Seven Mothers, Plus One of My Own

1. She had an all-electric kitchen and the first microwave oven on the market. Her blonde hair was set tightly into little curls nestled close to her head and she wanted a girl baby, since she already had two boy babies. She wanted to take me and keep me as hers, but my mother said ‘no’.

2. She was elderly, and my mother thought her foolish, but I didn’t know that then. She played ball with me, tossing it back and forth, and was mostly the color of grey, with wire-rimmed glasses and cotton dresses sprigged with tiny indecipherable flowers. Once she woke up in the middle of the night as I slept in her room next to her bed on a small folding cot, sat straight up and yelled out ‘Time for dinner!’ then lay back down and went right back to sleep. I laughed and laughed till tears wet my pillow, trying not to wake her up. It seemed the funniest thing on earth to me.

3. She lived up the street from us. She was married to a Marine. She also had two boys and wanted a girl baby. My mother would go to work and she would care for me and feed me. When my sled crashed into the tree at the foot of the hill, my terror mounting as the blood dripped down my forehead, she ran out from her house to pick me up, to bring me inside, to kiss me and make sure I would be okay. When I swallowed a whole candy one day walking down the street with her boys and it stuck in my throat, I was choking and gasping for breath, they ran to get her and she brought a bag of bread, white bread, Wonder Bread – and pushed a piece of it into my hand and told me to chew it quickly then swallow, to dislodge the candy. I felt she’d saved my life.

4. She fed me at lunchtime and kept me after school – I was seven – till my mother came home from work. Her two daughters were fat everywhere I was skinny and they had a big book on all the Saints with colored pictures in the bottom drawer of the tall chest in their bedroom they would take out to show me. I wanted to be a nun after looking at that book, even though I wasn’t Catholic and had never been to church. She made us bologna sandwiches every day, which, when I told my mother about it, made her mad. That was not the last straw through – the last straw was when she caught me playing on the swing set at the elementary school with the boys as she walked up the street to bring her girls and I back to her house. She screamed at the top of her lungs at me and told me to get away from the boys, that I was a very bad girl and was not to play with boys. We walked to her house, her girls silent, I wondering what I did that was so wrong. When we got to her house she sat me down on the front step with a bologna sandwich on white bread and left me there alone, after telling me not to move off the steps. It was a little cold, and there were some slight raindrops. I sat there feeling as if I had committed a mortal sin that was entirely mysterious to me, not knowing how to fix things, frightened, and lonely. My mother picked me up at her usual time, about two hours later – it seemed like an awful long time – and after a brief conversation with the woman she brought me home, telling me the woman was crazy. From that day on, I walked home alone at lunch to make my own sandwich – not always bologna on white bread – and went back to school after . . . and walked home alone after school to our silent apartment, watching as the two girls who had shown me gilded pictures of holy Saints walked close to their mother’s side up the street in front of me.

5. She was my best friend’s mother. She was from Louisiana and had a strong accent and made the best pork chops, skinny things, with a tomato sauce and peppers and buttered rice. Her house was always a total mess, so much so that one day when I wasn’t supposed to be there I was able to hide under a pile of blankets on the bed when Diane’s father came into the room to tell her to do her homework.

6. She often sat in the left hand corner of what I thought of as the mystic blue couch (because it was always blue though it wasn’t always the same couch in the different places we lived, and it had a certain aura of solid personality though it was only a couch) in a semi-frozen state. The cigarette would waft its smoke, the coffee cup would move slowly back and forth from her mouth, but no sound came from her. It was the summer I was thirteen that she told me I could go to the music festival hundreds of miles away in a different state alone for the weekend, seeming as if she didn’t really care where I went. I packed my duffel bag and went, and later, after I’d been arrested for hitchhiking, she sat in the courtroom with her thin hands with their long fingers stretched out on the wooden table we sat at with the court officers – two stolid men and one frizzled woman – and said two words when asked if she would take me home and accept responsibility for making sure I’d be kept out of trouble. The two words were ‘I can’t.’

7. She was the first grown woman I met who was shorter than me. She took me out into the backyard one day with several traps which she set to catch small birds. The next day she removed five birds from the trap – a sparrow, a blackbird, three more, and showed me how she had been taught to cut their throats, clean their crops, pluck them and get the pinfeathers out, then roast them – each to their own timing. She taught me about the different flavors of their flesh, such tiny mouthfuls. This was memory to her, a memory of what she had been taught to do as a child, when hungry.

8. She became angry at her son when he was rushing me to get the baby ready when it was time to leave the hospital after a long labor followed by a difficult caesarian. She warned me, in subtle ways. I did not hear her. I wish I had.

9. The last time I saw her she was very old. I made her room comfortable, and filled it with jars of black licorice, chocolate-covered cherries, some magazines and books. I expected her to say goodbye without really registering me – she’d done that so often. But she came toward me, and there was her hair brushing my cheek. She put her arms around me, skinny arms, long arms, tall mother, short me. And she said ‘You’re the most interesting thing that ever happened to me.’


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