How She Left

Julia Klatt Singer

 

One 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 beyond.

            "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 screen door.

            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 Vietnam .  Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon.  Students were protesting.  King and Kennedy's deaths were in the back of everybody's mind.  Neighbors had stopped talking to one another over their politic views.  I remember the body counts on the television news at night, the footage of the war, how Dad said, "Turn the channel for God sake, the children don't need to see this." 

            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 University of Chicago .  She was a freshman, he a senior.  They married the fall of her sophomore year, already she was a couple months pregnant with Paige.  Like many women of her generation, she dropped out of school to raise a family.  By 26, she had four children, a house in the suburbs, PTA meetings, church dues, a washer and dryer, and a husband who provided for her--the American dream.

            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 now.

 

            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 thinking.

            "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.