By Jim Sizemore
I arrived at her door nervous, like a teenager on his first date. It was my mother’s 72nd birthday. I was 42 then and had driven nearly six hundred miles from my home in Baltimore to our hometown in Virginia to take her to dinner. My plan was to retrace 40 miles on the Interstate to Lexington, a college town with a decent restaurant. She answered my knock wearing a simple house dress under a thin tan raincoat, her gray hair wrapped tightly in a flower-patterned dime-store scarf. The scarf material appeared to be cheesecloth. I pointed, “Must you wear that thing?” My mother looked at me as she often did, like I was crazy. “It’s clean,” she said, an answer that made no sense to me. Typical — our life together had been one long misunderstanding.
We headed back east to the restaurant, the sun setting behind us; I kept looking at the back-lit mountain ridges in the rear view mirror and the reflected light on the sloping hills ahead. When I mentioned the beauty all around us she shrugged, just sat there, scrunched down in her seat like the wrinkled shell of some creature you come across in the forest. My face had started to wrinkle, too, and I saw that the lines were forming into her patterns. It was eerie. I could look at her face and see my own, thirty years down the road.
At dinner all she did was complain. The place was too fancy, the meal too expensive, and anyway, that “pile of food” would just go to waste. Besides, she said, she didn’t like people to make a fuss over her. I made a mean joke about her “plantation mentality,” her inability to enjoy the good that came her way. We left the restaurant in silence and I drove her home, very fast. Outside the car window the black sky was background for a line of darker mountain ridges. The headlights illuminated flashes of broken white lane marker, and the dash instruments cast a dim, yellow light on my hands, tight on the wheel. I began throwing up curses from my gut, spitting them out in random combinations, alternately screaming and whispering every blasphemous oath I knew. It was an evil performance, variations on a filthy theme, a jazz riff of profanity, of streaming dark passion. The foul words had bulk and filled the dark cavity of my car. I had trouble breathing, seemed to be drowning in my own angry bile. “What does it take to move you?” I screamed, and the words echoed in the tight space.
No reply. I was sure she was smiling at my intensity in the dark. “You damn well should know what’s got me going like this! The sunset! That beautiful goddamn sunset!” After a long silence, I blurted, “What the hell does it take to move you?”
More silence. “Answer me!”
Her voice came back quiet, calm. “I never raised you to talk like that.”
I spit out my reply like another curse. “You didn’t raise me! You were gone by the time I was twelve!”
Not a peep from her, but I knew she was thinking how odd I was. She had always claimed I was different from her other sons, didn’t behave like a regular baby, didn’t cry much — that I was serious, like a “miniature man.” Then she said, “Well, it’s all done and over — the good times and the bad — your daddy and me — me and you. And from now on I’ll not let on like I’ve had all them babies, diapered ‘em, raised ‘em up ‘til they was teenagers or thereabouts, stayed up of a night when they was sick. Kept ‘em clean and fed.”
I took the first exit into town, heading for the Esso station on Main Street. I needed gas, but also wanted an excuse to leave the car before I started bawling. As the gas pumped and I cleaned the bug-plastered windshield from the trip down through the Shenandoah Valley, I tried to stay focused on my hand and the paper towel. But in the bright light of the gas island my eyes moved from the splattered glass to my mother’s face. There it was — that bemused smile on her thin lips, and I’m thinking: Damn, this is one cute woman!
Then a memory of her snaps into sharp focus: I’m a little kid, standing in my mother’s bedroom in the company shack where I was born, over by the paper mill where my father worked, and I can’t be more than three or four because I’m looking up at the window sill, looking up at it and watching dust motes dance in a shaft of light. The warm light is reflected from the floor onto the wall and ceiling and it looks like magic. She’s sitting at her round-mirrored dresser, her back to me, wearing only a full slip, brushing her beautiful auburn hair that looks with the morning light in it like a sunrise, patiently counting the strokes.
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.
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