Memories of a Mother
My mother died suddenly my senior year in high school, just when I had started to see her as an individual with her own needs and desires, and not just an adjunct to her kids and her husband.
By my early thirties, I rarely thought about her. Mother’s Day, her birthday and the day she died would come and go, and often I wouldn’t even notice. When I did, at most I experienced a twinge, like a pulled muscle almost healed that aches a bit when exposed to the same movement that caused the injury.
But that changed when I had children of my own. Becoming a mother created a new connection between us, even though she had died more than twenty years before. Experiences with my kids stirred up memories of similar events in my childhood. I dusted them off like shards of pottery found in an archaeological dig, piecing them together as I found them, trying to intuit what the vessel looked like from what remains.
I sit curled up on my mother’s lap, my head on her chest, matching my breath to hers as she breathes in and out, trying to merge our two bodies into one.
Fresh out of my bath and wrapped in a towel, my mother tells me stories to distract me from the comb tugging through my tangled hair.
My sister and I sit on chairs set one behind the other, pretending we are on a train. My mother is the conductor and asks us for our tickets.
I move the brush carefully, the way my mother taught me, as I help her paint the living room. Later, the clean new surface looks empty, so I draw on it. When my mother sees it, she spanks me for the first and last time.
My gerbil’s cage is empty when I get home from school. My mother tells me that she let it go because she didn’t like to see it in a cage.
My mother helps us make musical instruments out of pots and pans, shoeboxes and rubber bands, tissue paper and combs and shows us how to blow across the necks of bottles filled with varied levels of water to make different tones.
We go to a restaurant and my little brother sits underneath the table making a dinosaur skeleton out of forks and knives. My mother asks for more silverware.
We sing rounds in the car and harmonize in the kitchen. I read Shakespeare to her while she does the dishes.
A bat hangs from the molding in our pantry. It frightens my mother and she goes to the study to tell my father. He thanks her for letting him know, and asks her to close the door and let him know once she gets it out of the house.
When the school calls after I have been absent for weeks, my mother patiently explains I am not truant, I am sick.
She tells me she was a tomboy and hated having to wear a shirt. When she was little, she stuck a hairbrush down her pants and said it was her penis.
She keeps her hair very short and wears blue jeans and a button-down shirt every day. Her only concession to society’s expectations is to put on bright red lipstick when she leaves the house.
My mother is a shadow in the background, making dinner, doing the laundry, calling us to come inside when it looks like rain, a voice on the other side of my bedroom door reminding me that I have school the next day, as I read late into the night.
She stands motionless as a rock while the waves of my sister’s adolescent resentment wash over her again and again. Instead of breaking her anger, my mother’s passivity increases it, and my sister’s unhappiness floods over us all.
It is mid-morning. She takes out a jug of wine hidden in a cabinet to fill a glass on the counter. She freezes when she sees me.
She drives me home from my piano lesson, weaving from side to side of the road. She pulls over briefly and tells me that when she was my age, her mother was an alcoholic. She never mentions it again.
She laughs and talks louder than the other parents. People ask me and my siblings if she’s drunk. My father has trained us to reply, “No, she’s not drunk, she’s just friendly. She’s from the Midwest.”
I help her stagger up to bed and get undressed after she passes out on the couch with a drink in her hand.
She lies in a hospital bed completely unresponsive to everything around her. A respirator makes her chest rise and fall. She is alone even though we are all there.
My mother is more and less than the sum of all these images. Strong and independent, defying gender norms since her childhood in the 1930’s, she gradually succumbed to the societal attitudes that pressure aging women to efface themselves: to be neither heard nor seen, to fade until they become as invisible in real life as they are in film and television.
But even as she increasingly lost her own sense of self, she did her best to help her daughters develop their own. Encouraging me to be an author, she told me she hoped one day I would write a book about my father. Instead, I write stories about my mother.
About the Author: M.P. McCune lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in We'll Never Have Paris Literary Zine and The Ginger Collect. You can find her on Twitter at @M.P.McCune2