Daughter Mother
The water boiled and I held my face over the pot. The steam stuck to my neck. My pores opened or maybe they were supposed to close.
My shirt clung to my skin and imprints from the lawn chair ran up my legs. Through the window I could see her move around the kitchen.
She was crying in the backyard when I came home. Not sobs but soft tears.
She was just home from school. Her backpack strung over one shoulder. I’ve told her it will ruin her posture. Teenagers never care.
The phone that delivered the news lay on her lap. She picked it up and threw it across the yard. It bounced across our small patch of gravel, like skipping rocks on a pond.
The phone lay limp in submission. Moments before my mother’s boyfriend broke the news.
I heard the glass door slide behind me. A small sniffle told me not to turn around.
I stood facing her back. Her braided hair swung when she reached for the salt.
She asked if I had started dinner and I looked at her.
Smells good, I said.
I added more pasta, nervously adding in an extra couple of sticks, in case there wasn’t enough for two.
How was school? I asked.
Good, I said with a shrug.
Learn anything? I asked with a bite on the last word.
Not really, I said.
I’m not a fragile thing to tiptoe around, I said.
I knew she wanted me to ask about the phone call. This had always been my form of rebellion. Picking up her cues and letting them fall.
She waited too long to respond. I could feel it building. The heat in my skin. The anger growing. Stale frustration caught like smoke in lungs.
She stared at her feet.
So, my mom has cancer, I said.
I’m sorry, I offered.
I waited for more.
It was terminal.

Terminal? What terminal? Airplane terminal? My mother worked at the airport for 20 years, longer than all the marriages she had combined.
Then came the tears. I thought about hugging her but it would’ve been weird.
My mother would come home late at night reeking of perfume to cover up the scent of travel. I could still smell it on her. The scent of packaged peanuts.
I leaned in to touch her upper arm and she stared at my outstretched hand in contempt.
I waited for her hand to reach me, but she pulled away.
I thought of grandma. I thought of how she never visited, could never spell my name right in birthday cards and how when I talked her eyes glazed over. Like Mom’s.
I thought of my mother. I thought of how she’d work late, how she hated my husband before I could and how her green eyes burned bright emerald when she was angry. Like mine.
It was before Dad left us. Before I started picking up extra shifts at the grocery store. Before I started the new high school. Before my middle school boyfriend stuck his tongue down my throat. Before my first period in the local Walmart. Before I gave up interest in Barbie dolls. Before arts and crafts that would make me sticky with glue.
I don’t remember when it started. The coldness between us.
Before. It was just before.
I remember never wanting children. My friends would come up with baby names and I’d crinkle my nose in disgust. Children are only a burden. But then she was born and we would play with finger paint and bake cakes and she would let me braid her hair.
I looked down at the soft spaghetti. I picked up a strand and slurped it down the same way boys in movies eat worms.
My mother and I were never close. Maybe we were close at one point. When I was too young to understand…
Do you want red or white sauce? I asked.
She strained the pasta in the sink and loose strands tried to escape through the holes of the colander. Is that it? I asked quietly.
Yes, those are the only options, I said.
Aren’t you sad? I said.
Sure. I mean, of course.
She began to scuff her knock-off Converse against the cabinet under the sink.
I noticed gum on my shoe and tried to scrape it off. Bright pink. Probably Hubba Bubba. Who eats Hubba Bubba? Boys in movies who eat worms.
Stop! What are you doing? I could hear the high pitch.
I dropped to the ground and started to pull off any pink goo successfully transferred to the faded wood.
You’re disgusting, I said. My lips curled over the words. You don’t care your grandma is dying. What is wrong with you?
I was something sour in her mouth.
You disgust me, you really do.
Red or white sauce? I asked again.
She stayed on the ground and looked up at me.
When she didn’t respond I looked at her expectantly.
In three strides I crossed the kitchen, pulled the colander out of the sink and poured dinner on her head.
She’ll deny this story later. She might say it never happened. Or maybe she’ll tell it as a funny anecdote.
At dinner we didn’t talk about if I’d visit my mother…
We didn’t talk about what it’s like to comfort a mother in pain.
We just said, should we order pepperoni or cheese?


© Melanie Whyte
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Melanie’s interview]