Thursday, January 21, 2010

When I Miss My Mother

I can remember watching her nap, laid out on top of the bedspread, with one corner pulled up from the bottom and covering her knees. I can remember poking her, prodding her, and trying to wake her up. And, thirty five years later, I can remember calling her to apologize for that behavior. Home with a three-year-old on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a scrawny, hungry and ready-to-go-back-to-the-womb-please newborn, I suddenly understood the incredible sadness of missed sleep. I understood how tired she had been, and how thoughtless I was to wake her. “That’s okay, honey,” she chuckled. “I’ve made up for all that sleep by now. I forgive you.”

She was married to a man who believed he was born to deserve the best of everything, and he lavished himself with quantities of fine food, snappy, plus-size clothes and home d├ęcor that showed off what he considered to be his impeccable taste. If a desire flitted through his brain, he sought, in an instant, to chew it or buy it or show it off. All those treats for him meant not a lot for anyone else at 108 Constance Court, so things like classes at the Art Museum, or braces, or, eventually, college tuition, always seemed out of reach.

So she learned how to drive, at age 40, and went to work at the fancy hotel in the city as a Hat Check Girl, which required a dress, a girdle, high heels, and the ability to keep track of fur stoles, heavy overcoats and the foibles of visiting celebrities. She got enough tips, well-hidden from his appetites, to get children started in college. And if she dragged home at four a.m., carrying armloads of birds of paradise from a wedding reception and plagued with sore feet, well, she could take a nap tomorrow. If I didn’t disturb her.

My children are older now, and my deep unquenchable thirst for sleep, the kind that would lead me to rest my head on the check-signing area while my groceries were being rung up, seems to have happened a long time ago. Now, I wait. Outside school, outside the basketball game, after play practice. My days are planned around other people’s schedules, and I suddenly remember my first job, at our local library. I would get off work at 9 p.m., and there she would be, in her silver Ford, waiting. It never once occurred to me that she had been at a good place in her book, or on the phone with a friend, or wanting to slip into a hot tub. I needed her and she was there, and the thought that she might ever have needs of her own was not one that I cared to spend any time on.

It’s been 11 years since we stepped outside on a bright October afternoon. We were giving a party on Sunday, and she was going to help me buy champagne. Such a happy errand. “I don’t feel right,” she said, the last thing she ever said to me, and then she fell down. And the last thing I ever said to her, right before the chaplain came to deliver last rites and say a Hail Mary, was, “It’s okay to go. I’ll be fine here without you, don’t worry.”

I was lying, of course, and she probably knew that, but she went when it was her time to go. It took me the better part of a year to stop reaching for the phone in the evenings, ready for my nightly call of news and chatter, delivered to the one person in the world who thought that everything I said or did was just the greatest idea, ever.

I miss her when I take a nap. I miss her when I wait in the car. If there were one wish I could be granted, it would not be to see her, for that would be so much. It would be a wish for just one quick phone call, one more chance to check in with her and tell her that I’m doing fine, even if she knows I’m not.

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