A Short Story--What I Want to Know about my Mother

This is a story that was published a year or so ago in "Kalliope" a journal for and by women. I think they're defunct now. At any rate, this is one of my favorites. I'd entirely forgotten about it until a  friend of mine was digging on the site and re-earthed it. I like the poetic feel. Most of my stuff lately is comedic, but sometimes, I like the lyrical quality of words. I wanted, here, to write a story about understanding, and loss, and longing...and this is the result. Hope you enjoy it.


What I Want To Know About My Mother

I was conceived in the parking lot of Zaagman’s funeral home, because as my mom says, love, grief, what’s the difference? They both break your heart.

This isn’t something my mom tells me today, when I find her in Little Bo’s Bar, but a sort of mantra I’ve heard throughout my life. This was her response to everything, from when I broke up with a boyfriend, to when I broke my arm.  Love. Grief. Love. Grief.

She’s probably repeating those words in her mind even now when she nods to the waitress and another cold beer materializes in front of her. It’s the nonalcoholic kind, but you’d never guess that by looking at her. She stubs out her cigarette, her one remaining vice she says, grabs a stick of gum from her front pocket and unwraps. My mother is a mixture of mint and smoke and coffee and something strangely sweet like frosting.

“What’s your obsession here with conception, kiddo? What’s it matter how you start?” She swigs the beer. Her lips are the color of white asparagus. Her hair is two toned—a foot of watermelon red with an inch of white roots.

I shrug my shoulders and stop looking at her. “College?” I offer as if this explains it. She picks at a cuticle. She doesn’t ask why I’ve come here, or acknowledge that we haven’t spoken in two years. She just cocks her head and I see her mouthing something weird, until I figure out it’s the lyrics to the music playing dimly in the background. Then I can’t take it anymore. I have so many things to ask her. Most of the questions begin with ‘why’. Why hasn’t she loved anyone since my dad? Why doesn’t she return my phone calls? Why won’t she come and see me in my new house, with Mike, with our dog, Annabelle? I can’t ask these things though and so I say, “What I want to know, Mom, is just something about you. Just…anything.” It’s like pulling a plum out of my throat.

She picks something from her teeth, studies it and then looks at me. She answers quickly, as if she’d been just about to tell me this spontaneously on her own. “Your dad had the sexiest knees.” She laughs, a short laugh, but deep, and something rattles in her chest. It’s another sign she’s dying. No doubt she’d say I need to get over myself and stop obsessing. “That was just like your dad,” she continues, smiling to herself. “Taking something funky like knees and turning them into something else entirely.”

I try to smile, but it just a thin line across my face. I’ve asked her one simple thing, to hear something about her, to know something concrete, and what does she do? She tells me about my dad. Over the years I figured out that the man she’s talking about, the one she calls my dad, was lying in a closed coffin the night I was conceived. The guy in the parking lot, the one who really gave me his DNA, was just his stand-in. She doesn’t talk about this either. The things she doesn’t talk about, the silence between us (as they say) could fill books. I can’t even fill a story with what I know is true about her.

Mom reaches for the bowl of nuts. “Want some?” she asks, and because I don’t know what else to do, I take one. Just one.

* * *

I know my mom is not dying from lung cancer or late nights; she’s doing the slow disappearance of the broken hearted. It’s taken her over thirty years to reach this point and I figure any day now she’ll be as good as invisible. I can guess that she hasn’t had a lover since 1994, and my mom is the type of person that needs loving. She wilts without attention. She’s wilting right now, right in front of me.

“You want to know Some Thing?” she asks and leans forward. She pronounces it just like that too: Some. Thing. And I nod.

Already my mind has spun on without her and this next part happens in no-time, meaning it happens not at all and only in my head: I say “Yes. Anything. Tell me just Any Thing.”

“I was a single mom, and I loved you.” This part I already know. The next part I’m surprised by. She continues: “That’s what you’re really looking for, isn’t it? Not something about me, but something about you. So there you go, there it is. You’re all right kiddo. Go on and be happy. You had a mom and she loved you and you still have a mom and maybe you’re not friends but you can’t have everything, can you?”

But that isn’t what I want to know at all, not at all. I want something true. And because this isn’t real, because in my head she tells me everything, all the details that will somehow fix me, she says, “Something concrete then. In 1976, you were three, and I worked at the co-op down the street from the Stone Shop, you remember, the place you’d go where the man, Arnold, would polish the Petoskey stones you found on the beach. He’d come over to the co-op, I’d put you in your crib, turn the closed sign and we’d go at it, in the back, standing between a tub of natural peanut butter and a garbage bag of carob chips. I never even liked that man, but he made me a nice necklace so I figured, oh, why not?”

In my mind, this is what my mother says, but today, in Little Bo’s Bar, when I grab a nut to eat, she tells me something different.

“I used to love zucchini. You can do a million things with it. Shred it, add some flour, it becomes a crust for pizza. Pour in a vat of sugar and you’ve got zucchini bread. Dip it in parmesan and fry it and you’ve got heaven. After your dad died,” she lifts her hands and opens them and it’s as if I can see a small, dark ghost the size of an apple floating away from her. “I haven’t touched the stuff. Makes me gag.”

I nod. I nod because this is what I want to know about my mother. I want to know that my mom loved zucchini once upon a time. I want to know who my mom was before Zaagman’s funeral home, and I want to know about my dad who was not-my-dad, and who was she before she decided that there was no difference between love and grief. It is my idea that there really is a difference between love and grief, there’s got to be, and it’s something fundamental, but I can’t tell her what that difference is. Love is a good thing, isn’t it? Love feels good. Right now, looking at her, not looking at her, I love her so much it’s painful. So much it hurts. She doesn’t seem to love me back. Instead of saying anything I just nod.

“You doing okay?” She works on her broken cuticle again.

I could tell her a million of my own things now. In my mind we’ve already had this talk a seventeen times. I could say; “Mike runs marathons and I’ve started running too, early in the morning, just him and me and our dog around the lake. It’s so quiet that the only sound is our feet hitting the pavement at the same time, to the same beat, and our breathing, perfectly the same.”

I could tell her what I really want her to know about me: Mike and I are talking of our future, of having a family, we’ve secretly already been trying to for a year, but nothing’s happened. Not yet, but I’m sure soon. It’s got to be soon, doesn’t it, because right now the only thing growing in me is a sort of ache, an emptiness that not even my love for Mike can seem to fill. I could laugh here. I could shrug my shoulders and say, hey, it’s no Zaagman’s funeral home parking lot, but maybe soon I’ll have my own conception story to tell. I could tell her I miss her and that maybe we’re not friends, but we’re something. Mother, daughter, that’s got to mean something doesn’t it. I say: “I’m doing fine.”

“Well, then, that’s good. Isn’t it. Doing okay. Doing fine. That should be enough.”

We sit. She finishes her beer. Reaches into her pants pocket, pulls out a five dollar bill, and leaves it on the table without saying goodbye.

* * *

I go back on my own.

Ten years, twenty, past the shoulder pads and hair teased into a tidal wave she wore in 1984, past the loom she warped in 1973 and never got around to weaving, past her blue party dress in 1961, the shiny one, the one she lost her virginity in. I pass my mother crying in the elementary school playground because her best friend told her she hated her, past her skinned knees and a broken tooth of her first really good fall on wobbly legs. I slink up the steps of the Ohio farmhouse to the place of mystery, where my mom’s mom rocks back and forth on the old iron bed thinking maybe this time she’d get pregnant, it is bound to happen soon. That’s the point where my mom starts. She starts with a wish that is both hope and fear, love and grief, whatever you call it. She starts with a yearning. An ache. This is the one thing I share with her. It’s the only thing I know for sure.