Okay, so I worried for nothing, I admit stretching long and hard. My only luxury, I think staring in amazement at my arms extended way beyond the curved back of the headboard. (Previous ivy stencils outlining its frame more of a memory than a reality.) Wiggling my fingers, I imagine myself a giant in the land of the Lilliputians.
And this doesn’t help, I giggle as the bed’s wobbly body and sagging mattress groan and squeak to my every twist and turn in my effort to snap the kinks from my back, then neck.
Mom didn’t think this through or she just didn’t have time or money to prepare, I speculate while glancing around the ancient childish quarters. But with a little extra loving care this old house will be good as new. . . . Maybe those marathon viewing hours of home-improvement shows will finally pay off, I giggle, drawing up my knees along with comforter to my chin.
I enjoy the sound of a brisk October breeze rattling the windowpane, whistling through the missing weather stripping, causing goose bumps across my skin. I don’t think it’s time yet for the old space heater in the corner or one of two pairs of heavy flannel pajamas—the red and blue-checkered one I’d purchased.
They looked so comfortable. I’m glad I brought them. I may really need them this week. If not here then when I’m back in New York.
But I sure slept well, I admit. A cool room definitely makes this possible. I felt like a cocooned caterpillar. Now I’m in no rush to spread my wings. I burrow back underneath the comforter, snuggling, as New York, last week, and Seneca, seem a life ago. Someone else’s reality. Because Mom seems mission-bound to foster a close-knit mother-daughter bond in record time. To blot out years of absence with these three days of attention and devotion.
But I’m willing. I won’t awaken a dormant anger. I also desire this sense of belonging to someone, even if it is Mom. No, that’s not right. Especially since it’s Mom; because Mom’s changed.
These past few days, I’ve gained more of a sister than a Mom. The anxious intoxicated woman of Friday disappeared replaced by this beautiful happy girl, a friend, eager to explore. Mom mirrored the confined bird recently freed, flitting from store-to-store making clothing purchases without thought or worry regarding money or future, asking only, “Is this me?” not, “Should I?”
Freedom. Was this her first bout with it? I wonder. She’s spending like tomorrow doesn’t exist.
Smiling, I think: No need to worry; she’ll level off. I recall me, my past experiences. Although, that also scares me. Leveling off sometimes means crashing under the weight of high interest rates.
But, enough of that, those memories. Instead, why not hang on to her heels as she takes off on this flight, this journey of discovery. Enjoy her fun.
A side-glance towards the end table at the Mickey alarm clock shows eight a.m., while strains of classical piano music alternating Bach and Mozart continue to drift up through the vents and stairway. Mom plays and it’s wonderful. Especially one song in particular.
I’ve heard it before. It’s haunting, sad, though lovely melody she weaves through my brain cells every morning and evening only partially resurrecting it from my subconscious. It nags my memory.
What it is?. . .
It was just eight.
This time the floor vents permit salivary whiffs of coffee and bacon to float up to me in Mom’s usually successful second attempt to lure me downstairs, out of my floral sanctuary. She continues to replace the many bouquets with fresh ones, a habit best practiced in New York where their cost is cheaper.
I toss back the covers, slide my feet into furry slippers, feeling pampered and needed, as I throw on the large celery green terry robe—Mom’s welcoming gift.
Well, good taste is often learned, I again remind myself, looking around the room, spotting my few bags from the crisp sunny mornings stopping sprees. Our destinations? Downtown and the Magnificent Mile. Into wonderful smelling boutiques and department stores for experimentation with lipsticks and playing with leather clothing and furniture. Shopping is shopping. You never know where your real desires lie without exploration.
Dragging my hand along the banister, ending on the window sill overlooking our backyard and the river beyond, I relive our brisk afternoons at restaurants on Rush Street, in Little Italy and Chinatown and star-studded evenings idled away on the front porch, swinging and discussing the day, until the nighthawk chased us into the living room, before the fireplace, with a cup of tea or coffee and a pastry or dessert.
Of course we indulged in these after the wonderful dinners Mom micro waved. Frozen entrees allowed me to relax in further discussion of our activities. The two of us mimicked vacationing children, with my childhood associate Vie phoning wanting “in.”
Mom and I talked and giggled late into the early morning and awoke, surprisingly charged up, ready for the next excursion a few hours later.
Last night though, my collapse onto contented clouds ended with small holes poking through my silver lining. The culprit? Prickly thoughts of clients. I knew I should shop for them, but how?
They themselves posed no problem, since I’d regained my enthusiasm for spending full-force. However, Mom’s attitude served as a wet blanket to my flaming zeal. I thought I could count on her input in choosing clothes for others; that it’d be fun for her. But I was wrong. For example, Monday at Carson Pirie Scott’s, I found a beautiful grayish-blue mohair sweater set. The outfit matched perfectly the eye color of one of my clients. First, Mom got quiet, just watched as I discussed purchasing it. When her face set, I pretended not to notice. Then came the snide comments.
She said, “Diamond, you can’t fit that. Why are you looking at such a tiny sweater set? Who is that skinny?”
I held it up in front of me saying, “It is cute, isn’t it? I have just the person in mind for it. A young woman with an extremely straight figure. It’ll be so flattering that her best friend—this guy she works with—can’t help but notice.”
“She can’t shop for herself?” Mom asked innocently.
“No Mom. She doesn’t have the knack. So I’m here to help. I’ve got some great ideas for her.” I laughed. “A date’s in her future. If not with him, with somebody.”
Under her breath I heard her ask, “What kind of woman can’t shop for herself?” as she turned her back, scouring through another rack. Obviously, she hadn’t considered herself for with a beautiful smile she asked over her shoulder, “How do you think this would look on me?” lifting a brown chocolate blouse into the air.
“Great,” I said, “You should get it.”
After that she blocked all further opportunities to consider anyone else with constant, “What about this, Diamond?” holding close to her body a little slip of a silk dress—chartreuse in color—or, “And what about that?” pointing to a slimming black wool-crepe pants suit posed on a mannequin across the floor. She darted through stands of designer originals to get to it with me following catching falling items in her trail. The now familiar, “Do you think that would look good on me too?” widening her eyes in excitement.
Although, for me I spotted a gorgeous dress, flowing matte jersey, knee-length with a deep V-neck. The emerald color was rich, but its striking feature was the double rolls of ruffles along the “v” and down the front. Not usually one for froufrou, I tried it on and the sales attendant raved about how fantastic the color looked against my olive skin. She said, “If you don’t purchase it you’re crazy.” But the green in Mom’s eyes forced me to leave it at the store.
It was Mom’s day. However, I did try to drop some personal tidbits about myself in conversation. But unfortunately, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise about any aspect of my life. Though, why complain. We still had fun; and I’m here for two weeks. With Steve’s illness she probably couldn’t shop much. Also, she probably needed reassurance regarding our budding relationship; so any mention of my personal life in New York might mar that assurance.
But something else pokes through the lining. Topping everything is guilt over Madame. It’s back. . . . Actually, did it ever really leave? Sprouting like a weed, I tore off its ugly head, I thought before it seeded. But today it finagles its prickly little roots deeper, spreading those destructive seeds of self-doubt faster than I can catch them.
Back home in Brooklyn I ignored the blinking answering machine for days, screening calls based on their degree of importance, due to trip preparations. But before I left I needed to dictate a message explaining my absence. Replaying the calls, I heard Madame’s commanding voice. I couldn’t believe I missed her.
How did that happen? I was there.
She said, “Diamond. I thought you always carried your cell phone. Where are you? Today, I’ll be at this number; take it down. The number is . . .”
Puzzled I sank to the sofa; then the thought smacked me right across the forehead. The day of my appointment with Nanette and the actresses, the phone rang. I thought, it’s probably Nanette, so I didn’t answer. It was Madame. After dialing my private number she tried my business phone, which I’d turned down along with the answering machine for “no disturbance” because of Mom’s letter.
So earlier that day—three days late—I tried the number, though the limo waited to drive me to the airport. I thought; What could it hurt? The phone rang and rang before a recording played.
“The number you have dialed is not in service. Please check your number and redial. I repeat. The number . . .”
Not in service? I checked what I wrote down and redialed. The same message played.
Honestly puzzled, I asked, how could it be wrong? Knowing I wrote it down wrong. I must have. So, like the infamous toilet paper to boot or crab to butt I can’t shake quilt. Especially since now here in Chicago, I am amazed at the difficulty of picturing her face. And since she never took photos--.
And to compound the injury, I’ve been reluctant to mention her in any of my conversations with Mom—one of my main reasons for this visit, right?
Sure I rationalized; it’s because Mom hasn’t broached the subject. . . .But did I really expect her to?
Though, it isn’t cowardly to want to ease into it, is it? Shouldn’t I wait before trying to mend any broken bridges between Mom and Madame? I continue this wasted debate. I need to concentrate on Mom and me, our issues, before I tackle theirs.
And there’s still today, I think, stretching out my back at the top of the stairs, grateful for this vacation’s immediate effects of renewal.
Days elapsed without a coughing attack.
Running down the steps, I round the corner into the dining room past the piano with Mom’s, “Good morning, sleepy,” greeting me at the kitchen. She’s seated at the breakfast table. Every time I look at that round white top with two-inch side metal-bands and a single metal base, I’m happy I didn’t live in the seventies, wondering why Mom chooses to now.
Though I admit, retro is back, being better fashion than furniture.
Anyway, Mom seems content, enjoying, probably, her second cup of coffee along with a piece of dry wheat toast. The thin streaks of sun coursing through the window brighten the old kitchen. It also highlights Mom’s blonde hair partially shading two large books propped open by her elbows.
What is this?! … “This sight is shocking;” I want to tease; but I guess it shouldn’t be. What do I really know about her, except in the past Mom wasn’t the studious type. I wonder; has that changed? And if so, what made it happen?
“Good morning, yourself,” I finally respond, now at the speckled linoleum counter underneath the cabinets. The dreadful-yellowed stuff matches the floor and seems to be the same linoleum pattern I’ve seen in old pictures of this house.
Why is that? Though considering; hey, that’s a project I can complete, dishing eggs and two slices of bacon between toasts. Setting the sandwich on the table, I pour myself a cup of coffee.
“Still an early riser. Will I ever get up before you?” I ask, sitting opposite her.
“Not unless I’m sick. But not if I can help it,” she giggles. “I’ve got to cook for you, don’t I?”
Umm. . . . No mention of, “I just want to make up for all the meals I missed cooking for you in the past.” Are we finally letting bygones be bygones?
“I guess I’d better watch out, Mom. You trying to make me fat?” I tease.
“You can afford it.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I scoff, though not inspired to abandon my sandwich. “So, Mom, what’s on today’s agenda?” I ask between bites.
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought we might just stay in.”
I glance towards the window again surprised. Out back to the side of the yard stands the old weeping willow, its branches swaying proclaims her “Queenie” among the maple and oak trees lining the river’s edge. Their leaves gracefully glide towards the grass. The weather looks perfect.
Mom goes on, “I’m staying in doing a little studying because I need a job. Mr. Peters, this older man I know, has an insurance agency and I thought I might work for him. I heard he needs a receptionist.”
She needs to work already? Didn’t Steve have a large policy?
I put down the sandwich; prop my hands underneath my chin to listen.
“Mr. Peters hasn’t actually told me, but I overheard his wife mentioning it in the supermarket to a friend. I happened to be in the next aisle over.”
“So what’ll you do? Answer phones?” I ask.
“Answering phones? . . . I guess so. I don’t really know. . . Maybe I’ll have to do some typing and maybe even learn the computer. But I need to get a move on it before he hires someone else,” she says.
“Beat them to the punch, huh?” I smile, again picking up my sandwich. Mom getting ready for the competitive world.
“Yes, you understand. The only thing is I don’t know how to type yet. At least not well. I can handle the phones, but I’ll need to practice on the typewriter I found in the attic.”
Is she serious?
“The old manual one?” I mumble, my mouth full. The one Madame used…when she was a young girl?
Swallowing, I ask, “Mom, who uses manual typewriters anymore? Really, computers are the thing. That’s what you need to learn. The only thing you can learn on a manual is your fingering; but you need a computer.”
These words served as a cloud to Mom’s face. Her shoulders slump. Instantly sorry for my abruptness, I chide, Diamond, why’d you have to say that? I’ve got an idea.
“Hey, Mom. Those floral arrangements, did you pick them out yourself? They were beautiful. How about trying your hand as a florist? I think you’d be great.”
“I don’t want to be a florist!” she snaps. No sullenness in her shoulders now with her eyes wickedly sharp.
Quickly sweeping the crumbs of my sandwich into a napkin, I think … wow. Instant rage. Attitude included. Just add reason.
I’d forgotten Mom’s flare-ups suddenly appearing, “Like a tempest on the Black Sea,” Madame would say. I felt the intense sting of it as a child.
How could I forget?
“I’m sorry, Diamond,” she says perhaps reading my expression. “I’m just frustrated. Steve’s insurance money can’t last forever and before I spend it all I need to work.”
Well, I guess that’s smart. I did think she was spending rather freely. Though Steve had been a lawyer. “A very good one,” Madame said. “He provides more than abundantly for your Mom.”
Instantly feeling a little sad, I remember him. Remembered his kindness. He never raised his voice. Was very understanding. Not have enough money for Mom? . . . .That doesn’t sound like him. Maybe his hospitalization devoured his funds. Though, I thought; wouldn’t he have great insurance with almost total coverage? Mom must be worrying prematurely. But, she should know.
“Mom, are you sure you don’t want to work doing something you love?” I try again.
“I know what you’re saying, Diamond, but that takes time and schooling. And if I want to run my own florist shop, business classes. I just want something for now to get me started. To inspire me.”
Yes, I understand that. “Okay. Let’s work on your typing.”
Mom sits up and smiles brilliantly--the kid who’s gotten her way. “Good. Do you think I’ll be ready by next week?” she asks with such a sweet expression that I can’t disappoint her.
“We can try.”
She’s not fooled.
“Try?” Her smile disappears again as she stares at me. Her small mouth actually pouts. “Diamond, you don’t think I’ll be ready do you?”
“I didn’t say that,” I say, looking down into my cup before taking a sip of coffee.
“You didn’t have to. . . Is it really hard? I mean I did it before. What is it? I won’t have enough time to practice?” Mom asks her voice high and strained. Her eyes a magnifying glass into my soul.
Mom . . . you really want honesty? I wonder, before saying another word.
Warily; weighing my words, I say, “Well, Mom . . . two weeks is not a lot of time. Maybe you can practice for another future position somewhere else.”
“Who’s going to take a woman with no experience? And Mr. Peters would be ideal to work for. He’s very kind. I met him when I went to handle Steve’s papers. He was so sympathetic and compassionate. I know he won’t be too hard on me. He’ll be patient.”
“Well, why don’t you go to him and explain your situation exactly as you explained it to me. He might just hire you.”
“Do you think he would?”
“It can’t hurt to try.”
Mom sits chin in hand in deep thought; then her eyes light up again.
Well, good for her; she has a plan!
“Diamond . . . why don’t you get the job for me? I mean . . . you get hired, then I’ll learn the job from you. Then when you leave I’ll replace you. It shouldn’t take me too long to learn.”
That’s her plan! Me get the job? … She’s got to be kidding, right?
I look at her, hard, expecting her to start laughing. . . She isn’t laughing. I continue to stare.
Honestly, I think. I’m surprised she has the nerve to ask. We haven’t seen each other in ten years.
Now, I do want to help Mom, but I doubt I would hire anyone under those conditions. If I were Mr. Peters’, would I feel obligated to replace someone leaving with a friend or relative, especially after they only worked two weeks?—though she probably expects that to be kept secret.
And what about my life? My job?
I try to digest the idea before responding.
Okay, Diamond, this is your mother and don’t you want to rebind bonds? Plus, don’t you owe her? . . . You can do this. . . And remember, didn’t you want to show Madame?
Anyway, she’ll probably catch on quick and then everything will be fine. And actually, come to think of it, I would trust the judgment of a good worker regarding their own replacement if I didn’t already have someone else in mind.
Mom leans her elbows on the tabletop, one hand twirling a strand of hair before she says, “Honey, I’m sorry. Forget I mentioned it. I act like you don’t have your own job and life.” She shakes her head as if she read my mind.
“No. No, it’s okay, Mom. I’ll try. If I get the job I can probably manage it part-time and still keep up with my own career from here. Fashion should allow me to work anywhere.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Really. As long as I have my client’s measurements and I remember their coloring—I’ll need to get those colored snapshots of them—I’m in business,” I say with pseudo-optimism, although, I hated being a receptionist. And I hate answering the phones.
I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew.
Hey. Remember. It’s for Mom.
“You’ll do that for me, Diamond?” Mom asks her face lit like a lotto winners’.
I smile standing, reaching across the table to ruffle her hair, truly speechless.
Mom’s eyes sparkle with unshed tears before jumps up to rush me. Her arms encircle my arms, squeezing, like I do my teddy.
I’m committed. “Yes. I’ll do it for you, Mom,” I quietly repeat.