By Kelly Kotewa
PROMPT — If only ...
My mother was soft and warm when I curled up for stories. She smelled of garlic, fresh basil, and V05 hairspray. She would read my books —"Put Me in the Zoo” and “Come Over to my House”— over and over, endlessly patient until I was satisfied. These were the books that cracked my literacy code. I repeated them to myself until the letters on the page became words in my mind, and I could read.
She signed us up for activities and lessons, things she never had as a child. My grandparents were immigrants, and an American childhood of extracurriculars was not their world. I learned to play softball and tennis. I took gymnastics, ballet, tap dancing, karate, and guitar lessons. I advanced from brownie to junior in Girl Scouts, earning badges, selling cookies, and going to camp. We took vacations to the seashore and visited countless museums. I learned table manners, had regular chores, and earned an allowance. Looking back, it is easy for me to see how much she wanted for us, how hard she worked to help us grow.
My mother lives far from me now, and I only see her once or twice a year. Most of the time, our contact is phone calls. Yesterday I called her to chat, and she launched into a 40-minute monologue. I learned about her backpain, a new television show, the neighbor’s cat, and her grief group. When she paused for a few seconds, I told her about a problem I was having at work. I wasn’t looking for solutions but to be seen, heard, and understood again. Instead, I got 20 minutes of her past work problems. She retired many years ago, so these are old problems, long ago resolved.
I hang up the phone and feel the familiar aching. My mother is disappearing. This is not the woman who raised me. Her shape is still there taking up space. Her voice is still there taking up air, lots of air, but she is disappearing. I find her less and less, but I can’t seem to stop searching. Sometimes I see shimmers of the woman who held me when I cried, sewed me pink cotton dresses, and delighted in the wonder of my children.
I dread the phone calls now and the emptiness they bring. I create elaborate backstories so that I can get off the phone in 30 minutes instead of two hours. I hang up spent and drained and hurting. My mother is disappearing, and I am sad.
Every day I work toward acceptance. If only the child in me could stop searching for her nurturing. I know it is my turn to listen, to practice patience. Did my mother’s efforts bear fruit? Can I be the daughter she imagined? If only.
Kelly Kotewa is a college instructor in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has been published in Potato Soup Journal, The Drabble, The Harpoon Review, and Nail Polish Stories.