Wednesday, January 15, 2014

FREE Coming of Age Story from Amanda Gatton: Secondhand Mom

For a time, I came to think of my mother in the same way a person might think of an old pair of socks.  The old socks don't match; they're thread bare and have holes.  They're not cute or stylish.  They obnoxiously slide down the ankles.  And since they don't fit right, the toes bunch up and scrunch around inside the shoes.  It's annoying to wear them and the only reason for wearing them is because the feet are cold, and no other socks can be found.

My mother was a wild creature, always in motion.  She had a loud, boisterous laugh and she laughed often, sometimes for no discernible reason.  Other times a small quiet smile lingered on her full, rosy lips and her eyes shone as though she were contemplating some special secret.

My mother, Lilly, was always singing.  Sometimes it was cheerful humming as she busied herself about our tiny studio apartment.  Where many mothers stayed busy doing dishes, cooking, folding laundry, and vacuuming, my mother hummed as she made herself busy doing things that made no sense to me.  She had a habit of clutching a piece of some colored crystal in her hand, holding it close to her heard, and her lips moved as she made some quiet prayer with her eyes closed.  Or, she splashed paint on the walls and created beautiful murals.  Hours would pass as her stories unfolded on the walls, sprinkling paint into her impossibly long curly blonde hair or roosted on her button nose.  When the project was finished, we lay together on the floor and she held me in her arms and told me the story in her quiet tinkling voice.  Then, when the fancy struck her, she'd paint over her walls and begin a new story.  Dishes sometimes overflowed the sink and we sometimes wore silly outfits because we had no clean laundry, but my mother never neglected our stories.
Other times, mother burst into full blown loud song that came straight from a bold place deep inside her.  My mother had a vice that made people stop and stare.  It may have been because she sometimes felt compelled to sing while pushing me in a cart at the super market, or while reading me stories in the library.  But, I always thought it was largely because her voice was so haunting and lovely.  I always thought those people who stopped and stared probably took my mother's voice with them.

Summertime brought about many hours baking in the sun.  Our faces tanned and freckled, our bare feet were dirty, and we stayed out morning to night.  We took walks, collecting stones, leaves, and flower petals and mother told me the stories of our found items.  Or, we lounged under a shade tree and she put my black hair in long braids down my back and wove crowns of wildflowers that she perched atop my head.

I spent countless nights curled up in a booth in the diner where my mother worked, waiting tables.  I watched her glide about, laughing and smiling with the customers.  Sometimes she collected extra tips by reading palms or Tarot cards for the people she served.  Then, late at night, she carried me home.

It wasn't until I started Kindergarten that I began thinking of my mother like socks.  When I started school I saw the other children got to eat candy and cheeseburgers instead of a boring diet of things like berries, flax seeds, and celery.  Other children wore stylish clothing bought in stores.  For the first time, the colorful long dresses my mother had sewn for me seemed less special and more strange.  Other mothers came to school with carefully coiffed hair, conservative corduroy pants with pretty button up shirts.  My mother appeared with wild curls flying in every direction, billowing skirts of every color in the rainbow, and noisy jingling ankle jewelry.  Other mothers sat quietly to the side and observed.  My mother plopped herself into the middle of story time, and rolled around on the floor laughing and giggling with all the children.  All the things I had once found spectacular now made me feel different and isolated.

When I was in Kindergarten my mother made the first close friend I ever recalled her having.  To my surprise and delight, the lady was one of the school moms with a perfect hairdo, clothes that covered her bosom, and polite, quiet manners.  The lady was married and had four children.  The family lived in a large stately home, the type with warmly lit windows I'd always peaked longingly into from the street.  Her name was Louise.  I never could imagine why she wanted to be my mother's friend, but I loved her beyond reason for it.

Louise had us over to her house many evenings where I had delicious suppers with her family.  On Sundays Louise took me to church with her kids, though my mother never came.  When I asked mother why she didn't come to church, she kissed the top of me and said, "Because I just have church inside my heart, precious."  Little by little, Louise infiltrated my wardrobe with becoming outfits I was proud to wear and I loved her so much.

As I grew, I only continued to change while my mother only continued to stay the same.  She laughed all the time and followed no rules.  One day, when I was nine years old, I asked my mother who my father was.
I was sitting at the small dining table while she painted across the room.  Stripes of golden morning light warmed her back and illuminated the tensing of her shoulders.  Her paint brush fell limply to her side and unceremoniously splattered vermillion on the worn rug.  But she didn’t turn around.

"That's an interesting topic to discuss over breakfast," she murmured softly.

I looked down at my small dish of honey Greek yogurt and granola.  "Some breakfast," I muttered.
In retrospect, I believe my mom must've been a saint.  I'd become quite the smart mouth by then and bless her, she never took the bait.  Mom got up and joined me at the table.

Her lovely face was pale and drawn, touched by uncharacteristic sadness.  I was almost sorry I'd asked.

"He owned a restaurant, I worked for him."  She seemed hesitant to go on.  The words pained her.

"What does he look like?"

She stared into my eyes for a long moment, as though considering her next words.  "You look just like him," she finally said in just barely a whisper.  "He was tall, with silky black hair and beautiful dark eyes."  Briefly, remembering him brought a smile across her lips.

"So, where is he, mom?  Why isn't he here?"

My mother's eyes shown with tears.  "When I found out I was pregnant with you, I ran away.  He doesn't know about you."

My mouth dropped open.  My temper ignited as I stared at my mother, considering all that I had lost.  "Can't we find him?" I breathed, my voice becoming shrill.

"He's from a different country, Daisy.  I sought him out once when you were younger, and found he'd returned to his country.  It's too late."

Mother's eyes dropped as I shoved my chair back and leapt up.  "I can't believe you," I growled.  "How could you be so selfish?"

She didn't answer, just kept staring at the table top.  She quietly allowed me to rant as if she'd always known this day would come.

"You never thought I might like to have a father?"  When she still said nothing, I grew angrier.  "I hate you, Mom.  I wish I could go live with Louise!"

As I thundered across the room and out the front door, I barely heard her whisper, "I'm so sorry."

Not long after that, the principal appeared in my classroom one day at school.  It was weird to see the principal herself stroll into the classroom, when usually even for the most important matters, an office messenger was dispatched.

She exchanged a whispered conversation with my teacher and then I was surprised when they each turned to look at me and began moving toward me.  They both smiled brightly at me.  "Come with me please," said the principal.

I felt nervous and confused as the principal escorted me through the empty hallways.  I had never been in trouble before, and since she had her arm over my shoulders and kept smiling at me when I glanced up at her, I suspected I wasn't in trouble then either.

Her high heeled shoes clicking on the shiny linoleum seemed horribly loud.

After what seemed like an eternity we arrived in her office and she shut the door.  My mother's friend Louise sat there, her eyes puffy and red.  When the principal and I entered, Louise lurched out of her seat and threw her arms around me. I hugged her back, but I was confused.

Louise trembled against me as she began to cry uncontrollably.

The principal kindly asked me to take a seat.  She and Louise both crouched in front of me, settling on their knees and each of them taking one of my hands.  I looked back and forth between them.  They seemed like they were ready to catch me if I fell.

"Honey," Louise said softly, "your mama has passed away."

Louise wasn't one to beat around the bush.

I stared blinking at her, not sure I'd heard her right.  I'm always going to hate that the very first thought that occurred to me was to wonder what crazy thing she'd done to get herself killed.

Then, I felt dizzy and started to cry and I did fall, right into Louise's arms.

I went home to live with Louise and her family after my mother died.  For so long, I'd wished to go live with Louise and have a normal life with a mom, a dad, brothers, sisters, a bedroom, a yard…  But once I was there, I felt like the old sock.  I realized too late that I was exactly like my mother.  This world of bedtimes, table manners, schedules and routines was unchartered territory for me.  My mother and I did have a routine of sorts, but our routine was that we always did just what we pleased.  Though I'd previously craved structure, once I had it, I realized that where there were rules, there was enforcement.  And Louise became my enforcer.

For a long time, she was kind and patient with me, attempting to comfort me through my sadness after losing my mother.

But, I presented Louise with resistance at every turn, like a gag gift wrapped in ugly paper.  She had successfully reared four polite, well rounded children, who obeyed and conformed, and then there was me.  The door slamming, shouting, disappearing nightmare.  Eventually it grew harder for her to maintain her patience.

By the time I was sixteen, we coexisted mainly in a cold quiet emotionless distance, except when we battled over any number of my infractions.

One day we were fighting bitterly because I had taken the car without asking or informing anybody of my whereabouts.  "Daisy!" Louise implored.  "Where do you get off?  What makes you think you have the right to drive my car without my permission?"

"Why can't I, Louise?  I'm your kid too, aren't I?  Isn't that what you always claim?" I said sarcastically.
"Of course you are, that's not the point.  Any of the other kids would be in just as much trouble as you, but they wouldn't dream of being disrespectful like this!  They actually consider other people once in a while!"
"I hate you, Louise," I spat.  But I regretted the words as soon as they crossed my lips.

Louise's pretty face fell.  I had cut her deeply and her face showed it plainly.  "I'm sorry you're stuck with a second hand mom, Daisy," Louise murmured.

I suddenly recalled the time I'd told my mother I wished I could go live with Louise.  I'd thought of my own mom as a second hand mom.

"You're not, Louise," I said humbly, all my anger disappearing, leaving shame in its wake.  "I told my mom once, right before she died that I wanted to live with you."

Louise's eyes sparkled with the threat of tears.  "I know, she told me.  It made us both feel better since that was already the plan." 

My mouth dropped open.  "What do you mean?"

Louise regarded me for a moment as if she were making a decision.  "Your mom and I grew up together."
I gasped.  I remembered meeting Louise in Kindergarten.  I thought my mother met her then too.  Louise continued.  "After high school, your mom high tailed out of town.  She had no family and nothing to hold her here.  That was something I always loved about Lilly; she was such a free spirit," Louise said whimsically her eyes distant.

Louise went on to tell me my mother had returned to her home town when I was one.  She and mom had quickly reunited and their friendship resumed as though not a day had passed.  And then mom revealed to Louise that she had an inoperable brain tumor.

Mom's life was a ticking clock set to end much too soon.  Despite her devastation, Louise had agreed to honor mom's wish that I never know and we live out the rest of our time together in peace.  And Louise promised to take care of me when my mother's time came.

After Louise told me my mother's story, things between us settled.  I had a new understanding of how much Louise had loved my mother and how much she loved me too.  I finally felt I had a place in the family and made a conscious decision to get along.  I also struggled with a new set of resentments toward my mother.  It hurt me that she'd chosen to hide the truth from me.

The day of my 18th birthday came shortly before I graduated from high school.  It was a beautiful, sunny, May day.  Louise threw me a huge party in the back yard.  I loved my day full of family, friends, and the possibility for the future.

That evening once all the guests had gone home, Louise and I busied ourselves cleaning up the yard as the sun sunk behind the horizon.  Louise had grown quiet as she worked.  

"Something on your mind, Louise?" I asked as I swept party debris off a table into a trash bag.
She looked at me, a small smile on her lips.  She pulled out a chair.  "Have a seat, honey," she invited.  I sat down and she took a seat next to me and grabbed my hand in both of hers.  "I have some things it's finally time to tell you."

My brows knitted together with concern.  I somehow knew my life had encountered a turning point.  "It's about your father," Louise murmured.  I stared at her, transfixed.

"Your mother told me what she told you about him."

I searched Louise's shining eyes.  "It wasn't true, was it?" I whispered.

"No, honey.  She met him in a restaurant where she worked, but he wasn't the owner.  He was there for dinner when he met her.  Actually, the restaurant was closed to the public, just to serve him."

I gasped, suspecting my father must be very important.

"Your father's name was Aashiq Asghar.  He was from a small country in the Middle East called Cyprus, where his family was royalty.  And he was in America as a diplomat from his land."

Mouth agape, I sat silently allowing this new information to sink in.  "Wait," I finally said, "what do you mean 'was'?"

Louise's eyes fell and she took a ragged breath as she squeezed my hand.

"Louise?  Is he…" I couldn't say it.

"Yes honey," she replied sadly.  "He passed away."

Tears sprung into my eyes.  "Why?  Why did she lie to me?" I implored.

"Honey, please, please don't be upset with your mother.  You have no idea exactly what she did for you.  But I'm going to tell you now…"

I was enthralled as Louise revealed to me the complete story of my life, and my mother's.  She and my father had fallen powerfully and irrevocably in love.  They married almost immediately.  Everything about my mother was directly contradictory to the customs of Aashiq's country.  She was a free bird and he wouldn't dream of changing her.  He would've been willing to change the world before ever changing a single thing about his darling Lilly.

Soon, my mother became pregnant with me.  My father returned home to Cyprus to prepare to bring his new family home for good.  And that is when he was assassinated.

She never saw him again.

Louise revealed that my father had provided for my mother and me with a fortune enough to take care of us for many lifetimes over.  She had tucked it all away for me to have when I turned 18.  She had never touched a dime of the money.  Not even for medical treatment.

I was an exceptionally wealthy heiress.

"There's more," Louise commented.

"How could there possibly be more?"

"Before your mother ever met Aashiq, she was already wealthy beyond most people's wildest dreams."

My eyes were wide as I stared at her open mouthed.  "What?" I said, disbelieving.

"Lilly came from very wealthy parents.  She was their only child.  They owned most of this town at one time.  They died in a car accident when she was only fourteen."

"Oh my God!" I declared.  "Why didn't she ever tell me?"

Louise's eyes were weary, tears spilling.  "They were cold and unfeeling people, Daisy.  She wasn't close with them and foul play was suspected with their deaths though it was never proven.  She tucked their money away too and she put it all behind her.  She didn't ever want you touched by the sadness in her own life."

"She ran away," I said bitterly.

"Daisy, she moved on.  She made her own way."

"Why didn't she use the money?"

Louise pondered my question.  "It's hard to say.  I think partly because she didn't need anybody else's resources to take care of herself.  She was independent and capable.  And then, I just think she was saving it all…  For you."

"Really?  Then why all the silly handmade clothes?  Why all the late nights sleeping in a restaurant while she waited tables?"

Staring into my eyes Louise asked me frankly, "Daisy, would you trade the times you shared with your mom for any other existence?"

I didn't even have to think about it.  "Only for a longer one, Louise."  I wept and she held me in her arms.

For a graduation gift, Louise gave me a trunk full of treasures my mother left for me.  Photos of her and my father; of my mother and I, and the ability to finally know my mother for the queen she truly was.  Louise taught me that I don't have to understand everything about a person to appreciate her.  She taught me how to stand on my own two feet and also how to fly, if that was my choice.

Scrawled on a napkin tucked in the bottom of the treasure chest, I found a poem my mother wrote me.  Whenever I read it, I imagine her at the end of a shift on some quiet night, looking off out a wide window, searching for the perfect words to give me…

There's Gonna Come a Time
There's gonna come a time child
When you'll be a little girl no more
Surely you'll learn that life can be hard
You may feel the need to fight
Go ahead and embrace the freedom
Go ahead and take that time to run wild

There's gonna come a time girl
When you'll need to settle down
You'll figure out difficult lessons
You'll learn the hard way
You'll earn the intense pleasure of having your turn
To be the mother of your own little world

There's gonna come a time love
When you'll have to go on without me
I'll want you to know I treasured you
I'll need you to be strong and remember what I taught you
You just carry on making me proud
Because I'll be there looking on from somewhere up above

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