My mother, in her silence and love, washed the sheets of three children every day for years. I wet the bed until I was eight; my brothers, until later than eight. I was never once shamed, never chastised. Clean sheets, folded and stacked in perfect piles, and fresh quilts and pillows were important to her. I never thought to thank her. I never thought about wetting the bed. She made it unimportant.
She held clothespins in her mouth as she draped the sheets on the clothesline. I remember how she bent, gathering wet bundles in her arms. It was a repetition, a chore. Every day, those sheets lifted in the wind like wings, brushing her legs as she cleared her hair from her eyes. Her feet, as I watched, thinking they might, never left the ground.
When she calls, now, she is often ironing pillowcases. She irons her husband's undershirts, too.
I was four when I first felt apart from my mother: I climbed, on my first day of school, out of the car, and stood on the sidewalk, waving as she drove away. I remember the tilt of her head as she waited for the light, the brush of her hand over her eyes, the calm with which she did not look back.
She gives me clothes she has never worn, or no longer wears. Most of them are too small. I don't smell the lingerie; I pile it in the corner of a top drawer, and, after a decent length of time, I toss it out. She's my mother, for God's sake. I can't wear her sexy things while I'm having sex.
She gave me a bread machine one year for Christmas. I told her to take it back; I didn't need the thing. I enjoy the kneading and all the crap that goes along with baking bread. So she took it back. The following year, there was another one, with a big, red bow. My mother has a way of teaching me things. I say no until I give in, and find she was right all along. I said no to the bread machine; she told me it would save time and I'd love it. I, now, make bread nearly every day. My mother, in the most lovingly annoying ways, shows me what I need and gently pushes truth in front of me until I cannot look away.
When I thank her, I go over to her and put my arms around her. She is so small I have to lean over a bit, and my arms nearly wrap around twice. I whisper that I love her, and sometimes hold her longer than others, and feel her hair and her small back and think how I could just pick her up and carry her away. She has always been awkward when I hold her. She doesn't know what to do with her hands, or which way to turn her face. But her words come easily; in writing, she expresses with vehemence her love for me. I am her child-saint, her immortality.
When we are shopping, and trying on clothes, I see her watching my body, memorizing it again. I think she must want to be younger. I have a picture of her in a bikini near a palm tree somewhere in Florida on her fiftieth birthday. I believe she is beautiful in her aging body, and that she believes it, too.
A woman's regard for her body is her own, and no woman finds her body entirely acceptable. There is a kind of resignation with how bodies change, and women think, "Well, this is inevitable" and they let go.
The first time her period didn't come she called me and cried and cried. She felt suddenly old, cracked, dry, and infertilethough she'd had her tubes tied after the third baby. We talked for hours over days. My voice soothed because my hands couldn't, words smoothing back her hair and over her cheeks. The mother in me offered comfort to the fighting child in my mother, her body becoming despite her raging.
I have drawn, with a black marker, an "X" on my left breast, just above the line of my bra. I drew the "X" for love of my mother's body, for the inch-long scar that wasn't there yesterday, but will be after the stitches and gauze and tape are gone.
She knew she had a lump when I last saw her. She didn't mention it then.
I was making a salad when she called late this afternoon. I didn't answer the phone; it was too hot in the kitchen. My eyes were burning and I didn't feel like talking. I didn't feel like anything, except maybe gorging myself on four cheese ravioli or honey oat Cheerios and falling asleep on the couch.
She had three children, and breastfed only the youngest, a boy. Her joke is, since he was born, she can't ride a horse: it's too painful. But you don't like horses, is his reply. That's not the point, she says.
I have never seen my mother ride a horse. I have never seen her do anything where her feet leave the ground, except when she hangs wallpaper or gets into a car. She is not one to risk falling; her only fear is heights.
She left a brief message, which I retrieved after the salad and pasta were eaten and the dishes washed and dried. Her voice was tired and small. She didn't say why she called; she didn't sing her message to a patriotic tune. She said she'd call back later.
I called her. I know by now to ask, first, about her day and how she's feeling. She's reminded me often that I tend to focus on myself during our conversations. So I asked how things were going. She sighed, a vast sigh.
"I had surgery this morning," she said. She waited.
"I had a lump removed from my breast," she said.
"Which breast, " I asked, like it fucking mattered.
Two years ago she'd had a small lump removed from her right breast. At least now you match, I thought. I am pathetic.
"How big was the lump?" I asked.
"A large pea, maybe. But the incision is over an inch long."
"Where, in relation to the nipple, is the incision?"
"What does it matter?"
"It does, Mom. I need a visual," I said.
"It's above the line of my bra."
"Is it horizontal or vertical?" I asked.
"Why do you want to know? You're going to write about this. I don't want you to write about this." She was getting pissed.
"Mom, just tell me."
"Neither. About a forty-five degree angle. And I am really pissed off. No more low-cut dresses. Nothing low-cut for the rest of my life."
"No, I'm not. They did not have to make the incision so long. This is a big deal. I don't think anybody gets it. I mean, I'm alone in the room, and I want to cry, and I have to put on this face because I work with these people. So after they cut me wide open and pull it out and put in the stitches, I went to look for my girlfriend, Sally. The other nurses said she had a nervous breakdown and went home."
I want to know what a nervous breakdown in a clinic looks like. Are there straightjackets pulled from nowhere? A room marked "Private" lined with pads? Is there a code name or number announced over the public address system? A flashing red light? A siren?
"You're kidding," I said. "Did you go home then?"
"No. I went back to work. I thought, 'I know, I'll find Joan and talk to her.' Her office was locked. They told me she didn't even come in; her son drowned nine years ago today. I couldn't call her. How would I sound? 'Yeah, I got this little pea-sized benign thing taken out of my breast. My arm hurts. My breast hurts.' And in the meantime, she's thinking about her dead son."
"Mom, it's all relative. You can't compare pain."
"Oh, yeah? Well I can. Nobody thinks this is a big deal, but it is to me." There was fear in her voice.
"Mom, it is a big deal. Do you want me to drive down?" The drive to Rochester from Scandia is a little over an hour. No problem. I wanted to do something.
"No, no, no. Just paint your left breast black for a week. That would do it." She laughed.
"Are you going to tell the boys?" The boys are my brothers. I have two.
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "They won't understand. Men don't get it. I'd tell them and they wouldn't get it. What's the point?"
"Telling is the point. Telling is all that matters. It doesn't matter how they respond. You need to tell them."
"I suppose you're right." Long pause. "Well, I should hang up. Greg just got home. He brought a bottle of wine and take-out. He's trying. I'll call you tomorrow night. We'll talk some more."
"All right." She hung up as I said, I love you. The phone beeped. I said it again, to anchor the words in the air.
The "X" on my left breast is neat and clean, unlike my mother's stitched skin. I used a permanent marker, a Sanford Sharpie Ultra Fine Point. It tickled. I drew it in my study, after I put the kids to bed, while listening to George Winston. He was playing Howard Blake's "Walking in the Air," from The Snowman. In the movie, this is where the snowman, holding the little boy's hand, flies over fields and rivers and forests. When I again hear this song, I'll think of this "X". If the marker is truly permanent, it will remain, small and black, on my left breast.
I'll tell her about it tomorrow night when she calls. She'll laugh and say, "Really?" It will be a light thing between us, like the bench in Bayfield, Wisconsin, where we sit for an afternoon every few years and eat raspberry Bismarcks, or how we each imitate how the other regards herself in a full-length mirror.
Deborah, my mother, wants to be cremated, and to have her ashes viewed, sealed in a Coke can, and buried on the shore of Lake Tahkodah. "They'll have to use a funnel to get you into a Coke can," I tell her. "You'll be funneled after you're dead. You'll be vacuum-packed in aluminum that reads 'Please Recycle' and 'phenylalanine' and provides an 800 number for consumer information. Is this what you want?"
I thought she wanted a mahogany box, lined with some kind of velvet. She doesn't.
She intimidates men. Women either laugh with her and invite her to patio parties and movies, or hide from her. Her life has not become a routine. She leaves the speed limit behind in her Miata, and tips high when the waitress is down-to-earth. She admires artful landscaping, and informed me that, yes, there is a game to play in life, and she taught me both the rules and how to break them.
My mother was once kicked out of a bridge club for talking too much. They simply didn't tell her when they were meeting next. She was relieved. She dictates who sits where at family dinners; and tells me how I screwed up and how to fix it, and, when she visits, what colors will and will not work in my living room.
"Give up the control," she says. "You'll be happier."
"I learned it from you, " I say. "And I am happy."
"No, you're not. You pretend to be happy, but you're not." Her voice has a tone.
"Mom, I am so fucking happy. How can I make you believe me?"
"Stop trying to control how I perceive you." Her voice still has a tone.
"Stop trying to control how I perceive myself."
She pages through a House Beautiful magazine. I try to get her to look at me.
"I'm not," she says. "I just know that you pretend to be happy. But you don't have to admit it."
Now what do I say? I don't.
On off days, when I'm not happy, I occasionally turn on the water faucet when I sit down to pee. I close my eyes and rest my cheekbones on my knees and imagine that she's in the living room, and that, when I'm finished, she'll come in and turn off the water, asking "Did it work?" She'll carry me up to bed and tuck me in, and I'll fall asleep smelling her on my hands.
If my mother ever does die, I'll do what she asks. I'll seal her ashes in a Coke can myself, and say the words she chose from a poem by Rupert Brooke. I'll probably start laughing, not because my mother is in a soda can, but because my body won't know how to manage such profound and piercing grief.
How much of our lives do we spend trying to return to where we were? Do we ever get there? Is it ever the same? When we realize, in that mid-time of life, we've crested, we're on the down slope, what happens to us? Do we panic? These questions leave me terribly sad. Perhaps because I remember my mother at twenty-three, and her legs then, and how she laughed and was almost a girl. She was a girl, to me.
My mother is now fifty-five. She shows less of her legs, and there are brown spots on her right knee. Her laugh is the same as it was when I was four, and though her body is familiar because I've loved it all along, suddenly she has become older. Until recently, I hadn't noticed; the years have passed quietly. She now wears her age like a shawl, as if she can leave it draped over the arm of a chair for a while and return to it, later, when she wants to curl up and rest.
When I watch her playing tag with my children in the grass, what was and what is move in and out of each other. I catch a glimpse of the girlthe one we both were, onceout of whom we have grown. I miss that girl. I miss how she ran like the girl she was, how her skin was smooth and her shoulders squared and how she never gave thought to growing old or holding on to anything as large and swift as time.
A graduate of the MFA program at Hamline University, Holly Harden writes nonfiction and poetry and has published work in A View from the Loft, The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and Water~Stone. Her essay "On Migraines" appears in the Fall 2002 issue of Fourth Genre. She has been awarded, for summer 2003, a third work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. She is at work on her first nonfiction book, The Pastor's Wife. Ms. Harden lives in Scandia, Minnesota.