her bulk. If this were like other days, I would turn on the television, and she would sit for hours watching sitcom reruns. She would nod off
with the TV droning, and waken intermittently to make her way from bathroom to refrigerator.
“We’re going to take a ride to Long Island today,” I say. “There’s a place I want you to see.”
“I don’t want to look at places. Your father bought this house with his sweat. There’s no reason for us to move.”
“Every month it gets harder to pay the bills, Mother. Your social security checks and my teaching salary stopped covering them a while ago. I can’t deal with the pressure much longer.”
“What’s that mean? You threatening another nervous breakdown if we stay? Look at me! Ask your brother to help out. Maybe he can send us a little cash every month.”
“I already have. He said it’s a bad time.” Little brother sent a card with a note enclosed: Sorry I can’t help. . . three kids . . . nothing left over. Do what you think best.
“He’s got a family to support, you know, and he’s always taken care of his responsibilities.
“He didn’t waste three years in an ashram, then jump from job to job looking for God knows what, only to end up as a substitute teacher.
“I’ve been taking care of you for fifteen years. . .
“I see. It’s my fault you have no career, no husband, no children, no nothing.”
“I have you.”
That gives her pause. She decides to ignore the irony.
“And now you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“The diabetes and emphysema keep getting worse. You need full-time help getting them under control. You need assistance getting around. You’re getting too heavy for me.”
“Look who’s calling the kettle black! You could lose a few pounds yourself. Stop wallowing in self-pity, and stop blaming me for your problems. Sure, I made a mistake or two. Know any mother who hasn’t?”
“Let’s look ahead, not back.”
“You think you had it bad. See this scar on my forehead? That happened when I asked your grandmother for a dollar when your grandfather was out of work. She threw a scissor at me. Point stuck right there.”
“The past is never past, is it?”
“Always a smartass.”
“Let’s not argue.”
“You always wanted to get rid of me. I remember how you would skip out and leave me alone at night.”
“That was a long time ago. You could have had a social life, too. You could have joined a church group like the Widows Support Circle or even the Bingo Club.”
“Please. I’m no holy roller. Those people bore me.”
“So now you sit home all day and watch television.”
“Don’t get sassy with me, Miss.”
She’s an old woman now, decaying from the inside out, her life limited by cycles of eating, excreting and sleeping. Today I will consign her to a half-life among other shadows of former selves.
“You should finish dressing now, Mother.”
I gather her support hose in my hands and maneuver it over her legs. Her knee strikes my jaw just as I manage to drag the hose under her haunches. I grab her gray cardigan, but soon give up trying to thread her arms through the sleeves.
“What the hell is the suitcase for?”
I ignore the question and throw a coat over her shoulders.
“What daughter throws her mother out?”
“What mother makes a daughter hide her face?”
“So that’s what this is about! Revenge! I’m sorry I’m not perfect. Are you?”
That makes me think. What is she guilty of, really? Nothing sensational. No maiming. No lurid hanger beatings. Just quiet, persistent woundings.
For fifty minutes we listen to May showers pelt the windshield. I am taken aback by the realization that Mother’s Day is only a week away. I shake the thought and mentally rehearse the next step, explaining why the house proceeds and future social security checks must go to the nursing home. In my head I start the discussion, backtrack countless times, then decide the conversation must wait for another day.
The rain stops and the sky lightens as we reach our destination. When I try to ease my mother out of the car, she pushes me away. Two attendants take her elbows and lead her to her room. I pick up her suitcase and follow. I had hoped to give her a tour, but this is not the time.
She grips her cane and stiffens at the sight of the spare 8’x10′ room. Her eyes track its features: against the wall a twin-sized bed covered with white chenille, overhead a crucifix, on one side a serviceable pine bureau with two drawers, on the other a bare window overlooking a dripping courtyard. My mother cannot see outside the window from her post by the door.
“Sit.” I pat the space beside me on the bed. With her beside me, I promise to help personalize the room. I list aloud intended purchases: a comfortable chair, colorful curtains, a floor-length mirror, family photographs, plants. She reminds me she hates flowers; they smell like funeral parlors.
“You can’t do this,” she says. “I’m your mother.”
“Never,” I think.
I promise to visit weekly. On my way out, I turn to look at her. She diverts her eyes. I close the door behind me and walk outside, where the rain has cleansed the air and I can see all the way to tomorrow.