Someone Called Mother

Their mothers were secrets, right up until their deaths.

Marcia Aldrich | Jill Talbot | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,201 words)

Interested in more by Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich? Read their collaborative essay, Trouble.

She was old when she had me, or so I thought. She had given birth to two daughters in her twenties during her first marriage. Then her husband died unexpectedly and the period of being a single mother began. Her hair began to turn gray and a red rash ran down the middle of her face, a rash of grief. Eventually she met my father, married, and the rash disappeared. Some years later I arrived when she was 40. Twelve years separated me from my sisters.

Now, when women wait longer to have children, aided by infertility treatments and surrogacy options, my mother wouldn’t seem old at all. She wouldn’t be an outlier. But when I was growing up, my mother looked so much older than all the other mothers. Sometimes I thought she was rushing toward aging, embracing it rather than pushing it away, as if it was the destination she was looking for. She wore her gray hair in a teased bouffant that was hard and outdated, concocted weekly at a hair salon with Julie. I wondered if she deliberately chose the style to ward off touching — touching by my father, touching by me. I don’t remember her ever touching me affectionately, as strange as that may sound. Or touching my father. She looked off-putting, someone who held herself as stiffly as the hard-shelled purse she carried on her arm. If a bee buzzed about her head, it might get caught in the hair-sprayed formation she called her hair. Other mothers were softer looking, and more welcoming. She never wore jeans and sneakers, never allowed her hair to blow onto her face — she never looked disheveled. She looked polished as if she was heading off to a professional meeting that she would be overseeing and yet she held no job.

In my lifetime my mother was never young. I had no image of my mother as a young woman until she died, and my father pulled out leather embossed photo albums that had been squirreled away. Photos of my mother as a baby, a young girl, her high school and college photos, and photos from her first wedding which she never displayed in deference, I suppose, to my father, or perhaps because she didn’t want to be reminded of that former happiness. The photos were a revelation. She was the most beautiful baby. Seeing them reminded me of my own daughter’s beauty. My mother went through a slightly chubby adolescence, a condition she strenuously worked against for the rest of her life with success. The photos that ultimately changed how I saw my mother were the black and white photos from college, head shots with her head arising out of velvet folds. Her dark hair is loose and soft — luminous. Her expression is intense, serious, dramatic, compelled and compelling, glamorous in a Katherine Hepburn style and her lips, I imagine, are sensuous and red.

I never knew this woman — she was lost to me before I was born. Someone else had written over her open beauty, crushed that vulnerability, that yearning, because more than anything what I saw in her face was yearning. Only the red lipstick remained. Would I could have known that earlier mother, what a difference it might have made, but it wasn’t to be. She hid her away like a secret — my mother’s secret heart, so secret I never saw it.

She hid her away like a secret — my mother’s secret heart, so secret I never saw it.

***

In the bottom drawer of my mother’s nightstand, I find a folded, full-page newspaper sheet, yellowed from the decades. An announcement from her college newspaper — the nominees for 1964 Homecoming Queen. I scan the chorus of bouffants and high collars, the teardrop necklaces, and severe eyebrows to find my mother smiling, bottom center, and her college roommate, Barbara, in the next frame, the two of them painfully young and proper. Beyond the black and white, I imagine my mother’s lips bright red.

In the weeks since her death, I have been digging in her closets and drawers, opening shoe boxes and stuffed envelopes to search her secrets. Pair after pair of shoes in every closet — shiny heels, complicated sandals, espadrille wedges — some still in the box with their receipts, never worn. Drawers of jewelry — silver bracelets, brocade necklaces, large, loopy earrings (these purchased when the chemo took her hair: “The shorter the hair, the bigger the earrings!”). My favorite find: tinted Chapstick in Merlot and a gold tube of Raspberry Pink worn down to the nub, side by side on the windowsill above the kitchen sink.

Only a couple of months ago, Barbara whispered to me in the hospital room that in college, my mother had this green two-piece suit she wore everywhere. I try to imagine my mother wearing anything more than once, remembering how she never allowed me to wear jeans to school, except on Fridays, and no outfit was to be worn more than once. And now, her closets claustrophobic with color, all of those dangling tags.


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The night before the funeral, tipsy from grief and too many glasses of Chardonnay, I got up from the couch to wander rooms, turning on light after light leading me to the back bathroom’s long counter, its two sinks. There, I found two black tubes of lipstick on a mirrored tray. I slowly applied the first and shook my head in the mirror, swiping the orange-red tint from my lips with toilet paper. Then I uncapped the other, twirled the dervish of poppy red from its tube and swept it across my lips.

Maybe all I’ve ever done is this: imagine my mother.

Then I uncapped the other, twirled the dervish of poppy red from its tube and swept it across my lips.
Maybe all I’ve ever done is this: imagine my mother.

***

We know so little about our mothers. Their lives are a book we’ve never read and can’t get our hands on. We could search the shelves of every library in the world and never find it. Why when women become mothers do they hide so much of themselves away, as if their earlier life was written with invisible ink? I wanted to know who my mother was before she stepped so completely into the role. There were parts of her past, large swathes of it, that she never spoke of.

We lived in the town where my father grew up — Allentown, Pennsylvania — and I spent most Saturday nights with his mother who lived nearby until she died my senior year in high school. Through her I learned about my father. His life unrolled before me, piece by interlocking piece. My father was who he appeared to be — he didn’t have a self he was hiding. My mother’s mother died before I was born, and her father lived in Florida and only visited once, a visit I remember nothing about since I was 5 years old. My mother was an only child, without any extended family. There was no one to tell me of my mother except her and she wouldn’t. It wasn’t until the last years of her life when dementia was making a purchase upon her, that bits and pieces emerged.

Here’s one thing I learned, one chapter in the book of her life she never wrote. She had a best friend, a friend from childhood up through high school. I don’t know her name, or what she looked like. I like to think her name was Helen like the character in Jane Eyre whose kindness toward Jane gave Jane a reason to live. My mother was not an orphan and I doubt she was mistreated, but I think my mother had a lonely life. My mother and her friend planned on attending Vassar College together, but the summer before her friend was killed in a car accident. My mother revealed no details of the accident except that she hadn’t been involved. She didn’t relive receiving the news or say anything about what it meant. All she said is she didn’t go to Vassar without her friend, she couldn’t. That’s how she put it, she couldn’t. She stayed home for the year and then entered Wellesley College.

***

My mother grew up in a town of about 5,000 in East Texas, in a white house near the highway, in the shadows of her mother’s drinking and her father’s indifference. Her father, a cattle rancher, and her mother, once a hairdresser, stayed home. My mother told me only a few stories. When she was very young, her burly father took her with him in his Chevy truck out to the fields. He left her alone in the cab and took off to check on the cattle. It terrified her, and she never went with him again. Another: Her mother went shopping in a bigger city about an hour away once a week, and every time she came home, it was obvious she had been drinking, there and back.

When my mother spoke of her childhood, my father and I would go still, as if any sudden movement would revive her silence. It was like standing on a porch at night, seeing fireflies in the distance, those secrets a disturbance, just flashes before retreating to the dark.

It was like standing on a porch at night, seeing fireflies in the distance, those secrets a disturbance, just flashes before retreating to the dark.

My mother, too, an only child. I can’t imagine her childhood anything but lonely.

Another story: my mother stopped inviting friends to the house after she came through the front door after school to find empty bottles on the kitchen counter, vomit draped over the back of the couch, and her mother sleeping it off in the back bedroom.

When I was young, we took trips along I-20 East to my grandparents’ smoke-strained house — my grandmother’s Pall Malls, my grandfather’s cigar. On some mornings, the phone rang in the minutes before our leaving, my grandfather telling us not to come because my grandmother was already drinking. Sometimes, we’d get to town and my mother would call from a payphone at the first gas station. Sometimes, she’d slump back into the seat and tell my father to turn around, to go back home.

After my grandfather died from a heart attack in a hotel room when I was only 6, there was no sentinel at the screen door to shake his head and turn us away. So we’d pull into the gravel drive and wait for my mother to disappear into the house, then wait for her to wave us in or watch her defeated walk back to the car. Even if we stayed, we’d sit in the living room in silence for hours, my grandmother smoking, all of us staring at the floor.

I never knew any of this at the time. My father told me once I got older, though the weight of my mother’s history bore down against any real knowing.

Two months before my mother’s diagnosis, my father stumbled across a hotel room and barely made it to the bed before he was gone, a heart attack. My mother watched him, then she watched the medics take him, then she packed his suitcase, worried she couldn’t find one of his shoes. This story she told me only once, while staring out a window. I went still, the way I had learned to do so she wouldn’t stop the telling.

There was so much she never told me, but I remember this: she wore a red dress to her mother’s funeral.

There was so much she never told me, but I remember this: she wore a red dress to her mother’s funeral.

***

I used to wonder where my mother drifted when she retreated into her bedroom or when she was driving. She went somewhere, and it was far away. When she was driving, she would forget she had a passenger, forget that I was next to her. Her mouth formed a firm red line, resolute, and after a passage of time, a sigh would escape, and her chest would sink a little, bowed over to a memory that wasn’t happy, I thought, but I may have been wrong, and my mother was sighing at the sweet taste of a happiness before I came into her life.

I watched my mother as she disappeared — curious, on edge, greedily hoping I might touch the invisible pain I was sure afflicted my mother. Even when we were gliding somewhere in my mother’s pale green Monte Carlo, when we had a destination, it felt as if we were suspended, the two of us, my mother behind the wheel and me beside her deep in the bucket seats, as if everything was on pause. For my mother, the moments of driving didn’t include me — they were moments she had to herself. It didn’t matter if outside snow was falling or we were passing through the gold of summer wheat fields, my head was always turned to her, silently appreciating her as if she was an enigmatic painting in a museum — my mother one of its most dizzying gems.

Even though my mother had a dazzling smile, she was a melancholy person. Today we might say she was depressed or suffered bouts of depression, at the very least, and recommend seeing a therapist and consider medication. But as a girl, I had no clinical vocabulary. I was probably a romantic even then and thought my mother carried a sorrow within her, that she was sad a good deal of the time, especially when she was out of the public eye. When she was with me, she often acted as if she were alone, and did not disguise her essential state of being. She didn’t shield me from her lowness, from her loneliness. I couldn’t tell you why she felt low, I just knew that a general disappointment suffused the air about her. I had the impression that things had been better at some point. She never said anything that suggested this — she was almost entirely silent on the state of her feelings.

She didn’t shield me from her lowness, from her loneliness. I couldn’t tell you why she felt low, I just knew that a general disappointment suffused the air about her.

Do daughters intuit a great deal about their mothers without being told? Nothing said, but everything understood? Do they become expert interpreters of moods, able to ferret out the meanings behind vague gestures no one else sees? And do they take on the burdens of their mothers’ sorrows without ever deciding to, somehow absorbing them?

She suffered, and I suffered for her and with her. I’ve thought her suffering had something to do with my father. I sensed he wasn’t who she wanted. But it wasn’t until late in her life, late in our relationship, too late, that I learned the extent of loss in her life. Her parent’s separation when she was a girl, her father’s indifference, her mother’s sudden death on the heels of her husband’s death, robbed of mother and husband in one blow. I can still feel the ache of those losses in my chest.

My mother would lie down in the late afternoon before dinner, a time of day that particularly brought her low. Something about my father coming home, the expectations of being together over the meal she was to prepare, sent her into collapse. She’d retreat to their bedroom, lie down on her twin bed, for my parents slept in separate beds, and turn her face to the wall.

***

When my mother walked by mirrors, she would turn to look into them and smile as if she had seen someone she had been missing for years come through the door. Once, when I was seven or so, I followed her through a department store and watched her perk up and pose at every mirror. I asked why she did it. She told me when she saw herself, she always looked unhappy.

The funeral director called on the afternoon before my mother’s service, asking me to approve her appearance. When he ushered me into an ornate room, the sight of her in the silver coffin I had picked out knocked me in two, and I doubled over into a deep wail. Organ music hummed from speakers, sadly majestic, sounding very far away.

A few days before, I had held her hand in the small hour of four o’clock in the morning and watched her go. Then I drove the 40 miles from the hospital back home, headlights darting in both directions, commuters to and from Dallas on their way to early shifts. The darkness held all the way home.

I told the funeral director my mother’s lips weren’t red enough, and in moments, a tall woman appeared through another door carrying tubes of lipstick, asking which was closer to what my mother had worn. I will always regret not offering my own lipstick. Cherrybud, a bright red.

My mother was an artist, a painter like her mother.

My mother sang while she moved through the house, lines from songs on repeat as if she didn’t know the rest of the song.

My mother swam laps in the backyard pool until she no longer could. I remember finding her turquoise and black swimsuit, hanging in the shower.

My mother, while cooking, would tell me to get out of “her kitchen” when I offered to help, so much so I left home not knowing how to brown meat or boil pasta.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

My mother and I struggled, our conversations a false performance.

I wore the poppy red lipstick I found to her funeral.

These disintegrations into fragments carry pieces of my mother’s life, mere flashes. But wait.

Ten days before she died, my mother took a secret trip. She was far too ill to travel, so a friend snuck her away for the hour-long drive and hired a nurse to go with them. My mother had asked to go see the man she dated right after college, I’m thinking, but only from the dates I know. Just last week, I found the photos and the conversation between my mother and the man on her phone, a photo of the two of them at his home in East Texas, the two of them standing close in front of her car. My mother casual in an oversized red-plaid shirt and cropped jeans, flat sneakers, her a hair silver-gray pixie. Her smile like those she flashed toward mirrors. Then several of him up close — the rugged face of a man who worked outdoors — leaning in to say whatever he said to the woman he knew he would never see again, the woman who had driven down a highway and back through the years one last time. I will not write the words that passed between them, only that they revealed a desire she kept to herself, like so much else.

I don’t know what daughters carry, what you and I carry, from our mothers. So much of the time, I feel I carry only mystery, both my mourning and my missing enfolded by emptiness, distance. So I keep opening these drawers, turning on closet lights and staring inside, shuffling through the papers in the Secretary desk where she paid the bills, searching in ways I’m sure she’d never allow.

***

What thoughts I have, mother — that smile, that smile. I loved your smile rueful at your own silence.

What thoughts I have, mother — stories told, and untold. I know only a few lines of your song.

***

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays for the past four years in a row and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Waveformessays.wordpress.com. Her email is aldrich@msu.edu.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens