My Mother weighs the pork chop before I eat it. She measures the rice in a cup before it goes on my plate. She counts the green beans before they’re steamed. And she says “we just won’t mention that we ate at McDonald’s today, ok, we’ll just make something up!” Fun, fun. We’re taking part in a research project of some sort so my Mother has to keep track of every morsel of food that I eat for a couple of weeks. Of course my Mother thinks it’s the world judging her so she fudges the results by denying the fact that one Saturday we ate at Mickie Dee’s in the food court of the New Sudbury Shopping Centre. My mom teaches me a lot about honesty in this exercise. It will be our little secret.
She teaches me that people judge us, based on our ability to be perfect specimens of health. She teaches me that the only thing that matters is what people think of us. She teaches me that she is afraid that if she isn’t the perfect Mother, in the kitchen, at least, then she will be punished. And I will worry about what people think about me for the rest of my life, but it won’t be based in ignorance, it will be based in the reality that people will judge me for the rest of my life on whether or not I’m healthy enough for this or for that. And she teaches me that what I eat, what my shit looks like, how my tummy feels, these are no longer private issues, they are issues of medical files and Nurse lunch hour discussions. She teaches me that certain people are now allowed to ask me anything they like about all of my bodily functions, including the mucous in my cervix, the shit in my bowels, the phlegm in my lungs, all the fluids, milling about, moving slowly and thickly through my body, slowly thickening up and growing bacteria, festering little micro devils, growing and multiplying, making me cough, making me short of breath, destroying my lung tissue, breaking my blood vessels, shrinking my lungs, taking away my breath, making my heart work harder than it should, tiring me out, from my blood to my toes to my brain to my heart. To my heart.
She stands by the kitchen window, arms on her hips, reaching up every so often to pick at her teeth. She’s wearing a typical 50-50 poly-cotton shirt. Sleeveless, with her pointy, old lady big boob bra underneath, the one with the straps that are at least ¾” wide, the one with the cheap lace over the too-white polyester passing for silk. The shirt has swishes of blue and yellow lightly painted on it. Her arms, strong yet jiggly, shine with their expansiveness. Her dark navy polyester pants with the fake seam on the front slightly flare at the bottom, anachronistic in their shape and fabric. Her slippers, beige vinyl Tender Tootsies squish ever so slightly as she shifts her weight from one foot to the other. And she stands quietly by the kitchen window with the sunshine yellow bright ruffled valance, the kitchen window that’s now only 4 x 4 but a long time ago, when I came home from school, the entire side of the house was missing, my kitchen exposed to the whole street, and my parents never told me about it beforehand, just that day they told me that they were taking off the fake brick exterior and putting up pale green vinyl siding and that this window would be new too. And my Mother stands at this new window, shifting her weight looking out, waiting for Daddy to come home. Daddy doesn’t go out much unless he’s at work. But today he’s gone to the golf course with some friends. And it drives my Mother crazy.
Back and forth, back and forth, she shifts, no need to worry, but Daddy’s out and that’s upset the perfectly predictable pattern. He’s not sitting on his easy chair where he sits most days, he’s not working in the garden, fixing his gazebo, he’s out playing with friends and this is terribly disconcerting. This upsets the balance, strays from the routine, so my Mother paces, ponders, hovers. Hovers over her life, the others in it, hovers to make sure it’s all under her control, in her radar, able to be assessed and predicted. She hovers, waiting for things to return to normal, for him to come back, as though he maybe wouldn’t. Maybe it’s a WWII thing—she’s waited for him there too. Maybe she truly doesn’t expect him to come back. Maybe she knows that it’s real that he really could be gone, never to return.
And then she would hover over his grave, watching, controlling, hoping he’s still really down there, actually confined, truly lying in his grave, leaving his place on earth empty as space not to be filled.
If I walk from the bedroom to the kitchen I know that my Mother will ask me what I’m doing. If I go to the bathroom I know that she will tell me ‘there’s lots of hot water for the bath.’ If I go to the pantry I know she will tell me ‘I bought cookies today, if you want some.’ I know that my Mother hovers, her every breath, every thought, pulsing, choking, handling me, hovering like a cloud of sticky phlegm, holding me together, bogging me down in its thickness and putrid smell. I shower, I can hear her listening. I eat, I can see her watching, I talk on the phone, I know she’s finding excuses to come in the kitchen and listen. I see her, watching out the window, as I roll in the grass and giggle with Tim, from across the street. I see her, watching out the window, as I leave to go to school, and see her watching out the window as I get off the bus and walk home from the bus stop. I see her watching me read, feel her watching me write, see her looking at my reaction while I watch TV. Suffocated. My muscles tense, my chest tight with hovering.
This is my Mother’s day: get up, hover over me, make breakfast, wash dishes, sweep floor, hover over me, sit and do crossword, get up and serve tea, sit and sew things, get up and make lunch, sit and watch ‘stories’, hover over me, get up and make tea, iron, dust, make dinner, hover, sit and watch TV, sit and knit, hover over me, have a bath only every second day because we don’t want to waste water, rub Vaseline all over her face, go to bed.
I know I should be grateful for the meals, grateful for the safety, grateful for the clothes, the field trips, the gymnastics lessons, the trips to CF clinics eight hours in the car, grateful that I am not an orphan after all I was adopted, grateful for the bedroom, the phone, the gazebo, grateful for the safe town that I live in, grateful for the steak on Saturday night and the pop on the weekends. But instead I am furious. I want to swing my arms and punch everything in my path, telling it to stop hovering, stop watching, leave me alone, let me breathe, let me run free, let me not be watched, not be cared for, not tended to. Give me room to breathe.
Years later she will remember that she cried when Daddy left her at the hospital, gave her to the Nurse, and she watched him disappear down the long hallway, through the tears in her eyes. And years later she will wonder why she doesn’t remember her Mother’s face that day, why she doesn’t see her Mother down the hallway. Was she even there? And even though her Mother is still alive, she will not ask her such questions because what is the point, drudging up the forgettable past, opening up old wounds that don’t matter to anyone, what is the point? Leave well enough alone then. Good, solid wisdom, thank you.
I’m on the floor, in the bathroom, with the speckly tile, green and yellow and pink, with the pale green walls and bright yellow tiles, with the sunken medicine cabinet and window in the shower. I’m rubbing between my legs, frantic and fascinated. I’ve never felt like this before and I don’t know how it started and I don’t know how I know what to do, but it feels good and I will do it again. I will do it during commercials, I will do it right before bed, I will do it when I wake up in the morning, when I get home from school. And always on the bathroom floor because it’s the only room in the house with a lock and I know that my Mother can’t walk in, with her half-knock, half-open-the-door-while-she’s knocking business and catch me in the act.
And I know that it’s ok, I’ve heard that everybody does it, and I’m not hurting anyone and sometimes, when my parents go away on a smelt fishing trip, in the middle of the night, because that’s when smelts run, I know that I can scream if I want to, talk to myself if I want to, pretend more and bigger than before, on my bed, not on the cold bathroom floor with the grandma’s rag rug. Because otherwise, in my bedroom, any other night, I know my Mother hears me masturbate. I know she hears the bed creak and the rubbing of fabric against my hand. I know she hears me when I sometimes use the end of the nose of my teddy bear the one from Florida and I get on top and rub against it and grab my boobs and kiss the pillow. I know she hovers even then.
And Daddy asks me why we’re always fighting, me and Mother, and I tell him because she’s weird, impossible, too strict. He tells me that we need to get along and I tell him that I try but she’s crazy, she doesn’t understand anything about me and expects me to live like a hermit. I’m not even sure if I can provide an example, I just know that I feel restricted beyond belief, restricted beyond any restriction on my breathing brought on by CF. I feel like if I don’t get away from her I might die. I might not be able to make it through another day if she doesn’t leave me alone. I slam doors. I scream into pillows. I stomp my feet. I say words like cunt stupid fuck bitch cocksucker crusty vag fuckface and I enjoy the sounds. I enjoy the breath and the sounds. I revel in the evil and I secretly, secretly, deep down inside, hope that one day she hears me so that I’ll be able to tell her all those words, tell her that I need her to stop hovering, stop breathing down my neck, stop trying to protect me from something that I haven’t even met yet. Stop thinking that if I leave this house I will die, stop thinking that only she can take care of me and my CF, stop treating me like a rebellious heroin addict whore teen when all I am is a teen who does her homework, talks on the phone a lot and wants to own a kitten. Cut me some slack.
I learn about empathy from a drunken man on a bus, late on a cold night at the Sudbury bus station, on the way home with Mother. We were shopping at Eaton’s without Daddy because he’s on a business trip in Toronto. I learn about empathy from a drunken bum on a smelly ugly bus leaving from the city bus station heading to our town late in the night, brake lights streaking through my tired eyes, MacDonald’s cups tapping my feet as they roll about the floor, old lady with grey-black teeth smiling at me.
I learn about empathy because the drunken bum gets on the bus last, as we are about to leave and the bus driver tells him to get off. He doesn’t have a ticket and he doesn’t have any money so he has to leave the bus. He wears an army-surplus coat, khaki green with a fake-fur lined hood and jeans with white streaks down his thighs, his black boots unlaced, trailing an old Coffee Crisp wrapper underneath.
His beard is black with spots of gray, his nose long and thin. His green eyes wrinkled and watery.
“So sorry folks,” he says, as he walks to the back of the bus. “I’m so sorry folks.”
He waves his hand through the air, over his face, “Gosh, I’m just so sorry.”
He’s too loud. The code of silence on the evening bus is broken. The bus driver tells him once again to get going and he moves slowly to the front of the bus, waving his hand, zipping up his coat, telling us he’s sorry.
And I can smell it. I didn’t know what it was then, really. But it reminded me of my Tretorns, when I took them off after not wearing socks. It reminded me of my Uncle Barry’s breath after hours of playing the mandolin for everyone at Grandma’s Farm
I looked into his eyes. As the bus lights came on, as he stepped off the bus. I looked into his eyes while my Mother turned to tell me something. And I knew that she would tell me that he was a dirty man, a bad man who was dangerous. I had a feeling that she would tell me that such men were not good, that he should not be allowed to live, especially not near us, in a nice place like our town. I knew that she would tell me that I really needed to watch out for men like him.
But instead she said to me, “poor man, he didn’t mean any harm, he just had too much to drink. He didn’t hurt anyone.”
She turned to me and said that he was a poor man, that he didn’t hurt anyone and I knew then that even though in my daring dreams I imagined telling my Mother to fuck off, quit hovering, give me some room to breathe, I would never tell her that. I would carry this vengeful fantasy into my adulthood, carry it to my grave, because I would never tell my Mother, who cares even about a drunken bum on a late night bus, loves and hovers that I want her to fuck off. The world is already cruel enough without such nonsense.
I learned about empathy from my Mother.
I never think much about the fact that I was adopted. That a woman carried me, gave birth to me and had the strength to let me go. That a woman, for nine months, tried hard not to love too much so that her heart would not break, but just enough so that she would give me a ‘better life.’ I never think much about the fact that in soap operas the adopted child is furious with her real the right thing to say is birth, not real mother and will never forgive her. I feel nothing. I was six months old when I arrived in my new home. I remember nothing.
I feel no loss, no pain, no anger or resentment. I know no one at which to direct my anger, if I had any. To whom? A phantom woman? A woman I’ve never met. A woman I can’t begin to understand. A white trash whore? A virginal rape victim? Someone in between? An accident? A planned rebellion? A thoughtless afterthought?
Chances are that I will never know her because I have not felt the urge to connect with a stranger. I have enough love in my life, and plenty of strangers to navigate. I think I’m afraid that I might not like her at all. That she might be the most distasteful woman I’ve ever met. Instead I opt for the fantasy where she’s a lovely woman who has a lovely quiet life in the loveliest of times and every so often, around February 16th, she thinks of me, as a phantom daughter, caught still in time as a baby, if she saw me, fresh from the womb. And I can’t imagine her face and she will never begin to imagine mine and maybe one day we will pass each other on the street without even knowing. If life were a melodramatic novel we would end up co-workers or neighbours but the strangest things do not happen.
A friend tells me that her older sister is having a baby, and putting it up for adoption years later politically correct is “making a life plan” because she’s single and not ready to have a baby. She’s going to meet the adoptive parents, choose them herself. I am floored. In my world, when you’re adopted, that’s it. It’s over. You never meet your birth mother and she doesn’t meet your adoptive parents. It’s all paperwork and government workers and people without a history. Other than brown eyes, Catholic, five feet tall, seventeen years old, Irish background non-identifying characteristics.
I imagine how brave it would be to have a baby, meet some people and give that baby to those people. I imagine how sad it would be to have a baby, meet some people and give that baby to those people. I imagine how much easier it would be to have an abortion if you don’t think it’s murder. A day in the hospital, over and done with. Never wondering how she’s doing, what she’s doing, if she remembers you, if you can just go and get a glimpse of her, see how she’s doing. I imagine what it would be like to be a teen mother, another statistic, dreaming about the time when you have the baby that was meant to be, with your husband, in your nice house, on the nice street. And the other baby, the one that wasn’t meant to be, becomes a ghost of a memory, maybe a few seconds of remembrance. When you found out you were pregnant. When the baby came out. When they took the baby away. Or, when you found out you were pregnant. When you left the abortion clinic. Ghosts.
Of course, the mother is not the only one with phantoms.
The daughter has them too.
But for the most part she is happy to know that mother and don’t forget, there is a father too as a phantom memory, a mystery that deems the daughter interesting, a possibility that keeps the daughter guessing.