My Mother’s Big Life
by Cathy Warner
My mother was doing that thing she did. That thing with the rag in the sink. Holding it under the tap, twisting, wringing, then unfolding it across her palm and sticking her hand in the faucet stream, water so hot it was steaming, turning her skin red. It was the way she took control, the way she made a situation manageable, the way she avoided feeling emotion—as if she could rinse it down the drain along with bits of scrambled egg and clotted honey and water logged pancake crumbs.
The dishes were washed; I’d plucked them from the drainer, wiped them with a terry towel, stacked them on the shelves. And still she stood at the sink, my mother, glasses fogged with steam, the kitchen window dripping mist, her fingers pruned, her hands chapped by the scalding water.
My mother was thinking about Kirstie Alley, Jenny Craig’s former spokeswoman, and the weight-change rollercoaster she’d been on. That was my mother for you, she could read an article in People magazine while she ate breakfast and by the time only scrapings were left on her plate, she’d dissolve into manic dishwashing and rag wringing. Kirstie’s story was too frightening, too sad, her descent from Cheers into size 28W clothes and then to Jenny Craig, where back in 2004 she convinced my mother, who’d battled her own weight since my father left, to buy astronomically-priced packaged food that tasted no better than the paperboard it was packed in. My mother, who lived to cook, gave it up after three months.
What sent my mother to the sink this morning was a small side bar about the upcoming new reality show Kirstie Alley’s Big Life accompanied by a photo of Kirstie wearing a muumuu maxi-dress and flip-flops. While my mother quite literally steamed over Kirstie’s celebration of failure, she turned to me and asked, “You can make a living doing that kind of thing?”
She was incredulous, but I chose to hear it as legitimate question and thought about my own imperfections. How hard could it be to join the cult of reality television—housewives, small people, septuplets, large people, tap-dancing tiara wearing children? There must be some way to turn my failed writing career into a reality show. I imagined the footage: me squirreled away on my bed talking into a tiny tape recorder brainstorming backstory for my latest seventeenth century heroine, a girl who dusts the still life display for a temperamental artist and ends up posing for him; then me tossing the recorder in the trash when I realize I am lifting the plot of Girl with a Pearl Earring. There’d be extreme close-ups of my fingers flying across the keyboard, then holding down the delete key until the words disappeared, eaten PacMan-like, screen shots of rejection emails, montages set to plaintive music of me working all my part-time jobs to payoff my student loans, and a balloon caption: Why did anyone let me major in Renaissance literature?
The smell of peach pie wafting from the oven snapped me from my reality TV reverie. It was just like my mother to make dessert before breakfast, to roll out piecrust while her coffee brewed, to set something baking while she ate. The kitchen timer buzzed and my mother turned off the faucet and donned two oven mitts. She slid the pie out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool. She glared at the glistening crust as if that particular pie had been responsible for Kirstie’s ballooning proportions.
“I have half-a-mind to throw this out,” she said, “but, the boys will be home later, and with their metabolisms, well…”
By boys she didn’t mean my children—I don’t have any. She meant the neighbor’s boys, four of them, as thin and wiry as whippets, who slunk off the school bus every afternoon. They didn’t have cell phones, or Game Boys, or a computer. They didn’t have cable TV, so they wouldn’t be watching Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. They had an ancient set with rabbit ears that got a few channels before the government switched everything over to digital and now it’s only good for playing antiquated VHS tapes the boys borrowed from the branch library.
The boys’ mother worked noon to eight weekdays at the hospital as a nurse’s aide, and my mother, knowing what it’s like to be a stressed single mother, kept an unofficial eye on the boys who cruised slowly by our house afterschool on their long whippet legs, heads cocked, waiting for an invitation to watch TV and have a snack. My mother would serve them home baked oatmeal cookies or lemon bars or caramel fudge brownies while they all watched a talk show or sitcom rerun. That afternoon it would be peach pie, with canned cling peaches since it was March and the prices for imported South American fruit beyond her budget.
The boys always polished off the treats before the first commercial, and when they left for their own empty house and measly microwaved dinners, my mother would complain about being eaten out of house and home, but she would already be flipping through recipe cards and peering in the pantry, assessing her ingredients, figuring out what she could bake next without leaving the house.
It’d been five years since my mother retired from her secretarial job at sixty-five, and since that day she’d ventured no further than the sidewalk that ran to our porch. She had nowhere to go, since I did the grocery shopping and ran the occasional errands, and no one to see but the whippet boys.
I was eight when my father ran off with his own secretary, and the firm kept my mother on another twenty-seven years—well past the time secretaries became obsolete—an apology, perhaps, for allowing such a scandal to occur inside their walls.
My mother, for her part, had baked a batch of cookies every Sunday evening and set them on a corner of her desk every Monday morning, giving her coworkers the excuse to wander by, strike up an innocuous conversation about the weather or sports or pending contracts, and pick up a cookie as though it were an afterthought.
“It’s important,” my mother said to me back then while washing her sparkling cookie plate, “to start the workweek out right.” Then she stared out the kitchen window, only to find our reflections glaring back in the dark. She didn’t have to tell me nobody except her boss stopped at her desk Tuesday through Friday.
Along with celebrity gossip magazines, the kitchen window was my mother’s window to the world, and it didn’t disappoint. Most recently, the view through the glass had featured the cheating husband next door. More than once last fall, my mother had been tenderizing bottom round roasts with her meat mallet when the whippet boys’ father rolled in on his lunch hour and jumped out of his Sentra, breath steaming in the autumn chill. A minute later, a tan Mercedes had coasted into the driveway alongside the Sentra, and a woman emerged, one whose coat sleeves were pushed mid forearm revealing too many gold bracelets on each wrist.
“Do you think she’s a call girl?” my mother asked as we washed the dishes the evening after the fourth lunchtime rendezvous in as many days.
“He wouldn’t have the money,” she answered before I could.
“Maybe she’s a client,” I suggested. He had magnetic signs on his car doors advertising his services as a mobile notary.
“Yes,” my mother answered, “And her husband’s a rich old man with congestive heart failure, and he just updated the new will, cutting off the children from his first wife entirely, so she’s the sole beneficiary.” She enjoyed conjecture, lifting a scandal from the pages of one of her magazines, rather than projecting her story, our story, out loud and onto our neighbors.
“We should tell her,” I said, though at that time we’d never actually met the neighbors, had only glimpsed them through the window.
“It’s not my place,” my mother said, but I knew it worried her. I could tell by the way she paced the kitchen afternoons in the following weeks when the driveway emptied, Easy Cheese in hand. After each pass from fridge to range, she’d lift the can to her open mouth and spray an orange ribbon of processed cheese food on her tongue with a flourish. Back and forth, she’d pace and squirt until the can was empty.
My mother and I knew empty from way back, and so did the whippet legged boys and their mother, once the New Year rang in without the mobile notary. It was going on three months now, and he hadn’t been back, hadn’t stopped by afterschool, or taken the kids for a weekend. Maybe he called nights before their mother returned from work and maybe they passed the landline from one to another, until his voiced circled through the pack of boys, perking them up momentarily with promises of visits that never materialized. And maybe they began to dread the phone’s ring, and maybe they stopped answering, and maybe soon their mother would discontinue phone service, as she had cable and Internet. One more way to stretch her salary; one more way the outline of their father’s absence was drawn more firmly around their lives.
It didn’t surprise me the day my mother opened our door, stepping off the porch and onto the walkway for the first time in years, as she called to the boys, cookie tray in hand. She knew what it was to have your life squeezed small, and by the very man who was supposed to guard and preserve it; the man who had pledged “for better or worse” and whose word was meaningless.
Without my father, my mother had been the one to stand before me with outstretched arms and advice while I navigated the world. She was the one who patted my back when I flubbed my lines in the school play and the whole auditorium roared. She was the one to hold me close to her bulk when I woke up nights crying from my recurring nightmare in which I was flying over our house and being shot at by an angry rifle-wielding man who looked a lot like my father. My mother was the one who told me I could soar and that no one could shoot me down. She was the one who kept crying in her own bed with a plate of cookies on the nightstand long after she’d calmed and settled me.
My mother’s heart was always breaking for someone, over something, and I never had the heart to leave her. So there I was thirty-five and still single, living at home, sleeping in my twin bed, washing dessert plates and pie tins, while my mother exhausted from a day of baking and fretting over Kirstie Alley, settled in her recliner, and the boys lined their thin bodies along our worn couch, and took turns flipping through TV stations with the remote.
I left them there, content, and went to my room, nibbling my slice of pie. I sat at my desk, opened my journal and began writing, not my disjointed Renaissance novel, but a new story, one that began like this:
I write for the same reason my mother bakes, for the same reason the boys lope slowly past our door every afternoon and eat every last crumb my mother serves up. Though none of us will admit it, we’re all starving, hungry for the illusive something we know will fill us. And so we feed each other with small kindnesses—a sliver of pie, a sitcom rerun, a sentence that’s true. It’s not much, but it’s what we have. And today, for twenty-two minutes anyway, it’s the closest we come to tasting love.