HERE AND GONE - Mommy & Me
Four years old
Mommy and I go outside to check on the big garden. We're already starting to get beets, carrots and peas, but the beans, corn, cucumbers, and pumpkins aren't ready. I love to watch the strawberries and pumpkins change from flowers into food. Mommy's excited to pickle the beets and cucumbers but I wish she'd leave them alone. I don't like pickles.
She breaks off two pea pods and hands one to me. Sharing a happy grin, we crack them open and pluck out the peas. They're so sweet! I usually hate peas except right now when they're fresh. Johnny's mom gets them from a can, and Mommy and I agree--that's the worst! They're not even green.
When it's time to pick strawberries in the little square garden, I sit on a flat, gray rectangle and hunt. The birds got the biggest one. Pecked it full of holes so we can't eat it. Meanies. Mommy says we'll put a net over the top to keep them out. She says we can have a few strawberries right now, too. My mouth goes huge and so do my eyes. I clap in glee--
But fire burns my butt! I jump up and howl, swatting at it. She jumps up too, checking under my swimsuit bottoms. In summer, I live in my bikini because I'm always in and out of the sprinkler. But this is fire.
"Oh, looks like one of those mean red ants got you," she says, hugging me and wiping my tears. "Come on, we'll go inside and I'll put calamine on it. That'll make it all better." She reaches out her hand and I grab it.
On the way in, I look up at her and ask, "Can we still have strawberries?"
"Of course," she says, and her smile is as bright as the sun. When she isn't wearing her huge, round sunglasses under her huge, floppy hat like today, her eyes sparkle like her teeth when she looks at me. She is the prettiest in the whole wide world, and the best Mommy ever, because she asks, "Would you like one now?"
Still sniffling, I nod and rub my sore butter bun.
"Okay, let's go wash one off." Inside at the sink, she holds out the biggest one we found. "Why don't you have this one, my sweetums?"
Even though that bite from the meanie ant still stings, the berry juice runs down my chin and it is the sweetest thing ever.
One of my mother's many poems
Written after I moved away for college, 1992
Six years old
Dad trolls the weed patch of the lake while Mom helps me dunk my fishing jig in and out of the holes. Plop! Whirrrrrrrr...the motor zooms us slowly along. "Okay, now," Mom says, "pull it up."
"Quick, honey!" Dad chimes in. "Before it snags."
I pull. It snags, so I yank harder. Krr-Zwing! The jig goes flying. It pops the air at the end of its line, splashing water in my face. It falls and clinks against the side of the boat. I wipe off the water with my forearm, trying not clunk my forehead with the pole.
"Oh, no," Mom says, grinning.
"Did you fling the worm right off?" Dad asks.
I must have. The hook is bare. He stops the troller and puts another worm on. "Okay, you have to be more gentle. Easy now. Remember the rhythm?" We practice again, first while we're floating along with the lake, and then again with the troller. Plop! Lowerrrrrrr. Pull up, swing. Plop! Lowerrrrrrrrr. Pull up, swing...
Once I get the hang of bobbing my jig in and out of the weed holes while we zoom along, Mom picks up her own pole. Our plops make dueling music in the water and we share laughing grins. When the tip of her pole bows, she gasps. "Oh! Oh, I got one!" She hauls the line up and a silver speckled fish flashes out of the water.
"Ooooh, nice!" Dad says. "That's a keeper." They have me pull my jig out of the water and stand back as she swings her fish into the net. Dad looks so proud. "That's a nice size crappie."
Even though Mom was the one who caught the fish, she gives me a big hug. "We'll have a good dinner tonight."
"Yeah!" I say, and we go back to plopping our jigs in and out of the weeds.
10 years old
Mom is practicing her Jazzercise in the living room. I wish I had a pretty leotard and tights like hers, but I haven't had one of those since I was in gymnastics in second grade. She is so strong and fit, so pretty and cool. Even if they other kids don't like me, most of them agree, my mom is super cool. Way prettier and cooler than I am. She does the best Halloween costumes and porch decorations. She is a teachers' aid, and does the best decorations on the bulletin boards at school, too. She helped me redo the one in my bedroom with these amazing origami flowers she made, and it's so much better.
I would be happy to stay inside and do projects with her all winter, but she's always making me go outside. "Go get some fresh air. It's good for you. You need to make more friends." She and Dad go cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing all the time. I would rather build forts or go sledding, but I have no one to go with since Mari lives out in the country and Johnny hangs out more with the kids in his class now. It's not nearly as fun by myself.
Mom and I used to go ice skating at the rink behind the post office, and she was really good at that, too. In the summer, we used to roller skate. Now she bikes with dad. Even after my cousins were finally able to teach me how to ride without training wheels--something nobody else could do--I've never liked riding bike.
But this Jazzercise thing is really nifty. I ask Mom if I can join in and she teaches me the moves. Soon we're laughing and sweating and moving together like we used to on skates, and I hope that one day I grow up to be as cool and pretty as she is. Except for the fact that I have my dad's eyes and some ancestor's nose, people say I look just like her.
Mommy & Me - early 90s
Mom and I have just finished practicing for the spring band concert. I've been chosen to be one of the four soloists, and she's accompanying me on piano. I only started learning flute this year, but I have been given the honor of playing Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat. It's so incredibly hard, but we're practicing together every day and I work on it for hours on the weekends. I'm starting to get it.
Just to have a little fun, we do some of our favorites from The Sound of Music. (2) As always, we ended with Somewhere Over the Rainbow, my singing solo from last year. (3) Then she goes on to practicing her own classical music.
I stick around and turn pages for her, even though she doesn't need me to. It's one of my favorite things to do. I love listening to her play. She has such a feel for music, and she's so talented. I took piano in second grade and hated it. I wanted to learn it so badly, to be able to play like she does, but it was just torture. Flute isn't that way at all, and besides, this way we can do duets like when we sing together.
As she nears the end of the second page, she inhales in that certain way, so I prepare. I place my fingers on the corner of the music book, careful not to block her view. Just when she needs me to, her body sways with the music and the nod of her head. Now, she says to me without saying a word.
I turn the page and wait for the next time, swept up in the tapestry of sounds she weaves across those black and white keys. The way I feel music...the way it hums inside me and moves me...I get that from her.
🥰 (well...one of them) 🥰
Twelve years old
Mom is so good at calligraphy. I just don't have the patience for it, but every one of her strokes is so even with the most amazing little wavy tails. I can never get mine to look that good. Of course, I don't practice as often as she does.
We're at The Lake, like we are every weekend in the summer, so I'd rather be out swimming or waterskiing or hiking or doing gymnastics on the beach, but it started storming this morning. On rainy days, I'd rather read a book, but she offered to teach the other girls calligraphy, so it's the perfect time to practice.
We're all crammed around our camper's fold-up table with the pens and paper everywhere. We hunch over with our tongues sticking out in concentration, carefully putting tails on bright, pretty words.
But then the sun changes the gray lake back into blue, and I feel it calling. "Can we go swimming now?" I ask.
Mom rolls her eyes and grins the knowing grin. "Yes. Just help me put all this away."
I flash the Garfield eyes and wag my brows. "Cool." All we girls share our own grins as we stuff the pens into the plastic cup and stow the supplies in the cupboard.
I head out to change into my swimsuit in the van where I sleep and keep my stuff. "I'll meet you down there!" I call to the girls as they head to their own campers. Then I ask Mom, "Wanna come?"
She smiles and shakes her head. "No, that's okay."
"But it's been forever since we floated. Don't you wanna get some sun?"
"No...no, you go have fun."
The sun might be out, but not in here. There's a gray cloud covering her usual smile, and I know what that means. Her allergies are bugging her too much so she has to stay in the air conditioning. There's probably too much algae in the lake, too, so she doesn't ever swim anymore. She doesn't go fishing with me and Dad anymore either. She doesn't go for walks with me in the woods. We got rid of our garden at home, and I've had to take over the job of weed whipping after my dad mows because the grass gives her hives.
It seems like all she ever says anymore is, "No. I can't. You go ahead. It's too hot out. It's too muggy. Too buggy. My allergies...my sinuses...my skin..."
It's like she's become allergic to the world.
13 years old
It's so dark in this room. Stuffy. It doesn't smell right. I don't know what's wrong with her. Nobody knows what's wrong with her. The doctors say it's all in her head. A "chemical imbalance." They put her on Prozac but I haven't seen that it's doing any good. In fact, she seems to be getting worse, and all these drugs they keep trying--they make her gain weight. She never wears her leotards anymore and she glares at herself in the mirror, hating what she sees. "I give up," she snarls when her hair won't cooperate. I still think she's beautiful. So does Dad, but she's stopped dancing and hardly ever plays music. "I'm just so tired."
I hate those words. I hate the way she says them more.
She's already in bed. She's been in bed since I got home after school at 4:30. It's that way more often than not now. Since she doesn't work the full school day, she gets home before I do, but it's like she's not even here. Last year, this only happened from time to time. But this year, I almost always walk into a silent house.
Come winter, it'll be silent and nearly dark.
In the shadows, I can make out the lump of her form under the covers. She's curled up on her side with the blankets pulled up to her chin. Her eyes are shut. I don't know if she's asleep or not. Doesn't matter. Half the time, even when her eyes are open, she's not really here either.
Dad is literally not here. He's working overtime again. I've already fed myself and have packed my volleyball uniform. We're playing at home today, but those games never feel like home. Mari doesn't play volleyball. The twins quit after last year, so it's just me and Lynn surrounded by Queenie's Court.
"Oh, you play volleyball?" strangers chirp upon meeting me. "Wonderful! How is your team doing?"
"Fine," I always say, and that ends the discussion of it. They probably know that's code for, "We suck. Don't ask."
We lose more often than we win, and my parents have mentioned that they can see from the stands how we don't work as a team. No kidding.
It's even worse this year, but my parents aren't there to see it. Dad only made one game at the start of the season, and Mom has missed most of them. Not because she was gone or busy. She's "just too tired."
I'm tired of hearing it. That was the only thing I could count on. No matter what was going on out there on the court, no matter how snippy or sometimes nasty my classmates got if somebody missed a bump or drove the ball into the net, no matter what got snarled into my ear as we formed back up after the timeout, I could always look into the bleachers and see the smiling faces of Mom and Dad. I could always count on their encouraging words on the drive home.
Now I walk home alone through the woods in the dark. I play my guts out at the games. All of us do. We just can't figure out how to move as a team, so it doesn't matter if I almost break my neck trying to save a ball that went pinging off someone's forearms into the bleachers. I've made miraculous saves by clambering up into the stands, but that can't save our season.
I don't know what can save my mom. It seems like there's nothing anybody can do for her. Year after year, it's gets worse.
If there really is something wrong, I don't want to disturb her. But the doctors can't find anything. They poke and prod and do test after test. They say she's in perfect health, except her attitude.
She told me the other day to remind her about this game tonight. I don't know why I bother anymore. I don't know why she keeps telling me to remind her because she never shows up. I wish she'd just be honest and tell me she's not coming anymore.
Because then I won't watch the door when I'm supposed to be watching the serve. I won't scan the bleachers after every volley, hoping that I missed seeing her walk in while I was focused on the game. I won't wait and wait and hope and wait until the last whistle blows and the scoreboard is finalized for the night. I won't be hurt as I stomp through the woods, avoiding all the roots I can't see but know by heart, and I won't be mad when I have to admit that "maybe" meant she didn't have the guts to say "no" to my face when we both knew darn well she wasn't coming.
I push a long sigh out through my nose as I watch her lying there.
I hate this room. This cave. She used to be my favorite person in the whole world. The only one who really got me. The only one I never had to pretend to be somebody else with. Even Mari doesn't get me like my mom always did.
Now we argue all the time and she even said, "Fuck you!" when we fought about the laundry the other week. She apologized, because we don't speak like that to each other in our house, but still.
I don't know this woman huddled down there in that bed. But she asked me to remind her, so I quietly let the word slip from my mouth. "Mom?"
A little louder, I say, "Mom."
A quick intake of breath from under the covers and a barely audible, "Mmm?"
"I'm about to head out."
"Mmm..." Not quite a question. Noncommittal.
"I have my game tonight. Remember?"
There's a slight rustle of blankets. A louder nostril-squeezing inhalation. "Is that tonight?"
"Yeah. We start at 5:30."
"What time is it now?"
My gaze flicks at the clock. It's less than a foot away from her nose. Her eyes are open, but she can't read it herself? This woman who used to build garages and teach Jazzercise and play Beethoven and ski, and now she can't even read a clock?
She still has eyeballs and they're not blinded and God! That strange, strangled, almost childlike airy voice that overtakes hers more and more often. It matches the "please help me, please have pity on me" look in her eyes. I hate that look.
Because I do.
It's breaking my heart to see her like this and I would give anything to help her. I want to hug her and find something--anything--that would entice her out of that bed. I want to shine and give her something to be proud of, something to look forward to, something to be happy about. Nothing makes her happy anymore. I want to take her hand and tug her up, smile at her, poke her into a smile of her own, joke with her like we used to. Coax her to come play a game with me or make something together. To come do anything.
But she won't.
She looks like she's four years old down there. I don't know what to do with a four year old. I'm supposed to be the child, but it's like she's given up.
She's the one who taught me to never give up. She's the one who taught me to hurl myself into those bleachers and make miracle saves, but now all she does is hide in this dark, stuffy room with that mopey voice and those sad eyes that I can't do anything about. I want to scream at her and shake her and say, "What are you doing! It's not bedtime yet! You're sleeping your life away, and mine, too, and I need you! I love you! I miss you more than anything! Come back! Please, come back!"
But she can't get up. Not even for me.
I'm very afraid it's more that she won't because she doesn't want to. That she's just done with me and all my drama with the other kids and getting in trouble over the summer and not wanting to go to church anymore and...everything. I'm afraid that it's the person I'm turning out to be now that I'm not a little kid anymore. I stopped being Daddy's Girl before kindergarten because I'm too loud and too messy. I guess I'm not Mommy's Girl either. I guess I'm just...
"It's almost quarter-after-five," I growl. "I have to go."
My own nostrils compress with every one of my shaky breaths. I force them not to sound in the growing darkness. "Are you coming?"
She draws in a long breath. Musters up one feeble, "I'll try."
My head lifts and then lowers. No, you won't.
"'Kay," I say, and then clamp my teeth shut. I hate those words, too. I slam the padlock on my throat closed, about-face, and march out of that room. I'll have to run to the school to make it on time, but that's all right. I'm so furious that I'm shaking and I know from experience, the run will help blow off the charge so I can keep from bursting into stupid tears and focus on what I have to do.
We lose the game that night. No surprise.
But I don't once take my eyes off the ball. Not that night, and not at any other game in the future.
In case you're just tuning in, what we didn't know at that time, and wouldn't know for many years, was that my mom has Chron's Disease. Back in the eighties, they had no clue. At first, her doctors diagnosed her with Hysterical Female Syndrome, putting her on antidepressants and drugs, which just exacerbated the real and serious issues she was dealing with. My dad and I were at our wits' end with the slow, excruciating loss of this woman we love more than any other.
In my twenties, I went through some therapy that helped me understand that I have a similar psychological makeup to girls whose mothers have died in middle school to junior high.
That was a catastrophic loss. Irreplaceable. I was absolutely Mommy's Girl, and really still am. She and I have our unique language that nobody else really gets, and a psychic connection we don't talk about to many people. She is one of the most gifted, multi-dimensional experimenter-creators I've ever met, and she passed that passion for the arts, crafts, and sciences down to me.
But I am also my father's daughter. We're practical, logical, frugal, enduring. Meticulous in the arts and skills we hone. He drowned his mourning in the relentless pursuit of his career goals and in blowing off the steam on the weekends. I did the same with school, activities, and what would become my own numbing addictions.
All those times she told me, "I'll try..." I was so angry because I believed she just didn't want to. Or that the doctors were right and my She-ro had turned out be a stereotypical example of why females had a bad name as the "weaker sex"--everything I stood against.
Now I understand: when she said she would try, she meant it.
And she just couldn't.
She wasn't asking me with her eyes to have pity on her in some "pathetic, weak" way. She was truly asking for my understanding, my compassion. She was asking me to still love her, in spite of everything she could no longer do.
Of course I loved her. I was also hurt, confused, furious, and lost. I was only thirteen, so I had no capacity to comprehend how and why undiagnosable pain and depression could have crippled such a strong, vibrant person.
I get it now. And she's even more of my She-ro for it.
As I write these tales, I am constantly struck by an eerie sensation that makes me wonder if there are similar things going on astrologically or numerologically to 1987. So many patterns are repeating right now.
Last week, my mom received some disheartening diagnoses and we're afraid her Chrons is coming back out of remission for the first time in a decade. No matter what, I have been blessed since moving to Arkansas to have had this time with her. Now this pandemic has stolen a precious year from us, and the return of her symptoms prevent us from doing even more together.
One of the greatest gifts I was ever given from my car wrecks and all the other derailments of my life has been that I'm keenly aware how easily it could all end in a snap. For me. For those I love. For anybody. Heck, for all of us.
So I devour every moment I get to spend with my parents as though it might be the last time. Then when it's not, I let all that juice spill through my grinning teeth and down my chin, and it's the sweetest thing ever.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: Now I'm finally ready to tell you about THE DAY I WENT TO A FUNERAL AND CAME HOME WITH A DATE.
--Or if you'd like to know more about how my mom's musical and movement influence bloomed into my career, here is how I got my start dancing--to that same piano in our living room.