White puffs of cold November air emerge from my mouth as I watch a woman in a brown peacoat and jeans, probably in her early 50s, walk arm in arm with a white-haired, shorter, more weathered version of herself. Despite the cold, they’re laughing, heading toward a shopping cart, seemingly delighted just by the mundane chore of going to the grocery store together.
I start my car and feel a pang reach into my heart and squeeze: I want to see my mom!
Then, all over again, I remind myself that she’s gone. She’s been dead for more than five years. I hate when this happens: an image, a thought, a memory comes hurtling out of nowhere, reminding me of how much I miss her. I want to see her, talk to her, feel her big, rugged hands—hands you’d never guess could turn an empty canvas into a delicate landscape of trees and waterfalls, hands that would wrap around a tea mug as she’d listen patiently to her child’s latest complaint, earnest wish, or offhand joke.
My mother wasn’t book smart, but she had an abundance of common sense, disliked gossip, and always tried to help people. Although she never finished high school, I often felt she was the wisest woman I’d ever met.
The mother and daughter from the supermarket are in my head now, crashing around, and I feel jealous that they have what I don’t: time together. I drive to the street where I used to live, passing my old house. I stop at the bay to look out at the inky blue water. I need to feel close to her. My mother was always at my house, sitting down for a cup of tea, helping me plant the garden, mixing cement for the patio, putting up wallpaper.
She had a penchant for painting everything white: walls, cabinets, even the cement. Her firm belief was that white paint made things look fresh and clean. Once, in a little church in Italy, my friends and I watched a group of men carefully removing thick white paint to reveal a beautiful fresco of bright angels underneath. Astonished, one of my friends balked, “Who would ever take white paint and paint over a fresco?”
“My mother,” I replied, smiling.
Her penchant for painting walls white was eclipsed only by her desire to knock them down. She could lay carpet, mow lawns, sew slipcovers, but her true passion was knocking down walls. I can’t even count the number of times I’d watched her, hammer in hand, whacking away at a wall, only to get my father to rebuild it somewhere else in the same room. It was her way of decompressing. In her later years, you’d have to watch her, because she’d take down a wall when you weren’t looking.
Now, I watch the white swirls of water peak on small waves in the bay and think of the time she took down my bathroom wall, leaving only the doorframe intact, after I’d casually mentioned that the builder shouldn’t have put the closet where it was. When I saw what she’d done, I panicked and yelled, demanding to know what she thought my husband would say when he came home. She laughed impishly and said he probably wouldn’t notice.
That evening, she made a quick getaway as soon as she heard my husband’s car in the driveway. Although he made a beeline from the front door to the bathroom, it was only after he’d flushed the toilet that I heard him bellow, “Where the hell’s the wall?” By then, she was long gone.
When I arrive home from the bay, my hair and clothes smelling of brackish water, I sit on the edge of the bed, still smiling at the memory of that absent wall, and catch a glance of my mother’s decrepit jewelry box that sits on my dresser. It’s a cigar box covered with floral cotton material and some white fringe hot-glued around the top. Although my brothers and sisters offered, every Christmas, to get her a new jewelry box, she’d always reply, “No, no. This one is just fine. Diane made it for me. I think it’s pretty.”
My sister Diane would shake her head. “Mom, I made that for you when I was in fifth grade! It’s falling apart now. Why don’t you put it away, or better yet, throw it out and let us buy you a nice new one? You can pick it out.”
The logic never worked. Her clutch became tighter on these old, falling-apart things, as if they were spun gold, simply because we’d made them. I look at her handmade jewelry box and want to touch the little trinkets nestled inside. I hesitate, weighing and wondering. If I touch them, will I feel better? I pick up the box and smell it, hoping that after all these years, there’s still some scent of her, left over, waiting for me. I want to smell her wrinkly skin; her hair—hair that was white for what seemed like forever, until it fell out after the chemo and then grew back in little patches.
For several months after she died, her dirt-filled gardening shoes and gloves remained on the stoop, right where she left them, as if she was coming right back. She hadn’t gardened since the previous fall, and they stayed put through the crushing time of her dying—through the spring, and then the first bud of summer. She forgot something inside, and took off her gloves and shoes to go in for a minute. She’ll be right back. My five siblings, my father, and all the grandchildren, 14 in all, would walk right past her shoes and gloves, everyone sharing in the secret wish, no one daring to touch them. Everyone sneaked a look at them, wishing that if we left them there long enough, she’d have to come back to put them on and claim her role.
I find hotel room keys in her jewelry box from her trip to Atlantic City with my father. This was when they were taking senior citizen trips to places they’d never been before, like Canada and Missouri. The night after their return from Atlantic City, my mother sat at my kitchen table and together we waited for the tea water to boil.
“Oh yes. It was very nice,” she said of the trip. “Very nice with the boardwalk, and the shopping—you could get anything you wanted, at any time. It was mostly food and gambling. And they had all these shows, the glamour girls and stuff. The rooms we had were fancy.”
I could tell that she didn’t like it very much and assumed it was because of her distaste for anything that smacked of extravagance. She was still worrying about money, even though she didn’t have to. When I was a child, she’d walk around in worn-out shoes, with her pinky toe sticking out, because we had to have shoes first. We always came before her; she could wait. What was she waiting for? We’d been over that many times before: there aren’t kids in the house anymore, enjoy life, give yourself things that make you happy.
“Well, Mom.” I pause, squelching a sigh. “Sounds like you didn’t enjoy it.” She pours boiling water into our tea cups, purposely aiming at the tea bag as the steam rises, wafting skyward, the boiling water rapidly turning an orange-brown color.
“No, I didn’t,” she says. “Everything is the same, no matter where you go. There’s a Kmart everywhere, a McDonald’s. You go on a highway that looks the same every place you go.”
“Well, yeah, I guess that’s true,” I said, surprised; I thought she was going to tell me how expensive everything was. “Everywhere you go, they have everything. Starbucks, Walmart, it is all the same.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” she said. “Everything is the same, so what’s the point of going anywhere? No matter where you go, you see the same thing. I just want something different.”
I gave a little chuckle. “Well, where would you like to go? If you had your chance, where would you want to go?” My mother was born and raised in Queens, New York, and moved to Nassau County and then Suffolk County, where she remained for the rest of her life. I was waiting for her to say California, where the climate is so sublime.
“Egypt. I’d like to go to Egypt,” she said.
I was flabbergasted. “Egypt?”
“Mom, really? Why Egypt? I’ve never heard you say this before.”
“Because . . . I want to go to a place that’s totally different from here. The language is different, the people are different. I want to see the pyramids. It would all be different.”
My mother had never expressed a desire to travel abroad, much less experience another culture. I don’t know how she’d survive on Middle Eastern cuisine: all she ever ate was mashed potatoes, corn, and meat. She wouldn’t even try broccoli. But her eyes were aglow, and she seemed transfixed on the notion of wanting something totally foreign.
Maybe there was more, so much more, that I didn’t know about her. My mind floats away as I realize that the only thing that came close to Egypt was her trip to Las Vegas, where she saw an imitation Egypt. I think about all the things I’d give her just to have her back for one moment. I’d give her Egypt and 40 camels. No, I’d work like the devil to give her 40 Egypts.
I know we let her know how much we loved her, but looking into that old jewelry box, I feel sad. Even after so many years, all I want is that cup of tea, the hello and goodbye kisses, and the little look from her that let you know you’d be okay. And because I can’t have it, the haunting self-doubt creeps in. Did I do everything I could?
She was the anchor, offering patience, suggestions, and sensible commentary as she gently reminded me of my own behaviors. I sense that she’s everywhere, not just in the things I look at, but in the blood flowing through my veins, the way I think, and my reactions to people. Sometimes I feel like I’m her and she’s me—only when I’m her, I’m a better version of me.
I found an old picture of my mother, from when she was about 50, and it seems oddly familiar. She’s at a party, sitting with her legs crossed, alone and smiling, holding a cigarette with its deadly, soft-red glow, while looking right into the camera. A white headband holds back her thick, honey-blond mane, and she’s wearing a string of pearls that look elegant against her black dress.
I have the picture enlarged and stash it in my suitcase as I hurriedly get to the airport to be present for my second grandchild’s birth. The day after the birth, I sit with my daughter in the hospital and point to a folder on her hospital tray as I goo and gaa over my beautiful grandson. “Open it,” I said. “I want you to see this picture.”
She opens the folder and picks up the picture slowly. “Is this you, Mom?” she asks.
I laugh. “I guess it does look like me, doesn’t it?”
A nurse enters to take my daughter’s blood pressure and looks at me, then the picture, then back to me. “You know, smoking is not good for you,” she says.
My daughter and I lock eyes and laugh.
I treasure this moment, and thinking of it now, suddenly my mother’s decrepit old jewelry box is even more valuable, spun gold. And even though she missed out on the real Egypt, maybe the gift of children, giving and getting from them, is the true wonder of the world.
Kathleen Monahan, DSW, LCSW, is an associate professor at the School of Social Welfare, Stony Brook University, New York, and maintains a private practice. Contact: Kathleen.firstname.lastname@example.org.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ