My mother was visiting. She walked out of the kitchen and said, “Did you know you had a piece of spaghetti stuck to the wall over the stove? I scraped it off for you.”
The spaghetti had been there since Ted and I first prepared a meal together. “Want to see if it’s done?” he had asked, fishing out a fine strand. We were learning about each other. He looked at me slyly, then hurled the spaghetti at the wall. The pale strand landed on the kitschy fifties wallpaper in a curve that framed the edge of a fruit bowl. We laughed until we collapsed to the floor, where we held each other.
When I told my friend Kaete about my mother’s desecration, she said, “The last time I visited home, my mother told me, ‘Here, honey, I got you this nice travel box for your soap. I threw away that filthy thing you left in the bathroom.’ She threw away a bread wrapper I had taken with me everywhere for years. It was full of stories. I still haven’t forgiven her.”
Albuquerque, New Mexico
My mother’s name was Sally.
She was nothing special to look at: a Russian immigrant with a large bosom that made her four-foot, ten-inch frame seem top-heavy. She was unsure of herself and tentative about life. As she refused to spend money on clothes “just to wear around the house,” she was often wearing old dressy clothes — things with beaded butterflies or satin ruffles — when I brought friends home from school.
In the summer, she suffered terribly with hay fever. Seeking relief, she went through the long, hot days with a wet handkerchief tied across the lower part of her face. My brother and I called her “the bandit.” Our teasing brought tears to her eyes. Frankly, we were ashamed of how she looked.
But when the music played and she danced with my father, she was another woman entirely.
This was in the late 1940s and early 1950s — the days of the Latin music craze in the nightclubs of New York City and in the hotels of the Catskills. When she danced to the Latin beat, her beaded dresses and satin ruffles whirled around her.
She was a superb dancer with exquisite balance, able to execute the most complicated dance steps while balancing a full glass of water on her head. She danced in shoes with one-inch-thick platform soles and five-inch spike heels, dyed to match whatever gown she was wearing. No one could equal her skill or her magical appearance on the dance floor. In motion, she generated sexual energy. She was gorgeous. As she and my father won one iced bottle of champagne after another, in one hotel after another, musicians and competing dancers stopped to applaud.
My brother and I sat on the sidelines and watched with wet eyes, bursting with pride.
Shari Nocks Gladstone
Dix Hills, New York
My mother forgets. She forgets my name and calls me by my sister’s name. She forgets where she put our Christmas presents. She forgets why she called.
My mother is sorry. She apologizes for tripping over the dog. She is sorry about the dinners she fixes — overcooked, undercooked, the portions too small. She apologizes for my father, shaking her head as if he were somehow her fault. We tell her that she has nothing to be sorry for. This makes her sorrier still, that we understand and forgive her. We tell her that we love our father, that she is a wonderful cook. She is sorry, then, for being so much trouble, and wishes, she says, not to be a burden to her children or anyone else.
My mother works hard. She works two jobs, both in nursing. She talks about retiring, but not, she says, until my sister and I are well situated. When we visit, the visits go fast. We say, Mother sit down, but she is always busy doing something, or talking about what else needs to be done.
My mother is a Christian. She does her devotions each morning. If a situation turns out well, she reminds me that she has called on God. If it turns out poorly, she reminds me that God uses misfortune to get our attention. She has an answer or a Bible verse for everything. My mother knows this drives me crazy. I’m sure she prays about that too.
My mother recently has started to talk to me in the time between fixing dinner and getting ready for work. She is having trouble with her own mother. She is worried about my sister, who has been put on Prozac for depression. I love my mother and I listen. What else can I do?
My parents liked sex. They never said anything about it, but there were signs: a locked bedroom door on a weekend afternoon; a raunchy birthday card; a lingering kiss.
But when I began dating, I couldn’t ask Mom about sex. She said, “You’re an adult now, and some things are better left unsaid.”
My first Christmas as a married woman, Mom sent satin lingerie — emerald green boxers and a matching camisole. “Now that you’re an honest woman . . .” her note began.
“Do I know this mother?” I asked my husband.
Weeks later, I deciphered my mother’s gesture. My marriage freed her from her Catholic guilt. No longer an accomplice to mortal sin, she could encourage my passion.
On my birthday, she sent a teddy. While I modeled it for my husband, I pondered how odd the gift seemed. I needed time to adapt to this new relationship with Mom.
She called one day. “Oh Tracy, I want to go shopping and have lunch with you.” She was two thousand miles away.
“Come to Missoula.”
“You can’t shop and have lunch in Missoula.”
When I got off the plane, she hugged me. “We have lots to catch up on,” she said. “We’re both going through a first year of marriage.”
Dad had been retired for a year. They were still adjusting to their new roles as constant companions. Mom needed a confidante.
We cruised into Victoria’s Secret. Mom said, “This time, we’re buying something for me.”
I laughed. I played her personal shopper, delivering items to her dressing room.
“Ha! You can wear that.”
“I can’t,” she said. Then, “Does it hide enough? Reveal enough?”
She considered the more subdued peach, but I talked her into a brilliant green-and-purple nightshirt, silk and teasingly sheer.
When I was twelve years old, Mother told me about a story she had read. A woman witnessed her husband and son being buried under several feet of soil when an excavation ditch collapsed. She knew the location of each, but with no one around to help, she could dig fast enough to save only one. The woman had to choose.
My mother told me she would have saved my father, because you could always have other children, but you might not be able to find another husband.
I searched the house for the magazine. The woman in the story had chosen to save her child.
When I was forty years old, I confronted my father about the years of my childhood when he sexually abused me. When my father denied it, Mother demanded to know why I was torturing her husband.
I reminded her of the story about the woman who had to choose between her husband and her child. She told me she didn’t remember any story like that.
She was born in 1915 to a rigid Catholic family in a small Brazilian town. She grew up in a strict environment. At eighteen, she and her older sister decided to join the Catholic convent. They were readily accepted but their father protested. “I will lose one daughter to Jesus but not two,” he said. Heartbroken, my mother left the convent. She dreaded the only other option available to her.
At twenty-five she met my father and a wedding was planned. Growing up, she had seen dogs copulating; that was the extent of her knowledge of what awaited her. The day prior to her wedding, she learned that a married woman was supposed to supply a special set of small towels to clean her husband after intercourse. This was, and perhaps still is, a South American custom. It was the woman’s duty to maintain and clean these little towels. Most wives had pretty ones matching the rest of their dowry, with delicate, hand-crocheted borders embroidered with her husband’s initials. Since my mother learned of the custom so late, she simply cut a bath towel into small pieces and hemmed them in her sewing machine. She worried they were not nice enough; they proved to be too small.
The power her father had over her was immediately transferred to her husband upon their wedding. Ten months later their first child was born; another one followed ten months after that. Soon there were seven boys and one girl. She also had one stillborn child and five abortions performed under dangerous and barbaric conditions.
Sometimes she would latch the bedroom door to breast-feed her two youngest; in a short while a knife would appear between the door and the frame, and the primitive wooden latch would pop open, allowing my father to come in for some company. Tired, deprived of sleep, and feeling unattractive, she would do her duty. Sex was never joyful, never rewarding, and never desired.
She was robbed of time to think, to wonder, to make her own decisions; she had time only for diapers and for cooking huge batches of food. She had no time alone, and no friends. She has not seen a movie in fifty-three years.
Today, she is seventy-seven, and her children are all married and out of the house. She now occupies her time with a garden where she grows perfect tomatoes, corn, and okra; it is where she allows herself to talk about the past. The five abortions weigh heavily on her conscience. She feels she broke God’s law and she is ready to accept responsibility and punishment for it. Despite our many hours of talks in the garden, there are several things that she cannot understand about me: why did I move to a strange land at seventeen? Why did I marry a North American, and why have I not adopted my husband’s name? Why don’t I share a checking account with my husband? Why, above all, have I not had any children?
My husband and I lived on a little farm where we had a garden and chickens. When the chickens began to disappear, Les said we had better take measures. He showed me how to shoot his shotgun. I practiced aiming at a fence post far from my flock. It was easier than I had thought. In fact, I was elated by my skill.
Les said that dawn was the most likely time for the raid. I went out early the next morning and sat on the back step where I had a good view. Sure enough, a coyote came slinking across the pasture. I took aim and fired just as it rounded the corner of the henhouse. It fell over and was still. My heart was racing as I walked down to the chicken yard. Les came running from the pigpen. He was so proud of me.
The coyote lay on its side. I had shot it through the neck. I could see its ribs through the bedraggled fur. It was half-starved. Worse, I could see its swollen teats. It had a den with nursing young somewhere beyond the river bluff.
That was the first and last time I ever shot anything.
Kansas City, Missouri
My sister and I never called her “Mother,” or even “Mom.” She was always Nelle. Nelle and Daddy were our parents.
Nelle was a depressed alcoholic who didn’t have the energy to be the kind of mother I wanted. I’ve spent hours of therapy and thousands of dollars trying to repair my sense of loss.
Nelle began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease when she was sixty-five. One day, not long before she went into a nursing home, my father called to ask me to care for her while he was on a business trip.
When I arrived, she was clutching a doll. She looked at me with bewilderment. The woman who cared for her during the day showed me what to feed her, how to change her, where her nightgown was, how to help her brush her teeth.
The evening was long. Nelle toddled around the house, rummaging in drawers, fiddling with silverware and napkins and jewelry, arranging them in piles on counter tops. I kept an eye on her, barely able to recognize this woman from whose flesh I had come.
I took her into the bathroom to change her diaper. She smelled of urine. She babbled nonsense and scowled at me. When I touched her, she squirmed. It was all I could do to take the dirty diaper off and clean her. My patience was thin and my head was spinning. Finally I sat on the edge of the tub to rest before reaching for the clean diaper.
Nelle sat on the toilet, naked from the waist down, clutching her doll. Suddenly she stopped scowling. She looked at me with tenderness. I met her gaze. Who was whose mother, anyway? For a brief instant we were just Nelle and Barbara — two women living our difficult lives as best we could.
Then I picked up a clean diaper and began the work of making sure my mother was dry and comfortable for the night.
When I was seventeen, my mother hired a truck. In the middle of the night, she took me, my brother, and all the furniture and moved us into her lover’s home. My father found us in less than a month. He broke into the house, started a fight with her lover, and died of a massive heart attack as a result.
She married her lover, and he became my stepfather. They stayed together for ten years before she left, though this time he got to keep the furniture. She moved three thousand miles away. When he discovered she was living with another man, he shot her. Before she died she explained to me that she always found it hard to say goodbye.
I was five months pregnant on Christmas Eve. It was my first child; my heart was full of infant thoughts. That afternoon, my head was engulfed in pain; I thought I was dying. I was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. We were sent to the intensive care unit. The neurosurgeons wanted to operate. My husband flew to New York for more opinions, with copies of X-rays he had to fight for. The doctors there insisted the operation was too risky for both mother and child. We refused the surgery.
After my second week in the hospital, another doctor suggested I have an abortion. The remark threw me into a rage. An hour later, he came back and told me it was too late anyway. They ordered a sonogram. We could see the fetal hand on the screen. As we watched, it waved three times. I saw that hand as a sign from God. “I’m here. I’m all right,” it said.
In the middle of May, during a thunderstorm, our son was born. He nursed immediately. His eyes were alive with wonder. Today he is six years old. He loves trees and forts, school and his friends. He molds clay and builds with Legos. I look at his hands, so large and wise for his small body.
M. Morris DeVito
Santa Fe, New Mexico
When I was in fifth grade, I was stunned to discover that my mother was not just a housecleaning, vegetable-cooking, button-sewing female, but an actual woman.
One summer afternoon my mother, who was in her early thirties, came home from her part-time job as a saleslady, wearing a sleeveless dress and hot-pink stockings. I took one look at her and started to cry. My sister Ann glanced up from her coloring book and wailed. Petite and dark-haired, our mother looked so sexy in her pink stockings that we didn’t recognize her.
“I thought they were in fashion,” she explained.
“They look terrible,” I remember yelling.
We begged her not to wear the stockings again, and she never did.
I am now the age my mother was when she wore her pink stockings. I have no children to disapprove of the short skirts and dangling earrings and snug pants that I wear. I regret that as a child I spoiled my mother’s desire to be young and pretty. She worked diligently to cram herself back into a box stamped Mother and rarely ventured out again.
It is Saturday, and my mother carries fresh doughnuts in a white wax bag. They are called “old, fashioned” doughnuts, and they’re plain and greasy, tasting of white dough, cinnamon, and vanilla. We climb back into the station wagon in our usual order, my three brothers in the back seat, my sister and I in the front. Mom is at the steering wheel. I sit as close to her as I can. I clutch a doughnut with one hand, and hold the cool flesh of her upper arm with the other. The radio is playing “Feeling Groovy.” Mom smiles. She likes this song.
A few months later, she lies in bed unable to keep down food. When I bring her a vanilla milkshake, she vomits. We are children and don’t know how to help her. We sit tensely around the kitchen table, saying little to one another as we eat warmed ravioli that comes from a can. Dad is working the night shift. We stay at home, watching a life slip away from us.
The next morning, an ambulance is called. I make tissue-paper flowers to line the headboard of her bed. It is rare that we have strangers in our house, and my father is embarrassed by this simple, innocent gesture. He asks me to take them down. He and Mom have a small argument. The flowers are removed. I ask her not to die. She doesn’t respond, but looks at me quietly. I brush her hair and hide the brush in the bottom drawer of the white dresser my sister and I share.
I never see her alive again. I hear they’re feeding her by needles in her arm. I’m told they’re operating on her stomach; there’s a second operation a week later. I’m too young to be allowed into the intensive care unit, so I retreat to the nearby fields. I’m dressed in a thin corduroy jacket and rubber boots. I walk lightly on a frozen creek to a secret spot along the bank where my friend and I once pretended we were birds and built a nest of grass and branches. I lie down and curl up into it.
My sister calls from the hospital and says, “God has taken Mom.” The next day the house is full of people and food — cakes, casseroles, sausages, fried chicken, macaroni, and potato salad. The men are throwing back shots of whiskey. I keep waiting for Mom to come home and be part of this party. I’m sure some mistake has been made at the hospital, and she’ll be calling soon for a ride home.
And season after season, long into my adulthood, I keep wandering in woods, fields, and alpine meadows, burying my hands in composting leaves, wrapping my arms around trees, and laying my head on the cool earth, longing for a promise that what I love will not die.
Ocate, New Mexico
The kitchen had one of those free-standing sinks. Next to it, a dish cabinet held a jar of lollipops. I remember my mother, neatly dressed but overweight, always nervous and harried, standing at the sink. After lunch, Mother would give me a lollipop — lemon was my favorite — and caution me not to run while I ate it. If I fell, the stick could puncture my throat and I could bleed to death; she knew someone to whom that had happened. Then I was allowed outside to play. I knew I must not wander off because if I did, bad men would get me.
Many things made her ill, small things such as too much noise, too little rest, certain kinds of food, dogs, cats, bugs on flowers, and germs, which were on everything. In her own words, she was “delicate.”
I remember my delicate mother playing make-believe with me on rainy days. She would raise the seat of the piano bench and place little packages of raisins there; then she would move back and forth from the kitchen to buy from my “store.” Mother read to me often, making fictional characters come alive. Many nights she sat on the edge of my bed and held my hand because I was sure there were fearful monsters under my bed. If she was going out with my father, she would roll up the dress she had worn that day and give it to me to hold. My mother’s scent was enough to keep monsters at bay.
Mother lived to be ninety — her last few years with me. The call came one crisp autumn evening. She began to cry. “I’m too much for your sisters,” she said. “Please can I stay with you?”
“It’s impossible,” I said. “I’m divorced. I have to work. I have troubled teens. There’s no bedroom downstairs and you’re unable to go up stairs. There’s no heat in the downstairs bathroom. You’ll get pneumonia.”
The dining room became Mother’s bedroom. I kept working, kept going to school at night, and introduced my lover to her. She kept a squirt bottle of water at her side to keep the cat away; but the cat stayed and she didn’t get asthma. Old and frail, Mother was eager not to be a burden. She would wash her hair in the kitchen sink and set it herself. She would tell me to go and relax at the end of my workday. On her birthday, I teased her by saying that she got to be eighty-eight years old only because she never had to wash windows and floors, due to her asthma. She laughed her wonderful laugh. But, of course, she became a burden. At night I could hear the thump thump thump of her walker as she went toward the kitchen. I lay awake worrying that she would catch herself on fire, or leave the kettle on and burn the house down. I worried that she might fall. Three times she fired the homemaker who was to stay with her while I was at work. She wanted to be independent; it was a victory every time she got out of bed without help. In the end, when her body would not obey that simple command, she became a burden even to herself. When Mother died, I don’t know which I felt more strongly — grief or relief.
Yet, I’m glad we had those last years together. Once, looking in the mirror, she said, “Who is that old, old woman?” Once she would not eat the dinner I had prepared. In a childish, petulant voice she said, “Why can’t I have farina?” I made farina for her, remembering that long ago she made me pudding because I hated milk. Remembering lemon lollipops. Remembering how she sat on my bed and calmed my fear, and how the mere scent of her kept monsters at bay.
Marian C. Armstrong
White Plains, New York
My mother never kissed or hugged me, even when I was small. She explained it wasn’t proper.
I adored my mother. She was beautiful. Her hair was blonde and her peaches-and-cream complexion never required cosmetics. She dressed modestly, and when we saw her she was always fully clothed. If she needed to undress when we were around, she would say, “Girls, go into the other room.”
Mother and Father were a perfect couple; she was refined and cultured, he was gallant and attentive. They were like characters out of a Victorian novel. Each had individual strengths they brought to the marriage: Mother could manage money, and Father couldn’t; Father could sing and joke and play, and Mother couldn’t. They never argued in front of us.
When I asked her for advice before I married, she lowered her voice to a bitter whisper. “Don’t let them get on top of you. If they do, you can’t get away.”
Late in her life, my mother had a serious stroke. After my father’s death she declined steadily, undergoing distressing personality changes. Once neat and fastidious, her living quarters were now filthy, her personal habits slatternly. She would not accept help from my sister and me, and she refused to go to a nursing home.
She dwelt more and more on the insoluble problems of human sexuality, her voice loud and abusive, her conversation rambling, incoherent, and often shocking. When her grandson tried to kiss her, she pulled angrily away. “Don’t touch me! I know what you want. Don’t think I lived on an Iowa farm for nothing!”
Then, harshly, “Pigs are sexy. Their organs are wide open. They are always touching. When I taught school, I’d say to the children, ‘Don’t touch. Do not touch each other. It is wrong to touch.’ I would say to them, ‘What are you? Are you a little boy or a pig?’ Pigs don’t think. They just do their rolling around for their own satisfaction.”
When we were alone, she said, “When I got married I didn’t let him touch me for two months. Sex is filthy. Children should never touch. I hated marriage. But I stuck with it. All those years I lived in constant fear.”
“What were you afraid of?”
“I was never afraid. My brother was afraid. He was a big boy and he was afraid to go to the outhouse alone at night. So I went along. And there was this hired man. . . . I would not do it. But there were two of them and I couldn’t stop them. I tried and tried. And I didn’t tell anyone. My brother was afraid our folks would find out. I knew it was wrong.”
“Mother,” I whispered, “did they rape you?”
The glimmer of comprehension in her eyes left as suddenly as it had come.
She grew flowers. She had so much energy the word relax made her shudder. Anyone not up after eight in the morning was wasting the day. When we were kids she baked us cookies whenever they ran out, and a different dessert every night.
My mother brought us to the beach every day in the summer. She cursed the fog. We sat through summer rains with towels on our heads. On Sundays she stood at the bottom of the stairs yelling for my father to hurry up. We climbed mountains in the fall, skied in the winter, and flew kites in the spring.
My dad died when I was sixteen. She pushed us through his grueling death by escalating her rage and sorrow. We didn’t go to church after that.
She collected pine cones and oak leaves and boughs for wreaths. She tied red threads to branches to mark a path in the snow for her walks through the winter woods. Out of compassion, she shook the heavy snow off the trees. She hugged her pet dog and gave him ice-cream cones and never leashed him or left him alone. Then she beat him with a broom when he chased cars, or kicked him if he irritated her.
She put surprises on our beds, wrote us love notes, read us stories, understood and cried when our friends were mean. She taught us about musicals and museums. Whenever we did what she did not like, she hit us with a belt, a hairbrush, a ruler, her hand — the vacuum-cleaner hose if it was handy. She twisted our words and emotions until we became shell-less. She told us to go and grew furious when we left. She ransacked our rooms to find what always pained her most. She sent us into the store for a loaf of bread and drove off if we took too long.
She still bakes us birthday cakes and wraps dozens of presents in celebration. She drinks beer and skis and skates and reads books on the beach. Her lenses in her glasses are thick, her hair white, her skin a deep polished brown from the sun. She grows flowers. She grew me.
I was going somewhere with my mother. This was unusual because I didn’t live with her; I visited every few weeks, and then we rarely left her neighborhood. She suddenly mentioned my breasts, modestly hidden under a loose-fitting sweater; she said that my future boyfriends were in for a nice surprise. I laughed and blushed and said, “Stop it!” But I was touched by the intimacy of her remark. I wanted to hug her. This must be what it’s like to have a mother, I thought.
New York, New York
I put my mother to bed. I lay next to her and pretended to sleep until her breathing deepened. Then I tiptoed out to the living room. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. I was staying with her while my father rested in a hotel a hundred miles away. I’d spent a long, long day answering the same two or three questions over and over.
Five minutes after I’d settled on the sofa with my book, my mother came out of the bedroom.
“Good morning!” she said cheerfully.
She looked beautiful, even refreshed. My dismay at seeing her was lifted for a moment because she looked so aware — like she used to look years ago. She’d put on her robe, tying the belt herself. Her slippers were on the right feet. Fifteen minutes earlier, when I was taking her slippers off, I had asked her to lift her foot. “Foot?” she had repeated, and gave me her hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said now. “It’s not morning yet. See? It’s still dark outside.” Then, because she looked so vibrant, I invited her to sit with me a moment before we went back to bed.
She perched on the edge of the sofa and smiled at me. She said, “I don’t know how long I’ve known you, but I just want to tell you that you are a very special person. There’s something about you . . . your face, your eyes . . . you’re very pretty. I really mean that.”
I remembered all over again how much confidence she’d given me as a child. How approving and admiring she’d been of all my successes, big and small. And I told her so. I said, “That’s why you have always been such a wonderful mother for me.”
At the word mother she appeared confused and slipped back into the cloudy look I’d come to expect. I blew it, I thought.
But she recovered, and smiled again. She looked at the clock above the television and said, “Eleven o’clock! What are we doing up?” She assumed a humorous expression, raised her eyebrows, and said, “One of us is crazy.”
Jackson Hole, Wyoming