I check on my parents regularly. I may roll my eyes, but I do enjoy this arrangement. My husband has always been a custodial son with regard to his folks, and that behavior continues to provide a solid example as I recreate myself. I’m sober and healthy. I have a program of recovery. My hands are kept full with the kids, they’re busy little boys. I’ve also been given the opportunity to become a reliable daughter, and for that, I’m grateful.
Mom takes care of Dad, and I take care of her, as much as she lets me. She doesn’t need anybody’s help. That’s why she calls me several times a day for no reason. Because she’s so independent.
“Quick, Mary. Turn on Channel 7. Oprah’s got her fat feet up on a coffee table that’d look perfect in your living room.”
“I can’t now, Mom. Rory got sick in the night, and I’m trying to scrub throw-up from the carpet.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she says. She means it. “Have you got any vinegar? It’ll get rid of that stench in no time.”
“I might,” I tell her. I don’t. “I’ll try it. Thanks.”
“Call me later, babe. Let me know how you make out.”
It’s clear Mom loves watching me in action. I’m raising my family in ways she couldn’t imagine possible for either of us, for any mother. I am gentle, yet firm with these children. There is some yelling, here and there, and the occasional smack. I’m not proud of it. But Desmond and Rory are generally happy and smart and safe. That’s all God, by the way. Well, the smacking is me, but the rest is Him.
“Kindness never worked with you, Mary.” My mother tends to reminisce down Negative Lane. “If I gave an inch, you took a yard. I had to beat the shit out of you constantly. That’s how thick you were.”
Mom doesn’t flinch or hesitate when she shares this memory. She’s simply stating the facts.
“But look at you now, right?”
“You’re a good mother, Mary.”
And there it is. The gift that makes every other stupid fucking thing coming out of that woman’s mouth bearable.
When I was a little girl, I played with my dolls for hours on end. I dressed them and changed their dishtowel diapers. I cooked their pretend meals and propped them up in front of the television so they wouldn’t get into trouble. I put them to bed early when my father came home drunk.
“Go to sleep,” I told them. “Everything will be okay.”
The storm wasn’t nearly as massive as our local weathermen had predicted. Two whopping inches fell overnight while we slept. I am relieved. Snow makes me feel claustrophobic. Even when it’s cold, I try to get out of the house before and after lunch with the guys. Having a place to go and stuff to do helps me feel productive. I like to stay busy.
My mother, on the other hand, looks for daily excuses to not change out of her pajama bottoms. She is reluctant to acknowledge reality, let alone accept it. Unless, of course, it arrives attached to a crisis. A good crisis will get Mom strapped back into her bra and eager to run the show in no time. Even if she’s already pulled it through the sleeve of her smock top and hung it from the doorknob for the night. Without question, drama is her drug.
I call my parents’ apartment and wait for one of them to answer. So often, I have to leave a message on their machine because the TV is up so loud, they can’t hear the phone. This time, however, my father picks up on the second ring.
“Hey, big fella. What’s going on?”
“Not much,” Dad says. “Just watching the snow come down on the news.”
“Why don’t you look out the window?”
“Forget it. Where’s Mom?”
“You mean my beautiful bride?” he asks.
“You know I’d never say that,” I tell him, and we both laugh.
Despite how nasty my mother can be, the Dad I have now is playful and good natured. Before he fell and hit his head, he willfully ignored her foul temper. But these days, it’s almost as if he doesn’t even notice how angry she gets, and that makes her even madder. I can hear her bellowing in the background. My guess is he might have left a butter knife on the counter. Maybe he didn’t flush the toilet properly. Or wipe his own ass properly. For all we know, he might be breathing too much. Anything can set her off and does. HIs joy is her pain.
“Can you go get her for me?”
“Sure,” he says. My father is a loyal dog,
I can almost feel my mother grab the receiver from his hand. “Give me that,” she says. “What is it, honey?” She’s in a hurry to get back to her rage.
“Just wanted you to know I’m heading down the A&P when the kids wake up. Can I get you anything?”
“Don’t go,” she says. “It’s brutal out there.” I glance out the kitchen window as she attempts to outline the remainder of my day for me. There’s snow in the grass, but the sidewalks are clear. The sun has returned, and birds are playing in my driveway. “Stay inside until tomorrow,” she tries to insist. “There’s no reason to drag those babies out in this shit.” My mother has decided she doesn’t need groceries, and neither should I.
I hear noises directly above where I’m standing at the kitchen counter, folding laundry. The sounds of an ill-defined argument between brothers, maybe even something physical.
“Goddamn it,” I say out loud.
“What’s the matter?”
“They’re supposed to be resting. Can you hold on a minute, Mom?” I walk over to the bannister and yell up toward the ceiling. “Gentlemen, what’s going on?” No answer. “Boys?”
“Nothing,” they reply at the same time. Their short, bulky shadows are visible against the wall at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t tell me ‘nothing.’ I’m not deaf. Come where Mommy can see you.”
The two of them shuffle toward the steps. “We’re fighting,” Rory says.
“It’s just that I want to play with Little People, and Desmond also wants Little People. But then, he took the Airport Guy, so I punched him.”
“It really hurt,” Desmond adds, rubbing his shoulder for emphasis.
“I’m coming up there in a minute,” I tell them. “I’m punching both of you.”
“No, don’t!” Brightly colored pieces of plastic litter the carpet as they bolt from the landing and tumble down the corridor.
“Don’t you dare lay a hand on them, Mary,” my mother warns when I return to our conversation.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ve gotta follow through this time.” I say it loud because I know they’re listening from one of their obvious hiding spots. “You hear that, fellas? You’ve got your grandmother on the other end of this phone, crying her eyes out. She’s begging me not to dole out the punches, but I told her I have to. Nothing else works.”
“Mom, no,” Desmond pleads. I picture him behind the towel rack in the bathroom. “We’re sorry. We love each other.”
“It’s too late for that, son,” I reply. “I have no choice.”
“You’re not really gonna hit them, are you?” my mother asks.
“I most definitely am, so you should probably hang up now. It’s about to get ugly here.”
“You know, kid, I regret belting you and your sister when you were their age.”
I pause for a moment. It almost sounds like an apology – until she keeps talking.
“But make no mistake, you deserved it. Especially you, Mary. My God, you were the boldest bitch.”
I fight the urge to disagree with her, to defend myself against her memories. There is love in my mother’s voice. I hear it, and I can certainly feel it. So I leave what she says alone.
“Promise me you won’t hurt my precious angels.”
“What’s that, Grandma? You’ve changed your mind? You want me to punch them extra for you? Well, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength, but I suppose I can try.”
“She’s coming,” Desmond whispers through the crack in the door.
“To punch us?” Rory asks.
“C’mon, we need better hiding.”
They dash through the hallway and pile into the closet, pulling the door closed behind them. There is giggling. The kind that reassures me my children know who I am. And everything is okay.