I don’t remember the last time I saw my mother cry, but I remember the first occasion.
My mother and father were downstairs, the door of their room closed. I was upstairs in my blue bedroom with the circus animal-print curtains edged in ball fringe, trying to stay off the radar. Hot and bored, I gave up and headed downstairs, taking the last three steps in one giant jump wishing someone had seen me.
Every Fourth of July, our family picnicked down by the river at dusk. We’d gather driftwood for a bonfire, roast hotdogs until they blistered and dripped onto the sputtering flames, and watch the fireworks shot from the yacht club across the channel. My father would strum his guitar singing “Kingston Town,” and my mother would harmonize on “Moon River,” but alert to nuance, as all children are, I knew there was no harmony here. I decided my role was to protect us from danger. My contribution to the evening would be a first aid kit.
I chose my Madras purse as the container and began to look for items to fill it. In the downstairs bathroom, I balanced on the edge of the green porcelain tub to reach the medicine cabinet and selected a crimped, almost-empty tube of Bacitracin. Behind the toothpaste, I discovered a red-brown bottle of mercurochrome, and after opening it to admire the tiny glass wand attached to the cap, I twisted it closed and dropped the bottle in as well. I added tweezers in case someone barefoot got a splinter on the pier and syrup of ipecac in case someone was poisoned.
I wandered into the living room where the picture window framed the river, but today it was flat and featureless, held in custody by the summer sun.
As my parents’ voices rose from their bedroom, I added a sewing needle and thread in case someone were to tear her shorts. As their voices grew more urgent, I slipped into the kitchen, where I added two Popsicle sticks for a finger splint, and baking soda for bee stings. The more items I added, the better I felt.
My parents’ bedroom door opened abruptly, and my mother walked past me barefoot, a hint of Chanel No. 5 in the air as she passed. In the kitchen, she returned to making brownies, thrusting a wooden spoon through the dough like she was furious with it. She stopped yanking the spoon in half-circles to tap two brown eggs against the rim of the bowl. Dropping the yolks in the batter, she tossed the whites into the sink. I stood on my toes to peer over the edge. The egg whites looked like two jellyfish.
“What are you up to?” my mother asked, but she did not even look at me, so I placed my Madras purse on the counter so close to the brownie bowl that they were touching and told her about the first aid kit.
“Is someone planning to get hurt?” she asked, and I said what I knew to be true.
“You never know.”
After spooning the thick chocolate batter into a greased pan, she thrust the brownies into the oven and turned, cupping my small cheeks in her cool palms.
“Stop scowling. Your face could freeze that way.” I thought I was wearing my regular face, so I held the look and walked over to the hall mirror. I moved as if balancing a book on my head—as though my expression might fall off if suddenly jarred. I saw serious blue-green eyes beneath straight brows. More freckles on my nose in July than there had been in June. I wouldn’t have called my expression a scowl, but I did look worried, so I forced a big smile, which, with my frowning eyes, now looked a bit deranged. Without moving my head, I slowly turned my entire body to show my mother.
There was a crash behind me and a shout. A glass milk jug had been knocked to the floor, and my mother had instinctively tried to break its fall with her bare foot. The thick glass jar lay unbroken on the linoleum, milk chugging out its mouth and running beneath the cabinets, but my mother had crumpled to the floor, where she rocked back and forth, grasping her ankle. I ran to her, righted the milk jug, then tried to tug her hands away.
“Mommy?” I said, crouching down, “Let me see.” But she continued to rock, forehead pressed to her raised kneecap.
“Move your hands,” I commanded, but she continued to sway, so I softened my voice and laid my hand on her back. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay now.” I sang the words softly as if she were the child. My first aid kit, I noted, had fallen from the counter as well, its useless contents in the path of the seeping milk.
I patted her now as she gave voice to her pain, sobbing softly. When she finally raised her face to me, I was more afraid than sympathetic. I had never seen my mother cry, and my heart had never broken for someone else. It pounded against the small wall of my chest like a felt mallet on the surface of a drum, and we both looked down at her slim ankle as she finally lifted her hands.
There was no cut or bruise other than that caused by her own grip. I stood up, abruptly backing away. “You’re not that hurt,” I said as if she had tricked or betrayed me. “That’s too many tears,” I claimed in a loud, authoritative voice as if there were rules for such things. Finally, I shouted, “Get up!” I sounded angry, but I couldn’t breathe.
This was a moment in my childhood after which nothing was ever the same. And that is where all stories start. And some end. But not this one.
I don’t think I ever saw her cry again. Not in all the subsequent years of being a single mother, poet, therapist, grandmother, or friend.
But in the year before she died, when she could no longer speak and there were no more memories over which to cry, I knew just what to say when I visited her.
I’d find her in the recreation room of her assisted living facility, seated in her wheelchair, listening to someone explain an art project for which she had no comprehension. I’d slip into the room, hug her close and whisper in her ear, “All is well, all is well, all is well.” Her shoulders would drop, and her countenance soften as if she’d just put a lifetime of worry down. And then I’d add, “You were the best mother in the whole wide world.”
Whether or not she knew it was me, I don’t know, but she’d smile and lean into my arms, embraced for all time.
You had a mother. Your mother had a mother. As did hers, and hers, and hers. You, in fact, have had not one but a thousand mothers.
An infinity of love lands in you.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.