Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Strangers and Other Family Members

Story material in the form of mother-daughter relationships is endless. This story was published Timber Creek Review in October 1998 and was short listed for Ian St. James prize in 1995 in the UK.

"Jane, get your sneakers off the spread." Solange struggles to pull a fresh starched canopy onto its frame. The pink and blue pattern matches the bedspread whose cleanliness is in jeopardy.

"Oh, Mom," Jane says. Disgust drips from her lips. While Solange wants Jane's room pristine, the teenager turns the French Provincial decor into what her mother calls "early dump".

This room is a mother-daughter battleground. The Guns and Roses poster was a victory for Jane, although the peace settlement involved framing, not taping it to the violet-flowered wallpaper. Jane's choice, wooden bunk beds and white walls barely visible between Garfield and teen idol posters had less chance than Custer against the indians.

"You always get crazy when Gramma comes." Jane rolls onto her stomach. She doesn't offer to help.

Solange, determined to finish before her own mother's arrival, says, "I want everything perfect for her."

"Gramma doesn't care."

"I do." She snaps the last corner of the canopy together then fluffs everything possible. The cat runs out of the room before he, too, is fluffed.

"Keep this room exactly like it is until Dad arrives with Gramma." Ted drove from their New Hampshire farm to Boston's Logan Airport to pick up the reason for Solange's three-day cleaning binge. She picks up her empty basket which had contained flowers for each room and goes down the narrow stairs.

At the bottom, Solange looks out the Dutch door over her garden to the loosesteife coloring the landscape a violent purple. She draws a give-me-strength breath. A breeze blows gently over her face.

The oak tree across the drive has two red leaves. Mid-August is too soon for fall, even in New Hampshire, she thinks.

Moments like this, surrounded by all she loves, even whiney Jane, makes Solange appreciate the life she's carved for herself -- so different from her childhood, when home was a series of apartments near wherever her mother taught.

When Edith said, "You can't get anywhere in academia if you're pro student," and began scanning want ads, Solange would know her mother's contract hadn't been renewed and she'd once again be the new girl at school.

"Change is exciting," Edith would say.

I hate change, Solange would think. Sometimes she wondered if her mother wasn't a little bit glad her father had been a victim of Hitler. She couldn't picture her mother as a housewife.

When Solange mentally lists her accomplishments, she counts giving Jane one address and two parents first. Other items include a home with matching furniture, rugs and drapes. Books, although appreciated by all, are confined to the library. One or two might end up on the night table, but more would be banished to where they belong. As a child she and her mother never ate a meal without moving at least a dozen off the table -- that is -- when they had table.

Until this summer when she refused, Jane had gone to camp, a normal summer pastime, according to Solange who'd spent too many summers with the Lobi, a tribe in Ghana. Solange hated it, although she's proud of the two PBS documentaries based on her mother's work. A trickle of anger creeps through her as she remembers when Edith had been offered three goats for Solange's hand in marriage. Edith had countered with fifteen.

"But I knew he couldn't take me up on it," Edith had defended herself. "I had to make another offer so he wouldn't lose face."

Solange's gaze rests lovingly on her garden, calming her as Ted's car turns into the driveway. Before the car stops Edith jumps out of the car. She runs to sweep her daughter off her feet. 

She stands six feet. Unlike most sixty-three-year olds she's skinny except for ample breasts. Edith burned her bra years before feminists thought of it. "Women went without bras until this century. Why should I spend good money on a marketing ploy?" she'd said in the late 1950s.

 Edith's breasts were good for comfort. Solange more than once buried herself in them about some problem. However, most of her teen traumas were because of her mother.

Edith had wanted Solange to have a career. Solange chose marriage. Although Edith praises her daughter on how well she does her job, Solange always hears an unspoken "But..."

"My baby," Edith says.

"A baby in her forties?"

"You'll always be my baby. Now where's my grandbaby?"

Before Solange can say, "Sulking in her room," Jane bursts out the back door and into Edith's arms. 

"How I missed you, Gramma."

"Well, I'm here now," Edith says. With one arm around her daughter and the other around her granddaughter, she sweeps them through the kitchen door. Ted follows with her luggage, a single backpack.
At supper Edith picks up her steak bone to chew it clean. Ted grilled the meat outside. Solange made a salad from lettuce and tomatoes from her garden. Jane picked the corn only after the water boiled. Everyone eats silently. A pile of bones and cobs grow in a ceramic bowl in the middle of the table.

"Wonderful meal. Thank God, it wasn't fish. I'm sick of fish," Edith says.

"We don't each much beef. Cholesterol," Solange says.

"Iceland certainly doesn't endanger France's gourmet reputation one iota," Edith says, her mouth half full of corn. "Besides living in a dorm for eighteen months, well let's just say the food wasn't the best."

"Tell us more, Gramma," Jane says. Ted sits forward. Solange goes into the kitchen to make coffee. When she comes back, Ted, Jane and Edith are laughing.

"He was so drunk he couldn't stand. In fact, he was so drunk he thought I was beautiful and young. I decked him and dragged him back to his bunk."

"I'll never understand what made you go to Iceland in the first place."  Solange thinks her mother was probably the only Ph.D. fish packer there.

"Money. I could make more than I could teaching without all that political crap." She moves forward in her chair. Everyone subconsciously does the same. "You know I didn't come straight here. I stopped in D.C."
Edith has a habit that infuriates Solange. She changes topics midway through a speech. Solange often wondered how a lecture about the dairy industry plotting to make people drink too much milk could end up with a talk about zebras' sexual habits.

"I've got approval."

"For what?" Ted asks with a warm smile for his mother-in-law. He puts his hand over Solange's telling her that he knows that she feels overwhelmed by Edith's energy. Solange gives him a smile as she centers herself.

"The government is giving me a grant to open a ranch for kids. Unwed mothers, kids with drug problems. I've signed the purchase and sales agreement for a place in Warm Gulch, Wyoming."

"Wyoming?" Solange asks.

"Purchase and sales?" Ted asks.

"Kids?" Jane asks.

Edith looks around the table relishing the drama.

"You're close to retiring," Solange says.
"I don't want to retire. Not every kid has had the chances our Janie has. I want to take the ones in trouble, get 'em miles away from everything and work 'em into being straight."

"Right on, Gramma," Jane says.

Solange listens to the grinder work its magic on coffee beans. She loves the smell. The clock reads 6:30. Ted left an hour ago to drive to Boston for an early flight to New York. She wishes he was here to protect her from her mother. Not that he does anything in particular, but it's comforting having him near. She puts the filter into her pot and measures the water. Soon odour de café fills the room.

"Wonderful smell," Edith says coming into the kitchen. She wears jeans and a T-shirt with a faded Garfield asking, "Why me?" a gift from Jane three Christmases past. She takes a mug and pours a cup.

"Milk or sugar, Mother?" Solange asks.

Edith shakes her head and sits at the table in front of a big fireplace, the cooking place for this house in a time long ago. She sniffs her coffee before taking a long drink.

"Breakfast?" Solange asks.

"Are you having anything?"

"I was about to cut some homemade oatmeal bread."

"And your blueberry jam? I thought about that when I was eating so damned much fish. You certainly didn't learn to be such a wonderful cook from me."

Food is a safe topic. Both women love eating, even if Solange is the only one who likes cooking. It's more than liking it. She finds preparing food almost sexual with so many textures, feelings, colors, smells.

Edith isn't one to rest in safe topics. "What do you think about the ranch?"

"You're serious, then?" Solange puts the bread on the table with a serrated knife. The bread tray has slats and an under tray for crumbs.

"You don't approve?"

"I guess I though you'd settle down. Take life easy." She gets jam from the fridge. It's in a little dish with a small spoon that they'd bought when they toured Germany last year.

"Can you see me in Florida with all those old people talking about their illnesses and peach towels on sale at Wal-mart?" Edith probes shared memories of their visits to Edith's parents. "Janie still asleep?"

"It's against her religion to get up before noon during vacation."

"You were like that as a kid. I was too. I'd read until five in the morning. Then I'd stay in bed 'til my mother couldn't stand it. She was afraid I'd never get a husband with my nose in the books."

"You did."

"Once. Never found a second willing to put up with me. I do come on a little strong." Edith slathers a thick slice of bread with purple jam.

"That, Mother, is like calling the rock of Gibraltar a pebble."

Edith smiles. "Janie asked if she could visit my ranch...Now don't get huffy. I said it was up to you."

"I don't want her with a bunch of drug addicts."

"I knew you wouldn't." Edith pours a second cup of coffee. She holds the pot toward her daughter who shakes her head no.

"Do you blame me?"

"Janie's been too sheltered. This is such a little town. Norman Rockwell could have spent his life painting here."

"What's wrong with that? You had me living in the African bush and in slums and God knows where else. Jane's had stability...."

"...and yearns for the exotic, not the stable. She's more like me in that."

Solange sighs. "I'm going to weed the garden."

Before Solange can leave, Janie bounces into the room. "Morning Mum. Morning Gramma." She plants a wet kiss on each of their cheeks. Opening the refrigerator, she takes out pita bread and cheddar cheese. With a grater she shaves enough to cover the bread. Realising her mother and grandmother are watching she asks, " Want some?"

Solange shakes her head no, but Edith nibbles at the cheese. "Good and sharp. Make me one, please Janie-Honey."

"Sure thing." Jane hums to as she works. Solange can't remember the last time her daughter did anything but skulk around the kitchen.

"Are we still going to the tide pool today?" Edith asks.

"Yup. Mom, will you loan Gramma your bike?"

"Where's the tide pool?" Solange asks.

"At the reservation." Jane refers to the government protected beach where the ocean crashes against the rocks. At low tide water is trapped between the boulders. Solange doesn't like Jane to go there, afraid her child will be swept out to sea.

"Don't worry, Mom. Gramma will be there. I want to show her all the neat sea life. I've named most of them from the book you sent me, Gramma."

"Bring the book along." Edith puts dishes into the dishwasher.

"Wouldn't you rather take the car, Mother? It's a good five miles."

Edith sees Janie shake her head behind her mother's back. "We'll see more on our bikes. Right Janie?"

As Solange puts her gardening gloves and tools into a basket she plucked from a wooden beam overhead, she watches Jane with her mother. Her daughter talks about being an oceanographer. Solange had no idea she was thinking of that as a career. Jane's face is washed with smile after smile, not unlike the waves at the beach. This child is not the same teenager who slouches around the house and growls at questions like, "What do you want for dinner?"

"At least let me make you lunch," Solange says.

Before Jane can say no Edith holds up her finger, "With a thermos of your lemonade and oatmeal cookies. I saw some in the cookie jar." Edith had done more than see. At three a.m. she'd raided the jar.

"Deal," Solange says.

"You know, Janie, after a long bike ride, that lemonade will taste wonderful." Edith smacks her lips.
The visit races by, but Solange sees little of her mother or Jane. They spend a lot of time at the tide pool or out on bike rides. Grandmother and granddaughter go to Boston to see the inside of the Christian Science Monitor Globe. Jane comes back excited. Edith had shown her where she lived when she'd taught at Simmons.

"Neat place," Jane says. Solange doesn't tell her how much she hated the traffic and noise.

On Solange's hospital volunteer day Jane and Edith drive to Kittery, Maine to visit the factory outlets. Edith wants to stock up on bedding for her ranch. They leave at seven in the morning taking Solange's station wagon.

"I'm part of Gramma's research into the teenage mind," Jane says, hurrying out the door leaving her parents sitting at the table.

"Well, your mother certainly hasn't been underfoot this visit. And Jane's been a love to live with.

Maybe Edith gave her a frontal lobotomy on one of their adventures," Ted says,

Sweat streams down Solange's face. Her hands are dirty from pulling weeds. The temperature has soared, a typical New England trick, a cool day, a hint of fall, followed by a sizzler. Her mother is leaving in the morning.

Edith comes out. She hands her daughter a glass of lemonade with ice cubes piled to the top. Frost coats the glass. Edith has another for herself.
"Thanks." Solange takes the glass and sits on the big rock at the edge of her garden. Edith joins her. The oak tree offers shade.

"Fantastic garden." Edith points to the pole beans climbing teepee style. The corn forms neat rows. Toward the back, huge vines shelter pumpkins that in a few weeks will make perfect jack o'lanterns. "I've always missed having a garden. Maybe that's why I've always had so many house plants. Remember when we moved how  the plants took half the truck?"

"And the books the other half," Solange says. "Jane's going to miss you."

"I'm going to miss her. She's a delight."

"I don't find her that way."

"Of course not, you're her mother, Dummy. She has to fight you. It's a rite of passage. Like menstruation. I did it to my mother, who was like you. Loved her home, her family, her garden. I rebelled, became the intellectual, the world traveller." Edith shakes her head. "What a care I must have been for her. I'm sorry she died before we made peace with one another. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll die before we make peace."

"Are we fighting Mother?"

"Not with words."

Standing, Solange puts her glass on the rock and faces the loosesteife, her back to her mother. She crosses her arms. Edith walks around to block the purple field from her daughter's vision. "At what age do you let go of the past?" Edith asks.

"I like my life." Solange's tone carries a verbal pout.

"You should. It's a good one. Ted's a sweetheart. The house is lovely. Except..."

"Except what?"

"Janie told me about your house cleaning orgy before I came. Do you think I care if Janie's canopy is washed. I came to see my family, not a canopy."

"I care," Solange says.


Solange takes her glass. "I'm going back into the house."

Edith grabs and turns her. "You don't want to talk about it. Well, I'm not giving you a choice. I wish my mother made me talk to her." She softens her voice. "I don't care if you wash Janie's canopy if you want it clean, although that should be Janie's decision. I do care if you wash a canopy to impress me about something. Tell me with words. I don't speak canopy."

Solange sits backs on the rock. She twirls the glass in her hands and puts its cold surface against her neck and forehead. She thinks she must seem to her mother like Jane seems to her when they fight. "It shows you how I wanted to live as a child."

"And I couldn't give it to you. It's not in my personality." Edith reaches for her daughter's hands. "I made mistakes with you, but you're doing the same thing with Janie. In trying to give her the life you wanted you forgot to ask what she wants."

"Are you telling me how to raise my daughter?"

"Nope. Well, maybe a little -- I'm trying to save you from this same conversation with Janie in about twenty years."

Solange squeezes her mother's hands. "I remember when you gave up on having me go to college you said, "If you love something set it free. If it returns, it was meant to be."

A gleam comes into Edith's eyes. "Never told you my collorary did I?"

"What collorary?"

"And if it doesn't come back, hunt the s.o.b. down and shoot it." Edith jumps in the air clicking her heels.


Edith hugs the stranger she knows as Solange. Solange thinks about the stranger she knows as Jane. For the first time the differences don't matter.

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