When I pulled up the old gravel road, everything looked almost the same… well, not exactly the same. Paint chips covered the ground. The house stood not quite as tall as it once had. The lilac bushes were overgrown. Dad always took care of them. But now he’s dead.
I parked right behind my mom’s 1998 Grand Marque—license plate number WELUV3. It’s nice to be loved by the rear of a car, I guess. I opened my car door, and the overwhelming pine scents almost knocked me down. Colorado pines were the worst. They were sticky and made the whole earth stink. The fallen pine needles made it difficult for any other plant live to survive. The pines monopolized our flora life. I hated them.
I approached the garage door. I wasn’t sure if mom had changed the code, but I typed in the old code: 0131. My birthday. It opened; of course she hadn’t changed it. The garage was almost exactly how I left it. I always told Mom that she needed to get rid of all her crap. She always agreed that she would…one day. She had the makings of a professional hoarder. I saw all my dusty, decades-old toys, still assuming their candid, “play-with-me” position in the corner. There was Mr. Pebbles, Mary-Ann, and Squash, my old friends from kinder-years, sitting around the plastic table. The tea dishes were empty, covered in layers of grime and dust. I left that tea party in 4th grade and never returned. I imagine that my friends died waiting for me to come back. I know Dad did.
I heard footsteps from behind me, and I turned around. There she stood. Fifteen years had really treated her poorly. Gray, unkempt hair was piled on top of her head. Her sad, misty blue eyes stared desperately. The once jovial crinkles in the corners of her eyes were set deep into her wrinkled skin, leaving a permanent look of pain upon her face.
“Hi, Mom,” I finally whispered.
“Josie,” she choked out. She ran down the steps and grabbed ahold of me, hugging me so tightly that I felt the pulse in my temples. My arms were stuck to my side as she squeezed. I know I should have felt grief or joy, or something… but I felt nothing. I felt as if it was all just a dream and I was a sleep-walker. The scent of her skin, the tight hugs, and the musty garage all brought back memories, so deep and forgotten—but I still felt nothing.
When she pulled away, she looked into my eyes like a mother searching for her little girl. She touched my face with her dry, cracked fingers and smiled. It was a smile of unfamiliarity. She didn’t know me, and I hardly knew her. She touched my arm and motioned towards the door. I followed her into the house and a twinge of emotion hit me—just a twinge. The last time I passed through this door, I was leaving.
I remember how I felt when I left. I was angry. Very angry. Dad was standing in the living room, with tears exploding from his face. I was sixteen. I remember screaming at my mom in the kitchen. I told her to leave him. I told her that I couldn’t live in that house anymore with him in it. I remember her telling me that she wouldn’t leave. I told her that she was a coward. A coward. I remember the crinkle of pain that lurched in between her eyebrows as I said it. I ran into my room and packed a bag. In those moments, a runaway should grab the things that are nearest and dearest to their hearts, but I didn’t. I grabbed my wallet, my toothbrush, and my car keys. I ran out the door and didn’t look back…
“Would you like some coffee,” Mom asked me, finally breaking the silence. I sat down on the barstool and awkwardly placed my hands on my lap.
“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t drink coffee.”
“Tea? Water? You’ve been travelling awhile I’m sure,” she opened up the cabinets and searched for a mug.
“Tea is fine, Mom.” I looked down at the colored countertops. I remember drawing on them when I was a child. Mom never stopped me. She told me that she loved my artwork. I sighed and looked around at the kitchen space. It was exactly how I remembered it. The off-white walls with red and blue floral borders, the yellowed tile floor with the crack in the center tile, and the dark wood cabinets—none of it made sense together, but this is where mom spent her time.
“So,” Mom started, busying herself with the tea kettle and dusting off crumbs from the counter. She didn’t like a dirty kitchen. “How was your trip?”
“Good,” I nodded. The need for more words was overwhelming, so I added. “Rainy. That’s not unusual this time of year.” God, I was talking about the weather. I hadn’t really spoken to Mom since I started my job as an editor—that was at least a year ago. I tried to keep her posted on the big things in my life. I called her at least twice a year. Once for Christmas, and a second time for her birthday. I never gave her my phone number. I guess I was afraid that she would make frequent conversations a habit. When we did talk, it was usually small talk, weather-talk, my small accomplishments talk, and they usually ended with “do you want to talk to your dad?” By that point, I usually shut down and told her that I had to go. I didn’t want to talk to him. I found out about his death when I called Mom for her birthday that past week. When she picked up the phone, she simply said, “He’s dead, Josie. He’s gone.” I didn’t say a word. What could I have said? The next day, I packed a bag, and started heading home.
“Green or black tea?” Mom poured the hot water into the chipped, light pink mug. I always used that mug for my chocolate milk when I was little. She must have remembered.
“Black,” I replied. It made no difference to me. She finally handed me my cup and sat down at the table across from me, folding her fingers together and staring at me.
“You look so different,” she continued to stare. “Your hair is different—did you cut it?”
“Yeah, and I dyed it last year.”
“It’s pretty,” she shifted in her seat.
I sipped my mug, hoping that I wouldn’t have to speak to her with a mouth full of tea. She looked at the floor for a long time. The crinkle in between her eyes deepened.
“It was cancer, Joe. He fought it for six months.” She traced her fingers around my counter-top artwork, slowly.
I couldn’t respond. A lump lodged in my throat. Whether it was an angry lump or a sad lump, I couldn’t tell.
“It was stage four lung cancer.” My throat began to tighten. My knuckles turned white.
“He died peacefully.” Her voice quivered. She had a tear dripping from her nose. Mom always cried through her nose. Her eyes would never allow for the tears. Just her nose. I remember hating those nosey tears. When I was ten, I asked her why her nose cried and her eyes didn’t. She said something like, “A mom’s only allowed one eye-cry. I want that cry to be worth my tears.” I never forgot that.
Mom got up from the table and walked towards the sink. She grabbed a few half-filled cups of coffee off the counter and started rinsing them. The tension was too much. I had to leave the room. I headed towards the living room. The familiar smell of cinnamon lingered in the air. I loved that smell. The rest of the house smelled like moth balls or cat hair, but the living room remained heavily scented with cinnamon. Mom rarely entertained guests, but when she did, she only allowed them in that living room.
Dad’s chair was still in the corner. It was an ugly, mauve colored chair, with holes in the arms and stains on the seat. Vividly, I pictured him coming home from work, loosening his tie, and kicking back in that chair. I’d come in and ask him how his day was. He’d always say: “It was one for the history books, Jo-Jo.” He’d smile, grab me, and proceed to tickle me. My naivety was cute. I guess I always wanted to believe that he was the perfect man. I guess I always hoped that this light-hearted, vivacious man loved me and Mom more than anything else in the world. The rose-colored lenses are a permanent fixture on the eyes of a child. The turbulent and painful teenage years taught me how blind I had been.
I continued to stare at the chair until I heard Mom come behind me.
“He sure loved that chair, didn’t he?” Her voice was full of fond remembrance. I shook my head. I swallowed hard and nodded. I couldn’t take my eyes off of that chair.
“Jo,” I felt her dry hand touch my shoulder. My heart pounded and beads of sweat began to form along the creases of my forehead.
“You should have left him fifteen years ago, Mom.” I finally blurted out.
I heard the house creak as the wind cut through the pines and hit the house. I heard my mom breathing deeply. I heard my own heart pounding angrily against my chest. I turned around to look at her.
“He betrayed you, Mom. He betrayed us both. He got what he deserved.” The sound of my own bitterness suddenly hurt. It hurt her too.
“He was a human being, Josie. No one deserves to die the way he did.”
In that moment, all of the venom from years of bitterness came spewing out. I couldn’t control myself.
“Do you know what he said to me that night, Mom? Do you know what he said after I found out about his whore? He said it had nothing to do with me. I was his goddamn child! It had everything to do with me!” I stood tall, hands clenched, full of justified rage. Mom came closer to me and grabbed my hands. My gut was heavy with sick hatred. I tried, as I stared into her desperate eyes, to understand why my mom stayed with him, loved him, cared for him, even after he tore our family apart.
“How could you have stayed with him after all the pain he caused us?” I dropped her hands. A long silence followed while I watched her. The old look of wisdom cast over her face, and a slight, gentle smile appeared.
“I chose him, honey,” her tender voice whispered. “I married him for better or worse; and Josie, things got better. I wish you could’ve seen that. ” I looked down, feeling the heat of regret.
“And Josie,” she grabbed my face in her hands, forcing me to stare into her loving eyes. “You leaving us hurt more than anything.” There it was. The sting of truth. I left her. I left Dad. I was the coward. And I realized right there that I had lost years of memories and the possibility of reconciliation. This cut me deeper than anything.
My hands felt numb. I had the sudden urge to sit in Dad’s chair. I never sat in his chair. But as I did, the world seemed different. A sudden, beautiful memory made its way in front of me. I could see Dad, sitting on the floor, playing tea party with me. I had invited my three garage friends, and Mom made us real tea to use. He and I giggled, and he even put on the party hat I made for all my guests. It was a very prestige party, I remember. Dad smiled at me, and pinched my nose. That was his thing, I guess. Pinching my nose.
As this memory passed through time and space before my eyes, I suddenly felt a terrible, sinking feeling. I couldn’t remember what his laugh sounded like. Was it guttural? Was it loud? Did he chuckle? Did he make any noise at all? I couldn’t remember… I began to panic, and tears began to gush from my eyes and I breathed rapidly.
“What is it, Jo?” Mom knelt in front of me and grabbed my hands.
“I-I…” My throat choked on the tears, “I can’t remember his laugh, Mom. I can’t remember it…”
Mom sat on the edge of the chair and wrapped her arms around my head as I sobbed. She rocked me back and forth.
“He snorted a lot,” she giggled, pulling loose strands of hair from my wet eyes. I suddenly remembered it: his high-pitched giggle, with the frequent snort in between each breath. Yes, that was it. I smiled.
I looked up and saw her eyes filled with tears too. The heartache of lost years and painful memories ran down her face.
“Mom,” I said, touching her soaked face, “You were only allowed one real cry, remember?”
“This is worth all my tears,” she smiled, and pinched my nose… just like Dad.
Abby Wilson – Major in English
I have an inexpressible love for coffee, apple cider, and green tea.
I think road trips are delightful, and nature is the neatest. My
dream is to be able to successfully rap Busta Rhymes’ part in “Look At