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Mothers and Sons
Should I have chosen this life? It is what we ask ourselves in the company of parents who have loved us.
My not knowing stories about my mother’s childhood is both mysterious and sad to me. It would be convenient to tell myself that she simply doesn’t have any stories about being a child, but this is not true. She has stories, as we all do, except she will not speak of them. And why? My mother is not particularly private. There have been times in my life when I wished she could have been more private. I should like to imagine her as a little girl, standing beside her mother who tells her to smile for a picture. I can imagine my mother attending church in a flower print dress and perhaps—who can say? —delighted for the old people who tell her how pretty she is or how good it is to see her. I have asked my mother about these things, but she tells me, simply, that her childhood was ordinary, that it was like any other normal childhood. That is all she has to say, as though to tell her own stories would risk too much attention.
Prior to traveling to the United States, my cousin emailed a photograph of my mother to me. Mom is maybe twelve or thirteen years old in the photograph. Her hair is cut to the midsection of her ears and piled on her head in a modest bouffant. She wears a sailor collar shirt. Her chin is slight, delicate. Her eyes are sharp, with her right eye narrower than her left eye, as though she is concentrating on a difficult problem or taking aim. Her lips are parted just enough to push her jawline into what could be either a smile or an effort to suppress a smile. It is with this expression that I recognize my mother most. I have questions. Where was she when this photograph was taken? Is this a school photograph or an inexpensive studio portrait that her parents had arranged? Again, the only answer I can provide is I do not know.
Pulling into my parents’ driveway, which fits one car and lies at the far end of a cul-de-sac in an inoffensive, mid-size Western town where, while growing up, we did our once-a-month grocery shopping, I searched for what makes this house my parents’ home. For the past decade, I have seldom had opportunities to visit my parents. I have traveled to the United States a half dozen times in the past ten years. For two of those trips, I’ve been able to see Mom and Dad. Sitting in my dad’s truck, I looked for a light in Dad’s study. I checked to see if my mother had deposited what she calls her work shoes beside the front door. If I discover the glow of a television set in the two narrow windows that flank the front door, then I will know Dad is sitting in his blue recliner.
He doesn’t disappoint.
“Where’d you go?” Dad asks. He stretches back in the recliner and glances at me over the top of his reading glasses. There is a book propped on his chest.
“I wandered around a little.”
I skirt past him, trying to reach the couch.
“Did you go back downtown?”
“Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere really. I mostly wandered.”
“Did you go back to the bookstore?”
“Not to where we went, no.”
“Which one did you go to then?”
“One you don’t know about.”
“Were there many people out?”
“A few, but not many.”
He nods and starts to read again.
“What are you reading?”
“A book about Pancho Villa”
“Pancho Villa. Why?”
“He was an interesting man.”
I consider asking him about the title, but then…
Mom enters the kitchen from the sunroom. She carries a phone. Her eyes are bright. Her hair has been pushed back from her forehead.
“Sorry I couldn’t visit longer this morning, but I told Jeanne I would drive her daughter to the airport, and we ended up all going together. It was me and Jeanne and her daughter. We had a good time though. Jeanne and I had a bite to eat after dropping off her daughter. I don’t know what her daughter ate. Anyway… Did you have fun downtown?”
“It was good.”
“It’s a gorgeous day, isn’t it?”
“Dad said there were quite a few people downtown earlier.”
“There were, yes. Folks like to be out, I guess.”
“On a beautiful day like this, you can’t blame them.”
I nod. Dad pretends to be reading.
Mom checks her phone and then sets it on the kitchen island.
“I was out back, talking with your sister. She said she and the girls will drive down tomorrow. They’ll stay the night, and then you all can drive back to Denver on Thursday. It sounds like Josh and his dad will be there. Maybe he’ll take you to the airport on Friday. Or maybe Amy will. But you two can figure that out.”
“Have you had a good trip so far?”
“Did the exhibit go well?”
“Sounds like it. Sounds like a lot of people attended.”
This, I notice, is more of a question than a congratulations.
“It went alright. People showed up.”
“And they seemed to appreciate everything, the paintings and all?”
“You got to see Charlie and Beka?”
“I did, yes.”
“Did they enjoy the exhibit?”
“I hope so. It was Beka’s exhibit.”
“Oh! It was Beka’s exhibit?”
“It was, yes.”
“I thought it was Tabby’s exhibit.”
“No, Tabby’s exhibit was last year. This was Beka’s exhibit.”
“Well, good. That’s all good. And you fly back Friday?”
“Back to the North.”
“Yes, ma’am. Back to the North.”
It occurs to me, as my mother has been speaking, asking me her many questions, that I have become more aware of where we are—where I sit on the couch, where Dad hides in his recliner, where Mom stands in front of the kitchen island. We are, remarkably, disconnecting in this vision. My mother wears a stylish white t-shirt, covered with a stone-colored cardigan. She wears khaki Capri pants. The sink is behind her. The stove. The refrigerator. Behind Dad, who looks like a rabbit in the headlights, is the tall bookcase where Dad keeps his Shakespeare collection. Behind me I can feel the hot windows of the sunroom. Against the wall that separates the kitchen from the living room is an antique credenza. Above the credenza and separated by a gilded mirror are two chicken paintings. Odd birds, chickens are. Odd in their appearance. Who regards chicken paintings anymore?
“Would you like me to make coffee?”
“I can make us coffee.”
“That would be great.”
“We can drink it outside. It’s turning into a nice evening. I have lights out there now!”
“What sort of lights?”
“Umm, they’re like Christmas lights. I hang them in the aspens near the table. And I also have a candle that keeps the bugs away. We haven’t had too many bugs this summer, but just in case, I got my candle ready!”
“Coffee sounds good.”
“I’ll get it going then.”
She will. She does.
This house, my mother and father, the scent of my mother’s hand cream and my father’s Copenhagen and his indulgent splashes of a cheap-yet-favored cologne, and where the windows are set and how the beds are made, the tiny paintings hanging in the bathroom, the brand of toothpaste and extra toothbrushes, the general cleanliness and order of the house, except for where my father tosses his blankets whenever he gets up from his recliner, each of these will become part of someone’s memories and perhaps, for whoever that happens to be, a way to recover grace or to be recovered by grace. I am sure of this because of how I have come to think of my grandmother’s house. Theirs was the same house where the old people played Crazy Eights and where I was not bright enough as a child to listen to their stories. As with my mother, my grandmother kept new toothbrushes in the guest bathroom. She kept them in case someone forgot to bring their own. She kept them in the second drawer to the right of the bathroom sink. I remember her living room carpet was perfectly vacuumed and shampooed. Although both my grandmother and grandfather smoked cigarettes, there was never a whiff of cigarette smoke in their house. They smoked on the back porch mostly and outside exclusively. Their lives did not, from my boyhood perspective, ever seem to change. It was this quality of always appearing the same, of my always feeling loved, of always knowing what to expect and who I might see or what company might drop by that caused my grandmother’s home to feel like the world as the world should be. This was not separated, of course, from whom my grandmother and grandfather were as people. But somehow, I have drawn them all together—the house, the property, my grandmother and grandfather, and their habits into a stately box of not just childhood, but of a time, of a place, of some immutable always that even now, as a grown man, I could almost enter, or maybe actually enter, should I ever find the right crack in our more inscrutable reality.
In the same email that included the photograph of my mother, my cousin Courtney, who is my mother’s sister’s only child, reminded me that when we were kids there had been a day when we had raked together an enormous pile of leaves in our grandparents’ yard. The “we” in this story were my sister, Courtney, and me. We had spent an entire afternoon jumping into the leaf pile and hiding under the leaves and finding each other. To this day, the fecund odor of a leaf pile gives me pause. It is true that I have sometimes stopped, even when driving somewhere, to stare at yards where leaves have been raked into piles. The sight of me in my car staring at someone’s yard surely must be uncomfortable. A middle-aged man, balding, unkempt, needlessly wearing a jacket, staring into the yard of a stranger. But raking leaves, jumping into the piles, and hiding in them, these experiences become the shape of memory. My cousin appreciates this. Writing of that time when we were children, Courtney reflected on how we met at our grandparents’ house every Christmas, every Thanksgiving. It was just the best, she wrote. Now, we no longer have a place like that. We don’t have days like that anymore. It’s days like that that I remember most, she wrote. We were kids. We didn’t know anything about anything, but we could spend an afternoon playing in a leaf pile. What was it? Do you know? What was it that made days like that mean so much? It was something, she reasoned. I don’t know exactly what that something was, but it was something, and it was more than leaves.
This something is what I have been trying to put into words. Yet I am starting to believe there are no words that encapsulate the better parts of our lives or our losses. So it was in my family that we understood a way life was over when our grandparents, Pappy and Faye, Mama and Daddy, had died. My mother and her sister sold Mama and Daddy’s house not long after Mama had passed. My grandmother had lived joyful years after my grandfather had died. She lived for life and was spared some tortured illness and slow decline. The house was sold. What was left of their belongings was divided between our families and given away. On my last day at the house, I walked around the property staring into the windows, half-hoping, half-fearing that I would see one of my grandparents. I stood beneath their porch and tried to listen to their voices, their stories that I eventually learned to hear. On the porch there was a homemade rocking chair that rocked on one side. I knew the chair was over a hundred years old. No one had claimed it. It had belonged to my grandmother’s grandfather, a man called Henry Mays. No one was certain how long Henry had lived. He had built the rocker. He had been a healer. That’s what my grandmother told me. I asked her what she meant by healer.
“He healed people,” she said.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, people would get sick or their children would get sick and they’d come over seeking Henry, and he’d heal them.”
“I don’t know, son. Fevers. Headaches. Broken bones. I don’t know what all.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know.” She sucked at a cigarette. Then blew out the smoke.
“Maybe some of it,” she said. “They say he resurrected a dog once.”
“You mean like the dog was sick?”
“No. I mean the dog was dead.”
The same day we closed our grandparents’ house forever, I walked to a place called Town Creek. Town Creek is a small river that runs through a pine barren, sluicing through several villages before emptying into a larger river that feeds the Gulf of Mexico. I went to Town Creek that morning and watched fathers and sons get their canoes ready. I heard mothers hollering at their younger kids, warning them not to get too close to the water. There were snakes, they shouted. There were alligators. In my memory, I picture red and blue canoes and chubby men in Hawaiian shirts and women marinating themselves and their children in sun lotion and double checking the floaties on their youngest. After watching a few canoes drift downstream, I returned to my grandmother’s house. I caught a ride back to my mom and dad’s place with my uncle. My uncle had been fixing up around the house, caulking the windows, painting parts of the kitchen, trimming out rotted wood from the eaves.
Mom turned on the string of white lights before she made the coffee. I sat out back. I am not reliable at estimating distance, but I will guess the yard directly behind the house doesn’t run much further than 20-25 feet. The width of the run isn’t more than 7 or 8 feet. But there are beautiful rose bushes. There are tomato plants and pepper plants. There is a miniature white-picket fence that any healthy adult can step over. Outside the sunroom on the east side is a comfortable patch of yard. Three small aspen trees grow there. There is a circular glass table and 8 chairs spread around the table and onto the grass. Everything is illuminated by this glow of lights hanging from the aspen trees, including the length of the yard before it disappears into the shadows of a neighbor’s property. I am glad my parents live here. I feel both guilty and relieved at this recognition of their way of life that I did not choose. Should I have gone this direction, should I have chosen this life? It is what we ask ourselves in the company of parents who have loved us.
Mom comes out of the house holding two mugs of coffee. She sets one of the mugs in front of me and the other at her place at the table. She then takes a lighter from her pocket and lights the candle at the center of the table. “There are no bugs, but I’m going to light my candle anyway.” I get an instant whiff of cinnamon and petrol. I have heard from my sister in recent years this news of our mother’s willingness to sit down, to relax. This is not a slowing down on my mother’s part, but this is a new mode or self-granted permission to relax, to sit down, to take more time. Neither my sister nor I grew up with this version of our mother.
“So, you had a good trip?” She is out of hearing range of my father. She feels more comfortable to be herself, to speak more freely.
“It’s been a good trip, yes.”
“And you’re pleased with how the exhibition turned out?”
“I am, yes ma’am.”
“Good, good,” she says, almost under her breath.
I watch my mother to make sure she hasn’t drifted into her next thought or towards whatever she believes she needs to say. Then I tell her, to keep her close, “I work with the best people, you know? People who care about what I do, who care about what happens to me, who care about my work. All of them are very, very good at what they do. That doesn’t happen for everyone.”
She nods as she listens.
“I think it’s love. Or maybe it is love,” I tell her.
“I know it is, son. You’ve been very blessed.”
And it’s that word, “blessed,” that causes me to sink. My mother knows this. Her intention is not to deflate me. Her intention is to remind me that God is in control and that God does, when He chooses, give us His blessings. I believe this, but I wonder if we have lost a shared language for this.
“I can’t believe you’ll be going back in a couple of days.”
“I will, yes.”
She wants to say more, likely something about the life I have chosen or about my family, my wife and two boys. I sit back in the chair and notice again the lights chandeliered from the aspen. I glance around the yard. I want my mother to notice my seeing her place, her home. I want her to see my admiration for what she has made.
“Do you enjoy your yard, Mama?”
“I do. I wish it was bigger, but I do what I can to take care of it.”
“No, it’s not a big yard.”
“Which is fine. I’m the only one who keeps it. Your dad helps when he can, but he can’t do much.”
“Seems like you do all of it. It’s lovely, though, all the work you’ve done. The yard and the house, they are what you have made them.”
“Well. Thank you.”
She tips up her coffee mug to see how much coffee is left.
“Do you think this is where you’ll stay?”
“Does that work for you?”
“I think so.”
“Is this where what you want to be?”
“I’m fine with it. I honestly am. I love my neighbors. I love downtown. You can’t ask for better weather. Dad has golf when he can make himself go. He has his bookstores, his coffee shop.”
“Well, yes, he has that recliner. I might as well bury him in it.”
She starts to say something more but doesn’t. Mom will sometimes speak without thinking, and I will do the same. This is why Mom and I get over our spats of anger more quickly than either my father or my sister. Mom and I speak first and think later. My father and sister stew.
“What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
I can see she is calculating what or how much to say.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I think about what it would’ve been like if we had moved back to Texas. I think about what it would have been like if we had lived closer to my sister and my cousins. Don’t get me wrong, I love where we are. I am grateful for the life we have here. For the people around us.”
“What you’re saying is you’re blessed?”
“I am blessed. I really am, son. I know Dad struggles. He has his good days and bad days, but I know without a doubt he would have been miserable in Texas.”
“He would have been absolutely miserable, but still, I sometimes think about what life could have been if we had moved back to Texas.” She sets her coffee mug on the table. “I don’t think about it very often though.”
I take a sip of coffee.
“What about you?” she asks. She looks at me, careful not to hold too much eye contact. Then it occurs to me. Then I realize. I thought I had been listening to my mother. I thought I had been seeing her.
“Ma’am? What do you mean?”
“I mean what about you?”
My mother had been watching me, seeing me. She had been listening for me while we had been talking. She had been searching for what is present in my life, for whatever loss she could see in my face or hear in my stories. My looking, even my speaking, had been my deflections, and still my mother reached for me. I didn’t know what to say.
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Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.