Part Three – Resolution
The moment I stepped off the elevator at Martland Hospital, the stench of urine smacked me in the face. Someone had stacked dozens of dirty bedpans against the wall near the entrance to the ward. It was not a burn ward—no such ward existed in the city hospital. A dozen beds lined the walls on either side—men and women together in the same room.
My mother’s bed was the third one on the left. It shocked me to see her alert and sitting up. As soon as she saw me, her first words were an apology.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
How could I look at her without betraying the horror in my eyes? Except for her face and the top of her head, her body was black with char from her ears to her chest.
I shook my head. “Don’t apologize. Just tell me what happened.”
“I was lying in bed and had a cigarette in the ashtray on the table. The window fan blew the cigarette onto the bed, and my bed jacket went up in flames.”
I knew that was a lie, but I understood she couldn’t say the truth, that she was drunk and passed out with a cigarette in her hand.
“Are you in pain?” I asked. She must be in pain.
She shook her head. “I don’t feel anything, but I must look horrible. I haven’t seen myself in a mirror. How do I look?”
“You look okay,” I lied, hoping no one would hold a mirror up to her face. I looked around the room. A naked semi-conscious black man sprawled in the bed across from my mother’s, and a naked woman lay in the bed next to him. Mother, too, was naked, but a sheet covered her to her waist. I didn’t know what to say, where to look, how to act. It was hard to tolerate the smell of her charred flesh, nauseating and sweet, like nothing I’d ever smelled before. I couldn’t bear to stay any longer; I had to leave.
“Before you go, ask the nurse for ice chips. They won’t let me drink, but my throat is so dry.”
No one was at the nurses’ station, and no nurse or aide was anywhere in sight. I should have searched the corridor, but I escaped into an elevator and ran from the hospital.
The next day, my mother was no longer sitting upright. She lay in the bed in obvious pain and distress. Does she have pain medicine? Why do her burns not have dressings? Who is her doctor? Why isn’t Wally here? Who is in charge here? I should have asked those questions. I was twenty years old, no longer a child. But I was immature, and too timid to question adults. I couldn’t take charge of my own life, let alone my mother’s
“I’m having trouble breathing,” my mother said. “Please find the doctor.”
I am so ashamed of what I did next; I fled the hospital without alerting anyone. How could I have done such an unforgivable thing? I have asked myself that question dozens of times, but I have no sane explanation. To admit that I didn’t believe her looks now to be ridiculous, but at the time I thought she was exaggerating her distress, seeking to garner sympathy from me just as she had my whole life. All of her lies, her exaggerations, bombarded me at once and I turned away.
I was angry at her for causing the fire, and at myself for not stopping on my way home from work to make certain she was okay. What if I could have prevented this from happening? I berated myself for not having the courage and compassion to ensure the doctors gave my mother better medical care.
On the third day, a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that enabled her to breathe through a hole in her throat, assisted my mother’s breathing. She hadn’t exaggerated, she couldn’t breathe. The guilt just kept piling on top of me.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, my mother seemed unaware of my presence. I stood by her bedside for several minutes, then left.
The next day, my mother’s other sister, Aunt Frances, was leaving the ward as I was going in. I didn’t know Frances well. I was in her company a few times years before when she had visited my grandmother. She and my mother did not always get along, but their relationship was not as volatile as the one between my mother and Aunt Marge. There were times my mother said she hated Aunt Marge, and she made me swear I would never, no matter how desperate I may be in the future, ask Aunt Marge for money.
“I just saw your mother,” said Aunt Frances. “She’s in bad shape.”
“I know. She wasn’t conscious yesterday when I came.”
“She is now. I was just talking to her.”
When I entered the ward, I didn’t see my mother. An elderly white woman who lay so still I was not sure she was breathing, now occupied the space my mother’s bed had been. I spun around, my eyes searching the other beds, and found my mother on the opposite side of the room. She lay with a sheet covering her body up to her neck.
“Mom?” I whispered.
She didn’t acknowledge me. Her blue eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling above her bed. I looked up. There was nothing there, just the white ceiling, yellowed with age.
“Mom?” I said again.
Her forehead creased, and her eyes looked frightened.
“Hail Mary,” she said. “Hail Mary, full of grace. “
“Hail Mary full of grace… Hail Mary full of grace…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary….”
What did she see? She focused her eyes toward the ceiling as if she could see through it at something or someone not of this world.
Her tone was pleading, insistent. “Hail Mary! Hail Mary!”
Was she seeing the Virgin Mother?
I lingered at her bedside for several more minutes, not knowing that would be the last time I was to see my mother; that she would die over the 4th of July weekend while I escaped to the Jersey shore. If I had the same choice now, I would never think of leaving my dying mother’s bedside, regardless of whether she was conscious. I would not allow her to die alone.
When I arrived home after the weekend, my father told me that my mother’s body was still in the hospital’s morgue awaiting my decision.
“My decision?” I croaked. “I don’t know what to do, or how to make funeral arrangements.”
I telephoned Wally. He said he had no money, and that as far as planning the funeral, I should be the one to decide.
I turned to my father. “I don’t know how to do this, Daddy.”
I thought maybe Dad would offer to help, but instead he suggested I look in the phone book and start calling funeral parlors. So that’s what I did. But I was resentful as hell, especially when I found out that Aunt Marge was still on vacation and refused to cut her trip short to help with arrangements.
After making a few phone calls, I learned just how expensive funerals are, and that the funeral homes all wanted money up front. As a last resort, I called People’s Burial Company. Their yellow pages ad advertised low-cost funerals. I scheduled an appointment and made Wally go with me to make the arrangements.
I declined the director’s offer to let me view my mother’s body before the casket (the least expensive one—the blue one that looked like cardboard with faux velvet material covering it) was closed. I could not bring myself to look at her.
While discussing the arrangements, Wally informed the funeral director that my mother did not have life insurance. We had no choice but to ask Aunt Marge for the money; she was the only one in the family who could afford to pay for a funeral. I thought back to the promise I had made to my mother that I would never ask Aunt Marge for money. I disobeyed my mother’s wishes, but what choice did I have? There was no insurance money, no savings, and nowhere else to turn. Aunt Marge grudgingly came up with the money, but she never let me forget she did so.
Back then, Catholicism still indoctrinated me. I still believed in Heaven and Hell and worried about my mother’s soul. She had not confessed her sins, and did not receive Last Rites. Would the way she lived her life doom her to spend an eternity in Hell?
The funeral director arranged for a Catholic Mass to be said at her funeral, and I listened as the priest read a passage from the “Book of Wisdom:”
For if in the eyes of men, indeed they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them,
and found them worthy of himself.
I clung to the hope that its message meant God had used the fire to cleanse my mother’s soul. I reasoned that if God forgave her, I wouldn’t have to.
For several years after my mother’s death, I had a recurring nightmare in which a stranger told me that my mother was still alive, and he gave me the address where she was living. The route I followed was complicated and unfamiliar. I drove for hours on twisting, winding roads. When I stood before the wooden door of her apartment, I knocked once, then twice. No one answered. I knocked again and again, but my mother never came to the door. I awakened with a yearning for my mother that I could not shake.
On and off for several years I worked with various therapists, and during one session, my therapist suggested I try putting my mother in an empty chair. “Using an empty chair differs from using your imagination,” she explained. “The chair keeps your mind from drifting away from its purpose.”
The next day, I did as she suggested—I invited the ghost of my mother to sit in an empty chair facing me. I pictured her younger than when she died, with smooth skin and shiny auburn hair. I imagined she felt suspicious, maybe even frightened, by what I might say to her.
I cleared my throat and began.
“Mom, I invited you here to talk about the past, and I need to warn you I have very few good memories to share. I need to tell you my story, the parts you played in it, and parts you didn’t. Whether you were in my presence, you influenced my every move.” I took a deep breath. “There had been so many times when I wished you had aborted me.”
I talked for a long time, holding nothing back. I told her how much she had hurt me, and how I had longed for her to be a mother to me. I wept, allowing myself a few minutes of self-pity, and then sat quietly until a sense of peace enveloped me. Of course, I didn’t hear my mother’s voice speak to me, but I imagined I felt her sorrow and her regrets. I understood that my mother’s intent was never to hurt me—her alcoholism did far more harm to her than it ever did to me. The time had come for me to let go.
Before putting the chairs away, I said, “I forgive you.”
Not long after the empty chair session, my recurring dream returned one last time. I drove the same convoluted route along the same winding roads. When I reached my mother’s apartment, I ran up to the door and knocked. Then I knocked again. This time my mother opened the door and took me into her arms.
There are still times when I feel a sense of longing, but I no longer dwell on those feelings. Over time, the memories have become less important. Forgiving my mother has been like shining a flashlight in a dark stairwell. Blame was too heavy a club to carry, and to be rid of it has been liberating.
It has been many years since I lived in Jersey, over twenty since I visited. The old neighborhood looked the same. Although the signs in the store windows are now written in Portuguese, security gates now protected the entrance doors to Grandpa’s old tavern, and iron grillwork covers all the first-floor windows. Cuccazella’s grocery story is now Torrie’s, and in one of the third-floor windows of the apartment where my friend Butchy Napurano had lived there is a For Rent sign.
While in Jersey, I stopped off at Holy Cross Cemetery, where my sister Susan’s casket is entombed in a mausoleum. My birth mother is also buried at Holy Cross, but outside, in the oldest part of the cemetery. I had not been to my mother’s gravesite since 1965, the year she died.
Finding my mother’s unmarked grave was difficult. How sad, I thought, for her to lie in a grave with no marker, as if she mattered to no one, as if I had never loved her. Was anyone left, other than me, who even remembered her? I made the sign of the cross, prayed the Hail Mary, and said goodbye to my mother for the last time.
When I drove out of the cemetery toward the highway, I passed several businesses selling gravestones. I turned the car around and parked in front of one of them.
“I want to order a gravestone,” I said, once inside the office. I thumbed through a catalog showing different styles of headstones. “This one,” I said, pointing to one I thought she would like. I told him her name and the dates of her birth and death. “One more thing,” I said. “Above her name, in large letters, I would like the stone to say MOTHER.”
I had now come full circle to a place of forgiveness. Erecting a monument to my mother has proven to be the final catharsis—whether for her, or for me, I’m uncertain, but it feels right.
PART 2 - Remorse
Memory is a tricky thing. I have fragmented memories of my mother that don’t involve her drinking. I remember going to a movie with her when I was twelve to see Man of a Thousand Faces, and of going to work with her on the Saturdays she waitressed at a pizza parlor years before she became bedridden. But those memories are elusive, as if their benign nature prevents me from recalling them as vividly as I do the dark times, which were far more common.
The Saturdays I spent at my mother’s apartment, her husband, Wally, cooked dinner for me. I sat in an upholstered chair next to her bed with a TV tray in front of me. When Wally served me dinner, my mother required him to wear a towel draped over his arm like a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Most Saturdays, Wally cooked spaghetti for me, al dente, the way I liked it. He was an excellent cook. By trade, he was a bread baker, but my mother told me that before they married, Wally was a bookie. He attracted her, she said, because he dressed in expensive suits and flashed a lot of money. I had a hard time envisioning Wally, the skinny man in a tee shirt, striped pajama bottoms and slippers, wearing a fancy suit.
I remember one Saturday in particular. She asked Wally to go to the store for cigarettes and to come right back. When he returned, she put her hand out. “Give me the change,” she said.
Wally dug into his pocket and gave her some coins. My mother counted them and said, “There’re ten cents missing. You stopped at a tavern for a beer, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
“You're lying. Get over here and let me smell your breath.”
“Ah, so what if I had one lousy beer?” Wally said.
“I don’t like you drinking. That’s what.”
“Shut yer trap,” he said, hurrying out of the room.
My mother turned to me, shaking her head. “I give him just enough money to ride the bus to and from work. If he has any more money, the somnabitch stops at a gin mill. I can always tell when he’s been drinking because his ears turn red. He made me so mad once that I picked up a knife and stabbed him in the chest.”
“No!” I couldn't believe she said what I thought she said.
“Wally!” she hollered. “Get in here and show Joan what I did to you.”
Wally walked into the room. “Whaddya want now?”
“Open your shirt and show Joan what I did to you.”
“What're you talkin' about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. Open your shirt and show her where I stabbed you.”
Wally opened his shirt, and sure enough, there was an ugly purple scar on his chest.
“She didn’t really stab you. Did she?”
“Yeah, she stabbed me.” Turning back to my mother, he said, “Can I button my shirt now?”
After he left the room, Mother told me she had nearly taken his eye out when she whipped him with the metal end of a dog leash, and another time she smashed my school picture over his head.
“The glass broke,” she said. “That’s why the picture’s not on the mantel anymore.”
I don’t know what stunned me more—the fact that she physically abused Wally or that she seemed proud of it.
That night, when Wally served my salad, he covered the lettuce with sliced tomatoes and green olives. I loved black olives, but hated the green ones. When my mother saw me picking at the salad, she said, “I sent Wally out to buy a jar of green olives, especially for you because I know they're your favorites. Right?” She aimed her eyes at me with a menacing smile on her face. “They are your favorites, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I lied, shoving an olive into my mouth. “I like the green ones best.”
I was fourteen when I stopped all contact with my mother. Several months before, our family doctor prescribed tranquilizers for me, but they didn’t always calm my anxiety. I remember three separate occasions when I flew into a rage—screaming, crying, and throwing things—frightening my stepmother, who had no clue how to handle me when this happened. On those days, Dad rushed me to our doctor, who injected me with a tranquilizer. During the ride home, I was so out of it I kept falling over and banging my head. After the third emergency visit, the doctor told my father that I had to end my relationship with my mother, or else. I do not know what “or else” meant. But I was afraid it meant I would end up in a booby hatch, a place where they lock crazy people up.
Dad told me that my mother wouldn’t believe him if he told her I didn’t want to see her anymore—it had to come directly from me. Too afraid to tell her to her face, or even to talk to her on the phone, I put it in writing. Composing the letter was difficult. I didn’t know how to tell my mother that I couldn’t see her anymore. The decision wasn’t mine, but I agreed to go along with it because I thought that not spending Saturdays with my mother would make my life easier, that maybe I wouldn’t need to take tranquilizers, and maybe I could pay attention in class. I had just graduated from elementary school and was about to enter East Side High in September. Writing the letter could wipe the slate clean, I thought, give me a fresh start, change my life for the better.
The doctor said I should not see you anymore
because it makes me nervous.
Two days later, Dad handed me a Western Union envelope. In it was a brown piece of paper with a typed message on white strips of paper.
Whatever people have told you about
me are lies-STOP- But I will abide by your
wishes-STOP- From this day forward
I will no longer be-STOP-
I cried after receiving her telegram. Even though I was the one ending the relationship, I felt that my mother had abandoned me for the second time in my life. It was as if she had said, you’re turning your back on me? Well, I’m turning mine on you.
Dad found me sobbing in my bedroom. “What does it say?” he asked. I handed the telegram to him. He read it and said, “It’s for the best.”
A few months went by, and the film, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, was playing at The Rivoli Theater. Susan Kohner plays Sara Jane, a biracial girl who passes for white. She is ashamed of her mother and runs away from home. When her mother finds her, Sara Jane rejects her. In the film’s heart-wrenching scene, Sara Jane learns that her mother has died. Wracked with shame and grief, she sobs as she crawls after the hearse that carries her mother’s body.
I sobbed along with Sara Jane, because, in my mind, it was my mother in the hearse, and it was me crawling behind. The movie ended, and as the credits rolled, I was still crying uncontrollably. I cried all the way out of the theater, and all the way home.
If anyone had asked me why the film distressed me so much, I would not have been able to articulate an answer. But today I know my tears were about abandonment and guilt. I was crying for my mother because I had abandoned her. I thought about how I would feel if my mother died and I could never see her again.
As the years passed, I began to romanticize my mother, especially because my relationship with my stepmother was not good. I fantasized that my birth mother had quit drinking and could finally be a proper mother to me. I wondered what advice she would give me on my first date. Would she have helped me pick out a dress for my senior prom? Does she think about me and wonder what I look like now?
I had not heard a word from her in five years, and worried that she may have died. A year after graduating high school, I could stand it no longer; I had to know. I looked in the telephone directory for her husband, Walter Ryansky. The address and phone number were the same.
She answered the phone after four rings.
“Mom?” I said, my voice quivering. “This is Joan.”
“Joan?” She took a breath. “Is that really you?”
“Yes. I was wondering… can I come to see you? Maybe this Saturday?”
“Of course. Come at noon,” she said. I could hear the excitement in her voice. “I’ll have Wally meet the taxi downstairs.”
When I arrived at her apartment, Wally was downstairs, as promised. He paid the taxi driver and led me upstairs to my mother’s bedroom.
She was drunk.
For the next three years, the visits with my mother were like television reruns—she told the same stories, fabricated the same lies. Her drinking had gotten worse, and by 1965, my mother weighed just 84 pounds. She looked like a skeleton.
* * *
The bus driver honked his horn, jarring me back to reality. My mother’s stop, North 3rd Street, was coming up. I rose to pull the cord to let the driver know I was getting off, then changed my mind and sat back down. Ah, the hell with it, I thought. Just go home.
But I made the wrong decision. I should have stopped. If I hadn’t been thinking about all the bad things my mother did, if I had gotten off the bus, I may have prevented a tragedy.
Later that evening, I received a phone call from Wally. He said my mother is in Martland Hospital. “Your mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She has 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 80% of her body.”
PART 1 - Reflections
The switchboard was busy that day, and a pile of forms to be typed threatened to spill out of my IN box. I didn’t have time to sit on the phone with Mother while she nodded off, but I could not get her attention to tell her to hang up the phone. Her slurring that day was worse than usual—she drank too much wine or swallowed too many pills.
I worked as a receptionist for The Greater New York Mutual Insurance Company in East Orange, New Jersey. The company was adamant about no personal phone calls, except in an emergency, but I had no luck convincing my mother the ‘no personal calls rule’ applied to her. She telephoned my workplace every day—calls in which she rambled, raged or slurred. I uttered, “uh huh” or “yes” or “no.” Didn’t even need to move my lips.
My workstation was L-shaped. The reception desk faced the entrance, the phone system to my right. I wore a headset tethered to the switchboard. As calls came in, I put my mother’s open line on hold while I answered the new phone calls. That day, the connection to my mother had been open for well over an hour, but she was not talking. I called her name every so often, hoping to rouse her, but it was not until five o’clock rolled around that she stirred enough for me to tell her I was leaving work for the day.
I never lived with my birth mother. When I was a baby, my mother abandoned me and was later declared an unfit mother. I lived with my father and stepmother until I was nineteen. After a year of having been out on my own and failing miserably at adulthood, I moved back in to my father’s house. I had no car, no money, and barely enough clothes for office work. My supervisor, the president’s private secretary, had counseled me more than once to dress appropriately, causing my face, neck, and ears to become impossibly red.
I rode the bus to and from work, and on my way home that day, thoughts of my mother filled my head. I pictured her sitting up in bed, her hair in pin curls, a Confidential magazine on her lap—a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray next to a cup of wine on her nightstand. Was she even sober enough tonight to sit up, let alone read a magazine? Her incoherent phone call told me otherwise. As the bus inched its way toward Newark, I argued with myself. Should I get off at her stop and walk the four-blocks to her apartment through an iffy neighborhood? Sundown was a couple hours away, and if I stayed till after dark, I could take a cab to my father’s. Frustrated and tired, I just wanted to go straight home, but Mother sounded so out of it when I said goodbye. My stomach flipped.
My head bumped against the window as the bus made its way down Springfield Avenue, stopping at every corner to let passengers on and off. My mind wandered, drifting back in time to Saturdays spent in my mother’s company.
The first clear memory of being with my mother was when I was four years old. We stood together in the bright sun at a bus stop near Penn Station in Newark. The bus arrived, spewing exhaust fumes in our faces. Mother lifted me onto the first step and I climbed the rest of the way onto the bus. I imagine no empty seats were nearby because I jumped up to grasp a strap that hung from the roof of the bus. I was much too small to reach that high, so when the bus lurched forward, I stumbled against the legs of a woman sitting on the bench seat behind the driver. The woman smiled, scooped me into her arms, and held me on her lap.
My mother paid our fares, and then, seeing me on the woman’s lap, grabbed my arm and admonished me for trying to reach the strap. She demanded the woman put me down. “You don’t need to yell at her. She’s just a kid.”
“Mind your own business,” my mother said. She again grabbed my arm to pull me off the woman’s lap, but the woman held me closer. That’s when the shouting began—my mother’s voice louder and meaner. The bus driver yelled at my mother to be quiet, but that made her angrier and she screamed louder, arguing with both of them at once. The bus slammed to a stop. The doors hissed open, and the driver ordered my mother to get off the bus.
“Give her to me!” Spittle flew from my mother’s mouth as she yanked me from the woman's lap and dragged me to the sidewalk. When she set me down, she slapped me hard across the face. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said, her eyes drilling into mine. I flinched; afraid I would pee my pants.
I learned an important lesson that day: don’t make Mother angry.
One Saturday, a man my mother met in a tavern drove us to Olympic Park, the largest amusement park in New Jersey.
I loved trips to Olympic Park, where I could ride the ponies, eat cotton candy, or float in the Olympic-sized pool in a swimming tube.
Just inside the park's entrance were the funhouse mirrors. I skipped from mirror to mirror, fat in one, skinny in another, short legs and gigantic head in another. I wanted my mother to look into the mirrors with me, but when I turned to get her attention, she was already heading toward the picnic grove.
Patches of grass and several oak trees decorated the dirt around the picnic tables. The midway, a wide path of carnival games and concession stands, was to our left. The carousel’s calliope music and the screams of people careening down the first hill of the roller coaster excited me. I hoped my mother wasn’t planning to stay in the picnic area all afternoon.
My mother sat at a table and told “Uncle Harry” to get a pitcher of beer for them and root beer for me. My immediate impression of Harry was he was slippery, like the actors who played gangsters in the movies.
“Go play some games,” Harry said, fishing in his pocket for dimes. “Maybe you’ll win a teddy bear.”
I walked toward the carnival booths to find a game that might be easy to win. Right off, I lost two dimes on the word MOM at the spinning wheel booth, and another two dimes throwing darts at balloons. I had only three dimes left, so I skipped the booth where you knock milk bottles over, and moved to the next booth where live goldfish swam around in little round fishbowls.
“Do you want to try, little girl? Three balls for a dime.” The man running the booth wore a straw hat and juggled three ping pong balls. “If a ball lands in a bowl the goldfish is yours.”
I sorely wanted a pet of my own, preferably a dog, but my father and stepmother wouldn’t go for it. A few times, I coaxed stray dogs to follow me home, but I was not allowed to keep any of them, especially not the pregnant ones. But a goldfish was nothing like a dog, so I thought for sure I could keep it if I was lucky enough to win one. I gave the man my dime, and he gave me three ping pong balls.
The first three I tossed missed the bowls. I placed another dime down and got three more balls. No luck. I took the last dime out of my pocket, kissed it for good luck, and placed it on the counter. The first ball skimmed the edge, but the second one kerplunked right into a fishbowl.
“Look here, folks! This little lady won herself a goldfish.” I turned, hoping my mother had seen me win, but she wasn’t looking my way. The man handed the fishbowl to me.
“Thanks, Mister,” I said, clutching the bowl in two hands. I gingerly walked over to the picnic table and laid my prize in front of Mother.
“Look what I won,” I said, beaming.
“Good for you,” My mother said. “Sit down and drink your soda.”
“Can I go on the pony ride?” The ponies, my favorite in the park, were further along the midway, past the roller coaster and carousel. I loved the way the ponies smelled, and the feel of the leather saddle. I would have happily spent the entire day riding the ponies.
“Not right now,” she said.
“Not right now” meant not at all. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the opposite end of the picnic table watching my goldfish swim around the bowl, a long trail of poop floating out of its back end.
My mother picked me up in a taxi and directed the driver to drop us off at a tavern uptown. We were supposed to be shopping for a coat for me, but she wanted to stop at a tavern first. We went inside, and my mother led me to the bar where she asked the bartender for a double shot of rye with a short glass of water. I had never seen my mother drink whiskey before. In her apartment she kept gallon jugs of Christian Brothers wine in the bedroom closet. She sipped the wine out of a delicate English teacup. The few times she asked me to pour for her, she said she drank the wine for medicinal purposes.
“Don’t put the whiskey in the water,” she said to the bartender. “I'll take it on the side.” She swallowed the double shot in one gulp, then asked for another. After her third double, she drank the water. We walked back outside where a cool breeze followed us down Broad Street to Haynes Department Store.
My mother told me to pick out a trench coat. I found a pale iridescent-green one I liked. While she paid for the coat, I scanned a nearby rack of skirts. I heard shouting and spied my mother yelling at the cashier. I ducked my head, rushed through the first set of exit doors, and pressed against the wall until my mother finished paying for my coat. When she caught up with me, she made no mention of the argument. Neither did I.
We crossed Broad and headed toward Market Street to hail a cab to take me back to my father’s house. My mother walked on my left side, weaving and clinging to my arm, staggering through the people heading in the opposite direction. I hated how she clung to me, and how the other shoppers frowned at us. I kept my head down and my eyes focused on the ground. When she lost her footing and lurched forward, I grabbed her before she fell over. When I looked up, a girl from my fifth-grade class walked toward us. Her eyes opened wide, as she looked from me to my mother and back to me again. In that moment, I saw my mother through the girl’s eyes: a drunken woman holding onto her daughter for support. Shame washed over me.
When I arrived at school on Monday morning, the girl was already in the classroom. As I walked in, she jumped out of her seat and headed straight for me. In a move to avoid her, I darted across the room toward the pencil sharpener. She stood behind me while I sharpened my already sharp pencils. I turned around and faced her.
“Was that your mother I saw you with on Saturday?” she asked.
“No,” I lied, my stomach turning.
“Who was she then?”
“She was… she was just some woman.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “I think she was your mother.”
“No, she wasn’t!” I said, angry with myself for not coming up with a more believable lie.