Readers Report: Mommy Dearest

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A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Mommy Dearest.” Through the month of May, we’ve published a series of pieces focused on “Mothering Outside the Margins,” aiming to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a mother—or not to be a mother, or to want to be a mother but fall short of cultural ideals around motherhood. We wanted our readers to weigh in, too.

Edited by Susan Clements.

* * *

Mommy, dearest, can you read me that story and use the voices I have made up in my head?

Mommy, dearest, can you stay with me until I fall asleep? Last time you left when I was only mostly asleep and I had nightmares.

Mommy, dearest, I forgot to tell you I have a science experiment due tomorrow. Can we go to the craft store and figure out what I’m going to do?

Mommy, dearest, I forgot to tell you that I signed you up for the Bake-a-Thon and I need thirty-six cupcakes tomorrow. Yes, I know it’s 9:30 p.m. What’s your point?

Mommy, dearest, could you possibly make me a separate dinner? I’ve decided, today, to become a vegan. And I’m very hungry.

Mommy, dearest, could you possibly not embarrass me? You sing in public and, although your voice isn’t that bad, I wish the ground would swallow me whole and that you would die so… stop. K?

Mommy, dearest, would you please not post things on social media and then like those posts? It is mortifying and makes me sort of wish you were a tree or on another planet.

Mommy, dearest, would you please do my laundry when I come home for Thanksgiving? I haven’t had quarters so I haven’t done any… all semester.

Mommy, dearest, I know you made me those appointments with the dentist and the dermatologist but I need you to now reschedule for a day when I don’t have class or any social obligations. Wednesdays between three and five sometimes work. And I need money for the copays, any prescriptions they might give me, and the concert I want to go to with that guy from my sculpting class. PayPal is fine.

Mommy, dearest, I know you are terribly busy and that I am not your only child (and that the world, as you’ve reminded me, does not revolve around me) but I was wondering if you’d mind making two Thanksgiving dinners. One is for our family, of course, and the other is for me and my friends and you aren’t invited. Although please drop off the food.

Mommy, dearest, I need help planning my wedding but I would like you to do it in such a way as not to infringe on my sense of style and taste. Also, parents are expected to pay for the whole thing, but I don’t think Joffery’s parents are, like, into that. Or able. Or something.

Mommy, dearest, I need someone to watch Alec and Turtle tomorrow from 5 a.m. until no later than 7 p.m. Oh, that’s early for you? I can drop them by tonight… I’m in the driveway with their bags packed.

– Judy Hall

* * *

plasma leaks
from wounds
you cannot see
or understand

cool water
wipes away
purged ink
and nightmares

but don’t you, well, hate your mother
aren’t a ton of your poems about her
and not in a good way
doesn’t she hurt you best
don’t you
why don’t you
how could you

blood seeps
from wounds
you cannot see
or understand

if you plug up the bullet wound
with a finger
it doesn’t erase the fact that you got shot

the cordless kitchen phone still works
but that doesn’t negate the day
she used it to strike
this scar on my chin

the feet remember learning to walk
then learning to walk
away

the body still works
despite her calling it broken

unlovable

the mind ticks
though it was taught
love is diminishing returns

the heart, beats, not in time
but itself
longing for lesser loves
because that’s what you were taught
to plug up the bullet hole with

tears spring
from wounds
you cannot see
or understand

when love is a clenched jaw
a silent fist

where can you begin to heal
but on your own

where else to show you’re healing
but on the only body you’ll ever belong to

i knew
this was the way
forward

this flag
in the ground
means
forgiveness

this star calls my mother
her mother
each mother
raising lost babies
the best they could
even if they broke us in the process

this mark is clemency,
woman,
this change is mercy

sparks fly
from wounds
you cannot see
or understand

my ribcage is full
of fireflies
i know i can’t keep
i know they won’t always shimmer
the way i want them to
but let me try

let me glow
the way i ought to
the way i started

– Riss Rosado

* * *

She is away from home for a few days. Her children will understand. The motel isn’t luxurious but she can think there. She finishes her quart of whiskey. She has begun many mornings with a drink but she pays her bills and her children are not hungry or wanting for love.

The television is the only light on and shadows move across her face. She sits cross-legged on the bed, her bottle of rye whiskey and a glass of water on the night table. She thinks, it is comfortable and quiet in this little room. It is messy after three days but the mess is one I made; if I clean it will be when I feel like it.

A knock at the door surprises her. She looks toward the knock, moves to the curtain and pulls it back. A man is there. He is big and doesn’t have much hair. She recognizes him. He is knocking on the door. She opens it and he lets himself in. Her body tenses, the man is cold. It is cold outside.

“Well, shut the door. You live in a barn?”

He laughs loudly. “You sound like my mother.”

The man enters with a possessiveness she doesn’t like. He pours himself a scotch from the bottle he brought, takes off his coat and shoes, unbuttons his shirt, sits on the bed. Beneath his white tee, his belly rolls over the edge of his pants. Mommy is standing near the television. He pats the space beside him.

She can’t remember his name. She pours a shot. With her hand around the bottle, she notices a tattoo on his arm that says, “My Wife Is My Life.”

“Nice arm,” she says.

My kids are my life, she thinks, there is no man. The kids, but fuck, they could drive you to drink.

The man speaks and she switches the channel, sits on the bed. He rubs a hand across her back absentmindedly while he drinks. The television is on and they stare at it. The light flickers on and off over their faces, making masks that keep moving and changing.

She clenches her jaw against the way she feels. She will complete this act. Later, after the man is gone, she will take money out of the night table drawer where he will leave it. In the morning she will go home and use it. She will do this and not feel a thing. The whiskey will hold a closed dark hand over her mind. She will not feel anything.

He touches her and she closes her eyes, she is mommy. Even as she pretends and his body rocks hers and she doesn’t feel a thing, she is mommy. She closes her eyes against the lights and thinks, the children will understand. She will go back to them when the night is over.

– Marianne Rogoff

* * *

You are conceived in a motel room indistinguishable from those that surround it: faux-hardwood floors polished to a dull shine; a toilet whose flush is reminiscent of a jet taking off; coverlets that match the art on the walls, both equally gaudy of color and devoid of meaning.

Guy Fieri is dialed down low on the television, watching over a chef as she tosses spices into a bowl and removes back fat from a slab of meat: chicken-and-pork sausage coming up. “Oink-oink-cluck,” he observes, and I dimly hear it and restrain a laugh.

It is our first night in Santa Barbara and we are staying on upper State Street, removed enough from the glitzy downtown that the price is manageable. The dogs—two rambunctious Lab mixes—jockey with us for space on the bed, finally giving up and finding purchase near their water bowl.

Afterward we lie quietly together, breathing rhythmically.

I’m just about certain that’s when it happens.

They say conception is a battle, a race fought and won by the fittest. Neither your father nor I are athletes and I couldn’t imagine his sperm wouldn’t stop to take a periodic beer break. Then there is the matter of my own interior, which I imagine as wholly hostile to nascent life. The idea of your father’s sperm making it to my egg has always struck me as akin to that of a paraplegic at the climbing gym: a nice thought, but good luck making it happen.

Instead, here’s how I picture it:

The sperm stumble out of the gate, half of them hung over, tripping upon one another, elbowing the competition halfheartedly. A few lie down just a few paces in, breathing heavily like bulldogs asked to run the five-minute mile. Others continue gamely, miniscule-beyond-miniscule drops of sweat tumbling down their not-yet-formed foreheads.

One sees what it thinks is an ice-cream stand—really, it’s just some tissue—and veers off course. Eventually the others drop out.

Except one. The one who perseveres is the liveliest and the most charmingly bitchy, the kind you want to hate but they make you laugh too hard to follow through. It—you—are racing against the only other contender, who drops out to smoke a joint somewhere along the fallopian tube. You pause and consider bumming a puff, but then decide just to book it for the destination.

Egg, here we come.

Burrow, snuggle.

My parents didn’t enjoy having kids. They did it because it was what you did, the mandate of their generation. My father spent my childhood hiding out in his den doing paperwork. My mother sequestered herself in the bathroom, thinking no one could smell the cigarette smoke.

Eventually your uncles and I learned to be grateful for their absence.

– Allison Landa

* * *

I’m wearing my mother’s skirt today.
Two years ago she bequeathed me all
her old clothes. She was twenty
too. She used to make me feel guilty:
I was never the same after
I had you. She meant her body but she means
her soul too —
if her heartline warped out of phase,
maybe, or if the days went long in darkness
and I had struggled to breathe.
If she fell asleep under lamplight, it
was because I wore her down. A
cruelty born out of resentment
as much as it is out of love. I try on
the memory of once being so small
her hands could cover my face completely.
Growing, then, is a disappointment —
time continues to twin her waist
for mine.
My laugh, a ghost of hers.
Mother, mother, mother, mirror.
Now I cover my own face, now
I court her shadow.
She lets me try on her shoes,
a daydream meant for a smaller girl.

– Artemis Lin

* * *

One night in the not so distant future, she walked across a wasteland to a deserted block where she had once lived. Stepping over years of war’s detritus, she found a pile of washing on a worktop and pulled from it her son’s football socks, greyed from white to precisely the color that comes from mixing sadness with regret. For a dilated fraction of a moment she was there in that same place on the day they were washed. The derelict was no longer monochrome. It was whole, homely again and lit: her son kicking a ball in the garden, her daughter coming through the front door like a wave.

The vertigo of traveling so quickly from here to there and back in an instant took the legs from her, the depth of sorrow left a physical mark, a wound of her own choosing.

– Frank McHugh

* * *

A photograph of my son, printed and handed to me by the woman who cares for him when I am at work. I say words of appreciation, but the image is for me an accusation, a punishment. The woman has a daughter; she is providing child care as a way to earn money and stay home with her baby. In the photograph my son clutches the string of a red balloon in a dusty park. The place must be close by, not a mile from our house. I study the image, the coarse grass, the blanched sky, the distant treetops. But I cannot, even now, recognize the location.

– Susanna Space

* * *