Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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On your increasingly rare trips home, you mean to appreciate your mother, this woman with whom you have increasingly little in common. And yet, when your mother greets a former student in baggage claim in a low, authoritative voice that is foreign to you, you bristle. And when, in the house you grew up in, you overhear her speaking with uncharacteristic giddiness to one of her sisters on the phone, you clench your fists. And when, at the church she still attends for reasons you do not understand, she stands at the podium and reads with a pious tone that takes you by surprise, you want to rise up from your pew, point a finger, and proclaim before the congregation, “That is not her voice! That is not how she sounds!” At these times you feel like a terrible daughter, so upset over a little thing like a change in your mother’s voice. But perhaps you are dismayed because you want your mother to sound like your mother, to be recognizable to you always, to be utterly known to you and only you. You want your mother to be nothing to anyone else, so childish is your devotion.
You cannot believe that your mother doesn’t notice the smudge on her forehead, the bean sprout between her teeth, the mote suspended in her nostril. You cannot stand that, when stepping across an old kitchen rug, she stumbles and clutches your shoulder. When she singes her wrist taking a pan from the oven, you admonish her, even though a good daughter would offer sympathy, aware of all the wounds her mother once gladly kissed. And when she burns the bread in the oven, you whine, even though a good daughter would shrug and say, Ah, well. But what daughter wouldn’t be unnerved by such foreshadowings of the time when her mother won’t be able to take care of herself; when she will have to be cooked for, spoon-fed, helped out of bed, cleaned in the most private of ways? You want your mother to be there to take care of you, to wipe away a smudge with her spit, to make you dinner, to catch you before you fall.
You won’t abide the blankness that occasionally passes over your mother’s face: how her gaze unfixes, how her cheeks loosen. Usually this happens when she thinks she’s alone, but sometimes in the middle of a conversation with you, she suddenly . . . turns off. You are irked when her jaw pops as she eats popcorn, or when she falls asleep partway through a movie you’ve been watching together, her eyes partially open. You want to groan when she cracks her toe knuckles before she gets up from the couch, when her knees click like twigs with every step she takes on the way to bed. Might your irritation, which seems beyond reason, arise from the fact that when your mother’s face goes slack or her eyes half close, she looks dead? That when you hear her bones, you think of the time when she will be only bones? Could this mean, then, that coiled inside your impatience is love? You are impatient because you don’t want her to die. Your impatience is understandable, even virtuous. You want what all daughters want: for your mother to live forever.
And yet you hate it when your mother snores, and cringe when, on an otherwise oppressively quiet night, you hear her in the bathroom, making the lowly bodily noises we share with other animals. You hate to think of your mother as an animal who once held you inside herself; an animal whose body you sprang from, then attached yourself to, whose ministrations you received and took for granted. You were animals together then, so comfortable with each other — the way she sang! the way you cried! — neither of you afraid of anything but losing the other. There was just the musky smell of her, the breast she offered to your mouth, the way she guarded your sleep like a dog. Perhaps you feel revulsion toward her body now because the primordial sounds it makes remind you of the years of your childhood you can’t quite remember, years you don’t want to remember, for fear of being choked by shame and gratitude.
You go shopping together, and when your mother comes out of the fitting room wearing clothes that look like yours, you are aggrieved. Things get worse when you run into a friend of your mother’s: she tells you that you two look just alike — “Peas in a pod! You could be sisters!” — and you shudder, not entirely unnoticeably. Driving your mother and her shopping bags home, you catch yourself in the rearview mirror wrinkling your chin the way your mother wrinkles hers, is wrinkling hers at this very moment, and you clap a hand to your face in dismay. This doesn’t mean you eschew your mother’s every quality; in many ways you’d like to be more like her. It is just that she is getting old, and you don’t want to get old like her. Even good daughters, even the best daughters, do not look forward to decrepitude and death. That’s all, that’s all.
You wake up hot and penitent in the small hours of what is to be the last day of your visit, realizing why you’ve been so short-tempered: you’d rather feel irritation than the love that will end in grief. You’ve been casting your mother as a nuisance over and over, only so you’ll miss her less when it comes time to miss her. You’ve been a good daughter for so long that you’re bound to be a terrible orphan. You’d laugh at your foolishness if you didn’t feel so sorry for yourself. The thousand arrows of the grief you dread are already in the air, flying this way, and all you have to protect you is the feeble shield of your irritation. You go back to sleep and wake up so sick that you cannot hoist yourself from bed. You cannot do anything but moan and whimper for your mother, who is, to your great relief, very much alive. She brings you toast you don’t eat and tea you don’t drink. You let her climb into your childhood bed with you and coo to you and smooth the sweaty hair from your forehead. She was always such a good mother. You knew this before you knew who she was, or who you were, or what you would be to each other. Before you had thoughts, you were aware of being lovingly cradled.
You’ve started hoping you will not be better in time for your flight — in time for any flight. Now you remember why you didn’t want to come home. You didn’t want the world beyond this house to seep away from you the way it does when you are here with your mother. You should leave before it’s too late! But to what do you so urgently need to return? What’s out there for you? That faraway life you’ve been living is already losing its importance, making its vaporous retreat, leaving you here with your mother. And you’re falling asleep, and it might all be gone when you wake up, and, Ah, well. Ah, well. It wouldn’t bother you in the least if, in the morning, awakened by the sound of something pressing up against the house, you and your mother rose together and looked out your bedroom window only to discover no one there, not a soul. You wouldn’t mind if the two of you were the only two alive, the only two who had ever been alive, the young world before you hushed and still.