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
* * *
you cannot see
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
why don’t you
how could you
you cannot see
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
the body still works
despite her calling it broken
the mind ticks
though it was taught
love is diminishing returns
the heart, beats, not in time
longing for lesser loves
because that’s what you were taught
to plug up the bullet hole with
you cannot see
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
this was the way
in the ground
this star calls my mother
raising lost babies
the best they could
even if they broke us in the process
this mark is clemency,
this change is mercy
you cannot see
my ribcage is full
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.
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
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
* * *
She told me Santa didn’t exist.
Seven, I was seven.
Right in the middle of the joyous unwrapping of Christmas morning.
Right in the middle of my unquestioning belief in the loving magical bounty of the man in red.
She called me in to the kitchen.
She made me leave the happy perch of my new table and chair set. The one hundred-pack of crayons waiting on it with the jumbo-size coloring book.
Did I tell you?
I was seven.
She towered over me as I stood mouth open, looking up at her.
What was she thinking, my lovingly concerned and pragmatic mother?
What would possess a mother to rip the heart out of the most magical morning of the year for a seven-year-old?
(Did I tell you???)
Once the words are said, “SANTA DOES NOT EXIST,” they can’t be taken back.
I stood looking at her, dumbfounded, tears of heartbreak starting to leak from my eyes.
She insisted she felt bad but my carefully thought-out letter to Santa was finished too late. The table and chairs were not the ones I had circled in the catalogue. The crayons were no-name. EVERYTHING I asked for was out of stock. I must have been so disappointed.
Have I mentioned? I WAS SEVEN. I hadn’t even noticed. I had been soaking up the splendor of the morning. Sitting at my lovely table, my hands smoothing the flat surface, my eyes taking in the stunning colors of one hundred crayons… and a built-in sharpener!!
She thought she saw my disappointment. The only way she knew to make me feel better was to tell me the stark truth. To kill the magic and the beauty of a seven-year-old’s Christmas morn. To make me feel as bad and as guilty as she did.
What a gift.
– Sara Huels
* * *
The four of us were sitting on the bed beside our mother a few hours before we had to leave for the hotel where the wedding was being held. In India, where marriage arranged by the parents is still an honorable and prevalent notion, this was our last chance to convince our mother to attend the love-marriage of my little sister, which she was against. I and my three sisters had encircled her; we were not arguing anymore. After months of high-pitched dramas, arguing, and cajoling, we were down to our last effort. We were hoping for one last miracle. Naturally we were all sobbing uncontrollably. Her head was buried in the pillow and mother wasn’t even looking at us. Having lived his whole life with her, Papa had made his peace with her decision fairly easy. Why does rationale and detachment remain a privilege to our men? There are times it feels cruel?
Mother comes from a conservative region of India, where a woman’s propriety is her most valued asset. My Mother’s father was also a headstrong man. During one of our summer vacations when my mother in her youth, her sisters, and all the nieces and nephews wanted to go watch a Bollywood film, her father got very upset about the plan. In his view, Bollywood films were for floozies, not decent girls from a well-respected family. Everyone including my mum was trying to convince him. Often times women around the world have been allowed to do things they desire by only two means: rebel, or run away. At last it took his wife, our granny, to allow everyone to go watch the film anyway. He remained outraged for the next couple of days over the disobedience.
Every time I have been accused of being too headstrong and non-flexible about something, I have tried to break the pattern. I have wondered if misery passes down genetically. While typing this, the milk I had put on the burner boiled over and spilled again. My mother has almost never been able to boil milk without spilling it over.
– Vartika Singh
* * *
“You can get away with more when you’re young and pretty than when you’re old,” her mom said, “and pretty.”
Sylvia squinted at her mom in the sun. The carcass of a palm leaf shuddered. Sweat was stinging on Sylvia’s forehead, pooling in collarbone crevices. She had to get out of the sun, but didn’t want to give up the tan, or the day.
Her mom pulled up a picture of a haircut she was considering on her phone. Sylvia couldn’t see it, in the glare. She cupped her hand over the screen and looked up at her mom.
– Carolyn Fagan
* * *
White-yellowish beams of oncoming headlights and red flashing taillights of the 101 freeway bounced color off of her face like she was a drive-in movie theater screen. I watched her as she drove. Her profile had changed. Her nose drooped differently, her chin’s protrusion a little more pronounced. This was her third time having bailed me out of jail.
“You look old,” I said. Her face, seeming to age by the minute, still showing the same red and white film as she stared straight ahead, expressionless.
“I wonder why,” she said without looking at me.
When I was little I would crawl into bed with her on the weekends, which is where mom spent most of her time on those long Saturdays and Sundays. As she slept, and probably sometimes while she was awake, I twiddled and twisted my fingers into her thin blonde hair and would pull. I wound and wrapped her hair so tight around and around that I would lose feeling in my fingers. This was my comfort. This was my peace. She must have known this, as she never once complained nor told me to stop.
The call from the hospital came a little after one in the morning. We had been there just a few hours before. As I drove, I looked over at my mom in the passenger seat and could see that same old film flickering on her face. She didn’t look old this time. She looked strong. She looked like stone.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I think so,” she answered.
A few minutes later I stood in the morgue and watched my mother give my dead father one last sweet kiss goodbye.
– Brad Neubauer
* * *
I saw my mother three months after the home invasion. One might expect she’d be the person I looked toward to help me recover my shattered sense of self, let alone help with a myriad of practical issues like finding a new apartment—one not on a first floor. Instead, I couldn’t imagine her anywhere near me and didn’t have to try too hard to make her stay away. Maybe I said, “No, don’t come, really,” or “Let’s wait till things settle down.”
I was pretty convincing.
The second after the two rapists left my apartment, my thoughts turned to my mother. My death would have killed her; I felt grateful she was spared. As for me and how I might process extreme violence and trauma—that was less clear.
In cases like this where there’s more than one perpetrator and a weapon—we often find a body. You don’t know how lucky you are.
The way things were before the attack was that I took care of my mother, something that happened over time as her second marriage failed. Having her come to Boston so we could pretend she was taking care of me would have been taking care of her. So I said, don’t come.
Years later, I was introduced to the Persian phrase taarof. Taarof is a common practice in Iran. A first assertion is understood as a gesture of politeness that must be refused and only accepted after much arguing. For example, a person taking a taxi ride asks the driver what he owes. The taxi driver says, “The pleasure of your company is all the payment I require.”
The passenger knows the rejection of money is simple politeness that must be refused. “But of course I will pay you,” he says.
Finally, after much back and forth, the passenger convinces the driver to accept the fare. Both know that the fare must be paid, but participate in taarof as integral to their cultural exchange. If the passenger left the cab without paying, the driver would demand his money. Taarof can exist only if both parties understand what is supposed to happen until the interaction is properly concluded.
My mother was half Iranian, first generation American born, but knew little of her heritage or the practice of taarof. I needed her to come despite my insistence I was fine without her, and she was too afraid to come without being sure that I wanted her with me. Had she come despite my saying “No”, I may have been a bit more convinced in her abilities to parent—to ignore the first words spoken by a daughter so overcome she had no idea what she needed—but she took me at my word.
I said don’t come but she was supposed to argue; I would protest; and she would insist some more. The wisdom of taarof would be lost on us both forever.
In the end, I would never forgive her for following my instruction.
– Michelle Bowdler
* * *
“What’s that?” I asked my mother. I pointed to a photograph hanging on the back wall of our bathroom.
“Wish. You… were here,” I read aloud from the frame’s engraving. Above it was a picture of white water crashing into more water: Niagara Falls.
Mom didn’t answer me. She was flipping through a Woman’s Day magazine while she sat on the toilet, probably hoping to tune out the constant chatter from me, her seven-year-old, who followed her everywhere, even to the commode.
“Where’s that picture from?” I asked again, determined to get her attention.
“It’s from your Grandma Jose,” Mom said. She barely glanced up.
“Why does it say, ‘Wish you were here?’ Because she missed you?”
“Why didn’t she just write you some more mean letters?”
Mom belly-laughed and said she couldn’t wait to tell my dad what I’d said about his mother. I was thrilled, but she still hadn’t put her magazine down.
“What did some of her letters say?” I prodded and hopped around on one foot in front of our washer and dryer.
“Oh all kinds of stuff,” Mom said, trying to wave me away.
“Yeah, but what kinds of stuff? I already know they were mean, so just tell me!”
“Well, the first one she wrote me,” Mom began, finally putting down her magazine and flushing the toilet. “The first one she wrote me said I thought I was the Queen of Taylor County and the cock of everything! Can you believe that?”
“No,” I said, following close on her heels out of the bathroom and into her bedroom.
She crouched in front of her night stand and pulled out one drawer after another. I lay across her bed on my stomach with my legs kicking in the air behind me as I waited to see what she’d do next.
“Oh here’s one!” Mom said, holding up a thin pile of stained papers. “She wrote me this one right after you were born!”
“Read it!” I sat up and clapped my hands, so happy to be part of an adult conversation.
“Let me get my glasses.” Mom disappeared into the bathroom where she looked in the mirror and noticed her thick salmon frames were still on her head. She came back wearing them, then sat on the edge of the bed to read aloud,
I’d just like to claw out your eyeballs and shit in the sockets! I wouldn’t treat a dog as bad as you treat your husband Jim! All you know how to do is raise hell and feed him that slop you call food. Pig slop is what it is! And you look just like a little pig! All your kids take after you, especially this last one! Ain’t one looks like Jim, and that’s why I can’t stand to look at them!
“Look at that!” Mom yelped. “She signs every letter Anonymous and misspells every other word, letting on like whoever wrote it is some kind of imbecile! Hoping I won’t know it’s her! By God, I’d recognize that bitch’s handwriting anywhere!”
Mom got up and stuffed the letter back in its drawer, slamming it so hard I jumped.
“I ought to just give her a piece of my mind tonight!” she said.
“Is she coming over?” I asked.
“Of course she’s coming over! She shows up for dinner every other night of the goddamned world, why should tonight be any different?”
Mom stomped off into the kitchen to fix dinner for Grandma Jose and the rest of the family.
I followed her.
– Sherry Mayle