- a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth. synonyms: female parent, materfamilias, matriarch, mom, mommy, ma, mama.
- vulgar slang NORTH AMERICA: short for motherf*****
“I love your house Mrs. Nolan, the whole open concept thing,” Grace makes a show of looking around my bare living room, her eyes wide with artificial enthusiasm. So far she’s commented on just about every inch of my home, smiling loud as a trumpet. It’s as if she were a friend waiting to ask to borrow fifty bucks and not just a spy for the 12th Street Women’s Prayer Group. Yes, concern for my mother has spread throughout the church. “It’s all they want on Property Brothers-open concept homes. Have you seen that show?”
Careful with her paint roller, Mom stands, wipes drops of sweat from her brow and pulls down her dust mask. “A few episodes.” She’s careful to breathe through her mouth, the paint fumes (why anyone would paint their living room lime green is beyond me!) have already given her a migraine. “I don’t watch TV that much.”
“Neither do I.” Relieved, Grace’s smile becomes genuine. She’s been on edge with her false praise (being about as comfortable with lying as she is with blisters) and warms to the truth. She’s recently closeted the flat screen in her bedroom to make space for more of her sci-fi and fantasy books. The top of her dresser is now home to a collection of Dr. Who novelizations. “There was a marathon on last week. I watched it with my Mom in our den.”
Mom moves to the plastic sheet covered coffee table in the center of the room. The rest of the furniture-the foldout couch, the two Barcaloungers and TV stand, etc.- is crammed haphazardly in the hall. She picks up a large bottle of aspirin and downs three or four without water.
Grace swallows, her smile fading. “We watch Star Trek together too, that and Dr. Who. That’s kind of our thing every week, Mom and me. We watch Star Trek and Dr. Who together.”
Grace studies the living room again, eyeing me in the corner, sitting listless in a chair I pulled in from the kitchen. She regrets mentioning her Mom and their weekly “thing.” She knows that my Mom and I don’t have and probably never will have a “thing”-weekly, biweekly or otherwise. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever come was when I was twelve, and we’d have monthly talks about menstrual cramps, spotting, and benefits of pads over tampons. How was I to know then that (looking back) those awkward moments will probably to be my most cherished memories of my mother? God, they could’ve passed for Tampax commercials!
“I like this color,” Mom says. She stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed over her chest, and turns a slow, deliberate 360. The walls, nearly finished with their second coats, glow in the afternoon sunlight. Everything (the power outlets, trim, the panel with Morgan, Oliver, and my yearly heights) is outlined with blue masking tape. “I think this is the best of all the rooms.”
Through the curtain-less bay window Mr. Swearengen, our retired Marine neighbor, weeds his lawn. He eyes me for a moment, running a hand through his greying crew cut, before getting back to work, disgusted. He’s finished asking us to cut our grass and paint our shutters and has filed a complaint with the Property Owner’s Association. Two notices sit on our kitchen counter.
“It’s a great color,” I say.
Mom looks at me, smiles then turns to Grace. “It’s a great color!”
- to bring up (a child) with care and affection: “the art of mothering“
- to look kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so: “she felt mothered by her sister“
Mom did Oliver’s room first. After two painful days of trial and error- I doubt Mom has ever painted anything in her life- everything burned tangerine. Next, pushing the project through a long Saturday afternoon, Mom coated Morgan’s walls sky blue and bedaubed her closet doors sunflower yellow. It was the first I’d seen my mother smile in months.
“You’re next.” She said to me as she admired her work. Her smirk, a hardly sane Cheshire twinkle, made me nervous.
Last Tuesday, I came home to a bare bedroom. My dresser, bookcase, full-size bed, two end tables (everything still covered in Toy Story and Hannah Montana stickers) were pulled into the hall.
“It’s called ‘Cotton Candy Pink.'” Mom sounded cheerful, even through her mask. She’d already laid down plastic and was pouring her first pan of Behr Premium Paint-Primer Mix. Her white painter’s suit, by then a Pollockesque masterpiece of warm and cool colors, hung loose from her body. She must’ve lost ten pounds since Dad left. “What do you think?”
“I like it.” I bit my tongue as she rolled her first pass, a thin pink current in an ocean of off-white. God, who want’s a pink bedroom! “Really, I like it!”
I watched as the small pink patch grew, spreading from the low corner by my closet to the ceiling above my door. In the hall my Stephen King hardbacks-most mint first editions ordered on eBay-were piled fifteen high. A few drops of paint fell on the dust jacket for Everything’s Eventual. It’s not my favorite, but still, I fought back tears.
Mom must’ve caught my grimace.
“It’ll look better after the second coat.” She said, pouring another panful. “I promise.”
I slept on the couch that night, drifting off to a Tae Bo infomercial, only waking to hear Mom leave on her hour commute to work. Afterward, I loitered around the kitchen, pacing, turning my morning routine on its head.
“Moment of truth,” Oliver said, grinning over his bowl of Lucky Charms. A good brother, he wanted me to share in his misery. He has to wear sunglasses to bed now.
“It won’t be that bad,” I said, my words having an unconvincing hollowness to them as if they were spoken into an empty barrel or by a stranger with a bag of candy. I kicked Oliver, hard, under the kitchen table for good measure.
“Why!” He yelped, grabbing at his shin.
Indifferent, I spooned another mouthful of Fruit Loops. “You know why.”
Creeping down the hall I braced myself, balling my fingers into fists as I passed my dismembered bed and stacked end tables. I’d stashed my Stephen Kings before Mom could do more damage.
“Moment of truth.” I turned the knob.
Opening the door, I was engulfed. Everything glowed pink as the morning sun poured liquid through the curtain-less window, filling every corner of my bedroom like water a goldfish bowl. It swirled around me, warm, consuming, comforting. I felt suspended.
“Wow…” The heavy plastic sheeting wrinkled beneath my bare feet. More words fluttered in my throat; but, like frightened baby birds in a high nest, they refused to leap. I wasn’t going to force them. “Wow…”
- “New York City’s MoTHER, a hard-rock powerhouse with sharp bluesy undertones. They’ve been on the radar since 2013, releasing two EP’s and honing their chops on the road with the likes of Buckcherry, Slash, Pop Evil, Godsmack, and Red Sun Rising…”
“I want to speak to Helen?” Mr. Swearengen shifts uncomfortably on our porch, attempting to peak through the tiny sliver I eye him from. His hands, red from beating on our door just thirty seconds ago, are enormous. “It’s about the lawn?”
“She’s busy.” I open the front door a little wider, poking my pale moon face through, “Can I take a message?” A gentle brush off if there ever was one.
“A message? I can see her through the window.” He toys with his syllables as if I were a toddler needing a little more guidance, “I need to talk to her about the lawn. It’s the darn Amazon out here.”
I slip a little further out the door. “I’ll let her know. We’re painting right now.”
He eyes me carefully, studying my hands and hair, my baggy jeans and loose Mississippi State t-shirt. I cross my arms over my chest and turn away. I can’t stand confrontations and can feel myself shrink an inch or two.
“You’re not painting anything.” His words are a myriad of tones, each attempting to cut deep. I can see now why he wears Hawaiian shirts all the time (the one he dons tonight is bright green and populated by dozens of tiny pink and red hibiscuses) and sports a heavy gold watch wherever he goes-it’s about clout, weight, presences. “Why aren’t you helping her.”
“She won’t let us. She want’s to do everything herself.” From behind me, Prince’s Purple Rain begins pumping through Mom’s nigger-rigged boombox, a thirty-year-old contraption she’s held onto ever since her thirteenth birthday. The music signals that the end is near. It’s her victory song. “She picks out the paint and then paints. She’s going to do the whole house.”
Mr. Swearengen’s grey eyes narrow and his shaggy, unkempt unibrow (jutting out here and there like a madman’s) lowers. He’s used to getting his way.
“I need to speak to her.”
Resentment turns in me like bad sushi. Who is this guy? Victor Swearengen-Marine? Looking him over, slow and deliberate, studying his sour face, pot belly, and thin, pale legs, he gives the impression of a mailman or a grumpy, under-caffeinated math teacher. Rumor has it that, even with twenty-five years in the Corp, he was never in actual combat. He was some sort of clerk, and while my Papaw (a regular Army draftee) sloshed though South Vietnamese rice patties, eventually losing a thumb to a myopic Vietcong sniper, old Mr. Swearengen was keeping banking hours in San Diego, issuing out boots and rucksacks, maybe cashing paychecks.
“I can take a message,” I say again, growing bolder, sure somehow that what Mom is creating will be beautiful, maybe not in part but when taken as a whole-a Picasso of light and color. Who is this clerk to disturb her? Are they still called “clerks”? Honestly, who cares?
Mr. Swearengen grunts and looks over my head into the foyer, maybe into the living room if his vision is good enough. I stand on my tiptoes, blocking his view.
He steps back, surprised. After a moment, his dour expression softens. “How’s your father? How’s Terry?”
“Good.” My Dad’s name is Randy.
“Do you see him a lot?” Mr. Swearengen forces a thin smile; the type inpatient fathers use to encourage their kids too dust themselves off, ignore scraped knees and hop back on their bikes. “I haven’t seen his truck in a while.”
“We see him every day.” I’m sure my smile is like a sunrise, blinding to his unprepared, slightly drowsy eyes.
The last time I saw my Dad was a night two weeks ago. Mom was out deciding on paint colors when he brought over a movie and pizza-two of the cheap five-dollar Hot-N-Readies from Little Ceasars. He’d forgotten that Little Ceasars’ sauce gives Oliver hives and that I can’t stand Adam Sandler in any roll, but that hardly made a difference. Dad was buoyant, a balloon cut loose. He yammered on and on like a telemarketer desperate to be heard before the inevitable dial tone. All I could make out was that he now shares an apartment on 47th Street with some college kid named Stan and that he (forty-four-year-old Gen-Xer Dad not twenty-year-old Millennial Stan) is thinking of getting a tribal tattoo.
“Well, the next time he comes around tell him I want to talk to him.” Mr. Swearengen slides his enormous hands into his pockets where they wait, useless. He looks resigned, contemplative. In the twilight, his Hawaiian shirt and heavy gold watch (which now droops from his wrist like a bored pet) seem to have lost their purpose.
“I will.” I say. How many daughters do you have? How many granddaughters?
Mr. Swearengen steps off the porch (being careful with the loose bottom step) and makes his way back to his yard, our grass whipping at his knobby knees as he goes.
I find Mom pulling the tape from around the power outlets as Grace slides her Calculus notes (her excuse for coming over tonight was to study together) into her backpack. The boombox (twenty-percent super-glue, thirty-percent duck-tape, fifty-percent Sony TapeMaster) sings Prince’s Take Me With U, as a fan placed in the window pulls paint fumes out into the humid night. The living room looks like one of Mr. Swearengen’s shirts, minus the flowers and deep-rooted need to impress.
“Ready to go?” I pull out my keys, lightly flicking the archaic Blockbuster Video keychain a few times. One day, it’ll break; and I’ll be heartbroken.
“Yeah, it’s getting late.” Grace nods, a faint smile on her face. She’s confident that my mother has indeed gone insane but only slightly, nothing dangerous, not like Jeffery Dahmer or anything. It’s more of a Willy Wonka sort of psychosis, resulting in odd decorating impulses and a peculiar attraction to bright colors. It’ll wear off in time like our elementary school love affairs with the Jonas Brothers and Silly Bandz, leaving only embarrassment and-if Mom ever develops a sense of humor-a ping of amusement.
We head out as Mom changes cassette taps, replacing Purple Rain with The Bangles’ Different Light, which she’ll listen too before finishing the night with Stryper’s In God We Trust. She doesn’t hear us say goodbye.
“You need to cut your lawn,” Grace says to me as she buckles up. She places her backpack between her knees. “It looks like a jungle.”
“I’ll get Sunny to do it this weekend, pay him ten bucks or something.” I crank the van, waiting a few moments as the fuel pump struggles. “Look at the sky.”
Though the windshield the early night sky is vast and open, the ripe pumpkin hue of the horizon is becoming laurel green then, high above us, a deep denim blue. The evening star winks at us.
Grace smiles. “Beautiful.”
I put the van in reverse and back down the driveway, stopping near our mailbox. I turn and watch the house. It’s fuzzy in the twilight, peeling white paint covering every wall. Only the bay window glows, the one eye of a Cape Cod style cyclops.
“There she goes.” I point.
Lights flicker on-Morgan’s room, Oliver’s, the upstairs bathroom. Mom’s silhouette moves quickly from window to window. Leaving on every possible source of illumination, even reading lamps, has become another of her eccentricities. Dad’s complained about the light bill, but he might as well have been speaking Russian.
“Crazy,” Grace says, amused. She might be watching a particularly good episode of Dr. Phil.
Lastly, the light in my room blinks on. Warm pink luminescence pours through the black night. In the window, Mom appears for a moment, small, childlike, before disappearing again.
The words, almost forgotten, come to me. They’re four syllables, seven letters that twist the tongue and wrinkle the nose. Beautiful words, words that float. I grasp the steering wheel tight and roll them around my tongue like a cherry gumball. They come out a whisper. “In utero.”
Grace looks at me with the warm, wide eyes of a golden retriever-loyal and loving but uncomprehending. She turns back towards my house (music drifts over the lawn, a hair metal hit from yesteryear) then looks up at the now black sky. The evening star is still there, still winking, immovable.