By Adele Hars
I remember my mother. She’s in the hardware store. I’m over by the baseball gloves. She is covered in paint, and wears olive green stretch pants and a sleeveless nylon shirt. Her hair is down – about shoulder length, basically straight, a dark dirty blond streaked with off-white latex. She has paint on her face, paint on her clothes, paint on her hands and ankles and tennis sneakers. Her breasts sag and her stomach hangs out. I’m furious. Can’t she clean up when she goes into town? Why would she clean up? She’s just coming in to buy more paint. But I am 12 and very embarrassed.
I remember my mother. She looks beautiful. She’s going to a ball. Her hair is swept back in a French knot, and she’s wearing a summer-sky gown with a sequined waistband. The dress, slim and elegant, is in two layers: an inner one of darker satin, a lighter one of chiffon. The arms are sheer; the cuffs blue-sequined like the waistband. My mother was a model once, and at times like this it shows. She wears pearly blue eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. I can’t remember if she wore earrings. I don’t remember her wearing earrings until I began to hate her.
On the first floor of the state hospital old men and women with straggly hair and bad teeth sway against the walls. Upstairs, people seem a little younger, but they, too, sway. I don’t belong here, says my mother. All my friends here tell me that. I want you to meet them. She shows me her metal-framed bed pushed up against the yellow cement-block wall. I have to get out of there. I sit in the car outside the massive brick building, waiting for my sisters, listening to an organ concerto on the radio. With the windows rolled up, I am insulated.
I try not to remember my mother when we went to court. When I took the stand against her, I don’t think I ever looked at her. Yet I remember that she always wore that tailored deep-blue, wool suit, which made her look elegant, even though it was second-hand.
I remember going through her bottom drawer after my father left. She heard he was going on vacation to Bermuda. If she could go with him, she’d thought, they could work things out. She’d bought a sheer nightgown, some summer-wear, and a pair of slippers with wispy green fuzz. Did she really think he’d take her? What was she thinking as she bought these things? Then I hardened myself. How disgusting, I thought. He’d never take her. What did she ever do to deserve it? He didn’t take her. Nine years later she was all alone. And she killed herself.
She did it in her car, in the garage. She was wearing her pajamas. She didn’t leave a note. It took me a year to convince myself that it wasn’t an accident. That she hadn’t just gone out to warm up the engine before getting dressed on a cold morning. The UPS man found her. He saw exhaust coming out from under the garage door.
I wish I could tell her I’m sorry. I never knew my mother as an adult. I left her when I was a child, when I was just 15. I thought I knew it all.
I remember my mother lying on a sofabed downstairs. She has a candle burning on the table next to her. I’m five years old. I don’t know why she has a candle burning – it’s not really dark out yet. She’s angry with me. Where have I been? There’s been a power failure. She’s been so worried. I can’t understand why. I’m perfectly OK.
I remember my mother at the dining room table. We’ve finished dinner and I’m clearing the table. She and my father are sitting across from each other, drinking instant coffee and talking, as they did every night. She sits slightly sideways, one hand on her coffee cup, one hand on her belly.
My mother’s eyes were gray-blue. Her nose was small, with a tiny scar. Sometimes she would curl her hair, but most of the time it was straight and lank, tucked dirty-blond behind her ears. On the right side of her neck, just above her collarbone, a peach-brown knob of skin. Her shoulders sloped slightly, the dark nipples on her breasts hung low. A raised pink scar on her round belly marked where her appendix had been. She did not shave under her arms, which was especially embarrassing at the beach. The tops of her thumbs were small but bent back hard. She never grew her nails, although the pink part seemed long and ridged. Her legs were pale and also unshaven; her feet small with high arches and pointy toes.
I remember my mother standing on her head. She did her yoga every day, on a padded vinyl mat: white with big, blue flowers. I could never stand on my head like she did, two hands clasped, nesting her head, elbows forming a tripod. Then she would do that lion thing where she’d lie on her stomach, upper torso propped up on straight arms. Her tongue hung out, her eyes rolled back. I hated it when she did that. It was so creepy. Then she’d go into the lotus position. That was fun. I could do it, too.
I remember my mother lying on the bed with the green-checked ice pack pressed against her migraine. Go without me, she told my father. That happened a lot. It made me angry.
I remember my mother in that long white cotton dress with the green ribbons. Drops of blood stain the hips. See what your father does to me? See this? Her teeth have marked his hand. It’s never clear who starts these things.
I’m in the post office. Hello, Adele. She approaches, quiet, pleading, accusing. Hello. Excuse me. Where are you going? I’m leaving. Is your father still seeing that woman? she snarls. Excuse me, I have to go. She follows me to the car. Don’t you know I love you? she says. I can’t tell her I love her, too. I can’t. She’d use it against my father the next time we went to court. I drive off with her hanging onto the car until she can’t and falls away.
My mother speaks in tongues and does “sacred dancing” to Handel’s “Messiah”. She tippy toes around when she dances, bent at the waist, arms extended. She does it for my friends’ mothers. This is very embarrassing. She also speaks in IG, a silly trick where you put “i-g” in every word so it sounds like you’re speaking another language. She teaches me how. Soon the whole fifth grade is speaking IG.
My mother is singing a song to Anne. Anne is jealous because Maria has two songs about her. Eve and I don’t have any songs, either. But my mother sings, “There was a little girl, and her name was Anne Elizabeth. And she was very beautiful. And her mother loved her very much.” Anne is delighted and claps her two-year old hands.
I remember my mother at the pool, Eve in one arm, Anne in the other. She sings Ring-Around-the-Rosy endlessly. Maria splashes by herself on the steps.
I remember fighting with my mother. I throw a blue plastic cup at her. We wrestle. I pin her and scream at her. What were we fighting about?
My mother comes at me. We are in my father’s kitchen. She grabs my hair and bangs my head against the brick floor in front of the fireplace. I am trapped my a chair. I hate her.
It’s 1975. I am 15 years old. I am sitting at my mother’s piano, writing on the inside cover of the hymn book. Dear Mom, I say. Or do I say Mommy? I’m sorry I have to leave, but you make my life too hard. But no matter what happens I’ll never call another woman Mother. I sign it: I love you. Your Daughter, Adele. I close the book and bury it in the piano bench. I go back to my room to finish packing. My father will be waiting for me.
A dozen years go by. My mother is gone. I want to be happy again and have maybe have children of my own someday. I am sitting in Dr. Lake’s office. We’re trying hypnosis. She tells me I’m going to open a door and see a happy scene with my mother. I do. We are sitting on the bed at the house near Boston. It is 1965. I am five years old. We are waiting for a call from my father to tell us it is time to join him in Puerto Rico. My mother asks me how I imagine Puerto Rico will be. I am very excited. I will be riding a green bicycle, I tell her. A two-wheeler, on a sidewalk by the beach. And she’ll be there watching, waving. Watching. Waving.
Adele Hars is an American writer based in France, and the mother of two wonderful teens. She’s published hundreds of articles about technology, but sometimes she writes about other things, too.
Art: Linda Willis