See you next year
I visit my mother once a year. When she was alive, we spoke three to four times a day on the phone- this after my tumultuous, albeit not so rebellious, teen years. Like all teenage girls, I came to the unhinged realization that I knew better than my apron donning, cookie-swap throwing mother. She’d given up all semblances of a career to stay home and raise me and rather than be grateful for the sacrifice, I resented the attention. It would take a salt-and-pepper-bearded Ph.D. to tell me that the only prescription for my ill feelings was a cup of time with a sprinkle of real-world humbling. And he was right. Thankfully, things improved before it was too late. Though I would still argue that there wasn't enough time. Is there ever a point in which one says ‘enough’?
I got married young- three months after my college graduation. Greg was tall, handsome, and as charismatic as they come.
“I don't like him,” she said when I first brought him home. “He’s lying.”
“About what, Mom?”
“All of it.”
Time proved her right. So, I signed on the dotted line and moved back home until I could be on my own once more. Had she not opened the curtains of my childhood bedroom each morning to let the sun in, my sadness would have grown in that darkness, like mold, and consumed me whole.
“Did she die suddenly?” people asked, initially. But when is death not sudden? A rubber band can stretch to its limits but the snap will make your bones jump every time. My mother managed to live longer than her parents and her grandparents had and as they lowered her casket into the ground on that deceivingly sunny Spring morning, I remembered what she told me: “Always leave the party before it gets boring.” That must have been what she was doing.
In the months following her death, I visited her gravesite and when no one was looking or listening I spoke to her, my words bouncing off the hallowed ground. Friends suggested seeing a medium. “Like that one on TV with the nails and the hair and the accent. Oh, I love her. She can reach your mom, for sure. Just fill out the online application,” a girlfriend suggested over Cobb salad two months to the day after the funeral. I refused. I said that psychic lady was a looney toon and a fake. Then, I promptly went home and googled the application, filled it out halfway then closed my computer without exiting the tab.
I needed a shower. One of those long ones where you sit and your butt cheeks melt onto the cold porcelain and the hot water stains your legs red. I ran my fingers in a straight line over my steamed skin, a pale streak in my finger’s wake. “Look, you're a zebra,” I could hear my mother’s voice. It was what she’d say to me as a child in my nightly bath. My legs would redden and she would run her thin, manicured fingers over my skin and we would laugh at the shapes we’d make. Warmth blanketed me, except this time it wasn’t the water. That memory. Her voice so stark and clear I questioned if I’d really heard it. If I was cracking up. I ran my fingers up and down over the knobs of my knees, beckoning the memory to stay and hang out a while longer.
It was then I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. Visits to her grave, flipping through pictures, considering mediums and I’d never felt her presence more than in that moment in the shower. That was when I knew what I needed to do. It was what I would do every year from that point on. What, when after I eventually got remarried and had children, my husband would take off work for to be with the kids so I could go alone. The plan: to spend a week with my mother.
During that annual week, I tugged at my senses. In that shower, I had felt her. I needed to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste her. When I told people, I received mixed reviews. I told myself that the naysayers just didn't understand. But what are our experiences with people aside from stimulation to the senses from them?
So, first things first I set out for Colorado. I grew up in Phoenix but my mother was from Colorado Springs. It was there that I saw snow for the very first time, tucked under the crook of her arm, absorbing the heat from her middle that we stood on the wooden porch of her childhood home one winter night. Not a streetlight for miles, sprawling cold cotton-white sheets lit up the sky above them. Her warm lips absorbed the cold biting at my cheeks and her soft voice echoed in the silent night. “Isn’t it just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” And it was. So, I rented a house far from the brightly lit hotels and ski resorts of Colorado Springs, made myself a cup of tea. I stared into that cold abyss and found my mother’s eyes staring back at me.
A few miles from the house I rented there was a jazz bar. A round, silver-haired man named Jazzy Joe hugged his guitar like it was his wife and played it like it was his mistress. I liked it there because when I sat at the small wooden, wobbly tables, the legs perched up with matchboxes and old napkins, I could close my eyes and hear my mother. She waitressed at a place just like it back in Phoenix when I was in grade school. The sound of the jazz brought her back to me, in all her glory, floating from table to table, her long blonde hair, thick as a horse’s tail, bouncing off the small of her back with each step. Sometimes, when her shift was over, we would stay a while, just the two of us, at a table in the back and she would bring me a virgin Shirley Temple with extra Maraschino cherries.
I didn't care if I looked silly as an adult ordering that Shirley Temple. A small price to pay for the taste that would keep her by my side. I sipped and close my eyes. The sweet, red liquid seated on my tongue and my legs draped across hers as music danced laps around my head and her fingers nipping at the imaginary guitar strings on my shins.
On my drive back from Colorado Springs to Phoenix, I found a library. It was on the main street of a small town and classically sandwiched between Town Hall and the police station. Tall, cylindrical columns adorned the front like a Greek coliseum and gargoyles guarded the front steps. It was old but preserved well. Inside, there were bookshelves sprawled out in every direction. Ladders hugged the tall shelves and glided silkily across the wooden floors from Austen to Hemingway and beyond. I peeled a few older looking books from the shelves and squirreled them to a private, corner table. There I cracked them open like fresh pistachio shells, inhaling the sweet dust.
My mother loved to read. Every Friday night we went to the local library together. We would gather our booty and meet at the front where the librarian- whom we both swore was older than the paper in those books- would stamp the return date on the inside cover and we’d retreat home to my mother’s bed. It was the only night I was allowed to sleep in her bed and my father would take my bed or the couch. She’d prop two pillows side by side and we’d crack open the books. Sometimes we would read quietly and other times I would beg her to read aloud to me in her funny voices. Despite my best efforts, I always fell asleep first, open book draped over my chest only to wake clutching it beneath my chin, rolled to one side with her arm nestled in the crease of my waist.
And at the tail end of my journey, I went back to where it all started. I took a long, hot shower to wash off the remnants of hours in the car and grease from rest-stop restaurants. I traced my fingers over my thighs. Each year, age made my fingers hers, each wrinkle and crease a carbon copy.
At first, I’d tried to avoid the pain, push the memory of her away, but a flower cannot bloom without first burying its roots deep in the lightless soil. I would see my mother in my dreams and she was thirty-two no matter my age and in my waking world, once a year, I would see her, feel her, hear her, taste her, and smell her- her presence reanimated through my senses until we meet once more.
— Kate Gemma