Kelly Lundgren Pietrucha is a writer, teacher and mother (not often in that order) from New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Attic, Literary Mama and Pindeldyboz. She is currently working on her first novel.
for Grace Paley, my mother of fiction
Every morning now my mother calls to warn me of her upcoming death. She says they are calls of life, to remind me that she is still living, but I think they are calls of death, to remind me that she is still dying.
“Good morning,” she yells through the wires, “I’m still here.” And then she hangs up, and I wait for her to call again the next day.
But it is not morning now, and I am not waiting for her call. Instead, I am waiting for the bus and talking with the man we used to call the baker before I learned his real name, which is Harold. Business has been bad since his lazy son took over, but it’s what he expected anyway, he tells me, because contrary to popular opinion, laziness is not something that goes away.
“Even when they are no longer children?” I ask.
“They are always children,” he says, “as long as I am alive.” A bus pulls up but it is not mine or Harold’s. After talking about the trees and stores and other members of the neighborhood, the conversation naturally comes back to my mother, and I tell Harold that she is dying. “But how can she die?” he says. “There is so much left for her to do.” By this he means my brother Stephen. He is for another story.
When I get to the hospital my mother immediately asks a very practical question, one I am used to answering. “Where are the children?”
“They are with Mrs. McCaffery,” I say. Mrs. McCaffery lives upstairs from my mother and has been watching children her entire life. When I was a child, she watched me, and now that I have two children, she watches them. She has never had any children of her own, which my mother attributes to a faulty uterus, but I wonder sometimes if perhaps she is in better working order than the rest of us.
“Do you have lots of time?” my mother asks. She is sitting straight up in her bed like a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep.
I look at my watch. “Maybe an hour.”
I open her shades and realize the view is ugly and sad—half brick wall half deserted office building—so I quickly pull them shut again. Unlike most patients on this floor, my mother is mobile enough to get to this window and open the shades herself if she wants. In fact, if it weren’t for the x-rays to prove the spattering of masses inside both her breasts, it would be hard to believe her sickness. She’s under observation, the doctors keep saying, and in the meantime they’re trying everything they can think of to get my mother to agree to a mastectomy.
“An hour is good,” she says. “I can tell you a story of my life.”
“I have heard them all,” I say because listening is work, and I am tired of working. Besides, I know it will be a recycled story, something about sacrifice and suffering, and I am tired of those things, too.
“Who taught you to be so swollen-headed?” she says and smoothes out a spot for me on her thin, wrinkled hospital sheet. I sit down.
“You remember when I learned bowling?”
“Of course,” I say, and she tells me it didn’t happen. “What part?” I ask. I am expecting her to say the part about winning, because despite what she wants to believe, my mother doesn’t win very often.
“The whole thing,” she answers. “I was never bowling. I just made up that story to cover another story. A much better one.”
But I remember it well. She bowled every Tuesday evening for nearly three months, and at the end of her training, she entered a contest. She was going to show us how to work hard, how to endure. And she did. She won the contest. When we asked her where her trophy was, she told us it wasn’t important. What was important, she said, was that it gave her hope.
“So you lied,” I say, “to your own children?”
“Oh, please. Are your children never lied to?”
“No. I never lie to my children,” I say, because I am, in fact, a very good liar. “And why should I believe you now? Maybe you’re lying again.”
“Maybe, but I am your mother, and you should believe anything a mother says. Especially a dying mother.”
She is well-practiced in her use of guilt, as many mothers are, so I resign and ask her to please tell me the story of not bowling.
“The story of not bowling,” she says, “is a nice title, but it doesn’t fit here. This is a story of presence, not absence.
“This is the story of Peter, a man I loved while you thought I was bowling. He was thin and happy and so un-American. And the bowling thing is not completely a lie, because that is where I met him. I really wanted to learn to bowl. I brought you and Stephen to Mrs. McCaffery and went to the bowling alley to learn. I tossed the ball into the gutter four times until Peter arrived.”
“That’s a nice metaphor.”
She smiles and tells me not everything is about organization and implications. Some things just happen the way they happen. But she is, of course, a master of craft.
“And so,” she continues, “on this particular night I was throwing gutterballs and met a man named Peter, and he was so full of love and sweetness I could not resist him.”
“Like strawberries,” I say.
“Like chocolate,” she says. She looks up at the white ceiling. The paint is peeling and bubbling above her. “Wait,” she says. “Let me start earlier. The season, the setting, the circumstances of my life—these things are all important. It was winter, and life was cold. Your father had been dead for two years. Stephen was angry, and you were sad. I was alone.”
“All of this I already know,” I say, because it is not just her life she is telling me about.
Her room smells of astringents, plastic, and stale food. On top of that it smells of sickness, hopeless possibilities.
“He was an artist,” she says. “He painted portraits for people at bus stops. Only they weren’t real portraits. He painted what he saw inside them, not outside.”
I am picturing my mother’s portrait, her largeness inside and out, and also her pain, her loneliness. I tell her about Harold the baker and how concerned he is for her. I tell her he wants to know what will become of her children, but she can see through my questions better than I can myself sometimes. “My children will be okay. They are not children anymore.”
I think of what Harold said about children always being children, and I wonder who is right. In cases like these, the mother is usually right, but right now,I like his truth better.
“We are getting away from my story,” she says. “Where was I?”
“You were unhappy, you decided to take up bowling, and then you met an artist named Peter at the bowling alley.”
“Yes. He charmed me from the instant I looked at him. He was a terrible bowler, just like I was, so we gave it up together. Instead, we spent each Tuesday night dancing, eating, or watching birds in the park. Always something new. And then it turned out one month that Peter didn’t have enough money to make his child support payments. He had three children. They all lived nearby, and he saw them often. He had the money to pay for two of them, but not all three, and who can make that kind of decision?”
“Wait a minute. Is this a story about Peter, or about you?”
“Can’t it be both? Now please, don’t interrupt.”
I agree to stay quiet until the end of the story. I am never allowed to interfere in my mother’s stories, even when they are my stories, too.
“Well,” she continues, “Peter’s landlord knew about these portraits he painted. She had always wanted one of her own, so she told him if he painted a picture for her she’d forgive him two months’ rent. Peter agreed. He sat down with her, looked into her eyes, and saw more sadness than he knew what to do with.
“She told him he was right. The sadness consumed her. And she hoped that if he put it into a picture for her it would leave her. Peter told her he was not in the practice of exorcism, but for her,he would try.
“First, she told him, he had to listen. He had to know what he was putting on the canvas. And because listening was his job for that moment, he complied. He sat back in a chair, looked out at the sun, and listened to her story.
“She began by telling him about her first child, the one who died inside of her. She felt its cold, shaky exit one morning as she lay in bed. She didn’t get up. She stayed there all day with the evidence of her child surrounding her, until night when her husband came home. ‘Murder! Murder!’ he cried when he saw the blood. My wife has been killed!’ She opened her eyes and turned them on him. ‘No,’ she said, ‘not me.’
“The next child stayed in her womb for nine months, just as she had prayed it would. She labored two whole nights to get him out and when he came, he was as cold as the first. It is a cruel irony, she told him, to be suffocated by the very thing that provides you life.
“It was after this loss that her husband left. He said he could not handle any more blood, not in his name. She begged him to stay, to give her one more child, but he was gone before she even stopped bleeding.
“Her third child was a girl, the result of a sad man with little conviction. He was gone before the baby arrived. Still, she felt blessed to have the baby. The child was alive, and that gave her great hope. They had many good years together. It was often hard—no money, little clothes—but they had happy times, and happiness is so good for the heart. Then one day there was a terrible accident. A group of neighborhood boys had stolen a car and convinced the girl to take a ride with them. The boys came home, but not the girl.”
My mother breaks her narration here and looks at me hard. She doesn’t want me to ask what happened to the girl. It will overtake her story; it will overtake her.
“Well,” she continues, “the girl had lived twelve more years than her siblings, and for that reason, the woman explained to Peter, it seemed a law of numbers that another child should live the longest. Longer, at least, than she. Peter agreed, and since he knew he could never put all of this into a painting, he decided instead to lie down next to her on her hot, determined floor and give her the child she needed.
“All of this he told me one Tuesday evening over dinner. We were in his tiny apartment, and he had just put four slices of bacon in a pan for BLT sandwiches. It sizzled and popped as he spoke. Whenever I smell bacon today, I am reminded of that woman. And of her children.
“And then, because I had children of my own to consider, I told him that we shouldn’t see each other anymore. He said all rightand kissed me with the sweetness of cavities.”
She is quiet for a moment and looks down at herself. She puts her hand on her belly.
“Is that it? Are you done?”
“Yes.” She is smiling again, childlike.
“You did what was right,” I say. My mother looks at me, surprised. “He was no good for you.”
“No good for me?” she laughs. She gets up from her bed and walks the few steps to her window. She removed all of the cords and sensors attaching her to her monitor last night, the nurses told me, and now all she has on is her hospital gown. It’s open in the back and I can see the folds of skin around her waist. She has asked me to bring her a real nightgown to wear but I keep leaving it at home, afraid that if I bring too much of her world into this hospital room it will remain here. Have you listened at all to the story? I got rid of him because he was no good for you. For me, he was wonderful.”
“He was a bum,” I say.
“What have I done wrong?” she asks. She turns from the window and her gown falls off her left shoulder. I can see her breasts under the cotton: dark and angry. She refuses to cut them off, to free herself from their sickness and burden. “You are such a hopeless girl. And to think when you were born, fresh from my womb, I held you and called you this very same thing you are now so empty of. I wanted nothing but for you to feel safe and warm. Happiness,” she says.
“I’ve had plenty of happiness,” I say. “Now get back into your bed.”
“You’ve had. In the past. So what about tomorrow? The next day? You need to have hope for the future, my child. Without that, you have nothing.” I don’t say anything and she sits back down on her bed. Her hospital gown has now fallen off both shoulders, her womanhood exposed like film and underneath,a thumping, pumping of her chest.
“I never saw Peter again,” she says, “but I looked for him often, at bus stops and on subway platforms. And every time he came into my mind I smiled. Happiness, you know, is good for the heart.”
“Yes, I know. But what about the rest of the story? All that loss?”
I look at the monitor she is no longer hooked up to—a green line still surges every few seconds in affirmation of an absent life—and again I am reminded of the conversation I had with Harold the baker this morning. “A dying mother,” he said, “is so hard to accept.” It was such a childish thing to say, though I did not think it at the time.
“You see nothing but sadness and suffering,” she tells me. “Despite all of the good you have received.” I look at her and wonder what life she is imagining for me. I think about the way her story began and know mine would start the same way. My husband has been gone for years. My son is angry, and my daughter is sad. And when my mother dies, I will be alone.
“You will endure,” she says.
I want to tell her how hard it is, how tired I am all the time, from the minute I open my eyes right up until they are closed again, and how worried I am, constantly, that my son is becoming the kind of boy who doesn’t have a father and that my daughter will consider sadness a friend.
“You will endure with grace,” she says so effortlessly, as all of her mothering has been, in spite of me. She closes her eyes, calm and distant. I am anything but graceful: this she has always known.
And then, with very much effort, she repeats herself. “With grace!” She stands up next to her bed, her gown now a puddle on the linoleum floor, her eyes scared and angry. She points her finger at me, scolding. “With grace!” she yells.
I think about the woman in the story and wonder, if Peter had painted her picture, where he would have begun. What colors would he have used? What shapes? Could he ever have known what was inside of her?
I take a blanket from the chair behind me. “Don’t get upset,” I say to my mother. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.” I lie her down on her bed and wrap the blanket tightly around her like I did with the children when they were babies, to make them feel like they were inside my womb again, safe and warm.