The phone in the kitchen demands attention.
I sprint to answer it, holler through the house as I run. “I got it.” I grab the mustard receiver from its wall mount and press it to my ear. “Hello?”
“Hey. What’re you doing?” It’s Karen, my best friend. She only lives a block away but it’s too cold and too late on a school night to meet on the corner to yack. I stretch the phone cord taut and huddle, legs criss-crossed-applesauce, in a corner of the dining room.
I cover my mouth so Mom can’t hear me. “Algebra, but it can wait. What’re you doing?”
More than once I spy her shadow as she hovers near the doorway. I twist myself even closer to the china cabinet, tuck the phone between me and the wall.
One day during my lunch hour in downtown
Cincinnati (I lived and
worked there in the 80s), I was walking toward Fountain Square and these two gals—mother and daughter—came at me, arm in arm. The younger woman’s grin was the
spitting image of her mom’s. When I
stepped in front of them, they stopped walking and talking, their limbs
suddenly stiff, their eyes wide.
The mom gathered her girl close. “Yes?”
“You all don’t know how lucky you are,” I said. I swatted my hand at their togetherness. “I wish— I wish me and my mom were like you two.” I blinked away the burn of close tears.
In that moment, they seemed to melt. The mother reached out tentatively, rested her manicured hand on my forearm.
“Why, you should tell her that, honey. Surely she wants the same.”
I bit my lip and shook my head. “Nah, we’ll never be like you two. Enjoy what you have.” Before they could say anything else, I ducked inside Lazarus Department Store.
A couple years back, I got to thinking about the Ten Commandments, the one that says honor your father and mother. I did okay with Dad but Mom was different. We were never close but that afternoon as I puttered around the house, I thought maybe, just maybe, things'd be better if I came up with a list of good stuff I remember instead of . . .
I arranged myself, my journal, and fountain pen at the dining room table, cradled a mug of coffee, drew its hazelnut steam into my nostrils. Seconds then minutes passed as I tapped my pen on my front teeth, crinkled my forehead, and waited for good stuff to arrive. Then all of a sudden, there it was: good stuff.
I like scallops, but Mom loved them first.
My mother adores stories. I do too.
Mom used to take me shopping and in between Stone and Thomas and Nassar's, at McCrory’s five and dime, we'd order club sandwiches, wavy Lay's potato chips, and made-in-front-of-you cherry Cokes.
"This'll pick us up," Mom always said.
In the evenings, we’d sit side by side on the sofa and she’d teach me how to embroider. My French knots never got as good as hers.
My mother was a nurse. I never told her but I thought that was pretty cool. She got so freaked out when my brothers beat each other up, it was hard to believe she could stomach blood and guts. From the hallway outside her bedroom, I used to watch her bobby pin her stiff and quirky nurse’s cap into her dark curls. No one told me how much I resembled her, not till years later.
Sometimes we'd dress up and drive downtown to the Elephant Room in the Hotel Frederick for lunch. I’d clutch the armrests of my chair as the sweet, super old waiter with shiny mahogany skin scooted my chair in. I’d peek under the snowy table cloth to watch my patent leather Mary Jane shoes dangle above the plush, crimson carpet.
When the waiter asked for our drink orders I’d cross my gloved hands in my lap and peer up at him.
"May I have a Shirley Temple, please? With two maraschino cherries on a pink plastic sword?"
Every year, out in our backyard when the weather warmed, Mom showed me how to grow lilies of the valley, zinnias, and Shasta daisies.
"Poke your finger inside there," she'd say as we crouched beside a clump of snapdragons. "It's like a tiny mouth, don't you think?”
On summer mornings our Keds sneakers would leave green trails in the silver dew as we made our way to the pussy willow bush on our property’s edge. Mom would smile as she stroked the furry catkins.
"Don't they feel like kitten paws?"
I don't remember Mom saying no much.
"Since I'm in fourth grade now, can I have my birthday party at the roller rink?” I asked her that one night as I sliced green olives for the salad.
“That sounds fun.”
One evening as we watered the garden I presented her with my heart’s desire.
"Can I take horseback riding lessons with Karen? I checked, a half hour lesson costs ten bucks."
“I think we can manage that.”
“I’ve had my driver’s license a month now. Is it okay if I take the car tonight?”
“Ask your father.”
“Can I go to
with Suzy, Stretch, and Natalie after graduation?”
“Is it okay with their folks?”
Mom did tell me no once, after she found Suzy's Eve cigarettes in my room, in a drawer, under my undies.
"Do not ever, ever smoke cigarettes,” Mom said. Her mouth was a thin, coral-colored line. “You'll die of cancer. My best friend from high school's husband had to get a talk box put in his throat because of cigarettes."
“But you smoke.”
“That’s beside the point.” I whimpered as she gripped my wrist hard and marched me into the bathroom.
"But Mom, they're not mine. Suz— This girl I know asked me to hold them for her and I forgot to give ’em back. I swear."
She pursed her lips and squinted. "Nice try. Now flush them this instant. I mean it.”
For the past few years, from time to time, I’ve been sending her my stories, some of them real, some not. I fold then crease them, tuck the pages into the stamped and addressed envelopes and hand them to the mailman. It’s wonderful to get real mail these days, not just bills. I wonder if Mom feels like she’s getting a present when she opens her mailbox and sees a letter from me?
When the phone rings these days I squint at the caller I.D. screen. Is it her? What’d she think of the last story I sent? Did she think I did good?
“I liked your latest story,” she told me just the other day. “You’re getting better, you know.”
Now here I sit with this one. And a stamped addressed envelope. It’s almost Mother’s Day. To send or not to . . .