a short story by Cara-Aimee Long
“Tell me about when I was a baby,” I say to my mother.
I’m back for a visit, and I want to hear the story of my life, from the beginning.
“What?” my mother calls from the kitchen. “You know I can’t hear you when I’m in here, and you’re out there.”
I rise from my spot on the sofa — how many times have we had this go-around?
“Tell me about when I was a baby,” I repeat when I reach the kitchen.
I lean my elbows on the counter and wait.
“Things weren’t as easy as they are now. We didn’t always have the things that we should have had,” she says. This is always her opener. She must remind me of how far we’ve come together. She opens the oven and looks in at our dinner.
“Twenty more minutes,” she says, and closes it again.
“And?” I say, prompting her to tell me the story, the story I make her tell every time I return home.
“And I need you to cut up some vegetables for the salad.”
She hands me the cutting board and a knife, along with assorted, colorful produce.
“Watch your fingers,” she says,” and wash your hands, if you haven’t already.”
Now that I am an adult, my mother adds the ‘if you haven’t already’ in order to make me feel more grown-up. I take the cutting board, vegetables, and knife into the dining room. I return to the kitchen to wash my hands. Once seated, I watch my mother as she bustles around the kitchen.
“Shit,” she says when a jar of olives drops from her hand and falls to the floor. Luckily, the jar doesn’t break.
“Do you want these in the salad?” she asks as she bends to retrieve them.
“Sure,” I say. I like olives. My mother could go either way with them.
“When you were a baby,” she says, as she dishes an enormous slab of lasagna onto my plate, “you liked to look out the window. You never made a fuss as long as you could see out the window.”
This is news to me; she has never offered this bit of information before. I wonder if she is making it up for my benefit, or if she is confusing me with her dog, who also likes to look out the window.
“You were never much trouble,” she says. “You didn’t cry a whole lot, and you liked to sleep.” She forks a bite of lasagna into her mouth. She chews it, then makes a face.
“Do you think that the sauce is bland?” she asks me.
“No,” I say, “I think it tastes good.”
“You never tell the truth,” she says. “You’d say it was good even if it were gagging you.”
“It’s not gagging me,” I say.
She asks me to pass the bread. Dinner doesn’t last long, and we clear it away in a hurry. Growing up, my mother always told me that cleaning up was the most important part of cooking. I don’t cook. I am one of those women. Ingredients befuddle me. I look in the refrigerator and cannot for the life of me understand how I could possibly put together a meal from such a jumble of food.
“Now, when you leave…” she begins.
My mother always talks about my departure shortly after my arrival. Not to hasten it, but to ready herself. And me.
“Ma, I’m not leaving for another week and a half,” I say.
“I know,” she says, “but I want you to remind me to cook you some meals before you go. I know you don’t like to cook, and I want to make sure you’re eating.”
“Okay, Ma” I say. “I’ll let you cook for me even though your cooking gags me.”
“Are you sure you liked the sauce?” she asks again, before ladling the last drop into a plastic container that she sets on the counter to cool.
We move into the living room; both of us take a seat on the sofa. We watch the Discovery Channel on TV.
“When you were a baby,” she says, “you would point at me whenever you saw me across a room, but ‘ma’ wasn’t the first word you spoke, it was the third. Your first was ‘spoon.’ “
On the TV, twenty-six pilot whales have beached themselves in Massachusetts. Merry-makers pour pales of water over them, helping them to breathe. So far, twelve have died. Soon, the merry-makers will return home, sorry that they couldn’t have done more.
“Christ,” my mother says, “why do those whales do that?”
“They don’t really know why, Ma,” I say. I have heard it has something to do with the signal they transmit, the signal that is supposed to help them find their way home.
We sit together in silence for a minute. A voice tells the audience that two more whales have died, and that by the end of the day, only seven will have survived.
Damn them, I think, and my mother changes the channel.
I lie awake in bed that night and wonder if my mother is sleeping. I wonder if the thought of those whales scares her like it does me. I never feel at ease when I am back home. My mother and I are always slightly out of our element. We left my childhood home when I was eleven and moved to Maine for a few years. We moved because my mother needed a break. A fresh start. I was happy in Maine. We lived in a small town, much like the one we had left, and there were a lot of nice people.
My mother wasn’t happy, though. She took a job as a guidance counselor at the local high school, but she didn’t fit in. She liked the kids well enough, and they liked her–that wasn’t the problem. My mother is restless in her soul. The challenges she faced in Maine were not great enough to appease her wanderlust. Three years later, we moved again. I was sad to go, but at the same time, I liked being on the move with her. I liked the strangeness of new places. I liked it for a while, anyway.
We moved out West, ending up in New Mexico. My mother took another position in a high school, and she took up weaving. I got into pottery and made a small group of friends in that circle. But I found Santa Fe desolate, even though it was a city. I didn’t like the West, still don’t. It has a lot to do with the closeness of death I feel when I’m out there. My mother loved it. She found it depraved yet romantic. She thought the people were tough, a character trait she much admires. Our first day living in Santa Fe, I caught a blowing tumbleweed and brought it into the house for decoration. My mother set it in the corner, on the floor. Little pieces slowly broke off of it, but I wouldn’t let her throw it out.
“It’s a symbol of our welcome into the West,” I told her.
To pacify me, she didn’t throw it away. Instead, she silently vacuumed up the broken bits of thistle every week. About a year after we had arrived, she met a man who later moved in. He was all right as far as people go, but his presence was intrusive, and I was mad at my mother for disrupting our life together. Ted and I didn’t talk much. I knew that he resented my presence in her life as much as I resented his. I decided that I wanted to leave and began to take steps that would hasten that decision, working hard in school and finishing a semester early. My mother asked me what I intended to do once I finished.
I said, “leave.”
She nodded, “I figured you would,” she said. “How soon?”
I told her I didn’t know. I had some time to figure that out. She suspected that I wanted to return home, to our real home, the one we had left six years ago, but she didn’t say anything about it.
“Ted and I are breaking up,” she told me over dinner one night.
“Oh,” I said, holding back from her.
“I think I may leave Santa Fe, it feels a little crowded here now.”
We finished dinner and went outside. We sat down on the grass.
“I thought you liked it here,” I said.
“I do. I’ve liked everywhere I’ve lived. I just get tired of places.”
I kicked at a patch of dirt on the ground.
“And now that you’re leaving and Ted’s leaving, there’s no point in my staying.
“Ma.. . .”
We sat in silence for a long moment. I stared at the sky–the West is full of clear sky–until I mustered up something to say.
“Where will you go this time?” I asked her.
“Oh, not too far. I definitely like the West. Maybe Utah, or Nevada. Maybe Wyoming. Remember that time we went to Jackson Hole, and we rode those horses?”
I did remember. “That was the first time I’d ever been on a horse,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said and placed her hand over mine. “Do you think you’ll come and visit your old mom in Wyoming?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said, and rose to go inside.
I didn’t know what would happen to us. I wanted to stop thinking about that for a moment. I wanted to think about the horses and how we had ridden them for miles, through a dozen landscapes — fields, trails, woods. My horse broke into a trot, and my face got cut as we passed through the branches of scraggly, half-dead trees. It was the first time in my life where I had felt significantly out of control. And now there was this.
“I’m going to get a glass of lemonade. Do you want some?” I asked her.
She shook her head no.
Six weeks later, during the hottest part of the summer, the house was all packed up, and we were both moving. We stood in the driveway, a small U-haul truck for me, a bigger one for her. It was barely dawn. I was going to follow her onto the interstate, and then we would go our separate ways. I tried not to cry as we hugged, but I did anyway. The sky was a very deep shade of purple. I stared at it for a moment, knowing the sun would break shortly, knowing that by mid-morning I would be apart from my mother, under a different sky.
“Come home soon, she said.
“Wherever that happens to be,” I joked.
“Your home is always with me,” she said. She took my hand and pressed it.
“Don’t be scared to go.”
Now, I roll over and think again of those whales.
My mother lives in Colorado. Wyoming was too sparse for her. After I left that morning, it was more than a year until I saw her again. She had already moved out of Wyoming by that time. When I visited her in Colorado for the first time, I saw that she had placed my tumbleweed in the corner of her living room. It was about half its original size and barely intact, but it was still there. Seeing it reminds me of the morning my mother told me not to be scared to go, and how I never told her that I wasn’t scared to go. I was scared of never coming back, of not finding my way. And I suppose that’s why I ended up back where I started, away from big clear skies, and tumbleweeds.
I press my eyes shut and trace again the path of our journey together, up until the moment of our divergence. I hear my mother walking down the hall toward the kitchen. I get up to join her. She silently pours last night’s coffee into two mugs and heats them in the microwave.
“You’re up early,” she says and gestures for me to sit down. She places a cup of coffee in front of me and pours the cream.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess I am.”
I look out the window and watch the sun begin to break, replacing old sky with new.
“When you were a baby,” she says to me, “you never got up this early.”
We both laugh and sip our coffee.
“Another day,” she says.
“Another day,” I repeat.
The sky is endlessly clear.
“Merr-Makers” Copyright ©2004 by Cara-Aimee Long.
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