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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman Who Is Not My Mother

by Marsha Roberts

I can hear her walking toward the front door, her sensible shoes shuffling closer and closer. But the door doesn’t open yet. She is standing there, just on the other side. She’s making the sign of the cross and asking the Blessed Virgin for courage. I know this because I have seen it many times from the other side.

“Who is it?” she says, her voice the size of a doll’s.

Before I can answer, she says it again, this time pleading. “Who is it?” She's imagining the worst … no, not imagining—remembering. It is wartime and they've come to take her and her family away. The words tremble through the door again. “Please, who is it?”

I try to sound as cheery as I can. “Your daughter!”

“Who?” Mercifully, confusion spills over the terror, blunting it.  

“Your daughter… remember me?” One day, maybe soon, she won’t.

The door finally opens just a slice and she blinks in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”

The sight of her takes me aback, too. It always does. Even if I’ve just seen her the day before, the first glimpse is always a shock. The woman at the door isn’t my mother. My mother would be appalled at the sight of this woman. “Why doesn’t she comb her hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse, for god’s sake?” my mother would say.

“Why don’t you comb your hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse?” Some days I actually say it before I can get ahold of myself. On those days, she fires right back. The anger that used to be folded neatly under her lets loose with full force. “What does it matter? I am old. Nobody sees me.”

“We’re going out now, Mom. People will see you.”

“If I embarrass you, then I’ll just stay home.”

We go out. She’s wearing the same thing she’s worn for the last three days. A kelly-green t-shirt, topped with a turquoise cardigan—colors clearly unhappy with each other. At the grocery store, I get the usual looks from other middle-aged women. How can you let her go out like this? Why don’t you take care of her like she took care of you?

And then it gets worse. We get to the checkout counter and she takes three candy bars from the stand and slips them onto the belt. I scoop them up and put them back. She grabs them again. I put them back. Her eyes well up and she starts crying—really crying. She says for all to hear that I won’t let her have any candy and that I’m mean and why can’t she have candy because after all, she doesn’t have anything else—candy is her only happiness and I won’t let her have it. By now our audience has turned into a jury. And they're disgusted with me. 

“Diabetes,” I want to explain.

On the way home, I tell her about the senior center dance tomorrow. Would she like to go? I look over and do a double take. It’s my mother. Her eyes are bright blue and her old smile is right there where it always was.

“Oh, yes,” she says, she would love to go. And then, with a giggle, “Maybe I’ll find a boyfriend!” Her cheeks are flushed like she's already whirling around the floor.

She isn’t my mother, but sometimes she reminds me so much of her.

Marsha Roberts lives in Mill Valley, California. Her short stories and humorous pieces have appeared in Gravel, Loud Zoo, Hospital Drive, The Marin Independent Journal, America's Funniest Humor Showcase and soon in Thrice Fiction. Some of her comedy skits have been performed by a San Francisco troupe. She just finished her first novel, The Agent, about an elegant con game. She has visualized Paramount buying the film rights to her stories and novel, so it will happen any day now.

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