Our mother told us she would soon be dead.
She told us she had stage four lung cancer and there was no point in seeing a doctor. I was ten and I cried. My fourteen-year-old sister elbowed me sharply. The light came through our suburban kitchen window and our slender, graceful mom had never looked more beautiful. Or tragic. Or healthy. My sister asked questions as pointy as her elbows. Our mother had no answers.
It was not her first terminal illness. There was congestive heart failure and a suspected stroke, a brain aneurysm, a rare form of diabetes. It was always something.
Some part of her believed what she told us. She certainly expected to come down with a fatal disease at any minute. She lived on the edge of death, the romantic edge, Greta Garbo’s Camille chaise lounge of death. She could be dying. She might be dying. More significantly, she wanted to be dying. I’m sure she didn’t want to be dead. Her curls of blond hair and big blue eyes, her pale Irish skin and shapely (her word) legs wanted to live. But gingerly, carefully, and with our full attention.
A year later, our mother told us she was pregnant with our stepfather’s child. She wore maternity clothes. I bought a rattle with my own money. She sighed and looked dreamily at advertisements for baby clothes and cradles and high chairs without buying anything. One day I came home from school and she said she’d lost the baby. It was gone. She told us first the firemen came and then the paramedics and they delivered her dead baby. She was sad, but it was probably for the best, she said. She was too old at thirty-eight to have another baby.
Was there a baby? Did the firemen come? My father said it was all horseshit. I don’t know what my stepfather believed. He was at work when it happened. She cooked dinner like always.
Our mother told us she saw people no one else could see. I couldn’t prove otherwise. I saw her talking to nothing. I saw her look over my shoulder and nod at someone behind me, but when I turned around, it was only the rocking chair or the living room curtains or the sky in the backyard.
Our mother told us often how lucky we were, my sister and I. She said her mother tied her to the piano and made her practice. She said her father slaughtered her pet lamb and forced her to stay at the table until she ate it. They beat her legs with a switch, made her wear too small shoes, and hated her, their only child.
Our mother told us our grandmother was a witch. When we went to visit every summer, I saw with my own eyes the chants and rituals before we ate or went to bed at night, and all day on Sunday. The Missouri farmhouse where she lived was filled with totems. That they were Christian didn’t matter to me, brought up with no religion. Christ on the cross was as terrifying as any image of Dracula. Grandmother said the footsteps we heard going back and forth over our heads in the empty attic were the saintly spirits watching over her.
I believed it all because spirits overhead were like miraculous recoveries from cancer and lost babies and invisible friends and the incantations our grandmother performed on her knees.
I was the believer in the family. I believed because I knew our mother loved me. She was a good mom in so many ways. We danced in the kitchen together. We made crazy art projects just for fun. She was the best nurse when I was sick and comforted me when I was sad. She liked to cook and loved to entertain, and people—especially men—enjoyed her wit and jokes and amazing stories. Every trip to the grocery store, every encounter at the bank or phone call from a salesman was a story—and if she embellished a little, told the same story three different times to three different dinner parties in three different ways, each more fantastic than the last, that was just Mom. My sister says her stories are why I am a fiction writer.
If she believed what she said, is it fiction? If I wanted to believe it, why does it matter?
One day, I came home from seventh grade and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandfather’s shaving mug in front of her. She kept it on a shelf in the hutch in the dining room, red with speckles of white like a metal camping mug, but it was porcelain and our mother told us it kept her and her father connected. She wrapped her hands around the mug.
“Your grandfather was here,” she said.
He’d been dead for seven years.
“We have to go to Missouri. It’s not safe for us here.”
Stepfather Number One had left us six weeks before. He was not the violent man who would come next, but malleable, beige, quivering, the color and substance of vanilla pudding. I was glad to see him go, but Mom seemed to drift without him. She was wispy and frowning, like a ghost who had been assigned to haunt a house she didn’t recognize.
“What’s not safe?” I asked.
She waved me away, saying I would never understand. She knew and that was enough. She would keep my sister and me safe at great personal risk.
The next morning, she made us breakfast as usual, but didn’t dress for work. She was in her weekend clothes. My sister and I didn’t ask why. Instead of seeing us onto our respective busses, to middle school for me and high school for my sister, my mother said she would drive us to school—strange enough—and then she passed our usual right turn and got onto the highway.
“What is happening?” my sister said.
“We’re going to Missouri,” Mom answered.
Our grandmother still lived in the one-stoplight farm town where our mother had grown up, in the same house where she and our mother had been born. It fascinated me that our grandmother, her two sisters, and then our mother had been born not in a hospital, but in the big bedroom upstairs. Not only in that bedroom, but in that same bed with the massive, dark wood frame and the headboard and four posts carved with garlands of fruit. Apples, peaches, strawberries. Fruit to promote fruitfulness, my mother said, a charm against being barren. My grandmother still slept there. Her child had been born in that bed. Her husband had died in it when I was five years old. Was it the same mattress? Probably. I was both afraid of the bed and drawn to it. I poked my hand under the covers to see if I could feel where my grandfather had died. I imagined blood and bodily fluids. I wondered if Grandmother had grabbed the carved round peach—my favorite—as she screamed in childbirth. Did she sweat and swear like they did on TV or did she call on her spirits to help her? I had nightmares about that room, that bed, that tall white Victorian house and the flat fields all around. I still do. When I’m running from monsters, it’s always through that house and they always come from under that bed.
We were on the highway heading west from our house in Maryland. Mom had packed for us and put our bags in the trunk. When? I wondered, but I didn’t ask. Like many things she did, I didn’t have to understand.
“If there’s anything that I’ve forgotten, I’ll buy it for you there.”
Extravagance was new. Our mother was frugal. She embraced poverty, even though she worked full time and Stepfather Number One had been successful and my father even more so.
“No meat for dinner tonight, I’m sorry to say. End of the month.” But we had hamburger in the freezer and my sister and I preferred eggs and waffles and most vegetables anyway. She said she didn’t buy herself new shoes so I could get a warm winter coat and my sister could have that school trip. She reminded us often of what she had given up for us. That was the kind of suffering she liked: a mannered, practiced self-sacrifice. It was as if our mother was a character in one of the old-fashioned, unhappy novels she liked to read.
Somewhere in Ohio, we stopped at a motel. It took a day and a half to get to Grandmother’s house from the Maryland suburbs and we always spent the night in Ohio. We’d made the trip many times, every summer, but this was unlike those vacations. It was October. We were missing school and she was missing work and we wore jackets and corduroys instead of shorts and T-shirts. The pool at the motel was closed, a rusty brown puddle in the bottom. My sister and I sat on the creaky swing set while Mom did whatever she was doing in the room.
“I have a test tomorrow,” my sister said.
“I have soccer tryouts.” I was the jock in the family.
“I left my textbook in my bedroom because I thought I’d be back to study.”
“What do you think is so dangerous at home?”
My sister sighed. “Nothing,” she said. “Or everything. Our mother is what’s dangerous. Maybe I’ll go live with Dad.”
That was the worst thing she could have said. I told her I would die if she left me. It never occurred to me I could go with her. One of us had to stay with Mom and it would definitely be me.
“If I could find a phone,” my sister said, “I’d call him and tell him what’s going on.”
We thought the phone in the motel room only went to the front desk. There was probably a pay phone in the office, but we were not sophisticated kids. And we didn’t really want to call him and have him come or force our mother to turn around. We wanted to see where this adventure would take us.
In the room, our mother had laid out our pajamas, run a bath for me—I was twelve but she treated me like a child—and turned on the TV to a nature program. She had washed up and changed her blouse. She was pretty. That was one thing, she was always pretty—maybe that’s how she got away with as much as she did. Men liked her. Our father threw up his hands but he never really got angry with her. He missed her. When he left, he always paused outside on the front step and kept his hand on the doorknob. That was how much he wanted to come back in.
I was supposed to take a bath while she went to get us dinner at the restaurant down the street. French fries, my sister said. Milkshakes, I said. Our escape from the ghostly danger at home took on a celebratory air.
“It’s too early for pajamas,” my sister said. It was barely seven o’clock.
Mom gave us her what I say goes look and left. Reluctantly my sister and I started taking off our clothes. Then Mom was back.
“On second thought,” she said. “Let’s all go. It will feel good after driving all day. Wash your faces. Comb your hair. Let’s have some fun.”
We rarely went out to eat. Mom didn’t like other people’s cooking. She distrusted food she hadn’t made herself—especially at a restaurant. She often believed it was poisoned, or would be the moment they knew she had ordered it. Sometimes she would just get a can of Coca-Cola she could open herself or a package of Saltines after inspecting the cellophane to make sure it hadn’t been tampered with.
We walked into the restaurant. It was a diner with chrome and red vinyl stools at the counter and booths along the window in front and the smell of fried food and overheated coffee. I didn’t know what our mother would do in a place like that. But I saw a table of four men by the door turn and look at her. They always did. They passed over my seventeen-year-old sister, plump and frizzy-haired, and me, still a flat-chested child, but their eyes lingered on our mother.
She did this thing I’d seen her do before: she turned to them and gave a brief, bright smile—like she was saying thank you—then tilted her head and hurried on as if embarrassed. She looked sweet, innocent, and fragile. Exposed. Vulnerable. If it was an act, it was a good one. It made her twice as attractive, a hundred times as appealing. She was a woman who needed a man’s care. She put her left hand up awkwardly to push back her hair on the right side of her head, the side where the men were sitting. In retrospect, I think she was making it obvious she wore no wedding ring. The men shifted in their seats. I saw them swallow. I could almost feel them clench their thighs. I was completely inexperienced—had never even kissed a boy—but I recognized their rush of desire; it warmed me and I blushed.
Later, when we were back home in Maryland, I would stand at the bathroom mirror and try that quick smile followed by that incline of my head. I tried it off and on for years—in high school, college, and after—but I never got it right. I was too aware of what I was doing. For our mother, it came as naturally as anything else.
We sat at a booth and the waitress gave us menus. She looked like she was a flesh-colored crayon forgotten in the hot sun. Her jowls, her ears, her arms, all of her skin sagged, slid toward the floor. She had a single shelf of bosom that hung so low it rested on her stomach. What did they look like, I wondered, her breasts, her boobs? I had only seen my mother’s ripe peach orbs and my sister’s spongy beginnings. I giggled and whispered to my sister behind my menu that I thought the waitress was melting. My sister snickered. Our mom gave us her shut up look.
“Where you all from?” the waitress asked.
“Maryland,” my mother said. I knew the men were listening. So did she. She spoke loud enough for them to hear. “We’re going to Missouri. My mother is ill. Actually, she’s dying.”
She was? I thought we were leaving because my dead grandfather had said we were in danger from demons only he and our mother could see. I started to protest, but my sister nudged me. We were watching another performance. Our mother’s sad eyes blinked quickly, preventing tears.
“I’m sorry, honey,” the waitress said. “Your mom’ll be so glad to see you. I know she will. And you took the kids out of school and everything.”
“I had to. There’s no one else to look after them.”
The waitress tsk-tsked and shook her head, impressed and sorry all at once. The reaction our mother wanted. Most people gave her what she wanted.
Unexpectedly, she ordered a hamburger. So did I. So did my sister. After my sister and I ate, plus French fries and chocolate milkshakes, our mother pushed away her nibbled burger and sat sideways at the edge of the booth so she could straighten her skirt and cross her legs. The waitress came to take our plates and Mom ordered a cup of coffee and took out her cigarettes.
In a flash, one of the men was there to light it for her. He wasn’t the youngest or the handsomest, but there he was. Short, dark hair salted with gray, a belly straining against that lowest button on his flannel shirt, worn jeans, lace up work boots. A farmer? A construction foreman? I will never know. I would have chosen a different one for her, but she seemed to like him. He slid into the booth beside her. He asked our ages and if we liked school. Then he ignored us.
You might know where this story is going. Let me just say this first: I loved my mother as much as she loved me. Years later, when I was married and had my own children, my father told me she was a slut. She wasn’t. She just needed a man to make her real. Without one, she never really saw herself as flesh and blood. So when the man sat down in our booth, we watched our mother become corporeal. Once again she was a living woman. Just not necessarily the one we knew. With this man, his rural twang, and his blue-collar life, her master’s degree in English literature and her advanced vocabulary fell away and she was just a plain country girl going to see her mama. She was more solid, but she was also a different person. We had seen her do it before. We didn’t know how long it would last.
My sister and I walked back to the motel alone. It wasn’t far but it was unusual for me to be out at night. There were stars in the cobalt blue sky, many more than we ever saw at home. I made wish after wish. On the first star, on the tenth star, on the thirty-eighth star. Our mother’s age. I still believed in wishes coming true. The cold air was good; the breeze blew away the fried smell lingering in our clothing. My sister was annoyed, but I wasn’t sure why. I was glad our mother was happy. I’d seen her laughing through the window as we left.
Our mother didn’t come back to the motel that night. My sister and I watched TV until very late, a weird movie with girls in short shorts and a man with a moustache driving a loud car. We got chips and Cokes from the vending machine and ate and drank in bed. My sister pulled back the other bedspread and sprinkled crumbs deliberately into our mother’s bed, then made it up again. She sat upright against the headboard, the light from the television turning her angry face blue. She would be very beautiful one day after she left home and I saw it that night for the first time. I think I even told her she was pretty and she looked at me like I was crazy. How could she be pretty, how could either of us be attractive, living beside our mother? I finally fell asleep in my clothes, but I don’t think my sister slept at all.
In the morning, our mother told us she had spent the night alone in the graveyard at the edge of town.
“Weren’t you cold?” I asked.
“Alone?” my sister said. And a few other things.
“What do you mean? I needed to commune with the spirit world.” She told us her father had reappeared and said it was time to go home.
“What about Grandmother dying?” That was me again.
“Nonsense,” our mother said. “I never said she was dying. We’ll see her in the summer like always.”
She stretched out for a moment on the bed where she hadn’t slept and twisted her hips from side to side. It made me uncomfortable to watch her move that way. I laughed nervously when I heard the chips crackling beneath her. She smiled. The smile wasn’t for me or my sister, only for herself, a secret she was thinking about. She nodded. Sighed.
“I can’t believe you,” my sister said and left the motel room, slamming the door behind her. That would be her refrain from then on. I can’t believe you. I don’t believe you. I won’t believe you.
Our mother ignored her. “Let me take a quick shower,” she said. “Pack up. It’s time to go home.”
We were all quiet on the drive back to Maryland. I got to sit in front because my sister didn’t want to. She was still mad. She was so angry she never got over it. She was furious with our mother for the rest of her life. I was happy to be going home. I hadn’t missed soccer tryouts after all. Mom hummed as she drove, then tuned the radio to a Top 40 station and sang along. Overnight the leaves had begun to change. Fall had happened behind us while we were heading west. When we turned around, the wind was moving through the trees and the red and golden leaves swirled past us. I saw a V-shape of geese migrating south and Halloween decorations and candy when we stopped for gas. It was my favorite time of year and the saddest time of all, another year done and over and never to return, and only the holidays—never easy in our family—ahead.
Our mother told us our house was secure when we pulled up in the driveway. The danger had passed and all would be well. My sister laughed at her. The next day she had to make up a reason she had missed the test—she couldn’t say our mother had taken us halfway to Missouri so she could have sex with a man she met in a diner. That’s what she wanted to say to her teachers and that’s what she wanted to tell our father, but she only told me. For school, she wrote a note saying she had food poisoning and Mom signed it.
Our mother was calm for a while. She went to work and she cooked dinner and she played the piano without crying. I was made goalie of the girls’ soccer team. It was a hazardous and difficult position and I liked it. I liked the solid thwack of the ball against my hands. The right and wrong way to play. The winning and losing. It was all so clear and concrete. I asked for my own ball for Christmas and the man who was about to be my next stepfather gave me one that was blue and white.
Eventually, that stepfather left and our mother called our father to tell him she was dying. To tell him she couldn’t move her arms. To tell him she’d been bitten by a spider and the venom was coursing through her bloodstream and would soon reach her heart. My sister stayed in her room. I brought her soup and crackers and covered her with a blanket on the couch. Dad came over every time, his voice gentle and low, telling her she was fine, fine, fine. His song only made her angry and she was just as sick—even sicker she called to tell him—after he went home.
My sister moved out when she was eighteen and stayed away. Occasionally she showed up for Christmas and she came when I graduated from high school. She didn’t live far, but for her it was light years. She needed hyperdrive and maybe even suspended animation to make the leap back into our mother’s dimension. When she did, she sat at the kitchen table, arms crossed over her chest, and I was reminded of her in the blue light of that motel room. She was exquisite, but hard where our mother had been soft. She glittered and our mother glowed. But our mother’s shine was fading. I know my sister liked to flaunt her beauty. She’d been the ugly duckling. Not anymore.
One Christmas when my sister was home, our mother told us to be prepared. She was about to die, her heart was bad, it fluttered and stuttered in her chest. She had used it up. It had been broken too many times. She complained about being light-headed and out of breath. Our mother told us her eyes weren’t working well. She couldn’t read and that bothered her. She didn’t like books on tape and she hated Stepfather Number Four’s reading voice. She was ready for him to go.
We’d heard that all before.
Then our mother told us stories we hadn’t heard about her mother planting vegetables and the sharp, summer taste of her tomatoes and picking corn off the stalk and bringing it right in to cook. Her mother was a wonderful gardener, she said. Our mother told us about our grandfather and his practical jokes and his hypochondria and how the town doctor gave him sugar pills. He thought he had every disease, our mother told us. From malaria to leprosy.
“Ha,” my sister said to me. “It runs in the family.”
Our mother told us about her pet lamb and how Grandmother wouldn’t let it be slaughtered and let her keep it for years until it died of old age. They buried it in the orchard after a lengthy funeral. She told us about her father taking her to the county fair and riding the Ferris wheel with him and how he shouted to the operator to “send them round again!” because she loved it so much. She told us life on the farm was wonderful, with the warm eggs under the chickens and the kittens squirted with milk direct from the cow’s udder. She told us her childhood was perfect. Magical. It was news to us.
“I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I wish you girls would stay home.”
She always asked us to stay.
It was different when she said, “So much I haven’t told you. I have so many happy stories.”
Our mother told us the truth finally, the unvarnished, ordinary truth, but we didn’t believe her and the day after Christmas, she died. She died young as she had always imagined. She never saw my sister become a doctor or me publish my first story. She died before any of us expected after telling us for years she would. It snowed the day of her funeral and inside the church it was dark, but then the sun came out and the ice on the trees and the mound of dirt by the grave sparkled. Afterwards we all went back to her house, our Final Stepfather’s house, not a place I had ever lived and I saw Mom sitting in the old rocking chair. My sister didn’t see her, but I did. I saw what no one else could see and I heard our mother say, “I told you so.”