How She Left
of us children asked--I no longer remember whom-- if dinner was ready yet.
It might have been me. Nearly
eight p.m., a Tuesday night (I've always dreaded Tuesday nights since), the four
of us sat at the set dining room table trying not to let our hunger, our sense
of impending doom, show. But we were
children who should never play poker, Dad always said--every thought, every
emotion manifested in our eyes, our nostrils, our lips.
Nor do any of us consider ourselves lucky.
Children. Paige was ten;
Miles, nine; Solomon, seven; and I, five.
Dad had been home since six, sitting in the living room, noisily reading
the newspaper. Mom was in the
kitchen, silent. We sat with our
hands in our laps, lips sucked between our teeth, legs swinging--trying not to
kick one another or a table leg, trying not to make the knife and the spoon
clink together, but failing. A
"knock it off" or a "can't you sit still" hissed from Miles
was followed by Paige's glare. Solomon
and I, like lit matches, smoldered and flared.
During one of these small exchanges Mother entered the room, her brown
leather sandals snapping with each step. She
was wearing a sleeveless violet blouse and navy shorts, her chestnut brown hair
pulled back in a ponytail. In her
hands she held an unopened box of Creamette's spaghetti.
She stood a step or two away from the table, surveying the scene: the
four of us, sitting across the table from each other, Dad's chair at the far
end, hers near; the white china with the purple pansies circling the rim; the
napkins sloppily folded--Solomon's job; the wilting daisies in the vase.
I don't remember her looking at us per se, just the overall scene: the
room, the windows with their curtains hanging at their sides, the darkening sky
"Is dinner almost ready?" A
question I have puzzled over for thirty some years trying to find its hidden
meaning, the sting.
Perhaps she raised an eyebrow, glared at the one who asked the question.
I don't remember. Actually, I
think we all stared at the tablecloth--it was cream brocade with an interlocking
diamond pattern. It had been our
grandmother's. Her mother's.
Mother stepped forward, lifted the flap on the end of the box with her
index finger, and turned it over, dumping the dry noodles onto the table.
We all watched the noodles slide out of the box, fall, roll, splinter and
settle into a heap on the table. Like
pick up sticks. We all watched,
without looking, as Mother left the room. We
listened as she walked, sandals slapping, through the living room, to the
closet; as she opened the closet door, its hinges creaking; as the hangers
clinked together. She put on her
wool coat. It was June.
She didn't need that coat, not that night anyway.
We all knew we'd hear two doors close.
First the closet, then-- four careful, rhythmic steps later-- the front
Not one of us expected to hear Dad wail, like a dog who'd been hit by a
car, not dead, but dying.
It was the summer of 1969. Mother's
leaving wasn't the only crazy thing going on.
Boys were dying in
And how mother replied, "Don't they?"
Mother was thirty-one when she left.
Younger than I am now. She
had met Dad in college, at the
For a while I thought it was us--our questions four times over, that had
finally driven her to the edge. Let's
face it, being asked if you know where a shoe or mitt or doll is a dozen times a
day could get to anyone. Some days I
was certain it was me that had forced her away.
Selfish, the baby of the family, I had embodied the ugliness of the human
race (and the ugliness that was in her too), thus proving difficult to love, she
left rather than face the fact that she didn't like one ounce of me.
Paige and Miles and even Solomon have admitted to feeling this same way.
But now that I'm a mother, and although I struggle to understand exactly
what that means, never has it been difficult to love my children.
Quite the opposite. I have no
choice but to love them--bony knees, bad tempers and all.
She didn't leave because we were unlovable, at least I know that much
Someone picked up the spaghetti (probably Miles) and put it in the pot of
boiling water on the stove. We ate
it with butter melted on top, as Dad tried to comfort us.
"She just needs some fresh air."
The windows were open, I remember
"She just needs a little time to herself, a little vacation, to sort
things out." What things needed sorting? She
hadn't taken anything with her.
"She'll be back soon." But
she took her wool coat. The coat she
wears in the winter. Is winter soon?
"And until then, we'll make do.
We'll take care of each other."
That was the only truthful thing he said.
But maybe it was because he was talking about us, not her.