March 19, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Claire T. Lawrence
Mothers in opera are notoriously, theatrically bad. Azucena throws a baby, which turns out to be her own, on a burning pyre. Lucrezia Borgia poisons her son. Norma stands above the bed of her sleeping children with a knife and contemplates killing them rather than letting them fall into enemy hands. Medea, furious with her wayward lover Jason, kills the two children they had together. And my favorite, The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute, insists her daughter Pamina commit murder for her or she will “sever the bonds of nature” and disown her.
My mother’s sins are far less dramatic. She never hit me, has always made sure I was well fed, well clothed, and well educated. She was and still is incredibly generous with money. When she couldn’t love me, which was only sometimes, she surrounded me with people who could.
Her worst has been only to sing a song of disappointment in me since I was young. Too tomboyish, too loud, disobedient. Too liberal, too fat, horrible clothes. Too intellectual. Too artistic. Not practical. Bad mother. Bad wife. Very bad daughter. An aria of my faults suspended in the air, then once I had left her house screeched through my phone, until finally she was able to move close to me and say them in person. Judgement and scorn, judgement and scorn: the aria rises and falls.
I am a hunger that doesn’t even know what to call itself.
“I’d really rather not,” my mother says. “Know you, I mean.”
Mom is at her table, in a kitchen the exact replica of the kitchen I grew up in forty years ago. The chairs, the plates hung on the wall, even the brown flowered oilcloth (threadbare now) are the same.
“You don’t want to hear about my life?” I ask.
What was hard. When I fucked up. How I tried to fix it. What hurt the worst. The things you tell your mom.
My mother loves, has always loved, the surfaces of things: polished silver, rigid social mores, a white kitchen counter scrubbed each night within an inch of its life. Our relationship is no different; she wanted a child like a piece of china to sit on a shelf.
I have tried to behave and to not want things.
She shakes her head at me and her curlers clack. “I’m just not that kind of mother.”
We have just had a rare moment of honesty in our 50 year relationship. An internet search revealed the identity of the father I never knew. He was an opera singer with the San Francisco Opera; she confirmed that was true. This is the third time we have spoken about him. Ever.
I see an opening, plunge in head first. Maybe things could change before the end of all this?
“Okay.” I pause. “That’s not the answer I was expecting.”
Though of course it should have been. I take a large swallow of scotch, one of the few things in the world we shared a likeness for. It burns and makes my throat cramp.
“No, I don’t think so. Unless it relieves your burden somehow.” She musters her features into the most pathetic, put upon expression she can manage. Her shoulders slump. Her mouth turns down. “Then I think I can take it, though I may not sleep tonight.”
Throughout my life she has weaponized this expression. Basically, it means go no further or I will hang you in a noose of guilt and self-loathing. The expression was an answer to my attempts to ask about my absent father and the lies and secrets that surrounded him. But it had other uses as well.
At the table in her kitchen, where her things remind her of her life before she had a child, she hangs her head and looks as though I have kicked her. “Is there anything else?”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I sigh. “This was a bad idea.” Though I am angry about so many things in our relationship, I honestly do not want to hurt her, though I don’t quite understand how dropping our masks for a few hours would do so exactly. For years, I have dreamed of this happening, a TV moment when Lorelei and Emily Gilmore finally connect.
Her head comes up. “If you’re sure.”
We sit there looking at each other for a moment. She in her pink quilted robe looking fragile and small and tired. Me in my Doc Martens® and black jeans, looking dark and solid and tired. The sun begins to set, dimming the light that comes through the window by a few degrees.
She pats my hand as it is laying on the table. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “You’ll be okay.” She has not voluntarily touched me in years, so I know this is an attempt.
A bridge. Or a consolation.
Or not. “It’s getting dark,” she says. “It’s time for you to go home now.”
Her face closes like a door.
I get up, quickly regretting I have rocked our careful superficial equilibrium. We will go back to what we both know. I will still call her every day and listen to her sing her sadness. A world that disappointed her made manifest in me.
And I will sing back, though quietly, under my breath. Pamina’s plea: world, have mercy on my mother.
Claire T. Lawrence is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bloomsburg University. She has a PhD in Creative Writing: Fiction from the University of Houston and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Utah. She has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in numerous magazines including Crab Orchard Review, TriQuarterly, Event Magazine, Terra Nova, and Western Humanities Review. She lives deep in a flyover zone with her husband, children, and two Pekingeses named Mushu and Kung Pao.