“I wish you would just die so I could go and live with Auntie Lorraine…”
I watched my mother inhale one long, ruptured stream of air. The whir of the Singer sewing machine continued. That was the first time I told my mother I wished she would die. Fists clenched, teeth gritted, I braced for the retaliation. It didn’t come. She lifted her head and stared at the wall. Beautiful, huge yellow and white daises spread out over an inky background. The waning sunlight cast erratic flecks that made some of the giant daisies pop. My mother changed the wallpaper every month hoping to find that one perfect combination of pattern and color that would quench her.
My mother remained unquenchable – grasping, needing, never satisfied. Nothing changed fast enough for my mother yet everything remained the same. Bolts of fabric, notions, and unfinished garments pushed against me and seemed to grow as I watched. Dozens of straight pins glittered on the linoleum floor. No one bothered to pick them up anymore. My smallness was reflected in the full-length mirror bolted on the kitchen door. It momentarily startled me. What if my reflection remained trapped in the kitchen mirror even after I tried to leave – even after I no longer lived in this house? It was the same mirror my mother used to complete her Friday night ritual. After brushing her thick black hair and applying ivory makeup, she would beautifully and precisely, draw on each eyebrow. The finalé would be the application of Revlon Red lipstick. She looked exotic – like a restless hothouse flower. Her benign, gossamer image was reflected back into the kitchen as a flawless deception. With little effort, she would find some admirer to come home with her.
When the dog’s predatory barking woke me at three o’clock in the morning, I knew my mother had someone with her. I would hear a strange voice ask, “Are you sure she won’t wake up?”
“No, she never wakes up. She sleeps like a log.”
That was a blatant lie – I woke instantly. When I heard the front door to the house open and an extra set of footsteps stumble in, I’d quickly slip out of our darkened bedroom with my pillow and sleep on the kitchen floor with the dog. My mother never mentioned that I wasn’t there in the morning, or she didn’t care to think about it or simply – she forgot.
Other nights, she’d come home alone and after the door slammed, silence gutted the entire house. I’d hold my breath and try to vanish. Each of her labored footsteps up the staircase brought me closer to escape. Every second she wasn’t in the room, was one more chance to disappear. Whatever had, or hadn’t transpired during her evening, was my fault. As she suffocated in a tragic, unknowable void, her fury arrived. I always thought she might collapse from the rage but somehow it energized her. I could only wait. She would beat me until whatever injustice propelled her wrath, finally wore itself out.
When I had finally decided to tell my mother that I wished she would die I had remained at the entrance to our kitchen – far enough away so that if she decided to hit me, I could run. But, she wouldn’t respond. She wrestled with the hem on a gold brocade skirt. I knew she had to keep working – there was no time for grief or regret. Deadlines were always imminent, since she spent much of the time in a drunk’s inert stupor. A scrap of fur trim swirled to the floor and I wanted to rush to pick it up but I had just begun my assault. I wanted her to know the distance between us. I wanted her to know what it was like to drown while still breathing. Her shoulders shook a bit and she finally stopped sewing. Still, no words. She looked carefully at the daisies on the wall as though they might reveal something she had been longing for. The beautiful golden brocade glittered in the remnants of daylight.
“You’re Aunt Lorraine would never take you. No one wants anyone else’s children.”
If I didn’t call out when I came home from school each day at three thirty, my mother would sleep through the afternoon and that would be my fault. This was true particularly if she had to have a customer’s garment completed by that evening. Once, I purposely didn’t call out. Brigid Calhoun arrived promptly at five o’clock for a dress that was supposed to be finished for a very important event that evening. Brigid’s heavily mascaraed eyelashes beat hopelessly as I informed her that the flu had prevented my mother from leaving her bed.
“Do you have the money that you owe my mother for the dress?”
“I guess… I forget it. But your mother said theese dress would be ready und I pay her next week.
“Doesn’t your husband work and give you any money?”
Brigid Calhoun’s bottom lip quivered.
“I have theese agreement with your mother.”
“She’s not here.”
“Go und get my dress right now.”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“You are an evil, spiteful child…”
I slammed our front door shut. This had the effect of jolting Brigid’s balance so that she toppled off the veranda and her right knee crashed into the cement pavement. Once Brigid hit the ground she began to scream hysterically her native language of Estonian. In Brigid’s re-telling of the story, I had intentionally withheld her dress and ruined her very important evening. My mother maintained that the dress was finished and waiting for pick up. Why I was such a hateful child was anyone’s guess but suffice it to say, I would be dealt with.
“You’ll never be beautiful – not like I was. So you can’t count on that. You’ll have to do well in school. I want you to study mathematics. You’re going to be a teacher. That’s the best you can hope for.”
For some reason, I always remembered my mother saying this to me. I listened, not comprehending. I was only eight, after all – still concerned with how to get enough money to buy a pair of hamsters at Woolworths.
“They wanted me to model but I told them no. I only did it in the showroom because Lou begged me to do it for some rich client. I could have worked in Hollywood but I wanted to finish art school.”
She would toss out self-assessments in a matter of fact way as if they should make sense to me or, perhaps, to let me know that my life would never amount to the drama that she had ultimately decided to abandon.
“Now get out of the car and go into the museum. Don’t talk to anyone.”
I never knew where she went when I had to get out of the car. The museum was a wondrous place and I never minded being left there. I memorized the origins of rock formations and traced dinosaur bones in my notebook and waited for the Indians in glass cases to come to life and claim their totem poles. After the museum closed, I sat on a bench in Queen’s Park across the street waiting for my mother to collect me. Often, when she reappeared, there would be a stranger in the backseat. Each one was different. I was ordered not to speak to them but every once in a while the stranger spoke to me. Once, a gentle man of indeterminate origins leaned forward and asked what grade I was in.
“I skipped a grade and now I’m in four but I should be in three.”
“So, you do well in school. This is very important. What would you like to be when you grow up?”
“I want to play the piano.”
“She is going to university to study mathematics,” my mother interjected.
“I wish I knew how to play the piano. That is a wonderful talent.”
The stranger wisely refrained from taking sides. My eyes caught his in the rear view mirror and it struck me that as they wrinkled, he smiled to reassure me that I had made a good decision. As with all the strangers in my mother’s car, I never saw him again.
The next day I was ordered to buy a pair of silk stockings from Woolworth’s before coming home from school. This meant I would be late and couldn’t call out to my mother until at least four o’clock. I decided not to call out to her at all. I knew it was a big risk, but it was Friday night after all and in a few hours she would wake up and get ready to go out anyway. The lapse allowed me a brief space of silence where I could draw for a few hours without her yelling at me for not doing math homework. By seven o’clock she still hadn’t gotten up. I walked down the hall to her bedroom. I pushed opened the door slightly and the stale smell of inertia poured into the hall. She looked so peaceful I hated to wake her. “Momma, there were none of the stockings you wanted so I had to get a different kind but they’re very nice and you can bring them back if you don’t like them.”
I opened the box and laid one of the silk stockings on the bed beside her so that when she opened her eyes, she couldn’t help but see.
“Mrs. Price put up my painting of the water and the mermaid. She said it was wonderful. You can see it when you come to open house at school next week.”
She remained motionless – curled up on her side – her stark white flesh blended into the pillowcase as if this were the only place she belonged.