Understanding Mother

Alice Austin

My mother died four days ago and all I've been able to think since then is, "Uh-oh." I've tried to muster something more profound, a little more soul searching-ish; I'd settle for straight sorrow, but "uh oh" is it.

It was such bad timing on her part. She was fifty two, I'm thirty, but that's not it - any age is too young to die. It was bad timing because I had just finished figuring out all that teenage crap, got it tucked away in tidy, though numerous, boxes - crap like why she started leaving pamphlets about birth control on my bed when I was thirteen but never asked me if I needed them, or if I was curious, or even if I was interested in boys yet. I was, of course, and the brochures came in handy the following year when I slept with the first of what would become a notebook that recorded their names and descriptions. I classified guys like a biologist classified plants. The best guy, the one I loved, Paul, he had "Good Guy" written next to his name. It was the ultimate ranking. I know it sounds generic, like if you don't have anything else to say about someone you say he's a Good Guy. But, I didn't throw "good" around loosely. Good was what I wanted to be.

Of course, my mother found the notebook when I was seventeen. It was already embarrassingly full for just three years of making use of her birth control pamphlets, and I didn't deny anything. She grounded me for a week, which meant no dates, but I still snuck out when I wanted. After that, whenever I went out she stuffed a five dollar bill in my pocket and said, usually in front of my date, "That's for condoms."

So at last I sorted through all that teenage stuff. Therapy probably would've helped; I'd been told often enough to get some, mostly by the men in my notebook. But instead, I burrowed through all those memories, took out the few good ones and packed the rest away in mental boxes. My best friend said you never get rid of your crap, that it follows you everywhere. But I need to believe I can leave it behind as I would any unwanted baggage when it's time to move on. Just stack those boxes in the attic and slink out in the night with no forwarding address.

At my belated undergraduate graduation two years ago I asked my mom if she'd ever thought I would get a college degree. She told me I'd exceeded her expectations when I made it through high school without getting knocked up. I suppose that meant she was proud of me.

It feels like I'm living another person's life and some day someone is going get wise to me. I certainly was not supposed to marry a "Good Guy," a man who lets me be all screwed up and emotional and hysterical at times, and calls it all "passion." He thinks I'm strong because I cry a lot. Can you believe that? I have nightmares about this occasionally, of the Emperor's New Clothes variety, where someone from my past shows up pointing at me and says, "That's her," and everyone looks at me and they're disappointed because they thought I was actually a nice girl.

When I turned thirty last month I decided it was time to move on to the next stage of house cleaning; I decided it was time to go beyond Mother Anger, even Mother Forgiveness, and move on to the hardest thing yet: Understanding Mother. I truly believed this was possible. After all, we were once a single unit, moving and breathing together. I heard the songs she sang from inside where everything sounds beautiful, and the tears she wouldn't let out trickled back down into me.

I wasn't going to start with the hard stuff, like trying to understand why she raised me the way she did. I only wanted to know what smells made her happy. Was it bread, like me? Or was it the way spring smells a little like blood, or was it the scent of wet babies, which she couldn't seem to get enough of these last years? Maybe I should have asked her if she liked the way I used to smell. I would've built up from there to favorite movies, then dreams, then started working backwards to ask about her memories, Granny and PaPa, and eventually my father. I wanted to know if she loved him, even for that one night, even for that one moment when I was conceived. That's all I needed - for her to have loved him for that one brief moment. Then I would know that I came from love. Then I would know that my mother felt it once in her life.

Eventually I was going to tell her I loved her. I was. I was going to tell her I knew she did her best and I loved her for that. I was going to hug her and tell her I was happy and that I understood how hard life was, how hard it was to love well, if at all. And I wanted us to press our faces together and cry until we couldn't tell whose tears were whose, just like when I was inside of her.

I was still preparing myself, mustering my courage, because chances are she never would have told me anything about herself. She always thought there was nothing special to tell; she always thought she was nothing special. I didn't want to hear her tell me that our family's past was best left behind and there was no use apologizing for it. I wasn't ready to have her tell me to stop being theatrical, to stop looking for something that wasn't there. I think it was there, but I'll never know for sure because I never got around to asking. My mother died four days ago, before I got around to that.

© Alice Austin

Alice Austin's publishing credits include Southern Living Magazine, Grit, and Blue Ridge Country.

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