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A Visit From My Mother

My kids’ preschool in Oregon reopened on July 1 and closed again on August 31. It was impossible for them to make the finances work with the smaller number of kids, the teachers felt unsupported and afraid, and many had their own school-age children who would start remote learning in September. When I picked up my girls the day the school announced the new closure, the director and I both choked up at the gate.

A silver lining was that now my mom could come to visit. She lives by herself and the pandemic has made her lonely. She was desperate to see her grandkids, and the end of school would allow for a two-week quarantine after my girls left the company of other children. 

My mom lives in California, and in the weeks before she came, the state was burning. It was among the worst fire seasons in memory, or at least since last year, which was also the worst in memory, as every year seems now to be. It gets hot where she lives, and there had been consistent 110-plus degree weather combined with choking air and friends preparing to evacuate. Everyone was miserable. 

She arrived in Oregon two days after windstorms here that were apparently also among the worst in memory and contributed to epic conflagrations that suddenly roared up across the state with dizzying speed.

Because we live at a slight remove from the fires, it felt uncanny, the simultaneous speed and subtlety with which this disaster imposed itself. On Tuesday, we didn’t go out because it was gusty and unpleasant, with branches strewn over the roads, even though the sun was shining. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stay home so much as a suggestion wordlessly offered by the outdoors and easily accepted by us. By Thursday, when my mother arrived, the sky was the color of an old bruise and smelled like a campfire when we stepped outside. By the time the smoke was really upon us, apocalypse had come to nearby communities; the ash that dusted our porch was composed of livelihoods and lives, trees and homes and pets and cars. We noticed that we had been inside for several days already; it didn’t take long before we felt that we had always been inside, and that we always would be. 

Thus my mother, who had been sitting alone in her house for a very long time to escape the heat, the smoke, and the virus, was now immured with us. 

My mother is extremely tidy, and I tried to clean the house thoroughly before she came. But the ability to clean requires good mental health and the prolonged absence of other people from the house, and as I wiped ineffectually at baseboards that hadn’t truly been seen to since … May?, I began to resent her arrival. She was going to notice the baseboards, as I had noticed the baseboards, but unlike me, she had not come to live in a queasy resigned accord with them. My housekeeping strategy is to let the perfect be the enemy of the good to the extent that the good is slain and buried in a potter’s field while the perfect has a pre-existing commitment at someone else’s house. (Possibly my mother’s.) 

We both stewed for the entire week of her visit. She was worried about me, and I was worried about her, and we showed this through needling one another, falling into an exhausting and ancient groove. There is a way of being worried about that makes you feel like a frog pinned on a table, and I spent the week silently accusing her of thought crimes. 

Like many people desperate to escape the bad air in Oregon, I was encouraged by an Instagram meme to simmer herbs on the stove against the poison smoke. For a few days, this essence filled our house in a way I found pleasant but which I soon learned from the local newspaper was actually insalubrious. 

I got the sense that this was something my mother already knew. “It certainly makes things very humid,” she had pointed out primly when I first set the pot to boil. But the humidity made the baseboards easy to clean, and so I stormed around the house with towel in hand, swiping at grime. My mother was despairing about the air. My husband showed her the spread of the smoke on a map. “We would have to drive six hours to get out of it,” he pointed out. 

Every afternoon at 4:30, my mother made a martini. I started having one too, and it was the highlight of the day. 

What were the children doing during this time? They were eerily calm. The older one was relatively peaceful as she did her thirty minutes of kindergarten. The younger one watched the iPad in the bed. We made Slime and played with it. They played Magna-Tiles. We did a puzzle. My husband and I remarked that they must have gotten so used to things not being fun after six months of pandemic that staying inside with burning eyes while being told the air outside was poison was nothing new. 

But that erases my mom’s contributions. The shame I felt about my baseboards had briefly disappeared when my kids first saw their grandmother and threw their arms around her legs, the happiest I’d seen them in months—or when they went and got into her bed in the middle of the night instead of mine. 

On the day before she left, the seventh day of her visit, I finally drove us to the coast, where the air was allegedly in the “moderate” category. We went to the beach that you might recognize from The Goonies. I hadn’t packed anything like bathing suits or towels, because I had no expectation that it would be nice. I had our masks and our hand sanitizer and the water bottles. The day was gray and misty, the sun trying to poke through, and the girls shed their clothes as they ran toward the water. 

I am terrified of the waves of the Pacific Ocean, which snatch children and adults every year, so I yelled at them not to go in deeper than their ankles. My mother radiated anxiety to an extent that irritated me. When she turned and left the beach, I ran to ask what she was doing. 

“I’m going to the car to wait,” she told me. “I’m scared. You’ve got to get them away from those waves.” 

I yelled, furious at her for being so anxious, and later I yelled at the kids, overwhelmed by my own intrusive thoughts. Nearby, a seabird ate the guts out of another seabird, and everyone else who had come to the beach to breathe stopped to take a picture. The girls were so happy, despite the frazzled women upon whom they relied. We saw a seal swimming in the ocean, and they wrote a message in the sand.

I thought I was eager for my mother to leave, but the next day, when she did, I wept on her shoulder. Early the following morning, my younger daughter left the crook of my arm, where she spends, roughly, the hours of two to seven a.m., and ran toward the room where my mother stays. 

“Where are you going?” I called. 

“I’m going to see Grandma,” she called back, even though she had seen my mother depart the day before. 

“She’s not here,” I said, and she slunk back to our bed and got under the covers in her footie pajamas. Later, my mom sent an email that was so long I skimmed it nervously, but the takeaway was that she was proud of my husband and me for doing a good job under the difficult circumstances. I cried.

The next week, the skies cleared but both kids fell apart. Now there are more fires. A friend’s house in California burned down, destroying everything she owned. Tonight, the smoke from that fire is overhead in Portland, and the sky is orange again. I lost it on the fractious children during our video chat with my mom and told her we had to go before she had gotten to talk with them. 

“Call me sometime,” I heard her say as I touched the red button to end the call. 

I don’t know when I’ll see my mom again. I know that we were lucky, and perhaps foolhardy, to have seen one another at all. I yearn to see her in some alternate realm when it’s the right time, when it’s safe and the baseboards are clean and the skies are clear and we are both happy. But that’s not where we are. 

The other morning, as I was muttering about picking up magnets from the floor, my younger one said, with the uncanny understanding of very small children, “Your voice sounds just like Grandma.” 

It’s not the togetherness I want, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

Lydia Kiesling is the author of "The Golden State" (FSG/MCD), a 2018 National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree, and a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her writing has appeared in "The New York Times," "The Cut," and "The Guardian."

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