Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mother

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June 20, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Kerry Herlihy


Her father has vanished again, maybe onto a tugboat on Lake Erie or into a bottle on the other side of Thomaston. But her grandfather is here, sitting on the hard chair of their small living room. His hair is a mound of soft tufts with pink ribbons thanks to my mother’s creative vision. He repeats the first line of the Lord’s prayer in Gaelic: Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh. My mother folds her hands and prays, trying not to smile.

The neighbor’s husband presses his calloused finger up against her small pink lips, his stomach covering her whole middle. Her wide eyes dart to the picture of Jesus, then the door. The wife makes cakes with yellow fluffy frosting down the hall. Her head is pushed down, jaw forced open, fingers clenched until they cramp. She utters this memory for the first time to me, fifty years later.

She folds her clothes in neat stacks into the brown Samsonite. She tries not to think of the life she has to leave as her mother lies dying with a cancer no one has named. I am sure she did as she was told, went to the hospital and kissed her mother good-bye, tried not to cry and began the long march of hardening up her tender heart.

Her cousin is in the dim corner spinning Elvis 45’s while his friends, mostly from the Boy Scout troop, drink punch and cookies my mother made. She is the belle of the basement ball, twirling with a handsome boy, laughing, starting fresh with each new song, her mother’s death a soft melody that fades to almost nothing.

Her aunt baked a small yellow cake for the reception. There are snapshots of wide smiles and desire in the corners of her eyes for this boy, now husband. The tin cans clank behind the baby blue Volkswagen as they move forward in the empty street.

She only remembers the front entrance of the hospital where she sat shivering, blood still soaking through her pad, waiting for her father-in-law to pick her up because her husband was nowhere to be found. This was the third miscarriage. She knew she would have to put her faith in something outside of her own body.

For twenty-one days, my mother waits for me. I stayed in foster care with a stranger who wrote notes in neat cursive handwriting. Day six: Pretty baby. Day ten: starting to smile. Day fourteen: sleeping through the night. I imagine my mother sitting by an empty crib, walking out on the shaky limb of hope, waiting.

I hear the crisp snips of the hairdresser’s scissors, watch my long hair fall in thick wet clumps. I try to not to cry when I look in the mirror at the girl with the ugly bowl haircut. I try to believe my mother when she says I look pretty. A few days later, she will go into the hospital. I’ll sit in the hospital corridor, trying to curl my hair around my fingers, praying she will not die.

My mother places her head down and rests her legs on her elbows like Mr. Sparks taught us in gym class. Then, slowly, methodically, she extends her shaky legs upright until she is upside down. Her tee-shirt falls towards her shoulders, revealing her pink heart surgery scar that extends beyond her bra and snakes around her back. I worry she might crash down, hurt herself, kick my father in the head, knock over a lamp. But she comes back to earth, red-faced and smiling.

The dim living room smells of hot dogs and plastic as Joe, her patient, takes a nap in his Laz-Z-Boy. In the 30 minutes which should be her break, my mother teaches Mary, his adult daughter with Down Syndrome, how to knit. Guiding her hand over Mary’s, she pushes the needle through the empty loop, the quiet clack filling the late afternoon hours.

She moves her lips near my belly and shouts, Can you come out now? Months later, she nestles herself into my daughter’s soft scalp and sings off-tune into silky tufts of hair. In the corner of my room, my daughter gurgles her delight as she sucks on my mother’s ringed fingers and noses herself into her chest while I close my eyes and hum along.

She drives two hours in the blueblack night with her bag filled with pajamas, Bass sandals, and bottles of wine. She carefully places drops into my daughter’s crusty eyes or infected ears. She mops up the vomit spewed all over the floor. She comes again and again so I won’t lose the job I need to survive.

She vanishes in pieces until she is all angles, bones, and tears. Her knees stick out from the fleece pants we bought because she couldn’t remember how to zipper. She asks for a gun or my daughter, the two things she believes will ease her suffering. But on her last good day, the stories stacked inside of her come out and we weave ourselves back together in the weak afternoon sun.


Kerry Herlihy has been writing about motherhood and marriage (or the lack thereof) for many years. Her essays have appeared in multiple publications, including The New York Times’ Modern Love column, Good Housekeeping, and Family Circle. She has also been included in several anthologies, most notably The New York Times bestseller, The Bitch in the House and its sequel, The Bitch is Back. In addition, her story has been featured on BBC’s program Witness


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